Backing Up Bob

A friend who is the GM of a high-end, perennially busy and very popular restaurant, once confided to me how he secretly worries that one day he will open for dinner service and not one guest will walk through the door.

“You’re joking, right?” I teased him at the time. Please.

“Not really,” he said. “Obviously I know it will probably never happen, but it’s just this nagging fear, almost like a phobia.”

He sounded almost serious, but then I caught him smirking as he lit his next cigarette. “I know. I know,” he laughed. “I should just shut up. Why do I even tell you these things?”

Then we had the season that wasn’t really a season. Summer provided a surprising pop, however, as mostly tourists from chilly European climates bared their fish-belly white bodies in our sweltering, 105-degree-heat-index version of a steam bath. But post Labor Day, September heralded a huge drop in business, even in the locals’ spots. And just when everyone thought September was the slowest month ever, October dragged itself into town, and now I wonder how anyone will make November’s rent.

I also fully appreciate my friend’s paranoia.

Last night–Saturday night–despite having live music and offering a cheap dinner special, I had two customers at my bar between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Two. People trickled in after that, and for a couple of hours I had a semi-full bar, but as if on cue, they all left by 11 p.m. All but a guy I’d never seen before, who had earlier introduced himself as Bob. He was a pleasant enough man, quiet and undemanding, who nursed his two drafts like they were after-dinner liquors.

As the musician packed up his gear, Bob looked around at the otherwise empty bar. “Is it always so slow on a Saturday night?” he asked.

“No, this is really slow for us,” I told him while I wiped down a section of the bar that was already clean. “Welcome to my October.”

Several giggling girls walked in just then, each sporting different work T-shirts from various eateries. They sighed as they pulled out bar stools and sat down, reacting almost as if they were sinking into comfortable plush chairs. One yanked the elastic out of her pony tail and shook her long blond hair around her shoulders. Another untied her apron, rolled it up, and shoved it in her suitcase-sized purse.

“Jaegar-bomb,” said one as I pushed coasters in front of them. “Please,” she smiled a second later. “Sorry, long shift.”

“Make it two,” said the blond.

“Just make one for each of us,” said the third girl, glancing toward the door to wave at another friend who’d just arrived. “Her, too. Thanks.”

Bob watched and listened as the group knocked back their drinks, ordered drafts, and bantered back and forth about crappy tips and pain-in-the-ass customers and how they wished they’d saved more money in season because now everything is so, so slow, and maybe they should just go west and work a ski season someplace, you know, to make it up somehow.

Bob caught my eye and called me over to his corner of the bar. “Back those girls up on me, please.”

When I placed tiny plastic cups in front of each girl, and told them, “These are on Bob, over there,” they regained their work demeanors in an instant, smiling and waving thanks in the way servers sometimes do to make you think they’re your best pal, but it’s really all about the gratuity.

Just as quickly, they turned back to each other and continued their circular discussion about their off-season woes. They were now oblivious to Bob.

Poor Bob. He seemed like a nice guy. He didn’t hide his wedding band and he really didn’t appear to want to hit on the girls. He just seemed a little lonely being down here for a week for some random work project, while his family shivered in the snow up north in Pennsylvania.

The girls wanted nothing to do with Bob, however, which I understood. When you get off work, after having to be “on” for so long for so little, you just want to be with your friends and not have to talk to anyone else. Especially a lonely married guy.

“I’m beat,” yawned one of the girls after a couple of rounds.

“Yeah, me too,” said another, scrounging in her bag for her wallet.

“What do we owe you?” asked the blond.

I gave them their tab, and they piled up a wad of ones and fives, which included a nice tip. Gotta love your customers in the business.

“Thanks again,” said one to Bob. He raised his glass toward them and smiled.

“Wait,” said the blond to her friends as she dug in her purse for some cash. “Back up Bob for us, okay?” she said.

Of course.

And off they went, leaving Bob behind with a tiny plastic cup beside his beer. “That was nice of those girls,” he said.

“Tell me when you’re ready,” I said.

“Nah. I’m outta here, too. Buy yourself a second shift drink with it.”

And with that, Bob plunked a 100-dollar bill on the bar for the remainder of his less-than $20 tab, and said, “The change is yours, sweetheart. Thanks for letting me sit here all night.”

I was so stunned, I barely had a chance to thank him before he was gone.

On this slow night, during a very slow time of the year, when no one is making money and everyone is tight as hell, Bob backed up the girls, the girls backed up Bob, the girls were generous to me, and Bob ensured my night was not a financial disaster.

If he comes back tonight, I’ll have Bob’s back, for sure. And a round for the girls, too.






14 responses to “Backing Up Bob”

  1. Thomas Avatar

    Interesting. Here in Milwaukee we just call it “buying him one”. Never heard of “backing up” before.

  2. Sang Lee Avatar

    My parents ran a restaurant for 30 years in Manhattan. They worked long and hard hours seven days a week.

    Every time someone serves me I see my parents, so I always leave as much as I can – regardless of the market’s clime. It seems Bob’s got that spirit. Good for him.

    I like your writing, RG. I’m glad to have ended up here.

  3. Restaurant Gal Avatar
    Restaurant Gal

    Thomas–You know, I don’t remember hearing that term in D.C., but I feel like I had heard it before when I got to the Keys. Who knows?

    Sang Lee–What a nice comment. You can turn a phrase pretty well yourself. I just linked to you. Thanks for reading RG.

  4. savannah Avatar

    the world would be a better place if everyone did a f&b shift for a season, sugar! xoxox

  5. brittany Avatar

    The best thing after work, is walking into your familiar bar and seeing those shots waiting for you. “Industry” is very tight knit in my area, and while our favorite bar tenders always hook us up, we never leave without leaving a tip that makes it all worth their while. Good feelings all around.

  6. last one home Avatar

    I’ve always had the same worry no matter how busy the restaurants were that I ran–that I would unlock the doors one day [every day actually] and no one would come. What I never gave any thought of was that one day I wouldn’t be unlocking the door…

  7. BB Avatar

    I love when other bartenders and servers come into the bar on a slow night because they know how to tip. I had a girl ask me how much her friend tipped me and when I told her she laid down another bill and said “I know how it is”. Bob seems like a nice guy, too.

    I love your blog by the way. You’re a good storyteller, can’t wait to see the next! Check out my blog if you have a chance — I’m a bartender too–

  8. SwillMistressWA Avatar

    This post made me smile. While I was traveling over the weekend, I noticed how empty the bars were–even in the airports where it seems a stiff one before the flight is almost mandatory. I tend to tip heavily anyway (being a bartender once myself), but it seems even more imperative now.

    Bob sounds like a wonderful guy. I know I’ve been on the road alone and only wanted a little friendly chit-chat. I hope he comes back to you, or at least that his karma pays him back in spades.

  9. Jennifer Avatar

    I absolutely love when you post, because I know it’s going to either be some fabulous story like tonight, or some real insight into your emotions to which I can ALWAYS relate in some way, or a marvelous mixture of both. You’re someone worth reading, RG, you truly are.

  10. Kgrrrl Avatar

    I liked that. It just makes you feel all warm inside. People do care, and when times are tough, seeing those types of things gives you hope 🙂

  11. sara Avatar

    I’ve worked in restaurants since I was fifteen. I’m twenty four and have been a manager for a month. its a corporate restaurant. Just as advice, to save sanity, when sales arnt there look at what you have been forgoing because you were too busy. Hold re training meetings with staff redoing basics. Look at maybe who no longer deserves a job. Look at what little things you could be doing to make you’re restaurant better that you left because you were too busy. Corporate kinda sucks, but every corporate started as private. Regardless of what you are, this could be the chance you have to improve. So no negatives!

  12. Jean Avatar

    I have that same fear before every party or gathering I throw – those 15 minutes right before the first person shows up when you wonder if ANYONE will come.