Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Vacation's All I Ever Wanted

Today, I sit watching low, dark clouds scudding across the sky, while I contemplate the Jungian duality between our higher natures and baser instincts, and how that applies to Campbell's mythic archetypes. Yeah, none of this makes sense. Which means I need vodka. And I don't even drink vodka.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, finds me in the great city of Albany. This is what may become the first of many Confessions posts from this locale. To be brutally honest, I'm considering relocating the Fortress of Solitude to upstate New York. Do you have any idea how high the property taxes are on a giant secret base in the heart of New York City? And there are many things to recommend Albany over Manhattan -- fresher air, friendlier strippers, and cigarettes are cheaper.

Ok, I lied. The air isn't all that fresh.

So here, I present to you, my initial impressions of Albany. Now this isn't the first time I lived here. I moved up to Albany about eight years ago, when I worked for Eden Studios by day and managed a diner by night. I have fond memories of Albany. However, after having lived for the last seven years in NYC, coming to Albany is a bit of a culture shock. Sort of like dropping Snookie in the middle of a Mensa convention.

First of all, there are no bodegas. If you live in New York City, you know the importance these small corner markets, often open 24 hours, have in the life of a New Yorker. It's 3 am and you discover you need toilet paper. You go to the bodega on the corner. Need mac and cheese? Go to the bodega. How about rolling papers, condoms, and Twinkies? Bodega time. I can't tell you the number of times I've discovered I needed something at odd hours, and found them in a bodega. They're magical places that manage to stock an entire grocery store's worth of stuff in a space the size of Leona Helmsley's closet. But here in Albany, you get everything from 7-11 style places miles from anywhere. I had to walk three blocks today to get a pack of cigarettes and some Colt 45. Three blocks! In New York, there would have been 12 bodegas within three blocks. This place is not conducive to my hip, modern, Twinkie-eating lifestyle. Also, they didn't stock forties of Colt 45. They only had Budweiser. And I hate Bud.

Second, everything seems to be miles from everything else. You drive your car to the Best Buy, so you can get your DVD of season four of Lost, and now you need some fortified wine to go with it. So you get back in your car and drive to the liquor store. On the way, you realize you have a burning desire to read the poetry of Rimbaud. Now you've got to drive to the Barnes & Noble. Can't these places all be close together? They are in Manhattan. I can get Burger King, porn, and pick up my dry cleaning all within a three-block walk from my apartment door. (Actually, I lied about one of those three things. I wouldn't be caught dead eating Burger King.) But out here, they apparently said to themselves "hey, we have miles of open land here. Let's put everything as far away as possible from everything else." Seriously, there is no reason I have to drive to one mall to go to Target and drive to a completely different mall to go to Super Cuts.

Which brings me to my next observation. Public transportation blows out here. All they have are buses. Long time readers of this blog already know of my love of buses. It's right up there with having my scrotum shaved with a weed whacker, listening to Celine Dion, and Hitler. Not only would I have to depend on buses, which are required by law to never run on time, and are filled with smelly people who randomly demonstrate their mental instabilities, but these buses also stop running at a certain time. That's right. I would have to organize my social life, by which I mean taking the bus down to the liquor store to buy fortified wine, around the public transportation schedule. God forbid the movie lets out at 12:15, because then I'm stuck walking home. And girls generally don't kiss at the end of the date when you've made them walk five miles home. Because I don't drive.

Fourth, as I walk through suburban Albany (see above, hatred of buses), I notice everyone has these giant swaths of green in front of their houses. I'm told these are called "lawns" and that everyone has them. Wouldn't it be more efficient if they were to collect all these giant patches of grass into one place? This way, instead of everyone hiring Mexicans to mow their lawns, you could hire one Mexican to mow the giant field of grass. I've always been confused by lawns, because everyone's so proud of them. I walked past one house where the owner was watering his lawn with sprinklers, only it was about to rain. How much water does one lawn need? Isn't the water falling from the sky good enough for your lawn, dude? It seems to me if we eliminated the lawns, the houses and stores could be closer together (see above, everything's too damn far away).

Despite all of this -- the lack of bodegas, the public transportation, the inefficient land use -- I like this place. And it's not just the friendly strippers. It's the quality of life (which I suppose includes the friendly strippers, but is also made up of so much more). Now, if I can just find out the zoning issues involved with keeping wild dingoes and peacocks, I'd be set.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Kingdom for a Green Card

It's a Sunday afternoon, and I'm feeling both enervated and salubrious. The sun is out, the trees have sent forth their leaves, and I'm over-caffinated. Oh, and I have no idea what "enervated" and "salubrious" mean. Because Becky H. used to sit next to me in English, and I spent far too much time passing her humorous notes. Using "evervated" and "salubrious". So if Mr. Steen is in the audience, I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention in class, though on the bright side, I can use these words in a sentence. I just have no idea if I'm doing it correctly.

I see today that I'm back up to eight followers. I feel oddly gratified, even though I have no idea who "Imola" is. Let's all give Imola a hearty, Confessions-worthy greeting and hope she stays for more than a day or two. Because I'd like to break through the class ceiling that is "ten". I'm going to celebrate by cracking open this vintage bottle of Manischewitz blackberry wine and let my wild dingos roam the Fortress' grounds.

Today, I'm going to discuss a phenomenon I think is endemic to life in New York City certainly, and likely prevalent in many big cities (and no, I don't know what "endemic" means, either). Though, now that I think of it, when I lived in LA and DC, I didn't encounter this phenomenon. Perhaps it's because of the large population of Eastern European chicks living here in the city. I am speaking, of course, of the Green Card marriage offer.

A few days ago, I got a phone call from a friend of a friend, named Oksana. The conversation went something like this: "Yes, I am Oksana. We get married, I pay $15,000. So I meet you at lawyer's office Monday, yes? Do you have criminal record?" Yeah, Oksana, I have no idea who you are and I've never met you. Of course I'll meet you at your lawyer's office. Idiot. Perhaps you should take your foot off the gas, and slow down a bit.

For those of you not in the know, the Green Card marriage is just that. Marriage for a Green Card. That magical piece of paper that confers upon someone citizenship in this, our great country. Although universally, the Eastern European chicks refer to this as "marriage for the papers", which makes it sound like they're bucking for a pedigree from the American Kennel Club. The offer is typically $15,000 for three years of your life. You get third up front, a third when the card comes in, and a third when you get divorced.

Sadly, this is solely a business transaction, which means the marriage is depressingly sexless. I'm not sure why this bothers me, since my own, real marriage was also depressingly sexless. So you'd think I'd be used to the idea. But the idea of being married to a typically hot Eastern European chick, and not having sex, would make me want to slap a penguin with a sockful of nickels.

Because you've got to live with the chick for at least a little while, so when the immigration people interview you, you can tell them that a) she drools when she sleeps, b) her toothbrush is purple, and c) she's wearing those pink panties with the little flowers on them today. Those are details you just can't learn from a few conversations over coffee. Also, there's the home visit from the government, so you will be living with your fake wife for at least a little while. And seeing her come out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel every day, and not having sex, is some kind of horrible torture obviously designed by the KGB. I'll bet that's how they broke Francis Gary Powers. (That's okay, you can Google him. I'll wait).

What I find odd is the concept that I could earn money by getting married. I always assumed that I'd be the one who'd have to pay someone to marry me. Mostly because of my odious personal habits, like leaving my dirty socks on the TV and getting liquored up on Manischewitz blackberry wine and shooting at mailboxes. But apparently there are some 20 desperate Eastern European women willing to pay me to marry them. Without sex. Which is unlike my previous marriage, wherein I paid (a heavy price, if we include psychic pain) for the priviledge of not having sex. It's like I'm some kind of reverse prostitute.

What I don't understand is why they don't just marry their boyfriends. They all have them. Oh, they'll say they don't have a boyfriend, but they do. He's either from their own country, or Spanish, which means they don't have access to the magical Green Card, and thus ineligible for marriage (but eligible for sex). Or they're American, but not stupid enough to marry these women. Because these guys are traditionally douchebags. They've got huge biceps, wear too tight Ed Hardy t-shirts, and ride motorcycles. Eastern European women love the douchebags, because they spend money on these women while treating them badly. They may like the "bad boys" but come running to schmucks like me (AKA a nice guy) when they need the Green Card. Seems to me that if your douchebag American boyfriend refuses to marry you for free, then there's something wrong with your relationship. Maybe you should marry me for free. And let me sleep with you.

Did I mention that this process takes three years? It takes two years for the government to issue the magical Green Card (they get a temporary resident card after the first year), but you can't just get divorced the day after the card comes in the mail. Because that would tip off the government to your ruse. No, you've got to wait an appreciative amount of time to divorce your fake Eastern European wife, typically one year. I just don't think I have this kind of time. I'm 42 years old. I'd like to get married for real just one more time before I die. Which at the rate I'm going, what with the Manischewitz, Ring Dings, and smoking, could be soon.

Which brings me to another question? How does the government get fooled by these Green Card marriages? If I was an INS agent, and I saw someone like me (skinny, 42, poor) and an Eastern European chick (hot, 26, and hot), I'd completely know what was going on. I'd void my ass right there. Nope, Green Card marriage! Next! I hear they ask you personal questions during the interview, but they're clearly not asking the right questions. Which is to say, they're clearly not asking about the sex. I'd ask questions like: Does she like it in the morning? How about in the shower? What's her favorite position? You know, personal questions that you'd only know if you'd actually done the deed. I suppose they can't do this for legal reasons. And because they don't want to look like perverts. But if they were serious about keeping these people out of the country, you'd think they'd be more conscientious.

The penalties for getting caught are pretty steep. Something like a $250,000 fine plus three years in prison (which is potentially not asexual, if you know what I mean). She just gets sent back to her crummy, Eastern European, former Soviet hellhole, with no possibility of ever getting a visa to America again. I think I get the worse punishment. Because she doesn't have to worry about getting raped in the shower. And what do you say to your fellow inmates when they ask you what you're in for? Fake Green Card marriage. Yeah, that'll impress them. You're totally not getting punked after that. I guess I'd have to tell them I'm in for murder or something.

In the end, this just seems like a bad deal for me. On the one hand, I would have to live with you for a few weeks, during which I would find myself in an uncomfortable, asexual situation where sex should occur, and I'd likely run into you and your douchebag boyfriend canoodling (a precursor to your having sex with him). Oh, and if we get caught, I'm the one who ends up wearing a wig and being someone's bitch for three years. On the other hand, there's $15K.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Corporate Restaurants

Enough with the lessons on being a server in New York City. You're not interested and you're not reading. And why in the hell would you want to wait tables in NYC anyway? It's a miserable experience. Besides, I think I've mined the subject for all its comedy gold anyway. Considering the price of gold these days, that means I'm a zillionaire by now. I'm thinking of buying another Fortress of Solitude, this one in the Bahamas.

It occurs to me that this blog is pretty much open to everyone in the world. I'd originally intended it as a place for me to share my writing with my friends. Which apparently consists of eight of you (correction, seven of you; I have no idea which friend I've lost). But it's entirely possible that, if you Google my name, this site comes up. Which is not good considering that these days, employers do indeed Google potential employees (along with Jenna Jameson/monkey porn). I'm not sure how their bosses keep tabs on this, how they know the difference between work-related Googling and goofing-off-related Googling. This means, however, likely employers have seen and read this site, and didn't exactly appreciate my take on the service industry. This could explain my distinct lack of call-backs. Thanks Internet!

First, let me be clear. I'm cultivating a certain personality here. I'm trying to find my "voice." Sometimes this works. Sometimes I fail like a crypto-Communist military junta. Wait, those never fail. I'll come up with a humorous metaphor for my failure later. Like when I'm in the shower. So if you're a corporate tool manager type reading this blog as part of your background check on me, please remove the corporate bug from your bought-and-paid-for ass. If that doesn't violate the terms of your contract, that is.

And if that doesn't get me a call-back, I don't know what will.

I've spent a significant portion of the last three days filling out applications at some of the larger, finer restaurants in the city. I have a few thoughts.

If I bring you a resume, then there is no need for me to fill out all that information, like address, education history, employement history on an application. Because that's already on my resume. I'm not a high school kid applying for a job at Burger King. Asking me to transfer over perfectly clear information on my resume to your application in my illegeble chicken scratch is a huge waste of time. I'm sure some anal retentive lawyer back at corporate has a perfectly good reason for having me do this. He's also a tool.

One of the things I love about the restaurant application is the questionnaire they include with it. It has such burning questions as "how do you define great service?" and "what do you like the least about restaurant work?" These questions make me want to pluck my eyes out with a rabid hampster. No one is going to answer these questions truthfully. What do I like the least about restaurant work? Dealing with self-important managers who get in my way during a busy dinner rush with their silly corporate bullshit ("Ross, you need to fill the water glasses higher.") while I'm in the middle of inputting an order for a six-top. Seriously, tell me that shit when I'm not running around like a starving cop at a doughnut convention. My appplication answer? I don't like the standing.

Similarly, all my answers on these questionnaires are designed to appeal to the anal retentive, overly fussy corporate lackeys that infest the restaurant business.

Then comes the obligatory first interview. I honestly don't know what they're looking for. Well, I do. They want me to tell them how I place the customer first. How I cater to their every whim and need. How I work as a team player. And all of that is true (believe it or not). Unfortunately, I think they want me to elevate this to a level of hyperbole that's unreasonable. Or maybe I'm not using the right corporate buzzwords, like "actualize" and "enhance." Whatever it is these managers want, I'm apparently not giving it to them.

I am a salesman. I sell food and drink. And I'm very good at it. I'm pleasant to customers; I don't argue with them, and I want everyone to leave happy. But it's not important to your customers whether I serve from the right and clear from the left, or that I crumb the table every 8.5 minutes. They don't know any better anyway. And you don't care about that either. You care about profits. And I can sell sneakers to amputees. I upsell at every opportunity. I can make your grilled, free range chicken in hollendaise and chocolate sound like it tastes like manna from Heaven. That's what's important here. Sales.

Let me put it this way. In yesterday's NY Post, the food critic complained about the effects of this corporate stupidity has on good, basic service. Servers who pester their customers at every stage of the meal with "are you enjoying your food?" or "is the food to your liking?" Honestly, there's a thin line between good service and obsequious boot licking. He complained about servers who prattle on about tanins and chocolate-raspberry grace notes in the wine, but can't answer the simple question "is the wine good? Will it go well with lamb?" Servers can tell you all about how the mango chutney pairs well with the scrod and fresh tarragon, but they have no idea when the fish came in.

In short, the corporate wank-scrotes who define service in their glorified McDonalds, and the minions in business suits who call themselves "general managers" who enforce these dictates, have forgotten the main thing: Give the customer good, basic service.

I can do that.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Server Lesson #3: Anticipation

I have a spare hour before I must go out and look for a job, so I thought I'd continue my posts about how to wait on tables. I know, you're thinking "why would you, an international man of mystery, need a job?" You have no idea what the mortgage payments are like on a Fortress of Solitude. These things don't come cheap, what with the arctic isolation and all the crystal. Also, Hostess doesn't give away those Ring Dings for free. And I love me the Ring Dings.

Before we move on to the edutainment portion of the blog, it's time for a little housekeeping. I see by the old followers counter on the wall that I've lost one of you. I don't know who it is, but clearly I've either offended them (what? Me be offensive?!) or they thought I'd be giving out tasty recipes. Either way, I've gone from eight followers to seven, and all I can say is bon chance. That's French for "don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out."

On to anticipation. No, not the anticipation of Christmas morning, as you sit waiting for mom and dad at the top of the stairs and stare at all the pretty boxes under the tree before you realize they're all filled with sweaters and socks. Nor is it the anticipation as someone curvy and smelling faintly of vanilla and stale cigarettes slowly peels off her stockings.... Ahem, sorry about that. No, we're talking about knowing what's going to happen before it happens. You have to anticipate the needs of your customers.

Every meal has definte stages to it. If you've ever eaten out, then you know what they are, even if you don't think you know. It's ingrained by our society and culture. If you're aware of the stages, then you have a general idea of what your customer expects. And you're going to be there about a half-beat before your customer realizes what he expects.

As an aside, I've waited on many European tourists in my day. No, this isn't going to be a tirade about non-tipping European douche-scrotes who know about tipping but choose not to do it because they think the money's better spent on more jeans. The cheap bastards. No, this is about cultural expectations. I've gone up to Europeans (typically French) who have just sat down, and you know why I'm there: To take the drink order. But these people don't seem to know that. They look at me all scared and surprised and tell me they're not ready to order yet. Yes, I know that. I'm here to find out if you want a drink. Sometimes I have to make the drinky hand sign for them. I don't know why they assume I'm there to take their food order so quickly. Don't they drink in Europe? Does everyone order everything all at once? I have no idea.

Anyway, back to anticipation. Once your customers sit down and settle, they start to look at the menu. If you're not there in a timely fashion, two or three minutes, they begin to get antsy. They begin to think that maybe they've been forgotten. They start to swivel their heads around looking like puppies in a pet shop window hoping someone will take them home and give them Liv'r Snaps. All they want to know is that you know they're there. Knowing this, you, as server, should go up and offer them a drink. Once you've given them something, they're content, and you can go back to ignoring them for five minutes while you flirt with the bartender.

The next stage of the meal is the food order. They've gotten their drinks, talked things over, made their decisions, and now your customer wants to order. One of the key ways to anticipate your customers is to watch their body language. I've seen rookies go up to the table while the customers still have their noses buried in the menu, or while they're still catching up with each other. Why would you go to take an order before your customers have even looked at the menu? Once they've put the menus down, that's your cue to go to the table. They're ready now.

See, the customer will tell you how they want you to treat them, if you can spot the signs. Some customers want you to be funny and joke around with them; they'll start off by joking with you. Others want you to be Jeeves the Butler -- quiet, efficient, invisible; they'll be a little brusque with you to establish the mood. A few customers want to treat you like you're beneath them, because you have a menial service industry job while they work in a law office or bank; they'll start things off by talking down to you, rolling their eyes a lot, and treating you like a two-year old. Knowing how your customer wants to be served helps you anticipate their needs.

Watching the table top also helps. Do your customers want to wait until they've finished their drinks before ordering? Then they want to go slow through the whole meal. Are they taking their time eating their salads? They're slow eaters, and you can wait to fire their food. Are they shovelling the appetizers into their mouths? Then they're either fast eaters or have someplace to be. You should fire their food a little faster, so it comes out quicker. Do they have a mouthful of wine left in their glasses? Then you should be ready to offer them another. Did they order a steak? Bring the steak knife, ketchup, and A-1 before the food gets there. Ditto for dessert; make sure the dessert forks are on the table before the dessert.

You want to be there before your customer needs something, holding the exact thing he or she will need before they need it. You don't want your customer waiting on you. You are waiting on your customer.

You want to be aware of the stage each of your tables is at. If table 10 is about to finish their appetizers, you don't want to go to the six-top at table 14, because they're going to take a long time (big tables always do) and you'll forget to fire table 10's dinner. Fire table 10, then go to table 14. Table 5 is sipping the last of their coffee? Ask them if they want another, but have the check ready in case they don't. Because those are the only two options left to the meal. They're not going to order another dinner. They either want more coffee or check. Don't make them wait for either because you weren't paying attention. You should be constantly updating the priority list in your head as you move through the dining room. You should know where each of your tables is in the meal, what's coming up next, and what they'll need.

I hope you've found this just a little informative. So when you find follower #8, you can tell him or her that they missed a scintillating, educational blog posting. Or just mock them. Now, it's off to the job search. 'Cause I needs me some Ring Dings. And fortified wine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Serving Suggestions

Here at Confessions central, high atop the eastern tower of my Fortress of Solitude, I like to think I'm here to educate as much as I am to waste everyone's time by reading my mindless prose. I find it gratifying that all eight of you continue to read this blog, though for all I know you decided to follow me and then never showed up again. But I like to tell myself that you're still out there, still reading. Just like I like to tell myself the hottie at the next table with the huge, brown eyes and cute nose is going to come home with me tonight and let me gnaw on her delicate shoulders.... Which is to say, I'm good with lying to myself.

And this is the central theme of today's post. When I told you that your server was lying to you when he told you the pasta was indeed homemade (it isn't) and the seabass was delicious (he has no idea), I didn't mean to suggest that all aspects of waiting tables involved lying (it does). No, certainly not. Lying is only a small part of your job. The majority, in all seriousness, lies in suggestive selling.

Now I certainly didn't invent this concept, and I lay no claim to it. The idea of telling customers what they want is as old as the Nile. I often wonder what the very first restaurant in human history was like. For some reason, it's not covered in the bible, and I wish it was. Couldn't Abraham stopped off at a shwarma place on his way from Ur to Canaan? Couldn't God have issued a few commandments on the subject? After all, there are 613 laws in Duteronomy. Don't you want to know what the heck the restaurants in Sodom were serving? But for that first guy selling crocodile burgers down by the Temple of Hatshepsut, he had to invent everything. Like the first service charge for eight or more customers, and the first "no shirts, no shoes, no service" policy. It's not like he could consult anyone; he had to come up with this stuff from whole cloth.

Anyway, it's your job as a server to anticipate your customer's needs, by overselling him as much as possible. What you're doing is giving the customer options he may or may not know he has. You're trying to enhance his dining experience by making helpful suggestions, all of which involve making the check more expensive.

For example, when a table sits down, the first thing I'm going to do after saying hello is asking if anyone wants a drink "from the bar." This is crucial. If you ask if they simply want a drink, you're like to just sell them tap water. After all, that's a drink. However, if you casually mention the bar, now the customer is thinking "alcohol." Maybe they didn't see the bar on the way to their table. Maybe they didn't even know they wanted a cosmopolitan.

You can get even more devious (I mean "helpful"); "Can I get anyone a cocktail?" puts the idea of a tasty, and more expensive, drink directly into their minds. You can, and should, tailor this to your table. For example, if I'm waiting on a table of 20-something guys, that question becomes "would you guys like a beer?" Because they're more likely to order beer. For older guys, suggest the cocktail because they're more likely to want a scotch on the rocks or a martini. For a table of women, just suggest a glass of wine. Chicks either drink white wine or cosmos. Now this isn't perfect, but a rule-of-thumb. I once had a table of old grandmas order Dewars on the rocks and manhattans. I almost fell over.

The point is, you have subtly let your customers know that you indeed have a bar, and would be happy to get them a drink.

When the customer agrees that, yes, what they need is a tasty alcoholic beverage, the next question that must reflexively come out of your mouth is: "what brand?" If they order a martini, what kind of vodka (or gin)? If it's a scotch and soda, what brand of scotch? Would you like that cosmo to be a Grey Goose cosmo? I'm doing this because a name-brand alcohol costs $2-4 more than house liquor. And because my customer really doesn't want to drink house vodka, because that's really turpentine drunk by hobos. See, I'm looking out for you.

You do the same thing with the food. You go to the table, and your guests immediately go right to the main course. No worries. They're hungry and they want food now. So what you do is "go back to the top of the menu", by which I mean you ask them if they'd like an appetizer. "Oooo. They have appetizers," the customer thinks. See, they're so focused on dinner they didn't even stop to consider an appetizer. About fifty-percent of my customers order something, at least to share. A calamari or a ceasar salad. In fact, I'll sometimes suggest just that; "can I get a calamari for the table?" This generally works better in larger groups -- four tops or bigger. You're offering options here.

Similarly, you should be thinking "upsell" for any main dishes on the menu that have them. Some dishes have options, like adding chicken or seafood. So when a customer orders the fettucini alfredo, the questions "would you like that with chicken?" pops out of my mouth automatically. Because maybe the customer didn't see the tiny type under the entry on the menu that informs him he could do that. And because the fettucini alfredo tastes better, is a bit more of a meal, with the chicken. Your customer deserves to be informed of that option, so he can enjoy his meal even more. Oh, and this bumps up the check an extra $5.

Going back to the booze section of the meal, I just remembered something. If you've got a four-top and they all order a glass of wine, you should instead suggest they get a bottle. Your standard 750 ml. bottle of wine gives you four glasses, so it's more efficient, and the wine by the bottle is generally better than the swill the restaurant serves by the glass. Try to pitch it that way. Make it about enhancing the diner's experience. Depending on the bottle they choose, you've also just increased the check.

I can see that I've missed the central tenet of suggestive selling. Know your customer. Read them like you read the newspaper (if any of you read the newspaper. If not, then read them like you read 4 Chan). Some examples:

1) When a mom and dad come into the restaurant with a young child, I always suggest a drink (alcoholic) and pitch the mother. Because she's spent all day dealing with precious little bundle of joy, and could really use a drink right about now.

2) Women generally order salads. So when you "go back to the top of the check", suggest a salad before dinner. Don't waste your time pitching the beef carpaccio. Similarly, suggest white wine. You may get them to go for a cosmo or other "girly" drink, but white wine, especially pinot grigio, is a good bet.

3) Four young men dining together are going to go for the meat on the menu. You're going to be selling steaks and beers (maybe scotch). At the end of the meal, ask them if they want to see the dessert menu, but don't count on it. They're more likely to go for an after dinner drink.

4) Four young women don't want to look like alcoholics. So when you see empty wine glasses on the table, don't ask each one individually if they'd like another. They'll say no. Ask them if they'd like another round; you'll get a few takers, and go from selling no wine to selling two or three. Also, automatically bring a dessert menu; women will wrap up their half-eaten dinner to make room for dessert. (They're also going to ask to split the check. For some reason, women don't like to pay for each other's meal. They'll sit there with a calculator and figure out to the penny what each of them owes. Guys, on the other hand, will pick up the check. I'm not sure why women hate each other so much as to be jerks about the check).

5) You've got a date table. You can tell it's a date table by their body language. Don't even bother with a dessert menu. If your restaurant has a dessert tray, bring that over. Once the girl sees the dessert, she's gonna want one. And the guy doesn't want to look like a cheap jerk, so he'll buy her one. Net sale of one dessert. In fact, use this to your advantage at every stage of the meal. Offer her options that the guy will have to pay for. Isn't love (or the desire for hot sex) grand?

Lastly, the most important aspect of suggestive selling is: don't let on how much all this costs. If you do it right, that tap water becomes either an $8 glass of wine or a $10 Ketel One mixed drink or $12 Hendricks martini. You go from selling two dinners to including an appetizer, and from selling the basic meal on the menu to upselling with options. And you can get them to go for dessert, too. You can take a $40 check up to $80 easily.

All in the name of "enhancing your customer's dining experience." Present options, subtly. Think of who you're waiting on, and what they'll likely want. Tell them what they want before they know it. Your customers will love you for it (and so will your manager). Learn to anticipate your customer's needs. Which is the subject of the next blog.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Server Lessons

Now that I'm writing about it, I realize that I can teach you all you'd ever need to know about waiting tables in New York City. Read my advice, take it to heart, and you'll be qualified to work in any restaurant in the city. One of the strange things about New York City restaurants is that they require you to have New York experience. If you waited tables in Chicago for ten years, it doesn't matter to the managers of New York. For some reason, they think restaurants here are somehow different from those any place else. That they're somehow special. I don't know what it is, but I think if you read my advice, you'll be well qualified to lie on your resume and be able to pull it off.

First, the basics.

Just because you've been waited on in the past, and it looks easy, doesn't mean you know how to wait on tables. There is a lot of specialized knowledge you have to learn that has nothing to do with the cuisine you're serving or the wine you're pouring. It's a way of thinking.

Learn to carry a tray. Nothing tells everyone in the restaurant, by which I mean the staff, that you have no clue what you're doing faster than not being able to carry a tray. Or a plate. Or a glass. I've had girls swear up-and-down to me that they've worked in Friday's and the Olive Garden, but they couldn't carry a tray if you put a gun to their head. One girl cradled it like a baby. Another one kept putting her finger prints all over the martini glasses.

What's the big deal? If you can't do something simple like carry a tray, chances are you've never worked in a restaurant. You have no idea what you're doing; so how can you be expected to accomplish the more difficult tasks in a restaurant?

Learn to multitask. While serving one table is pretty easy, it's when you multiply the number of tables that you multiply the difficulty. And let's face it, waiting tables is easy. All you've got to do is take an order, input it into a computer, and collect the money. You have to run your drinks to the table, but most places use food-runners so you rarely have to carry a plate. You spend about five minutes at any table. However, each meal has several distinct phases, of which you must keep track. The more tables you have, the more phases you have to keep track of.

There's: the greet (saying hello), the drinks (getting the drink order), reading specials, taking the order, appetizers, firing the main course, checking on the customer (do they like their food?), dessert and coffee, dropping the check, cashing out, and throughout this asking if they want more drinks. That's a lot of little stuff to manage.

So it's easiest if you know how to multitask. I've seen servers who treat each table individually, and this never works. Take the drink order from table 10, then take the food order from table 11 (if they're ready); this way, when you go to the computer, you're inputting two orders for one trip. If you're running a credit card for table 10 and the bartender puts your drinks on the bar for table 11, take both the credit card slip and the drinks at the same time. Any way you can combine two trips into one is going to save your ass when the dining room gets slammed.

However, a rookie mistake is to go to several tables in succession and take their food orders; taking the dinner order for tables, 10, 11, and 12, for example. You don't want to do that. First, you're more likely to confuse the orders, even if you wrote them down. Second, you've just pissed off the kitchen, who must now cook all that food just for you. Third, you've now just created a huge lump of work for yourself, because now all three tables will want dessert and checks at the same time. You end up waiting on all three tables in a block. Not good. You want to know when to multitask, and when not to.

Read the table top. I've had steady regular customers that I've served for years. I know what they like to drink and how much pepper they like on their food. But I have no idea what they look like or what their names are. If I ran into them on the subway, I'd be hard-pressed to place them. This is because when I'm on the floor, I'm not looking at your face. I'm looking at your table top. I'm doing this for a particular reason, because the table top tells me all I need to know about your dining experience.

Let me put it this way. If I see you've eaten half your salad, I have a pretty good idea that you'll want your main course soon; so I've got to keep in mind that I'll have to fire your table in the next five minutes. ("Fire" means to tell the chef to start cooking your food). If I see your wine glass is almost empty, then I know you'll want another glass, especially if you haven't had your main course yet. By watching the speed at which you eat, I can tell if you're in a rush to get someplace, and I'll have the check ready as soon as you order your coffee (so you don't have to ask). Looking at the table top helps you anticipiate your customer's needs.

Learn to read the dining room. This is a lot like reading the table top, but you're doing it for the entire place. You're trying to keep track of when you should speed up your service, or slow it down. The last place I worked had a real problem with this.

When it's busy, you want to speed up your service, because it's about table turnover. The faster you turn over your tables, the more tables you can wait on, and the more money you can make. That means subtle tricks, like firing your table's main course while they still have half their appetizers. This means that as soon as they're finished with one course, the next one comes out without a moment's hesitation; they're not sitting there for ten minutes waiting for their food. As soon as they finish their main course, you print out their check and ask them if they want dessert. This way, when they say "no" you can slap the check on the table immediately and get them out the door; if they say "yes" you just throw away the printed check and order them dessert (and make sure to print a new check for when they finish dessert). You want as much air out of the dinner as possbiel.

When it's slow, however, you want to slow down your service. First, because this is more relaxed for your guests, and for you. It's a more pleasant dining experience. Second, when people look at restaurants, they look in the window to see if there's anyone inside; if they see an empty dining room, they assume the restaurant must be bad and keep walking. So you use your tables on a slow night as bait to catch more customers. After all, you don't need table turnover. The longer your customers sit (within reason) the more likely others will come in. Let them linger over coffee....

As I said, my last place was horrible for this. On a slow Tuesday night, the food runner is rushing bread and water to the table before the customer has even taken off his coat. He's whisking away appetizer plates and hurrying out food. He's bringing the dessert tray over to tables that still haven't finished their after dinner drinks. In short, he's rushing them out the door like it's a Saturday night. And you know what happened? We sat in an empty restaurant all night long. So know when to be fast and when to be slow.

Next time, I'll teach you the psychology of selling.

Stupid Questions

Yesterday, I suggested that restaurant managers asked some pretty stupid questions when they interview potential servers. These are your typical job interview questions, but tailored to the food service industry. So I can't really fault the managers for asking them. Heck, when I managed a restaurant, I asked them. We do this in order to weed out all non hackers, those people who think waiting tables looks easy, so it must be easy; after all, all you do is take orders. They have no experience, despite the lies they've put on their resume, and asking a few basic questions is a good way to find these people out.

But some of these questions seem to come from people who have no idea the business in which they're engaged. Waiting tables is a miserable experience. You stand on your feet for a minimum of eight hours, you're generally not allowed to nosh or drink (I'm not sure why customers aren't allowed to see you drink a glass of water, but I've been chewed out for it at every place I've worked), and you put up with customers' ridiculous nonsense.

So when a manager asks you, with a straight face, "tell me what you love about serving", you have to wonder. Because the answer every professional waiter will give you is either "nothing" or "the money."

But that's not what the manager wants to hear. No. He wants you to blow smoke up his ass about how you love to enhance the guest's dining experience through your professional, efficient service. He knows this is horse-shit; you know it's horse-shit. But he wants to hear it.

I was asked once, "what are your strengths?" My strengths? My strength is in not slapping your customers when they ask me a stupid question. (Oh, and I'm usually the highest-grossing salesman on the dining room floor.) Really, I get a lot of stupid questions in this business. We all do.

For example: Customers invariably ask me for food recommendations. "What's better, the Chilean seabass or the prime rib?" How the fuck should I know? I haven't eaten the food. Let me let you in on a little secret: No server has ever eaten anything but the cheapest crap on the menu. In many places, you don't get to eat anything on the menu; the chef prepares a giant bowl of something for the entire staff, so he doesn't have to make 12 individual dishes. This is called "the family meal". And this is typically off menu, because the owner doesn't want to serve 12 free Chilean seabass dinners to his staff. That's real money out of his pocket. It's much better to cook up a batch of penne alla vodka and throw it at the miserable servers.

Now if the restaurant has specials, and they're serious about having you sell them, the chef will typically prepare one dish, so you can see it and all have exactly one bite. This is rare. Some restaurants will let you order food off the menu, but, again, it's the cheapest stuff on the menu. So if you're really curious about the ceaser salad or the bruschetta, I can give you an experienced opinion. But the Chilean seabass or the prime rib? You may as well ask me how Katie Holmes' pussy tastes, because I haven't eaten that either.

When you ask me which dish is better, or which I prefer, you are basically asking me to lie to you. Now I can do that. Because I can sell bubblegum to a lock-jaw ward. I know how to sell a line. Ask me about the veal saltimboca, and I'll tell you I love it. It's delicious. And I do love veal saltimboca, though I haven't actually eaten it at any of the restaurants in which I've worked. But how bad can it be? Servers are instructed by management, any management, anywhere, to say every dish on the menus is excellent. Even if the veal saltimboca is overcooked and dry, and you know it.

Now rookie servers will make a stupid mistake. When asked to choose between two dishes, a rookie will choose the more expensive of the two. Bad decision, because the customer can see right through you. You lose all credibility (not that you had much to start with, but they don't know that). The smarter answer is to listen to the order in which the customer asks the question. For example, "which is better, the veal saltimboca or the branzino?" Chances are, because the customer asks about the veal first, that's what he really wants; it's his first choice. So recommend that. It's called suggestive service.

Getting back to stupid interview questions. I was interviewing at a seafood restaurant once, one that specialized in raw shellfish. So I was asked to pick three words to describe the taste of oysters. I hate oysters. To me, they are slimey nuggets of cold snot on a half-shell. The manager didn't like my answer. This was silly, in my opinion, because I'm a salesman. Just tell me what you want me to say, and I'll say it. I'll say it with such conviction that you'll think I eat oysters for every meal (even though the restaurant would never give me oysters for my shift meal).

Ditto for wine knowledge. I don't care if I tell you the malbec has hints of raspberries and chocolate. You won't be able to taste it anyway. I could give you the merlot instead, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Because the majority of people haven't developed their pallates. I know of restaurants that serve Absolut when you order a Grey Goose bloody mary, because you won't be able to tell the difference over the horseradish and tomato juice. But they'll still charge you for the Goose. All any restaurant manager has to do is tell me what he wants me to say, and I'll say it. Maybe I'll even learn something about the food along the way. So all the questions about food or beverage knowledge is pretty silly, if you ask me.

Remember this the next time you eat out. There's no point in asking your server about the dishes on the menu, because all he'll be able to say is "they look nice" or he'll be forced to lie. Most of the time, he's eaten nothing on the menu in the first place. He's a miserable wretch whose had rice and beans for dinner because most cooks are Mexican, and they make Mexican food for the shift meal. And if he's had any of the food on the menu, it's the cheap stuff, so if you want an opinion between the penne alla vodka and the fettucine alfredo he has an opinion. Otherwise, he's been coached to tell you that everything on the menu is amazing. He's a salesman, and he's selling food.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Be Vewwy, Vewwy Quiet; I'm Hunting Jobs...

I see by the old date stamp on the blog page that it's been awhile since I shared my thoughts with you. I'm sure you've awakened in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, perhaps even shaking uncontrollably, and wondering what caused it. Now you know. For the past two weeks, I've spent my time looking for work, because despite President Obama's best efforts to turn us into a socialist country, I can't sit around smoking gauloises and discussing Sartre and collecting welfare (like all of France). Mostly because you can't afford strip clubs on what unemployment pays you.

I'd briefly considered writing about the television of my youth. I recently had a discussion about television in the '70s in New York City, and how great it was. Yes, we had TVs back then. They even broadcast good shows. But I'm going to have to save that subject for a different time, and instead discuss what's going on in my life now. Which is the job search.

Looking for work as a waiter is very different from your standard job search. It's not often that your typical IT worker or regional sales director can go door-to-door looking for work. Imagine walking up and down the street, stopping into every office you find and saying "hi, I'd like to drop off a resume for the manager just in case you're hiring." But that's exactly how it works in the service industry.

Certainly, you can go on-line and search for server positions; "server" is the politically correct, non-gender way of saying "waiter" or "waitress." Sort of like how we can't call stewardesses stewardesses. Honestly, most places like to hire women because they're curvy and look better than men do in low-cut tops. But if they say "waitress wanted" in the ad, you can bet your ass someone (namely me) will try to sue them for reverse discrimination. Hence the use of the word "server."

(On a completely unrelated note, good restaurants, ones concerned with actually serving customers efficiently, will hire only men for their dining rooms. Because men come to work and make money, so managers don't have to worry about a) cat fights over the hot bartender, b) waitresses crying because they had a fight with their boyfriends, c) waitresses leaving in the middle of the shift because of "that time of the month", and d) sexual harassment suits.)

The problem with on-line searches is that every other waiter in the city is doing the same damn thing. So for every "open call", which is basically a casting call for servers, 80 people show up. Then the manager asks two or three silly questions, trying to weed out the Russian chicks who've never waited on a table in their lives, and are lying on their resumes. When I was a manager, I asked one to name two types of wine, she said "red" and "white." Gee, thanks. Another one couldn't name three kinds of red wine, even though three different magnums of red wine were sitting right in front of her. But I digress. So the manager sees some 80 people, asks them silly questions, never really gets to distinguish one person from another, and throws your resume on a pile. What happens next? He pretty much pulls one out at random and gives the person a call.

It's much better, in general, to wander the streets ducking into every restaurant you see and dropping off a resume. First, you never know when that's the day a waitress gets into a fight with her boyfriend and tearfully runs out of the restaurant, leaving the manager holding the bag. Now he's got few options and a shift to fill, but has your resume staring him in the face. And gives you a call. Second, you don't have to compete with 80 other servers-hopefuls showing up at the same time. That is to say, unless you're being followed by 80 other unemployed servers, chances are that you're the only person the manager's seen that day. It's much easier to make an impression, so that when he does need to fill a position you're more likely to get a call.

There are some things I've learned about this kind of job search, however:

1) Managers give your resume a shelf-life of about two days. Even with the open calls posted on Craigslist. Everyone knows you're looking for a job, and don't have job security, and need to find a job pronto. So the assumption is that you'll find a position in a couple of days, and there's no point in calling you after that. Also, after two days, even if you make a great impression, the manager really won't remember you. He's likely to take the first person standing in front of him when he needs to hire. Which is why it's better to pound the pavement and be that person. It also means even though you've been to Pastis three times already, it's a good idea to pop in again (because they don't remember seeing you the previous times anyway).

2) You can tell who's serious about hiring by the questions you get asked. In The Boiler Room, a movie about chop shop stock brokerages starring Giovanni Ribisi, they talk about a "sales question" like "what's the minimum buy for your firm?" That's a sale question; you know the guy's interested. For the restaurant business, you want the manager to ask you a sales question, like "what is your availability?" That tells me he's looking to hire someone, and not just wasting my time. "When can you start?" is another good one. Even better if the manager subtly bitches about his problem to you, such as "I expect everyone to be on time and show up for their shift." That tells me someone has been consistently late, or didn't show up to work, and the manager wants to fire them. That's good.

3) Conversely, you can tell instantly that you've completely wasted one of your resumes when you leave it with the hostess or another server. You have no proof that they'll actually pass it on to the manager, for one. Typically, it just goes into a pile that you know the manager won't wade through. And even if the manager looks at it, he has no face (or personality) to put to the information on your resume. But you've still got to leave the resume so a) you don't look like an ass, and b) maybe, by some miracle, the manager will give you a call (often, because he's desperate).

4) There is a time to leave a resume. All other times are a waste of your time (see point #3). The dinner shift starts at 4pm. That's when the servers show up to start their sidework (polishing silverware, steaming glasses, checking tables, filling salt shakers...), and the managers show up to supervise them. A lot of restaurants close their dining rooms from 4pm to 5pm for just this purpose. So showing up at noon isn't going to help you get a resume into the manager's hands (which is what you want); he's not even in the building. Similarly, showing up at 8pm is just plain stupid. The manager is in the middle of his dinner rush (even on a tuesday night), and is thinking about supervising his floor; he doesn't want to interview you. He's got servers to chew out and customers to grease. Also, weekends are a bust. Either the weekend manager is working (the assistant manager or floor manager) and not the guy responsible for hiring. Even if the general manager is there, Saturday is the busiest day of the week and Sunday is definitely the B-team's day. The best time to go door-to-door is weekdays between 3pm (just in case the manager gets in early) and 6pm (the dinner rush hasn't started yet, and he may be frantic to fill a hole in his staff).

Thus, finding a job in the service industry can be pretty hit-or-miss. You've got to hope to be in the right place at the right time, and talk to the right person, and hope to make a positive impression. If you can't do these things, then you've got to try again. Personally, I have one of those restaurant guidebooks, complete with maps. I highlight the streets I've walked down, so I know where I've been. I'll usually wake up in the morning and plot where I'm going next. For example, tomorrow it's TriBeCa. Eventually, I'll get a call back.

And there, gentle readers, is more than you ever wanted to know about finding a server position in NYC. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for a Hostess apple turnover and a bottle of fortified wine.