Plenty of Garlic But Not Enough Time…

A Day in the Life of a Restaurant Gal

Pure, Unmitigated Joy

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On several occasions now, I have made reference to Lilly the Dog. I have probably not properly established her identity. Lilly came into my life after a trip to the Indy Humane Shelter in early May, during which I swore I was “just looking” and “not going to be too hasty.”

Ha.

A trip to the Humane Shelter can certainly break your heart. God bless those volunteers and employees who go there every day and clean out cages and try to give love to too many animals who all have a consuming need for one person’s love and attention. As I walked through the dog area, every cage I passed held a dog demanding my attention, body-slamming the cage, barking at an ear-splitting level; using every resource at his or her disposal to get my attention.  Too much.

But the dog in the second-to-the-last cage at the end was different. At first I thought she might be sick, because she just laid on her dog bed and looked at me. Didn’t move. Didn’t wag her tail. Maybe she didn’t like people. What kind of dog doesn’t like people? I was fascinated by this dog that was completely ignoring me. Her cage told me her name was “Dusty.” What a dreadful name for such a pretty dog. According to her paperwork, she had been transferred here from another shelter. Lord only knows how long this dog had lived in a cage. I asked to take her outside.

Once she got out of the cage, she came to life. She ran in circles for a few minutes, dutifully went potty, and then came and sat right down next to me, put her head on my knee and gazed adoringly into my eyes. Her look said, “Do not toy with me. Either take me home or walk away right now.”

Uh oh… Yep, I was a goner.

So, long story short, Lilly (because who would call a dog Dusty?) lives with me now. And we’ve had our challenges. There was the mattress pad that somehow provoked her into shredding it while it was still on the bed. (I returned home to a very creative down-alternative sculpture.) And there was the time I foolishly left my beautiful sky-blue Michael Kors tote bag on the floor. (I returned home to make-up, Kleenex and nail files shredded all over the floor, but the tote bag was unscathed. I think she was just fascinated by nail bag; possibly working on a pawdicure. Truly a dog after my own heart. )

But because we live in an apartment, and because the only time I’ve ever been known to run was when I was about to miss a flight, the one thing she couldn’t do was just cut loose and run. Which I imagined she must have been quite desperate to do after months in a cage. But until I was sure she was properly socialized with other dogs, I was afraid to try it. Until this morning.

Lilly and I met our Dog Whisperer, Michelle, at a dog park about fifteen minutes from here. No one else was there. After some instruction from Michelle about proper dog park etiquette, I took off her leash and told her, “Okay! Go! Run!” She stared at me as if I had said, “Here… eat this chicken breast and orzo off of this plate. I spent the last half-hour cooking dinner just for you.” She could not believe what she was hearing.

And then she started to run.

And she ran and she ran. And the look on her face was pure, unmitigated joy. It nearly brought tears to my eyes to see the joy on that dog’s face. And I thought to myself, maybe I should get out my phone and video this moment, so I dug out it out of my bag. And as I was watching her, running straight toward me, tongue flying, ears flapping, wearing this crazy-happy dog grin on her face, I hear Michelle saying something about not locking my knees.

What?

The next thing I know my phone is flying through the air and I am ass-over-teakettle, eating grass. And my shin is in pure, unmitigated pain, and again, I’m on the verge of tears, but for a very different reason. I believe the term I’m searching for is hematoma.

Michelle reminds me that she TOLD me not to lock my knees and helps me up. I limp over to a nearby bench. Unfazed, Lilly continues to fly. It was worth a hematoma to see that dog fly.  So now we’re back in the apartment. I have an ice pack on my shin and Lilly is crapped out on the floor, sleeping and dreaming. She makes funny little whimpering noises periodically, and I know she’s reliving the first time she flew. And I can’t wait to take her back.

But next time I’m sitting down.

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An Equally Important Lesson

After farting around for three hours today, pretending to do research for a project due next week, I finally forced myself to do what I had vowed I would do if nothing else today (and no, it wasn’t my nails—I already did that.) No, my vow was to clean my bathroom.

It started out well enough. I carefully navigated the giant garden tub, which I can only clean while barefoot  inside it, as it’s too wide to reach from the side. I managed not to slip and fall on my derriere as I Soft-Scrubbed the shower walls and tub sides. As this appeared to be the most daunting of all the tasks at hand, I started to get a little cocky on its completion. “This is not so bad,” I thought to myself. “Why did I put this off for so long?” I put on some Lady Gaga and really started to get into it, deciding to just clean the whole damn place while I was at it. This is where the equally important lesson began.

In rapid succession, the following events occurred:

  1. I hit my forehead really hard on the corner of the towel bar while trying to sweep behind the toilet. A lovely goose egg has appeared which I will have to attempt to cover with make-up and bangs when I go out to dinner tonight.
  2. I said a bad word.
  3. I sprayed myself in the face with Parsley Plus as I was attempting to unscrew the top to pour some in a bucket.
  4. I said another bad word.
  5. I turned around with the mop in my hand and knocked the can of Endust off the counter which fell onto my bare foot.
  6. I said a series of really creative bad words.

My series of really creative bad words was loud enough to rouse Lilly the Dog, who had heretofore been napping on the balcony. Curious, she came inside and proceeded to walk all over my freshly mopped kitchen floor.

I have only one more word to add to the series of words I said earlier, as I sit and admire my mostly clean apartment, and that word is gin.

The equally important lesson is this: Cleaning, much like sitting in a jelly lounge chair, is an incredibly dangerous process which should only be undertaken by young people and licensed professionals.

Gin, please.

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Isn’t There Any Way I Can Avoid It?

What is “Social Media” and Isn’t There Any Way I Can Avoid It?

A Primer for Businesses

Social Media. Blogging. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Pinterest.

You keep hearing the terms over and over.  You’ve probably talked about them in meetings. Maybe you (or your teenager!) have even created a Facebook page for your company. But what’s the point, and why are you doing it? Just because everyone else is, or someone else said you should? That’s not a good enough reason to spend valuable time on something when you have other, more important things to do– like run your business.

Here’s the Real Deal with Social Media.

It is a goldmine for businesses; an unprecedented way of communicating with your current and prospective customers, unlike anything we’ve ever been able to do in the past. Think about the days of paying focus groups to get feedback on a new product. Or, more recently, compiling email addresses and sending out a questionnaire to find out which marketing campaign had the most positive response. Those methods are all but obsolete now because, if you are savvy with social media, you can simply post your question and the answers will come. You can announce your new product or promotion and your demographic will know about it immediately. You have an opportunity to have free, real-time communication with your customers. Why would any business pass an opportunity like this up?

Time and Money

Because it takes one of your two most valuable resources; time. Social media is real time, and in today’s world of lightning-fast communication, having social media that’s out-of-date is like being that neighbor down the street who still has their Christmas decorations up in July. It says, “Look, we’ve made an effort, but this is really the best we can do. We’re busy.” That’s not the message you want to send to your customers.

Don’t Be Afraid of Social Media; Embrace It!

Social media is not a replacement for traditional media.  You need a well-rounded marketing plan. But if someone offered you a free radio commercial for your business, you’d take it, right? Take advantage of everything social media can do for your business. Your competitors are.

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The Important Lesson

I’ve learned many lessons this week, but none more important than the fact that I am too old to sit in a jelly lounge chair.

Do we all know what a jelly chair is? Those strappy, armless, low-slung lounge chairs in a dazzling array of tantalizingly bright colors? Easy to fold up into equal thirds and tote to the beach? On sale at Target for the irresistibly low price of $18.00?  Well friends, some deals ARE too good to be true.

I chose the red one, of course.  The perfect match to my festive patio rug. “This is pretty!” remarked my observant Target cashier. (As a side note, this is the same gal who once, while ringing up my purchase of four limes, said, and I quote: “Oooh limes!  Whatcha makin’?  Limeade?”) At any rate, I agreed with her that my jelly lounge was indeed pretty and I carted it out to my car. Then I toted it up the steps to my third floor apartment and set it up on balcony, admiring how it matched my rug. Then I sat down and reclined fully into my new seat. This is where my important lesson began.

Did I mention the fact that jelly lounges are armless and low-slung?

I think we’ve all watched a bug that has managed to flip itself on its back. The struggle is riveting. We watch with a combination of fascination and pity. That bug is doomed. It’s never going to get back on its feet again. We basically have two choices in this situation. We can help the poor bug by flipping it back upright, if we are inclined to touch a bug and if we weren’t planning on squishing it anyway. Or we can pretend we didn’t see it and walk away because it’s too uncomfortable to continue watching the doomed struggle.

I’m hoping my neighbor directly across from my balcony, if he was home, chose the latter. And I might mention here that my new dog Lilly, who I myself rescued just six short days ago, also chose the latter. She was no help whatsoever. At any rate, this bug struggled in that damn jelly chair for about a full ten minutes.  Ultimately, I ended up rolling onto all fours onto my festive patio rug. The jelly chair, which was basically enmeshed in my butt at this point, came with.  I got up, told Lilly that if she were stuck somewhere, I would for sure help HER, and wordlessly folded the jelly lounge back into equal thirds and carried it back down to my car.

I have not yet decided how I will answer the inevitable question asked by any customer service representative when one attempts to make a return: “Was there anything wrong with it?”

My important lesson is this: While it is delightful to discover the many wondrous things that one can see while one is sitting down, it is equally important that one can get back up.

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The Things I See While Sitting Down

Sitting down in a restaurant is taking some getting used to, but I’ve gotten much better at it.  I am, of course, fascinated, obsessed and overwhelmed with the variety of choices in this city and all the cities surrounding it.  I am jotting names and addresses of restaurants on scraps of paper and stuffing them in a file.  I am combing and highlighting Indianapolis Monthly’s restaurant guide and dog-earring the pages. My ears perk up when the local news talks about a noteworthy restaurant opening.  I ask everyone I meet what their favorite restaurant is and why.

I’ve had some interesting experiences so far.  On one of my first outings, shortly after my move, I went to a place called Matt the Miller’s here in Carmel.  The bar was hopping, the dining room packed.  And this was a Thursday night.  The drinks were tasty, the salad was dreadful, the entrees (seared salmon and a flatiron steak) were pretty straightforward.  The really remarkable part of the evening came about halfway through the meal.  My dinner companion Liza was in mid-sentence when she suddenly stopped speaking and her mouth formed into a perfect “O.”  Seconds later there was a terrific crash directly behind my chair, and I turned around to see the biggest mess I have ever seen in all of my years in the restaurant business.  A server had lost an entire tray of entrees; steak piled on vegetables, piled on pasta, piled on mashed potatoes, piled on chicken breast, piled on rice.   A veritable mountain of food.  And unfortunately, part of that mountain was on the shoe of the woman sitting directly behind me.  She seemed frozen in disbelief.  Had this debacle occurred two inches to the left, that mountain of food would have been on my head, but I was miraculously unscathed.  The best part of it all was that the server simply turned and ran.  (I might have done the same under the circumstances.) Of course I thought that he was running to get something to clean it all up, but I don’t think we saw him again the rest of the night.  He may still be running for all I know.

An army of staff arrived with brooms and dust pans (although I doubt that carpeting will ever be the same.)  The manager swooped in with business cards, offering dry cleaning and comped desserts (although I doubt that poor woman’s shoes will ever the same.)  And we all went back to eating our dinners.  All of us except, of course, for the poor four-top whose food hit the floor.

I also had an amazing night at the Jazz Kitchen, listening to an incredibly talented singer named Cynthia Layne.  And while I was blown away by her fabulous band and chocolately smooth vocals, I was even more intrigued by how the service staff managed to move almost reverently through the room, taking orders and serving drinks and entire meals seemingly without making a sound.  The same is true at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, where I watched a waiter literally duck-walk across the length of the entire room to avoid getting into a singer’s spotlight.

My favorite spot of all right now is Café Petit Chou in Clay Terrace.  The food has been flawless on each of my visits, and the staff simply oozes hospitality.  And there I was bedazzled by a server who, on a packed Sunday morning with a 40-minute wait, took our entire order of complicated omelettes and sides without writing a thing down.  And we actually got what we ordered.  Fascinating.  In my serving days you could have asked me for a cup of decaf and I would have forgotten by the time I was two steps from your table if I didn’t write it down.

Regardless of whether or not every meal is perfect, I’m seeing a theme emerge.  I’m seeing a real force behind the restaurant industry here; a dedication to be different and to try and really do things right.  I like it.

It’s amazing the things you can see when you’re sitting down.

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The Big Adventure

Some of you dear readers know this already, but many of you probably do not.  The “Restaurant Gal” is trying with all her might to leave the “Restaurant World” behind.  I have not posted in a while, because I’ve been trying to figure out how a blog about the life of a restaurant gal fits in with a woman who is no longer working in one.  The larger question, of course, is how does the life of a woman who has identified herself as such for so many years, fit in at all?  And what now?

The answer to that question is something I am answering one day at a time.  As a milestone birthday approaches (don’t ask,) it’s time now for me to try and make some of my dreams come true… to write for a living instead of for an hour at midnight.  To finish the screenplay I’ve been blabbering about for years.  To find my music again, and maybe even be lucky enough to get paid to perform it every once in a while.

In order to begin to try accomplishing these things, I knew I had to physically remove myself not just from the Restaurant itself, but from even any proximity to it.  If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant before, you know that getting out of it can be a slippery slope, and that you’re always just one phone call away from slapping on your apron and jumping into the fray.  And when you love the people who need the help, you can’t very well say no, can you?  And so, here I am, now living in Indianapolis (Carmel, to be specific,) on my Big Adventure… also known as: “The Scariest Thing I Have Ever Done in My Life.”

Oh, it’s one thing to jump in your car and move to a new city when you’re 21.  I felt like I was going to take Chicago by storm back then.  And maybe I didn’t storm it, but I did make a little mark in my time there.  But when you’re (insert milestone birthday here) and you move to a city where you know a handful of people, it’s a whole different talk show, as they say. And let’s be clear, when I say “they,” I mean other people who actually use that phrase, not imaginary friends.  I just want to clarify that because I talk to myself a lot now that I’m living alone and I’m afraid my neighbors think a crazy woman has moved in next door.

And so what is it that I do all day, as I’m chattering away to myself?  Well, I’m combing the internet for freelance writing jobs, I’m networking like crazy, I’ve been to Target about a thousand times, and I’m forcing myself to go out alone and talk to total strangers.  Now I talked to total strangers all the time in the Restaurant.  I’m certainly not shy and I had no problem with that.  But this is different.  This requires all the bravery and bravado I’ve ever had to muster.  But I’m doin’ it.   And KJG has been unwaveringly supportive as I navigate these new waters and she navigates the waters of the Restaurant without me there to help her row.

So back to my original question.

How do we explain a blog written by a “Restaurant Gal” who no longer works in a Restaurant?  The answer seems pretty clear to me now… I’m the same gal I’ve been all along.  I’ll always be a Restaurant Gal in my heart.  I’m always going to notice when the table next to mine needs water, or be amused when a server mispronounces a word while telling me the specials.  I’ll never stop wishing that every restaurant’s food could be as good as KJG’s, and I’ll never stop annoying my dinner companions by bringing that up. 

And, as “they” (you know, my imaginary friends) say, never say never.  My black apron is neatly folded in the back of my drawer.  That slippery slope never gets any less steep and rent must be paid.   And I’m certainly not getting paid to write this little missive.  But I’m hoping that others will pay me for what I love to do more than anything else in the world. 

I’m closing my eyes and jumping.

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It’s a Virtue

I’m having a little vacation.  I’m in Florida in an amazing restaurant town called Delray Beach where, as far as I call tell, the median age of the guests is 82 and the median age of the service staff is barely old enough to serve alcohol.  The service personnel, whether they are restaurant servers, private car drivers or hotel front desk staff, are all gorgeous here.  They look like future (or current) Abercrombie models, all long legs, long hair and tan.  Universally though, they all seem to love their jobs.  They are truly happy to serve you.   They seem to understand that being good at their jobs allows them to stay here in this warm, wonderful place by the ocean.  And they seem to love their clientele too.  They know many of their guests by name and the sight of the familiar face of their regular server can immediately calm even the crankiest of guests.  (And over these last few days I have seen some seriously cranky guests; my favorites being the two women at the pool who got into a fight over a particular lounge chair when there were at least fifty others available.  An adorable pool boy had to intervene and moderate, placating each with extra towels and a complimentary Arnold Palmer.  He had, apparently, done this before.   Ultimately age (and with it seniority) trumped beauty and youth.  As it should.

For six days now, I’ve been a full-time customer instead of a server.   Although, I’m not your average customer.  I’m the customer who notices everything.   Who hears the whispered warnings about the woman at table 32, because she’s really mad about her overcooked tuna and now cannot find a way to be happy, even though the offending tuna has been replaced and her entire meal has been comped.  Or the man at the corner seat in the bar, because he’s grabbing the tush of every girl who slows down long enough to be within his reach.  I’m the customer who saw the busser drop a handful of teaspoons on his way to the service station, look both ways, decide no one saw him, and then swipe them on his apron and continue to the service station.  Oh yeah, I saw you.

But here’s what else I’ve noticed.  Patience.

An extraordinary, inordinate, unfathomable amount of patience.  Way more patience than I, as a server, am typically able to muster.  I’ve seen servers stand at a table with a guest who cannot decide what they want, but shoots down every suggestion the server makes.  I’ve seen servers patiently stand by while a younger companion reads aloud (loudly) the entire menu to a guest who apparently can’t see OR hear. I’ve seen servers try, again patiently, to tell the specials to or get the attention of a table who repeatedly ignores them, but will be the first to complain if they feel their server is not being attentive enough.

I hope these kids are richly rewarded for their patience.  I’d like to think they are.  I’m rewarding them at every meal.  They are certainly learning some life skills that will carry them far in their future endeavors, and their dedication and genuine smiles give me hope that the future of our country (or at least the future of the hospitality industry) might be in good hands.   I’m trying to learn a little bit about their patience as I watch them work.  I could use a little more of their patience.  I’m going to try it when I get home.

But right now, I’m waiting for my coffee.  It’s taking forever.

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Russell Stover, Party of 2, Your table is ready…

Another new year!  We made it through the Christmas Season without nervous breakdowns, which is a Christmas miracle all in itself.  We even made it through New Year’s Eve, for which we happened to be closed this year.  We turned away tons of reservation requests because we were determined to have a New Year’s Eve of our own.  We went to Indianapolis… out to dinner for a very over-priced, mediocre meal and then to a bar where some poor party-hearty soul threw up on the dance floor, and someone else spilled a drink on my gorgeous black velvet dress.  When WE are working, it really looks like everyone else is having a lot of fun, but in reality, I think everyone is just trying too hard. There is a reason we are better off working that night.

Anyway, once New Year’s Eve is over, there’s another big night just around the corner, and the calls start coming is as soon as January 2nd.  (The calls are coming in right now, and I don’t even have the reservation sheets done yet… I’m just toting all the messages around in The Vault on little pieces of scrap paper.) It’s a night with expectations just as high, if not higher, than New Year’s Eve.  A night where everyone’s romantic dreams come true.  Four syllables that bring hope, anticipation and an excuse to buy a new outfit for women everywhere while simultaneously causing an ulcer to form in the bellies of restaurant folk around the world.

Valentine’s Day.

It’s always interesting to me that one member of a couple is always on the spot on Valentine’s Day while the other one just gets to wait and see if they’ll get it right.  How does this get decided for each couple?  In many couples, it’s the husband, but in other couples, especially same-sex couples (whom I am proud to say feel every bit as comfortable celebrating their love in our restaurant as anyone else,) you just don’t know who will bear the burden of doing St. Valentine proud.  Much like Christmas time when we watch employees opening bonus envelopes, on Valentine’s Day we see the expectation in someone’s eyes when she (or he) is opening a tiny box that has been slipped under her (or his) napkin, and sometimes the thinly veiled disappointment when it’s just not something they would want.

(By the way, here’s a hint from me to you… stay away from heart-shaped jewelry of any sort, no matter how expensive, resist any impulse buys at the check-out lane at the drugstore…. and back away…far away… from any heart-shaped boxes bearing the name “Russell Stover.”   Even Russell’s wife does not want those waxy chocolates. )

The phone rings in the month of February like no other month, just because of the sheer volume of reservations.  Think about it… if on any given normal night, we do 100 guests, that might break down into 15 four tops, 10 two-tops (deuces, as we call them,) maybe 2 sixes, and an eight.  Twenty-eight tables total.  And of those twenty-eight tables, maybe four of them will be celebrating a “special occasion.” On Valentine’s Day, we will do 200 guests, and almost all of them will be a table of two.

One hundred tables total.  And every single one of them is celebrating a “special occasion.”

No pressure.

I sit and obsess over the reservation sheets for hours in the week prior to the big day.  For sure the 5:30 resos (as we call them) will be out by 7:00.  For them, Valentine’s Day is a business transaction.  Something to check off their to-do lists.  Ten minutes to turn (clear and re-set) those tables means we can start re-booking them at 7:00.  The real romantics come at 7:00 (even if it falls on a weeknight… they will stay for two hours, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes over coffee, but I’ll still have their table back by 9:00 for the third turn.  And just when I think I’ve got it all worked out, the phone rings: “We just realized a friend of ours will be alone tonight… can I add one person to our reservation?”  If I can, I move them to a larger table, but this changes everything, not just their table, but the turns of that table as well.   I squeeze in every call I can, but I’ll be honest… I’m also keeping a few tables up my sleeve, in case a reservation was lost (remember those little scraps of paper I was telling you about?) or a very regular customer calls me on the 13th, penitent and begging for me to save his butt.  Of course I can.

It is almost impossible for me not to laugh into the phone at the poor, clueless souls who call at 4:30 on Valentine’s Day… “Um, yeah, I’m gonna need a table for two tonight, around 7, or 7:30 would be okay too…”  I don’t often use the word “dude”, but now I want to, as in “Dude… seriously??”   Those tables have been booked for a month now. They are outright scandalized when I tell them that I really don’t have ANY tables left at all, but I guess I could try and squeeze them in at 9:45.  Dead silence… it’s sinking in.  I wait for the inevitable question:  “So for SURE you don’t have anything at 7:00?”  Yes, I’m quite sure.   Now comes denial, coupled with the certain doom of the doghouse he is about to find himself in…  “Well, can we come in at 7:00 and just see if something opens up?”   He is hoping against all hope, but I cannot give him hope where none exists.  “Even if we have tables that don’t show up, there is very little chance that we will have anything before 9:45 or 10:00.  We are literally booked solid.  I’m so sorry.”  And I really AM sorry.  I know what that guy’s in for.  But, seriously dude, it’s Valentine’s Day! Put a reminder in your phone for next year to call on February 1st, and then RUN to the florist and pray they have some roses left… you’re going to need them.

Whether or not you fully embrace the spirit of Valentine’s Day or just feel resentful that Hallmark and the media will make you look bad if you do nothing, my caveat to you is the same… start thinking about it NOW.  Even if you think it’s a load of hooey, there’s nothing  wrong with choosing one day every year to tell your beloved how much they mean to you.  Yes, my life would be easier if it were spread out over the course of a year, but that’s okay.  I’ll be ready.   And when I get home that night, KJG will invariably have two dozen, multi-colored roses waiting for me… my favorite… as she has every year for the past fourteen years.  Some years they die in two days and one year we found them frozen to the front steps when we got home at 11:00, but regardless, the sentiment is there and the thought means a lot to me.

As I finish this, I have also assembled the reservation sheets for the week of February 14th… sheets with sooo many more time slots than usual.  I am ready.  Now, where did I put all those little scraps of paper…

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Merry Christmas Indeed

Well, hello.

Remember me?  It’s been a while… but don’t worry… I have a note excusing my absence.  The note consists of two words:  Christmas Season.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… Trixie, that’s no excuse.  We’re all busy in the Christmas Season.  Well, I won’t dispute that, but the Christmas Season takes on a whole new level of busy for those of us in the hospitality industry.  (And those of you who work in retail can stop reading right now, because I’m sure you’re going to shake your heads and wonder why I think I have anything to whine about.)

The Christmas Season sneaks up on me like a cat stalking its own tail.  Every year, I know it’s coming, and I do everything I can to be ready.  Come November, just when I’m starting to feel recuperated from the madness of the summer season, the phone rings.  “I’m just inquiring about a party of 40 on Friday, (insert date of the second Friday in December.)  We need a private room.”  This is my cue that I need to get crackin’… I call all of our previous years’ customers to make sure they have the date they need.   I start organizing files of tentative inquiries, definite bookings, previous years’ menus, contracts signed, contracts to be written… My black calendar (“The Vault” as we call it) swells with white pieces of paper that represent a great deal of money for our business.  I try not to double-book the private room.

As the month of December approaches, my life seems to move in fast forward.  I’m on the phone constantly trying to nail down menus and party details.  Will the owner’s speech come before we serve salads or after dessert?  How many pieces of shrimp per person?  Any vegetarians in the group?  Centerpieces? Open bar? Games after dinner?  And just when I think I’ve got it all nailed down, another call… “I know it’s late, but do you happen to have a room available for a group of 30 any Friday or Saturday in December?”

We brace ourselves for the onslaught, and warn any new employees that they are going to experience a whole new level of “tired” that they never thought possible.   In the midst of this, we must decorate the restaurant (and our own house) for Christmas, do our own Christmas shopping, bake some cookies, and try to capture even a tiny bit of Christmas spirit for ourselves.   Some years, that’s trickier than others.  I have a very vivid memory of a Christmas season in the days when we were running the Inn when it all became a little too much for me, and KJG came home to find me lying on the floor, sobbing.  I cried every bit of Christmas stress out and then pasted my smile back on for the next night’s party.

That’s the thing about the Christmas season in a restaurant… it’s not enough to just be there… you really have to personify the Christmas spirit.  This party is the culmination of these people’s entire year of hard work, and it’s important to them.  You can’t just fake a smile for them… you have to exude Christmas Cheer.

You are also privy to the inside workings of each company’s philosophies on employee relations.   You see the looks on the employees’ faces as they surreptitiously peek into the sealed envelopes that contain their bonuses.   Some are delighted, some disappointed.  You cannot help but overhear the speeches that the bosses make.   Some are not so eloquent… I once heard a company owner explain to his staff that while he understood their need to celebrate the holiday, he himself did not believe in God.  He then proceeded to tell them a very long, drawn-out story of a Christmas from his childhood when he desperately wished for a red Radio Flyer sled.  I stayed in the room to hear what I hoped, for the sake of his poor employees, would be a happy ending to his story.   No such luck.  The moral of his story was that he did not get his sled and his employees weren’t getting any bonuses.   Merry Christmas indeed.

Most, however, take the opportunity to tell their employees the things they should probably say more often throughout the year.  How much their hard work and dedication is valued.  How much they have contributed to the success of the company.  Some bosses and owners, overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation for their staffs, cry as they try to express their feelings.   These are the parties that make me feel good about what we do.  We can make it perfect for them, and the employees can go home feeling like their company thinks that they’re special enough to deserve a really great evening out.

Well, it’s December 19th.  Which means that we have four more nights of making someone else’s holiday special before we can take a little time off to celebrate our own.   And for you poor souls in the retail industry (I TOLD you to stop reading!) I guess you still have a few more days after that.  Many of those crazed Christmas Eve shoppers are probably restaurant workers, so have pity on them if you can.

And so, let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, et al.   Take a break from the stress of the holiday season and find a moment to count your blessings.   They are there.  Now I’m going to go frost my cookies while I can… we have a party tonight.

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Troubles From the Nuthouse

Employees.

There is no way to run a business of any size without them. They are the reason we lose sleep at night, but they are also the reason that we are able to enjoy Thanksgiving week in Puerto Rico while The Restaurant chugs away without us. Drinks may or may not be served in a timely manner. The ideal wine recommendation may or may not be made. Steaks may or may not be cooked to the perfect temperature. But here we sit, seaside, sipping a frozen mojito. And right now we may or may not care. (More mojitos, please…)

We run The Restaurant with a very small staff. A dedicated little band of foodies, several of whom have worked for us for ten years or more. We are not easy to work for and we know it. Those who stay the course buy into our passion for what we do. Many have come and gone before them, and their ghosts linger in stories told over after-shift cocktails, legendary in their ineptitude. What we have learned over the years is that the common sense gene does not get passed down to every generation, and applicants can be really good bluffers.

I ran restaurants in Chicago for many years. Over the course of those years I encountered unbelievable examples of the missing common sense gene. I have told these stories many times over the years… sometimes people believe me, sometimes they think I’m making them up. I assure you I am not that creative.

Scene: A busy Sunday Brunch at a Lincoln Park Bar and Grill. I am in the office getting change for the bar. A server comes into the office and says, “Do we have a toolbox?” I reply, “Please don’t tell me you’re looking for a screwdriver.” Server: “How did you know??”

Scene: A late weekday afternoon at a large, upscale downtown bar. I am in the office doing paperwork between lunch and dinner. A lone bartender, Skip (his real name!) is on duty. On the camera monitor, I see two ladies come in and sit down at the empty bar. I see Skip promptly greet them. I go back to my paperwork. I look up a full ten minutes later to see the two women still sitting with no drinks in front of them and Skip is nowhere to be seen. I race to the bar, greet the women, apologize for the wait, and ask them what they ordered. I make their drinks, a Chardonnay and a Bailey’s and coffee. I then go looking Skip. I find him in the kitchen, rummaging through the spices. He looks at me in total frustration and says, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a bay leaf in this restaurant?”

KJG and I also spent many years running an inn where the dream employees continued to arrive on our doorstep. There was the server who, we realized after several months, had been telling our guests that our signature salad was served with “Islamic vinaigrette.” This was the same guy who attempted to free a stubborn wine cork tableside by putting the bottle between his thighs and pulling and grunting loudly.

Before our time, there was a server who chastised guests if they tried to order a bottle of wine because she didn’t believe in drinking. But my favorite of all time is the server who had been instructed to present complimentary after-dinner chocolate truffles to her guests from the local candy store called the Nut Shoppe.

“Troubles from the Nut House, compliments of the Chef.”

Another mojito, please…

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