Monday, August 24, 2009


Seventeen years ago, I was in the heyday of my management stint with “Little Bakery on the Mall”—the position I’ve historically referred to as “My Dream Job.” I had a top notch crew of ladies working for me, whom I thought I appropriately appreciated. Knowing what I know now, I realize I took them way too much for granted.

As a manager working for someone else, back in the olden days, I had two guiding philosophies. First off, I had once been told that MY job was to “train myself out of a job,” and I took that advice and ran with it. Secondly—and this is really a corollary of the first—I was determined that the bakery could and would run exactly the same whether I was physically present or not. I had zero tolerance for the theory that playtime began as soon as the boss left the building.

I was never afraid to pile as much responsibility on any employee as she was willing to take on. And training was a priority—every one of those ladies knew exactly what to do and how I wanted it done…and they did it. Whether I was there or not. Our cash control was the stuff of legend (other managers in the company joked that I had a “slush fund” from which I drew money to make up for cash shortages.) The bakery was immaculate. Our business grew. We won prizes. I made good money. It was my first taste of real success in any job (I was 37 years old and had been working since I was 18…) And I thought I had it all figured out. Foolishly, I thought that somehow I was at least marginally responsible for the triumphs of our little store.

Nearly twenty years later, I own my own restaurant…and I find that the zen I had achieved with my past crew looks more like the impossible dream than a bullet point in my resume. Cash control sucks, the place is only adequately clean, business is static, and we aren’t winning any prizes. And I don’t take home a dime. It’s become painfully obvious that the success of “Little Bakery on the Mall” was more about the unique attributes of the ladies I had working for me, than anything I knew or did.

I continue to be vexed with staffing problems. Certainly, it was a challenge to keep the restaurant functioning while I learned the ropes, weeded out the awful staff I’d bought with the place, and attempted to train new people to do what I was still learning. THAT was a nightmare that took fully two years to abate. One would think that, by now, we would have turned some kind of corner, put past nightmares behind us, and started moving forward with a vengeance. Ummm…not so much.

Instead, I’ve acquired a core of four or five ladies who emerged as the cream of the crop. I don’t mean to disrespect them and their contribution to my survival and the continuing operation of the café (on a higher level than it had enjoyed previously.) But I knew early on that I’d had to drastically change my standards in order to have any staff. I hired (and re-hired) people I would never have given a second look in the past. I’ve steadfastly focused on the positive points of all of these ladies, while down-playing or even blatantly ignoring their negatives. I have had to choose my battles, and very probably chose not to do battle on several fields upon which I should have drawn a line. There was no other way to keep the doors open, never mind making appreciable forward progress.

Once upon a time, I was able to fine tune an employee’s performance to a “t,” without micro-managing and without making that person feel like I wanted her to be a clone of myself. Through a series of gentle nudges, kind of like a sheepdog, I could get the result I wanted without taking away a person’s feeling of autonomy. But no more. Things are different now. I’ve come to resist the urge to tell people what to do. New employees want to be hired on, get a general idea of the position, and then build their duties around their (sometimes erroneous) perception of what the job entails. Any kind of fine tuning or urging to a higher level of performance is met with a level of negativity with which I have chosen not to do battle. If my choice was between a peaceful workplace staffed with mediocre employees, and a cesspool of resentment, pouting, tattle-taling and finger-pointing, I selected the former, strictly for my own sanity.

As a result, I’m saddled with a group of employees who are steadfast and even smug in their bad habits. I have closing staff who truly believe that Job One is to lock the doors and race out of there as if the place were on fire…to that end, they begin “pre-close” in the middle of dinner service, sometimes even earlier. I have cooks who prep enough to cover their own butts, but don’t invest much energy into considering what the next shift will be walking into. A restaurant full of customers, rather than presenting an opportunity for the staff to give it all they’ve got and really shine, is more an excuse to take short-cuts and walk out the door leaving work undone “because it was busy.” Worst of all, I have a stable of workers who loathe being told what to do, but will not step up and take any kind of initiative to improve or advance their job performance. They achieve a comfort level and they stay there. Period.

For my part, I know I have not exactly been a paragon of hospitality management. I’ve been frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted and menopausal—not a good cocktail for bringing out the nobler aspects of any woman’s personality. Leading by example has always been my strategy…but if this staff had always followed my lead, we all would have gone straight to hell. So I can hardly blame them for choosing their own paths to what they’ve considered success in the job.

But now, we truly ARE at a crossroads. I’ve taken steps (that I didn’t realize I was taking at the time) to transform our little café from “okay” to “special.” I realize my staff—the girls upon whom I have depended heavily for many months—lean way more toward “okay” than “special.” There is not one of the old employees who has not made it clear to me that her priorities lie elsewhere. Their attitudes and level of commitment have been and would continue to be adequate to keeping the restaurant going along okay. But they will not make it “special.” And on some level, I believe they understand that.

Which is not to say that the transition is going to be painless.

There is more to say about this…I’ll post again later.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Score One For The Old Ladies

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced at my restaurant has been staffing. It has taken three years, but we seem to have cobbled together a crew that mostly does the job and works well together. There are unique challenges associated with working at the Old Town Café—not the least of which is that any member of my crew has to be able to work elbow to elbow with me. Even after my most recent acquisitions of a chef/kitchen manager and a baker, I invest more hours than anyone else associated with the café into just…filling positions. Any and all positions. I am the ultimate cross-trained employee, and I find that I have to make use of my own services—STILL—more than I like.

Conversely, it has been more of a challenge than I have wanted to acknowledge for me to work so closely with…children. I can’t decide whether being childless myself has made it easier or harder for me to work with these young people less than half my age. On the one hand, I don’t have as much problem seeing them as adults as I might have if I’d raised a brood of my own—that were now approximately the same age as the people I depend upon to keep my restaurant functioning. It might be a little tougher for me to heap adult responsibilities upon these young shoulders if I was seeing them through a mother’s eyes…

On the other hand, I wonder if I don’t expect too much from them. They are, after all, still kids…I was one, once, too…back when dinosaurs walked the earth. I dimly remember having friends, going to parties, having a social life…and all the angst that went with it. I showed up to work drunk—ONCE. (I was nineteen…in fact, it was my nineteenth birthday.) I might have called in sick one or two times when I wasn’t really sick. I goofed off just often enough to prove I was a bona-fide, card-carrying KID. So I try to give my staff some leeway in that regard…

Still, it was more my habit to drag myself to work no matter how sick I was, even at the tender age of nineteen or twenty. The job needed ME, I needed the money, and work was a priority. That was handed down to me by my parents. These children who work for me now…they are a completely different breed of animal, and I have a really hard time identifying and accepting their priorities. Social life IS their number one—they engage in it and tend to it 24-7-365. Technology gives them the capacity to be in uninterrupted communication with their friends. Work, school, adult responsibilities—seem to be mostly unpleasant interruptions of their social connections.

I find it impossible to relate to that…and so, I feel uncomfortably distant from these children who work for me. And it’s hard, really. Damned hard to work so closely every day with a group of people with whom you share…nothing.

All this became a lot clearer to me this past Saturday. We were BUSY at the café, and understaffed, because half the socially-hyperactive twenty-somethings who make up my crew had requested the weekend off. My kitchen staff consisted of myself and “C.” C is the one employee I have that is of my generation—she is a couple of years younger than me. She had been the cook at the Senior Center until their budget was cut and they had to let her go…she came to me looking for part-time work to hold her over until she could retire in a few more years. So I was a little anxious about how we two “old ladies” in the kitchen might handle things if it got busy. But I had no choice, we WERE what was available.

Of course, we got slammed. We did 30% more business than the previous Saturday, with 25% less staff. Surprise. Never let it be said that customers can’t smell blood in the water…

Our twenty-something counter girls ran their butts off all day, started whining about getting their breaks around noon… One of them even wanted to go home sick, but there was no one else to call to work for her, so she stayed. The front-of-the-house staff was looking pretty ragged by the end of the day.

In the kitchen, the “old ladies”…ROCKED. Neither of us left that kitchen to do more than pee in seven hours. We kept up with the orders. We prepped as we went. We attacked the mess about an hour before close and were able to clean up and get out of there on time.

And we laughed. We enjoyed ourselves. We joked and commiserated; the two ancient, creaky, half-blind, hot-flashing cooks…got it done.

At one point, I leaned over and said, “You know, C, I think I know why I enjoy working with you so much. You’re MY AGE…! I SO enjoy being back here with somebody who GETS ME…”

She looked at me, almost with tears in her eyes, and said, “Well, thank you…!”

At the end of the day, I kicked her butt out of there because she’d worked seven hours without a break (and without even mentioning a break.) I could finish up the last of the cleaning by myself. C took off her apron, signed out and disappeared through the kitchen door.

A second later, she poked her head back into the kitchen, looked at me and said, “Thank you for letting me help you today. It was fun.”

And then it was my turn to blink back the tears…