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.


JACKIE said...

I'm not sure what to say. But even though there was an age range at the all bakery from the high school generation to way past post grad; we were still part of the do your best because you can. Because you CAN.

A decade or more of Walmart's just good enough to sell and the Shrub's just good enough to get elected have really taken their toll. And that is so freakin' sad.

emmapeelDallas said...

I agree with Jackie. We come from a time when most of us had a good work ethic. Now it seems to be a minority have that, rather than the majority.