Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where Have All The Workers Gone?

Ah, I remember the "Good Old Days." The days prior to July 1st, 2006, when I was semi-self-employed, and had a life outside the four walls of the Hot Flash Café. Those bygone days where I had time for political zeal and media addiction, so diametrically opposite of my life today. Now, I actively ignore the political scene and any and all "news"—unless there's a nuclear attack or some such disaster. It is all just so much noise, and I have all I can handle within my circumscribed little struggling neophyte-entrepreneur world.

Of course, some stuff filters down to me, anyway; right past the fingers in my ears and "La-la-la" chanting from my lips. Current events that should or do effect my daily existence—the health care fiasco, the tanking of the economy, rising joblessness—wave their arms and point at themselves no matter how much I'd like to ignore them.

It's odd, though, how the things that should be negatively affecting the Hot Flash Cafe are not, so much…and the things that should be cutting us a bit of a break are…not so much, either. We've come out of the tanking economy smelling like a rose, at least for now. Though I'm not naïve enough to declare us forever unscathed by the evil economic goings on, I have to say I'm happy enough, and grateful enough, that we are where we are.

But then, there's Unemployment. This whole issue has me utterly flummoxed. Traditionally, high unemployment has been a good thing for businesses like mine, down here in the bottom layers of the economic strata. Even though the pay and the benefits routinely suck in the hospitality industry, when there are no other jobs to be had, we generally get our pick of the litter when it comes to job applicants. In past incarnations of economic hard times, I have assembled some of my best crews out of stacks of applications submitted by over-qualified people who were happy to get any job, and held on to it for dear life once they got one.

Since the first of this year, I have lost two cooks, most of the services of Good and Faithful "D," and had California Chef out sick for two weeks. I've suffered through my worst staffing nightmare ever, when I had to call the husband away from his REAL job so that I could open the doors of the restaurant. Sales have been up and I have been exhausted and desperate for help. What happened to those stacks of over-qualified applicants that the "employers' job market" is supposed to be sending me?

Round One: Place Ad on Craig's list. Decent response, about twelve acceptable applications. Invite twelve applicants for interviews. Eight applicants accept interview. Five show up. Hire one inexperienced Culinary School Student. He works six weeks then quits when his wife lands a better job. Call back another young inexperienced applicant, hire her as a dishwasher. Two days ago, she asked me if it was okay if she used us as a reference for the new job to which she has applied.

Round Two: Upon discovering that relief Breakfast Cook will not be returning after her hand surgery, place an ad for breakfast cook on Craig's list. Five responses, all from obviously unqualified folks responding to ads just to perform the required "job search" to keep their unemployment benefits. No interviews scheduled.

Round Three: Post another ad on Craig's list, this time avoiding any mention of "breakfast cook" (evidently the young folks out there who DO want to work as restaurant cooks are not interested in getting out of bed before noon…) Seven or eight decent responses. Schedule five interviews. Two show up, one after chasing him around and playing "Let's Make a Deal" with the interview time for two weeks. Hire both these folks. One—Ms. California Chef—is a nice girl with loads of credentials who has been with us for one week and I desperately hope I can hang on to. Monty Hall, however, works three days, then calls in the middle of the lunch rush and quits.

In between ads, I interview and hire two "walk-in" applicants. One has turned out to be a godsend and truly helped bail my butt out of the "California Chef Pneumonia" episode. The other quit after one shift (I should have known better than to give her a uniform shirt on her first day…evidently, that is the kiss of death. I'll never see it or her again.)

Final Score: Since January 1, I have hired seven, retained two beyond their sixty day probation, and am clinging to a third for dear life. So what has happened to the "High Unemployment" windfall I'm supposed to be enjoying?

Talk about the Good Old Days! Fifteen or twenty years ago, people still nurtured an element of pride about working to earn a living and not accepting "charity," or entitlements, unless the wolf was literally pounding down their door. They were willing to accept good, honest (if unglamorous) work, without benefits or a long list of perks, if that was what there was. But in today's market, it's all about weighing how hard you might have to work to earn an honest dollar against how much you can get for sitting on your dead ass. What is the motivation for someone who is getting, say, three hundred dollars a week on Unemployment to give that up and work for me for four hundred dollars a week? My personal work ethic and sense of pride would point me toward the work. But younger workers who have grown up with the realities of today's job market just don't look at life the same way I do. It's every man for himself, put out as little effort as you can for the highest possible compensation. And some jobs—like (ew…) food service work—don't even appear on their radar screens. (And you wonder why there are so many illegals working at restaurants? But that's a rant for a different day…)

I find my experience of the system sometimes at odds with my politics. Yes, I believe that the government should be responsible for helping those in need. I believe in programs that many in today's political arena are labeling "socialist" or "entitlements." People who lost their jobs due to the economic breakdown caused by the Administration from Hell should be given a hand. They need a roof over their heads and food on the table. But something is wrong with the system when there are small businesses like mine dying for help, yet everyone—from economic analysts to the guy next door who lost his job at the mill but keeps getting his unemployment benefits extended—looks right over our heads and cries, "Woe is us, there are no jobs!"

Oh, yes. There are jobs. They are just jobs that nobody wants. So those of us small business owners who didn't get killed by the tanking economy just might, in the end, work ourselves to an early grave. Pleasant thought, no?


Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Long Rant (Worth Reading If You Think You Want to Own a Restaurant)

Despite "random factors operating in our favor" for the past five months, I am daily smacked upside the head by the peculiar challenges of operating a small independent restaurant just a few miles in the wrong direction from the Big City.

The Hot Flash Cafe has been "fired" as a customer by a bread company, a wine distributor, and, most recently, the guys that came out once a month to clean our grease trap. Each time, it's been the culmination of a months-long struggle to obtain some kind of reasonable level of customer service from the company in question. And each time, in the end, it was made abundantly clear to us that our measly little off-the-beaten-track account was not worth the bother/expense/effort to maintain it. So we were invited to go scratch.

The ongoing saga of my relationship with our grocery purveyors has basically ended in a standoff. We deal with the "Big Two:" Sysco and FSA (Food Services of America.) I inherited an account with FSA when we bought the cafe in 2006. Much of the menu had been built around products exclusive to FSA, and since this particular aspect of our new enterprise was not broken (yet), I did not attempt to fix it. I was given to understand, at the time, that part of FSA's mission was to be "small, local business-friendly." And indeed, they seemed to be—at first.

As time went on, that friendliness disintegrated. They began to outright refuse to split cases of some products, and jacked up the price of "onlies" on the ones they would split. For example, if I wanted black olives, I was going to have to purchase a case of them (that would be SIX #10 cans, probably at least a two month's supply at my rate of consumption.) Not only is it not "cost effective" for ME to purchase that much product in advance, but in my little café, storage space is at a premium. I have nowhere to KEEP 6 huge cans of olives for two months. On the items that they would condescend to continue splitting cases, I would now have to pay almost double the price per can. Can you say, "No way in hell?"

After about eighteen months of this chipping away of adequate service, I was assigned a new sales rep that I disliked on sight, and who turned out to actually be a slimy, dishonest jerk. So I started shopping for other options, and turned to Sysco.

The least of my expectations of Sysco was that, being a much larger company than FSA, they would have the buying power to blow FSA's pricing out of the water. I reasoned that if I had to suffer with a slightly lower level of individual customer attention, I could live with that. I was actually rubbing my hands together at the prospect of some really rosy food-cost numbers coming out of my disenchantment with FSA.

I learned quickly that my assumptions were utterly erroneous. When the Sysco rep called on me, I handed him my FSA invoices and said, "Show me your pricing on these or comparable items." He flatly refused to indulge me, saying, "You know, I've spent hours doing this for prospective accounts only to have them decide not to purchase from me. So I really just don't do that anymore." SAY WHAT? I don't know why I didn't run screaming from the relationship then and there.

When I finally did cajole the guy into showing me his pricing on at least a small list of items I used every day, it became obvious that Sysco would be no bargain. They undersold FSA on some things, way over-priced them on others. And then there was the challenge of trying to find comparables in the Sysco inventory of all those things upon which my menu was based. Some of my most popular items—like certain salad dressings—were exclusive to my old purveyor and could not be had from Sysco at any price.

Some of the items I had been purchasing from FSA had been "confined" by Sysco (which means that some large account had stipulated that an item be sold to them exclusively), so while Sysco carried the item, it was unavailable to me. There was a concept I had never come across before. It's not enough that my location severely limits my choices of who I can purchase from. Now I find that, while the companies that do deliver out here are the largest in the region, there is a long list of items they carry that I CANNOT BUY.

One begins to wonder why the deck is so obviously stacked against small operators like myself; and where the folks who live in small towns—without large enough population bases to attract the large chains with whom the purveyors prefer to do business—are supposed to eat.

But—back to my own personal saga of huge purveyor vs huge purveyor. As it turned out, dealing with Sysco was simply "same crap, different day" as compared to FSA. But because I was righteously put out with FSA, I bit the bullet and jumped to Sysco. I struggled for over a year to match some of the items I had purchased from the other guys. Some things I never did find, so I had to change my menu to reflect the items that were available to me now. The Sysco rep turned out to be no bargain, either. I'm constantly having to drag information out of him that he is either unprepared or unwilling to provide. And yet he can't understand why I won't do more business with him.

After a year of constant hassling with Sysco, I finally realized I was never going to get the kind of service I expected/desired from them, so I called back FSA. I had my new sales rep (turns out my indictment of the old sales rep was instrumental in his eventual dismissal) prep a price list for me, and I contented myself with the fact that at least I would be able to go back to receiving some of the "exclusive" grocery items I never could replace with Sysco products.

About the same time, the economy tanked. Both Sysco and FSA, losing accounts by the fistfuls, sent the sales reps out into the field charged to aggressively acquire any and all business left out there. Suddenly, it seemed as if both the Big Two not only remembered who I was, but they were actively interested in acquiring my account. Sales reps and supervisors and managers and the company dog all went out of their way to contact me personally and assure me they would do anything to get our business.

I took them at their word…for about five minutes. Until it became obvious that "anything" did not include discontinuing their policies of refusing to split cases or applying usury up-charges for condescending to do so. Nor would they loosen up the large chains' hold on the best selection of items. And they would continue to scoff at becoming competitive (price-wise) with the "cash and carry" chains where I do most of my purchasing. (And yet they would act confused as to why I would choose to go and purchase an item, rather than have it delivered for three or four times the cost…?!)

So, yeah…I've had it with them. I have tried to be an empathetic consumer. After all, I run a business, too, and I appreciate it when my customers don't ask me to jump through hoops that lose me money. So my own personal policy has been to make every attempt to meet my purveyors halfway. Unfortunately, this resulted in me doing all the giving in and them doing all the taking advantage. Not a reciprocal arrangement at all…after all, who was I—this dinky little small-town café—to expect them to take a hit to their profit margin just to make it easier for me to do business with them?

Ultimately, I've decided to structure my purchasing to fit MY needs. If it's all about business models and profit margins and every man for himself, then I can play that game, too. I've distilled the list of products I can afford to purchase from the delivery companies to about a third of the total items we use. I order from BOTH Sysco and FSA, so I can have access to the products I always preferred from FSA, and to some of the newer products I began purchasing when I switched to Sysco. Now, I take advantage of having a CHOICE between two grocery houses; I can order any given item from whichever place offers me the best quality or price, and not be forced to settle for an "acceptable substitute."

Nobody is happy with this arrangement, least of all the grocery companies. It galls them that I can, and will, order the minimum it takes to get them to make a delivery. And I generally order only the items with the lowest margin. So they aren't making a whole lot of money on me. And because of the (inequitable) way their compensation is structured, my sales reps probably aren't making any money at all on my account. Too bad. It seems to me that what they're getting (nothing) is adequate compensation for the effort they are putting into making me a satisfied customer (none.)

Ah, yes, it has been quite an education—this owning a restaurant in a small town. Sometimes I'm glad that I really had no idea what I was doing when I went into it. Because it has turned out to be nothing even approaching anything I could have imagined.

And yet…we survive.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Credit Where Credit is Due

With California Chef out sick (still, the poor boy!), I've re-donned the mantle of chief cook (& bottle washer) at the Hot Flash Café. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between have all been up to me.

And I have to say, though I am a much more accomplished cook than I was even a year ago, I'm still a reluctant jill-of-all-trades. I don't WANT to be my cook. The stuff I can do is not where I want this restaurant to be. That's why I hired a chef. California Chef has taught me a lot, and I'm more than willing to learn (the day I think I know everything there is to know is the day I turn up my toes and breathe my last…) Unfortunately, I've not been able to take too much advantage of the opportunity to attach myself to his elbow and absorb all he can teach me. Rather, I've tried to turn the kitchen over to him, take off the apron and do the things an owner needs to do.

I have tried to prod California Chef to work on new menu items. With limited success, I might add. He's been on board since August, and we still basically have in place the same breakfast, lunch and dinner menus we've always had. Though this is disappointing, because we are not really reaching for that "next level" he was hired to take us to, we have not been wasting his time. We've been busy making changes to the preparation of our existing menu, doing a lot more making from scratch. We have made our "same old" food sing a whole new tune.

Even though we aren't where I had wanted us to be, menu-wise, I've been singing California Chef's praises to anyone who will listen. It's been partly advertising campaign, partly giving credit where credit is due. The kid is bright and talented, and I'm happy to have him on board. But up 'til these past few weeks, I hadn't realized how much I'd actually come to depend on him. And how much of a creative back-seat I had taken to him. I had basically forgotten how much of our existing menu was fruit of my own heart.

So when a guest came up to the counter the other night and asked whether our menu had been assembled by our new chef, I sheepishly said, "Well, we've been trying to come up with a new menu ever since last summer, but we keep getting sidetracked…" And the man said, "Oh. Well, whatever you do, don't get rid of that Italiano sandwich (the first of my personal concoctions to make it to the regular menu.) That one's a real winner."

Imagine that.

Maybe I really do have some talent after all.

I smiled all the way down to my toes.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

(He's) Sick and (I'm) Tired

I'm still trying to figure out what people don't get about the health care crisis in America. I heard somewhere that, since "most people" have their health insurance paid for by their employers, the general population just doesn't connect with the cost. Huh?

I've worked for a living since I was eighteen. That would be thirty-three years—up until we bought the restaurant in 2006. Three decades of mostly full-time employment. Mostly in food service. And out of that whole time, I got employer-paid health insurance maybe six or seven years. That's right, folks—the restaurant industry has always sucked at providing health insurance for its employees. (And there's a reason for that—restaurants function on notoriously tight margins. The dining-out public would not pay what a meal would cost if the operators had to absorb the cost of health insurance for the employees. Especially now. Imagine a Big Mac costing ten bucks…that's what it would be, if Ronny Mac's was going to buy health insurance for all their workers. Honestly, if the Hot Flash Cafe were forced to provide a health plan for our employees, we would have to close our doors. The money just isn't there. But that's a rant for a different day…) To get back to my point: I know I'm not the only member of the voting public who has had to worry about health insurance--and sometimes go without--for most of my working life. So, believe me when I say there are legions out there who get that we're in a world of hurt here when it comes to health care and insurance costs.

Still, through the magic of payroll deductions, many folks have no idea exactly how much of their paychecks are eaten up by health insurance costs. People never see that money, so they don't miss it. They probably even blame their shrinking take-home pay on taxes. Blame it on the government--that's the easier target. And certainly nobody on the insurance companies' side of the health care debate is inclined to point out that error.

My husband has $144 per week, per week, taken out of his check to cover health insurance for himself and for me. No family coverage, no kids dragging us to urgent care once a month. Just him and me. That's almost 9% of his earnings going out of his check—before he ever sees it. Oh, and by the way—that $144 is the highest number on the list of deductions from his check. Federal Income Tax is only $131. So his insurance deduction is higher than his tax rate. We joke sometimes—though it's not funny, really—that thirty years ago, he was earning less than a quarter of what he makes now, but he had better insurance (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) and it was free.

But, honestly…even if you haven't noticed the meteoric rise in the cost of health care, how can you fail to see the precipitous decline in the quality of health care? Let's say, through some miracle, you DO get in to a hospital or clinic. The chances that you are actually going to see a DOCTOR are almost negligible. There are nurse practitioners, and physician's assistants and licensed this-and-thats… but where are the doctors?

California Chef (my kitchen manager and right-hand man) has been sick for two weeks. He first called in last Tuesday to tell me he was too sick to come to work. He came back on Thursday, worked three hours and had to go home. I knew by the look and sound of him that he was really sick. My diagnosis was pneumonia—I had my own little encounter with that nasty bug ten years ago. He looked exactly how I remember feeling during that miserable bout. I told him to go home and get himself to a doctor.

Well, he took my advice…went to a clinic. Don't know if the person he saw actually WAS a doctor, but that person told him he had an intestinal virus and "mild bronchitis." Sent him home with a pat on the head and no meds. Five days later, chef is trying to come back to work, because the medical professionals have, after all, told him that he was on the mend… And by god, by the end of his shift last night, the poor kid can't breathe and he looks like crap. So he calls me on the phone at 7:30 this morning and says he was running a fever again last night, so he's going back to the clinic before he comes to work. He thinks he might be a little late for his shift…will that be okay? Two hours later I call him to find out what's up, and he says they have just told him he has double pneumonia, they are giving him some whopping antibiotics, and he shouldn't come back to work for at least five days. Well, DUH!!! If I could get my hands on that first dipshit who told him he had "mild bronchitis," I'd show that idiot some shortness of breath…with my hands around his throat.

Ten years ago, all A DOCTOR had to do was listen to my chest to figure out I had pneumonia. It wasn't tough…it just took someone with the education and the training to interpret what she was hearing through the stethoscope. I really want to know what kind of under-qualified bedpan-pusher couldn't even recognize pneumonia when they heard it in California Chef's lungs. And are the un- and under-insured the most likely beneficiaries of such excellent, highly skilled practitioners? Or are we all paying more and more for less and less?

So when "they" tell me that the general voting public of this country doesn't understand that there is something very broken about health care in the United States of America, I can't help but believe that "they" are full of crap. I'll wager there is not a soul out there who has had anything to do with medical treatment—or the lack thereof—in the past ten years, who doesn't know that we're in deep, deep trouble. I hope we don't have to wait until the system is so fouled up that nobody can get decent treatment, not for any price (though I'm afraid we may already be there) before something shakes loose and REAL reform comes to pass.

On second thought, who needs reform? I'd settle for things going back to where they were thirty years ago…

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Alone Again...Naturally

Three years and nine months. That’s how long it took.

Before my crew deteriorated to such a serious state of meltdown that I had to call my husband and beg him to leave work (the work that pays our bills, which is more than can be said for the Hot Flash Café) and come to the restaurant and bail my ass out of trouble. Because no one…NO ONE else would work.

Out of a crew of ten, there was only one other hearty soul ready and/or willing to run that restaurant with me today.

Even in the bad old days—those days when the people I bought with the restaurant and those I hired in ill-advised desperation nearly drove me to distraction with their dramas, no-shows, hospital emergencies and hangovers—I was never faced with the prospect of opening the restaurant too understaffed to function. Today, I had a crew of me…and a cashier who has worked for me for less than two months. And a party of 15 scheduled for lunch.

Was it just the perfect storm? Chef sick, morning counter girl in Hawaii, relief cook out indefinitely with surgery that didn’t take. Everyone else with appointments and classes and anything at all that wasn’t work. A one-in-a-million convergence of unlikely forces pulling everyone away from the restaurant at once.


But really. In almost four years, one would think that I could have at the very least accomplished assembling a staff of which I was not the main and too often the only functional component.

Tonight I just feel like a colossal failure.