Saturday, November 1, 2014

Smoking and the Restaurant Biz: Simpatico

For the purpose of imparting the power of cigarette smoke to calm the brain and soothe the nerves to lifetime non-smokers, I take you back to a Sunday morning at Perkin's in Fairmont, Minn., circa 1998.

I'm assigned to the back of the garden room, which is annoying for various reasons. It's hot in there, for one. Like a green house -- an extension of the main building surrounded by windows. The walkway between the tables is super narrow, too, which makes carrying large trays of heavy bread-bowl salads above one's head a perilous act. The memory of dumping a full cup of crimson French dressing all over a sophisticated woman's white jacket is still fresh. And every time I need to run to the kitchen, the waity assigned to the front of the garden room is always standing right in the middle of the walkway taking orders. We're constantly trying to shove around each other, causing my tush to get pushed far too close to guests' faces and meals.

Being a Sunday morning in the heartland, the rush is predictable -- approximately four minutes after church lets out -- but every week it still somehow catches you off-guard. There's no way to fully prepare for 40 hungry people staring directly at you with all the patience of a 5-year-old holding an assembly-required Christmas toy. Plus, nobody wants to sit in the garden room until there are no other options. So while the non-Christian crowd filled up about half of the rest of the restaurant during the earlier hours of the morn', the garden room sat quietly waiting for 9:34, when the hosts would march in table after table, whispering, "Sorry I sat you six times in a row; there was nowhere else to put them!"

Believe it or not, 40 people without food or drink is just the initial spike in stress. Over the next hour ...

* About 20 percent of those 40 will need constant refills; you won't be able to fill their water or pop as fast as they can drink them down. When the glass sits empty, these are generally the kind of people who take that lapse in service very personally.

* Because of the onslaught of tickets, the kitchen will get very pissed at you for double- or triple-ticketing them, which means to put in orders one after another. (They don't care that you were quadruple sat. They just don't.)

* The kitchen will make the pancakes too soon and the rest of the meal way too many minutes later for at least 25 percent of the orders, meaning the cakes will look and taste less than fluffy -- one might venture to say rubbery. Some will be cold. Toast will definitely be cold. (This is why you end up touching a lot of your customers' food with your bare fingers and microwaving these items, rendering them hot once again, but super not fresh.) All of this takes too long for most of your customers, and about 25 percent will give you those pleading looks to just get them their breakfast already every time you walk by.

* When you finally do get them their breakfast already, you just hope that the need for food outweighs the desire for fluffy cakes. For about 5 percent, it does not. They will send back their food items with perfectly acceptable complaints, such as, "My toast is piping hot, but my omelette is cold in the middle," or, "These cakes are hard on top."

* Half of your customers will wolf down their meals, and the other half will take their time and need your continued service. So while you're rushing to get checks printed for the ones who want to leave, the others are sitting there wondering why their fifth Diet Coke has yet to arrive.

On a Sunday morning, this goes on from about 9:30 to 1:30 p.m. (You didn't think Fairmont had just one church with just one church service, did you?) For all that time, you're running. Your brain is spinning. You are under extreme stress and pressure over things that most people would consider quite trivial -- retrieving extra butter, pouring water into a glass, pushing buttons on a computer screen. Combined, needing to do about 25 of those trivial tasks in a five-minute period, this makes for a feeling of absolute helplessness. The PRESSURE ... it's only made worth it by A) shoving your right hand into your apron and feeling the mound of cash tips that have yet to be sorted, and B) knowing that the second you get a three-minute window when your customers might not need you, you can sneak back to the break room and SMOKE.

I tried my first cigarette at age 14 to impress a boy. It was a Marlboro Red and it burned my throat, and it made me so nauseated, I was sure I would puke on my shoes. I didn't. But that desire to fit in was quite strong as a teen, and these were the days before those awful anti-smoking commercials featuring teens pulling skin off their face to pay for a pack of smokes. (Jesus. Effective.) I smoked throughout high school, as did many other kids who worked at Perkin's. The break room, which was about a 4-by-8 space, featured three greasy chairs with overflowing ashtrays in front of each one. (I cannot imagine being a non-smoker and having to eat in that break room.) But when it's crazy busy, you can't just take a three-minute break without somebody walking by and saying, "Get back up there! Help run food! Bus a table!" So during crazy rushes at work, the women's bathroom was my refuge. I sat on the stool, I lit up a cig, and I flicked my ashes into the sink. (Such a lovely image, isn't it?)

I've thought so many times about how to explain what a cigarette does for a smoker in desperate need of lighting up. It's one of the hardest experiences to put to words. The only way I've found to describe it is to say that, for those five minutes, everything in the entire world is OK. The soothing, calming effects of a Marlboro allowed me to handle more Sunday mornings and more Friday and Saturday bar-rush shifts than I care to remember.

I quit smoking many years ago, maybe age 21 or 22. But one night, at age 25, I was at a bar and everyone was smoking, so I decided to have one. Just one. No big deal. I took two puffs and my throat was on fire. It made me so nauseated, I was sure I would puke on my shoes. I didn't. But that awful feeling in my stomach was the absolute best thing that could have happened to me. It turned me off from ever trying a cigarette again.

I've thought about that horrible last experience smoking many a shift at my new restaurant. While smoking has become far less socially acceptable, it is alive and well in the restaurant industry. When I come to work I often pass by kitchen staff and managers out by the dumpsters, soothing their nerves with every puff. Sometimes I wonder, if that last cigarette at age 25 went down more smoothly, if I wouldn't be tempted to join them on occasion, when I've messed up an order or when an elongated rush causes my stress level to spike.

But, with smoking not an option, I'll have to find a new way to cope. Shoving my hand into my apron to feel those tips sure doesn't hurt.