Oct 062010

It’s time for  a state of the industry piece,  but since things still haven’t changed much since the last  status update,  let’s talk about what’s happening in kitchens rather than what’s happening to them. The changes in the industry don’t involve restaurants as much as the people who work for them.  Ambition,  slow turnover, occasional desperation  and a tight field of competition are creating nasty situations where you would not expect them. There’s more skulduggery afoot in the kitchens of America  than Cap’n Jack could have managed in a lifetime. The extended job bank/labor pool mismatch is changing  people or at least showing them for what they are.

Employees wanting more sooner than the slow pace of advancement allows – “The chef’s’ going nowhere” –  suddenly discover not only that they can be Machiavellian,  but that they are awfully good at it. Some have studied it on reality shows and as young entrants into the culinary world, they play shoot-down-the-supervisor with the same spirit as their parents played Trivial Pursuit. They generally win.

Ruby reports being kicked out of a position when a recent hire with aspirations for her slot took a comment out of context straight to the top. Once having positioned herself as a victim, the  young woman  is assured special consideration for an early promotion. Knowing Ruby extremely well, I know that the comment ascribed to her is not possible. Having met the young woman and water carrier, I know that the political attack of the summit is absolutely within her ability. She’ll go far.

Mike finally left the job where he was written up by HR for “pulling a (Swiss Army)  knife” on a Union subordinate  (He was going to use it to uncork a bottle of wine). The subordinate and two of his colleagues went straight to HR and reported the attack. Mike, bless him, went in swinging when they called him:  “If I were going to pull a knife on anyone, I had a lot better equipment at hand.” Mike also said it was reckless defamation, asked if he needed an attorney and  who had complained. “They have a right to be anonymous”,  replied HR. The case died in HR the moment he pushed back. Unfortunately, Mike now had a crew knew they could win at “get the new guy”, and life was not good. He’s catering for the moment.

Jane  was terminated within 24 hours of  speaking her mind to a “friend” in the privacy of her office about a supervisor. Jane thinks that someone was listening at the door.  I suspect there was no eavesdropping. The person she shared her opinion with curried favor by sharing it with management.  Either way, nobody gets an Eagle Scout badge for noble behavior – even Jane should have curbed her tongue.  People get nasty in odd job markets.

Restaurant people used to be tough.  Where did this strain of ambitiously whining tattle tales come from?

Mike, Jane and Ruby are not just victims of bad behavior by people who know how to get what they want, they are experiencing bad leadership. Managers, Boards and  HR departments who don’t look into accusations but act on  them without hesitation enable cut throat politics. “The right to be anonymous” in  accusing a coworker for ones own benefit is not a positive addition to the restaurant staffing culture.

One bright manager commented on the state of affairs, which she sees occasionally, “It’s amazing. It’s as if they were all stuck  in 8th Grade. Junior high playground politics still works for thirty year-olds.”

Subordinates aren’t the only ones behaving badly.   When Alex asked for back pay he  was fired and found the restaurant  closed. She told me, he says, when she hired me,  that they were in great financial shape, but she had me paying all the staff under the table.” Longer hours are nothing new, but they are more frequent and sometimes without overtime.

I hear these stories enough to see a  pattern –  a sous chef is lured to a chef job in what appears to be a good restaurant. He discovers the first morning  that nobody will deliver fish, that the promised staff is not available. You have heard these stories.  “What else is out there, ” the chef asks.  “I never should have left the old place, but he made it sound so attractive.”  Response: Not a lot. No you shouldn’t. Life is just a case of Mad Men.  Have a Martini and a cigarette.

It’s not just the little places. “It’s not the job they told me about. They promised me a bonus,” says Jane about the position with a respected restaurant group,  “I was frustrated, because they had hired me away from a good position with promises and a vision which disappeared when the client they were managing the property for quit paying them.”

There’s payback for some of this, as claims against employers have risen ten fold by disgruntled employees no longer in the service of the business, even it it was the employee’s request to change time cards or work a long shift without overtime to make a three day weekend possible. More people behaving badly in response to people behaving badly. Let’s add, just for fun, that many of the actions are encouraged, sponsored and even carried out locally by a non profit which is supported partially by the taxes of the restaurants it attacks.

And then. There are too those out of work who are desperate. We are seeing so many more falsified statements of employment than we are used to.   There is self justification and there are excuses. There are appeals to compassion . “Let me explain,”  says the candidate, whose last job has disappeared from his resume. I couldn’t take the heat. They sold me a bill of goods. I had no idea it would be that bad when I went in, and the response? What would you say? “Here’s the thing,” says another, and another excuse is dropped.  Stories are told. Never, “I messed up.”  My friend Dan says that’s the nature of the beast. Restaurants are like that. Maybe he’s right, which is odd at a time when the word “integrity” pretty much drips from every press agent’s lips when discussing the practices of her best chef of the beliefs of her client.

What’s this mean for you? There’s a moral here somewhere.  You figure it out.