Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Cost Guy

Truth be told I became multi-unit operator before I knew how to operate a restaurant. In fact, I had never been restaurant general manager when I started Four n‘ 20 Pies, was Vice President of Sveden House smorgasbords, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Pewter Pot Restaurants or any of the companies I ran. I had opened and been an assistant manager of a pizza restaurant in Fort Lauderdale in 1966 but running a shift and putting the money in the safe is not the same thing as being a full charge manager responsible for every damn thing. Being a chain operator with no real grounding in the nuts and bolts of running a single unit would seem to be the very definition of the Peter Principle and yet there I was, a chain operator at 27. I was never a mechanic. I was always a manager of managers.  Which is not to say that being an accomplished unit manager wouldn’t have helped. It would have. A lot.

Someone told me years ago that the hardest move is from being a unit manager operating your own little fiefdom to operating two restaurants, meaning that you’re managing two managers. So maybe not being an experienced unit manager was a blessing in disguise. There's some spin for you.The tendency for new multi-unit managers who were presumably skilled unit managers is to attempt to be the manager of both units. I was spared that indignity. Learning to operate more than one restaurant through the manager, managing managers, is a real leap for normal humans but not for mutants. The same wise soul who told be about the dizzying leap from one to two restaurants said, “If you can manage two restaurants you can operate a hundred.” That’s a stretch but the principle of that old saw abides. The skills it takes to manage managers are totally different than the ones a unit manager employs. Never had the latter.

The only company that trained me to operate a store or restaurant was Baskin-Robbins. I trained in LA’s Larchmont store for a week though that was mostly learning how to scoop a perfect three-ounce ball of ice cream every time. That entailed putting a piece of wax paper on a Pelouze scale and scooping over and over again till you could scoop three ounces in your sleep. We were supposed to do it before every shift. The same kind of repetition applies to pouring a dependable 1-1/2 ounce shot of booze by feel and by sight. It’s the art called free pouring. A skilled bartender can pour the perfect shot, 1-1/2 half or 2 ounces, every time. She can tell by the feel and the motion of the bottle. An intermediate step is to count the pour, 1, 2,3, but a real pro just knows. Got a problem with liquor cost? Tell your bartenders and, if they’re real pros, they’ll shave every pour just a hair. Not to mention that real bartenders in real bars free pour. It looks cool and you think you’re getting more. You are not.

The essence of being a multi-unit manager is to convey expectations and to measure performance against those goals on a timely basis; be it sales performance, costs, food quality, service, or the physical condition of the restaurant. That’s the thing I called QSC in an earlier chapter, the three-legged stool of the restaurant business. It’s an oversimplification but defines the major components of the operation. Quality, Service and Cleanliness.

From the start I somehow recognized the importance of planning. So, as early as 1969 at Four n’ 20 Pies I asked my managers to plan daily sales based on recent performance and to allocate labor accordingly. Labor hours must reflect sales, period. I also required weekly inventories and food costs. Food cost is Beginning Inventory plus Purchases minus Ending Inventory. Right out of Accounting 101. As basic as that calculation is I found many a seasoned manager who couldn’t grasp the concept.

I brought those fundamentals to Betty Crocker Pie Shops and Sveden House Restaurants but when I became Executive Vice President and General Manager of Boston’s Pewter Pot Restaurants in 1973 I became a true expert in managing labor. KFC Corporation had purchased Pewter Pot, one of several flyers it took with small, promising chains. It had created the RVC, Retail Venture Corporation, to shepherd these companies, among them H. Salt Fish and Chips, The Original Pancake House and Pewter Pot. KFC bought Pewter Pot while it was in receivership and I, along with a bankruptcy consultant, became the receivers. We co-signed every check till I righted the ship. That took about six months.

The shallow breathing you hear is Pewter Pot on its deathbed. The 22-unit coffee shop concept had been founded by Vinny Catania who ran the enterprise like a mafia Don. That is not to suggest that Vinny was connected, and he was Sicilian after all, but he operated the struggling chain top down and without middle managers capable of managing managers. They were Vinny's lap dogs at best. Many of his unit managers were inept, dishonest and blind to the condition of their restaurants. And no one was requiring performance of any kind from them. Esprit de corps was null and void. The units were filthy, there were phantom inventories that masked the real food cost and labor was out of control. I recall that the Salem Pewter Pot had food in the walk-in refrigerator that was so old that there were maggots on the ground beef. The stench was horrific. We had to trash all the product, strip the joint down to the bare walls and start from scratch. I am understating the awfulness.

KFC was rabid about having me run the restaurants profitably from the get-go and shoved a team of efficiency experts down my throat. They were from the Alexander Proudfoot Company which I nicknamed “those fucking Indians.” I thought that I was already the world’s best cost manager. I was a grinder from birth. A grinder is a cost control freak, a person who might try to run costs below the level at which food quality, friendly timely service and a clean well-maintained establishment were possible. I teetered on the edge of too cheap.

But those fucking Indians showed me that I was an amateur. I had no idea how low labor costs could be. Senior management must have recognized my willingness to attempt the impossible. Or maybe they recognized hubris when they saw it. So, I found myself in the re-opened Salem Pewter Pot surrounded by gray men with stopwatches timing every activity. Our goal was 100% productivity. That’s 100% as in 100%. Not a wasted second. And we did that. 100% productivity. It’s possible no restaurant in the history of the world had ever accomplished that miracle. A doff of the hat to me.

I told my boss, Tom Frank, that the methodology that those fucking Indians used was brilliant but that achieving 100% productivity over the long haul wasn’t possible, that employees had to have time to go to the john. I suggested that we retain our humanity and aim for a sustainable 90% productivity instead. He bought my argument and I embarked on a journey that took my management system called Daily Operations Control or DOC to hundreds of restaurants over the next forty years.

First, I installed the Management System in all my Pewter Pot restaurants, took it with me when I became vice president of KFC, first in my 229 units, then in all 800 company owned and operated locations. At KFC our managers, area managers and district managers were extraordinarily skilled at making and adhering to hourly labor plans and to managing food costs against Ideal Food Cost. Ideal means no waste of any kind and is the fraternal twin of 100% labor efficiency. Neither is actually possible, but you can get really close. 90% labor productivity and 2% over Ideal Food Cost became our goals and we achieved them across the board whatever the concept; café, fried chicken, pizza, Italian, fusion or fine dining.

Not only did we deliver the costs, but we measured them on a timely basis; labor costs hourly with daily totals and food cost weekly. The managers tallied all of their costs each month and delivered a complete profit and loss statement before lunch the day after the month ended. In actual fact we used 4 week, 4 week, 5 week periods so we could compare year to year performance using the same number of days per period year to year. The day after the period ended I had unit, area and district income statements on microfiche on my desk. That was three weeks before “corporate” delivered its useless PandLs. You can’t wait three weeks to find out how you did last month. You need to know immediately so you can fix what’s broken. That means now. For labor cost that means daily and for product cost it means weekly. I always told my managers and clients, “You can’t screw up more than a day if you measure labor costs daily and you can’t have more than a week of bad food cost if you measure it weekly. In an emergency situation I’d require that food cost be calculated daily. That was rarely needed.

Our managers logged actual labor hours against planned labor hours by job function every hour of the day. Labor by job function was planned by the hour according to an established Labor Matrix. The sales and labor plans had to be approved by the area manager who called each unit every single morning to see if the plan had been met. Frequently, managers would boast of beating their sales goals and of using less labor than the plan. It was a game in which everybody won. Take care of the hours and the days will take care of themselves.

We were a juggernaut. Not only did we lead the country in costs and profitability but in sales growth and QSC, too. Appropo of which is this nugget: The best managers have the highest sales, the greatest sales growth, the highest standards, the lowest turnover and the lowest costs. “It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual.” The worst managers? The same thing in but in reverse.

The very essence of our collective performance in 1976 and 1977 was brought into focus at a monthly regional meeting held in Columbus, Ohio. We held monthly wrap-ups that rotated through the five districts. Wunderkind Bill Roquemore, still a close friend, was our DM in Columbus and was a superior performer across the board. Refer to the paragraph above. He is the point of reference for doing everything well.

Anyway, Hicks Waldron, the president of KFC’s parent company, Heublein, was in attendance as each District Manager presented his district’s performance using an overhead projector. In these presentations the DMs showed sales and costs compared to plan, compared to last year and compared to the accounting department’s useless because they were late income statements. We called it “reconciling.” This was done in spreadsheet format. I remember so clearly that the profit from one of Bill’s Columbus units was lower by $181.13 than the corporate PandL. Bill calmly showed that our higher costs were correct. Corporate accounting had missed a bill for straws and we could prove it.  Waldron was dazzled. Bill Roquemore was so confident in his numbers that he defended them even though accounting's income statement would have made his store, area and district $181.13 more profitable. We were a bunch of showoffs. Boy, we were a proud bunch.

From this and other such experiences comes this truism. “If your accountant knows the numbers better than you do you’re a lousy manager or owner.” Write it down. There'll be a quiz later.

As I recount this treatise on operating restaurants and especially the Hicks Waldron vignette, I realize that the meeting in Columbus and a similar one in New York marked me as one to watch. In the clarity of hindsight, it’s why Hicks Waldron pressed me so hard to become President of Zantigo a year later. The good news is that got I promoted. The bad news is that I would have been better off if I hadn’t.

Maybe you can be too good for your own good. Just saying.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Wannabe Me

Don’t you ever quit, Immel,” Sam Fees screamed. “Don’t you ever quit in the middle of a race. It’s weak and it’s cowardly and disrespectful. Don’t be a quitter!” I was thirteen when I quit running 75 yards into a 100-yard dash. When I saw the kid in first place had me by 10 yards I bailed. “What’s the point” I thought. Sam Fees, my eighth-grade teacher, taught me an important if embarrassing life lesson.

I wasn’t much of an athlete but wanted desperately to be one. From sixth grade through high school I tried to make the team in almost every sport. Except for basketball for some reason. Jocks sat at the head of the table at Tempe Union High School during the fifties I can tell you that.  Being a jock and being a BMOC were synonymous. Despite my meager efforts on the field and on the track, I existed on the periphery of the cool kids, not quite in but not out either. I was invited to the right parties but never felt part of them. It felt like I was looking in from the inside. In a pod within the sphere of the chosen ones.

High school is a fraught time for lots of kids and I would best describe my time as bitter sweet. First loves, in my case unrequited, the lack of success in sports and a checkered academic career constructed self-doubt that wasn’t erased until college when I grew into my body and started connecting with girls. I was a late bloomer who should have been redshirted in high school. I wonder how high school might have been if I’d been a year older all along the way. I wasn’t just emotionally immature but a total pencil neck through my junior year. I entered the summer of 1958 as a 5’-11” 128-pound scarecrow. That’s the body I brought to the gridiron with predictable results. Slow, skinny and clumsy is a deadly combination. In my freshman year Coach Chief Wynn gave me a crack as the starting halfback, so I promptly twisted my knee and he relegated me to the defensive line. A 120-pound tackle heaven forbid.

Tempe High was a jock school. We had great football teams that starred guys who went on to play major college football and made my chances slim and none. All-State Running backs Larry and Rob Royce played at Stanford, for example. They were also state champions in the 100-yard dash in successive years, 1958 and 1959.

Determined to finally make the varsity football team I committed myself to put on weight and give it a real go my senior year. I drove to Phoenix every other day to work out at a gym on North Central Avenue, one that was used by the best footballers in the Valley. Among them were the national record holder in the shotput Dallas Long and his North Phoenix High School mate, Karl Johnstone, the national champion in the javelin. These guys were behemoths and I was a twerp. Surely, I’d gain weight and coordination by osmosis.  Between May and August with grueling workouts and prodigious quantities of Hoffman high protein shakes I weighed 168 when football season started. Coach Wynn allowed that, “At least you’re big enough to play.” Big enough does not mean good enough. I was demoted to junior varsity as a senior. It still smarts.

My only letter was in golf. Laugh line. My best friend John Ellsworth, Jimmy Oakley and I bought clubs, mine were Wilson Sam Snead Blue Ridges, and all of us went out for the team. In the Phoenix area you can play golf all year round so we played every single day. Tempe didn’t have a golf course but we had the rights to play at South Mountain in Phoenix and that became our home course. John and I were dogged about learning the game. In our senior year we were the third and fourth players on the squad. I can’t tell you who was which. And we weren’t half bad for newbies. Both of us shot in the low-eighties and I had one 79 with a little help from my right foot.

In the dry and hot weather you can hit the ball a mile. I routinely drove 300-yard greens. The ball would roll forever. My short game was another matter. My opponents would play mind games like, “If I could drive that far I’d par for sure.” The pars came sparingly, of course. I was easily frustrated, quick to anger and was a noted club thrower. 

In my sixties I revisited golf as I had once a decade since high school. The teaching pro at a driving range in Waltham, Massachusetts told me, “You have the fastest swing I’ve ever seen. If you could slow it down a little you’d be dangerous.” She suggested a Nano second pause at the top of swing to gain some control. Didn’t happen.

One time I was playing a golf game with my business partners and James Boyce, our marketing guy and a three handicapper. James was an entitled prick but sure knew his golf. He told me, “You’ve got something that not very many amateurs have. You have pretty swing and it’s the same every single time. You could be a good golfer if you played enough.” Hey, where’s the fun in doing something you’re actually good at?

It wasn’t until I started running in March of 1976 that I flashed a glimmer of something athletic. It was the height of the running boom. Frank Shorter had won the marathon at the Munich Olympic and Bill Rogers, who came in second, sparked a distance running craze. Ever the early adaptor, I became part of the boom and running became a constant in my life. I had minimal athletic talent but was able to fashion some success through persistence. I was a plugger.

As I have reported, my first running steps as an adult human being were taken in New Canaan, Connecticut. At first, I could run precisely .8 of a mile before I’d be bent over double in the spasms of oxygen depletion. I would walk around the intersection and pant back to our house at 312 Mariomi Road. Two months later in May I summoned the nerve to try to run five miles. You’d have thought it as an ultra-marathon. I even enlisted Peggy to drive the ambulance I was sure I’d need.

So, on July 4th of 1976 I ran my first 10K just over the Hill in Wilton. I finished in 52 minutes or so, a little over eight minutes per mile. I was the king of the world. The hook was set. I was and still am a runner. Folks define themselves by what they do for a living. With running such a part of life, I began to call myself a restaurant operator and a runner. Today I say I’m a writer-photographer and, still, a runner. Note that "writer" preceded photographer.

I ran dozens of 10Ks after my maiden voyage in 1976. My times decreased through 1987 when I did a 38:51 on the running leg of the New England Triathlon series event in Bridgton, Maine. I was 46. After that my time slowed every year till I ran a 50-minute 10K in Berlin, New Hampshire in 2006. I had just turned 65. I haven’t run a timed race since but wouldn’t rule it out.

Along the way I ran one Marathon. The New York Marathon in 1982 was glorious. Gunnar Nilsson and I trained together in Columbus, Ohio. We did a 20 miler two weeks before New York. That was the key element of Jeff Galloway’s ten week training plan in which you’d average 50 miles a week for ten weeks culminating with the 20-mile run and a taper the last two weeks. That run was notable because I did a face plant and scraped the hell out of my right knee. There was no lasting damage save some soreness. When Gunnar and I met in Manhattan we abided the pre-race protocol of carbo loading but pushed the limits of alcohol intake the night before. Where, you ask, did we partake of our icy ales? P.J. Clarke’s, don’t you know.

We took busses to the start of the race on Staten Island and gathered at the bottom of the Verrazano Bridge to await the starter’s gun. With 8,000 runners, it’s 40,000 now, it took me eight minutes just to get to starting line. It was slow going over the bridge but on the downhill entering Brooklyn I hit my stride. A tour of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan at a runner’s pace is revelatory. A runner’s eye view of New York’s neighborhoods and cultures is an intimate look at the vibrance and diversity of a great city.

I will never forget the feeling I had as I ran down the 59th Street Bridge at the 16-mile marker. That view of the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the din of cheering onlookers as I came off the bridge and turned right onto First Avenue was pure, unfettered joy. Coming off the long descent into Manhattan and buoyed by cheering crowds I felt like a could run forever. I felt the unfamiliar feeling of speed. I was the wind. I was fast.

After the gritty cityscapes of Harlem, I turned south into enter leafy Central Park where I had run dozens of time. The course stiffened. The rolling terrain makes for a hard-fought last six miles, but I was so pumped that I finished the race at my fastest pace of the day. I passed half a dozen runners on the finishing straight. I do believe I was sprinting. It was a highlight of my life. I crossed the finish in 3:27:38 or a 7:47 per mile average. I was exhilarated and depleted and swore I’d never do it again. And I’m a man of my word if nothing else.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Service Guy

I opened fifty restaurants in my forty years in the business. And don’t mean fifty restaurants that were opened by somebody else but on my watch. I mean physically managing the effort and handling the service training myself. God, I loved it. I loved it so much I kept opening restaurants when I should have back at headquarters running the company. I’m often asked, “Where were you in the restaurant business?” My stock answer is, “After forty years, Almost everywhere. Almost every major city.” And to that point, here is a partial list: Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Richmond, Memphis, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Saint Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County. Whew!

I always say that opening a full service, full bar restaurant is as close to theatre as you can come without greasepaint and curtain calls. The wait staff had a script or at least an outline of same, there were twice daily rehearsals for a week and a half followed by two dress rehearsals in front of a full house; dress rehearsals bigger than any opening night could be. The theory behind slamming the kitchen and wait staff with a tsunami of customers ordering way more than paying customers would ever order was that Tuesday’s real opening for paying customers would feel like child’s play. Yes, always a Monday or Tuesday and without fanfare, a so-called soft opening. If you open a restaurant on a weekend you should be institutionalized for your protection and the protection of others. Like many of life’s lessons, you don't need a Saturday night cataclysm to learn it. Oh, then take a day off after the second dress rehearsal to take a deep breath and prep for opening night and real customers. You are ready, young misses and sirs. The formula worked 100% of the time I’m proud to say. And the so-called Friends and Family Nights, the dress rehearsals, were the key.

Kurt Kornreich and I at the opening of the Four n' 20 Pies in Northridge, California in 1969.

Training waitstaff, I say servers, was divided into two parts; the philosophy of service in which I preached the gospel according to Steve and the mechanics of service which I first dubbed “Steps to Service” in 1969 when I opened the first Four n’20 Pies in Van Nuys, California. I don’t know how I knew that telling servers what was expected of them was a good idea. I just did. The last time I preached was at pulpit of Copa Café in Lexington, Massachusetts in 2003, a span of 34 years.

Here’s the scene. Imagine you are one of 30 new servers who are seated in the dining room of the just built and furnished 250 seat Rocco’s Meat Market. The sounds of finishing touches being completed fill the air. You have been selected from 500 candidates vying for the honor of serving huge slabs of rare steak and superb wines from a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list. It’s a woody emporium with leather seating red flocked wallpaper. The joint reeks of testosterone.

I lean on the proprietor for a soaring introduction. She leans on me to sell the thing called service. It’s what I do. I walk to a barstool I’ve already placed in front of the adoring throng. On my way to the barstool I casually remove my suit coat and hang it on the stool. Let’s get down to business, people. I gaze around the room with a welcoming smile.

“This my 51st restaurant opening, I opened my first at the turn of the last century in Dodge City, Kansas, Come to think of it, that was a steak house, too, but with more of a brothel theme.

Anyway, I’m a service guy. A long time ago a mentor of mine, Don Smith was his name, described a restaurant as being like a three-legged stool, that if one of the legs doesn’t hold its weight, the stool collapses.  I agree with the premise but will tell you service is the most important part of any successful restaurant experience, the most important leg. Service, how we are treated, is what we remember. In fact, I can tell you about my three or four best dining experiences, but I can’t tell you what I ate. I can tell you how I felt. I can even remember some of the dialogue.

Our first $100 meal was at the Blue Horse in Minneapolis. It was 1972. Our waiter was Bill. He was about 50 with gray hair and glasses. He had a sly, almost conspiratorial style. He smiled, was engaged and made eye contact with each of us as he took our orders. I don’t recall the dishes we ordered. They were probably from the Sixties songbook, dishes like Veal Oscar and Steak Diane. I do remember that I choose a 1964 Chambertin. Bill said, “That’s a great bottle of wine, sir.” Bill was right and he had actually called me sir. I would describe the red burgundy as a supple, round wine redolent of black cherries and new Oak. The finish lasted till tomorrow. The Blue Horse closed a long ago and Bill went to the slammer for bookmaking. Sad thing. The world lost a great waiter.

I believe that you can’t lose a customer if you give a damn. And, the corollary is true. If you care about them they’re yours forever. I think the desire to please your customer, to make them happy, comes from something that’s inside you. Having your customer enjoy their dining experience should give you pleasure, too. That’s why I believe that great servers are born not made. A friend of mine who’s a restauranteur says, “Anybody can be a server.” I disagree. Being a good server means that you’re smart, that you have a good memory and that you can handle pressure with a smile. And, most important, you like people.

Many years ago, certainly before 1976, I heard a guy named Bob Farrell speak at the NRA convention in Chicago about keeping customers. That's 'R' as in restaurant not the other 'R.' And, by the way, there’s nothing more important to a restaurant than the repeat customer. They are gold. Bob’s the one who taught me the “can’t lose a customer if you give a damn” axiom. He had started an enormously successful Gay 90s themed ice cream parlor chain in the Pacific Northwest. It was built on in your face service. Something I brought to Vinny Testa’s in Boston in the mid-90s. Bob’s first location was in Portland, Oregon. It was a rainy Sunday when the first location opened its doors. It was so busy that you had a fifty-fifty chance of getting your burger, ever. In the middle of the chaos and the lost orders and with poor Bob scrambling from the host desk to the kitchen for the missing BLT at table 20, a little old lady stood up in the middle of the room and yelled, “I’ve been waiting for my Banana Split for an hour. I’m leaving.” She headed for the door.

Farrell caught her before she got out of the building. He begged her, “I’m so sorry, ma’am.  It’s our first weekend and we’re just overwhelmed. Please give us another chance.” He gave a her a gift certificate for the next visit he hoped she’d make. He hoped. She paused a moment, reached up to touch his shoulder said, “That’s alright, young man. I’ll be back.”

I told that story at every opening I did from the mid-seventies to 2003 when I left the business. I told the story to 2,000 KFC franchisees at our national convention. You can’t lose a customer if you give a damn.” I've been known to tear up when I tell it silly as it sounds.

Then I'd continue. “When I opened my first Four n’ 20 Pies in Van Nuys in 1969 I distilled the essentials of serving the customer service down to what I called the Steps to Successful Service. There were nine steps for that simple concept, basically a coffee shop or diner. I don’t know why I placed put so much emphasis on service. I guess it mattered to me so that’s what I did. Here are the steps from Four n’ 20 Pies.

1.    Greet the customer within one minute

2.    Smile and make eye contact

3.    Take the beverage order

4.    Return with beverages and take the meal order

5.    Suggest the appropriate add-ons like French fries, salad or soup

6.    Deliver food and refill beverages

7.    Check back to see that they’re enjoying their meals.

8.    When all the guests have finished their meals, clear the table

9.    Return to the table to take pie orders. Always offer it heated and ala mode

10.  Deliver the pie and offer beverage refills

11.  When those delicious slices are eaten, return to the table. If your guests are   finished, drop the check and say “Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed   yourself. You can pay me whenever you’re ready. No rush.” or words to that   effect.

12.  When your guests have tendered their payment, cash or credit, take it now.       When the money’s out it means they’re ready to go. They want to leave so get   them the hell out, so you can get another party. This is capitalism at its purest.

13.  Bring the change or credit card slip back to the table quickly and ask your   guests to come back soon. One of the best waiters I ever employed used to say,   “See you tomorrow.”

These steps are nothing more than common sense and no more than what you want as a customer.

These steps to service are the minimum we expect. They are required. Do these and you will have provided satisfactory service. Add your attitude and personal style and it will be great.”

Starting with Four n’ 20 Pies in 1969 I employed Mystery Shoppers to reinforce the importance of performing all of the steps all of the time. I used Kelly Services, formerly Kelly Girls, since there were no shopper services back then. I had sold menswear at a major department store in Phoenix when I was in college. The store used shoppers and if you didn’t Sell Up and Add On you didn’t have a job. In the restaurants that I operated we weren’t quite that heavy handed, but we did let our servers know when they had come up sort. When a server did all the steps they got a $20.00 tip cash on the barrelhead. If they didn't they got an "Oops Card" with the missed steps checked off and the message, “Better Luck Next Time.” I used a mystery shopper program of some kind till I retired.

There’s a certain amount of unthinking blow back to the selling parts of the Steps to Service, the contention that offering an appetizer, dessert or second glass of wine is being “pushy.”  Far from it. Offering the appropriate, the obvious, the things that will make the meal more complete are providing service, better service, service that will be remembered when it’s time to tip. The customer isn’t counting your visits to the table per se but has a general sense of how much service you’ve provided. And, and the flip side, if you did not offer me that second glass of Ramirez de la Piscina Reserva when there was an inch left in my glass I will remember it.

When you’re a server you are renting real estate in the proprietor’s restaurant. It’s her mission and yours to optimize the sales in your station and her restaurant.

Here’s a simplified example that shows the opportunity a server has for optimizing the proceeds from his or her station. For this example, I’m using a five-table station and I’m assuming three turns of the tables.

Each server in this comparison will serve 50 customers. That’s where the similarities end.

                                                                     Server One                         Server Two
Customers                          50                                         50
Average Check                 $20                                       $25
Sales                             $1,000                                  $1,250
Percentage Tip                  .17                                        .20
Total Tips                        $170                                     $250
Difference                                                                    +$80

It’s always the same servers who outperform, the same ones who are average and the same ones who come in last. You can decide to make $80 more in your five-hour shift or not. It’s entirely up to you.”

Restaurant openings are exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. The two a day training sessions are scheduled from 10am to 2pm and 6pm to 10pm to accommodate new hires who have other jobs or go to school. You hope that about half your new staff will attend each session though it rarely happens exactly that way. Two separate sessions spread out like that make for a grueling day for management staff and trainers. I worked 80 to 100 hours for two or three weeks in all of my openings. And if you include the late nights at the Donovan’s Saloon it was approximately 150 hours.

Ike Sewell, Mark Olivari and I at the opening of the Harvard Square Pizzeria Uno in 1980

When Lenny Levenson, Mark Olivari and I opened the very first Pizzeria Uno franchise in San Francisco in 1980 I learned that exercise, a shower and a change of clothes was better than a nap between training sessions. I’d take an hour run in the Presidio, do some push-ups, shower, put on fresh duds and be good as new. Mark had been a star linebacker at Tulane and was the last cut of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was 28. His playing weight was 225 and he ran a 4.5 forty. I was 40, couldn’t make my high school football team and ran a forty in about a day. Yet he and I would run over to Chrissy Field and do matched sprints. He killed me. But, one day we went for a 12 miler through the Presidio, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back and I killed him. From the Marin side we looked back at The City shimmering in the electric November sunshine. It was one the best runs of my life. 

On November 27, 2004 Mark Olivari lost his appeal of a conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 2-1/2 half years in prison and ordered to pay $192,000 in restitution. Federal prosecutors say that he stole cargo passing through customs and sold it at a profit of tens of thousands of dollars. He tried to reach me by phone a few years back. I didn’t call back. I wish had. I really liked the guy.

It’s the camaraderie, the sense of team, that propels you through the grind of a restaurant opening but which often leads to extra-curricular activities that have consequences. Those amorous episodes are usually among staff but can reach in all directions. The wife of the owner of the San Francisco Pizzeria Uno, went after Mark Olivari like a dog to prime beef. There was a feeding frenzy over the guy. She told Mark that she hated her husband and cheating on him was payback. He deserved it. Even if he never knew about the dalliance, she would and that was enough. She picked up Mark at the Balboa Café and they escaped to Sausalito for a nightcap or something stronger.

It’s no secret that restaurant people like to party when the shift ends. And that’s even more true during an opening when the stakes are high and you’re working 80-hour weeks. Unlike my idol Anthony Bourdain I never saw drug use, but I learned that you’re never too beat for libations at your chosen watering hole. In San Francisco it was The Chestnut. In Atlanta it was The Fridays across the way. In Columbus it was Buckeye Charlie's next door. In DC it was Clyde’s with Michael Burke from Lawrence, Massachusetts behind the bar. “Another Molsons, Steve?” he’d ask. He always said Molsons not Molson. The answer was invariably, “Yes” until I switched to Saint Pauli Girl.

One time I forget to pay Michael and called him from New York the next day to offer my apologies and give him my credit card number. I over tipped even more than I usually over tip to make up for my bleary oversight.

But by 1984 when I opened restaurants for seven months my relationship with my senior partner and boss had reached its nadir. I’d reached the end of the line. The ordeal had taken a toll in a myriad of ways. In 1985 when he brought in a new president I finally said, “Enough” and began three years of hard-earned semi-retirement and a new, better and healthier life.

It was quite a ride.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Baby steps

1967 is the year that I became a semi-adult. Real adulthood came much later. 1967 is the year that I got married, had a son and launched a career. That’s some year.

At our wedding on March 4, 1967

As reported ad nauseum, I finished college after eight long, up and down years. I had been at Arizona State so long that I ran for homecoming king when I was a first semester sophomore and you were required to a second semester junior. It was a gag proposed by a bunch of anti-establishment hooligans and I was game for pretty much anything. Okay, anything. My campaign slogan was the compelling “A Vote for Steve is a Vote for Steve.” That’s call to action if I’ve ever heard one. Wrote it myself. I came in fourth of eight behind Dale Keller, a star football player; Howie Bernstein who was just plain cute; and somebody I don’t remember.

My life experience by that time; insurance adjuster, itinerant folk singer, menswear salesman, cotton inspector, truck driver, bartender and restaurant manager set me up to interview like the fully evolved human that I wasn't and may the reason I would become the second highest paid graduate of the College of Business Administration in 1967. My salary was a munificent $700 a month at a time when a bank trainee got $350.

My interview with Harvard MBA Murray Hildebrand for the Marketing Manager position at Ryan Evans Drug Stores in Tucson went swimmingly. After I dazzled him with bullshit he asked, “How much do you want to make?” And I shot for the moon. “$700 a month” I answered. He said, “$700 works. Can you start March 15? I said yes and did. At the end of the interview he told me I’d done exactly the right thing in asking for what I wanted without hesitation. “Don’t be timid. Don’t give a range. Just name your price.”

I still a had a stupid three credit elective to actually graduate and we needed to move to Tucson forthwith. That meant that I’d have to commute from Tucson to Tempe and back every Tuesday night for two months. Since we only had one car Ryan Evans let me use one of their cool Ford Ranchero delivery trucks. The Ranchero was a low-slung pick-up built on a car chassis. Chevrolet had its version, the El Camino.

We found a trim little apartment at the Warren House on Alvernon for $25 week. It was so small that Peggy cleaned the place from floor to ceiling every single day. Between cleanings she played pool in the rec room, ate chili sizes at the Bob’s Big Boy around the corner on Speedway and a jar of pimientos encurtidos (pickled peppers) every other day. Every night she beat me at pool. She gained forty pounds and I came close. By the time she had Garrett on September 8 I weighed a lumpy 196. When she gave birth I was at Pinnacle Peak Patio having a mesquite grilled 32 ounce steak with her mother. Peggy tells people that I live to eat. The woman does not lie.

I'm the Pillsbury Doughboy on the left.

My breadth came into focus, literally, when we went camping with two other couples and somebody had the temerity to take my picture in wheat colored Levis and a gray tee shirt. There’s a cowboy description for a wide load, “Two axe handles and a Prince Albert tin.” That was me. Bulges everywhere.

After a month or so we started looking for new digs to house a threesome. We circled an ad for a large one bedroom on a ranch in the desert on the the east side of town.The 72 acre spread was called Grace Ranch. We set up a showing the following weekend.

The ranch set back from Wrightstown Road a quarter mile and at the bottom of a slight descent stood the main house, three apartments in a low-slung building, an Olympic size pool, a horse barn, race track and an airstrip abutting a dry wash. The Catalina Mountains rose to our north. We were giddy with our find.

We were greeted by Marty Fenster, the caretaker of the spread. He showed us the commodious apartment with a combination living room kitchen and dining area in front and a huge bedroom in the rear. Marty said we would have the run of the place but were not to enter the barn. Ever. Marty “The Camel” Fenster I kid you not.

There was a handprint in the cement adjacent to the pool with the word “Bats” below it. That’s Bats as in Bats Battaglia for those of you who know your Mafia kingpins. We didn’t need to be FBI agents to figure what we’d stumbled onto. And we didn’t care. We wanted that apartment.

We mentioned that the apartment needed a thorough cleaning and Marty pledged to get it done. But when we arrived to move in the following weekend, the Ranchero full of our worldly goods, we found the place locked. We were not happy or patient. Peggy broke in. And it was still a hamster cage.

When Marty arrived late and full of apologies, we gave him a piece of our mind and he swore to clean the place that afternoon. His Mexican maid got the place ready as promised this time. We moved in that evening and spent the balance of 1967 in an idyllic desert oasis that we'll never forget. 

One day the owner of the ranch, Pete Licavoli, arrived on the scene. We were out on our patio, so Marty brought him over to meet us. He introduced us to the gray, empty eyed Don of the Detroit Purple Gang. Licavoli shook hands like a dead fish. Dead fish. Sleep with the fishes. Cement overshoes. Forgive my stream of consciousness. We’d have been more obsequious if we’d we known then that Licavoli had been accused, arrested or tried for murder on seven separate occasions. He served a total of 5-1/2 years in prison for four crimes: bribing a Canadian border guide in the gang’s rum-running operation; income tax evasion; contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions from a Senate rackets investigating committee and possession of a stolen 15th century painting. His last 13-month prison term for the later felony ended in July 1981, thirteen years after we left Grace Ranch. He was 77 years old when he got out and died four years later. It’s hard to imagine that little man doing hard time at my age. But not as hard as me doing hard time at my age.

And speaking of paintings, Marty knowing Peggy was an artist, came to the apartment one day and told her, “You know Mr. Licavoli has a lot of paintings at his house.” He asked, “Would you like to hang some in your apartment?” He invited us to Licavoli’s place to take our pick. The living room walls were covered with ornately framed Italian art. There were paintings leaning against the furniture. Some pieces we were huge, 6x10 feet or more. We were pretty sure they were hot. Peggy said, “Marty, we don’t have a wall big enough. Thank you though. It was really thoughtful of you.” Was one of the paintings we saw in 1967 the stolen 15th century painting that Pete tried to sell to an undercover FBI agent in 1976? We'd like to think so.

One day I was lounging by the pool when I saw a caravan of black Cadillac’s driving down the road to the ranch. When they arrived a football team of very large, very swarthy men in black suits and thin black ties exited the vehicles. Being quick on the uptake, I computed that hanging out at the pool this particular Saturday was a risky business. I exited stage left.

At $700 a month we were so flush that we, along with aforementioned expectant couple, rented a cabin on Mount Lemmon. Our little A-frame at 10,000 feet was a piney respite from the 100 plus degree temperatures that scorch Tucson from April to November.

Mr. Immel and his menu

On the work front, I started by redesigning the seven Ryan Evans seven drug stores in Tucson which meant I had to find affordable ways to move the company into the discount world ala CVS which was the model used by Hildebrand. Once the stores were prepared for the change I went to work on designing ads for the newly positioned Ryan Evans. About that time I pitched Hildebrand on remaking our lunch counters. I called them Sunburst Restaurants, remodeled them in an ersatz southwestern motif, and designed a menu that took the cafés into three meals a day territory. I didn’t know my place and the attitude that I should present to the middle-aged female lifers who managed the places. I encouraged them to call me Mr. Immel. Only later did I learn that if employees choose to call you Mister it’s one thing but that if you demand it it’s something else entirely. The business doubled but it was a sophomoric attempt that didn't keep me employed.
Al the time I worked at Ryan Evans I was exploring another idea with a co-worker. It was a restaurant concept built around a juicy shredded beef taco I learned to make while I was in college. My buddy Chuck Fridenmaker from the copper mining town of Globe, Arizona showed me how to take canned beef in gravy from Argentina and mix it with mashed potatoes to absorb the rich sauce. It was a cost savings measure that stretched the beef and tasted incredible. Chuck made a very spicy pico de gallo with lots of cilantro. He prepared soft tacos by twirling the corn tortilla in sizzling oil in a frying pan, folding it over before it got crisp, draining it on a paper towel, filling the shell with the beef mixture, topping it with shredded jack cheese, the pico de gallo and lettuce. The best tacos I ever had. We tested the tacos, three to the plate with beans and rice in the dining room of the Congress Hotel in downtown Tucson every Thursday for months. They were the number one seller every time. We knew we were on to something.

Since we had no money I had the bright idea of approaching the local distributor of Lindal Homes, the builder of A-frame buildings, with a partnership idea. We’d provide the knowhow and management and they’d pony up the building and equipment. We’d go 50-50. They showed interest but came back with a 20-80 deal and we walked away. Our name for the concept was Taco Chalet so maybe it was for the best. On the other hand, it’s no worse than Pizza Hut.

While we lived at Grace Ranch our mail was routinely opened. We assumed the FBI was reading our mail and that assumption was born out by Gay Talese in his 1971 best-seller, Honor thy Father. Pete Licavoli and his cohort Joe Bonanno were being targeted by the Feds and we were in the middle of the thing. 

Shortly after we moved to LA Peggy received a frantic call her mother in Phoenix telling us that Grace Ranch had been bombed and that the bombing was being attributed to the FBI which was allegedly trying to start a gang war. We just missed the fireworks.

I did check out the barn one time. I saw some ammo boxes but little else of significance. My imagination ran amuck. Buried bodies. Gold bullion. 

During their raid in 1976 the FBI found numerous weapons, ammunition and part of a submachine gun.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Only Son

From Salinas to Oakland and San Leandro and on to Phoenix the life of an only child in a single mother household wasn’t all bad. While Rachel Helen Immel moved us every year or so and that will keep a kid off balance she always found the best that the place had to offer. She was an erudite and cultured women who played the piano, loved ballet and art films and enjoyed good food. She had a regal bearing and wore clothes with panache. She was every inch the lady. She was an ardent feminist though she probably didn’t know the term. She was asexual as far as I know and may have been a “man hater” if my father’s younger sisters are to be believed. According to my father’s favorite baby sister, Ruth West, who died at 101 a couple of years ago, he confided to her shortly after he married my mother that “it just isn’t going to work” because they were at odds about sex. He apparently was into it and she was repulsed. But they copulated at least once thankfully. I appreciate your service. Certainly, their paths in life painted a picture of divergent sexual appetites. He had three marriages and a parade of curvy babes and she was devoutly solo. She never had a date and the only man in the house was the plumber. In the years between age four and nineteen I never saw her with a man nor do I know of a single relationship with one.

That didn’t seem odd to me. It was all I had ever known. That she would be involved with a man never occurred to me.

She had two sisters, Fern a textbook spinster, and Imogene, the saucy divorced one who smoked cigarettes and did, reputedly, have a life outside of work. All were elementary school teachers, mom of the first and second grade persuasion.

Fern, the much older sister, was built like a barrel and seemed to be from an entirely different generation than Rachel and Imogene, called Imo. She lived with us for a time in our first apartment in San Leandro and commuted to her school in Niles, California. Niles was southeast of Hayward some fifteen miles away from our apartment. Back then it was in the sticks but now is a suburb of sprawling Fremont. Imo taught in Palm Springs and Santa Maria and had to perspicacity to live outside of the hermetically sealed mother and child bubble my mother created wherever we lived. I was her life until I wasn’t.

Steve at six?

My mother gave me things and experiences in lieu of actual parenting. We never had the birds and bees conversation so I was left to learn through trial and error. When I joined Cub Scouts and there was a fishing merit badge to be had, she bought me a complete fly fishing rig; rod, reel, straw creel, assorted flies and a vest with all the little pockets from a sporting goods store in Hayward. We went fishing precisely once. It was at Strawberry Lake in the Sierra National Forest just west of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s a mystery to me how she found the place. Then there was skiing. The same thing. The full kit though a rented one in this case. I remember the long pointed wooden boards and the leather bindings. Off we went to Frisco Peak by bus in a snowstorm; a real Sierra snow with 20 foot drifts. The snow rose to the eaves of the lodge and that's where I headed. Twenty-five years later our son Garrett performed the same trick at Killington in Vermont. And Peggy wigged out then just as my mother had in 1950.

From wherever we lived in the East Bay we made our way to San Francisco as often as possible. Even when we lived in Arizona we traveled to the “The City” a couple of times. The magic of San Francisco was etched in my brain at an early and impressionable age. As early as 1947 we took Southern Pacific’s Starlight Express from Salinas to Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the dining car eating Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches on toast and sipping hot tea. A little later when we moved to the Bay Area we took the train to San Francisco to partake of breakfast at Manning’s, lunch of Welsh Rarebit and creamed spinach at the bar in Townsend’s and high tea at the City of Paris department store. Famed columnist Herb Cain called Townsend’s, “the little old ladies historic hangout.” And so it was.

We watched Alec Guinness in 1951s Lavender Hill Mob at a little art house. We went to the 1950 premier of Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart, and the 1951 premiere of Bob Hope’s Lemon Drop Kid where they gave out boxes on lemon drops. This was always in San Francisco I should note. Oakland was beneath us. We saw Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer in Princess and the Show Girl at the Curran Theatre on Geary Street near Union Square. The 1,600 seat Curran housed some the biggest productions in theatre history and was home to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera when we saw the young Shirley. It closed for a time but reopened in January 2017. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
The Curran Theatre, circa 1950
During the Christmas season San Francisco is magical as all great cities are. To me San Francisco is the one real city on the left coast. There are New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the pantheon of America’s great cities. The others are pretenders. We always stayed at The Cartwright off Union Square. It was affordable and right in the center of things. From the Cartwright we could walk to all our favorite haunts. Every San Francisco Christmas included midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California and Grant, the entrance to Chinatown.

Saint Mary's Cathedral
My sartorial needs were not neglected either. On one of those Christmas trips from Arizona I stepped into the Ivy League, buttoned down era; the one with the waspy Princeton haircut. At a small haberdashery on the north side of Market Street I was fitted with my first soft shouldered three button sport coat, a nifty corduroy number, chinos with the buckle in the back and a light blue Gant button down. It was quite the step up from the big shouldered film noir suits I had favored till then. It foretold some seventy years of appreciation for stylish threads and too little closet space.  

And lest you think my adventures were limited to the tweedy environs of San Francisco, it was a 1951 trip to the silver mining town of Alamos, Mexico that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen a piece in Sunset Magazine about a quaint, undiscovered Spanish Colonial village in the Mexican state of Sonora near the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the remote pueblo. It was so alluring that we found ourselves in Alamos by way of Ciudad Obregon and Navajoa and all of that by public transport one of which was a rickety Aeronaves DC3. In Alamos I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish as kids will do and soon was leading tourists through the village for a few pesos. The highlight of my itinerary was the hacienda of the Mexican jumping bean king. You can’t make this stuff up. I still feel the busy beans jumping in my nine-year old palm.

Our hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard and fountain. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthenware “ollas” suspended from the second story portal. Many an evening was spent at the “Cine” on the north side of the plaza watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed into Spanish.

On the way back to California from Alamos we stopped in Tucson. We sat in the lobby of the long-gone Santa Rita Hotel and absorbed the cowboyness of the place. The lobby was redolent of leather and straw hats. They say our olfactory memories are particularly vivid and the smell of leather still takes me back to that moment. Real ranchers moseyed through on their way to the Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. Women strictly prohibited. In the southeast corner of the hotel was a western wear store, probably Porter’s, where we continued our theme of indulging little Stevie's every whim. I donned my very first pair of cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. The hook was set. We'd be off to Arizona before the following school year.

It didn’t end well between my mother and me as has been reported in these pages. The last words I heard were, "From now on I don't have a son." It was my 21st birthday.

But the women gave me a taste of taste and a yearning for adventure. I'll give her that.

Much to her credit and not withstanding my enmity toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a life view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment near Mills College we took the bus to hear Helen Keller speak at the University of California, Governor Earl Warren, too. I watched twin All-America running backs Johnny Olszewski and Jackie Jensen light up the gridiron for Cal’s Golden Bears. The game was preceded by lunch at Larry Blakes and my first Caesar Salad. In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to see Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High School. So, the breadth of what my mother showed me was considerable.

In response to my ego bruising tale last week, a California friend wrote, “There are very few 70+ people who still hold grudges against their parents.….” And further, “I realized only recently it was an adolescent mindset to blame parents for unhappiness along the way…..” A valid point to be sure. However, I don’t see calling out specific thoughtless and hurtful acts as blaming them for unhappiness along the way, meaning presumably, later in life. I blame them for what they did when they did it. Always will. And as to very few seventy year olds holding grudges against their parents, I wouldn't bet on it.