My Crash Course in the Restaurant Business
The most memorable casualties were two martini glasses. Other minute calamities included an expensive dry cleaning bill, a bruised ego and the helpless memory of the cascading glasses forever seared in my memories.
The shattered glass happened about halfway through my three-hour, whirlwind crash course of the restaurant business a few Fridays ago.
It all started with a simple comment the Wednesday before: I’ve never worked in the restaurant industry before. I’ve never even waited tables before.
And that’s all it took for Tim Petrillo to say to me, “What are you doing this weekend?”
The adventurous restaurateur and co-founder of The Restaurant People hooked it up so that some 48 hours later, I’d be plopped right in the thick of things at his three uber-exciting establishments, YOLO, O Lounge and Vibe. It was a fun experiment – you know, watch a clueless magazine editor who’s never been in the restaurant business react to customers who are demanding things left and right, wanting things immediately, and letting you know exactly how they feel about their 75-minute wait for a table.
Did I like the experiment? Well, let’s say I will never look at waiting tables and bartending the same way ever again.
The Cast of Main Characters
Me – the bumbling idiot who can’t keep two martini drinks from toppling over
Andy – the extremely patient and kind GM of YOLO and O Lounge, and an overseeing manager of Vibe; my trusted steed throughout this entire experiment
Peter – chef and partner of The Restaurant People
Ana – the ridiculously talented hostess at YOLO that night
Val – a gregarious veteran server at YOLO
Brittany – a super-sweet, uber-cute and multi-disciplined bartender at YOLO
Lauren – the gorgeous and super-sweet cocktail girl at O Lounge
John – the hustling workhorse of a bar-back at O Lounge
Sean – the GM at Vibe
So it’s no secret that I’ve never been in the restaurant business. And it shows. I barely know how to pour a bottle of wine (much less open one cleanly on my first attempt), get antsy if I have to wait longer than 20 minutes for a table, and become annoyed if a server forgets to bring me the side of honey mustard sauce I asked for 3 minutes ago. On top of that, I’m a journalist who gets paid to write about food/drinks and her dining experience. So I eat out a lot. And, I certainly hope for a memorable experience every time I sit in a restaurant.
Yes, I am that person: The one who goes out to dine constantly and hardly understands what it’s like to be on the other side of the eating transaction. And now the tables have turned.
Oh, this experiment will be fun.
So the fun begins. I clock in at 9 p.m. Andy Fox is there to greet me. A consummate professional, Fox has been in the business for years, first at Houston’s, then Tarpon Bend in Coral Gables, next the Tarpon Bend in Fort Lauderdale, and now YOLO/O Lounge. A stout man who walks faster than my own short legs can keep up with, Fox undoubtedly is always on. “I can’t come into YOLO and just eat,” he says. “If I’m here, I’m always looking. I’m looking to see if there’s a mess to clean at the next table, if water was spilled, if everything is in the right place. It drives my wife crazy.”
>> The Kitchen
Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night yelling “behind you!” and “coming through!” Those phrases will forever be emblazoned in my mind after spending a night in the busy YOLO kitchen. There’s constantly a flow of people – servers, food runners, chefs, line cooks, clueless journalists – who are squeezing into and out of every nook inside the kitchen. On top of that, everyone is carrying something with them – a tray with empty drink glasses, racks for dishes/glasses, boxes for the kitchen – and making that squeeze even tighter. How things don’t get spilled more often is beyond me.
YOLO’s kitchen is an open concept, in which diners can take a peek at the action with their foods. A flame is constantly burning at the grill, an expeditor is, um, expediting, and orders are flowing out.
Another phrase I kept hearing was “organized chaos.” Who am I to argue with that? Hundreds of plates are being rushed out while hundreds more fly back in, empty and ready for cleaning. There’s a system for everything: Dirty martini glasses go here, water glasses there, and cocktail tumblers over there.
I’m standing next to Peter Bouloukos while the expeditor is maintaining the order. It’s 30 minutes into my time at YOLO, and I’m already exhausted. And I haven’t done anything yet.
>> The Hostess Stand
To quote Andy Fox, the hostess stand is a “war zone.” It feels like a million people are coming at you to ask for a seat, get updates on their wait times, and begging to get a seat faster than everyone else who is waiting.
So I make one vow now. I will NEVER again ask the hostess how much more time left until my table is available. That is soooooo annoying, I’ve learned.
It’s nearly 9:45 p.m., and people are still pouring in for dinner. Constant waves are rushing in, asking for a seat. The 220-seat restaurant has only so many seats available and a few tables are straggling (i.e., sitting there talking, even after they’ve paid their bills), so what’s Ana to do except tell the newcomers they need to wait? And to compound matters, it started raining, which eliminates a bunch of tables and seats from contention.
One of the most impressive staff members is hostess Ana, a petite, cute girl with wavy dark brown hair. She’s uber-sweet but firm. If your wait time is 45 minutes, don’t bother bargaining or bribing Ana to cut the line. She won’t budge. Fair is fair, she says.
While at the hostess stand, Ana’s basically the company’s spokesperson and person who needs to explain that no seats are available now and the wait time is 75 minutes. She can’t get diners to eat their meal quicker, she can’t get the food out any faster, and she can’t clear the tables. She’s at the mercy of so many different people and elements. But despite that, she does her job with a warm smile and a kind disposition.
Here’s a sampling of the people she is dealing with on any given night:
There’s a party of five gals, presumably on a girls’ night out trip. They’ve been waiting for a table for 25 minutes. And they had a 9:30 p.m. reservation. They keep coming up to Ana, asking how much longer.
“Just a few more minutes,” she says with a smile as she checks her monitor.
Then there’s the guy in the teal T-shirt. He walks up to Ana, pulls out his money clip that conveniently has a $100 bill in view. “Look, I know you’ve been telling everybody it’ll take 75 minutes to sit down, but how about for me? And just know, money is not a problem tonight,” he says, tapping his money clip to the hostess stand.
Her answer? “It’s not about money, sir,” she says. “Unfortunately the wait time will be 75 minutes for you, and I’m sorry there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Firm, what did I tell you about Ana?
>> Bar at YOLO
Brittany, the awesome bartender, lets me mix a few drinks. A four-count pour is the common denominator to most drinks. Lucky for some patrons, I probably gave a five-count pour by accident at certain points. Oops!
>> Serving tables at YOLO
Oh, I will never look at my servers the same way ever again. After shadowing experienced server, Val, this undoubtedly is not a job I have appreciated enough. Val tells me, you don’t learn how to wait tables overnight. She’s been a server for 35 years and has been with YOLO since its opening in Sept. 2008. At no point is she in rest. She’s constantly moving not only between her four tables, but also to the kitchen, bar, register and dish wash area. And, she’s carrying loads of drinks with her, needs to remember the slightest thing one of her guests asks her for (“Can I get a glass of water,” one guest says as Val passes by) and get back to each table in a prompt manner. Ahhh! Too. Much. Pressure.
According to Lauren, the cocktail girl at O Lounge, tonight’s not a busy night. Ummmm… so, about 75 drunk and dancing patrons in tight space doesn’t constitute a busy night? Tell that to my dirty blouse that got watermelon martini spilled all over it.
Yes, my nightmare actually happened. I had no idea what I was in for when Lauren placed two watermelon martinis on my tray and said, “This is going to be tricky.” There should have been flashing lights and blow horns around her statement because I was once again clueless how hard it was to keep those suckers balanced while navigating through crowds of dancing people. I mean, I got the first orders of Grey Goose and lime out to the kind folks sitting outside with no problem.
So I take about four steps with the two martinis dangerously swaying on the tray. I managed to evade one swinging arm that looks like it’s trying to copy a Psy dance move. Good job, Do, I thought to myself. I got this.
Then disaster struck. I flying arm comes at my blind side, hits the front of the tray, and kaboom. Everything falls. Boom. First the martinis splash all over my new chevron-printed blouse, then the glasses go crashing on the floor. Everyone looks. Everyone laughs.
Bollocks. Shucks. And a bunch more expletives buzz in my head.
Then I remember the number 2,000. That’s the number of dollars Andy Fox had told me the company spends on glassware alone. In one week. Every week. And, now I see why.
After Lauren assures me that things weren’t my fault, I get shifted to work with John, the bar-back of the O Lounge. At 160 lb, John is a work horse. As he puts it, bar-backs are basically doing “the grunt work.” He makes sure the ice is never empty, liquor bottles get replenished, glasses are ample and just about every other supply duty at the bar. He takes me to a place nicknamed “the dungeon,” which is a decent-sized storage spot off-property, guarded by a heavy padlock. Cases of every type of liquor you can imagine lie in the dungeon.
John is literally sprinting from Point A to Point B. His services are always needed somewhere. He tells me that he once calculated that during a normal shift, he puts in about 20 to 30 miles and burns about 2,000 to 3,000 calories. Wowzers. And yes, apparently he’s burning all of these calories by doing “grunt work.”
Have you ever watched “Knocked Up”? Well, you know that scene where Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann’s characters try to get into that club for the second time in the movie? The club that Darryl from “The Office” is the doorman at? Well, the front of Vibe feels exactly like that. The two gentleman manning the front doors are essentially the gatekeepers to who gets in the club and who has to wait in line. Not wearing the right outfit (like this poor dude who thought he could walk into Fort Lauderdale’s best nightclub in his green medical scrubs and zip-up gray jacket), then chances are you won’t be ushered to the front of the line. Trying to get into the club with a bunch of guys? Sorry, but chances are you’re going to have to wait a bit. But, if you’re in a group of gorgeous girls, your odds of getting in skyrocket.
“There’s a certain image that Vibe has to keep up,” says Sean Henderson, GM of Vibe. “We get a lot of different types of people walking on Las Olas, so it’s important Vibe remains an exclusive spot to be. … Club business is like a science: Guys will come into the club and spend money if there are a lot of girls here, so we try to get more girls than guys into Vibe.”
Some takeaways from Sean:
– He gets to work around 5 p.m. and, if all goes well, leaves around 4:30 a.m. the next morning
– He works every day the club is open
– His most memorable quote: “It’s takes a certain type of person to work with drunk people.”
This restaurant/entertaining business is hard. Essentially, you’re working when everyone else is eating, drinking and having fun. As server Val puts it, “It makes me happy when people are having fun. I feel like I’m doing a good job then.”
The restaurant business is not as glamorous as it looks. As Andy Fox says, “It’s ironic. I work in a great restaurant and I’m surrounded by food all the time. But when I close the place down tonight, I’m going to go home hungry. You just don’t have a moment to eat in this business.”
Special thanks to Tim Petrillo, Andy Fox, and the entire staffs at YOLO, O Lounge and Vibe for allowing me this opportunity. These folks are true professionals in their industry, something that has continually impressed me.