Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Food Business Retrospective

Ah, well. My old buddy of many years has been cut loose from his job. I don't know the details but it really doesn't matter. We live in what is oddly called a "right to work" state, which means employers have the right to fire you without cause and make it stick if they want to chip in on the unemployment costs until you find another job, shit or go blind. As one can imagine, a lot of energy goes into following protocol when you discharge someone...not because you will have to re-employ them, but because the company doesn't want the expense of being "charged" for their unemployment.

I don't know what it's like in places where there are no union-busting rules. Never lived in a place like that. I recall taking part once in an event in New York where everything had to be done in compliance with union rules. As long as you were polite and generous with a few perks you could get almost anything done by union members. Labor cost was no object as long as the union member was happy. I remember having the use of two or three pieces of refrigeration equipment at an event once, at no cost, in return for five or ten pounds of cheese.

But that was then and there. This is now and here. Different time. Different universe. Different protocols. Cat and I know from serving on the management team for decades how air-tight the decision can be once someone has been terminated. "Burning bridges" is a nicety that only applies to employees. Employers need not worry, except that there be no collateral damage to those who remain on the payroll. All fellow employees need to know is that so-and-so is gone and they still have a job. Health problems, traffic accidents, and other jobs take away their peers. But employers routinely burn bridges to individual former employees. In most cases they had it coming, but sometimes the problem is no more complicated than the failure of a subordinate to suck up to a tyrannical boss whose personality trumped any corporate goals. I know this to be true from bitter personal experience.

As I approach the end of nearly forty years in the food business I feel great relief that it is coming to an end. It was nice to be young and full of promise. It gives me great satisfaction to brag that I contributed the max into Social Security for twenty years. And I continue to have personal ties with fine people that go back decades. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

The rule is that when you are in a labor-intensive environment you know when you get up every day that you will spend part of your day explaining adult behavior to other adults. You will be the safety net for someone who failed to report to work for any of an endless list of important reasons -- none of which will ever allow you to do the same thing. You will smile widely and sincerely at people you wish would just let you get on with your day. And sometimes you will have to find a private place to get away and recharge your battery so you can go back to work. The walk-in cooler is a good place to do this. Something about a forty degree environment really does help you cool off.

I could go on like this for pages, but the reader would simply get bored. All you need to remember is that when you see someone in the food business he or she is either on the way up or on the way out. Very few are there, bright smiles and crisp uniforms notwithstanding, because they really want to be there for a long time. Over the years I have noticed that whenever people come into a lot of money -- entertainers, sports stars, physicians, business magnates -- they often have a fantasy about opening a restaurant. All they know is that they like to cook or entertain at home and they know which places they really like as customers. Few, if any, take the time to really do their homework and realize what it means to be a food service pro. After you blow away the smoke, what is left is this: you are paid a lot more for what you endure than what you do. I remind myself, often daily, that I am paid more for what I put up with than anything I really produce, tangible or symbolic.

The life expectancy of new food businesses is famously short. Everyone knows this, but as in the case of people who smoke, there is a lot of denial among newcomers. The main challenge is that we are not really selling food. We are selling service. You can buy a loaf of bread at the grocery store cheaper than you can at a convenience store at three in the morning. That's why they are called "convenience" stores. The higher price is for the convenience, not the product. Same is true for even (or especially) what is now called "comfort foods," the home-style goodies like mashed potatoes, fried chicken and green beans. When customers remember how really little they cost they often want to complain about the price, not stopping to remember they are miles from home and they don't have to wash the dishes or pick up the bill if someone is injured on the job where they get their meal. (I heard yesterday that American auto manufacturers now pay more for health care than for steel! My guess is that's because they chip in so much for health insurance as a "benefit" over and above their workers compensation bill that they are now crazy out of balance with competitors that have found a way to make their employees pay more for health insurance. But that is another discussion.)

Yep, it's all about people. How to attract them. How to keep them happy. How to get through the day without rubbing too many feathers the wrong way. I have enough left in my tank for another couple of years, but I will go out without a peep, knowing that the food business is a lot better in the telling than in the doing, making better memories than promises.

Good luck, Cat. Take care of yourself.

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