Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, we’ve got stories about the worst restaurant bosses ever. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
Several eons ago, I waited in Beverly Hills at a restaurant that ripped off Wolfgang Puck’s pizza concepts, but not to any actionable extent (I never understood why). It was a good thing I was young, because the clientele was… challenging.
An understood policy was that, if a table was openly hostile, or working the server’s last nerve, the table could be turned over to another server without fanfare and usually to good result. This worked fine… until one lady.
She would come in almost every day, send back her food multiple times, and expect the server to chat extensively with her — by which I mean she’d want them to stand there while she berated them. I mean, she made servers CRY. Young as I was, I wasn’t up for that nonsense, so I would quietly trade her table off to a more receptive staff member. Eventually she noticed, and called over management.
Lady: (indicating me) That server never waits on me. I come here all the time.
Manager: Durrrr …
Lady: I want her to wait on me. I’m going to come here every day and sit in her section until she serves me!
Manager: She complained that you never wait on her, and she’s going to insist on you from now on.
Me: Umm… that’s harassment. She’s getting fine service, and she can’t request me specifically just out of spite.
Manager: Well, you have to do it.
Me: OK! I’m out of here.
Just quit right on the spot. The kicker? I filed for unemployment on the grounds of harassment in the meantime, and shitty middle management denied that ANY of it happened. Completely perjured themselves to a JUDGE, after I worked my arse off for them for six years. [Editor’s Note: Wow, I’ve never seen restaurant management perjure themselves over unemployment before. Hahahaha, yes I have. Fuck you Stuart, I won.] In the end, I got my unemployment. Thanks, jerks!
P.S. During the L.A. riots, the joint made the Hispanic kitchen staff bus in from East LA, even though the city was burning. Nice.
Many years ago, because I was utterly insane (and, I suppose, I liked money), I was working three jobs: Partner in a communication firm, teaching at my alma mater, and working as the bar manager at a seafood joint (franchise location of a now-defunct chain). The owner was always a bit on the sketchy side, particularly his predilection for sitting at the bar and ordering a veritable waterfall of vodka cranberries while wearing his work shirt, but as long as the checks kept going through, I didn’t worry too much.
Anyway, over the span of a few weeks, things started getting weird: bottles of certain beers were going missing from the reach-in, my fruit inventory was completely out of whack, and so on. Something was up, obviously, and so I figured one of my bartenders was grifting (but, really, who the hell steals a lime?), but when I asked the owner if I could check the security tapes, he told me not to worry about it. (OH, HEY, WARNING SIGN.)
One day there were signs posted all over the back that there was to be an all-employee meeting on a Sunday night. We all assemble, and he tells us that he’s bought out the restaurant from the chain and we’re going independent, we’re still going to be a seafood joint, the decor would change a bit, uniforms would change, and the menu would be more focused on meat & potatoes, because “that’s what the market dictates.” Turns out the owner had been lifting beers and fruit for a month or so, because he was desperately trying to mimic the beer batter used in the chain’s fish fry. (OH, HEY, WARNING SIGN NUMBER TWO.)
Because I’m an idiot and because I like money, I kept showing up for work as long as the paychecks kept going through. But my beer orders kept dwindling (I’d get half of what I ordered), and at one point I was ordered to marry bottles (e.g., pouring Tia Maria into an empty bottle of Kahlua), which is illegal in pretty much every state. (OH, HEY, WARNING SIGN THE THIRD.)
So, it was like the fall of Rome: Survival of the least expendable. My last day was a Saturday night, and it was the biggest calamity you can imagine. One of the line cooks literally cut his index finger to the bone while chopping an onion. Another line cook had to be rushed to the ER because, in his infinite wisdom, he opened the door to the deep fryer while it was still on, resulting in a few gallons of scalding hot oil pouring out onto his leg. A busboy was sent to the nearby grocery store to get a few bags of Dole lettuce, because we had run out. And while making a Jack & Coke for a regular at the bar, my soda gun began squalling and mewling like a dying animal — and, of course, there were no spare CO2 tanks, nor bags of syrup.
For whatever reason, I finished my shift, but decided I wasn’t going to show up anymore, because I could see the writing on the wall. The restaurant closed the next day, and it turned out that the owner had never bought out the place from the chain — they had actually forced HIM out due to mismanagement, and all the equipment was auctioned off by the sheriff’s department, and the owner had something like $650,000 in liabilities.
To top it all off, my last paycheck bounced. A month or so after the place closed, I went to my regular hangout bar and saw that owner and his then-wife downing drink after drink after drink after shot after drink after shot. The bartender who was working that night knew the story, so I convinced him to send a bar rag shot to that owner with my regards.
Yeah, it was petty. Yeah, it was childish. But for a brief moment, it felt good.
Back in 2007 I worked at a small SF chain called Asqew. Their locations have all since closed since then because they took they took a wildly popular restaurant, expanded it, completely changed the dynamic and put all the stress on the backs of assistant managers working 50 hour weeks for pitiful salaries. And made us wear polo shirts. Fuck polo shirts. Don’t hide their names, those fuckers made me wear a polo shirt and need to answer for their crimes.
The location I trained at was on Haight street near Ashbury. If you don’t know SF, let me tell you — that part of Haight is filthy. Like, needles and piles of human excrement filthy.
The first day I started, I was strongly encouraged to put my belongings in a plastic bag and tie it up tight before putting it in the office, as there was a wee infestation problem and recently my coworker put his hoodie on after work and a few roaches fell out of the hood. The cockroach problem became increasingly apparent, and that first week I watched my coworker casually lean on a roach that scuttled across the counter so the customer he was helping wouldn’t see it. Sweet summer child, I thought that was bad.
Manager asked me to come in the following Tuesday an hour early with two other people — the exterminators were going to be there Monday night and we’d have to clean up a bit.
Before I explain what happens next, you’re going to want to put down any food or beverage that you were thinking of consuming.
I arrive at 8 am on Tuesday morning and can clearly see immediately that the floor is blanketed with slowly dying roaches. The entire floor was moving. You know that scene in Temple of Doom where they’re stepping on something crunchy? It was like that. And oh lord, if ever there were a time to be allergic to crunchy, this was it.
We have those asbestos looking panels in the ceiling, you know the ones? As I walked around with a hat on and plastic baggies tied around my shoes, pouring dustpan after dustpan of twitching insect into the garbage, occasionally I’d hear a *slap* as a roach fell out from the ceiling panels onto his twitching brethren on the floor. Roaches would wander out from seams in the walls, walk a few inches and then slide down to the floor. The worst part, however, was probably our credit card machine which seemed to constantly short out. Apparently the little cubby cut into the counter where it was installed made a cozy home! So I learned when I lifted the credit card machine out of the cubby and was treated to a veritable geyser of cockroaches that somehow poured up and out and then all over the counters.
Amazingly, and alone (the dudes who were going to work with me neglected to arrive early) I got all of the bugs swept up and wiped off and bagged and tagged by the time we opened at 11 am.
My first job was at Burger King, where the most notable thing was Charlie, one of the managers. He would puff his arms up (pumping was absent from those biceps) and tell attractive women he “got” them, which meant he’d turn to us and tell us to put a few more fries in the bag.
“Wow,” I would think. “She’s totally gonna jump your canola-oiled bones because of those six extra fries.”
But all that was nothing. Burger King had a policy that if your drawer came up short, for whatever reason, you were fired. However, when this happened, there were all sorts of questions.
So Charlie had a system. He would hire a young girl. He would steal money out of her drawer twice. Then the girl would be put in the back on sandwich board or the fry station so she couldn’t “steal” out of the drawer again (even though everyone knew what was going on), and then she would quit because that wasn’t the job she’d been told she would have. Charlie would then hire the next naïve little thing, and we would witness the circle of life.
So here I was, working my first grown-up job and trying to be happy about it despite the abysmal pay, the polyester and steel wool uniform, the Sahara-like heat from the ice machine and grill, and the volcanic explosions on my face caused by the grilled fat calling itself food. And then my drawer came up short, twice. (Only then did I learn from the others about Charlie’s system. Thanks for the heads up, guys.) So they stuck me in the back, where I became one of the fastest workers on cheese board and celebrated in quiet song about no longer having to deal face-to-face with the customers.
Well, Charlie didn’t like that. I tried to call in sick one day, and he said to come in or be fired. I came in. Between coughs, I lost my voice and couldn’t call out special orders. I ended up just pointing at the extra pickle, no tomato. I also probably infected half of Torrance, CA, but I made it to the end of shift, including the eighty minutes of unpaid cleanup. Charlie repeatedly stuck me on cheese board with no one on sandwich board. I refused to fall behind. Charlie gave me the stink eye. I refused to notice.
And then… the salad bar came to town. This was brand new to fast food, and Charlie took to this new weapon in his arsenal like a starving dog to its own dump.
Suddenly, I was the “only one” who was “smart enough” to do the salad bar, and so I needed to prep enough salad for the rest of the day, regardless of shift. I went from sweating half to death standing next to the steamer to freezing my ta-tas off in the walk-in. He had me slicing up so much lettuce and carrots and cucumbers and whatever in there that when I came out with a pile of prep containers there was ice in my hair, my stomach was cramping, and I couldn’t feel my fingers.
When I wasn’t in the freezer, I was being yelled at to clean the salad bar area, where people (evidently so giddy at this newfangled veg-ee-tab-le thing that they went into full-body paroxysms of joy) had splashed industrial-strength ranch dressing all over everything they couldn’t stuff into their plastic boxes or stash down their pant legs.
But the end of summer was in sight, and Charlie could go screw himself. I used the constant restocking of the salad bar to avoid my crazy coworkers, and I made it to my pre-planned quitting date. Prince Cow Patty wasn’t there on my last day, which suited me fine.
When one of the few people I liked there saw me a few months later, I learned Charlie had been fired for sexual harassment. Color me surprised.
Back in college, I got a job at a gourmet cookie shop (not the one you generally think of; this one closed down years ago) based solely on the fact that I had the hots for a guy that worked there, John.
Being a young, squeaky-clean-looking sort with good customer service skills and rudimentary baking ability meant I was pretty much qualified to own the place and the father and daughter team that owned this franchise loved me. At least at first.
I was often given the closing shift, and as this shop was in downtown Austin, it meant I could close up at 11 and be at the local gay clubs by midnight. Perfect. But then another worker at their other location began subbing in now and then at mine, and I quickly realized I’d seen him out at the same clubs many times, though he was easily 10 years older than me. Let’s call him Sean.
He had known the owners for a very long time, and filled me in on their backstory; along with their precarious financial situation (not great fiscal management plus expanding too quickly) they were strict Christian Scientists. He had also been raised as one, and still played along to make his mother happy (and maybe because I suspected he had a coke problem and Mommy paid his rent).
John had since quit, but we began dating, and things were great…until Sean heard about it. The owners, who had always heaped praise on me, now seemed distant and I could swear avoided me. Nothing was ever said until I called out of work one day with 102-degree fever. A trip to the university clinic confirmed strep throat and a week’s antibiotics were issued. I called them to tell them I’d be able to come back in a few days, and all seemed fine.
Until 3 days later when I could once again swallow and dropped by to let them know I could probably come back the next day, and–surprise!–I wasn’t on the schedule at all. When I asked, no one would talk to me. The owner left out the back door and his daughter told me to go back on the floor and not be behind the counter or in the back.
She handed an envelope to Sean and left as well, refusing to engage me.
He — somewhat gleefully — gave me the envelope which has my final check and a letter explaining how I had been fired because I was sick, and that only results from being “sinful” and Sean has explained to them that I am on drugs. He then gave me a creepily father-like dressing down about “the lifestyle and its repercussions” and how he stuck up for me, but has to keep his job, and after all, he’s known them for years.
And yes, he told them I was on drugs — antibiotics.
[Editor’s Note: Worth pointing out: Austin — perhaps unsurprisingly — does have LGBT-related anti-discrimination employment requirements, though Texas — very, very unsurprisingly — does not. It’s unclear whether this story occurred before they were enacted]
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu?Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.