Welcome back to Off the Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest food stories from my email inbox. This week, we've got tales of restaurant bosses who redefined what it means to be a terrible manager. As always, these are real emails from real readers, though names have been changed.
The worst diner/laundromat/pizza shop ever
"When I was 18, I worked at a diner/laundromat/pizza shop. The diner was open 24/7, but the laundromat and pizza shop had limited hours. A communal hallway connected all of these buildings. Looking back at what they put me through on July 4th, 1985, not one person would have convicted me if I burned the whole deal down.
"The local fireworks show on the lake drew thousands. There were only three casual restaurants in town, and the place where I worked was located next to the venue, which meant we had the most foot traffic. The manager, the owner's brother, scheduled five people to work: himself and his wife, me, an extra waitress, and a busboy. I was told that I would be taking orders at the pizza shop and preparing pizzas and submarine sandwiches while the rest of them would handle the diner and laundromat.
"I expressed my doubts about being able to do both things, because and I had been through Independence Day at another local restaurant before. I tried to explain how the waves of people were going to drown us. The owner's brother insisted that we would be fine, even though that meant I would be preparing orders for two restaurants, serving a dozen tables, and selling slices and bevs at the counter by myself.
"I lost it. Never before (and never since) have I lost it so hard at work. 'DO YOU NOT SEE HOW BUSY I AM? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU!'"
"The brother was a Born Again minister-to-be, and his wife hated every minute of working in the diner. I hated working with them because they argued during their entire shift, and he was a condescending, lazy lard-ass. He had never worked in a restaurant before, but Mr. Jesus-Will-Steer-Our-Ship was certain everything would be okie-doke because… God. There is no God in a tourist diner on July Fourth, and there never has been.
"By 7ish we had a line of people down the block... not just to the diner, but also for the pizza shop. Everyone who lived within a 40-mile radius of the firework show with an appetite was there. The only thing that *fucking* brother did was steer customers to buy pizza because the diner was overwhelmed. He'd come running through the hallway with handfuls of order slips, throw them at me, and run away.
"Meanwhile, the laundromat was still open and customers were leaning on the buzzer all night for help. In no parallel universe was this situation going to work!
"Did I mention we were taking to-go orders on the phone, too? Phone calls the brother never answered because he felt it wasn't his job. So there I was, tossing pizza dough onto pans while cashing checks with a phone crooked in my neck and 12 tables that needed help. Everything about this probably violated several health regulations and labor laws. I started telling people on the phone there would be a two-hour wait, and then simply stopped answering the phone. Fucker came running back to me, and he was all like, 'WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING THE PHONE!? YOU HAVE TO STEP UP!' He clapped his hands, too, and that. Was. It.
"I lost it. Never before (and never since) have I lost it so hard at work. 'DO YOU NOT SEE HOW BUSY I AM? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU!'
"I threw a pizza pan at the wall and it scared the living hell out of him. He was used to being catered to as the boss' brother and as a pious Christian. If he had time to shit his pants, or maybe cast out my demons, he would have. He slunk away and made the busboy bring order slips to me instead.
"Our shift ended and the place was still mobbed. I locked the door to the pizza shop, finished outstanding orders, and started cleaning up. That lard-ass bastard and his wife split as soon as their relief walked in the door. They didn't clean up anything, didn't restock for the next shift -- they just up and left! I called my mom to tell her what happened and that I would be late. It took me four hours to finish and I walked home about an hour before dawn.
"The next afternoon, the owner called me. She was probably going to reprimand me, and then made the mistake of starting the conversation with, 'I heard you lost your temper at my brother last night.' Did I ever, I told her. So then I told her off too. She tried to bribe me with extra pay not to quit. I don't remember how much, but it was something insulting, and quit I did.
"'What if I get my brother to apologize to you, will you stay?' I'm all like, 'If he calls my house, my mother has things she would like to say to him for letting me walk home alone in the dark after working for 12 hours.' Of course that lard-ass bastard coward never called!
"I took my first weekend off that summer, got a job at a competing diner the following Tuesday, and then left for college that fall. I never set one foot in the diner again. If that lard-ass bastard coward is reading this, it's 30 years later and I'm still mad." -- Mary Peters
"Popcorn Explosion" would be a good name for a band
"In the late '90s, I worked at a movie theater attached to the mall near a beach area. Naturally, when the weather turned bad during the summer, we got slammed. One such Saturday, I was working a double, manning the popcorn popper inside the ring of concession counters in the middle of the lobby.
"Early afternoon, the popper died -- I looked inside to see blackened wiring, then went to my manager. She tried calling two repair places with no luck, then came to me. 'You're some kind of nerd, Steve; think you can fix it?'
"Teenage me actually was some kind of nerd, the kind who knew what 50% of the stuff in the back of the Radio Shack actually did, so I took it as a challenge and diagnosed the problem. I ran to the Radio Shack in the mall and bought the necessary parts and tools.
"I called him back to find out there was a brief 30ft-tall fireball in the concession stand and the theater, and part of the mall, was evacuated temporarily."
"I came back to the theater and, with other employees as witnesses, told management that I was no professional and was going to do the best I could. About an hour later, the popper was back in action with some jury-rigged wiring that was by no means safe. I proceeded to man the popper with a fire extinguisher 2ft away for the rest of the day, keeping the plebeians fed with our massively overpriced corn/oil/salt nastiness.
"As we were closing, again with numerous witnesses, I went to all of the managers and said, 'You need to get a professional in as soon as possible -- like tomorrow or Monday. I was no electrician and this could very well explode or burst on fire.' Management listened, but appeared to not care much about the risk, because I helped them get their sales numbers up.
"Time passed, and I kept checking with management and imploring them to get a tech in to fix it professionally. They didn't do anything.
"Two and a half weeks later, on a day off, my pager beeped me from one of my co-worker friends (we all had pagers in the late '90s). I called him back to find out there was a brief 30ft-tall fireball in the concession stand and the theater, and part of the mall, was evacuated temporarily.
"I headed to the mall, as I knew the police and fire department would be involved and I wanted to protect myself. Luckily, eight of my co-workers had already gone on record with the police on my behalf. Nobody got fired, but I proceeded to get crappier shifts." -- Steve Brandeis
Hero bartender is hero
"When I was 16, I got my first job hostessing at a restaurant that started as a small seafood chain that was bought out by the manager and he renamed it after himself (guy had a MASSIVE ego) about four months into my time there.
"I was just a kid but didn't really look like one. I was built like Kim Kardashian by the time I was 14 and the hostess stand was right by the bar, meaning on sports nights I would routinely have my ass grabbed by some horny grandpa who thought I was 22 instead of barely legal to drive.
"The bartender was this awesome guy who, while it took him a while to figure out just how young I was, figured out pretty quick that I was naive and way too scared of losing my job to ever speak up against mistreatment so he had my back, something I was VERY thankful for one afternoon when the owner was in the restaurant.
"I had just sat a six-top in an area that was closed because it was slow but they requested that specific table. I had been trained to seat people where requested if they had a preference and just let the next server in rotation know they had an out-of-section table. No biggie. I seated them, ran them waters, alerted the server, and went back up front when the owner/manager came over, grabbed my arm, and yanked me out from behind the hostess stand and into the separate entry way.
"He had been drinking a bottle or two of wine (his normal habit when he came in), and carrying on no different today than any other, until he started screaming at me about seating guests in a closed section. I was trying to apologize, explain my actions, and not break down crying as I could see tables looking over at us trying to figure out what all the noise was. It was humiliating.
"Then the bartender, a good head taller than me or the owner, came over and put himself in between me and the owner, looked at me, and said, 'Go back to the hostess stand.’ He then got right in the face of the owner, put a finger in his chest, and said, 'If I ever hear you talk like that to that poor girl again, I swear to God I will drag your fat ass outside and beat the shit out of you.'
"Then he gave me a nod, threw the towel in his hand over his shoulder, and walked back behind the bar like nothing had happened. The owner just sheepishly looked at the ground, shuffled past me, and went back to hide in the kitchen. I worked there for another few months after that and the owner never yelled at me again, and the bartender was still working there when I quit.” -- Nina Lerner
Break time at Burger King
"When I was 18, I dropped out of high school still lacking many of the necessary credits to graduate. My dad immediately made me find a job, and the only place around that would hire a long-haired, anxiety-ridden slacker like me was the Burger King at the local mall.
"I started a few weeks prior to the Christmas rush as a food prepper (I refuse to use the term 'cook' for fast food) so I kind of got a grasp on what I was doing in the slow-paced environment. I want to emphasize KIND OF because even at my best I was still the slowest person there. I was not meant to be in a kitchen.
"Then the inevitable happened: one final burger hit the grease, splashed into the machine, caught the flames, and sent HEM shooting outward toward my face."
"Nonetheless, the managers had an unshakeable faith in my ability to not suck under pressure and began putting me on duty for the dinner rush during the holidays. This was nonstop fast-food action. Everyone else was putting out like three or four burgers a minute, and I was making one every two minutes while trying not to fall on my ass because the floors were coated with a thick layer of grease.
"At this point, my manager -- in his infinite wisdom -- decided I might be best utilized simply manning the grill. This thing was a 7ft-tall conveyor belt that shot flames at the burgers. Pop 'em in frozen on one side, watch 'em slop out into a plastic dish filled with grease on the other.
"I had just finished working six hours of insanity and we had a lull, so I requested a break from my manager. He declined and told me there was another rush coming and pointed at what seemed like a stampede headed our way. We were low on burgers so he started rushing them through the grill while I tried to catch them on the other side. The plastic catching dishes were nearly filled with grease because we didn't have time to empty them (which I probably should have done instead of asking for a break), so it was splashing up each time a new burger plopped down.
"I asked him to stop putting burgers in for a second so I could empty them as I realized that this was becoming a dangerous situation, but he either didn't hear or ignored me. And then the inevitable happened: one final burger hit the grease, splashed into the machine, caught the flames, and sent HEM shooting outward toward my face. There was a collective gasp from everyone nearby, though I managed to somehow avoid it -- probably by sliding on the grease-soaked floor.
"My manager came out from behind the machine and said, 'OK, I think you can go on break now.'" -- Larry Walker
"Just wing it" has never gone badly in a restaurant
"In the early '90s, I worked at a hotel restaurant whose quality and food-safety standards were almost nonexistent. The management was never around for backup, the kitchen flow was terrible, the training nonexistent. People went there because it was one of those slowly rotating restaurants at the top of an overrated hotel chain and afforded nice views of the city and harbor.
"Besides hotel guests, the place catered to Downtown businessmen in ill-fitted suits, seniors in search of the 'Rapid & Reasonable' lunch special, and crowds of locals and tourists trying to shorten their lifespans with the worst meal ever invented: all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch.
"One of the almost-retired lead waitresses told me, 'Oh, we just tell them the blender's broken' -- which was hard to do with a straight face while the sound of ice being blended with rum and sticky syrup played loudly in the background, but oh well."
"As anyone who's worked brunch knows, customers think they don't have to tip you because 'she really doesn't do anything,' but it's somehow *more* work than a regular meal because it's nonstop coffee refills and meeting the demands of assholes -- approximately one per table -- who insist you bring them something that's not on the buffet, then proceed not to eat that thing because they are too full from eating thrice their weight in greasy brunch food that *is* on the buffet. The only way I managed to make tips there was through sheer volume.
"The menu, meanwhile, was full of lies. 'House-made salsa'? Pace picante from a gallon jug. 'Steamed fresh vegetable medley'? Microwaved frozen. 'Slow-roasted turkey breast'? Cut from a gelatinous slab. Management would put shit on the menu that we literally couldn't make. When I started working there, someone ordered an 'old-fashioned malt, made with premium ice cream.' I soon realized this meant walking to the freezer at one end of the kitchen and using the useless cheap-ass ice cream scoop (and then a steak knife) to chip out some freezer-burned generic strawberry ice cream into a metal cup, walking to the other end of the kitchen to dump in some milk, and then walking out of the kitchen, over to the bar, and asking the surly, incompetent bartender to blend it.
"Since the bartenders hated doing this because it meant actually cleaning the blender afterwards (instead of just rinsing it like they could with margaritas and daiquiris), they would un-prioritize the 'malt' and make you wait a really long time for it -- in addition to the 15 minutes you've already spent ignoring your section to obtain one single beverage. It was the first and only time I let someone order one. One of the almost-retired lead waitresses told me, 'Oh, we just tell them the blender's broken' -- which was hard to do with a straight face while the sound of ice being blended with rum and sticky syrup played loudly in the background, but oh well.
"One day, I came to work to discover a new 'Mediterranean' section on the menu. No instructions or explanations for the BOH staff on how to make any of it. Yes, they went through the trouble of inventing menu items and printing new menus, but that was as far as it went. Of course, one of my first lunch tables ordered our new 'Greek salad.' The menu description was pretty standard -- romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, gyro meat, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, pepperoncini, and tzatziki sauce. Sadly, the kitchen had none of those ingredients except for tomatoes and romaine (technically there was some romaine in the giant pre-cut bags of salad bar mix). The hapless line cook looked at my ticket and scratched his head, then grabbed a menu to read the item description.
"He clearly didn't know what half of these things were, but he took a stab at it: a pile of salad mix topped with pepperoni slices, grated Parmesan, diced green peppers, sliced canned black olives, tomatoes (YES!), and a side of ranch dressing. I took one look at it and went out to inform my customer that we were totally out of the Greek salad, so he'd have to order something else.
"Two months later, a manager made an appearance to tell the waitstaff that we could no longer request any schedule adjustments or days off, 'But that shouldn't be a problem for those of you who work for a living.' I quit the next day, but of course no managers were around so there was no one I could quit to. I ended up turning in my name tag, bow tie, and apron to the hotel sales and catering office." -- Jamie Summers
The Applebee's monster
"My first serving job was at an Applebee's during my first year of high school. My manager was a megalomaniacal goblin drunk on the power he wielded over high school kids and low-income career servers. Like, he was the kind of person who would make you unzip your knee-high boots to ensure that the color of your socks adhered to dress code, and would send you home if they were navy or polka dot instead of regulation black.
"Anyhoo. I was working a lunch rush one day with a couple other servers, one of whom was a woman a few months pregnant with her second child. She'd been complaining about back pain all morning, and at one point slipped off to the washroom. When she emerged a few minutes later she was pale and shaken, and pulled my manager aside to a corner near the Posi I was using -- she was having a miscarriage and asked him to let her go home. His response, which far exceeded the expectations I had for him regarding his overwhelming assholery:
"'Well, it's too late to do anything about it and we need you on the floor. Finish the rush and you'll be first cut.'
"She was an extremely passive person and, presumably, was still in shock. So she stuffed some toilet paper in her underwear to sop up the mess and kept serving her tables riblets and burgers. I was 18 and had no idea whether this was just what happened in the world or what, so I just tried to keep her tables bussed and awkwardly smile at her when we made eye contact.
"She ended up going to the doctor at the end of her shift, taking two (unpaid) days off, and was back by the end of the week. I eventually grew up and realized that he was next-level evil and not representative of what management is like. And a few months later she quit and, if Facebook can be trusted, is living a beautiful life with her family while he is a sad loner (which is still better than he deserves)." -- Jessica Kareva
Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please email WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with "Off the Menu" in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
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