Saturday, February 2, 2013

January: the changing corporate identity of restaurants

"So as this guy got up to leave, he turned and grabbed my girlfriend's tit," Rob says, a six foot tall giant hunched over the crowded triple sink, scrubbing with great effort a daunting pile of saute pans. "And it wasn't like a honk. It was a squeeze. Not cool, man."

"Have you said anything to him yet?" I ask, standing there with a couple pans in my hand, waiting for Rob to make space in the triple sink. I'm genuinely interested in this controversial event, but I'm also needed back on line, away from the dish pit.

"Not yet," he replies, squinting at a particularly stubborn bit of food burnt onto the pan.

It has not been a great week for Rob. His girlfriend (a model and cheerleader for the Blue Bombers) was molested and he worked the fabled — but almost never heard of — 45 minute long shift. Instead of the usual 4 or 5 hour day of work, Rob was gifted a shift not even an hour long. At his current wage, it's not enough to pay for the gas to get him from his job as a manager of a sportswear store to his job as dishwasher at our restaurant.

He tells me, "I would've been happy working another few hours. I could use it. I'm not working for fun, I'm working for money. So yeah, it's been a shitty week."

January represents a very specific time for those working in the service industry. After the gluttonous orgy of Christmas spending and consuming, middle class customers tend to stay in for the month of January in order to recoup lost funds and lose gained weight. In Winnipeg, January often bitterly cold, making eating out less attractive to those warm on their couches catching up on DVR'ed episodes of Homeland. This means for restaurants, January is easily the slowest time of the year and because restaurant employees are generally not salaried, it's also the weakest month for accumulating hours.

The scarcity of business is even replicated in customers' choice of food. Once the Christmas pounds are packed on and New Year's resolutions are made, people try to stick to healthier choices, such as salads, for the first month of the year. Unfortunately, the price ticket on a salad is not the same as on a steak. Sales are down due to lack of volume, but also to lifestyle choices, as arbitrary as these might seem thanks to New Year's.

Ultimately, this cascades down to the lowest employees on the corporate hierarchy; namely, the cooks and dishwashers. The change from December to January is abrupt for those at the bottom of the ladder. When hours and tips were plentiful in the weeks leading up to Christmas, January is the stark opposite, a Dust Bowl of opportunity and cash.

Solutions to alleviate this are limited, unfortunately. Most of the cooks at our restaurant are students, trying to balance working part time with an increasingly competitive academic environment. Since the cooks are primarily engaged in school, they do not have the possibility of seeking a job in their field. Rather, in order to supplement their income, cooks turn to more cooking jobs. But if all restaurants are experiencing slow times, which is the foolish restaurant that would hire more people?

The downwards trend happens sharply for the cooks, coming as a short shock. Another cook at our restaurant, Ashton, noticed that he was being scheduled half an hour later than usual. He reported to me that normally he works at 5 pm, but he noticed that even on busier days, such as Friday or Saturday, his start time was 5:30 pm. Other employees noticed the same. It turned out that our management team, in an effort to save even two hours, pushed back every single start time. But for employees such as Ashton, ones who only know two or three stations, they tend to have shorter shifts in favour of employees with knowledge of all stations. This means that Ashton's 5:30 shift probably ends at 8 pm or earlier.

Just before working, Ashton sends me a bitter text, "I love working for an hour and a half. I hope they push my start time back further." I reply, "Next week we'll all be starting at 6."

I shouldn't have joked. It was as if the management team had read my text and thought it was a good idea. Starting the following schedule, many line cooks were scheduled at 6 pm. A few had the terrible fate of starting at 6:30 pm. I knew then that it was only a matter of time before the 7 pm shifts reared their ugly heads.

While Ashton and many other cooks live at home while they toil at school and work, some of the other cooks do not live with parents and do not have school in the cards. For a few, working at the restaurant is their primary mode, their only source of income, and their main avenue of interest. Most of these few are supervisors who lazily aspire to something more but put in little effort or ambition. For a handful, the restaurant is all they have. This means that these employees are labouring for less than thirty hours a week at a wage close to minimum, and trying to pay rent and other bills.

Most employees at the restaurant are making under 12 dollars an hour. The minimum wage in Manitoba is currently 10.25 while the minimum living wage is around 12.12. The percentage of minimum wage earners who do not live with their parents is around 40 percent.

To put this in perspective, if one of our employees makes 11.50 per hour and works 30 hours per week, his or her annual income is less than 18,000 dollars. Of course, in Canada, thanks to the social safety net, people such as Ashton and I are getting back 2,000 dollars in income tax as well as quarterly cheques reimbursing for general sales tax paid.

But this is not enough for employees such as Rob, who works two jobs in order to live. RRSPs, savings accounts, debt reduction, and other long term economic plans are just not feasible when one makes less than 1,200 dollars a month. It's also not feasible when Rob comes into work at 7 pm and is asked to leave at 7:45 pm.

What makes this so egregious for employees such as Ashton and Rob, there is often a less than equitable distribution of scarce hours. Certain employees are given opening shifts, which are almost as a rule, 4 hours or longer, and these are the same employees who enjoy working five days a week, rather than the three or four that Ashton and Rob work. Quintin, one such employee, has the pleasure of working the line-opening shift five days a week. Starting at 8:30 or 9 and then working until 3 or 4 every single day. Quintin lives in an apartment and works two jobs, making his need just as great as Rob's. However, Quintin enjoys the greater portion of hours because the management thinks he has a future with the company.

This makes sense in terms of long term thinking. I sat down with Jeff, the kitchen manager, and asked him about the hours situation. He was truly surprised to find that many people are bitter and disappointed that their hours were so significantly reduced. He said, "Honestly, I had no idea. Nobody ever came to me and talked about this."

He told me that when he first arrived at our particular restaurant, he was struck by the dearth of ambitious employees that could possibly move up the corporate chain. In our location, the main motive for working there was because our friends worked there, rather than to make something of the restaurant world. Jeff noticed that supervisors would be hard to come by unless he shook things up and brought in new people with fresh eyes. The result of which is that veterans such as Ashton and myself are meant to have one foot out the door to make room for those with both feet in.

Thus, the problem of the slow times of January are compounded when hours are equitably distributed. Jeff remarked that practically nobody had expressed issues with this loss of hours and that his figurative door was always open. However, sitting down with the kitchen manager does not solve a systemic problem.

Jeff wanted to make sure that I understood that the restaurant industry has changed. It's no longer the fun times party machine of decades previous. When I started working in the kitchen world, around 13 years ago, the partying level was commensurate with the effort of working. It was boom times for all within the industry. However, within the past few years, working in a restaurant has become more corporatized and finely tuned, in order to compete on a national or even international level. There is a greater pressure from stakeholders to run the restaurants more efficiently and to squeeze every possible penny from the labourers. No longer is this an industry of friends working with friends, but a cold corporate system of atomized individuals, easily swapped out if not at peak efficiency and efficacy.

The main issue that workers such as Ashton, Rob, and I have is that working there is no longer fun. Being on line is more difficult as there are less of us to share the burden, and that time on line is being drastically reduced for employees more interested in towing the corporate line.

Restaurants have traditionally attracted a specific personality type that is familiar to the general public: the irascible foul-mouthed leathery irritant. The type of employee that doesn't fit well in the office or cubicle structure. The type of person that carries long knives, does drugs in order to maintain a level of energy, and owns a huge repository of wildly offensive jokes and one-liners. These types of people express their frustration through verbal sparring, pointed barbs, and withering sarcasm. Our main mode of communication seems to be a passive aggressive form of sarcastic reply. This is entertaining for us, irritating for corporate management types who are required by unspoken social protocols to maintain a level of positive energy at all times.

What better proof of the changing face of the industry than Jim, an employee who made the mistake of deploying the resident sarcasm throughout social media? Restaurants such as ours, like all businesses now, see social media as a tool to promote, rather than as a communicative tool. According to our place of work, Twitter and Facebook are not dialogic but discourses for advertisement. Through official channels, the management ceaselessly posts photos of food and notices, any and all attempts to bring in business. Even individual managers advertise for the restaurant through their own personal Facebook statuses and Tweets. The thin line separating business from personal becomes perforated in this model.

Jim, one of our surly but hilarious employees, made the mistake of Tweeting something specific and disparaging about the company. Our restaurant is big enough that there are employees whose sole function is to trawl social media looking for mentions of the company name. Thus, they stumbled across Jim's venomously sarcastic Tweets and promptly sent the word down the corporate chain that this kid must go. When Jim was sat down to be fired, one of the managers told him that he'll never work for the company ever again and that he was personally offended.

In the company's eyes, the dismissal of Jim is totally and unequivocally justified. Part of being an employee is being a good ambassador and keeping problems within the circle. It is about maintaining a flawless facade so that potential customers aren't turned away by the reality of what goes on in a kitchen. Jim, as with all employees, must sign a document outlining expectations, which include the aforementioned good ambassadorship. By Tweeting about the company, Jim violated the document and thus needed to be removed from employment.

But he would have left anyway eventually. Jim's hours were being cut back in favour of employees who were more likely to follow orders without question, without retort, without sarcasm. Employees who might have a future in the restaurant industry should be developed and nurtured; it only makes sense from a business perspective. Thus, the environment is being made increasingly unwelcome for the casual employee who wants to work while going to school, joke around with his friends, and maintain a visible presence on social media.

The casual employee, such as Rob, Ashton, and I, are being shown the door because in the company's eyes, it's not worth putting in the time developing us as employees. This isn't intrinsically a negative thing. This is merely the changing face of the corporate identity. After all, it's simple economics to focus on the employees who will provide the most amount of profit for the company. What gets lost in this particular transaction is the human element, the specific individuals who are left working two jobs that barely pay the same as one salaried job. Employees such as Rob, who have strangers grope their girlfriends and get cut after 45 minutes, are the ones who suffer in the slow times of January, the slow times of an entire industry that is trending downwards.

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