I worked in the restaurant business for many years. From the age of 18 until my early 30’s, I worked every restaurant job imaginable. I began my career as a server in a national chain that’s no longer in business. Presumably, I had little to do with the company’s demise, but I was neither particularly good at my job, nor very happy doing it. At the time, i had no idea that there might be a connection between my deep dissatisfaction and my so-so performance.
You see, like about half of my generation, I grew up thinking that work was just work, period. You worked, they paid you, and then you went home. So the notion of job satisfaction never occurred to me. It never seemed to occur to my father either.
My dad worked at the same company for over 30 years and he was indifferent, irritated, or just plain miserable 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. He was as happy and satisfied as the next person when he wasn’t at work, but he spent a good third of his daily life in a state of unhappiness. I don’t think it was always this way, but that’s how it turned out for him.
My First Glimpse of the Workforce?
I visited my dad at his office a few times over the years. This was in the 1970s, a time not too far removed from the Mad Men days of martini lunches and constant economic boom. I guess I spent a total of about 8-10 hours in my father’s office over the years, long enough to witness a full day’s work. Yet during all that time, I saw nothing but a couple of dozen men milling around in short sleeves and ties, chain smoking, sipping coffee, and complaining.
As I remember it, I never saw anyone there do a single stitch of work. Never. My father certainly didn’t, not when I was there at least. Yet somehow his company thrived for many years, for decades in fact. It thrived until it didn’t anymore. In 1980, the layoffs began.
By 1983, my father was forced into retirement and the firm was out of business, bought out by a bigger shark with newfangled ideas.
I’ll get back to the thrilling tale of my restaurant career in a moment. In the meantime, let’s talk about the fall of my dad’s company. For a long time, for decades in fact, my dad’s company was very successful. In fact, the government thought it was too successful.
Eventually, they deemed it a monopoly and used antitrust laws to break it up. Or something like that. I’m not smart enough to know if this was a good or a bad thing overall, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the effect I believe it had on my father and his chain-smoking coworkers.
After the Flood
The breakup enraged my father. It enraged him and I think it broke his heart. It enraged him for a lot of different reasons, but one of the biggest was the effect it had on the company stock he owned. He’d chosen stock options early in his career in lieu of a higher salary. For many years, the value of the stock rose continuously. Needless to say, this trend didn’t continue after the split. The value of the stock he owned plummeted and he sold it at a significant loss.
As far as I know, the restructured management of my dad’s company did little or nothing to help their workforce through the transition. Support wise, I mean, on a psychological level. They did nothing to keep morale up after longtime employees like my dad took such a hit on their stocks and salaries plateaued.
My guess is that once the money dried up a bit, the engineers in my dad’s office needed something to compensate for what they’d lost.. Deep down, they probably knew the constant boom times were over and that the big money wasn’t coming back.
But they still needed something. Whether they knew it or not, they needed to feel like they belonged, especially when fat dividends and twice a year pay raises were no longer options.
This was the setting I walked into as a young boy. What I saw in my dad’s office was the aftermath of the break-up. What I saw were men and women who were no longer engaged, people whose work no longer meant as much to them. It was natural that they’d stand around smoking after that. And it was just as natural that the company would eventually fail or be subsumed.
Lessons Learned and Forgotten
Later, as I walked the slow track to marginal success in the restaurant industry, I saw dad’s office scene played out again and again. I saw indifferent managers, lazy cooks, and hostile ownership. I saw good, hardworking people as well of course, but malaise and resignation were the dominant themes. I saw this and it made me very sad. I saw this and it reminded me of my father.
The sadness registered, but I couldn’t do a thing about it until much later. In 2004, I got a brand new restaurant job. I made $6.25 an hour, but my tip share swelled the rate up to almost $7. I worked under a General Manager named Julie. Julie was organized, efficient, and kind hearted. She was also very, very smart. And this intelligence was the engine to our restaurant’s success.
Long story short, Julie’s intelligence played a part in everything we did. It also played a part in the kindness she displayed to her staff, myself included. She cared about us, but she also needed to get all she could out of our work. She treated us well for two reasons. First, because her heart was good. Second, because it made us work harder. There was neither contradiction nor hypocrisy in the harnessing of these two motives.
Success Through Recognition
I eventually became her assistant. By that time, I would have run through a wall for the woman. In fact, I think I actually did, at a rate of about $11 an hour. In any case, we whizzed along and our restaurant made a lot of money. Julie and I worked together to form and execute plans to keep our staff working hard and happy. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were actually implementing miniature recognition programs.
Many of our ideas were subtle, informal. The details don’t much matter, but the upshot was low turnover, happy customers, and at least three buckets of money a week for the owner. As in profit. To this day, I believe that the paradigm Julie set was completely responsible for those buckets of money.
I believe this because of what happened later. It was after the 2008 financial crisis. We never felt any tangible effects from it, but the owner panicked. Never a friendly man in the first place, he became almost tyrannical after that. We were forced to cut corners and were constantly understaffed. It eventually wore Julie out and she left for greener pastures.
My Turn at the Wheel
The owner chose me to take her place. Energized, I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked to turn things around. And it worked for a while. I stole all of Julie’s ideas and revenues climbed quickly. I was never the most organized or efficient manager, but I treated my staff just as Julie taught me to — with compassion, respect, and, most importantly of all, with recognition.
Eventually, the ownership of my beloved restaurant began to lose interest. I will not go into the details of the treatment I was afforded, but it took a painful emotional toll and I became indifferent myself. I managed to get out of the restaurant business before I became the work version of my father, but I wish I would have been more attentive to my staff as things began to disintegrate. I had forgotten what I had learned and it was time for me to move on. The restaurant went out of business not long after I left.
But it was far from a failure. In fact, Julie and I created something that was special for many years. We were good to our staff and guests and created many wonderful relationships. I had hundreds of employees over the years, most of them young people at the beginning of their work life.
I remain in contact with many of them. Although I feel that I was the fortunate one, they thank me sometimes. They thank me for being kind to them, for being a good boss. They don’t ever say this explicitly, but I think they’re thanking me for seeing them.