Monday, February 9, 2009

Where have all the bus boys gone?

Sounds like a bad 50's song but the reality is during this current economic downturn it seems that some operators have taken a look at their P&L's and have come up with the decision to do away with the busboys.
Now some operators never had them in the first place. J Alexander's and Houston's employ what's referred to as the 'Scatter Method' of managing the front of the house. Typically servers have a 3 - 4 table primary station and then an additonal 4 -8 tables in their vicinity that are their secondary stations to which they bring refills of beverages, run food and progressively bus the tables. You might see 'your' server twice during the entire process - once to take the order and then to present the check. I'm making it sound very simplistic but I know it's not. It's fascinating to watch the floor coverage and by the looks of their business - it works. I like the idea of the servers bussing their own tables - it forces them to be proactive and keeps them ahead of the service path; 'marking' tables with a steak knife there - steak MR, or a large dessert spoon designating the person who ordered the creme brulee.
But that's how they started their operation and have created a regimented system that covers all the bases.
I went to a beachside restaurant the other night, which has many locations and can be considered a local institution. I waited patiently with my daughter, our usual Wednesday keeping-up-with-the-child dinner, as the hostess looked around the seating field in desperation for a place to seat us. Most of the tables were still dirty from the last patrons and the girls on the floor looked a bit exasperated as they tried to keep up with the ebb and flow of the guest count.
It could have been that they were understaffed or had been busier than normal; being in the business I made a mental note and practised patience - the last thing they needed now was an unruly guest demanding to be serviced.
A kind and knowing smile is sometimes all that's needed to settle someone down and allow them to catch their breath.
The hostess looked at me, as if to throw her arms up in defeat and says, "We don't have any busboys."
'You mean they all called off on the same day?" I asked.
"No, the manager let them all go and now we're supposed to do it." Again a sad look crossed her face.
Okay, I thought, business decision - I can see why they would want to cut their payroll. Oddly enough though the manager was nowhere to be found and when he did stick his head out of the doorway it was to use that old chestnut of watching the action without actually meeting anyone's gaze or walking the tables. Not an easy feat I can tell you but some managers have it down to an art how they can be 'of the space' but not anywhere 'in the space'.
Two things lept to mind as I bussed an adjacent table so that the four German tourists could sit down and start spending some of their Euros:
1.) It's all too often that operators take a short term approach to bad times. To cut one of the most crucial, and grossly underpaid, positions in the front of the house just dosn't make any sense from a customer service point of view. I watched three groups of customers come in, take a look around, gauging the operations readiness to service them - and walk out.
At a $15.00 per person check average they lost at least $180.00 worth of business, more than three times what they would have paid one busboy for the shift and for those that stayed, they were left - how can I put it? The remaining guests, such as myself, were left with a bad taste in their mouth.
2.) These are the same kind of managers who won't buy the tools in order to do the job correctly, such as forks, spoons and glassware; believing that they can squeeze a few more dollars from the Direct Expenses Checkbook and look like heroes.
3.) If you're going to cut these positions, like busboys and dish washers, at least be present to show your commitment to the decision. Pitch in and support the rest of the staff with the added work; it dosn't have to be all night - just long enough to get the job done and send the signal that these types of decisions affect everyone and as such, everyone gets to jump in.
I heard it said once that 'fools get to be young once too' but hospitality managers who have the livelihoods of their staff and the satisfaction of their guests in their hands have got to be more thoughtful and intentional about how one handles a crisis or economic downturn.

Want a fix? Increase your revenue. If not, then roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty in the pursuit of your convictions. You'll score points with the staff and the guests will appreciate it as well.
I love to mop a floor every now and then; makes everyone wonder what the hell is wrong with chef.

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