Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bye Bye, 'Berto

I spent most of the thirteen-hour meat of today within the 200 square foot confines of my restaurant kitchen. We were busy, for a Monday; I was the only scheduled cook. My trips out back to the dumpster and recycling bin were my only contact with the lovely day outside the four walls of my meal-producing dungeon.

However, on the way to work today, I did catch the beginning of a "Special Report" on NPR. Neal Conan’s familiar voice informed me that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had tendered his resignation. And the first thought that came to my mind was, "WOO HOOOO!" Another of Bush’s dumb-ass cronies bites the dust. But directly on the heels of that thought came this: "Great. Now he gets to appoint another one. Probably someone even worse." It’s what he has done most consistently in the past seven years…

At this point, I’m afraid it no longer matters who is in and who is out of "Bush World." I couldn’t muster even a "woo-hoo" about last week’s announcement of Karl Rove’s departure. In Rove’s case, I’m sure the Grand Dragons of the Republican inner circle have merely elected to free him to ply his disgusting but effective political trade for the next in line for the throne. No use wasting his considerable talent on an administration trudging inexorably toward the political tar pit. Rove will likely turn up in the entourage of the eventual Republican front runner.

But what bothered me about this Gonzales thing was Bush’s by now predictable whining that his buddy was a good man who was forced to resign due to (assumedly unfair) political attacks.

I simply cannot deal with ANY Republican spouting off about "political attacks." The GOP wrote the book on running the country through ruthless assault upon any and all members of the opposing party. If the relentless pursuit and eventual impeachment of Bill Clinton wasn’t the be all and end all of vicious political attacks, I don’t know what the hell it was.

So, okay guys. You wrote this rule book. You created the divisiveness that is dragging our country down. You decided that this was how politics was played in the Big Leagues. So even if Gonzales was the victim of "political attack," how do you even dare to attempt to play that "poor, politically-picked-on us" card?

It’s the old, kindergarten "We can dish it out, but we can’t take it" story. It makes a lot of supposedly grown men look like a bunch of sniveling, whining, snot-nosed pre-schoolers.

And these are the guys who want to run the country. And they think this is how they will get their way.

It just makes me want to throw the heaviest object I can launch through the nearest plate glass window.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On What We Think We Know

The longer I live, the more I understand about…what I don’t understand. What collective humanity doesn’t understand. About anything.

We look back to where the human race was a millennium, a century, or even a decade ago, and we are so smug about what we know. The dark ages are long gone and enlightenment has dawned. And in the unlikely event that we don’t know everything yet, we’re convinced we’re such an inherently inquisitive species, so open to new possibilities, that it’s only a matter of time before we get it.

Horse puckey! What a disappointment our species must be to the Universe! We have been given this tremendous capacity to learn, this insatiable curiosity, and yet we are scared to death of knowledge. History teaches us that, quite laudably considering the technology of the time, the human race puzzled out that the world was not flat, and that the universe did not revolve around the earth. But that same history also shows us how resistant we were to those radical heresies. They were too humbling, too frightening. We had no desire to know that our conventional wisdom could be so far off the mark, or that we were not the center of everything. Brilliant ancients who postulated such shocking departures from what everyone "knew" were mercilessly persecuted, many unto death.

What are we afraid of? Of looking foolish? Let’s face it, no matter how rock solid we are about what we think know, future generations are going to think us callow and quaintly uninformed. Afraid of losing control? Long ago, man discovered that to control knowledge is to control other humans. Religions and governments have been doing it for centuries. Who knows where we could be by now if it weren’t for those who hold back the whole race for their own selfish gain?

Space exploration and pictures from the Hubble, while fascinating, also make us grossly uncomfortable. It’s impossible to even contemplate the vastness of our known universe without feeling uselessly microscopic, and completely worthless, in the overall scheme of things. I personally have looked at pictures of space that show dozens of galaxies beyond our own unfathomably huge Milky Way, and I’m visited by a frightening sense of inward vertigo. As if I’m spinning down and down into my own insignificance, becoming smaller and smaller as I approach understanding of my smallness. I literally have to shake myself out of that reverie; if I followed it to the end, I fear I actually would disappear.

There are times when I let myself ponder the possibilities from a different angle. I ask myself, "What if we are something completely other than what we have always believed?" Maybe we are merely a vexatious parasite on the back of some immense stellar dog, whose owner is about to dose with a gigantic drop of cosmic "Advantage…"? Perhaps to another being, I am as small and insignificant as bugs are to me, and the end could very well come in the form of a giant foot crushing me to oblivion. Which is why I am not so eager, these days, to inflict that fate upon tiny creatures within my own sphere of influence.

As I contemplate these cosmic questions, ideas for several different "sub-essays" on this subject are scratching at the door. I realize I’ve begun a series. Stay tuned for the next installment (as time and brain power allow…)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Lookin' For Love...

In August of 1993, I was in my fifth year as manager of a shopping mall store-front bakery. I had achieved a level of success I’d never thought possible. We had won "Store of the Year," "Manager of the Year," and sales contest after sales contest. I had assembled a group of ladies who were the crew to end all crews. Fourteen years ago, almost to the day, I was preparing to bid farewell …to that store, that crew. I worked for the company for another year, in another location, but never again achieved that measure of success and acceptance. Quite the opposite, in fact.

My girls organized a going-away party for me. With a little behind-the-scenes assistance from the dear husband, the party was held at MY house. I think they managed to surprise me…I can’t actually remember. But party we did. And they let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they appreciated me and were going to miss me. I still treasure the china cake plate and server they gave me, with its little engraved gold heart on the bottom—"Love, The Crew."

Fast forward a decade and then some. Scandinavian Festival, 2007. Three of seven of those self-same ladies manage to make it out to the festival. Just to say "hi." And we talk about getting together, soon. And, on a whim, I find another of those ladies on "My Space" and send her a message. She replies. Says she was "just thinking about" me. It does a heart good. But that was then…

Last Tuesday night was the Old Town Café employees’ summer party. It was organized by the good and faithful "D." Held at her house. Dinner and a movie. A good time was had by all.

I knew nothing about it until after the fact. I was most pointedly NOT invited.

I told myself it was because I’m just too much older than they are. I told myself I have to understand that, as the owner, I’m doomed to an entirely different relationship with my current crew than with the one I cherished fourteen years ago. I told myself that I didn’t embark on this enterprise in order to make friends.

But, goddamn…it did hurt.

I turned to my community for solace. I went to the ether, just to check in. To communicate with the only people I have considered "friends" in the past decade and then some. I wrote about my weekend, my fears, my hopes, my second thoughts.

I got two comments.

But still, I went out and about.  I visited my friends.

Mary called herself a bad blogger. Robin talked about quitting blogging, cold turkey, because her life is going in a direction where she really will not have time for it. And Cynthia mused that perhaps blogging has compromised the quality of her writing, so maybe she should quit.

I went to the well; and I found it maybe, possibly, probably…going dry.

And, goddamn…it did hurt.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

In The End, You Create Your Own Luck

Of course, the reality is that there aren’t three more events "just like that." That’s why we decided to go for the restaurant in the first place. We ran the concession trailer for five years before we bought the café. We searched high and low for profitable events. County fairs, art festivals, craft fairs, "taste of" events, all over northwest Oregon. We changed, we shifted, we adjusted, we added and subtracted menu items. And still, the BIG events eluded us.

We grossed over $20,000 at our one big event this year. Our next highest-grossing event, ever, was our own local five-day county fair, where we endured long hours, dust, late nights, flies and cowboys to top $4000. Once. In subsequent years, sales were eroded by things like terrible weather (triple-digit temperatures and/or rain), presence or absence of decent entertainment, location within the fair of said entertainment and our proximity thereto, the addition/subtraction of other vendors, and declining attendance at the fair itself. All things completely outside our control. And those same frustrating conditions applied to every event we did. One year you would have them eating out of your hand; the next, you felt as if you were trying to peddle the vilest poison.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that a $3000 event was a good one, and an event that grossed us over $10000 for a weekend—besides our beloved Scandinavian Festival—was an impossible dream. That, and the frustrations of all the uncontrollables, are what sent me in the direction of a stationary, consistent, open-every-day restaurant under a solid roof of my very own.

So, we’re not going to cash in our hand on the restaurant yet. There’s no going back to the concession thing, since it was the concession thing that pushed me into the café in the first place. I’m bound and determined to solve this damn labor puzzle; I need a decent, dependable staff so I can detach myself enough to become full-time captain of the ship, rather than the jack of all trades (master of none…) I have some ideas up my sleeve. And I’ll just have to indulge in some creative problem-solving. I can do that. Just let me get a couple extra hours of sleep under my belt…

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

As Luck Would Have It...

Jeez, I made that sound awfully dramatic, didn’t I? Did the place burn to the ground? Were we closed down by the OLCC (Liquor Commission)? Did every major piece of equipment pick that day to roll over and play dead?

No, nothing as earth-shattering as all that. I just discovered that at the end of this month, I will be losing most of my staff. Again. Out of nine girls on the payroll, I will, for all intents and purposes, be losing six. One is going back to college as of the end of the month (which I knew when I hired her), one is expecting a baby in October and only wants to work through the end of this month. These two departures, while a bummer, were not unforeseen, and I had anticipated hiring one or two more girls to beef up the staff at the end of the month.

However, when I walked into the kitchen Monday morning, I was greeted with a huge pile of "schedule requests" from everyone else. One girl—completely out of the blue—dropped the bomb that she will be having surgery (don’t ask) next week and plans to be out for a month. One of my "cooks in training"—again, without any forewarning—decided to sign up for an "intensive" course at some career college and informed me that as of the beginning of next month she will only be available to work weekends. One of my high school students, who will also be going back to school next month, requested off the day of our community festival, which basically takes place right outside our doors and causes us to be crazy busy. And my other "cook in training" has been telling me for months that she was going back to school in the fall, so I know her availability is going to be drastically reduced.

I was about to write that I cannot get a break when it comes to staffing this restaurant. That’s not completely true; I have two dependable, trustworthy employees who have been with me since I bought the place. One of them has been at the cafe since the doors opened in 2005. And without the other, my good and faithful "D", I know I would have perished long ago. Unfortunately, it takes about 260 labor hours a week (not including administrative time) to run the place. And I’ve found that I can’t expect anyone to work actual full-time hours…even "D" starts to burn out if I schedule her for more than her normal 35-38 hours a week. And we need four people on shift during any given rush period. So, obviously, my two decent employees and I cannot do the job by ourselves. We do have one other girl who is not planning to leave or go to school or have a baby. And she has been begging me for more hours. But she is, of course, the most useless piece of dead wood on the staff and I have been planning on cutting her loose at the first available opportunity. Sigh!

We’ve been hobbling through the summer with these nine girls on the payroll. It’s actually worked out well, because everyone has asked for so much time off that they are getting all the hours they seem to want. And there were enough bodies to staff the place while I was gone for five days doing our Scandinavian thing. I suppose I should be grateful…and I am.

But I just can’t seem to find the solution to my labor puzzle. If I have more than eight staff members, everyone gets so few hours that it’s hardly worth having them at all. It’s difficult to train employees who work less than fifteen hours a week. You teach them something, and by the time they have the opportunity to perform the task again, they’ve forgotten how. My two high school girls were hired in January. During the school year, I held them to less than fifteen hours a week on purpose. So I ended up with two girls who were never completely or properly trained. But I kept them on staff hoping they would pick up more hours and more training, and hence be more useful, during the summer. Then they both ended up taking so much vacation time that they are STILL marginally trained and mostly unhelpful.

And I can’t beg, steal or borrow an experienced cook. Check that…after the traumas I’ve lived through with the experienced cooks I’ve had, I don’t even WANT an experienced cook. I’ll take a knowledgeable apprentice any day of the week. Unfortunately, those seem to be in short supply as well.

I had some mutinous thoughts this past weekend. Stacking the constant barrage of setbacks and headaches that have come with ownership of our very own restaurant against the relative ease and smoothness with which we cranked out a café month’s worth of sales in four days from our cramped but comfy little trailer… The eighteen-month escape clause in our café purchase contract started looking mighty attractive. "If we could just find three more events just like this," I thought, "I’d ditch the restaurant in a heartbeat."

to be continued...later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Feeling Lucky

Our event went well. The weather was perfect. Considering the non-summer we’ve had this year, the gods could have inflicted any number of meteorological disasters upon us. We’ve hardly gone a week without rain (which is unusual in summer here…usually by mid-September we are begging for it); so we could very well have had to battle that. It did cloud up Sunday afternoon, but the wet stuff politely stalled about a hundred miles north. Worse, it could have decided to finally break out into actual summer, complete with unrelenting sun, no breeze and temperatures in the triple digits. Picture an 8 x 20 ft. trailer packed with four or five adult bodies, two large refrigeration units, a convection oven running 95% of the time, and the western sun beating on the back of the building for six hours a day. We’ve "Scandi-ed" through those conditions in the past. There are more pleasant activities…like having a root canal or walking over burning coals in bare feet.

Anyway, we couldn’t have had better weather if they had taken our order for it. So the faithful citizens of the central Willamette Valley showed up in force. And they were hungry. So we fed them. To the tune of over $22,000.00 in sales in four days.

I personally had to drag my butt away from the last hour of the festival, de-Scandi myself and make the two-hour drive home Sunday night, so that I could be ready to open the restaurant on Monday morning. It didn’t seem difficult when I made the schedule. And, truthfully, I wasn’t as wasted as I once might have been. As I was dressing Saturday morning, one of my sisters walked in the room and said, "You look like I feel!" And my reply was, "I look like this every morning. I’m no more tired today than I am any other day since we bought the restaurant."

On the drive home, I’d tuned in to a country station.  I heard some guy waxing rhapsodic about how lucky he was in his everyday, normal, boring-ass life. But the lyrics got to me, and I had to nod my head in agreement. How lucky I am to have the life I have! Sunday night, I walked in my front door, laden with my Scandinavian paraphernalia to be lovingly set away for another year. I wasn’t exhausted. I was kind of stoked, actually. We’d had a great event. Daily reports from the restaurant indicated business had turned around over the weekend and pulled a bad week out of the crapper. The housepainters had come while I was away, so I was anticipating some major new curb appeal for the humble abode (which unfortunately I was going to have to wait until morning to enjoy.) Lucky. Yeah…I felt lucky. For the first time in a really long time.

And then I went to work on Monday morning. And within two hours, I wasn’t feeling too lucky anymore.

I’ve got to go get ready for work now, so I’ll have to finish this later…

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hej så Länge (Bye for Now...)

My next thirty hours will be spent preparing to step out of my new life and back into my old one. I wonder what it will be like…sliding—already chronically toasted—headlong into the most thoroughly exhausting four days of the summer:  the Scandinavian Festival in Junction City. The objective being to rack up something approaching the proceeds of an entire month at the café…in four days.

The upside? Five days of no fourteen-hour shifts toiling away in my impossibly small restaurant kitchen. No…I will trade that for fourteen-hour shifts in front of an oven in an eight-by-twenty-foot trailer jammed stem to stern with hustling, costumed, mostly fifty-something (the lone exception being my fifteen-year-old niece) bodies.

I know there are several good reasons why we do this each year. Just now, I’m having a teensy bit of trouble visualizing even one…