Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Old Fart's Talking Points

From time to time, I try to look back and assess the progress I’ve made in any given area of running the café. I must say, I thought there would be a lot more marks in the "nailed it" column after fifteen months of the most intense education I’ve experienced in my half-century on the planet. Then again, I realize I thought I already knew a lot more than I actually did. It’s been mighty frustrating, and humbling, to find that I was not half the restaurateur that I believed I was.

One of the things on which I used to pride myself was my ability to build a team. I had developed a little cache of guidelines that I used to evaluate and reward employees. Rule number one was "Show up and wear the uniform." I always considered that one a "gimme." Once that was accomplished, we went on to the more specific things, like learning the menu or understanding how to handle cash register transactions. Having mastered those basics, we went on to the more abstract things, like what constitutes good customer service, and how to work in tandem with the rest of the team.

In the universe of running a business in a medium-sized university town, where there was an endless supply of poor college students ready and willing to work to keep themselves from starving, my system worked brilliantly. Prospective employees came to me pre-wired with the basic knowledge that they were going to work, for which I was going to pay them. They needed the money, and I needed the help. Seems pretty…basic, doesn’t it?

The reality of the first decade of the 21st century, out here in the sticks, has turned out to be life on a completely different planet. I’m hard pressed to dig up one applicant with anything I recognize as a work ethic…and generally if I find one, I realize they really don’t want to work at a café. It seems that all the competent, experienced people I’ve interviewed would consider working for me only as a last resort. They’ve done their time in the food industry, and now they’re eager to put that part of their resume in the past and "move up" to a real job. Nothing less exciting than a career in some satellite of the booming medical industry or designing web pages for the next dot-com start will do. Working in food is the job that everybody is getting mad at the illegal immigrants for taking away, but is way too much like grunt work for Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia-wannabe or their kids to want to soil their hands with.

The kids! I know I sound like a total old fart, but I honestly believe these kids are in big trouble. They don’t know how to work! They haven’t learned—either at home or at school—the most rudimentary basics of employment. Like that work has to have SOME kind of priority in your life. And that you have to care enough about what you are being paid to do to bother to remember what you’re taught from one day to the next.

Last January, my chronic inability to find people to hire caused me to embark upon a "Great Experiment." The café had never, in its history, hired children under 18. With good reason…first of all, the fact that we DO serve alcohol presents one dimension of problems—since you have to be 18 to serve, we would have to jump through some hoops to make high school students useful in the front of the house. And if they’re under 18 they’re not allowed to run any of the more complicated equipment, like the slicer or a mixer, so that puts a crimp in how useful they could be in the kitchen. Still, I kept getting a steady stream of applications from high school students, and I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the quality of "experienced" help I was able to dig up. I figured maybe it would be a good thing to give a couple of "blank slates" a go.

So, I hired myself two bona-fide High School Students. Two bright girls…or so I thought. One is an honor student at the high school just a few blocks from the restaurant. The other hailed from the next town up the road, but seemed eager to make the commute (mostly because her boyfriend worked at the pizza place a few doors down from the café.) I sat them down and gave them the whole serious talk, about how I was going to limit their hours to two weeknights and one week-end day per week, because I didn’t want their jobs to interfere with their studies. And all the things I expected from them to be able to learn, like customer service skills, and handling money, and cleaning bathrooms, and showing up and wearing the uniform.

Well, I wish I could say that, after eight months, they had at least mastered showing up and wearing the uniform. But…not so much. When it came to "showing up," while they didn’t call in sick constantly or no-show me, they made liberal use of the "schedule request" clause. Prom. Dances. Christmas vacations. Spring vacations. One of them made the softball team last March, and was able to work about an average of one day a week thereafter. Practice was every night after school, and the coach "got mad" at her if she left practice early to go to work. The other girl landed a part in the spring play, so between rehearsals and performances, we didn’t see her much after that, either. I tied myself in knots trying to schedule their work hours around school, extra-curriculars, social activities and family vacations. But I soldiered on, hoping that I would at least end up with two semi-experienced workers who could be counted on for more hours during the summer. And when summer came, they asked for SO much time off, they were as useless as they had been all year. The capper was when the one left me a note on August 15th, saying she was having surgery (which turned out to be an elective cosmetic procedure) on August 20th and she would be able to return to work around September 20th. Apparently she had been planning this for months, but didn’t feel it important to give me more than five days’ notice that she would need a month off. Is there an appropriate expletive for that?

So, Ms. "I Need A Month Off" no longer works for me. But the Softball Queen is still hanging in there. And—get this: in desperation, I hired a friend of hers to replace the surgery girl. Knowing that it would either be a brilliant move (a way to get Softball Queen more engaged with the job) or a disaster. And after four weeks, the scale is tipping towards NOT brilliant. Right off, we discovered that we can’t schedule these two to work together because all they do is huddle and titter the entire time. And then there’s dance/prom/social activities conflict. Since they go to the same school, they both need those same days off. AND the new girl has attitude problems of her own that have nothing to do with her connection to the Softball Queen.

It all boils down to the reason these children want a job. And I have to confess, I haven’t figured out what it is. They don’t seem to need or want or care very much about the money. Softball Queen sometimes forgets to even pick up her paychecks, and then she doesn’t cash them for weeks afterward. The nearest I can figure, they want jobs because their friends have one. It’s fashionable. Like a tattoo or thong underwear. It seems like nearly everything kids do thesedays, they do because "everyone else is doing it." I know peer pressure has always been a great molder and shaper of the teenage world. But, I’m sorry, that’s SO LAME. It seems like such a cop-out to me, to let what everyone else does determine every move you make. When did being a teen-ager become so much a matter of toeing a very narrow, proscribed line or not being fit to live?

I can’t remember being a slave to conformity when I was a kid. I realize that I was a member of a generation for whom bucking the system WAS the fashion. It was the peer-pressure generated course of action. You just didn’t do what everyone else did. It wasn’t done.

You "did your own thing." But you understood early on that you needed money to do it. You needed a job, and you needed to perform adequately at that job in order to make more money. My parents worked. And we understood the correlation between what they did and what kind of life-style we lived. We had a comfortable middle-class suburban life, but we knew it wasn’t served up for free. What don’t today’s kids get about this?

I am not a parent, so I don’t like to trash out of hand the parenting skills of the public at large. I only see and have to deal with the end product of what looks to me like a less and less effective system of bringing up kids…whether or to what degree the parents or the school system or society are to blame, I have no idea. But I’m not inspired to look forward to where this generation might take us when it’s their turn to be in charge. On second thought, it appears that they might never be able—or willing—to take charge. And that is frightening.


  1. Lisa, you have written quite clearly what spews and spins about in my head.  I sometimes think that we parents (that's me) feel EXACTLY the way OUR parents felt when we were teens, late teens and young adults, doing our own thing.  Except we did earn our own way.

    It's frustrating to watch.  

    My young adult daughter and late teen daughter both work.  I get rave reviews from the folks who employ them, but lately, if I were there boss -- not so much.  

    From the parent point of view I'm glad they work really diligently outside their home.  From the parent point of view I wish they'd just pick up the vac without being asked.  Oh well. One thing I have learned as a parent -- you cannot have it all.

    But from your view -- it'd be nice if you could have some.  

  2. I wonder what our parents thought of us when we were just starting to enter the work force. I seem to think every generation thinks the next one is going to be the ruin of civilization! I have to agree about the work ethic. of not only the teenagers, but of most every one under 30 (lol).

  3. My, do I feel your pain. Went through this with my kids and found the only solution was withdrawal of any support at all. Threw them out and let them stand on their own two feet. Not parental or state welfare. Then and only then did they stop their "attitudes" long enough to get whacked over the head with the clue shovel.

    I really don't want to be in your shoes. Just rejected a business opportunity because it would rely on low-paid, low-skilled labor and the fact remains, I just haven't the patience to put up with that kind of bullshit anymore. I'm too old to have to serve out my life in the penal system because some 18 y.o. know-nothing decides they're in charge. Nope, not going to do it.

    My hat's off to you - even if it does result in the bald spot getting burned...

  4. I'm not sure what to say. I guess the just good enough (or not even good enough) mentality has trickled up and down through the whole culture.

    And I'm not sure when working in a restaurant became not a real job. As opposed to designing web pages. At least they can't outsource lunch to Bombay.


  5. My Dad was a hopeless alcoholic, but drunk or sober, the man could WORK, and he instilled that ethic in all 7 of his children.  To him, the worst thing anyone could ever be accused of was laziness.  For better or worse, I've inherited his work-a-holic tendencies, and I'm sure that's a part of why I am amazed at the lack of work ethic that I see around me today (and yes, I feel ancient saying that!).  I have a friend who has her own small business, a pet sitting service, and she has many of the same complaints/problems with her employees that you write about.  Things come too easily to all of us these days, and I think that's a big part of it.

  6. I know there are a lot of kids out there that think life is supposed to be a free ride.  But, there are also many who can commit to a job.

    I was sure that my oldest daughter was going to be a bust when she started working.  She rarely lifted a finger at home.  But, she works retail and really enjoys it and puts in as many hours as they'll give her.  I'm proud of her for that....even if she does leave half her paycheck in the same store where she got it.  Those employee discounts are just too tempting.

    I do believe that most kids today have it a bit too easy....including mine.  We're not doing them any favors with that.