Act of Necessity
Chapter 10: The End of the Beginning
It was the Friday before Labour Day when my certificate from Northern University of the Sierras arrived in the mail. I knew it didn't carry the cachet of a diploma from a big university, but it satisfied me. I had accomplished what I set out to do and had the legitimate proof framed and hanging on the wall. Francesca treated it like I'd graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard. She was telling me that all the self-discipline and hard work had paid off and that she was proud of me. That was more than enough in itself.
After some considerable thought and discussion with Francesca, I decided to take on the training responsibility that Carl had outlined. It was the more challenging of the options, but I felt I would gain more from it than the more mundane purchasing role.
"I'm happy you chose that, Dal. I think you'll do very well with it. I know the owners will be pleased. I expect it will take you several months to get accustomed to the role, but I know you'll be a big success. It's a very important position. There's just one other thing to consider," Carl continued.
"What's that?" I was curious. Was this a catch that might make me change my mind?
"We want you to train an assistant as well. Someone who could take over for you. We, the owners and I, think you have a very bright future and we want you to be able to continue to move upward in the Day and Night organization."
"Oh, well, uhhm, do you have someone in mind for that job?"
"Not yet," he smiled, "but keep your eye open for a likely candidate. We'll do the same."
"Okay. Thank you for this opportunity, Carl. I really can't tell you how grateful I am for your support and confidence in me. I feel really good working here."
"That's what I wanted to hear," Carl grinned. "Congratulations, I know you'll do a fine job."
I left his office feeling very good about my decision until it dawned on me. I had forgotten to ask what the job paid. I was sure it would be at least as much as my manager's salary, but how much, I didn't know. I could catch up to that later. I was a month away from turning over my job to my top assistant manager. I had some time to prepare.
The Day and Night restaurant chain had been built up by a couple of entrepreneurial guys who had turned it into a modest success, then sold it to a corporation who had modernized and enlarged it. The four locations were strategically placed to take advantage of both business clientele and families. Each of the four Greater Vancouver area locations were serviced adjacent or very near to shopping centers. It was a very effective strategy for a licensed family restaurant.
The owners, a numbered corporation, were completely hands-off, leaving the running of the four operations to Carl. I had never met them, but it was made clear that in all matters relating to the restaurants, Carl was in complete charge. I only knew that the owners were totally satisfied with the results and had endorsed all the moves that Carl had wanted to make with both facilities and staff. I was curious, but on the other hand, more than happy working exclusively with Carl. He wasn't just my mentor, he was my friend.
Francesca was destined for the family business upon graduation. She wasn't sure what role she would play, but there was no doubt she would have a responsible position, according to Pietro. She was entering her senior year and she was anxious to get all her required courses behind her and join her father and brothers in the business. I envied her, in a way. The wine business was really interesting and more exotic than feeding hungry people hamburgers and fried chicken.
To be fair, we had a number of very good and imaginative chefs who came up with several unique dishes as daily or even seasonal specials. I always marvelled at the organized chaos of the kitchen when I dared to look in. It was noisy and during the three main busy periods, the cooks moved at a furious pace, cooking, preparing and plating the food all within a carefully constructed time frame. That job was beyond my comprehension. Tempers would flare now and then, but I seldom had to referee. It was a sign of the stress and pressure, and it usually passed as quickly as it came.
The head chef of each location was the boss, responsible for hiring and firing of all kitchen staff. That part of the training was not part of my role. I was there for all the other staff. Thank God for that. We also had a "corporate chef" who oversaw the menu and regularly toured the locations to make sure quality, cleanliness, and service standards were being met.
October 1, 1984 was a Monday, and my first official day as Manager of Staff Training and Scheduling. Oh yes, Carl had slipped that in as part of the deal. When Carl presented me with my compensation package, I was startled. First, the salary was a hefty increase over my manager's pay. Second, much to my surprise, I was given a lease car to drive. The need to regularly visit each of the restaurants was the reason. I would be putting on quite a bit of mileage it seemed. Thirdly, I was assigned a space in Carl's strip-mall office. It already housed Carl, an accountant, and our head chef, as well as a small kitchen the chef used to work up his recipes.
My first task was to contact all the new employees and begin an organized training program. I'd had a month to work out my plan and I wanted to see if it was adequate or whether I'd need to revise it. The turnover at the restaurants was fairly low compared to the industry standard for the Greater Vancouver region. The association kept us informed of any changes or proposed changes to the regulations of both the city and the province. It also provided us with statistics, and that was a useful way to gauge our performance. I chose to start with the assistant managers since they could keep a lookout for any problem employees. Many of them knew me, so it wasn't a matter of introducing myself or trying to establish my credentials. I'd done the job and they knew it.
By the New Year, I was very settled at work and I felt I was making the job my own. I enjoyed it more than I expected, largely because I was respected by the staff as being one of them. I was also a good listener, particularly to ideas that could improve the operation. In some cases, we would try ideas out at one location before deciding to implement them at the other three locations. Some worked and some didn't.
If there was one problem I wrestled with more than any other, it was scheduling. A twenty-four hour, seven-day operation required a lot of staff and a very comprehensive staff scheduling system. I spent a lot of time trying to find a better way to organize the people, but wasn't able to come up with it.
"Carl, do you suppose it would be alright if I talked to some of the other restaurants and see if they have a better staffing system than we do?"
"If they'll talk to you, go for it. It's not a secret society, Dal. We all belong to the association and we do talk about business concerns. I can give you a quick list of people I think might be willing to help."
"Great. Let's do that. I'd like to make sure we aren't missing something with the way we do things."
"That's possible," Carl nodded. "We just adopted the system that the previous owners used and stayed with it. It seemed the most efficient."
Later that afternoon, Carl provided me with a list of six restaurant managers that he felt would cooperate. Each of them operated more than sixteen hours each day which meant they had to have adaptive scheduling. Only two were twenty-four-hour operations.
It was an exercise in frustration. The businesses that were open sixteen hours used a split-shift system, which they admitted many of their employees disliked. They used the system to lighten the staff during quiet periods from 9am though to the lunch hour, then 2pm to the dinner crowd beginning at 5pm. They also had some wait staff who didn't work full time and they weren't required after 8pm. All in all, it wasn't a solution for us.
The two twenty-four-hour operations used the same system we employed. There were no new ideas be to found there. Well, at least I was reasonably certain no one had a better system. There was no doubt that we had more staff than necessary at certain times of the day. We tried to keep them busy, but make-work projects were the best we could come up with. Then, after talking to some of the staff, I was handed an idea I should have thought of, voluntary reduced hours.
A surprising number of our female staff were single mothers, or working mothers along with their husbands. That put some stress on them to have someone mind the children, even if they were of school age. The summer was particularly difficult when school was out. In some cases, I suspected that some of the women were netting very little from their jobs due to the cost of child care.
It wasn't a total solution, but I wanted to test the idea out. We would see if there was any interest in unpaid time off during the day. Yes, it was really a split shift, but it was voluntary and not regulated by the business. The most popular time for the ladies with school-age children was from 2:30 through to 5pm. That fit well with the afternoon shift and we decided to try it at one of the restaurants. With a few fits and starts, the program smoothed out and we moved it to the other restaurants. I didn't save a lot of money, but I saw a much relieved group of women who were able to keep a bit more of their earnings and have important contact with their children.
"Well, it looks like you've really got a handle on your job, Dal," Carl said as the year came to a close. "Here's an envelope I want you to hand out to two of your Burnaby staff. They came up with the voluntary concept and you made it work. There's a cheque in there for a hundred dollars for each of them for a good idea. You can thank them for me for their support. Our absenteeism has dropped a few points, and that's a money-saver for us."
"It's working pretty well, Carl. At least those who want to take advantage of it are doing so voluntarily. It's still a bit of a problem during the summer vacation period."
"Feel free to help solve that problem too," he grinned.
I spent three-quarters of my time concentrating on training and the balance on scheduling. Some of the staff were particularly poor at keep to a schedule and I worked with them to find out why. In some cases, they just weren't very disciplined and after two written warnings about tardiness or leaving early, they would be dismissed for a third violation. It didn't happen often, but it did happen. It was the single most unpleasant part of the job.
In some cases, home life was difficult for the employee, especially women. Trying to work schedules around school and their husband's work requirements was always a challenge. Here again, I looked for a voluntary solution. It wasn't always possible, but many of the women had formed friendships with their fellow employees and those would produce solutions that were otherwise not available. I worked with the managers and assistant managers to be tolerant of these issues ... up to a point. In some cases, our needs simply didn't fit with the employee's private life and they would have to find alternative employment.
I tracked turnover and absenteeism with the managers very carefully. It was the telltale for the satisfaction level of the staff. Every once in a while, we would find someone trying to take advantage of the system with frequent "sick days." It wasn't difficult to spot these people and a fairly blunt conversation with their manager was usually enough to put a stop to it.
The one situation that I was not prepared for happened in February, on Valentine's Day. It was a busy day, as expected, especially during the supper hour. I had gone home at my usual time after spending the day touring the four restaurants. I got a call from the manager of my old South Vancouver unit just after six. There was a problem with a very angry woman, the assistant manager, and one of the female staff. I grabbed my coat and took the ten minute drive to the site.
The woman who was the cause of the ruckus turned out to be the wife of the assistant manager, and she was loudly accusing her husband and one of the waitresses of having an affair. I was relieved that the manager had steered the threesome into the little office and tried to keep the volume down to where it wouldn't disturb the patrons. He was only partially successful. Happy Valentine's Day, indeed.
The last thing I wanted to be was a referee in a domestic dispute. They could be dangerous, I was told. In this case, my main objective was to get the aggrieved wife to calm down and see if I could get them to at least be civil to each other. It wasn't easy, but with the threat of calling the police to have her removed, the volume dropped. By the look on her face, however, we were still a long way from a peace treaty.
The assistant manager and husband denied he was having an affair with the young woman. He had no idea how she got the idea in her head, but he claimed innocence. The young waitress was in tears, huddling in the corner of the tiny office while all this was going on, saying nothing.
"What makes you think your husband is having an affair?" I asked the decidedly overweight wife.
"Look at her! She's pretty and she's always around him. Every time I come in here, she's right there with him. I can tell. I know they are having an affair. I just know it," she wailed.
"Mrs. Downright, Sharon is in a training program," I explained. "She's supposed to be working closely with her shift manager. That doesn't mean she's having an affair. Do you have any evidence of misbehaviour on either of their part?"
"No," she wept, her eyes now downcast.
"I think you and your husband need to have a talk," I said, not knowing what else I could say.
"David, I'll take over for you and you can go home with your wife. You two need to work this out."
A very upset young assistant manager walked out with his weeping wife and headed for the back exit and the parking lot. I would keep my fingers crossed that they could come to some resolution over this. He was a good young guy, about my age and looked like a good candidate for promotion. But an ugly home life has wrecked many a career and I'd hate to see that happen here.
"Sharon, is there anything to Mrs. Downright's accusation?"
"No, sir. Nothing. I already have a boyfriend. It was just like you said. I was being trained to run the front desk."