5 Apocalyptic Realities Working At A Dying Chain Restaurant
We've always said that if you want an early look at the apocalypse, try working at a dying chain store. Standards break down, supply lines dry up, all messages from the top are lies and doublespeak.
As it turns out, things become positively tragic when the failing business is a festive family restaurant. We sat down with Tom, a former waiter and bartender at the now-dead Bennigan's, and Nicole, who was a waitress and hostess at equally dead Mexican chain Chi-Chi's. They told us that in those sad, ridiculous final days ...
Sanitation Takes A Back Seat
When restaurants start cutting corners, things turn ugly in ways that are literally gut wrenching. If you've ever gotten queasy watching an episode of Kitchen Nightmares, you know where this is going.
If you're not up on your Gordon Ramsay spinoffs, that means grab a bucket.
"We needed to stretch out the length of some of the food," says Tom, of his now-defunct Bennigan's. "It could be a few weeks before more bread arrived, and for the last few days, we would serve bread with mold on it. I had no idea about it until someone complained."
And if corporate didn't care, why should the employees?
"You know, why vacuum thoroughly if it's closed soon? Why should you wash more if you know you aren't getting many more customers that night? Why throw out the bread when you don't know when more will come in? We had bussers who didn't bother to clear a table before a wipe down, and I'd seat a family at a table where it was all nice and clean until a few inches to the back of the booth -- there'd be a line of crumbs and food from the previous guest showing exactly where he stopped because he didn't feel like reaching in. No one cares, and when people complain, it doesn't change the fact you could be out of a job soon."
"Dirty table?! No, that's ... an appetizer. Dig in."
That's the key, right there: The threat of getting fired doesn't mean much when the whole operation can go belly-up at any moment. Nicole's dire last days at Chi-Chi's were full of constantly checking to see if the dish washers (a group already short on fucks to give) had bothered to do their jobs.
"We had a bin where silverware rolled up in napkins went so the hostess could pass them out when customers were seated, and she had to go through it to make sure they were all clean," says Nicole. "On top of that, I still had people constantly tell me that their knife was stained or that their fork was greasy."
"I'd complain to your corporate headquarters if the phone line wasn't mysteriously disconnected."
Yeah, nothing kills a restaurant patron's appetite quicker than reminding them that their fork was in some stranger's filthy mouth twenty minutes ago.
The Efforts To Stave Off Destruction Get Downright Sad
You've no doubt noticed the startling array of shiny vintage beer signs and other abominations of Americana decking every available surface of establishments like these. At Nicole's restaurant, the walls were covered with, "Sombreros. Maps of Mexico. Old signs for Mexican beer from the '60's. A stuffed donkey. So many maracas." While Tom's place of work featured, "A tricycle, metal signs for old brands of soda and gas stations, antlers, an old piano bench, old fishing poles, a few soap box racers. It was a fucking garage sale." If that sounds sad, imagine how much sadder it is when those restaurants start selling off their doo-dads in order to pay the rent. "We sold some of the ponchos on the wall to a local high school," says Nicole, "because they offered a really good price."
"You should have gotten the deer wearing sunglasses while you had the chance."
Tom remembers, "Six months before we went under, me and another waiter walked in to see all of that shit was gone. All of it. We could still see the screw holes in the wall where everything was." When asked about it, Tom says the manager boasted that, "One of the signs (A Red Wing Shoes sign) is an original and should get us a nice price ... I took it as a sign to start putting in applications at other restaurants."
That's one of those anecdotes you know is true, only because the sad symbolism of the slowly vanishing knick-knacks is too on-the-nose for fiction. "We left our Christmas decorations up extra long to make it look like there was more up there. One day before opening, our assistant manager was arguing with a waitress on where putting some of the lights was best, because several booths had no window and nothing on the wall. The lights would be the only colorful thing."
Aside from the different shades of mold.
For Some Reason, The Customers Get Worse
If post-apocalypse movies are to be believed, some humans have inside them a trigger that flips once they sense that civilization has broken down. They are the first to take to the streets in dune buggies and face paint, glad to be free of society's rules. Well, when a restaurant empire falls, that "anything goes" attitude starts to come out in the clientele.
"When we started having problems, I don't know, something clicks in people's mindsets," Tom says. "For the last few years we had really shitty customers." And we're not talking about "sending back the curly fries because they're too curly" shitty.
"Well I'm Yelping this shithole into oblivion the second we leave."
"A guy in a goatee, t-shirt with most of the sleeves cut off, and his family in tow got a big booth in my section, and he ordered beer. When I came back to ask their order, the first time he had the beer resting up in his belly button in his beer gut. It was gross, but also a little impressive he could pull that off. The second time ... one of his kids was holding his beer. I don't know if she sipped it but I lost it and told him he couldn't do that. I was ready to kick them out."
But when a brand is dying, you can't eject even contributors to the delinquency of minors, as long as someone's paying for the kid's beer. "My assistant manager came over, apologized for my behavior, and comped their meal," Tom continues. "Even after I explained a minor was holding a beer, he said we needed business like theirs."
Maybe it's just the subconscious effect of eating in a filthy, mostly-empty restaurant with missing decor, being served by despondent staff who are waiting for the ax to fall. A general atmosphere of, nothing matters here.
No wonder the kid needed a drink.
Nicole saw it too, but since she worked at a Mexican-themed chain restaurant, her bad customers came with a dollop of racism on the side. "We had customers come in and call it 'wetback food.' The later years, with the new type of person eating there, was bad. Some were obviously racist like the 'wetback' dudes or grandmothers who came in and refused to eat food made by illegal immigrants (this is about the time when illegal immigration became hot button).
"The absolute worst customers were a group of teenagers about a month before we closed. There were six of them, and I already didn't want them because they were loud and I knew I wasn't going to get tipped much. I'm fairly tan, and when I came for their drink orders they asked if I hopped the border and asked why I wasn't cleaning their house. I acted and tried to laugh with them, but they kept it up when I got back and one of them called me a 'green-card bitch'."
Apparently they had yet to learn the important life lesson "Never insult someone with no job security and private access to your food."
Holy shit, a dying restaurant really is a microcosm of a failing society. We're almost afraid to continue ...
Everything Runs Out As Corporate Gives Up On You
When restaurant chains start to see their numbers trend in the wrong direction, they pull resources from the locations seeing the least success. It's like Glengarry Glen Ross, but instead of coffee, the closers get some of the precious remaining ground beef. At Chi-Chi's, an early sign of doom was when their signature salsa stopped coming in. Employees were forced to run out and grab whatever they could get off grocery store shelves -- meaning customers were paying a markup of a few hundred percent just to have a waitress hand them the same stuff they probably had in their fridge at home.
Nicole says, "Whenever we had to get the sauce from a store, I always waited for customers to say 'This tastes just like the store kind!' but they never did." To be fair, that could be part of the reason why the business was failing. "A waitress jokingly said, 'We should just buy Taco Bell and mark it up here.' and the manager said 'Nah. It would take too long.' in a serious voice, like he had worked out the logistics."
"Ok, new plan: We sell our food, but put a Taco Bell sign up over the door so maybe someone will come in."
By the end of its days, Tom's Bennigan's was, "Always critically low on something. Before we closed, deliveries became more and more irregular. Like, instead of every Thursday in a month, it would be the first Monday, then the next Thursday, then the next Saturday, then Thursday again. It was frustrating. Our distribution had given up on us."
That meant the team had to come up with, let's say, creative ways to hide shortages of certain meats. "If we were low on beef for burgers, we would announce a special on pork or chicken, or we were told to say that burgers today would be an hour wait due to 'grill problems,'" he says. "It worked, too. It hid the fact that we didn't have much left."
Though what grill-free method of cooking a burger takes an hour is anybody's guess.
You Take Drastic Steps To Make It Look Less Sad
Once a place of business starts selling wall decorations to make ends meet, its financial situation is probably terminal. It's not long before the place becomes entirely deserted. "There was a Red Lobster opposite us, and some of the waiters from there would tell us that they thought we were haunted because the lights were on and we milled about, but no one was inside," Nicole says. "Most of the time, it felt abandoned."
Not even "haunted" because ghosts knew better places.
It was so abandoned that employees usually spent their tragic final shifts in the kitchen watching TV, but they did try. One day, someone came up with the idea to play a game of musical parking spaces. "After each commercial break for Wheel Of Fortune or Jeopardy, if any of us was free, we would re-park our cars, so that people passing by could see cars moving in our lot," Nicole says. This is the business equivalent of running into your ex and bullying a preferred-gender friend into pretending to be your new partner.
By then, the actual end had to have seemed almost merciful. Tom and other Bennigan's employees found out they'd lost their jobs when they showed up for work to find nothing but a notice on the door. "My shift that day was the first one, and we were expected to help open the restaurant by coming in early," he says. "One of my friends dropped me off, and I saw everybody outside ... There was a notice in the window -- closed forever. That's how they told us."
Nothing says "Thanks for the hard work!" like discovering your restaurant job became a tire place overnight.
"Chi-Chi's didn't tell us directly," Nicole says. "I was laying out my uniform for the next day when I was told by our manager that we closed and I suddenly didn't have a job. I was a hostess, though. I assumed he told everyone, but he didn't, and many showed up at there the next day and called me at home. I had to tell them that we closed."
Not warning your employees is apparently standard practice in the industry. Steak and Ale did it. All Star Cafes did it. Kenny Rogers Roasters, with store closings in the late '90's and 2000's, gave only a week's notice before massive shut downs, and that's only because Kenny Rogers's heart is softer than his soggy chicken wings.
Let it never be said the man doesn't know how to fold 'em and walk away gracefully.
Tom reasons that, unlike retail stores, chain eateries don't have a huge inventory of products to sell off first, so the employees don't get the warning a going-out-of-business sale would provide. "It's not like 'Everything has to go,'" he says. "If you close a Wal-Mart suddenly, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars of merchandise in the store. Probably more. In a restaurant you have a week of food, at most, and the appliances. When Bennigan's closed, especially because we didn't have any orders coming in, they didn't lose a lot."
You know who did lose a lot? Any server or cook trying desperately to get a job at another local restaurant at the exact same time a few dozen former co-workers were all doing the same. Huh, it's almost like their decision to remain loyal to the bitter end wasn't rewarded at all! Crazy.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interviewer finder for the Personal Experience section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up here? Hit us up at email@example.com today!
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