In It's a Miracle They Ain't Dead Yet, Suna delivers humorous true stories and descriptions from the kitchen. From maniac managers to quirky customers and eclectic co-workers, he reveals all, including stories about the knife-wielding dishwasher, dead rats in the kitchen, cooks using cocaine, and situations similar to "Waiter, there's a roach in my food!"
Suna is not a chef, nor does he own a restaurant. He was an employee at the bottom rung, and he saw it all-good and bad management, the treatment of immigrants, endearing stories, and shocking kitchen scenes. Eating out will never be the same.
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It's A Miracle They Ain't Dead YetWelcome to the Texas Café
By Kenneth Suna
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Kenneth Suna
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas Café 101
I walked down Wisconsin Avenue with the intent of going into every store and restaurant until I was hired. I thought I would need a month or two at most to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
I went into a well-regarded neighborhood barbecue place. It wasn't hiring. I tried Blockbuster. No luck. I skipped the Texas Café. I'd eaten there once and swore I'd never go back. I went into an Italian-American pizza place. It wasn't hiring.
I was running out of options in my neighborhood. I set my sights on the Texas Café. I met Stephanie, who was bartending, and asked if the restaurant was hiring. She called Meghan, who came downstairs and introduced herself as the general manager.
"So, you want to be a waiter? Welcome aboard." Three minutes into our conversation, I was hired.
I began training with Stephanie, a skinny redhead who towered over me. She was well over six feet and smelled like stale cigarettes.
After my first week of training, I told Stephanie and Meghan that waiting tables wasn't my thing. I was about to tell them I would look for work elsewhere when Stephanie cut me off and asked if I would prefer working in the kitchen as an "expo." I accepted the job beforeI even knew what it was. Just like that, I became an expediter. I garnished dishes to enhance the meal's appeal, something the cooks and waiters neglected to do.
As an expediter, I relied on the help of the floor manager, Devon. Devon was a cocky, smooth-talking guy who wanted to try out for the Washington Redskins. This goal may have been the reason he was the definition of a team player. He helped anyone at anytime and wasn't embarrassed to do tasks that other managers considered beneath them.
Devon asked me, "What do you eat with?"
"Wrong, you eat with your eyes first. The food could taste like shit, but make the food look good and you're halfway there."
Seventy-nine out of eighty new restaurants fail every year. A lot of factors go into a restaurant's success. At the Texas Café, the quality of food was not one of them. Directly across the street was an authentic Mexican restaurant. Its food was purchased daily and was top quality. The same could not be said for the Texas Café. Food was delivered boxed and frozen.
So why was the Texas Café more popular? Both restaurants had similar pricing. The neighborhood was politically liberal and family oriented-the type of neighborhood you'd think would want to support the small, family-run place instead of the corporate restaurant. But that wasn't the case. The Texas Café had a bar for adults and also appealed to families with children. The walls were brightly colored and decorated with images of lizards, cowboys, and herds of cattle. Children were greeted with a pack of crayons and a place mat to draw on. Their artwork was displayed on the walls. The staff was friendly. In comparison, the authentic place lacked vitality. The Texas Café was constantly busy. The atmosphere was more appealing than the quality of the food.
Still, I had to make the food look good. After I put the finishing touches on the food, I placed the dish on a tray with the ticket from the line cook. A waiter took the food to the diner. Initially, that was it.
My sudden promotion was a challenge, though, especially when the restaurant was busy. The tricky part was remembering which garnish accompanied each dish. After White Spice, I realized I had it easy at the Texas Café. But this was my first job, and at the time, it was a lot to remember.
Chicken wings came with lettuce and a side of ranch dressing with a dollop of corn relish. Nachos came with guacamole and pico de gallo (pico for short). If they were veggie nachos, they got sour cream. Taquitos got a bowl of tomato chipotle and sour cream squiggles. Queso got a dollop of pico. Queso fun dito came with chorizo sausage, sour cream, guacamole, and pico.
Burritos and enchiladas always got shredded lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole. Tacos and quesadillas got lettuce, sour cream, and pico as a standard. Beef tacos were garnished with cheese and jalapeño peppers. Chicken tacos got cheese with corn relish on the side.
Shrimp and fish tacos got cabbages law and chipotle mayo squiggles. Crab and shrimp quesadillas got guacamole and corn relish. Tuna tacos got fajita onions and peppers and tomato chipotle sauce.
Fajitas, the most popular dish, got rice, beans, four flour tortillas, and a side plate of lettuce, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and pico. But different proteins got different rice and beans. Seafood and vegetable fajitas got vegetarian-friendly black and green (black beans and white rice with green chile sauce) whereas beef, chicken, and carnitas (pork) all got red and red (red rice prepared with chicken stock, tomato puree, and onions and red beans with an ass-load of bacon).
You with me so far?
Any combination of meat and veggies got black and green in case the diners were kosher (unless the diners ordered carnitas and veggies). Combo platters got lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and pico with the exception of the taco platter, which got everything but guacamole. Big platters-chicken, steak, and ribs-all got steak knives. Ribs got handiwipes.
Caesar salad came with paprika dots on the rim of the plate. (If you placed the dots correctly, they could be connected in the shape of the Texas Star.) Fajita salad was garnished with paprika and guacamole, and taco salad came with guacamole and sour cream. Tuna sandwiches were garnished with an avocado fan and chipotle mayo. All other sandwiches, with the exception of the plain chicken sandwich, got chipotle mayo. The plain chicken sandwich got lettuce and tomato.
However, I couldn't garnish a thing until the line cook gave me the ticket. What if I garnished a tuna sandwich before I got the ticket and the customer had specified no mayo? Oops. Eventually, the system changed so the line cook's printer included a carbon copy for me. This excellent addition to the routine eliminated the panicked need to garnish all the food in an order at once and allowed me to garnish entrees as they hit my window. I now assumed responsibility for coordinating all cooking times.
Tickets were hung in the window in the order they arrived: 6:30, 6:37, 6:42, and so on. An order that came through at 6:30 should theoretically come out first, but it rarely did. Certain foods took longer to prepare and cook. When the line cooks completed an order, they gave me their original copy. I matched it to my carbon copy and placed the food on a tray. Now the food was ready to be sold (or taken to the table). The cooks told me that when an order was ready, all I had to do was shout "runner" for someone to run the food.
I took to the job right away. I like to cook, so being in the kitchen was a perfect fit. When things slowed, I watched the food preparation and picked up cooking tips.
The kitchen staff made me feel welcome, and even better, I was learning more useful Spanish in the kitchen than I had ever learned in high school.
Deena, a beautiful brunette host, was Stephanie's cousin. She often visited the kitchen to snack on chips and queso. Sammy, a bartender, insisted Deena was a few fries short of a happy meal. Deena was a good sport, though, and we often had a good laugh over something ditsy she had done. She laughed along with us.
One evening a woman came in with a puppy in her purse and asked if she could have dinner. Deena, love-struck with the puppy, showed the woman to her seat. A health inspector could have shut us down.
A week later, Deena was snacking in the kitchen when Sammy came in and said, "Deena, there's a woman who wants a table."
Deena was on her way to the host stand when Sammy stopped her and said, "She wants to know if she can bring in her giraffe."
Three months into my employment, Deena casually mentioned that she was paid $8.50 an hour. I was shocked. I was only paid $6.50!
I went to Meghan and asked what was going on. She quickly realized her mistake. The training salary for a waiter was $6.50. She had forgotten to change my hourly rate to $8.50 when I made the switch to expo.
Pico de gallo sat in a plastic container on ice at the expo station. Since tomatoes release water constantly, the pico had to be drained from time to time. Tim, a waiter, reminded me to drain the tomatoes. His customers didn't like soggy tomatoes. He was kidding, but what did I know?
Still new, I had no idea how mischievous Tim was. He stormed into the kitchen one night with the most furious expression.
"Hey Ken! I got this from one of my customers!"
He threw a piece of paper at me.
"Dear Expo, the tomatoes were soggy and wet. You did not drain them. Signed, Dissatisfied Customer."
I was shocked.
"Who wrote this?"
Smooth Move, Butter Fingers, Part One
As my skills improved, I decided the time was right for self-promotion. The great thing about the Texas Café at that time was its management. Managers encouraged employees to express any ideas that might contribute to the restaurant's success.
My self-promotion included running food when I had the time. I had no idea that this was such a help to the waiters, who sometimes were in the weeds with their tables. Waiters were able to spend more time with their customers when I ran food.
My fear about carrying the tray was, of course, the dreaded tray drop. Karmah, a waiter, had been at the Texas Café for three years and had dropped only one tray.
I've seen some pretty good tray drops, but the best belonged to Alex, a manager. It was his first day at the Texas Café, and he was carrying a tray full of sizzling fajitas. He was heading toward the upstairs dining room and missed a step. Sizzling onions and sour cream? Everywhere.
Lucky for me, the dreaded tray drop eluded my Texas Café career. But would this disastrously embarrassing event rear its ugly head later on?
The Three Amigos
Three managers ran the Texas Café. Meghan was the general manager, Milton was the kitchen manager, and the floor manager was Devon. Milton was always creating fun dishes for the menu, like a chocolate banana burrito. Devon focused on customer satisfaction, and Meghan made sure everything ran smoothly. What a great intro to the restaurant business. I didn't realize how lucky I was.
These three managers never hesitated to help with anything anyone needed, especially when the restaurant was busy. They weren't demanding or nasty. When they asked for a favor, I was happy to help.
Before my coworkers and I knew it, Meghan was leaving to take on a more demanding restaurant in theTexas Café chain. Since our location was the smallest, it was used as a training ground for the chain's larger-volume restaurants. We were upset with Meghan's announcement. She deserved her promotion; we dreaded her departure. But Meghan assured us we would love her replacement, a woman named Joan.
People warned me about the real world. "It's a scary place." "You're going to be miserable." Well, they were wrong. My first few months on the job were awesome. I had great managers and got along with every coworker. Why are "real world" warnings so dire? So much for the harsh and ruthless world of liars and back-stabbers. In my mind, it didn't exist ... until Joan arrived.
Then I officially entered the real world.
Chapter TwoFear Joan
Joan came right out of the 1954 Godzilla movie, except she wasn't a fifty-foot-tall lizard. The Texas Café resembled Tokyo, a once-innocent community now sent into a frenzy of fleeing, terrified people.
When Joan arrived, the staff agreed she seemed okay. Joan was a skinny, feisty, flirtatious blonde. Her bubbly personality resembled Meg Ryan's. She was inquisitive about how we performed our jobs, asking numerous questions. We were happy to fill her in.
But in a rather quick turn of events, we realized that Joan's friendly, calm exterior was an act. Underneath her "act nice because you're new" gimmick was the soul of a demon.
Before you could blink your eyes, she had turned the Texas Café into a by-the-book restaurant. This wasn't what the Texas Café was about. We were a fun place with a relaxed environment. Suddenly, we were run like a five-star, uptight business. The rules changed overnight. No more eating in the kitchen. If you wanted to eat, you came in early. Your ass was in trouble if you so much as nibbled on a tortilla chip.
We'd sneak a bite to eat when Joan wasn't around. We stood guard in the kitchen, looking through the window, while someone made a quick taco. We'd shout a warning when we saw her coming. Whoever was eating would shove the food into his face and run out the back door before she entered the kitchen.
If Joan caught you eating, she shouted, "Did you ring that in? Are you going to pay for that? We have to account for every item of food that goes out!"
She was loud, dramatic, overbearing, and volatile.
Prior to being the GM, Joan had owned two restaurants. Restaurant life means you anticipate and enjoy chaos. Joan hated the hectic nature of the business. The busier we became, the more ferocious she got. She yelled at waiters in front of customers and never understood that remaining calm was beneficial for the whole team. Yell at one employee and all employees are on guard.
Joan's inability to handle stress resulted in tantrums. In addition to being mean, Joan was often drunk. When the dining room was busy, she ran upstairs for a drink. The smell of alcohol on her breath became a fixture.
She also didn't want to spend so much as an extra dime.
During her first week, Joan hired Brad as a waiter. He looked young, but he insisted he had many years of experience. Brad showed himself to be a pro when it came to working a busy floor. We became fast friends when we discovered we shared a crush on Rachael Ray. One dreadfully slow night, we created Lechuga Man, a head of iceberg lettuce, a red pepper nose and mouth, and black beans for eyes. We were really bored. As the night progressed, we felt bad for Lechuga Man. He was all alone. So we invented Professor Parsley. We toyed with the idea of writing a kids' book with a whole cast of vegetable characters.
During Brad's first week, the Texas Café got slammed. I wasn't working. Brad suggested that Joan call me to come in. I would have been there in a heartbeat, but Joan screamed that calling me was unnecessary and that I cost too much.
Bringing me in to improve the restaurant's flow that evening would have cost less than thirty dollars. My colleagues and I knew we were in for a wild ride with Joan's uneven temperament and poor decision-making skills. Things at the Texas Café were a'changin'.
Mistakes of an Expo
To-go orders were bothersome to prepare, especially when the restaurant was busy. Every side had to be wrapped individually when an order of fajitas came through. Separate ramekins were needed for sour cream, guacamole, pico, and cheese. When I first began working as an expo, I sometimes forgot one of the numerous items that were included with a fajitas order.
I typically forgot to include rice and beans, but eight out of ten customers never touched them. However, one of those two out of ten was a woman who regularly ordered fajitas to go. Four ramekins and four tortillas wrapped separately and I was done. We were busy; I took the bag of food to the bar and handed it to the woman. The to-go ticket always went inside the bag so the bartender knew which items were for which people when there were multiple to-go orders.
About an hour later, Joe, the bartender, came into the kitchen. He asked if I forgot the rice and beans for the fajita to-go order. Oops. I was surprised by his response.
"The lady was so upset she came back."
She drove all the way back to complain in person. She was letting Joe have it. She demanded to see me. Joe and Devon advised that I remain in the kitchen. Apologies were offered.
With a lethal combination of liquor and tobacco on their breath, the bar regulars reenacted her fury, "Where! Is! That! Motherfucking son of a bitch with glasses?"
Excerpted from It's A Miracle They Ain't Dead Yet by Kenneth Suna Copyright © 2009 by Kenneth Suna. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Texas Café 101....................1
Chapter 2 Fear Joan....................9
Chapter 3 A Roach's Kitchen....................17
Chapter 4 Immigrants' Plight....................25
Chapter 5 Boost Business?....................31
Chapter 6 Bad, Bad Managers....................37
Chapter 7 The Life Of An Expo....................49
Chapter 8 Weird Coworkers And Famous Customers....................59
Chapter 9 Be Nice To Those Who Touch Your Food....................73
Chapter 10 It's A Miracle They Ain't Dead Yet....................83
Chapter 11 The End Is Near....................95
Chapter 12 I Quit....................107
Chapter 13 White Spice....................111
Chapter 14 Board It Up....................125