Food and beverage director John Thacker found a wad of messages waiting for him after the department-head meeting. He still had thirty telephone calls to return from Monday. Like other managers, he no longer had an assistant to field them because of Alamo's budget cuts. His department served a minimum of nine thousand meals every day and he oversaw a staff of 1,100, which included 25 chefs, 290 cooks, and several hundred busboys, cocktail waitresses, bartenders, and food servers. He personally signed $1.8 million worth of purchase orders per month. Because the Luxor was not generating the profits its executives expected, Thacker had been told to reduce his payroll even more by firing the equivalent of 55 full-time employees. He didn't know how he was going to do that without sacrificing service.
"Everyone always complains about food," he said. "It's always too hot, too cold; there's not enough, there's too much; it's too salty, it's too sweet; it's too cheap, it's too expensive. But the truth is that the actual preparation of food is easy. The hard part of my job is dealing with employees and the customers. It's how you deal with people in this business that ultimately makes or breaks you."
Thacker had first learned this lesson in 1969, when he was in high school and one of his pals offered to help him get a "juice job" as a busboy at the Regency Room in the glamorous Sands resort. No one worked there unless they knew someone, and Thacker's buddy was related to the maître d'hôtel. Thacker went in for an interview before the restaurant opened. "Carry that tray of dirty glasses around the room," the maître d'hôtel ordered, pointing to a heavy tray filled with glasses. Thacker did as he was told and when he got back, was told to do it again. Other employees chuckled as Thacker lugged the tray. This time, he noticed that the maîre d'hôtel was not even watching him. But he told Thacker to do it again, sparking more laughter. Thacker carried the tray around the room a third time, and then a fourth, and finally a fifth. "I later learned this was a test to see if I would follow directions without questioning him, even if it meant that I would be humiliated. He knew that some customers wouldn't think twice about embarrassing me, and you had to be willing to smile and do what you were told without insulting these people even if they were jerks."
Thacker got the job and soon discovered there was a payoff for treating customers as if they were always right: "If I was nice to people, they gave me money." Thacker memorized the name of every high roller so he could greet them when he cleared their table. He learned the habits of every waiter and figured out ways to help them do their jobs. The tips flowed downhill from the waiters, who were receiving as much as $300 to $400 per night. Thacker gave his paycheck to his mother, who was divorced and working as a waitress at a club, but kept the tips for himself. "I went home at night with my pockets stuffed with bills."
At the Luxor, Thacker oversaw the Isis, the pyramid's gourmet restaurant; a seafood restaurant, the Sacred Sea Room; and a Polynesian dining room called Papyrus. None of them was doing well. Thacker received daily reports and the most recent showed the three restaurants had served only four hundred meals. That was about one-fifth of what it should have been. There were also two cafes in the Luxor, the Pyramid Café and the Millennium, and they had served 4,512 meals, which was good but not great. The busiest dining hall was the all-you-can-eat buffet, where 6,221 customers had eaten.
Tony Alamo was in the process of changing the restaurants. He was adding a pricey steak house next to the casino and converting the Papyrus into a Chinese restaurant. He was also building a fast-food court on the amusement level near an expanded video arcade popular with kids. The court featured McDonald's hamburgers, Little Caesar's Pizza, and Nathan's hot dogs. A new buffet, called Pharaoh's Pheast, was being constructed in the basement level and even though it wasn't open yet, Thacker already had instructed his cooks how he wanted the food arranged. Soups, salads, and fruits would be placed at the start of the serving line. Next would come various pastas and Chinese and Mexican dishes. Farther down, there would be omelettes and exotic breads. Only when a diner reached the end would he find prime rib and chicken dishes. "You always put your least expensive items in the front of a serving line," Thacker explained, "because you want your customers to fill up on those items first before they reach the more expensive meats." Vacationing tourists who made pigs of themselves were called "trough monsters" by the buffet workers, who often wondered aloud how it was possible to eat so much at one sitting.
Thacker relied on his three shift managers to handle the everyday problems. Each left him messages in a bound log kept on his secretary's desk. The notes revealed much about the daily workings of a casino food and beverage operation. On this particular day, there were a number of notations:
Employee tossed out the top of a wedding cake for couple having reception. They were furious so we arranged for them to have a free room for night.
Guest complained that the price for a drink on the menu was 95ó but it rang up at $1 on cash register. Someone had recorded it wrong in the machine.
No fish on the all-you-can-eat buffet line last Friday night. Roman Catholic guests complained today.
Couple got into fight in restaurant and left without paying. Caught by security. Have a history of skipping out without paying for meals.
Elderly man seen taking carrots from buffet and putting them into plastic bag to take home. Poor Las Vegas resident. Warned not to take food from buffet.
Had to suspend busboy for possible theft of tips from food servers. Found $9 worth in his apron that had been left for someone else.
Guest complained because room service wouldn't let her nanny sign for meal.
Guest returned six-pack of beer, said it was warm by the time it reached his room.
Waitress dropped glass, didn't tell anyone, shards fell into strawberries and guest cut lip. Waitress disciplined, guest given complimentary meal.
Guest complained about seeing cook blow nose in napkin and then continue serving food on buffet line without washing hands.
Suggestion: we need to have signs in kitchen printed in Spanish as well as English.
Waitress showed up without bra, told to go home and get one.
Shortly before seven o'clock, Thacker got a call from Tony Alamo, who said Michael Ensign was joining him in the Isis in a half hour for dinner. As soon as Alamo hung up, Thacker called the head waiter. "Make sure Mr. Alamo and Mr. Ensign are seated in a booth away from other guests," he said. "The last time Mr. Ensign ate in our restaurant, some woman complained for ten minutes about her meal when she found out who he was. Oh yeah, and for god sakes don't let Jimmy serve them." Thacker was planning on firing Jimmy later that night for hustling tips.
He explained that the casino often sent high rollers to the Isis for complimentary meals and these gamblers frequently ordered the most expensive items on the menu because they knew they were not being charged. Because of this, the Luxor did not list its costliest bottles of wine and champagne on its wine list. Jimmy had been telling gamblers about them and one high roller recently had run up a free dinner that had cost $1,200 because he kept ordering $120 bottles of champagne The gambler had slipped Jimmy a fat tip. Jimmy had been warned twice to stop hustling tips but was still doing it.
After talking to the maître d'hôtel, Thacker telephoned the Luxor's head chef and told him about Alamo and Ensign. "You have some nice stone crabs, don't you?" he asked. "Those would be good to serve tonight, but make sure they're perfect."
Everything was running smoothly until ten minutes before Alamo and Ensign were scheduled to arrive. A sewage pipe backed up in the basement and wastewater began spilling into the Luxor's main kitchen. As Thacker rushed downstairs, he used his portable phone to call the Luxor's in-house health inspector. The inspector had worked for the Food and Drug Administration before Thacker hired him to ensure that the Luxor's kitchens exceeded every city, county, state, and national health standard. As far as Thacker knew, the Luxor was the only resort in Las Vegas that had its own internal health inspector, but Thacker thought the cost was well worth it. The inspector had instituted a number of commonsense safety rules--such as using different-colored cutting boards to make certain that salmonella was not spread by having meat cut on a board where raw chicken already had been sliced. "A lot of Strip hotels have sent two or three hundred people to the hospital with food poisoning," Thacker said. "I want to make sure that never happens here."
The kitchen was a mess when he reached it. Chefs and cooks were wading through a half inch of dirty water as they prepared meals. Thacker called the engineering department and asked where the water was coming from. Something had been jammed into a main wastewater pipe, he was told. Vacuum cleaners were brought in to suck up the water, but they couldn't keep up. By now the water was nearly an inch deep and threatening to splash over the bottom doors of the main cooler where all of the Luxor's ice for drinks was stored. Thacker grabbed a mop and ordered several busboys to help him. "If we can't stop it," the inspector warned, "we'll have to close the kitchen."
Thacker's phone rang. Alamo and Ensign had just been seated at their table upstairs in the Isis. "Oh, Christ!" he said. The two executives had no idea of the bedlam in the kitchen. "They just ordered the stone crabs," the chef called out as he sloshed through the water. Thacker's black dress shoes were soaked. Suddenly the water stopped rising. The chief engineer's men had managed to clear the pipe; someone had stuffed rags into it. An anonymous caller had just phoned security to take credit for the vandalism. Security chief Andy Vanyo figured it was another disgruntled construction worker who had been laid off. Even though Thacker and the busboys had kept the dirty water from reaching the main ice cooler, the inspector ordered that all the ice inside it be destroyed and the entire kitchen floor dried, mopped, and chemically sanitized. Thacker thought it was overkill, but he kept quiet. Hurrying upstairs on a service elevator, he grabbed a towel and wiped off his shoes. Moments later, he strolled across the dining room in the Isis and asked Alamo and Ensign if their meal was satisfactory.
"It's delicious," said Alamo. "Tell the chef that he did a fabulous job."
From the Hardcover edition.