Lyle's Blog

A real learning experience

Monday, May 26, 2008

It was 21 years ago today. Jake's Diner had opened up earlier in February. Prior to that, it was a small 55 seat restaurant without a real name and refered to as Jake's Truck Stop Restaurant. Our new diner had 95 seats on the main floor and we had just finished off and additional 32 in our new back room.

Judy was in Australia with Carrie and a very young Trinity and I was doing my best to spend as much time as I could with Casey attempting to use this time away from the girls as a real bonding time with the eight yr old.

Sunday and Monday were my days off and I had planned a day of fun with Casey including some hikes and exploring down by Sawyer park. The day was cloudy and rainy (typical Memorial Day weather). Casey and I were down at the end of Division street marveling at the spray thrown up where the irrigation ditches were diverted off when my beeper went off. I thought of not calling back. After all, it was my day off. But Kim and Dale (Truck Stop GM and assistant) had taken the day off also so my sense of responsibility got the best of me. When I called, the stressed out person at the other end of the line, yelled "Get down here quick! We need help!". I figured they just had a little rush that they were having problems with so I told Casey that we would have to go down to the diner for an hour or two.

I arrived at the diner to find a parking lot that was full. On the floor was two waitresses and a waitress trainee who was handling the counter. With no controls at the door and a new set up section in the back, people had just streamed in and sat where they could. One of the waitresses looked up and saw me and ran over. "We only have one cook!", she yelled. "You need to help her!". With that, she turned around and dove back into the crowd on the floor.

I put Casey at the break table and stepped into the kitchen One dishwasher was on doing the best he could to stay up with the stack of dishes in front of him and the young cook, Laurie, was doing her best to stay up with the huge line of tickets in front of her. "Take over the eggs and fryer!", she barked. "I have no idea what I am doing.", I returned honestly. She stopped for a second and gave me one of those deer caught up in headlights look. Collecting herself just a little, she told me to start by making up biscuits and gravy. Now that was easy, just split open the biscuits, heat them up a little, and cover them with gravy. I knew that the Biscuits and toast was about the size of what I was going to be able to help her with and never even reading a ticket before (I had never needed to), I quickly learned how to read waitress short hand and began setting out plates based upon what I felt I was reading.

Laurie did her best to put out as much as she could but my stack of biscuits and gravy soon became cold on the pass bar as did most of the toast and I found myself dumping old plates of the food that I had placed up too soon. I could see the chaos on the floor with people sitting at dirty tables and other diners just giving up and leaving. Our mantra became "We are just doing the best we can.", as there was no one to call in to help since our crew was still rather small and most of who that was off were out doing something on Memorial day. We knew that we were it and that we had to do the best that we could alone.

Customer after customer just got up and left. Some angry and others just shaking their heads. In the kitchen, I had figured out a couple more things and had managed to find out what had happened to the other cook. He could not read! The other cooks had covered up his inability by calling out the orders to him but this morning with the orders coming in too fast, Laurie (a young cook herself) just did not have the time to call out to him. In a panic, he just walked out the door.

I learned allot that day. About restaurant organization and preparation. I learned new phases like "puppy dogging" as the frazzled waitresses stood at the window staring at us as if their stares could make the food come out quicker. They were afraid to look back at the customers who were staring at them, wondering where their food was. I learned that seating people was no good if you couldn't serve them. People will wait much more patient at the door than they will in the seat. I learned that we needed to staff much more on holidays. I learned that if the weather is bad on a holiday, that the diner business would be more strong. And I learned that I needed to hire more cooks and more importantly to learn how to cook myself which was something that I had learned years ago was not really my strong point. I remembered back to an earlier time in the old restaurant when I noticed that we were short on gravy. I asked Carl (we only had one cook on line) how to make the gravy and he gave me the short lesson on making rue for the base while trying to keep up with his tickets. I struggled to do exactly as Carl had instructed but when I showed him my pan of pathetic flour and oil mixture, Carl stopped what he was doing, took the pan out of my hand, and just said plainly, "Get the hell out of my kitchen.". I was smart enough to know that his demand was probably the best thing for me to do at the time.

Hours late and after dumping more food than we actually served, the flood of diners subsided and I stepped out on to the floor to find a young Casey sleeping in his chair over in the corner at the break table. He had not raised a complaint the entire time he was there and had ended up falling asleep from the boredom.

It was the very worst day that I have ever spent in the diner and for that matter in any job that I have ever held. But I attempted to learn from the experience. I had doors installed in front of the back room to block the room from diners views when it was not in use. I hired and trained more help. Waitstaff, cooks, dishwashers, bussers and cashiers were going to be needed if we were to handle the possible busy summer months ahead of us. I was determined not to be caught like that again.

What I learned on that one day was more than any class that could be taught in any school or training session. It was truly the school of hard knocks.

I thought of that day as I awoke this morning and looked out at threatening skies on this Memorial day 21 years later. But today, I will walk into a diner with a full staff. Five waitresses, two bussers, one greeter, one cashier, three line cooks, two prep cooks, three dishwashers, Judy, and myself will be ready for the day. And it is the start of another very busy week. Tuesday, we have a ribbon cutting for the new floor, Thursday is my yearly physical, Friday, Trin and I will fly to Portland and then drive back down with some of her stuff, and then Saturday, Judy and I will be back in Portland and featured on a regional food radio show called Dining out in the Northwest.

It is Memorial Day and I will remember. I will remember all of the fallen who gave their lives so that I might live like I do right now. I will remember the families who lost those who had sacrificed. I will remember that war is something that none of us want to see or experience. And I will remember that day. My day in Hell, 21 years ago.

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