Lyle's Blog

The Zone

Monday, May 11, 2009

I have called it by a few things. My place, my spot, or my zone. I have even joked about it from time to time. "Some call it scatter brained, I call it multi directional.".

I had to learn the ability early on in the beginnings of the diner. It is the ability to step into the busy diner, calmly access the situation, and do whatever is needed at the time. Often times, you will have many people asking you many questions. You must focus on one, solve it, and answer it then go to the next. Once it is solved, you must put it out of your mind because you need to make room for the next. Whatever you do, you cannot let one problem get to you, there will be a time later when you can fret but now is not the time.

You will see it in a good golfer when he goes up for a good hit. He sees the ball and the pin....nothing more. Or a baseball player at bat. He sees the ball coming at him and watches his bat hit it. He is not distracted by the yelling crowd. Another good example is a basketball player in a big game shooting a foul shot while the home teams crowd tries to distract him with waving arms. He is aware of his breathing, even his heart rate, and his mind sees only the ball and the hoop.

I think I refined the skill by working Christmas days at the old place. It was by far the busiest day of the year there. It was also the day that the most problems would arise. I made everyone work short shifts that day and put all on the clock sometime during the day. I was given that day off but I always worked it because they (my crew) had to work it. My family learned to wait until after the rush at work for me to come home before we would open the gifts. It must have been hard on them especially when they were young.

The funny thing on Christmas was that many of the customers would not have that "Christmas" spirit. I kind of put it off to a variety of things. Some of them might be lonely and have no place to go. Some of them may have not gotten what they wanted under the tree. Some of them had loved ones that were far away and longed to see them. And then some others had something tragic happen to them during that season sometime in the past and it brought back those memories. That along with a crew that didn't really want to be there made for a very hard and hectic day.

But, I could not be frantic. I had to be in control. There was no time for emotion other than up beat. I would often control my emotions by singing or humming. I would go about my business while softly singing Christmas carols. I made it a point to touch all of my employees on the arm or shoulder. I would attempt to laugh or make fun of any stressful situation. The important thing was to laugh at the situation not at the person.

Problems were always plenty but the hardest was attempting to resolve an angry customer. Sometimes you were able to defuse the situation while other times there was nothing that you could say and your best defense was no defense. Just take it and walk away.

Two of my better diffusings that I recall came on busy Christmas days. One time a very angry woman who did not like her food blurted out, "My husband could cook better than any of your cooks.". I stopped and said, "Is he busy? Do you think that he would like to make some extra money?", I asked. "He is not working today.", she said, "It is Christmas.". I looked her in the eye and said, "Exactly". She seemed to understand immediately and allowed me to handle the problem of the food that she did not like. The waitress later asked me what I had said. When I asked why, she said that the lady had given her quite a healthy tip and asked her to please share it with all of the cooks.

Yet another was angry about how long it was taking to get his food out. It did take longer on Christmas as I did not have my best team on all together at one time. I asked them to watch the kitchen and see how fast the cooks were putting out the meals. "Right now, we are putting out around 120 meals per hour. That means that one will go up every 30 seconds or so.". I don't think that they had ever seen it that way and it seemed to calm them down and even fascinate them as they watched the cooks put out the food. The man at the table made it a point to stop me and thank me before he left.

Now days the two busiest days of the year are Mothers day and Fathers day. And, as you all know, yesterday was Mothers day. The last two years, I have given away coffee mugs. I have always tried to give something away on those two days. In the old diner, I gave flowers to the mothers and golf tees to the fathers. This year, with the economy being harder and costs up, I changed and decided on pens for the mothers. But not just any pen, I wanted a pink pen. The cost of the mug was not the problem this year, it was the cost of the shipping. The man who I got my pens from told me that he is still looking for any mug manufacturers on the west coast but has not found any.

I got up early around 7AM, showered, and began to dress for the day when the phone rang. A frantic waitress said, "We need help.". Judy and I both began to work on getting people in quicker and I knocked on Casey's door and told him that we needed to move quickly. I left the house with Casey on my heels. Upon arrival, it was not quite as bad as I had imagined but I could see that we did need help. I quickly retrieved my box of pens from my office and loaded up my pocket with them. The first two that I gave away, I made the mistake of grabbing my own pen and handing it out only to retract my hand with a laugh and given them the special pen. I moved my pen over to the left side of the pocket as I realized that I was instinctively pulling from the right.

As the day got busier and the rest of our crew arrived, I think I actually felt when I was going into my zone. The room was loud but I only heard what I needed to hear. I was acutely aware of my breathing and my heart rate. Both were calm and under control. I scanned the floor and my surroundings looking for any problem that I could solve. I grabbed towels to dry a wet spot that I had seen to keep anyone from falling. I took a bus tub around and bussed dirty tables following up with a towel and settings for the next customer. I looked for empty glasses or cups that needed to be filled. I looked at all of the customers, looking for anyone who might need something or have "the look". I found one halfway through the morning. She was sitting with the two others at her table. I noticed that they menus were now down on the table and she was staring at us. It did not matter to her who's section she was in. She was ready to order and was tired of waiting. Her waitress was walking by me at the time. "Table six is ready to order.", I told her. She said OK but grabbed some silverware as she went out and began to set some tables along the way. Judy stepped up just about that time and I said to her, "What is the matter with that waitress, doesn't she see what I see?". Judy asked me where and I directed her vision to the table. "She has the look.", Judy returned. I smiled as I realized just how far Judy has come along in the last few years. She is learning the same things at sometimes a much faster pace. We both watched and grimaced as we saw the waitress tell the woman that she would be right with her and then laid out the silver on the table next to her first. I logged it in my brain to chat with her later about priorities.

As I walked through the crazy floor, talking with friends, and insuring that people had gotten exactly what they wanted, a man stopped me. "How do you do it?", he asked. "Do what?", I returned. "Remain so calm in all of this craziness.". I smiled and told him that it was just something that you get used to.

The day was wild with at one time a huge line. People were waiting in various places and we had to often go outside and yell out the names of the parties. Only a glitch or two there with at one time we seemed to have two parties named "Sandy". I wondered if the one that came at the first call of "Sandy, party of five" were just another party of five who conveniently used her name to get in quicker when she did not return our call. A few minutes later, the real Sandy came to the podium. We were fortunate that a large table had just opened up and we seated them immediately.

People would constantly ask us how long. I have instructed the greeters to never give a time in numbers. The problem is that you never know just how long a party of people are going to linger after they eat. Some like to eat and leave while others like to take the time and talk as they digest their food and drink their coffee. A deaf man tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to his name, then to his ears to show me that he was deaf, and then to his watch. He was asking me long. I thought for a second and shrugged my shoulders. I made a sign like I was eating food and then shrugged again. He smiled and motioned like I should just shove them out. I grinned, happy that he had understood what I was trying to say.

The kitchen was rocking the house today and I made it a point to tell them so. I have seen few times when they were on as much as they were today. One time, as we had just seated three huge parties, I stepped into the kitchen to survey how many tickets they had up. They were down to just a couple of tickets. I called over that I had just seated three big parties and Ted yelled back, "Bring them on!". Judy made it a point to make them all smoothies to help them deal with the heat of the kitchen. She later shared with me that it became quite hard as the food was coming out so fast that she was not able to get the smoothies all made at one time.

The day was steady and solid until sometime between one and two. As I rounded the corner up front, Kara (the greeter) called out, "Clear". I smiled and retreated to my office to handle some paperwork. As I sat down and began to come out of my zone, I realized just how much it took out of me. I was physically exhausted and drained. I stopped and dropped my head for a second and closed my eyes. I awoke a minute or so later as Judy unlocked the door to ask me if I wanted some lunch. The few minute rest had refreshed me and I joined her on the deck for a bite to eat. I love the peacefulness of our deck and it to helped to refresh me along with the needed nourishment.

After lunch, I drove down to my parents house to see my mom, then off to Costco for some supplies, and then returned to the diner to find them all finished and gone for the day.

The whole family was at the house for a BBQ supper. We sat around talking of the day as we ate. Judy told me that she had asked our cashier if anyone had complained at all. He told her only one. The man was quite angry that we did not take personal checks. He had even used the 'F' word in his rant. As he bolted out the door, his wife apologised for him, however. "He should have told the man that he would get the owner. I would have loved to talk with him.". "Or maybe the owners son.", Casey quipped. "I would tell that guy a thing or two." I smiled and said, "That is what I would be worried about.".

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