Incompetent Help

To change a person’s attitude, to learn a new 
language, to develop skills needed, to gather 
restaurant knowledge… , one week, one month 
are unreasonable…

Waiting on tables can not be taught by hypnosis, nor just by reading about it, or only by listening or simply by watching someone else doing their job. Much like riding a bicycle or learning to swim these skills have to be acquired by countless repetition.

INCOMPETENT HELP
Getting home from another shift worked, I step outside on my balcony and savor the view. There are countless stars twinkling from a distant past. The moon is one-quarter-empty. La luna bathes the city and the bay below in its cold light. The platinum brushed onto the Pacific Ocean by the moon’s powers fades into misty gray before resembling total darkness at the horizon. Squid boats illuminate the bay waters with their strong lights. Lit up they look like dark shadows of floating islands in jade green circles on an otherwise silvery bay.
Street lights at the other side of the bay are sparkling like cubic zirconias in an overall expensive looking tennis bracelet. The night is clear and the City of Seaside’s hills look much like a grove of festively decorated trees. Strings of glow points, some blinking some not, are running from side to side and up and down the slopes. I look at thousands of little white glimmer spots and here and there some green and red lights. Seemingly carelessly placed in different J-spots are yellow blinking lights too. I get to watch a flashing blue beacon climbing the trunk of what looks like one of several decorated Christmas trees.
It isn’t December yet and I know, over there in direction of the gate to what used to be the Army Base Ford Ord, which just recently had become the Monterey Bay University, that’s Broadway. That is the main drag on the hill.
That’s where Brian lives. He is an assistant hotel manager. Brian was at the restaurant earlier, just for a glass of wine and some free advice. He had been in a bad mood, grumbling about the incompetent help at his hotel.
While I enjoy this to me so familiar view, I smile. I think back of the days in Germany during 1969 when the economy was growing too fast and when I was training waiters as fast as I could for several restaurants. I trained Spanish, Italian and Yugoslav guest-workers to become waiters. It took time, which I did not have. For most of these foreigners six months were the minimum time needed. However, within less than a year most of these immigrants turned into good coworkers.
To expect a person to change his/her attitude, to learn a new language, to develop skills needed for the job at the table, to gather knowledge of food preparation and menu items, to serve drinks and to give sensible recommendations for pairing wine and food, in one day, one week or one month is unreasonable. I still consider it is an illusion to think that people learn overnight a totally new line of work.
I reason it’s not a good practice to hire people and to expect these new hires to perform to the full satisfaction of their supervisors without giving them enough time to get acquainted with the new job and/or proper training. From what I have seen I conclude that improper training is the cause why many perfectly okay new-hires get so easy burned out and quit their jobs.
I recall the days in Hamburg (1968-1970) when I got to train housewives to be waitresses. I was skeptical being told that waiting on tables and waiting on a family at home is very similar. I was surprised how easy nine out of ten women adapted to the job, taking care of people came natural. Still they had to learn the menu, the wine list and to take charge of sections of the dining room. They also had to learn the restaurant’s high standards of guest service.
In the mid seventies while I worked for the then brand-new Landdrost Hotel in Johannesburg, I trained many Blacks who could not read English. They spoke little English or Afrikaans. They too had not been stupid or incompetent but only untrained. I remember the enthusiasms shown by these trainees. They were happy to have a paying job, which meant for them a step-up into a better life. They were full of dreams about a future of unlimited wealth. The meager wages looked to them like a small fortune. Their living standards were low and twenty South African Rand (comparable with twenty US dollars) a month meant a lot to them.
Working at the Beacon Island hotel in Plettenberg Bay, I got to train Cape Coloreds, who had no problem with learning at all.

Training was always time consuming. Yet the benefits are plentiful. To see someone who had been rather clumsy starting out, standing at a guest’s table and doing a flambee like an expert was always gratifying for me.
I remember, in South Africa, workers with a limited vocabulary often made up for missing words with gestures, politeness and pride. Earlier I had shared some of these my experiences in training waiters with Brian, who had insisted that all the new-hires at his hotel where dumb, chowder headed folks. I had asked Brian at some point of our conversation: “How many hours are you actually spending training others?” He had quickly started to defend himself by saying, “You are a waiter. You don’t know how much work is involved in being a manager.” He had also used the excuse of having too much to do. He had told me about all his responsibilities. He had pointed out that he was still learning himself, therefore had no time to teach.
“If they cannot do their job, they shouldn’t have been hired in the first place! Or am I wrong?” He had asked and I had gently reminded him then of the obvious. “I’m glad your superiors had a different philosophy at the time when they hired you, Brian. You are not wrong but you ain’t right either. There is a time when we all have to make a choice either to teach others our standards or adopt their standards.”

Looking down onto the Monterey Bay, watching the fishing boats, I am thinking back at the struggle in the late 1960s trying to keep up the fine service and the style. Then it was really difficult. Business was booming in Germany. Hospitals, Hotels and Restaurants were plagued with an overwhelming shortage of workers. We imported plane loads of Filipino workers in an attempt to ease to crunch. We greeted trainloads of young men and women from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Italy with open arms, back then seeing such as the one and only solution to a problem which was getting worse by the day. Initially as fast as the guest-workers(1) arrived, we put them to work. However, we made every attempt to train them first to German standards. I remember we thought we brought only workers to the job, however they brought with them families and traditions and their own knowledge. I have to acknowledge I learned as much from them as they learned from me. It’s a two way street, the teaching and learning. I did not know then, now I do and I appreciate every lesson.

In restaurants silver-service could not be taught by hypnosis, nor just by reading about it, or only by listening or simply by watching someone else doing their job. Much like riding a bicycle or learning to swim these skills had to be acquired by countless repetition.
French service which asked for knowledge in carving and cooking had to be taught piece by piece. I remember when more and more eating places were simplifying their menus by cutting all the show items out of the menu. With surprise did I realize that only very few customers complained about the lowered standards. Restaurant owners liked the excuse that there just wasn’t enough educated help to do certain special items at the guest’s table. In Germany back in the sixties, everybody knew what was happening, but nobody in the hotel and restaurant business wanted to hear the fact that the shortage of trained employees was nobody else’s but the restaurant and hotel owners’ fault. It was simply those owners and managers had been too busy and forgot to plan for the future. By the way this is also a waiter’s disease, the living-now-and-forgetting-all-about-the-future-ism.
At the time when demand for service increased and the pool of available help had temporarily dried up, it was the right moment to reduce waste and to get finally a grip on the up to then uncontrolled cost of all food service.
Restaurant owners and managers alike were looking for a workable solution to their two problems: a) being able to hire people with little or no prior knowledge of food service; and b) gaining control of the amount each customer was to be entitled to eat, male or female alike, big or small, according to a posted menu pricing. The answer was found in the American way, the cafeteria style(2) and the fast food style(3). Both styles, each by itself or combined, are much simpler than the old full-service approach. The American way is that the guest picks whatever he wants and the waiter brings exactly what the guest asks for. Everything is labeled by weight, explained in a language the guest can understand and priced accordingly. There are no second servings. There are no servings in the old-fashioned way for it’s all on one plate; every plate is the same. The options are limited. The profit is easy calculated.
I remember some places which went so far to use numbers on their menus. Here the guest did not even have to say what item he wanted but just the number. The wait person ordered by the number and there was no need for any food server to know the menu. There was no need for the server to speak the guests’ language. Pointing at the number was enough. One did not even need a cook. Anyone could take the prepackaged frozen food out of the freezer labeled by the number. Anybody could heat it up according to a simple short cooking description. The same helper who heated it up put the food item into the pickup window again marked with a number. He then pressed a button calling the numbered plate carrier, who in return brought the numbered plate to the person who had ordered it. The check was created by numbers. The server would not make any further contact with his guest until being called. The communication between food processing factory and the consumer would be by means of numbered cards on . . .

Some beeping noises interrupt my deep thoughts. It is the ring of my new cordless phone. I go indoors to my old copper framed desk and pick up the phone. It’s Brian. I ask him if his ears had been ringing for I was thinking of him? He answers with a somewhat angry, “Hell no!”
“Yes?”
“Tell me again.”
“What?”
“Did you say that I’m acting stupid if I call the people working with me idiots?”
“Hm!”
“And did you say that if I train the new people my way they will look up to me and make me look good?”
His questions surprise me and answer him, “No! Yes! I didn’t say it this way! But yes! You do have a good point there.”
“What did you say? He asks.
“I said there is no such thing as incompetent help!”
We keep on talking for nearly an hour. He is all fired up about the ideas of how he is going to train new people, the way he wants it done, starting the next morning. I wish him good luck. It is one-thirty in the morning before I close the balcony door and get ready to go to bed myself.

1. Guest-worker, a title given to the imported workers in West Germany during the days of the greatest economic boom the country had ever experienced.

2. Cafeteria style, introduced in San Francisco during the gold rush days (around 1850), is self service, where the guest picks and chooses what he likes, payment is required before he gets to consume his meal, the service generally is limited to bussers. Food items are often prepared, portioned and dished out according to the guest’s demand. The cafeteria style menu is only limited by the owners imagination.

3. Fast Food, differs greatly from cafeteria style as it is based on a prepackaged, precooked, mainly frozen, limited selection which is produced by one central supplier to a number of outlets. Therefor the prices are kept low and the standards for look, taste, portion are set and do not allow for any creativity by the heater-upper (fast food cook).

by helmut schonwalder