My first payroll job was at Bolter’s Barbecue by the Northeast Mall. (Name changed to an obvious fake name). I was the order-entry guy at the front of the line and made the baked potatoes. Not a glamorous job, but it beat doing trim work with my uncles for new houses under construction. The houses under construction were incredibly hot in the Texas summers because they didn’t install AC units yet. And there weren’t toilets either, so other construction guys would crap in random bags and boxes. So the houses smelled like hot poop, and I found myself excited to be making baked potatoes in the air conditioning at Bolter’s Barbecue instead.
I learned a few things during my Bolter’s days… some life lessons from my time spent making baked potatoes.
The lines of customers after church on Sundays were legendary back in Bolter’s heyday. They’d wrap around the whole restaurant, out the front door, and through the parking lot. People would stand there and hear the Beach Boys “Kokomo” play several times before they’d get to the front of the line. (I used to spend a portion of my meager income to pump the jukebox full of Kokomo when I got there each morning because the Beach Boys were the only non-country band in there.)
Note: After having done the Kokomo thing, years later I would find John Mulaney’s ‘Salt and Pepper Diner’ the funniest thing I’d ever seen in stand-up comedy. Go check it out.
Being relatively new to company policies of any kind, I was all about pleasing the customer. I’d bust open that baked potato and try to make it actually look like the picture. Early one day, a redneck couple made it through the line with a billion kids (who I distinctly remember licking the glass to the little side-room where they pull the meat out of the pits.) The guy asked for a “Chopped Baker”, which is a loaded baked potato with chopped brisket on it, and I started loading it up with beautiful spherical globs of butter and sour cream.
He leaned over and whispered, “Psst… Hey man, fill that bitch up.” And I was like, “Oh hell yes.”
So I started scooping enormous amounts of every ingredient, making this enormous beautiful assortment of colors that was bigger than his head, and topped the thing with a whole pound of bacon bits.
I was pretty proud of my little creation, and so was the next person in line. She wanted the same. And so did the next person, and the next. Soon enough, I had the whole cafeteria line piled up with mile-high taters. Our general manager (and family friend) John saw the potatoes and he blew a fuse. He was notorious for being very – let’s say “frugal” or one of its more-hilarious synonyms – was not pleased to see his geeky 16-year old Baked Potato Guy single-handedly ruin his food costs for the month.
John sprinted towards me to give me a chewing, and showed me what 2 ounces of sour cream is supposed to look like. But it was already too late. Every customer behind the last guy was already eyehumping the potatoes in front of them and they wanted the same thing. John opened up the warmer drawer and goes, oops, these don’t look good, and angrily whispered to me that we were unfortunately all out of baked potatoes for the day. Instead of lying to all these nice church folks, I just told them “Psst…. Trust me, don’t get the baked potato,” and left it at that.
Don’t be quick to react
The guys who worked the butcher block were masterful meat cutters. They’d take those long, sword-like, razor sharp blades and slice away at that meat in a blur of sweet knife skills. Some were missing fingers for obvious reasons.
My dad was the General Manager at this same site a few years prior, and one time he bumped a knife off of the butcher block. He reacted quickly to try to grab it before it hit the ground, and the knife did its job perfectly, smoothly cutting right through all the meat that holds your thumb on. Surgeons were able to reattach everything, but his scars were a grim reminder that sometimes you should go ahead and just let that knife hit the ground. You can take this lesson out of the restaurant and apply it in broader strokes through life as well. Let that knife hit the ground.
Note: This life lesson does not apply to babies. Go ahead and try to grab any free-falling baby that you see.
Know your boundaries
Every once in a while, I’d be at the other end of the line working the cashier line, and I’d try to be a good face for the business and chat up each customer a little before they took off with their tray. Our other manager Derek was especially eager to do the same if the customer happened to be gorgeous, and he’d hover over me and interrupt me to talk their heads off.
One day, an especially-noticeable female came through the line with a fat stack of ones and started paying for her family. Like 40 bucks in ones. Just making conversation, I said “Whoa that’s a lot of ones, are you a dancer?” and Derek whacked me on the back of the head so hard, it knocked all the ones out of my hand and all over the countertop. Apparently that’s an offensive thing to ask people. Lesson learned.
Outshine or be outshined
Do you know who likes magicians? Nobody. Unless you’re a magician. (The same rule applies to clowns, by the way.) On our busy nights, they’d have a creepy magic guy or a balloon guy go around table-to-table and do random crap and beg for tips. Eventually Creepy McCreeperson found a better magician job or something, and Bolter’s needed another host, so I offered my best friend Phil up for the job.
Right there on his first shift, Phil just knocked everyone’s socks off. He’d get a pitcher of tea for refills and literally run across the restaurant to take it to a thirsty patron. Then he’d literally run across the restaurant for a cornbread refill, and then literally run across the restaurant to bring someone another side of cherry peppers from the condiment island. He ran all over the restaurant.
Sure enough, that jerk got Employee of the Month on his first month there. What the hell, Phil?! (I never made Employee of the Month, by the way, in almost 2 years of employment… even when I got pneumonia from standing out in the freezing rain barefooted on Halloween dressed like Fred Flintstone, changing the marquee board. That was another life lesson learned.)
Phil and I are still best friends to this day. One day I’ll casually nudge him into the Grand Canyon and yell after him “Looks like you’re not Employee of the Month now, bitch!” while he makes the Ya-hoo-hoo sound that Goofy makes when he falls great distances.
Somebody’s always watching
I’m not sure how it came to be that the whole staff was watching the video surveillance of the kitchen area one morning as I arrived, but I picture this scenario (names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty):
“Damon, you’ve been late three times this week, these countertops are a mess, and you didn’t prep enough rolls. I’m going to need you to try harder. Why can’t you be more like Joseph here?”
“Joseph pees in the beans.”
Sure enough, the video doesn’t lie. In the grainy black-and-white footage, you could see Joseph open up his fly about 4 feet away from the handwashing station, arc it into the sink, let Little Joe dangle as he casually walked over to the stove, and then give it a thorough shaking-off into the beans. True story.
(In a funnier, fictitious version, it would be hilarious if everybody in the restaurant office was each eating a bowl of beans while they watched the video, and then all comically drop their spoons at the same time.)
Two life lessons here: 1. Remember that someone is always watching. 2. Don’t pee in the beans.