Mar 222013

Craig Giesecke

Any of us who have lived in a really small town are usually the first to speak up when some urban type starts talking about how they’d like to try the bucolic experience of small-town life.  “Oh, I think it would be so wonderful to really get to know my neighbors,” they say. “It’s so quiet and peaceful – away from the rat race,” they conjecture.

Those of us who have been there know how much unfair judging and rumor there is, as well as how much it’s a hassle to have someone up in your grill all the time. You can’t hide anything. But I can guarantee there’s one environment that’s even tougher in the same kinds of ways – and it’s the New Orleans service industry.

With a quick phone call or less, any of us can get the full lowdown on pretty much any applicant that comes through the door. Aside from those who have just moved to town, those of us who have worked more than 90 days in a kitchen or behind a bar or as a server can describe the mere one or two degrees of separation between us. It’s a rare person who can stay above it and has a clean record from everyone. And, if they’re THAT clean, we’re not sure we trust them.

Part of this is broken up by neighborhoods and regions. They might have been great stuff out in Metairie or on the Northshore, but how is that going to translate Uptown or in the French Quarter? A prized employee in the Quarter might be a little too, um, exotic for a lot of spots on St Charles Ave. You get the idea. At any rate, we know who to call to find out.

Similarly, we know who’s good at what and where they’re weak. A creative lunch or supper guy might not be able to fashion a reasonable breakfast (that would be me). A good beertender might be a lousy bartender and vice-versa. A server who brings a tremendous personal crowd in the door might be bad at sidework, while your sidework star might have the personality of an empty locker when it comes to upselling the menu. There are all kinds of combinations.

The best an owner/operator can hope to do is cobble together a crew that’s a successful coalition of various types. This is where, at least in this city, the pool of possible employees is highly distrustful of corporate insistence on “team members” with eerily smiling faces. So often, the truly competent are highly jaded folks who are there to do a job and, if that job includes smiling brighter than a solar flare and working next to someone they can’t stand, they’ll do it in a heartbeat. Just don’t expect them to simply shut up and go home when the shift is over. Call it professional prerogative, if you will. We deserve the right to bitch, as long as it’s off-camera and during downtime.

Your going rate of pay for a server in this town is $2.13 an hour (the legally allowable minimum). It’s $10 an hour in the kitchen, if you want anyone with any staying power.  Servers can make an entirely decent living if tips are consistently good. Kitchen folks need a second job at the same rate of pay or better to make things work. We figure this is why it’s called the “service” industry – since one is too often “serviced” in the way a cow is “serviced” by a bull.

That said, there are some owners who understand the situation and make it well worth the time spent at work. They understand a fairly compensated workforce shows up on time, is enthusiastic and usually goes well beyond the call when it comes to customer service. These employees don’t job-hop, they offer ideas and they feel they are an integral part of the company’s success – because they are.

New Orleans can be the smallest town in the country if you’re in the restaurant/bar business, and that goes for both owners and the rank-and-file.  Word gets around quickly about subpar employees. But some employers also wonder why they have trouble keeping staff. All they need to do is look in a mirror.

Kim and I begin a new adventure this week with one of The Good Ones. It has already been a tremendous amount of fun and we look for it to continue. It is good to be paid for something we’d be doing anyway.

Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now banquet and special event chef at the Warehouse Grille. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

  • Hi Greg! I really enjoyed reading this article. My question for you is, how would you recommend a person with a strong retail service background but limited restaurant experience find a server position in this city? Everyone wants experience, but it seems nobody is willing to give any!

    • Hi Brittany,

      As a former waiter then retail manager then waiter again, I’d say a hostess or busser position would be the best way to get your foot in the door. Get to know as much as you can about the food, how to canoodle with the clientele, then when a server position becomes available you’ll know all the ins and outs of the restaurant before you even ask “Can I get you a drink while you look over the menu?”.

      Good luck!