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In The Weeds: The Pig Farmer and The Regional Director

March 9, 2010

Not your father's company.

Integrity and fairness. It all starts with integrity. We trust in the integrity and fairness of each other to always do the right thing, to be open, honest and forthright with ourselves and others, to demonstrate courage, to solve without blame and to follow through on all our commitments.

Respect and caring. We reach out with respect and caring. We have a genuine interest in the well being of others. We know the importance of listening, the power of understanding and the immeasurable value of support.

– These are the first two core values as found on  Darden is the largest restaurant company in the nation and owns The Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, LonghornSteakhouse, Seasons 52 and The Capital Grille.

Almost every company in America likes to say stuff like this.  It’s a real heart warmer.  But for the most part, especially in the restaurant biz, we all know this is horse shit.  Servers experience the threat of discharge at every moment, even when they’ve reached the upper levels of success, even when they work for the largest corporations in the world. I write only from my own experiences but having worked for several companies, both large and small, I can say that I know of no other company that treats its employees with as much disrespect as The Capital Grille in Kansas City.

The problem child.

Forgive me for being so riled up, but it looks like the powers that (amazingly, still) be over at The Capital Grille of Kansas City are at it again.  Like Hannibal Lector sucking down brain matter, Cap G’s management just won’t be satiated until every last morsel of goodness has been sucked out of that restaurant.  This time, the victim was none other than the 2008 Employee of the Year.  The effing EMPLOYEE OF THE YEAR, PEOPLE!!!   Darden, perhaps it’s time to stage an intervention?*

A few weeks ago, a model server – let’s call him, Patrick, nah…let’s call him Paddy – was invited to an off-site wine tasting featuring two pinot noir makers from the west coast and a slew of local oenophiles.  They ate, they drank, and they had a little wine nerd Q&A discussion at the end of the session.  And that’s apparently where the trouble started.*  But first, a little background on Paddy might help to set the stage.

Paddy moved to Kansas City from a European country known for its dark beer, green hills, and numerous young lads named Paddy.  Although we liked to tell him that he was a shit server who lucked out by landing in Kansas City where people automatically think an accent equals panache, the truth is that he is nothing short of an excellent server with more request parties in one week than most servers have in a month.

Paddy also knows a whole lotta about wine.  He has been seen as the “go-to” wine guy for guests, servers and managers for most of the four years that he has worked at The Capital Grille.   But he doesn’t throw his knowledge about in a way that makes guests feel inferior or nervous.  He keeps a Rolodex of wine stories on mental speed dial.  “You know, he named this wine after his daughter who nearly died in an ice-skating accident in Vermont when the family vacationed there before they made their fortune in automobile parts.”  Stuff like that.  Paddy can also transfer his genuine passion for a wine into an easy sale. “Ah, yes, I’ll never forget the first time I tried that one.  A real beauty.  Absolutely delicious.”  His excitement and knowledge made the guests feel like they were being let in on a secret that was about to change their lives.  And it usually did.

But anyway, there was Paddy in his element, at a wine tasting.  While invited and attending as simply Paddy, not as “Paddy from The Capital Grille,” most of the other attendees knew him and therefore knew where he worked.  During the Q&A, Paddy raised his hand and started a, typical for his nature, slightly long-winded question.  The basic question boiled down to this: Should a server take the reigns and suggest an alternative when a guest pairs food with a wine that the server knows will not cast the wine in its best light?

But in getting to this question, he had a long preface.  Something about how servers are often the last person in a long line of people that get the wine to the table.  Years of effort and millions of dollars are spent as growers, buyers, makers, marketers, distributors etc. all push the product slowly along until at last — this moment.  The moment that the wine will actually pass over the lips of a paying customer.  Does the server have the responsibility to help protect that brand when he knows that the incredibly spicy calamari appetizer is going to run right over that delicate pinot?  Or is the guest to be left to their own devices when they don’t ask for advice?

Also, somewhere muddled in this long question was yet more prefacing.  Paddy was trying to illustrate how many different types of wine customers there are and how stereotypes about who knows wine and who does not just don’t fit anymore.  He made the case with a real-life example of one of his regular customers who is a pig farmer from Iowa.  Generally, one wouldn’t think that a pig farmer from Iowa would care much about wine.  But Paddy’s pig farmer from Iowa often flies to KC on his private jet just to enjoy a dinner served by Paddy and hours of wine geek talk.

So that’s it.  Paddy didn’t get drunk and dance on the table.  Paddy didn’t divulge company secrets.  Paddy didn’t even write a blog about the event.  I wish.  But never-the-less, a few days later, an ambush.  A sit-down.  A ball crusher.*

When Paddy walked into his next work shift, the managing partner (a.k.a. KC Steinbrenner) and the regional director (who it seems was off her long-rumored love affair with pharmaceuticals…again) were waiting to pounce.  Someone, they said, had sent an anonymous e-mail.  The anonymous e-mailer had attended the wine tasting and said that Paddy was disrespecting a guest by calling him a “pig farmer from Iowa.”  Curiously, they were also irritated that he had mentioned how spicy the calamari dish is.*

Paddy was never allowed to see the e-mail that was sent, and he offered to call upon several witnesses who would testify that the e-mailer had boiled down his words and twisted them out of context.*  But the regional director, whose only difference from a pig farmer from Iowa is indeed lipstick (no offense farmer), was not interested in the “importance of listening, the power of understanding and the immeasurable value of support.” * She dressed Paddy down with biting words and criticism and told him she was unsure about his future at The Capital Grille. *

KC Steinbrenner, whose arse has been saved from a similar fate on numerous occasions by the regional director*, didn’t go so far as to defend Paddy but did mumble a few times while checking to make sure his tail was still placed firmly between his legs.  Whatever he did, he certainly didn’t “demonstrate courage, to solve without blame or follow through on all his commitments.“*

Shortly after leaving and feeling like the wind had been knocked out of him, Paddy was sure about his future at The Capital Grille.  He quit.  But it’s not a victory for anyone.

Paddy was made to feel like a common enemy to the very place that he had dedicated his life to for more than four years.  And The Capital Grille lost one of its most valuable assets.  And all because of an anonymous email?  Shame.  Is there anything more cowardly than an anonymous email?  Well, maybe choosing to abandon your own employee in favor of random words from a Gmail account.

To wrap this up with a larger idea . . . The best companies practice their own creeds and stick by their employees and defend them like family, until the facts prove that they shouldn’t.  The business of physically dividing the workers from the people who make the decisions about their futures is a dangerous trend in large corporations.  Regional directors might only see line employees once a quarter and have none of the built-in comradery that can only be built by working for a common goal night after night.  When this is lacking, corporate decision makers are much more likely to cut and run at the first whiff of trouble, leaving the employees exposed to life shattering scenarios if even one guest or one anonymous e-mailer feels like complaining.

I know you servers out there are saying, “HELLO!?!? You’re living in a fantasy world.”  But why shouldn’t we hold our corporate employers to the creeds that they themselves write?  Do we believe the work we do is somehow undeserving of the protections afforded to other corporate employees?  Talk amongst yourselves.

Paddy was told during his Gitmo moment that once you work for The Capital Grille, there is no more private life…there is no “private Paddy.”*  Gawd.  Thank goodness he was only asking questions at a wine event and not philandering with employees or falling off the radar during a pill binge.  That would have been really embarrassing.  For the company.

* = allegedly


17 Responses to “ In The Weeds: The Pig Farmer and The Regional Director ”

  1. I've eaten, thank you! on March 9, 2010 at 7:54 am

    It is nice to see that corporate buffoons are the same weasels regardless of the business.

    It really puts on display where we have arrived in America, we use everyone until they are no longer of value to us and we don’t have the courage to do anything remotely right when hard times hit.

  2. Kristi on March 9, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Wait ’til said “pig farmer” gets “wind” of this. Someone is not going to be happy.

  3. Linh on March 9, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    “Paddy” was a wonderful brand ambassador The Capital Grille (although I am a tad bit biased). He was always going out of his way to make his regulars happy. Whether it was stopping to buy fresh portabellas for one of his non-meat eating customers or finagling a prized wine locker position for another customer so she could surprise her husband for his birthday, P knew how to make it happen. He took great care of his guests. There were many times when he wasn’t even at work, took calls from his peeps and personally called Capital to make a reservation, leave instructions on how to take care of them, etc, etc. And gee, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t on the clock. I wish Management appreciated him as much as all his customers did. And as much as I do.

  4. Jane on March 9, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Wow. Just shaking my head. So, if the man’s occupation is being a pig farmer, what’s disrespectful about saying that he is?

  5. hostess on March 9, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    pretty certain someone from darden is reading this blog weekly. must be cheaper, more convenient to replace an hourly than a manager

  6. rambo on March 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Let it go. Or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.

  7. Greyhound on March 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Well done CJ. What about the female manager who broke her foot several months ago (dropped a wine bottle on it) and is still not back to work, but she can sure go to the gym and workout. Wonder if she is collecting workers compensation benefits ??

  8. Bill on March 10, 2010 at 3:41 am

    I like pigs. I like farms.

  9. BettyBostonia on March 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Awww Rambo, sounds like someone might have hit a nerve? Gee, I wonder if you’re the MP or RD? Obviously you have a bad habit of cutting off your nose to spite your face. C.J., excellent column as usual. By an incredible coincidence I was invited to pick a fancy-schmancy restaurant to dine at tonight in the Back Bay, and because of the above story, Morton’s it is! Paddy, come on out to Boston! We have quite a few independent fine dining establishments that would give their left… arm for a wonderful server/sommelier such as yourself.

  10. mrs ellenoy on March 11, 2010 at 12:57 am

    Wow, Capitol Grill really knows how to shoot itself in the foot. I have never been a big fan of the Olive Garden or Red Lobster, and I live where you trip over a good steakhouse whenever you turn around, so I see no reason why I should ever set foot in one of Darden’s chains ever again. I have no respect for any company that would permit a restaurant manager to behave in this way.

    CJ, nice post.

  11. shannon c. on March 11, 2010 at 1:47 am

    I work at a corporate restaraunt as well, and am very familiar with the cut and run policy of district managers. a few weeks back, on a busy friday night one of our best servers had a table of twenty-somethings stationed at a base nearby. one of the young men ordered a long island iced tea. when the guest received his drink, he complained that it wasn’t strong enough. there was commaderaty that was going on between the guest and server, typical of our clientele. though i am unsure of who’s decision it was, when the person stated that he’d like another, the server and the bartender (also a very good employee) decided to make him two long islands; a fake drink, i.e. sour mix and coke, and a real one. he brought the fake one over first, and the guest stated that it was great. his buddies eventually found out about the harmless practical joke, i’m assuming when the server brought the real long island over, and there was much joking around and harrassment on the person’s behalf. the next day, this person called the corporate line and complained. the result of this phone call, was that both the server and the bartender lost their jobs. all because a person was embarrassed in front of his buddies because he had a fast one pulled on him in a joking fun enviroment, where servers are encouraged to have fun with their guests.

  12. Kim on March 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Darden strikes again. Similar thing happened to me… I worked for Red Lobster for 3 years, starting as a host, moving up through the ranks to head bartender and training captain. Then one day, my manager got an “anonymous” phone call that I (white girl) was racsit towards an African American guest. It didn’t matter that the woman who called about her visit had me close to tears because she was such a rude, mean-hearted person with no respect for other humans, and the “racist instance” she referred to was me keeping her take out in the back under the warmer because she was late to pick it up, instead of leaving it on the bar to get cold. I was barely asked for my side of the story, much less actually listened to, because the word “racist” was used. and that was the end of my Darden career.
    In retrospect, best thing that could have happened to me. I got a job at another restaurant, where i made double the money and worked with great people. however, the point still stands that there is no loyalty to the employees in corporate restaurants, even the better ones.

  13. waitress on March 12, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    wow, it makes me sick to read this and know that I am still caught up in it! I work at the Olive Garden as a server/to go specialist, and have noticed over my 3 years of employment the decrease in respect and caring for servers. Our service manager treats us like her personal slaves, talks to us like we are idiots and threatens us with bad shifts or no shifts if we don’t do what she says. I am seriously considering going to applebees, at least they are restricted to 3 table sections and endless refills on everything. Darden seriously blows. But they are the top restaurant company making big bucks so why would they change, right?

  14. Whiskey A-Bobo on March 13, 2010 at 4:12 am

    i work with waitress and can attest to everything Darden employees have said. Granted, I’ve noticed that if you can be one mutherfucking loquacious and eloquent bastard while smiling, they tend to stutter (well, more so than usuall, ie, crazy GM, Waitress.)

  15. Garfield on March 13, 2010 at 4:50 am

    What the heck is “commaderaty” ?

  16. Tara on March 24, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Completely off-topic except for keying on possibly funny, more possibly accurate job descriptions. But I overheard a man the other day say that he was a crop duster. And I’m sure he was, the real kind, but I immediately pictured him walking through a restaurant passing gas.

  17. Dad on March 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    You need to get out more