In The Weeds: The Pig Farmer and The Regional Director
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.com. 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.
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