Served: Corporate Restaurantland

Note: Longtime SE readers will remember Hannah Howard's column Served about working in the restaurant biz. Now she's managing a Philadelphia restaurant, and we're excited to bring back her behind-the-scenes dispatches. Welcome back, Hannah! —The Mgmt.

20080616-servedbug.jpgLast time I wrote, a year and a half ago, I was bidding adieu to New York and heading off to relentlessly sunny Los Angeles. I was excited and terrified.

I graduated from college, my gig writing Served, and my job waiting tables at a lovely cheese and wine bar in Hell's Kitchen. I left my home in a co-ed frat house in an old, crumbling, breathtaking house on 114th Street. I moved alone into an apartment complex in Pasadena—there were palm trees and a swimming pool. I had a porch that got dusty from the nearby forest fires.

I went to work for a proudly upscale steakhouse chain that refused to call itself a chain or a steakhouse. I had been hired in New York and shipped across the country to participate in their Management Training Program.

I Become Corporate Cali Girl

I missed my family, my friends, Central Park, and seasons. But I didn't get the chance to see seasons or lack thereof. I was working. All the time I was working. Sometimes I would close the restaurant, drive home drunk on exhaustion at 2 a.m., and get up at 5 a.m. to open the restaurant. ("It builds character" —Nasty Manager)

It was very hot in Pasadena, but I wore the mandated black suit, kitchen clogs, hair pulled back—"no flyaways! Use more hairspray!"—and no jewelry. I hated getting dressed for work.

There were many good things. I met some interesting fellow training managers, most of them also miserable. The company recruited from big-name schools, and they were smart, ambitious people. The Senior Managers scolded us for spending our 30 minute break together. They wanted to foster competition, not camaraderie, but we weren't having it.

Learning the Ropes

Training managers learned the ropes by working for a week or two in every restaurant position. The service bar was the best. We just made drinks, and everyone left you alone. I had a crush on the service bartender, but managers were strictly prohibited from "fraternizing with employees." Dishwashing wasn't so bad, the swoosh of the machine was almost therapeutic. I liked doing the prep in the morning—mixing big bowls of remoulade and brownie batter and chatting with the show tune-singing, body-building Mexican prep cook.

Most of all, I loved expediting when it was busy. Adrenaline was flowing like crazy, and the time went by fast. "Pick up, pick up, I need hands!" I had a great coach, a dapper older manager, who gave me wonderful advice—be louder, be more confident, know what's going on, set the pace. Expediting, you were at the helm of the restaurant.

It was a busy restaurant—a ruthlessly busy, successful restaurant—and I never quite understood why. The ribs, which Morning Prep Cook #2 dipped one by one in a vat of bacon fat? The absolute by-the-book promise of consistency? The designer fishies swimming in the pond by the entrance?

The Steakhouse Wasn't for Me

I used to love the restaurant business. I loved being around wonderful food and wine. I loved meeting fascinating people. I loved the daily surprises, the perpetual motion.

I cried when my alarm clock chirped one obscenely early morning. I really did not want to go to work. Working in restaurants, until California, had been sometimes amazingly difficult or frustrating. I had cried before, under the surge of a chef's screaming or a customer's wrath. But I had always found a lot of joy in what I did. That morning, I couldn't find an ounce of joy in my work.

I left for a million reasons. I got in trouble with Corporate for giving a hostess a hug when she returned from vacation. Actually, she initiated the hug. But as a manager, I was the one who could be sued big time for sexual harassment. Or get the company sued. Really?

It was a big company, with about 17 million rules, and I felt a robot would be better suited to do my job. I just couldn't see enforcing the copious use of hairspray.

The GM hated me from the get-go. Or if his hatred was a motivational tactic, it didn't work. "You'll never be a good manager," he told me. Corporate disagreed. They told me I had incredible potential and begged me to stay, after I quit upon my promotion to legitimate manager.

Six months after arriving in Los Angeles, I moved back to New York, where my family was. New York was home. I didn't know what I would do, but I walked up and down Broadway, in the cold, and I had a wonderful, fluttery feeling in my stomach.

To Be Continued

Next week: How I ended up in Philly, and became the GM of a tiny, wonderful restaurant.