Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It all started when I was 16...

My family had a good tradition: get a job at 16.  The idea was that I would learn some work ethic and well as some respect for money.  I know it worked because I know people who either haven't worked a job till they were in their 20's or didn't care about their money at all.  So, on June 5, 1995, I went in for my first day of work, as a bus-boy at Old Country Buffet.  My older brother had already worked there for two years and they hired me on the basis that I was as good or better than my brother.  I worked at this location, in Shrewsbury, until around 1999, when I also worked a part-time job at Blockbuster video.  It was about this time that my brother started college and so he decided to quit working at OCB and work at another location, which was also for his major.  I finished ties at this location and had some disagreements with the new management, which wanted the workers to all follow her and fear her.  This was difficult because we all worked together for about 4 years, most of us college aged and all friends who worked great as a team.  We didn't fear management and worked with and treated managers like friends, with which was easier.

The next location I worked at was the Manchester OCB location.  It was a new location and about a 25 minute drive from my home, where the older Shrewsbury location was a mere 5 minutes and within walking distance as well.  This new location had most of the staff from Mexico and I'm not joking, as when a rumor of an immigration officer showing up one day came to the surface, we had over 2/3rds of our staff call in sick.  It was at this location, that the managers wanted to hold on to American workers, or legal workers, and chose to promote me to management.  So, as a college student, I started my role as Shift Supervisor.  It was here that they first had me train in every position, then become certified in every position, and then become a supervisor.  The idea was simple: if anyone called in sick or was unable to come to work, I could fill in the spot.  It was a great idea from a manager point of view as I could work the food line and still count as the front of the house supervisor.  (Kill two birds with one stone.)  I didn't mind bussing tables, making tips, working the cash stand and even going into the dishroom, but I was always nervous about the cooks line.  It wasn't a fear that I would mess anything up or under cook or overcook but a fear that I didn't know how to do it.  It was simple, as my GM said, "you follow the recipe, follow the instructions, and make the food."  As strange as he was and the sole reason for requesting a transfer and eventually leaving that location, it is strange to note that what he said about the recipe instructions, was a way to brake the wall, in my mind, about cooking.  After that wall was broken or the veil was lifted, I could cook and did cook, just about anything there, even things that I wasn't supposed to.  Do you want a jelly filled donut?  Well, I'd take a dinner roll out of the proofer, drop it into the fryer for a minute, then roll it in some sugar and fill it with a packet of jelly.

As I said, my issue was, that the GM, at the time, was dating an employee, which was against company policy.  That employee, quickly found her way up the ranks and into upper management.  She also had every family member of her's who worked at this same location, making as much as a $3 to $4 raise.  When I asked for a raise he gave me a nickel.  The woman's family gets dollars and a I get a 5 cent coin.  That seemed a bit unfair.  It also didn't help that my friends who were also Shift Supervisors with me, were working less and less as they went to college and managers I admired and liked were sent away to other locations.  I asked for a transfer and put it in.  After a long negotiations process between my half-inebriated GM and the District Manager, I was allowed to move to a location at South Lindbergh, about 10 minutes from my home.

The store at South Lindbergh was where it all changed.  As a Shift Supervisor, I was working in the kitchen about 50% of the time.  Unreliable cooks would consistently call in sick and the restaurant was short on cooks so the managers wouldn't fire anyone.  So, what did I learn on the cook's line?  Well, I learned how to bread and cook enough fried chicken for 10 people, at once.  I learned how to make large amounts of soup, as much as several gallons at once.  I learned how to make sure all the foods tasted correct and that they were not too salty or missing salt; which was a regular complaint from many older people.  So, anyways, I learned that the food that we cooked was actually pretty healthy and good for you as unlike other competitors of ours, we did not use fillers, extra sugars or corn syrups and we didn't use MSG.  The food at Old Country Buffet was probably better for you than the fast food chains and cheaper than other all-you-can-eat buffets.

After 8 and 1/2 years of service, I left Old Country Buffet, or Home Town Buffet as it was then changed to.  Unlike most of the employees at this location, that were legal immigrants, I could afford to go to college and it was there I went off to.  The other half of the staff was mostly high school girls who were looking for their summer jobs to make shopping money.  What stayed with me was how to cook some of the menu items, how to cook things in large batches and how things should taste.  That helped start the seed for a foodie.

Now, after about 8 years, just a week ago, I went to that last Home Town Buffet.  I was at the local all-you-can-eat buffet, the new competition: The Golden Corral.  I wrote about the higher cost, the cost of paying for a drink separately, the large amount of food options but the mediocre food quality.  I wanted to go back to the last place of employment, before my career and see what has changed; if anything.  What I found out, was a bit shocking and disturbing.

First off, we went for lunch on a Saturday.  I tried to see if anything had changed at the restaurant,  I was shocked to have seen that so much had in fact changed.  First of all, when you went to pay first for your meal so many years ago, you paid and you had everything included.  Now, you not only pay for your meal, but you have to pay for your drink separately.  That is new and another dollar or two for a drink, seems a bit steep.  I think I drank one cup of sprite and that was it, so that was hardly worth $2 or whatever.  But anyway, we get our ticket and get to our seat.

What they started when I still worked there, was that the company discovered that it could legally change the
job of the bussers to servers, and therefore could get away with paying them around $4 an hour plus tips.  I always hated this idea, even as a manager, because unlike restaurants where the servers take orders and handle everything, the bussers or "servers" now, were expected to bring in as much as $3-$5 per table even though there is no real urge or requirement to tip them.  I admit that they could get drinks or help get napkins and clean up but that's about it.  I also remember some servers not claiming all of their tips, because why should they pay taxes on something that someone gave them?

So anyways, we get our spot, where I see a server that was there when I was there.  We also then get ready and we start going up for our food.  Let me tell you this right off the bat, most of the food, the quality, has not changed since I worked there.  My wife and I both felt that the food at the Golden Corral was awful, but the food at HTB is still pretty good.

This is a fun thing, a random piece of information, but when they changed from Old Country Buffet to Home Town Buffet, they thought that they were going to do away with the "Old" part of the restaurant.  So, they changed the little separators on the booths from red curtains to frosted glass, changed the carpet to a tad bit lighter carpet and then put some pictures on the wall.  That is it.  So, those chairs and tables are still the same as they were before.

So anyways, we get some food and only a handful of menu items have been new, most are old ones I remember.

I tried to get some things I never had tried.  I have a slice of calzzone, some orange chicken, a dumpling (which I have tried and is the same recipe), a slider and some onion rings.  Everything on this plate was good, even the onion rings, which is odd because sometimes restaurants can't get the onion to be tender enough or the shell to be crispy enough.

Next was the plate of things that didn't work well.

Two items on this plate were some of my favorite items which I had every meal and every day I worked there.  To the top left was mashed potatoes and brown gravy and the lower left was some cornbread dressing.  Now, when I had worked there, the mashed potatoes were made from an instant potato product called "potato pearls".  They were tiny balls of dried out potatoes that when mixed with water, made a perfect creamy mashed potatoes.  They tasted like potatoes when I worked there, now they don't taste like anything. I would guess that they got rid of the potato pearls which were made from real potatoes and instead got some artificial thing that resembles potatoes.  The cornbread dressing used to made from real cornbread which was cooked earlier and tasted good, this cornbread dressing tasted bland as well.  To the right side of the plate was some new desserts like a chocolate brownie with some vanilla icing and sprinkles and a giant chocolate chip cookie.

Something that was also a change is that there used to be a closet, by the back part of the salad bar, where the extra toilet paper, soap and paper towels for the bathrooms would have been kept.  I would guess that in order to increase traffic, they took everything out of that closet and made it a game room.

Now, I can't see why any restaurant would welcome kids to run around their food bars to run in and out of a 'game room', but that looks like just another thing that has changed.

I notice that a lot has changed and it is a bit sad.  I do plan on going back again and seeing if anything else has changed, for better or worse.

1 comment:

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