Archive for December, 2010

“Without Illegal Aliens, There is No Restaurant Business”

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 12/28/2010

That’s a pretty bold statement made by Phanton Gourmet on facebook.

A firestorm was ignited when a recent front page Boston Globe story reported that Upper Crust Pizza, a rapidly-growing local chain, hired and exploited illegal immigrant workers from Brazil.

According to the Globe:

The promise of a job at an Upper Crust shop, passed by word of mouth from one villager to the next, offered the possibility of wages unheard of in Marilac [Brazil], a community of 4,140 people in the mountains of southeastern Brazil.

Over the past decade, dozens of men from Marilac have made the 7,500-mile trek, risking arrest, deportation, and in rare cases, death. And Upper Crust, founded by Sharon [MA] native Jordan Tobins in 2001, welcomed them.

Tobins needed lots of kitchen help; the Brazilians worked hard and didn’t complain about workweeks that routinely stretched to 80 hours. Marilac prospered as Upper Crust’s immigrant employees sent thousands of dollars home, and the company swiftly expanded from its original store in Beacon Hill to one upscale suburb after another.

Over time, however, this amicable but unlawful relationship would unravel. Documents from a recent class action lawsuit show that as Tobins expanded his pizza empire, he began to exploit his immigrant workers. The employees took their complaints to the US Department of Labor, which ordered the chain to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. The department is now investigating wage violations at Upper Crust for a second time.

As always, comments in response to the Globe report, as well as on a related Boston Yelp Talk thread exploded with hundreds of missives ranging from the typical anonymous hate and vitriol to some very thoughtful and insightful observations.

In the midst of Sunday night’s blizzard, the debate continued on facebook after The Phantom Gourmet posted the following:

Let’s name restaurants that deliver. I’ll start: Upper Crust Pizza.

What really got my attention was a comment made by Phantom Gourmet during the exchange of comments within the thread following the post:

Phantom Gourmet: I’m sorry to tell everyone, but without illegal aliens, there is no restaurant business. Hurting this company, or any other company, is not what our state needs right now.

In case Phantom Gourmet takes the post and related comments down, I have provided the comments in the order that they appeared:

Jimmy Machin: Didn’t Upper Crust just get busted for exploiting their workers?

Debbie Delia Fowle: Why is Phantom Gourmet assisting in advertising Upper Crust when they are under investigation for employment issues? I would think you would want to keep your distance until the end results come out

Bob Ullman: Exploitation of employees? Give me a break! If people are willing to work for X dollars an hour with no benefits then it’s their fault, not the employer. They are in a business, not a charity! I will second the vote for Upper Crust Pizza.

Phantom Gourmet: Bob, good for you, they have hundreds of employees and do a lot for charity and generate millions in tax revenue, I would think we would all be rooting for businesses to expand and hire. Plus, the pizza is really tasty.

Patrick Maguire: Yes, Bob, exploitation of their employees. Stop drinking the Kool Aid and read the full story. I don’t know anyone who supports or patronizes Upper Crust any more, even if they like their over-priced pizza.

Vincent Errichetti: Upper Crust broke no laws. The Boston Globe is just mad they didn’t buy advertising in their bankrupt news paper. BTW how does a bankrupt newspaper afford to send a reporter to South America???????

Lynn Boston: Anybody who hires illegals is part of the problem!!! I’ll never call the Upper Crust. Too many good pizza places out there who don’t break the law.

Phantom Gourmet: I’m sorry to tell everyone, but without illegal aliens, there is no restaurant business. Hurting this company, or any company, is not really what our state needs right now.

Patrick Maguire: “Upper Crust broke no laws.” Then why did they pay a 350K in back pay as ordered by the US Dept. of Labor? They are also defending a complaint from a former operations manager (7-yr. employee), the District Attorney’s Office and several other agencies. Take your head out of the sand.

Matthew Conley: Phantom is waaaaay off on supporting these scumbags. Please do not support these guys in any way. The excuse that “everyone does it” is no justification. Love PG but they are in the wrong keeping company with these clowns.

Patrick Maguire: “I’m sorry to tell everyone, but without illegal aliens, there is no restaurant business.” My hunch is that there are a lot of restaurant operators who would take exception to that statement.

Phantom Gourmet: Patrick, feel free to ask around, and get back to me. Of course, not every restaurant, but every restaurant will KNOW a restaurant.

Patrick Maguire: Phantom Gourmet- I’m working on a blog post about this that will include input from restaurant workers and operators. Please send me a message to let me know who I should be contacting to get official statements from the Phantom Gourmet responding to your comments in this thread. Thank you.

MC Slim JB: It is true that many restaurant hire undocumented workers. The issue with The Upper Crust is not in hiring them, but exploiting them. Caught doing it once, and now accused of continuing that pattern. We know they’re your sponsors, Phantom, but let’s not pretend folks don’t know that story.

Adam Castiglioni:  Dear Phantom Gourmet- When will you drop the Upper Crust as a sponsor of yours? I fear that your company may become part of the whole controversy surrounding them soon. There are so many other great pizza places that you could bring on as advertisers that may not exploit their workers.

Obviously there are a lot of loaded issues here. Everyone who is, or has previously been in the restaurant business, knows that ‘illegal’ immigrant workers have been part of the fabric of restaurants for a long, long time. The vast majority are great workers, great people and an integral part of many restaurant families.

Restaurateurs turned a blind eye to the issue, especially in urban areas and border states, for several decades because it’s a win-win for the restaurant and their employees.

However, with immigration a hot button topic today, many restaurateurs are starting to address the issue proactively. Some are taking steps to retain immigrant workers by offering English classes and sponsoring workers in pursuit of their permanent resident alien status (green cards). Additionally, owners and managers are more carefully vetting their employees, when previously they would accept documents that they knew were suspect at best.

These complex issues raise several questions for candid, thoughtful discussion for customers, restaurateurs, workers and even other American business owners:

1. How prevalent is the use of illegal or undocumented workers in the restaurant business in the United States today? How about other businesses?

2. Are there some restaurants or businesses that would fail without illegal or undocumented workers?

3. Are these workers taking jobs away from legal residents who want them? If not, should we remain quiet as long no one is being taken advantage of?

4. How prevalent is the exploitation of immigrant workers? Do you personally know of any workers who are being taken advantage of?

5. How thorough is your restaurant or business when it comes to verifying the legal status of prospective employees before hiring them? How well do companies follow up with required documentation after an employee is hired?

6. What are highly-ethical restaurants doing to address the issue of illegal workers? Are some restaurants screening, coaching, training and counseling employees to ensure compliance with immigration laws and citizenship requirements? Are any restaurants/businesses going above and beyond to retain valuable immigrant workers?

7. How true is the old adage that illegal immigrant workers are critical to the success of American restaurants or businesses because legal workers are not willing to do the same work for minimum wage, or the wages paid to the illegal workers?

8. At what point do you as a consumer, vendor or business partner sever your relationship with a restaurant or business because of ethical issues such as exploitation of workers? Do you have any specific examples?

I will not patronize Upper Crust Pizzeria because of the Department of Labor findings and the on-going investigations.

I invite everyone to join the conversation. Please keep your comments respectful and civil. As always, comments will be monitored before being approved. Thank you.

Permalink | Posted in Human-to-Human Service, Introduction | 36 Comments »

Merry Christmas from Boston

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 12/25/2010

Permalink | Posted in Human-to-Human Service, Introduction | 3 Comments »

Cliché Moratorium?

Book Chapter: Personal Pet Peeves

Posted: 12/23/2010

Just for the fun of it.

As I’ve previously noted, in addition to facilitating a discussion, writing this blog is therapeutic. After breakfast this morning, perhaps my therapy should include a brief respite to the proverbial deserted island away from all humans…

I should have seen it coming. The holidays always have a way of bringing out the painful, washed and worn clichés. While waiting for my breakfast, I was enjoying my tea and newspaper at the counter of Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, a Boston institution. A well-dressed gentleman in his sixties stood up and prepared to leave with his wife and 3 children in tow.

In a voice loud enough to let everyone in the joint know that he was a least a semi-regular, the guy said goodbye to the staff, then bellowed the requisite, “I’ll see you next year.”, that the uninitiated still use at the end of December, knowing they’ll see you in a week. His tone indicated that he actually thought his comment was original, clever and funny. It was none of those.

The staff didn’t have much of a choice but to respond with the perfunctory laughs and good wishes that servers are often expected to emit. (Imagine how many times they hear the same comments over and over?)

I could see the looks and feel the silent, collective, groan permeating the air from the other patrons. I caught eyes with a few kindred spirits who shook their heads as if to ask, Did he REALLY just say that? The guy added insult to injury with, “I hope Santa Clause is good to you.” on his way out the door.

Why don’t people who say those things ever get the clues (or social cues) that they’re not funny? I wonder what his wife and kids think.

I get it that silence without small talk, filler or inane banter might be awkward, but wouldn’t it be great if we could ban or escape all of the tacky, cutesy, repetitive chatter that we all endure during the holidays???

What drives you nuts this time of year?

PS- I’m not as grouchy as I sound.

PSS- Thanks to all of you who voted, the blog won the A-List contest for best local blog in Boston. Thank you very much.

Permalink | Posted in Personal Pet Peeves | 21 Comments »

The Perfect Restaurant Storm

Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Shame

Posted: 12/20/2010

I’ve often described working in a restaurant as Improv Theatre. Every shift presents unique circumstances and challenges, and even the most experienced professionals can be taken aback by the audacity of the human condition.

A seasoned general manager of a popular Boston restaurant sent me a text last week requesting to meet. Based on his extensive hospitality industry experience, I knew his story would not be an every-day tale of woe. When we met for breakfast the next day, he did not disappoint.

The Wednesday lunch started out like every other day for the GM and his front of the house staff of one hostess, two servers, a bartender and a busser. About 11:15, a handful of guests walked to the podium and said, “We’re going to be at least 30 for lunch.” After welcoming the guests and confirming that the group did not have a reservation, the hostess told them she would seat them momentarily after the staff moved a few tables together.

Within seconds the GM, staff and kitchen were alerted, and the restaurant went into ‘all hands on deck’ mode, with everyone pitching in wherever needed. The GM became waiter/busser/food runner/kitchen expediter; the executive chef stepped in as line cook; the hostess hustled to help the servers while the bartender pitched in everywhere.

And here’s what happened:

The party of 30 grew into a party of 47 students from a local college celebrating the completion of finals and the beginning of semester break.

Forty-five minutes elapsed between the arrival of the first guests and the 47th member of their party. Food and drink requests were a little frantic, with some guests shouting out their first drink order as others were already eating their entrées.

The group appeared to have a great time; the staff heard no complaints about the food or service. The total of the tab was a little less than $800 before tax and tip.

In the meantime, 4 small parties were seated along with another walk-in party of 23 high school students and their 2 teachers. The high schoolers enjoyed everything, paid with one credit card and thanked the staff for their efforts and teamwork.

Back to the party of 47 when the fun began with the dreaded request:

Could we have 47 separate checks? Followed by, Most of us have Groupons we want to use with each check.

The Groupon deal with the restaurant states that the purchaser receives $35 worth of food and drink for $15, one coupon redeemable per table, and one coupon per visit.

Since they were all seated at one long table on one tab, the GM told them they could use one Groupon towards their bill and then invited them to open separate checks at the bar to redeem their individual Groupons. Many were planning to extend their celebration in the bar after lunch, and they did.

The students countered with:

We thought separate checks would qualify as separate tables. If we knew we couldn’t use all of the Groupons we would have sat at separate tables.

Oh, brother…

The GM offered the group 3 options:

1. He would take the total, add the 18% automatic gratuity and tax, subtract out $35 for one Groupon, divide by 47 and present them with 47 equal checks. He advised them he would need time to process the separate checks.

2. He would furnish pens and paper for the whole group and they could determine what each one of them owed, and the GM would split up all of the charges and tabs accordingly.

3. He informed them that there was an ATM just outside and suggested that they determine what they ordered and owed, and to pay in cash if possible.

After a lengthy debate, the group agreed to combine options 2 and 3 by sorting out the bill on their own and writing their names and amount owed on pieces of paper. After the staff processed 31 credit cards and collected all of the cash, they were still $60 short. At that critical point, you always hope that one or two poor slobs will quietly step forward and kick in the rest of the money.

Sure enough, one guy came forward, apologized profusely, and paid the remaining $60. (The appreciative GM reciprocated by picking up his bar tab after lunch.)

I knew I would eventually need to address the issue of separate checks, but I never dreamed that it would involve a request for 47!!

Can you imagine walking into a restaurant with 46 of your closest friends with no phone call or reservation, enjoying a great lunch, then asking after the meal for separate checks? I can’t either!

What are your thoughts?

What is the largest walk-in party you have ever served or been part of?

Is 32 the largest number of separate checks ever processed for one party? If not, what is? I should have included this on my list of 64 Suggestions for Restaurant Customers. If you will be paying separately, inform your server before you order.

Permalink | Posted in Customer Hall of Shame | 97 Comments »

Internal Memo to Restaurant Staff in Response to Negative Yelp Reviews; “You are the LOSERS!!!”

Book Chapter: Rules of Engagement

Posted: 12/8/2010

According to Donna Goodison in today’s Boston Herald, Kevin Fitzgerald, the owner of Jacob Wirth, a Boston institution, posted a memo to his servers that included the following comment and ultimatum:

“You are the LOSERS!!!” … “Change or be changed. Please, don’t force your termination for the holidays.”

The Herald piece goes on to say; The memo, posted Saturday in a private work area, included eight pages of mostly negative customer comments about Jacob Wirth from Yelp, an online review site. It was e-mailed to the Herald by Southie resident, Megan O’Connor, a Jacob Wirth server who quit in response to what she called the “unprofessional and appalling” memo.

A few observations after reading the article and the ‘entertaining’ comments on the Herald’s site:

  • Posting a memo stating, “You are the LOSERS!!!!” is wrong on so many levels. If the service was poor, that’s not how you fix the problem. The memo is also not going to help recruiting new employees. (Kevin Fitzgerald-If the comment was taken out of proper context, I invite you to post the full memo and/or your comments below.)
  • Stating that, “…it is very important that every customer have a satisfactory experience.” is not setting the bar very high. (Kevin Fitzgerald’s quote in the Herald.)
  • Fostering a culture with great service and hospitality takes lots of training, role-playing, hard work, and great leadership by example.

It would be interesting to hear from Kevin Fitzgerald, his daughter, Megan O’Connor, Jacob Wirth employees, and customers who have been to the restaurant within the last 6 months to get the full story. Please pass this link along to invite comments from all interested parties. Thank you.

As always, please keep your comments respectful, on-topic and civil or they will be edited.

Permalink | Posted in Rules of Engagement | 24 Comments »