Paying the Hospitality Dues – Early Life Choices

Life’s funny, ain’t it? Weird happenings and stranger choices often conspire to drive us in odd directions that can only be honestly evaluated, and appreciated, decades down the road. My Service Industry career certainly fits that description.

I wasn’t particularly outgoing as a small child. I grew up in suburbia – Bayside. It was, at the time, a predominantly Irish and Italian working class Queens neighborhood on New York City’s outskirts – bordering Long Island. Everyone had names like Joe, Bobby, Anthony, Frankie, Patrick, Declan, and Marie. No one here was wealthy but we all enjoyed a pretty damned good childhood. It was the 70′s and 80′s so instead of endless hours playing the latest incarnation of Medal of Honor or Minecraft, we’d spend our days (1) playing stickball in the middle of the street, using manhole covers as bases (2) cooling off with Marco Polo and Chicken Fights in each others’ above-ground pools and (3) riding our bikes back and forth to Coronet’s candy store to get some more Lik-a-Stiks, fifty cent juice drinks, and party poppers. Life was different and looking back, life was pretty good.

When I turned 12, my traditional-minded parents thought it’d be a great idea to instill some good, old-fashioned work ethic in this playful and responsibility-free little boy. They arranged for me to be a stock boy at Constantine’s deli a couple of blocks away. This was my first exposure to “The Industry.” At that age, I’d spend 3 or 4 hours day, a couple of times a week, hauling cases of beer up from the cellar, wiping down milk coolers, stocking shelves, and helping the old Italian Moms in the back prep things like German Potato Salad, old school meatballs, and Lasagna. Needless to say, I ate pretty well.

I was paid the grand sum of $2.50 an hour (in cash of course). The year was 1983. It was slave labor, but I really didn’t care. It was kind of fun and I really had no need for the money (other than the previously mentioned candy runs). Louie and Cosmo, the pair of brothers who owned and ran the place, were really cool – the treated me very well. Cosmo told me he previously studied engineering. I told him I one day wanted to be an Architect or Automotive Engineer. His response? He laughed. He told me he was making $150,000 a year as a half-owner of the deli. Damned insanely good money for the era when many adults in the aread were grossing $30,000 – $40,000. He questioned me as to why he should ever return to engineering or why I should consider it when his little store was making him wealthy.

Fast-forward to 1987. I’m in high-school. The deli gig lasted only one year or so and I haven’t worked since. The need to support my daily crack habit candy fix is growing exponentially. A bunch of my grammar school peeps had landed gigs at a nearby eatery – Sizzler. I knew nothing of shitty chain restaurants, the service industry, nor eating out. I knew I needed cash however, if was ever going to be able to get my first car to shuttle around and impress all the ladies.

I walked in and filled out the first written application of my entire life. I interviewed with the manager a few minutes later – a burly, hairy dude named Chris A. As it turns out, I’d found out later that Chris the Manager was the older brother of my sister’s classmate, Gregg A. I was shitting bricks, having never been interviewed, but got hired on the spot as a dishwasher.  I was being paid the grand sum of $3.35/hour (minimum wage in those days). But, like my previous gig, I didn’t give a shit. I was just happy netting a $60 or $70 weekly paycheck – a heroic sum in those days for a whiny teenage kid with no responsibilities other than showing up to prep school and running at Van Cortland park with the Cross-Country squad once in a while.

Back then, every single employee was a kid from the neighborhood. Unlike in today’s restaurants, there were zero Hispanic dudes in the kitchen, believe it or not. The FOH was staffed with some seriously foxy older chicks (read: 2 or 3 years older) with names like Domenica, Laura, Toni and Babs. Needless, to say, my boyish lust and googly eyes were in full swing.

The dishwasher, however, gets zero respect from the ladies (lesson #1). So, not 3 or 4 months after being a sopping wet, leftover stained, and low-class dishwasher, I “graduated” to salad boy.

For those not in the know, Sizzler’s main selling points are (1) their all-you-can-eat salad bar (2) cheap steak and shrimp specials and (3) seemingly endless senior citizen discounts. There were, and maybe still are, the kings of chain, family style cheap and mediocre eats.  They’re the predecessors to the modern day T.G.I.F., Bennigans, and Olive Garden.

Anyway, the “Salad Boy” moniker moved me up several notches in the hierarchy of the social and dating Well-to-Do at ye old steak house. I’d spend my days making 5 gallon tubs of Ranch Dressing, baking 10 pound slabs of Prime Rib, and boiling mountains of Rotini destined for the salad bar. My salary also increased in $.10 to $.25 cent increments, month after month, until I hit $5.00 or so an hour. The owners like me - a lot – enough so that, just a couple of months later, they had me training all their staff at their other Sizzler on Metropolitan Ave. One of the owners, George, personally drove me in his Mercedes SEL500, a couple of days a week from Bayside Sizzler to “Metro Sizzler,” as they nicknamed it.

The progression continued with me moving up the chain of command to Meat Boy. I learned to filet large chunks of beef into portioned cuts of New York Strip and such. I eventually landed in the kitchen as a Short-Order Cook and Grill Man responsible for all kitchen operations – usually a staff of 3 or 4 – all by the age of 17. Yes folks, meth-loving irresponsible teens were grilling your steaks and broiling your Shrimp Scampi in those days. Baking potatoes, whipping up cheese-butter toast, and being the Fry Guy was also part of the job. When I finally left there in 1988, I was raking in beaucoup cash – the tidy rate of $6.00/hour. But again, my needs were so minimal at the time, that I didn’t really care.

What took place in the FOH and BOH at Sizzler was a clinic on debauchery. Chris, and another manager named Gill, ran the place. I hearted those guys but they allowed a circus atmosphere to reign supreme. They didn’t believe in anything close to “loss prevention.” Health Department inspections and Food Safety Certifications simply didn’t exist. Our shifts were spent reincarnating the movie Animal House. Daily food fights, weed breaks, and playfights on the job were the norm. It was hella fun. The end of our shifts consisted of grabbing cases of Heineken and frozen burgers (both courtesy of Sizzler) and heading down to the nearby Oakland Lake park to chow down and get our buzz on.

It was a great time and taught me some extremely valuable restaurant industry lessons. It also, however, planted a seed in my malleable brain, that bar/restaurant life was the direction I should take – my fallback plan, something I could always do if other opportunities “didn’t work out.” I visited the area many years later and saddened to see that they leveled the old Sizzler. It was a shitbox indeed but one which housed many a fantastic childhood memory for me. In it’s place, now stands a nondescript house of zero fun – a TD Bank. I guess the combination of cheap eats and masses of coupon-toting senior citizens didn’t add up to a solid, long-term, profitable business plan. Go figure.

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