Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Only Job I've Quit. A Story of Jazz, Booze, and Pizza.

In January of this year, bright with hopes for a year better than the one that came before, I walked into a small jazz club on the east side. A co-worker at the restaurant worked there, and he said they needed another server. He raved about working there. As a jazz lover and a live music junkie, I figured it would be awesome to get paid to listen to music while slinging cocktails. I imagined fat paychecks and after-parties with hot piano players and brooding guitarists. My life was about to be so much awesome.

My first evening of work was a Tuesday and there was no other server on the floor. I hadn't seen a single item on the menu, nor had I tasted any of the specialty cocktails but I didn't worry- I could talk my way out of any customer question. The bartender working was a kind of trash girl from Queens who seemed comfortable and knowledgeable with how things were done. She told me the manager got the start-up money from her father, who owned a family-style pizza restaurant chain.

Working alone for the night, I served, ran food, bussed tables and portered, bringing clean glassware to the bar as they needed it. The manager of the club had a novel concept you don't really hear of in the music scene- no cover, no minimum. I had hoped that the evening's "Battle of the Bands" would mean big earning, but alas, most people listened to their friends, maybe had a beer and left a one dollar tip. Dollars earned for a 6 hour shift: $60. That's pathetic, but not so pathetic as to be alarming, and I actually enjoyed listening to some of these bands. This is a music club, I thought, I have to wait for a weekend shift to make up my mind.

Next was a lunch shift. Since there was an office crowd in the area, I thought maybe we had a shot of getting an in-quick out-quick lunch crowd eating the 3-Course lunch special for $12. I sat around at the bar pounding diet cokes and polishing the same 20 forks over and over again, I think I served 4 tables the entire service. But I did get a chance to examine the menu. Expensive, and ludicrously small portions. Using my Spanish skills, I chatted with the two cooks- they told me our manager/owner had asked them to make the servings even smaller so we could earn more profit. It was embarrassing they said.

I walked into the club at 5:30 PM that Saturday night. I told myself this was the test. Either I make legit money (as in absolutely no less than $120) or I quit. For the first time I had a co-server. He was a nice looking actor who had just wrapped his first "Law and Order" episode. I asked him if my paltry earnings were normal. He said they were. He also said that Pizza-Dad often came in the club to give DumbManager more money and occasionally criticize her management skills. Strike One, bases totally loaded.

There was actually a decent crowd. People were drinking, few were eating, but I was feeling good. The music was awesome dance-worthy latin jazz. Then a party of 12 sat. They ordered drink after drink, and my feelings about the club were turning around. A quiet young couple was sitting drinking soda. I walked by checking in as much as I could without being awful, hoping to convince them to buy food or drink. They decided to share a mojito and an appetizer.

A couple hours later.
DumbManager: You have to tell them if they want to stay they need to order more.
Underemployed: No, I don't. It says on their menu "No cover, no minimum." I've done my best, I got them to order a drink and a snack. They have spent more than they have to.
DumbManager: Fine but keep checking in with them.

See, not having a cover or a minimum means that the club is paying the band off of what it earns from the bar and restaurant. You would have to sell HUGE volume for this to be a model even worth thinking about implementing. PS-When the table left, they apologized to me for not ordering more. That is a managerial fail. Strike 1 1/2.

But the night took a turn to the weird. Despite putting the glassware securely on the shelf, several glasses fell down after I walked away. I brought my tray into the back to clean off the glass- I spotted a good excuse for a bathroom break. Good thing I didn't need to actually use said facilities, because the door (locked as it was) fell off its hinges and I literally stood with arms above my head holding it up. Now I had never signed any contract- I wasn't on the books- if that door had hit me with its full force I would have gotten really banged up and it wouldv'e been a chore to collect on my worker's comp. I attracted the attention of the kitchen staff who propped the door with a broom. Strike 2.

Remember that boozy party of 12? Although I didn't ask the manager, I had taken a credit card as a precautionary measure- pretty standard operating procedure in cocktail land. As the night was winding down, the card holder wanted to leave although her friends wanted to stay. Then others wanted to leave. They wanted to pay for their drinks individually; forgetting the fact there's an 18% gratuity for parties over 10 and the fact that we were looking at a $400+ bill split amongst 12 DRUNK people = I'm gonna get stiffed. I asked the manager what she wanted me to do. She asked me what the policy is at the other restaurant I worked at. Nauseating. Me and the other server had to use a table calculator and divvy up the bill as best we could (oh PS- this is an old fashioned club with hand-written tickets, server-calculated bills, and a slide machine for the credit card). It took forever and yet the tip earnings seemed really low. Basically we got screwed. "Estoy aqui para que?? No es caridad!!" I screamed to my friends in the kitchen. Strike 2 1/2.

Fast-forward to 2:30 AM. Music is bumping, the crowd is dancing but all my checks are closed. I ask the manager if I can do my close-out paperwork. No, she says, I have to stay on the floor. (Standard operating procedure is that servers beat it and bartenders stick around, but don't cut the servers in on the tips they make after we go home. You don't keep servers around doing nothing, making everyone earn less). An hour goes by, I start doing my paperwork alone, and realize how little I made. Strike 3. I walked up to the manager right then and there and told her I'll finish this service, but won't be coming back to work.

At 4:00 AM, having opened no new checks in about 4 hours, I finished up my paperwork. After a grueling 10 hour (!) shift, I left with a measley $80.

Below is the email I sent to DumbManager the next morning:

As we discussed last night, I need to be off the schedule. I am not available to work monday night anyway. If you are in a huge bind thursday, call me to let me know on wednesday, otherwise I won't be there.

Below is my adress. Having worked XX hours at $4.60 an hour, I will be expecting a paycheck for $XXX.00.
I'm bummed it didn't work out- you have an awesome venue and a beautiful vision. Unfortunately, I just can't afford to be working there.




  1. Oh. My. God. I had a similar experience when I was in college when I worked at a 24-hour diner. I started working on a show and when I showed my manager how for the next 6 weeks I would be working 18-hour days and really needed my one day off from the show for homework he refused to give it to me even after I offered that he didn't have to hold my position for me when I was done. I told him I couldn't come back then, he told me I had to give him 2 weeks notice. I told him that the other two servers he fired in the last week because of other scheduling conflicts didn't need 2 weeks notice and neither did I. Here's the kicker...turns out I was never on their books. They were cutting fake checks for me so they didn't have to pay taxes on me and half of their staff. Somehow they still have 2 restaurants in business.

  2. WOAH!!!!!!

    That's crazy. Call me a stickler, but I think maybe you should rat them out. I mean, that's horrible and all sorts of illegal.

    I should add I did in fact receive a check for the hours I worked about a month after I quit. I wonder if it took her that long to put the money aside to pay me. Or if Pizza-Dad had to do it. It was a bad scene.

    I'm glad you quit. I'm glad I quit.

  3. There goes my dream of working at a hip, new jazz club...

  4. Just find one with a viable business model and you'll be on the right track! There's a reason even the cheapy venues in Brooklyn have either entry fees or covers.

  5. PS- My co-worker is a tool for thinking he was doing me this huge favor. He ended up getting fired from the big-time restaurant, for lying about stuff. I'd say it's ironic but really its just predictable.