A cook finds himself lost at sea in the world of retail grocery
It was with some trepidation that I went to work in prepared foods for a high-end grocer that had recently opened its first New York City store. But the pay wasn’t bad and benefits were quite good. Employees were called team members and the handbook promised fair play, lots of opportunities and, most importantly for me, the potential for authentic teamwork.
They put me on the night shift.
Okay. Isn’t that teamwork? You show up on time, do what needs to be done, don’t complain and things will happen. Right? I cut lettuce for salads, scrubbed zucchinis, chopped peppers and rolled meatballs to sell in trays with bagged marinara and stale pastas for six months. When I contacted the prepared foods boss to suggest that my skills weren’t being utilized to the fullest — after all I had a culinary degree, food handling certificate and some decent fine dining restaurant experience under my belt — his reply was: I need bodies on nights.
So much for creating opportunities.
I finally escaped when the company opened a new location on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
This location didn’t have an overnight shift. Instead I worked the small Italian bistro-style restaurant tucked into the second floor. Naomi Watts and the guy who played Brother Mouzune in The Wire were customers. We prepped, made some of our own specials and, in general did the fine dining thing.
This was more like it.
Still, not all indicators were positive. After a few months we were ordered to feature “family-style” servings in addition to our regular menu. That is, of course, entrees, vegetables and other side dishes served in bowls with large spoons that would be passed around the table for each diner to take a share.
When was the last time a family of four decided to celebrate Mother’s Day by taking mom out to dinner in the supermarket?
In the time we offered the option, no one, not one single customer — not even the Von Trappe family — requested it. The serving bowls grew dusty and the big spoons rusted from disuse.
We were also required to offer vegetable crudites with a bacon vinaigrette, another dish no one wanted and never purchased.
Had the corporate potentates spent a bit of time on the ground with us they might have been spared the trouble of demanding menu items that no one wanted and never bought.
The company founder and CEO, noted for occasionally manning a cash register in store zero, spoke of “creating new paradigms” and “empowering team members to achieve their utmost”. The team member handbook echoed these sentiments, many of which sounded like they were plucked from John Naismith’s 80s best seller, Megatrends.
The reality was expressed in another, smaller book, also published by the company. Listed within were the names of the annual “Superstars” of various departments, along with brief biographies of their time with the company. With one exception, every person in a leadership position had been hired in a leadership position. So much for upward mobility. Many were quite young, too. In their mid-twenties to early thirties.
They’re real believers, my own team leader told me by way of preparation for an interview for a supervisor position in prepared foods. Those district and regional team leaders believed absolutely in the company’s exceptionalist narrative. Of course they did. They had very little work experience and hardly any basis for comparison.
I didn’t get the promotion.
My worse day on the job was when I glimpsed a co-worker’s evaluation that he left open on the countertop of our little restaurant. This is a guy I’d worked with doing fish and chips in Brooklyn a year or so before. He made the salads and plated desserts there. After landing at the market he told the bosses that he’d gone to same culinary school I did. I knew that was a lie, but so what, as long as he pulled his weight in the new gig? Only he didn’t. I’m heading out, he’d announce the moment we closed, leaving me to clean the kitchen solo. One day he showed me a letter from the city announcing a huge pending fine for dodging jury duty once too often. Unless he could provide an adequate excuse. Using my healthcare background, I created one for him. I broke the law, put my own ass on the line for his benefit. After that, wouldn’t he at least stay and lend a hand, which he was supposed to anyway?
Do I really have to say?
A key element of restaurant culture is that everyone goes home at the same time. Finish cleaning your station early, you lend a hand to the other cooks.
Finally, I complained to leadership and they clipped his early bird wings. Just a little. Much as I appreciated not closing shop by myself anymore, having to snitch on your co-workers to the bosses isn’t the best way to build team spirit. Couldn’t they at least open their eyes, see for themselves? Or were they also too much in a hurry to clock out and get home in time for Seinfeld?
So when I saw that in spite of everything, they thought he was the best thing since sliced pane Toscano, while my own evaluation and raise was months overdue, my spirits sagged.
I was in the wrong place. I was a cook working for retail grocers who still saw themselves as a plucky upstart taking on Big Grocery, failing to realize that they had become Big Grocery. The authentic team spirit that must have characterized their first few stores had become more lip service than reality.
It was cold comfort when, just a few weeks later, they discovered my co-worker with his fingers in the till and finally booted his ass out the door.
Robbing his colleagues of their time and labor was one thing, but touch the bottom line and you sir, are history.
Ultimate proof that hierarchy had replaced teamwork came when our section leader, who was essentially the guiding spirit of our little restaurant, was discovered to be roommates with another store employee. She was instructed to leave the store immediately and not return until she or the roommate had removed themselves from working in the same location. Fraternization is hierarchy’s oldest and deadliest enemy. Defaulting in favor of teamwork and team spirit, she might have been told to get it squared away as soon as possible. That she was ordered to leave the premises right away instead — and then demoted upon her return — was proof positive that the company valued hierarchy over teamwork.
A short while later a fall and pretty serious injury to my knee gave me the pretext to leave their employ.
It was, in many ways, a good company to work for. Pay and benefits were fairly generous, and most of the employees (ahem, team members) went extra lengths to provide the customer service for which the brand was renowned. But as the company expanded, team leaders focused more closely on their next promotion than in running their departments. Meanwhile you had kitchen supervisors scraping rotten meat off the surface of tubs of ground beef, saving money, sure, but leaving the stale meat below to create an inferior-tasting product.
That is not the way of cooks.