“Why did you move here of all places, after living in Miami?” That was the first question asked by the recently acquired staff of employees in Fredericksburg. It had been a two-day move in a Ryder rental truck, the axle restricted to 55 MPH, a stylish Mercury Bobcat in tow. The transfer to Virginia had been requested.
While living in Pompano Beach, after helping with a new restaurant opening in Boynton Beach, I had finally received news of my promotion to General Manager, relief mixed with pride after 6 years of 60+ hour weeks without a vacation. Marie and I had found a nice apartment in Kendall, just south of Miami, with only a twenty-minute drive home from work each day. Except at rush hour in the morning, then the commute lasted an hour or so.
My new command was a four-month-old restaurant located near Miami International Airport, in the shopping mall of the same name. We had a staff of about seventy-five employees, seventy-five percent of whom had recently just moved there. Moved there to the United States, that is. Bolivia, Peru, Columbia, Honduras, Spain, Portugal, Venezuela, South Africa, just off the top of my head.
Other than the pressure of suddenly being the person who was ultimately responsible for the success of this new restaurant, the number-one challenge in achieving anything in this new environment was communication. The management staff consisted of five guys, all white as white can be. Virginia, two from Tennessee, North Carolina, and northern Florida. The two years of high school Spanish class with Mr. Chellini weren’t doing me a lot of good now, ten years later.
Of the 200 restaurants in the chain, ours was the only one with menus printed in both English and Spanish. A good portion of the dining public spoke little or no English, which made the trained requirement for floor managers of ‘talking to tables’ a bit of a challenge.
“And how is your lunch today ladies?” And the two women would look up from their meals with blank looks of politeness, then back at each other with confused smiles and raised eyebrows.
Completely staffing the restaurant was a daily challenge. Our company had not yet accepted the reality of there being different pay scales in locations outside of mainstream USA and the budgeted goals were near impossible to reach. Interviews with any new applicants became a priority in the managers’ day. The first hindrance in the hiring process was communication. The applications were usually completed using the English language, submitted by people who spoke little English or none whatsoever. So, we adjusted to the environment. Hostesses were ‘required’ to be bi-lingual, in order to answer the phones and greet patrons at the front door. Their new job requirement became translator during the interview process.
“Adrianna, please ask Victor what days he can work”
“Victor, ¿Qué días puedes trabajar?”
“Ah, cualquier día pero sábado”
“He says that he can work any day except for Saturday”
That was just one question. It’s hard to get a feel for an applicant when you don’t actually speak with them. So, over the course of the year, I learned what I termed Restaurant Spanish.
Caliente. Frío. Rápido. Pollo. Filete. Camarón. Cerveza fría. Vino tinto. Café con leche. ¿Dónde está el baño? “Carlos, ¿dónde está tu maldito sombrero de cocina?” “Ya no trabajas aquí.”
Hot. Cold. Fast. Chicken. Steak. Shrimp. Cold beer. Red wine. Coffee with milk. Where is the bathroom? “Carlos, where is your freaking kitchen hat?” “You do not work here anymore.”
The Miami International Mall was nothing like the mall back home. Being male, the first thing that I noticed was that Latino women dressed to impress when they went out shopping. No dirty jeans and Guns & Roses t-shirts. I was hanging with our hostess and a few wait staff members one day, near the front door, when a stunning Latino Julia Roberts walked up to the hostess station. For some reason, she looked directly at me and asked a fourteen-word question. In Spanish. I only recognized the word baño, turned calmly, and politely gestured in the direction of the ladies’ room.
After she had cantered off to the powder room, the employees broke into laughter. “Look at Robin, now he thinks he speaks Spanish!” “You just answered her ‘cause she was so pretty!”
Anything for quality customer service.
Me and my four very-white assistant managers had several operational issues that we continued to struggle with. There were strange high-cost trends developing in different categories of food and bar inventories. Which indicated employee theft. Staffing, of course, was an ongoing issue. We couldn’t keep a dishwasher on the payroll, despite offering a very competitive salary. But then we inherited our saving grace. Our secret weapon. Linda. She was a manager-in-training that was transferred to our store for a reason.
Linda looked like she was from Possum Hollow, Kentucky. Even her name sounded like it. But, she had been born and raised in Venezuela and spoke fluent Spanish. Someone came up with a brilliant idea. Linda spoke zero Spanish during her first two weeks working in our store. Never gave a clue. And her covert operation paid-off with lots of information that any English-speaking manager would have never picked-up on.
Carlos, our problem grill man, was seemingly jokingly chatting with the dishwashers every night, who were stationed only ten feet away from the grill. But, in reality, he was ragging on them all night long with a constant barrage of lies. “What do they pay you?” “They don’t pay you nothing” “I get twice what you make” “They treat you like a dog” No wonder the dishwashers kept quitting.
There were several clues unveiled into solving many of our food cost issues, but an even larger problem was discovered behind the bar. Chris, the head bartender, had turned his shifts behind the bar into a one-stop shopping experience for several of his friends and ‘business’ acquaintances. There were lots of free drinks being given away, but the real eye-opener (pun) was that Chris was buying and selling cocaine as a part of his new entrepreneurship.
For two long, long weeks, Linda had kept her Spanish-speaking abilities a secret. She endured the verbal insults and offensive remarks spoken about her under the assumed safety of a language barrier. Then one morning, during the shift meeting before opening for business, she could take the insults no more. Angela, a disruptive Portuguese waitress, was laughing with other wait staff about “The Fat Pig” and her “ugly clothing”. Linda silenced the crowd with an out of character raising of her voice. “Angela! Silencio!!!”, then proceeded into a five-minute rant, spoken in fluent Spanish, about how immature and hateful they had been to her, how much they had hurt her feelings, and how that things were going to be different from that moment forward. The meeting ended abruptly and the wait staff dispersed into the kitchen, chattering like scared monkeys in the jungle, spreading the alarm “Linda! She speaks Spanish!”
This tale of Miami took place in the late 80’s, at the tail end of the “Cuban Exile”. The popularity of cocaine as THE party drug was spreading across America as fast as it would make your heart beat, through every Disco, and dorm room, and Manhattan cocktail party. And most of the cocaine entering the United States came through South Florida. It was a normal part of life around town. After watching Al Pacino in the movie “Scarface”, you may be thinking to yourself “Hollywood Theatrics”. But no, it wasn’t. When I watch that movie, I think of the people and situations that became part of my life back then.
I only physically lived in Miami for nine-months. I had four assistant managers. During those four months, all four of my managers had their cars stolen. One was stolen from his driveway on his very first scheduled day of work.
We made a cash deposit in the night-drop of the local bank seven nights a week. You could see the bank building through the front windows of the restaurant. It was directly across the parking lot. That bank was robbed twice during my nine-month deployment. But fortunately, those were daytime robberies. Nothing to worry about as we drove two cars across the parking lot at 2AM each night, parked with engines idling and headlights shining on the drop-box. Then the coin-flip loser carried the bank bag containing $5000 to $15,000 up to the drop-box that was nicely centered between eight large trees that could have easily of hidden 10 or 12 of Al Pacino’s henchmen.
The restaurant opened everyday at 11:00 AM. The bathrooms were to be cleaned before opening the front door each day, and since the opening busboy was often a no-show, the opening manager usually performed the duty. I used to try to bet non-believers $100 that I could find traces of cocaine in the bathrooms on any given morning. Usually on the stainless-steel top of the toilet paper dispenser, in the privacy of a stall. Or on the top of the toilet tank. And we weren’t even a nightclub, but a brass and fern restaurant with a salad bar, homemade Quiche, and children’s highchairs for God’s sake.
For those new employees, back up in Virginia, I used this analogy to explain the difference between Miami and D.C. If you’re a coke dealer in D.C. and someone steals your stash from you, you shoot them. Makes sense, right? In Miami, people were shooting each other for no ‘apparent’ reason. The boyfriend of my daytime hostess was driving down the Florida turnpike one morning when a car cut him off while changing lanes. He flipped-off the driver of that car. That car slowed until it came alongside the boyfriend’s car, then someone with a shotgun leaned out of the window and shot the boyfriend (not fatally, thank God).
Bodies kept showing up in the swamps along Alligator Alley, the causes of death rarely fully explained. My drive home every evening led through neighborhoods lined with beautiful homes, but most had decorative steel bars covering the windows. At our local convenience store (as with many others), the cashier stood behind a thick sheet of bullet-proof glass. Cash was exchanged through a small opening under the glass.
Adan was a wonderful night-shift waiter. It’s funny, in retrospect, that he looked a lot like Al Pacino’s one henchman, the heavy-set one with the quiet personality, not your typical, sleazy gangster-type. One day he came lumbering into the restaurant and began to excitedly tell me of why he must quit.
“Robin, I liked very much working here and for you. But I must leave”
“You’re scheduled at four-o’clock, right?”
“Yea, but I must leave. Now.”
And we never saw him again. Apparently (so it was rumored), he had done someone wrong in a drug deal and owed someone a lot of money, which he did not have. So, he went to Miami International and left the country.
We had a red-headed Cuban waitress named Isabella who had an interesting boyfriend. The boyfriend and his brother shared a Chrysler LeBaron and dressed like Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guys”. Polyester clothes and gold necklaces. “Our fancy American Car”. “Let me buy you a drink” Those were the only English words that they spoke. Yet they were successful businessmen. They had a ‘fish import business’ that somehow rewarded them with a whole lot of cold cash.
Veronica was one of my favorite employees in Miami. She was the beautiful creation of a Puerto Rican mother and African-American father. Full of smiles and personality, she was a wonderful waitress and such a hard worker. And a party girl. Which may have helped explain why she liked/wanted to work so much. It was rumored that she always had a zip-lock baggie of cocaine somewhere on her person.
“Hey Veronica, can you work another double-shift today? Cindy O. called in sick. I know that’ll make three doubles this week.”
“Yea, no problem”
She’d work another 12-hour day and then go out on the town and party until the wee hours. One morning, she didn’t show for her 10 o’clock shift. Just when I started to really get worried, she came flying into the office. Her normally full lips were painfully swollen after a jealous girlfriend had sucker-punched her at a bar over in South Beach. Behind the closed office door, she started to undress out of her street clothes and put on her uniform. Standing there barefoot with purple panties and bra, and two fat lips, she kept reassuring me that “I’ll be fine. I’m OK. I can work.” I finally convinced her to take the day-off.
One afternoon, while sitting at table B-3, chain-smoking and chugging coffee while attempting to write next week’s wait staff schedule without enough available employees, Monica asked if she could sit and speak with me. Monica was a nice young woman, a consistent waitress, petit and soft-spoken, originally from Columbia. South America, not the District of. Just when I thought that I had experienced everything that wasn’t in the Corporate Management Handbook, she began to confide in me. Seems that a few years earlier, she had been a special informant for the DEA in a court case that, at the time, was the largest cocaine bust in American history. She had ratted out some people in exchange for some promises from the US government that didn’t come true or that she hadn’t fully understood. Now came word of her possible deportation because of her involvement in the case. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she explained to me how her picture had been on the front page of the Bogotá newspaper and if she were sent back, she’d likely be dead moments after leaving the plane.
After Monica hadn’t shown for her shifts over the next several weeks, a relative of hers came in one day to collect her paycheck. She didn’t know exactly where Monica had gone, the destination had been chosen by the Witness Protection Program. We never saw or heard from her again.
So, back to Chris the bartender, who was selling coke while on duty behind the bar. What did I do with him? I said “Chris, I hear somebody’s been doing something, selling something that they shouldn’t be while they’re in this restaurant. They should take their business over to T.G.I.F.’s after work and keep it out of my restaurant.” Chris looked scared to begin with, then nervously answered “Yea, if I hear of anyone like that, I’ll tell ‘em.” “OK?” “OK” And that was that. In Virginia, the situation could have ended with an arrest, but in Miami, it was just a matter of good communication.
On our rare days-off from work together, Marie and I would usually spend those precious hours alone ‘playing tourist’. An evening of gambling on the horses up at Hialeah Park. Afternoons visiting Sea World or strolling around the Miami MetroZoo. Gettin’ our tan on, basking in the sun on the white sands of South Beach. A monthly day-trip to Key West for a late lunch and often times, a late-late dinner.
That Miami, it sure was a nice place to visit.