One Waiter to Go, Please

Charles Dickens began his Tale of Two Cities with the lines It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Many Houston restaurateurs can sympathize: These days, trends are pulling them in similarly opposite directions even if they didnt major in English lit. The local economy is finally booming at a rate that old-time Houstonians consider to be the God-given natural order of things. Nice young people with newly issued degrees are reporting to their first day on the job at companies like Enron and, a few years later, finding themselves written up in national business magazines as zillionaires. Developers are swarming around long-derelict downtown properties like killer bees. The value of the dullest residential property inside the Loop is multiplying faster than fecal coliform bacteria in Buffalo Bayou. Is everybody happy? If you own an upper-end restaurant, or are opening one soon, chances are you are not entirely happy. With the boom has come a shortage of what restaurant, bar and club managers call quality people. That is to say, employees who will keep customers coming back to your $2 million-plus investment in trendy decor, kitchen equipment, licenses, legal fees and, as the King of Siam puts it in the musical, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. To recruit such employees, a new restaurant can take the high road or the low road. Bossa, the new Cuban bar and Nuevo Latino restaurant [610 Main Street, (713) 223-2622], belongs to a publicly traded corporation, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. Bossa general manager Mark Rumscheidt reports that prior to opening, newly hired employees were offered an incentive to invite their friends in the service industry to come on board. This, Rumscheidt explains, is standard practice. Like attracts like. Those who inquired then found out about a list of employee benefits that most people who waited tables a decade ago would probably find very surprising. A CRWs Employee Benefits Quick Reference provided by Bossa lists 20 different benefits. Some are familiar to most restaurant employees, such as a 25 percent dining discount upon hire and 50 percent after three years of service, and of course, Paid time off!!! One, two, three or four weeks of vacation depending on anniversary date. Others are not universal in the bartender and waiter line, such as payroll deductions for a medical plan for the employee and dependents, a dental plan that includes orthodontics, a vision plan, and a small company-paid life insurance policy for those enrolled in the medical plan. In addition, there are previously white-collar benefits such as tuition reimbursement of up to $1,000 per year (based on grades) for college courses, a Legal Solution Plan that helps secure legal help and a Passport Program that allows employees to work in other CRW restaurants while traveling about the country. All of these benefits are for full-time employees, but the CRW sheet defines a full-timer as employees working an average of 25 hours per week. The low road involves the practice of poaching. That is when an employer visits someone elses business, evaluates the employees as they are working, and then attempts to recruit them, then and there. Frdric Perrier, of the eponymous Cafe Perrier [4304 Westheimer, (713)355-4455], says he lost his sous-chef, my matre d and two other French-speaking waiters after three men visited his restaurant several times just prior to the opening of Masraffs [1025 South Post Oak Lane, (713)355-1975]. Perrier, who previously worked for several notable restaurants in New York, the toughest restaurant town in the United States, remembers, Those guys were here every other day, which is quite normal. It is the restaurant business. But I dont think you should pass out cards, smiling and acting like you are my friends, and offering my employees jobs behind my back. Perrier was particularly sorry to lose Edelberto Goncalves, his sous-chef and now the chef at Masraffs, stating, I was the one who brought him from France, arranging the visa He adds: I still wish them the best, but I am disappointed. Russell Masraff, one of the owners of the French restaurant, was unavailable for comment. Jasen Clark, general manager of the totally trendy nightclub Tonic [310 Main Street, (713)228-7978] has a story to tell as well. It was a Saturday night, Clark begins. One of my bartenders was handed a card. At the end of the night, he passed it over to Lee [Ellis, owner of Tonic] and myself. Lee called the number and got about a 15-minute dissertation about their program, and at the end of it he left a message, basically, Dont ever come in here. Dont ever approach my employees. Other sources alleged that Elliss message was a bit more emphatic than that, but we are a publication that strives to encourage civility and good behavior. The telephone number on the card directs the caller to an answering device that spins a long (more like two minutes than 15) shaggy-dog story about the supposed history of the Red Cat Jazz Caf and a red-haired jazz musician from New Orleans. In fact, the Red Cat Jazz Caf is what food service professionals call a concept tryout, and one that its owners, Tasca Ventures, hope to reproduce, if successful, all over the United States (see Tsk, Tsk, Tasca, April 13). The caller can then press a button to access an employment spiel that ends by telling the caller to go to the Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar [908 Congress, (713)225-9100] to fill out an application. Tasca is next door to the Red Cat, which is one block down from Tonic on Main Street. Despite the proximity, Tasca owner Rasheed Refaey claims to not recruit staff in the downtown area. He doesnt know how the card landed in the Tonic bartenders hands, but he doesnt deny that someone left him a nasty message. All we can say is, once again, tsk, tsk, Tasca.
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George Alexander