The Substitute Manager

Do you remember giving a substitute teacher or a babysitter a hard time? The corporate restaurant world has similar situations. When there are lots of restaurants in the company and occasionally no managers to cover a shift in one store, they will poach a manager from another unit nearby… and by nearby I mean usually the same state but sometimes not even in the same time zone.

I worked in a fully staffed store in southeast New Jersey and was trusted enough to fill in at other not-as-well staffed locations as needed. When asked to help out away from home I thought it would be a nice change of pace, and hoped my boss thought my team-first approach would put me in a better position for a promotion.

The first time I ended up flying to the Detroit area to fill in for a week at a store manned by only one manager, because the other manager had been shot dead in the office by a disgruntled ex-employee right around Christmas Eve a week earlier. That is another story for another time.

The second substitute manager situation put me an hour north in NJ near the George Washington Bridge. I was asked to fill in as the closing night manager for two nights in a row. I got there, was handed the keys, and told to run the shift, then lock up and go back to the hotel. If only it was that easy.

The staff immediately went into babysitter banter “that is not the way we do it here” (or “Mom always lets us stay up until midnight”) when I stopped them from eating guest food out of the expediting window, or insisted they run other server’s food items rather than stand around and chat. Give them credit, they pushed a little to see what they could get away with, and I pushed back a bit. I just needed to get through the shift alive, with an overall, perhaps unrealistic goal of running quality ops and getting the staff to give feedback to upper management that they liked (or at least respected) working for me.

The descent into total madness did not take long. I had barely yet figured out which of the cooks working the line was the best one to ask to prepare my own meal later on when one of the waitresses (all of them were young females 20-25 years of age) started screaming in the kitchen that she had seen the dishwasher go the locker area where they kept their personal items, and remove cash she had put there without locking it up. She was yelling “This asshole took money out of my locker… I saw him take it!” and demanding that I get the money back and fire him immediately. All the rest of the staff immediately joined in and waited to see what the new guy would do.

So here I am, in a strange unit, in a strange new town, with six hours to go on a busy dinner shift, and the wait staff is accusing the dishwasher… the one and only dishwasher on duty by the way… of stealing money and want him fired. At this point I could truthfully not answer any of the following questions: Did he steal the money? Is there another dishwasher I can call in? Can I even fire the kid without talking to the GM first? Does calling up the GM or regional manager make me look like I have no ability how to run a store on my own? I had no idea of the answers to any of these questions, but what I did know was that if I fired this kid I was likely going to end up washing dishes myself all night, because that is the way it goes in any short staffed store. Try substitute managing a restaurant from behind the dishwasher… that is a recipe for “anything goes”.

I called the server into to the office, asked another waitress to cover her tables, and had her explain what she saw. She could not tell me how much money she was missing but swore she saw him at her locker and that the money she had dropped there (rather than carry it with her all night) was gone. The waitress was named Laurie and she had an energy and edge to her and a look that was vaguely familiar, like I knew her somehow. She had me believing her story but she wanted justice and she wanted it now. I asked her to please be calm and finish her shift. She was not sold on that idea.

Next I called in the dishwasher and explained that the server saw him take money from her locker. He denied doing it. So I tried going at it another way with my end goal being that she got her money back and he kept washing dishes until the end of the shift. I told this kid “look, here is my problem. I have to call in the police to investigate this because of the accusation of stealing. Once they are here everything is out of my hands and out of my control. If you have her cash, give it to me now, I will give it back, and there will be no police called in and you will still work here”. After a long silent pause he reached into his pocket, took out $50 in crisp bills, and handed them to me. Admission of guilt. I let him go back to work washing dishes.

I gave the money to Laurie who immediately started in with “this is not enough… it was lot more than this”, upset because she knew she was going to be short when she had to cash out at the end of the evening. I begged her “please just go along with this until the end of the night. I will get the other money back or make sure you are not held accountable for the shortage. Trust me”. She was still not buying what I was selling.

Just to emphasize I was not in Kansas anymore, a couple of hours later a guy walked into the dining room, asked another waitress if she had change for a fifty, and when she handed the guy two twenties and a ten he said “thank you” and turned and left the store without ever giving her the fifty. Ouch.

Fast forward now to the end of the evening. The wait staff started to cash out with me. The dishwasher has finished up and was ready to leave. I called him back into the office with two other people there as witnesses and explained “I know you gave me back some cash earlier, but it not nearly enough for what this girl owes me for her sales. Sorry, but I have to call in the police now and have them investigate”. At this point the dishwasher reached into his sock and pulled out a wad of soaking wet bills he had stuffed there. A much larger amount of money than he gave me the first time. Enough to make up the shortfall for the waitress and still have her properly tipped out.

I thanked the dishwasher, told him I would not contact the police, and added he very likely was no longer employed here and walked him out of the restaurant.

Looking back on this I remember I should have been more terrified walking him out as I had no idea what he might do having just been fired, and should have recalled the Detroit situation. Thankfully the kid was a pretty passive thief.

Laurie, who looked so familiar, and who did not think for a second this would ever turn out well for her until it finally did, was someone I can also never forget. Her last name was Bouton, as she was the daughter of ex Yankee great Jim Bouton, who is only the author of the best baseball book of all time Ball Four. Even today, if you opened that book to any page and recited a line, I could recite the next paragraph. Laurie actually brought him in the following night to have dinner and we had a few minutes to recap what happened and why I did what I did. Getting to speak with him was sublime. He promised to send me an autographed copy of the book.

Looking back on it, I was happy everyone got their money (except the dishwasher), with the added bonus that I did not end up soaking wet trying to manage this store while scrubbing pots and pans. My dishwasher derring-do left upper management so impressed I remained an assistant manager for another whole year. I never saw or heard from either father or daughter again. Tragically, Laurie Bouton was killed in a car accident 10 years later at the tender age of 31.

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