Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working for Tips

It is safe to say that Franco and I got along very well, right from the very first. As I consider this after not having seen him now for so many years I wonder how is that we have lost touch, but 'there it is' as he would say.

I broke the ice by asking him, shortly after he came down to interview me, if his father was the owner. This might have been annoying to him if it had not been so innocent. After all, Franco was only twenty-six or eight at the time, and he knew that his ownership of a restaurant at such a young age was a mark of considerable success.

As I said, he was an entrepreneur in what was then for all intents and purposes, a socialist country. This more than any thing else attracted him to me, for he saw in me the prototypical 'Yank', full of optimism and desire to work. In one regard he was correct, for I have, since the age of nine, been ready and willing to work. My first job was at fourteen and I've rarely had a period longer than six months of unemployment in the years since.

Getting work in England, however, was hard, as I've said, so I was indeed anxious to work, and my energy and willingness had more to do with my youth and my lack of money than my citizenship. Nonetheless, it suited Franco to think he had in me a potential protege, for at the time he had little hope for the future of his business if he had to rely solely on family as he had in the past.

I have not yet mentioned, though it might be obvious from the name, that this was an Italian restaurant and therefore, an Italian family. To say that they were a 'tight-knit' family is to employ a cliche that in this case has considerable merit, for the workers at Sorrentino's were Franco, his Mother (whom we called, quite naturally, Mama) who was the 'chef', his sister Anna, who was the 'sous-chef', his cousin Maria, who did the 'washing-up' and his younger brother Tony, who was ostensibly the waiter.

I say ostensibly for a reason; he was having serious difficulties with the job about the time I showed up, which turned out to be a blessing for me. For the first time since Franco had started serving Vitello Sorrentino from a roadside (lay-by) trailer (caravan) on the highway (motorway) outside Bedford, he was considering hiring someone from outside the family. Me.

All of the above was of course unknown to me when I entered the restaurant to apply for a job. Had it been, I might not have had the courage to apply, but youth and ignorance will get you a long way, I've come to find out, and in this case, my naivete paid off.

For starters, asking Franco when I could meet the owner was amusing to him, and the fact that I came with an unusual offer gave me his ear for the critical few minutes I needed to get hired. Oh, and it didn't hurt that Franco was really pissed off at his younger brother Tony that day. The prospect of having a waiter--any waiter--that would actually come to work was likely the most appealing aspect of my offer that day.

I knew going in that it was illegal for anyone to hire me. I knew also that I had no real experience as a waiter. The only advantage I felt I could offer therefore, was to work 'under the table' and for tips rather than a salary, which is how waiters are paid in the UK and Europe in general. I reasoned that since Sorrentino's was obviously a very busy and popular restaurant, they could use the help.

Being a small family owned business, I figured that they might be likely to hire a Yank to work if it didn't cost them anything, so I proposed to Franco that instead of paying me a weekly salary--as he did his brother--he could just pay me the difference between the salary and what I made in tips--above and beyond the ten percent that was automatically added to every check.

Franco thought this was a novel idea, but that it wouldn't work. I countered by saying that Brits just hadn't had the opportunity to get good service, and that if they knew that they were paying for my service directly, as opposed to creating a slush fund for the owner from which he is supposed to pay his workers, they would not only do it, but they would pay me more than a mere ten percent. I predicted I'd earn at least fifteen, if not twenty percent. This was in 1975, remember, when the 'standard' in the US was fifteen percent. So, I bluffed a bit, and Franco called me on it.

When can you start?

It's not the first time I've bluffed a bit when applying for a job, but I certainly say that it was the first time that it worked. No doubt Franco knew well that I was inexperienced, but he was intrigued enough by my offer and what he perceived to be my brash 'American spirit' to overlook my shortcomings. This was a good thing, of course, mostly because it kept me in a job even after I'd broken a few dozen wine glasses during a wedding party on my first day.

Franco's interest in my 'American-ness' extended beyond my skills and ambitions as a waiter, however. He and I spent a great deal of time talking about the differences between the American and British cultures. Being an Italian in England made him feel a kinship, I think, with the American ideal; as an expatriate, he just never felt comfortable with his adopted culture and would have, if given the choice back then, have emigrated to the US to give the same dreams and ambitions he felt were being suppressed in the semi-socialist British environment a good and proper chance.

As it was, he was quite successful in the UK. He opened a second restaurant while I worked for him, and even though he eventually visited me in the US many years later, it was just not in the cards for him to become an American. Nor was it in the cards for me to become a partner in Franco's business, though we often talked of it. Because I ended up going to to the American College in Paris in the fall of 1975, I only worked for Franco for about six months.

During that time I became a much better waiter, and Franco and I became good friends. I often went over to his house for dinner and when Valery and I were married in 1985 and took our honeymoon in Europe, one of our first stops was at Franco's house, where we had dinner with he and his wife Anne and their two daughters. Just young girls then, they must be by now beautiful women with families of their own.

And the experiment with the tips? Well, it worked out in my favor. I had to be careful about talking too much to my tables, for once my American accent was detected, I had to have a plausible explanation as to why I was working in a British restaurant. Not everyone resembled an immigration officer, though, and to some folks I could be honest about my origins and the deal I had made with Franco. Knowing this, customers often gave at least a twenty percent tip because they knew the money was going directly in my pocket. They were happy to pay for my service, and I am happy to say that the service they received was not simply better than they would have gotten from Tony, but better than the service they'd received in any restaurant, anywhere.

I'm not saying that my success at Sorrentino's was due to my remarkable, sunny disposition, but I do believe that is was a function of treating people with respect and courtesy while serving them. People like this and will pay for it.

Furthermore, I conclude that people who aren't willing to pay for good service perhaps haven't really had it. I'm just sayin...

1 comment:

valgal said...

i'm thinking it's your sunny disposition that got you where you are....;^)