Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. This week, we’ve got stories of some of the worst restaurant bosses I’ve ever read about, a surprising number of whom got their comeuppance. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
Back in the early 2000’s, I worked in a small local place where the boss/owner was famous for being a cheapskate. He was a nice enough guy on a personal level, but he’d knock over his own mother if it meant he could save a dollar. I’d been working there a few months, and I’d been saving money to buy a new(er) vehicle, and I finally had enough to get a two year old Ford Ranger pickup. It was the newest car I’d ever owned, and I was super happy about it.
Literally the very first day I had it at work, my boss “Bill” immediately was like “Hey, nice truck! You’ll have to let me borrow it some time.” I thought he was joking, and sort of blew it off, but no. He kept at me for another week or so, occasionally bringing it up. Finally, one Friday, he said, “Let me borrow it this weekend! I need to move some stuff out of my garage. You can use my car!” I gave in, and agreed. His vehicle was nice enough. Nicer than mine, anyway. I figured it was an okay trade for a couple days.
We traded back on Monday, and I immediately noticed that the bed of my truck was covered in leaves and twigs, and it was scratched in a couple places. I asked what happened, and Bill said that in addition to the stuff in his garage, he’d taken down some trees and bushes at his house, and used my truck to take the branches to the dump. He apologized for leaving it dirty, and cleaned it up for me. Didn’t mention anything about the scratches, though. I was a little miffed he hadn’t told me he was going to be putting a bunch of branches in the back, but I figured it was a one-time thing and the scratches weren’t that bad, so I didn’t make a case of it.
I think he must have thought that he had free access to a truck whenever he wanted, because he asked me to use it basically every other week. For two months, I deflected him, always having convenient out-of-town plans on the weekends that would preclude us from trading.
He finally caught, me, though. After I agreed to work a weekend shift to cover someone, he was like “Hey, since you’ll be around this weekend, do you mind if we swap vehicles?” There wasn’t much I could do, but I half jokingly asked if it was going to be tree branches again. He said no, it would just be some stuff from his basement. Nothing big. So, I agreed.
Come Monday, I arrived in the building and we swapped keys with Bill. He was dealing with a delivery, so when I asked him if everything went okay, his short, clipped answer of “Yep, sure” didn’t seem out of place. A couple hours later, when I was on break, I went out to the parking lot, and immediately saw why he’d been so short.
The front windshield of my truck was just smashed on the passenger side. The main impact area was about a foot across, but the whole thing was a spiderweb of cracks. I got closer, and noticed some white feathers kind of mashed into the molding around the edges, a big smear of something wet across roof, and the truck bed had several more feathers in it.
I ran back inside, and confronted Bill. I tried to be calm, but I was pretty direct. “Hey, what happened to my truck?” I asked.
And he gave me the most fake, transparent, feigned response I’ve ever seen. “What do you mean?”
“The windshield is all smashed!”
“Yeah, it looks like you hit a bird. There are feathers all over!”
“Really? Well I didn’t notice that. Are you sure it didn’t happen while it was sitting in the parking lot?” I shit you not, he tried to sell me on a bird going kamikaze on my truck in the parking lot. I wasn’t having it, though. I asked him to come outside and look at it with me. All of a sudden, on the way out the door, he started getting a memory.
“Oh, yeah, you know what, I do remember hearing a noise on my drive in, like something hitting the car, but it was still dark when I got here, so I didn’t notice anything. And the truck still drove great, so I didn’t think anything was wrong.”
I was so pissed that he was trying to get out of this. I was like, “You didn’t notice something hitting the car less than 5 feet from your face? The whole windshield has cracks in it, how didn’t you notice!?”
“Well, it was dark!”
I was getting pretty agitated at this point, but still trying to hold my cool. But then he said something that just blew me away.
“You know, I remember I was driving behind another car when it happened, and they were weaving back and forth, all over the road. They must have thrown something at me!”
I almost felt like laughing, because I really wondered what was going through his head. That was the story he was going to stick to? An early morning drunk driver threw a chicken at him? I never did find out what kind of bird it was, but I always imagined it as a chicken, partly because of the approximate size of the impact, partly because of the color of the feathers, and partly because fuck chickens. Anyway, I didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and there was silence as we both looked over the vehicle, and processed the viability of his “malicious bird throwing” explanation. Bill must have realized how dumb it sounded, because he finally sighed and said, “Well, I can pay you for the damage.”
That’s all I was looking for, really. I knew I wasn’t going to get any kind of admission out of him, but just him acknowledging that since it happened while the truck was in his possession, it didn’t matter what had really happened, it was still his responsibility. That would have to be enough for me.
And it was, for a couple weeks....
...until I gave him the estimate for the repairs and he started telling me that when he said “pay for the damage” he meant, “pay the deductible on my insurance.” I explained that there was no way I was going to turn it in on my insurance and have it count as a claim. I told him that his insurance might cover it, but he didn’t want a claim on his insurance, either. We went back and forth on it, but when the subject of a lawyer came up, he finally gave in and just paid the bill in full.
Our work relationship was pretty much ruined by then. He couldn’t stand me because I was forcing him to part with his precious money, and I had never really thought much of him before the incident, and certainly less so after, so when I turned in my notice a few weeks later, he didn’t try to talk me out of it.
(Editor’s Note: This is an excellent story. Some of you are reading this story wondering why it’s at the beginning and not the end—the spot I typically save for the best story.
Just you wait.)
My senior year of high school I worked as a hostess at Chili’s. One of the servers was a bit of a diva, but she was always reasonably nice to me, so I never had a problem with her.
One weeknight dinner service, she threw a fit because she got the worst section in the restaurant (back of the smoking section—this was 15 years ago—where no one ever wanted to sit). The assistant manager on duty that night was a real gem—total jerk with a chip on his shoulder about being too good for the job. The server grabbed her keys and her purse and yelled that she was leaving. He calmly told her that if she left she didn’t ever need to come back...totally kidding, that would’ve been the rational response. Instead, he physically grabs this girl who is about 95 lbs (literally half his size) by the arm and snatches the car keys out of her hand. He then proceeds to throw them in the Awesome Blossom batter and DEEP FRY her car keys. He then screams that she can their pick the batter off then and leave and she’s fired, or she can go out and do her job (much more profanity, of course). She stayed, probably because she was too shocked to leave.
A few weeks later (unfortunately on my day off), this assistant manager shot his mouth off to one of the male servers and somehow got him to “take it outside.” He threw a punch at the server, which gave said server all the justification he needed to lay the guy out in the parking lot. Guess who got fired and guess who didn’t? The server didn’t have a scratch on him, and when I saw the now ex-assistant manager several days later coming in to pick up his last paycheck, he had a cut on his forehead and a black eye. I’m sure that played well when applying for the next job that he undoubtedly also thought was beneath him.
Kinja user Wonderclare:
My husband worked at a high-end restaurant where the chef was what you might call a hot mess. He would get drunk and pass out in the middle of the dining room before service started. The cooks would step over him on their way back to the kitchen when they came in. During the middle of service, he would laugh hysterically while running around the kitchen zapping fruit flies with the creme brûlée blowtorch.
Our favorite story from this time was that of hapless “Tony”, the new stage (eg unpaid intern). They were working prep one day and the boss was drinking and messing around with a forty-pound block of cheese that he could barely hold. He yelled, “TONY! TONYYYYY! Hold this! I’m gonna punch it!” What can you do if you’re Tony? So Tony hoists up the cheese apprehensively while the boss starts to circle and box. He winds up for a big punch, lets loose, and his fist glances off the side of the cheese and punches Tony hard in the face. Tony ends up bleeding from the mouth for the rest of the night, but the boss makes him stay and work the line. Everybody pretends it’s funny.
And from this story, we have a saying: when the boss is drunk, don’t hold the cheese.
When I was in my very early 20’s, I went through a giant breakup—first live-in boyfriend, was convinced we’d be together forever, classic first real heartbreak. So I very abruptly moved to New Zealand, because I’m a measured person who handles life’s slings and arrows with a cool head.
I was mostly there as a tourist, but I was broke of course, so I would spend a month or so hiking and doing outdoorsy stuff, then a month or two working until I could afford to keep traveling. During the work periods I would be taking on up to three jobs at a time so that I could get as much income in as short a time possible (my visa was only good for one year). During one of these stints, one of my three jobs was as a dishwasher at a restaurant.
There were a lot of weird things about this job. A lot of the other staff were odd ducks. There was one line cook who would sing (shout) metal music out loud—not music that was playing, just whatever was in his head—for almost his entire shift. There was a girl who I’m pretty sure never spoke to me. Add on top of this that I was still at that time of my life very shy, and the sink was positioned directly next to the door to the dining room (it’s an informal brewpub type place, so the door was always propped open), and I was a 22 year old girl, and super fit from the outdoorsy stuff, and I was always soaked from the industrial sink, and just lit up in the doorway of a place where lots of men were getting drunk...I was way too meek to figure out how to handle hearing all the sexual stuff that was being directed at me. So I just ignored it and hated my life and counted down til quitting day.
But the number one worst thing was the manager, who would say these really creepy things to me. Like “wow, you’re so wet” or “that shirt looks really hot on you” or random comments about my looks/body. I mean, if someone said that shit to me now, I’d crack down right away, but at the time I was super young and just thinking, “well, I mean MAAAAYBE he thinks that’s appropriate?” Because the tone he used was never straight-up lecherous, it was always kind of friendly. But he would also reprimand other employees while standing right behind my work station, saying really private things about their work history, which I also found bizarre.
So fast forward to my very last day at work. I have really never spoken to this guy, because my entire policy has been Ignore The Creep, and he never actually said anything to me that wasn’t a weird sexual one-liner. He comes over and he’s talking to me about my travels as I’m washing dishes. We talk for about 10 minutes and then he says:
“Wow, your English is really good, I didn’t realize you spoke this well.”
I genuinely didn’t understand what he meant, maybe my vocabulary? So I said uncertainly, “Well, I studied English Literature in college, I guess maybe that’s it?”
He pauses for a long time, starts to go really pale and he says, “Where are you from?”
“The northeast of the US.”
And then he basically goes completely white and kind of stammers out, “I—someone—I thought you were from Denmark?!”
And then I realize that the stupid jerk had thought the whole time that I didn’t speak English. He thought if he said creepy shit with a friendly voice that I wouldn’t know what he was saying.
It actually made the two months of weird inappropriate comments worth it to me, to watch his face as he realized that I had heard every single word he said. He awkwardly ended the conversation as fast as he could and disappeared for the rest of the night.
Maryanne Van Olt:
I worked at Starbucks when I was in college in 2003. It was a bad year for me—I had just gotten my heart really broken for the first time, I’d dropped out of college for unrelated reasons, and would go on to have a complete nervous breakdown about three months later. But I did my best to be a good employee—I showed up on time, I was really nice to customers, and I took pride in making drinks well.
Unfortunately, I was young enough to think that I could be more or less myself behind the scenes at work. I was on good terms with everyone but they all knew that I was incredibly depressed. So you can imagine my shock when my peppy manager, Greg, pulled me aside and let me know that they were letting me go. Shocked, I could just say, “But...why? What did I do? I haven’t even been written up once!”
So Greg smirked at me like the little shit-weasel he was and said, “Honey, you’re too sad. I want this place to be like Disneyland, and there’s no sad people at Disneyland.”
I was so dumbfounded. I said, “I’m clinically depressed, and I think Disneyland has been sued for that kind of thing.”
He said, “Well, that’s not my problem.” And like that, I was fired for being too sad.
I would love to say that I filed a complaint with the EEOC, but the horrible thing about severe depression is that you really can’t handle extra stuff. So I got all the paperwork but I never filed it, which I regret to this day. I did, however, manage to make a complaint to Starbucks HQ about Greg’s blatant EEOC violation and I heard he got written up. Didn’t get me my job back, but it made me feel just slightly better.
I grew up in a small southern town, the kind with the picturesque courthouse and magnolia-lined town square, and for some reason really wanted to be a waitress in this one cafe. It was our only cafe, I suppose, but it was an antiques store during the day and had a small indoor koi pond, so my sheltered adolescent brain thought it was classy as hell.
I applied as a high school freshman, and they put me in the back kitchen. The owner was quickly revealed to be a jerk, but he had a pretty logical system (I think) that new people do the hardest jobs so the more experienced servers will empathize with them during a rush. This meant that I was a freshman nerd in the back, and all the servers were literally the most popular junior and senior girls in school. Cheerleaders every one of them, and at least one future homecoming queen. But the system worked, and everyone was nice to me at work, and we didn’t really have reason to interact at school, so it was copacetic.
One fateful night, my eighth night working there, they decided to book nearly the entire restaurant in two parties on full menu. A group of 20-25 arrived at 7:00, followed by another the same size at 7:30. On full menu. The whole place could sit maybe 75. Fucking madness. The kitchen was tiny, just me and a cool older woman, so we were inventing places to plate things and barely holding it together, but it was alright.
Food for the 7:00 table went out around 7:45, and frustratingly, the assholes at the second table flagged the waitresses down to take what they assumed were their meals. We heard some of it, and it sounded like the kind of entitled, fat, old, white, lecherous men you would expect to flaunt their relationship with the owner to get what they want. Then, the first table realized what was happening, and used their same grossly lecherous nature to harass the waitstaff for giving away their food.
Someone flagged down the owner (surprise, both tables are buddies with him), and he started throwing everyone under the bus. Whoever was in sight, he just dressed them down in front of the staff for being incompetent. Then he came to the kitchen.
The cook quit as he walked in the door, she was taking none of his shit. I was left standing in a kitchen that was still overwhelmed, a few weeks short of 15 years old, and he started moving things around telling me that I’m slow and stupid.
He touched about two plates, hesitated (because he had no idea what he was doing) and I loudly told him something like “yelling at teenage girls to impress your friends isn’t going to get them their food as fast as letting us do our jobs.” He stopped, dumbfounded, and wandered off, tirade over. The two girls in the bathroom crying heard everything and told the rest of them. We survived the night, I was put on probation for not knowing the sauce combinations (bullshit), and to everyone’s surprise they were evicted a week later for not paying rent.
My coworkers told the others what I’d said. They were more than sweet to me at school, and I never once had a problem with a popular girl the whole time I was there.
I spent a few years working at a fairly popular, mid-range seafood restaurant in Western Australia. The place’s major selling point was its location at the end of a long jetty on the Swan River. Beautiful spot–you could watch yachts sailing by, wedding parties would often arrive by boat, and more than once I saw a pod of dolphins swim past.
But the head chef was an aggressive Gordon Ramsay wannabe. My first week, I ducked into the kitchen to ask one of the junior chefs if it was okay to make a minor menu substitution for a customer. He said no problem, I turned around to head back out to the floor–and came face-to-face with a razor-sharp blade the size of a freaking broadsword, wielded by the head chef, who has a crazy look in his eyes.
“Don’t EVER interrupt my staff in the middle of service again,” he hissed.
He was an amateur comedian, too. He gave one of the younger chefs, who was Vietnamese, the nickname “Suk Cok”. Which was funny “because it sounds like a real Asian name!” The only karmic payback appropriate for this guy would have been some kind of chronic bowel disorder, but I was able to witness the next best thing.
One evening we have two young Japanese girls walk in. It’s a quiet night, with only myself and the assistant manager Bruce on staff, and they’re our first customers for the evening. The girls don’t speak much English, but they’re polite and cheerful. They each choose a crayfish from one of the tanks in the dining area. The customers are happy to be sampling genuine Australian cuisine, and they’re delightful, so I’m happy for them.
A few minutes after their order comes out I’m chatting with Bruce by the front desk when an ear-splitting scream erupts from the dining area. We race through the restaurant to find the Japanese girls backing away in horror from their table WHERE SOMETHING IS MOVING.
Crawling out from under one of the crayfish is a giant-sized cockroach. Or to be precise, roughly one-half of a giant-sized cockroach.
Yeah. Half a cockroach.
Bruce asks me to look after the customers for a moment. He walks across the room to the kitchen, slams the door shut behind him and launches into the most awesome display of verbal abuse I’ve ever been privileged to witness. His righteous fury can be heard through the closed kitchen door from a distance of about 20 feet.
Then silence. Bruce emerges from the kitchen, the head chef trailing. Bruce leads him to the customer’s table, where the head chef, his face a shade of red not normally found in nature, offers them a stammering apology. It takes him some time.
As I said, the Japanese girls don’t speak much English, but it turns out that abject humiliation is a universal language. They graciously accept his apology (before he bursts into tears, sadly).
Naturally, we go to superhuman lengths to try and compensate for this epic fuck-up for the rest of the night. Free tasting dishes, deserts, drinks–anything we could think of. I felt bad for the girls, but is it wrong that this memory still makes me smile?
(Editor’s Note: No. No, it is not wrong)
As a teenager I worked at a McDonald’s, and a mishap with the hash browns led to my arm being splashed with boiling oil. I had a huge burn from my elbow to my wrist, covering my entire forearm. I dashed immediately back into the kitchen and put this burn under cold water, writhing in agony.
After what felt like no time (this burn was bad; time had no meaning), my supervisor came back and said, “I’m counting this as your 20 minute break, but you have to go back now.” I showed him how my whole left forearm was now raw meat and said there was no way I could hygienically work (mind you, I am in a lot of pain and choking back tears), and an argument broke out. Eventually they allowed me to leave, but only after a very thorough lecture and I was bullied into signing a form and made to promise that I would not seek medical attention.
Yes, McDonald’s bullied a teenage girl with a serious burn into not getting any help.
For a brief time in college, I worked as a cashier at a small Mexican take-out restaurant. The owner of the restaurant had very specific things he looked for in a cashier. We must be young, blonde, have an inability to speak Spanish, and be willing to work under the table. Looking back on it now, I wonder why on earth I ever took this job. I must have been blinded by the prospect of free burritos.
Then one shift I was told I wouldn’t be working the cash register, but instead doing the owner a favor that day. He asked me, “You read English, right?” to which I said “Yeah...” He replied, “Good, then you can program our video cameras.” Now I am not technically savvy, so the fact that I can read English was not going to help me program anything. But it was a day away from actual customers, so I said I would do it. I then followed him behind the building to where the dumpster was, and he indicated for me to open a door (which I had never seen before) into what I lovingly refer to as “ the cum dungeon”.
Before me was the most terrifying room I had ever seen, and I was pretty sure I was going to die in there. It was a concrete room with no windows and hundreds of Playboy/Hustler pictures taped to the wall. On the floor was a bare, stained mattress and a single La-Z-boy sitting in front of a TV. I was in such shock that I don’t even remember how I ended up sitting on that La-Z-Boy and starting to program his video cameras for him. My fingers were like lighting on that remote control, and I programmed like no one had ever programmed before! The last thing I wanted was for him to open the door and find me not done.
Finally after four hours, the owner opened the door to see my progress. I told him I was sick and had to leave, and raced out of there as quick as possible, never to return. Now, as a mature adult I would have called the police to investigate, but at the time I was more worried about the pay I was losing by never going back. Sometimes free burritos aren’t worth it.
It was my first day working at a family-style restaurant in Poolesville, MD (which I believe has since closed down). I was hired on as a dishwasher at 15, when all I wanted to do was play video games and pine over a girl in my school who always wore a 311 t-shirt. I figured if I worked there for a few months I could save up enough money to go anywhere other than Poolesville.
As I was putting away the silverware, I put a couple steak knives with the regular knives. This was apparently a major faux pas, as a grizzled man stormed into the kitchen and into my face with one of the sparkling clean steak knives. He held it up about 2 inches from my pimply nose and began to terrify my entire existence. “Were you the dumb little shit who put a steak knife with the regular knife?!!!” said the man with the conviction of someone who had just killed his first born. “If I ever see another steak knife near a regular knife again, I’ll shove the knife into your throat.”
This was all amplified by the fact that he had a boil on the side of his neck that was the size of Myanmar. I didn’t know which of his two heads to stare at, so I just had a panic attack instead. I ran out of there about three hours into my first shift and never returned. I don’t know what happened to that man or his boil, but I hope it’s not pleasant.
I’ve had exactly one food service job in my life, and it was my very first job. In the spring of 1990, I was 14 years old and out looking for some summer money. There was a new bagel shop that opened in one of the ubiquitous strip malls of New Jersey, and they were hiring kids with no experience. I walked in, dropped off my resume, and got the job with instructions to show up early on Saturday morning for some training before starting the job. I arrive on time, head into the back, and meet with the owner/manager. He sits me down, and begins my working career with the following statement: “Now, thanks to our socialist president (George H.W. Bush), I am required to pay you FOUR DOLLARS AND TWENTY FIVE CENTS AN HOUR.” Emphasis his, and dripping with obvious contempt that I should earn such an outrageous sum.
This was mid-April, so just a few weeks prior the federal minimum wage had gone from $3.80 to $4.25, and he was obviously worried he’d go out of business paying me so much money for 12-20 hours of work a week. For the Youths out there wondering: $3.80 in 1990 was actually less useful than the current $7.25 minimum wage is in 2015, when adjusted for inflation. Needless to say, I did not put my all into scrubbing things as vigorously and joyously as he thought I should, so we agreed to part ways after a grand total of 3 days. I spent the rest of my high school days working in video stores and supermarkets, which somehow ended up being a vast improvement in pay and experience.
This story takes places in a far off time when our relatively conservative area was getting its very first high street gentlemen’s clubs. They’d just opened one in a city about an hours drive away and the management had decided to house some of the strippers in our city for safety reasons. The housing was a high end apartment block of mostly tourist rentals separated from our historic gastro pub by an alleyway. Our clientele was a weird mix of alternative/geek students and elderly blue collar workers. Since we had no TV or radio, “stripper watch” became a major entertainment for a lot of the guys and window seats on that side of the building were in high demand.
We’d also recently gotten a new manager, an odd Harvey Fierstein lookalike with no sense of personal space or personal hygiene. When he heard that a lot of the customers and most of the staff were goth or punk he invested in some leather trousers to better ‘fit in’ with the culture. Sadly he didn’t really fit into the trousers; by the second day the zipper had given out under the strain and was permanently stuck at half mast. He liked to flirt with all the female patrons, regardless how horrified they were by his open trousers and vaguely cheesy odour. After a few weeks and many complaints to the owner the majority of the women stopped coming to the pub at all. The owner insisted he couldn’t do anything unless the manager did something substantial. He soon got his wish.
The managers had access to an apartment over the bar. One day after the lunch rush the old guy on stripper watch mentioned that the girls were back from the gym. The bar staff didn’t notice the manager was gone until a couple of cops came in asking for him—apparently they urgently needed access to the upper floor of the building. We figured he was either up there or out at the suppliers, so we let the cops go up. Turns out he was the reason they needed access—he’d decided to woo one of the strippers by means of draping himself, naked, over his office desk opposite her bedroom window. One of the cops described it as “the couch scene in Titanic but with a silverback gorilla instead of Kate Winslet.”
We never found out what the stripper though of his attempt, because she never saw it—the witnesses were an elderly tourist couple and their grandkids.
Do you have a crazy restaurant or other food-industry story you’d like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Behind Closed Ovens” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
Note: I do not want poop/vomit stories. Please stop sending me poop/vomit stories. Also, if your stories are not food-related in some way, I am unable to do anything with them. Sorry.
Image via Vladimir Skopcev/Shutterstock.
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.