Saturday, May 04, 2013

Red Lobster policy changes - Out with the new and in with the old(er).

If you haven't heard, Red Lobster has recently reversed course on the changes they had made to their rules for how many tables a server can take at one time.  Sandra Pedicini of the Orlando Sentinel covered it here.

Let me explain for you the depths of this corporate clusterfuck.

When you as a company, make intentional, strategic choices that force the best service staff your company has to offer to leave the company for greener pastures and then you change rules to disastrous effect there is no one to blame but corporate leadership

It should come as no surprise to you when you try to give the left over green servers and largely incompetent remains (there are still a few good people undoubtedly) more tables, that it is a recipe for disaster.

When I started serving for Red Lobster, first on the floor by myself, I got a 2 table section.  I gave those tables great service, proved my ability over a month or two, and was finally given a 3 table section.  I lived with that as I learned the ropes for probably the next 12-18 months. Maybe longer.  I made fine tips, learned to do my side work while managing my tables, and advanced to the point I was helping other servers on top of this.  It was roughly at this point I became a server trainer.  I was also at this point given the opportunity to take shifts where when we would cut staff it would mean I might have a 4th or even a 5th table for brief periods of time.  Again, I did this for a year or so, until I was finally given the opportunity to be a closer.  In those days, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, being a closer was like hitting the jackpot on some weekends.  After everyone was closed and most everyone had gone home, it wasn't uncommon to get a little late rush.  6 tables?  No problem if you rotate between me and the other closer.  7 tables?  Sure, just seat the bartender one in the rotation.  8 tables?  Now I'm getting busy, but I'll put off my closing sidework until after close.  At roughly 9 tables I'd better get a manager to start making salads.  But we could do it, and still give good service because we had slowly worked our way there.  Now I won't contend that my 9 table service is equal to my 4 table service, it isn't, but it was still surprisingly good.  As long as they are clustered in one area where I can quickly survey them all for needs, I could keep up.  And since these periods always were short, and the tables were at various stages of dining, it was possible.  9 tables at once is not possible if they all walk in at the same time BTW.  Good workflow, good habits, and being on the tail end of getting everything stocked before people leave for home sets this up to work just fine.  And the money would roll in.  I closed 5 nights a week 50ish weeks a year for this very reason.

But in the current mess Red Lobster corporate leadership systematically drove away their best servers over the past few years.  The best trainers, the experienced, hard working people who had been in the trenches for years and sometimes decades started to flee the company like rats jumping ship.  I called out this warning on many occasions here on the blog.  But unfortunately, Orlando (corporate HQ) has shown time and time again that it is in a bubble outside the real world of the day to day operations of their restaurants.  So gone were the best of the service staff due to the enforcement of 3 table sections.  Gone were any good newcomers who were unwilling to be indentured servants known as "server assistants" for months on end.  Gone were the good bar tenders who could competently take tables.  And you were left with a bunch of green, incompetent and largely untested servers.  And you added another table into the mix without making many of them ever earn it.  And the shit hit the fan.

Customer complaints skyrocketed.  Comps climbed like a thermometer in the sun in Phoenix in July.  Staff were stressed, management frustrated and kitchens irate.  All because there was no wisdom nor vision at the top of the corporate structure.  I've warned for years that Red Lobster has lost its way, and it was because the brain was dead while the body kept on working.

So on the heels of all this, Red Lobster has had to take back the 4th table so people who probably have yet to be proven to be 3 table ready can get back to barely getting by and keep their heads above water.  Sad.  To think that people get stock options to screw things up this badly is hard to fathom.

I feel especially bad for the few remaining rockstars who due to various life circumstances have had to stick it out through all of this.  People who couldn't leave because Red Lobster is still the best option in their town in spite of this.  People who had to stay for the health insurance.  People like that will once again be punished with a 3 table section due to the lowest common denominator principle of service.  When you as an organization are making corporate wide decisions based on the least competent of your service staff, you're in deep, deep trouble.  Red Lobster, you were great at one time, but now you're reduced to this.  3 table sections, 1/2 price Lobsterfest meals, losing your best staff and destroying your culture.  I'm glad I liquidated all my Darden stock a long time ago. I won't be losing sleep for you as you brought this on yourself.


Unknown said...

They are too scared to say "pick up the pace" to the dipshits, and instead say "slow your roll" to the competent staff. Glad I punched out.

Steve DiGioia said...

Well said. Most servers, and yes even experienced ones, still think that taking 5,6 tables is the way to go and that they will earn more money.

I've always taught my staff that less tables are better. As you correctly mentioned, you can make great tips because you can service your tables in a manner that makes them feel special, feel as if their enjoyment is your primary concern.

You can't do that if you're running through your big section just hoping to survive.

Anonymous said...

So do they now keep all servers on until close? How else would you be able to enforce a 3 table rule?

Anonymous said...

If necessary, a server can be sat a fourth table or a party larger than seven. It's the floor manager's discretion when and with whom these exceptions are made. As a server, I am often given more than three tables at a time. Servers with less experience are kept to the three table limit. I like this system more than the previous four table limit. Newer servers couldn't get out of the weeds with four tables and side work was often left undone.