Assaulted At Work

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QUESTION From: Joel in Philly

“I’m writing this to you from my car. I’m sitting in the parking lot outside of my restaurant because I don’t feel like I can go back in but if I leave before the owner gets here I probably won’t get paid for my last week or two of work. Sure you won’t respond in time to help me with this but curious to know if I handle this the right way.

An employee basically assaulted me about 5 minutes ago. He got in my face, threatened me and then shoved me. I’ll fill you in. I was hired by the owner of a 30yr old restaurant to keep him from going under after losing his best line cook and his father who used to help run the place. I, he callmmediately after this incident, this guy called the owner and although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, this guy finished the call saying “ok - great!” and hung up. I tried calling the owner three times but no answer. left him a voice mail and haven’t heard back yet.

When I got here, the place was a mess. No standards, no recipes, no inventory procedure, the walk-in was a mess and the place was filthy. First thing I started to do was clean the place and organize the walk-in. Then about a week ago, I started standardizing recipes so that everyone was cooking the same thing. I don’t really have a title. I answered an ad for a Chef/GM but was told I’m just “there to fix this place”. as a consultant.

A few days ago the owner and I were talking and he told me that he hired another guy. I asked what position he was going to fill and he tells me that he doesn’t want to assign titles to people since these guys have all been pulling together for over twenty years and he didn’t want to give them a “boss”. So he just tells me he wants everybody to just work together and make it happen.

The new guy was an executive chef for 8 years but can’t cook worth a s#it. the last two days, I’ve watched him trying to teach people how to cook dishes and he not only gets them wrong every time but makes a mess while doing it. The guy is a joke. He can’t cook, has no technique or knife skills and is ordering everyone around like he’s the owner. This morning he told me he was taking over the ordering and started to place an order without even taking an inventory so I had to speak up. While we were talking I told him he had to straighten the walk-in and take an inventory before placing any order. He said he knows what to do and that’s why he’s here to do what needs to be done. Then he told me that someone told him I said he doesn’t know how to cook and then grabbed me by the shirt like he was going to punch me and told me that I better back the f#@k off unless I wanted to throw down.

I can’t work like this and can’t go back in there but if I leave, I may not get paid and I need the cash. What would you do?

HH ANSWER:

This all reminds me of an Anthony Bourdain quote:

"There is no lying in the kitchen. And no god there, either. He couldn’t help you anyway. You either can...or can’t...make an omelet. You either can...or can’t...chop an onion, shake a pan, keep up with the other cooks, replicate again and again, perfectly, the dishes that need to be done. No credential, no amount of bullshit, no well-formed sentences or pleas for mercy will change the basic facts. The kitchen is the last meritocracy...a world of absolutes; one knows without any ambiguity at the end of each day how one did. 'Good' and 'evil' are easily and instantly recognized for what they are. Good is a cook who shows up on time and does what he said yesterday he was going to do. Evil is a cook who’s full of shit and doesn’t or can’t do what he said he was going to do."

A few things to address here:

1st: I would NOT gon’t back in there. This is an incident that requires your taking yourself out of the situation and reporting it immediately to HR, senior management and/or ownership.

While this other guy is in the wrong (and likely guilty of a criminal action), and shouldn’t be there - he might also be the smartest person in the place. Think about it, he has little to no relevant job experience to succeed in his chosen line of work and he’s found the “perfect” owner to gainfully employ him without properly vetting him… and you calling him out is a direct threat to the scam he’s running / his livelihood.

You’ve already made the mistake of working for someone who is setting you up to fail…or worse.

It’s a bit cliché but… “Hope isn’t a strategy”.

When you asked the owner what role this new hire was going to fill and they told you they don’t believe in titles - that’s when you should have realized that this was clearly not the person who is (or was) running a reputable establishment. I’m not saying they should adopt and strictly adhere to the brigade system, but not having clear roles and responsibilities within a clearly articulated hierarchy is like throwing a bunch of kids on the soccer field and telling them to “Score!”

This isn’t pea-wee soccer. And this owner can’t let the employees manage their business. They need to step up and manage the restaurant or hand you the reins.

I get the fact that you need a job but if they don’t define roles, then every minute you’re there is another minute you aren’t finding a better job working for a responsible owner. And by better job, I’d say working for a fast casual or family restaurant chain would offer you a safer work environment and upward mobility while you look for another consulting gig.

This owner is not being fully transparent with you… or the lead line cook he recently lost was actually the one running the place and had all the respect that the owner probably doesn’t (theft probably rampant now as well) and everyone was probably playing by prison rules / rules of the jungle.

Fixing a situation like this takes open communication and full owner buy-in. If you don’t have that - you’re wasting your time and putting yourself in another potentially dangerous situation

2nd: Assuming you get paid under the table so… if you do leave, I wouldn’t expect to get paid.

The biggest question now is what to say to the owner when they get there and still be able to remain in their good graces enough that they don’t find a reason (justified or not) to withhold your pay.

I would recommend saying something along the lines of:

“I want to help you out here and appreciate you giving me a job but -new guy- put his hands on me today and threatened me so I don’t feel safe going back to work right now. I don’t know how you’d like to handle this but I really think that establishing some sort of hierarchy and arranging the schedule so that I don’t have to work with this new guy again is the way to go. I’d be happy to come back to work as soon as you straighten this out but until you do, we’re not going to be able to avoid this from happening again...to me or to any other employee.”

No one can afford that kind of liability, least of whom - you.

If the employee who accosted you isn’t terminated immediately, the problems run even deeper than you might think. I’m not trying to stereotype but when I encounter situations like this, there’s almost always a drug problem involved. Whether it’s the owner or the staff or a combination of the two where the employees that shouldn’t be on the payroll either supply or engage with the owner. I’m not saying that’s whats happening there but I’m just saying it’s not rare - so be very very careful, “Where there’s smoke…”

Good luck brother. Please follow up with me and let me know what happened-

Josh Sapienza