Part 5: Significant Change
This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.
So the Fern Bar Chain offers me a job. I am to be the Kitchen Manager at their flagship store in the Mobile market. Perfect. The Kitchen Manager’s duties parallel the duties of an executive sous chef. This is a tremendous break. Although I am not exactly a fan of this particular chain, the money is good and opportunity is great.
By mid July of 2005, I have moved to a corporate apartment in Crestview, FL. Of the locations where I could train, this is the most convenient being only 100 miles from my home. Crestview is part of the Florida Panhandle that was stuck by Hurricane Ivan the summer before. The scars are still evident. The week before I report another tropical storm hits the area and I am greeted by $3.00 gas prices at a time when the national average is $1.79.
The town of Crestview is nothing special, a spot in the road on your way to some place more interesting. It is peculiar in one very big way. It appears that no one in this burg of some 14,000 people ever cooks. The Fern Bar is always busy as are the other restaurants in town. If I ever need to spend time alone all I have to do is go to the grocery store for I am the only one who buys fresh produce, meats, and breads. Everyone else is on the frozen food aisle.
Training goes well but on the first day I am informed that my assignment has changed and I will be transferred to Ocean Springs, MS when I am done with training and there I am to be the Bar Manager. Huh? Oh, well, Ocean Springs is only 45 minutes from Mobile and sure I will have to move but the location is nice. I find an apartment on the beach and begin making plans to relocate.
During week three of training I am informed that my assignment has changed again and I will heading back to Mobile when I am done, but to the “troubled” store, not the flagship. I am to be the Service Manager. What the hey? Before all is said and done my assignment will change locations five times in three different states only to end up at the store I originally applied for, but as the Service Manager not the Kitchen Manager. Corporations.
During the second month of my training Hurricane Katrina hits. I am safe and sound 100 miles east of the affected area while my friends and family are stranded without power, jobs, or gas. I am filled with remorse as I watch the news. New Orleans, a city that I love dearly, is flooded with water and hoodlums. The Mississippi Gulf Coast (the hardest hit area of Katrina) is utterly destroyed – CNN choppers record the memories of my early college years as they lie crushed and torn. My home town of Mobile is also hit, but as has been the case with the last five tropical maelstroms to hit the Gulf Coast in the past 14 months, it is back on its feet in just a few days. Still I am racked with guilt over my relative comfort while friends and family battle 95 degree weather without electricity or running water. I cannot wait for training to be over so that I can get home and help people out.
Part of my 10 week training with the Fern Bar is to visit the franchise headquarters in Lincoln, NE. A charming city that is the very embodiment of middle America. Talk about great steaks! I think I had some form of flame cooked beef carcass every day I was in town. During the week long seminar, I find myself slightly troubled by the words that the folks at the corporate office use, specifically they never refer to the restaurants as restaurants – they are all concepts.
Finally I return home to my storm ravaged hometown and begin work at the Fern Bar proper. Two days in and the promises made about employment are already being broken. The other managers are glad to see me because they have gone weeks without days off that did not include 140 mph winds. My addition to the staff means that they are now only one person shy of the required number of managers needed to run efficiently.
Each week working conditions become more stressful and the corporation turns a deaf ear to our needs. It is now that I found out how bad the company is that I have been employed by. Managers are leaving in droves from all of the area “concepts” for better jobs. Somehow several recruiting firms have gotten a hold of our cell phone numbers and are calling each of the managers three or four times a day with job offers. At one point the three store region, which is supposed to have a grand total of 14 managers and a regional director, is down to eight managers and no director. It is at this time that I, too, head for greener pastures.