As you may or may not know (or care), I recently quit my first job in Chicago after only two and a half months of being there. “Why,” you may ask. “Why are you such a wimpy bitch, Liz?”
It’s a fair question. From the outside, the Grand Lux Cafe on Michigan Avenue looks like the epitome of all things Chicago: big, shiny, diverse, delicious, murderous. Well, maybe not the last, but still–how could a restaurant that serves portions big enough for three very hungry adults be a bad place?
Wo betide you to judge a book by its cover. I did the same thing, and may my soul rest in peace. The Grand Lux is far from the classy business-oriented atmosphere it wants or appears to be.
Yes, let’s discuss the appearance. Fact: The Grand Lux in Chicago cost over $17 million dollars to build. Why? Because every goddamn surface in that building is solid marble. Floors, tables, walls; even the hearts of the managers are made of that horridly cold rock. At first you may think, “What a fancy place; they must be dedicated to quality and excellence!” In reality, the outrageous expense and appearance of the building matches the general truth of the chain: with over 250 items on the menu, more sugary drinks than Alcoholic Barbie’s Princess Emporium, servings big enough to feed a family in Ethiopia, and a seething mass of 100+ underpaid employees, the place is just plain tacky. It’s nothing more than an “upscale” Cheesecake Factory, owned by the same company (but don’t tell anyone that, even if they ask).
So who does this restaurant attract? Well, during the day, when the sun streams in pleasantly through the vast windows, the primarily tourist and business crowd is fairly tolerable. Not always the best tippers, but that’s to be expected on Michigan Avenue. The pace isn’t terribly busy, and things tend to run pretty much according to plan. Michael Buble and Bing Crosby serenade you softly over the speakers as you eat your lunch-sized salad and gratuitous bread and butter, and a child’s laughter floats serendipitously on wave after wave of the mouth-watering scent emanating from the kitchen.
But when the night hits–and the music changes to Aaliyah and Justin Timberlake, blasting to compete with the noise level of the 400 some-odd guests–the clientele completely changes too. And since I didn’t cause it, create it, or do anything except serve and observe, I’ll merely describe it like it was. Judge me as you will.
The evening crowd at the Grand Lux, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, is comprised mostly of ghetto south-side Chicagoans. They are rude, demanding, and impossible to placate. Tip average is typically between 5-10%; “please” and “thank you” are virtually nonexistent; and nearly every conversation between the servers centers around this table or that table who just stiffed them, or shouted at them, or ordered everything special and sent it all back. Servers aren’t politely requested to get things–they are commanded about by the guests. “You can get me a caramel apple martini,” or “Give me a straw,” or “I need lemons,” is the common vernacular.
And the management totally facilitates this behavior. Guests will order something special–
like Chicken Parmesan with marinara but no tomatoes, or a blended drink which is not made blended; and when they eat or drink a third of it, just “don’t like it,” and request to speak to a manager, the manager immediately comps the item and the guest walks out without paying for dinner. Meanwhile, the servers get shitty tips, shitty tables, and sweat their asses off running around on marble floors–all for a grand total of $4.95 an hour, plus tips and an impending hip replacement.
Well, at least the servers get to keep their tips, right? Wrong. Because the servers tip out their help–the bussers, bartenders, and food runners–in the sum of about 5% of their sales. Yup, that’s right. Their sales. So what happens when you get stiffed on a $100 check? You have the opportunity to pay the other staff members’ wages out of your tips from other tables, so the restaurant can justify paying them 4.95 an hour, too. Righteous.
In all fairness, the servers assistants do their share. They work hard, and don’t get paid enough either. But you’d hardly know you’re tipping them out for service–because when a manager is violently waving his arms back and forth while you’re at a table, mouthing at you to get in the kitchen and run food, you wonder what, exactly, you’re tipping out a food runner for. And when the bartender makes five strawberry lemonades, and you’re tipping them out 1.25% of your total sales (Read: $15 on a Saturday night, just to the bartender), you again wonder if your life has any purpose.
“Why, oh why, don’t the managers do something?” you might wonder. As did I, friend. As did I. But the managers make salary. The managers stay in the kitchen. The managers sit in the office and do managery things (how often did I see the GM lift a plate? Once). The managers visit discontent tables for thirty seconds, tell them how sorry they are, and then walk off and tell the server what they could have done better to make the angry, rude, bitchy table any less angry, rude, and bitchy. And it’s not that the life of a manager at the Lux is easy–it’s hectic, stressful, and (who knows?) probably underpaid as well. But the managers aren’t the ones dealing with the bad behavior of the guests every single second of every single shift. And it wasn’t until one manager got in an altercation with a party that was so bad she got spit on by a guest that they finally cracked down on kicking out people who swore at the servers.
Yeah. They spit on a manager and threatened to kick her ass. That is the kind of clientele the Grand Lux attracts on weekends, and that is 75% of why I left. I don’t care what your skin color, nation of origin, sexual orientation, or goddamn food preferences are. When that kind of behavior predominates any facility, I’m making like a baby and heading out.
And so are the rest of the servers. There are excellent waiters and waitresses who have been there for years; they’re hightailing it out ASAP as well. The turnover rate is enormous–only half of the people who started with me still work there–and if it weren’t for the mind-blowingly high volume of consumers that come to the restaurant, I think the Lux would be facing serious financial difficulties (as it is, they’re begging servers to be conservative with salad dressings and cutting down on that oh-so-premium beverage, water).
And really, when a busy Saturday night rings in $50,000 in sales, just enough trained servers stick
around to keep the place from collapsing (many of whom don’t have the sheer balls (or stupidity) to walk out like I did), and the managers catch the majority of dash-n-diners before they leave the restaurant, hey–it’s all gravy.
But for this girl, who comes with a strong side of attitude, a dollop of pride, and a topping of just-don’t-give-a-fuck, the Grand Lux was more like a Grand Luxation of the soul. I walked right out of that Food&Wine forsaken restaurant, with no other job offer and only a handful of interviews, and haven’t spent one moment regretting it.
I did meet some fantastic people there, though, and it was a very eye-opening experience regarding the race relations in Chicago (which this Utah greenie had never before beheld). Admittedly, if you stay for nine hours on a Saturday night, you can make 150 bucks. Some of the managers were pretty cool, and I had some fantastic tables. And, ermageeeerd, is that Blueberry Buckle and Braised Pot Roast good.
I start at my new job tomorrow. I just got hired at Lady Gregory’s in Andersonville–a really cool place with a great beer and whiskey list, and a fantastic clientele mostly comprised of older gay men. During my interview, when I was asked why I left the Lux so quickly, I smiled benignly and said, “The commute was simply too far, you see.” One of those funny facts about life–it’s hard to get a good job when you shit all over your ex-employer’s metaphorical forehead during an interview. But, for the sake of good storytelling and also because I love me some good, hardy gossip, I had to post the true story on here for the wise and wary to read.
May I be so bold as to suggest you seek employment elsewhere.