In the summer of 2003 more than 26 wildfires started in Glacier National Park, burning a total of 136,000 acres of forest and sending fireballs and giant columns of smoke into the air from July to September.
The fire closed down some of the most popular sections of a park that attracts around 2 million visitors each year during its busiest season.
My wife and I happened to be working at a restaurant in East Glacier Park, one of the few areas that didn’t close that summer. We’d come there hoping to work as many hours as possible so we could save up for a dream trip to South America. The fire was going to make that very easy for us.
When sections of the park began closing down, the tourists started coming over to East Glacier. So did hundreds of park workers and firefighters. The reliably steady restaurant suddenly had lines out the door to get on the hour-long wait list from breakfast until dinner.
The pressure on the staff was enormous. There was almost never a break, and the customers were often frustrated tourists whose vacations had been ruined by a freak fire and were looking for someone to take it out on.
This was a golden opportunity for the restaurant to make a lot of money, but there was certainly a lot of danger that it would come crashing down under its own weight, piss off a lot of customers, alienate employees, and hurt the business.
Keepers of the Culture
Thankfully it was run by experienced owners, and they knew exactly what to do at such a deep level that it took me years to see the wisdom of it.
Pat and Buzz had been running a family restaurant for 49 years by the time I got there in 2003. That was about twice as long as most of their employees had lived. They had seen nearly everything in their time, and never got flustered.
But when I first started, I didn’t think either of them did a whole lot.
Buzz was in his eighties. Early in the morning, he spent a few hours making huckleberry turnovers and other awesome handmade pastries while he chain-smoked cigarettes.
Despite the possibility of containing a few ashes, they were the best damn pastries I’ve ever had.
Pat seemed to just hang out in the dining room most of the time flipping through fashion magazines. At the end of the day, she’d spend a couple hours reviewing order tickets and sales.
It took me a while to see what their real contribution was.
This restaurant was unique. The town where it was located had about 200 year-round residents, and the restaurant was only open during the 4-month tourist season. They had no year-round employees and just a handful of people who returned year after year.
Consequently, Pat and Buzz were the keepers of company culture and all institutional knowledge the restaurant had acquired over the previous 49 years. This was how the restaurant survived the onslaught we were to endure that summer.
Thrown Into the Fire
We showed up in June of 2003 with no warning. My wife had worked at the restaurant before and knew what the deal was.
They always needed people. Their hiring process consisted of asking you if you’d ever waited tables or cooked before. There was no careful resume inspection or reference check. If you’d done either of those jobs, which paid best, they gave you a shot at doing them right away. If you did well, you got to keep doing them.
If you didn’t have experience at cooking or waiting tables, you got thrown into whichever jobs needed filling. If you did well, you stayed on. If you didn’t, well, you didn’t.
Training for most of the positions was very minimal, usually just a cursory explanation of how things were done immediately before a full shift of doing the job. This was partially their philosophy on training, and partly due to necessity. Once the fires hit, there was really no time for training.
It was sink or swim for everyone on board.
This experience formed my entire view of hiring and screening candidates. No resume or interview can give you the information that a live test can.
With a Little Help from the Boss
The first thing they did when the crazy rush hit us was jump in and start helping any way they could. This was something, considering that they were in their late 70s and 80s by then. Buzz would usually start running dishes through the dishwasher, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and give the cooks a hand when they needed it.
Pat would go to the door and host, greeting customers as they came in, putting them on a wait list and explaining why we were so busy. She also helped us bus tables and rearrange seating.
Besides helping with the immediate problem of being insanely busy, it instantly established that they were on our side. They were going through what we were, and experiencing how stressful and exhausting it was.
By being in the mix they were also able to see exactly where things were breaking down and help us streamline our process. I think their advice on how to run the cash register more efficiently, prioritize orders and keep waiting customers happy would have been ill-received if they’d just been sitting on the sidelines. But by being right there with us, it made it easy to listen to them.
Taking Care of Your People
Because my wife and I were out to make as much money as possible, and consequently said “yes” to every shift they offered, we started working 5 AM to 10 PM seven days a week.
We were on our feet, nearly running, the entire day. At night we dreamed that we were still working.
It didn’t take long for Pat and Buzz to see the toll this was taking on us. We were irritable, tired and prone to mistakes. So they forced us to take at least a two-hour break in the middle of each day and made us take one day off per week together.
This was a policy they extended to everyone.
They also started providing us with three free meals every day. Dinner, which was after we closed, often included a nice bottle of wine.
All of this helped us hold on to our sanity, stay composed when it got crazy, and do better overall work.
Having meals together at the end of the day were key, and it’s common practice at many restaurants for a reason. It gave us a chance to sit around, complain, laugh and bond over what we’d been through that day.
Cutting Us Some Slack
At the height of the season we sometimes did goofy things:
- One of the cooks started making animal noises, rather than ringing a bell when food orders were up.
- We played pranks on each other, which included tying a large rubber spider to a string and using a makeshift pulley system to lower it on cashiers and cooks while they worked.
- We poured ourselves liberal amounts of espresso drinks (this may have contributed to our goofiness).
- We took over the stereo and started playing music we liked part of the time, rather than the approved list of CDs.
- Occasionally the waitstaff and other customer-facing employees would talk back to customers who treated them poorly.
- Someone, or maybe a few people, were pouring themselves wine during work hours. This may have included one of the owners.
Pat and Buzz never came down on us for any of this.
They let us know that they knew it was happening but seemed to realize it was better to let us release small amounts of steam than to wait until one of us blew up. Every once in a while they let us know when things went too far (the cook was asked to start using the bell again when the animal noises got too loud) and we felt like it was fair.
When Saying No is Good Customer Service
For the most part, things stayed civil, but the combination of frustrated tourists who’d spent a lot of money on a failed vacation and employees who were working crazy hours at a high pace sometimes led to incidents.
When it was justified, Pat took our side.
More than once customers went too far and personally insulted the waitstaff. Pat literally told them to leave the restaurant and never come back.
One night in particular, I remember that things had magically quieted down around 9 pm. There were just a few customers left finishing their meals, and we all began to wrap things up for the night, excited to get our closing chores done a little early.
Five minutes before close a party of about 15 came walking in the door. Everyone in the restaurant froze. Suddenly the promise of getting done early evaporated before the prospect of another really late night.
The front house employees stood still, staring at the customers as we wiped down the last of the tables. An audible groan came from the kitchen.
One of the customers said, “Sign says you’re open ‘til 10.”
Suddenly Pat came walking up from the back of the restaurant with a determined stride.
“I’m sorry,” she said, in a voice that made it clear she was not sorry, “but these kids are tired. I’ve got to send them home.”
“Can I speak to a manager?” one of them asked.
“‘I’m the owner!”
The customers were ushered out, and we were all thankful.
Pat loved her customers and treated them well. She spent time almost every day talking to people at their tables, asking how their food was, telling them about the history of the restaurant and giving them advice about where they should go in the park.
But I think she realized that at a certain point taking care of your employees was good for customers. Had she allowed that group to sit just before we closed, she’d have had a bunch of furious employees on her hands, angry at both the customers and their boss.
By letting a single group of customers lose in this case, she made sure many more customers were treated well.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say that one of the things that really got the business through that summer was the ability of the restaurant owners to see how things looked from many perspectives.
They came down to the employee level and saw what it was like there, but maintained their high-level, long-time-owner view as well. They understood things from the employee perspective and the customer perspective as well.
Most importantly, they seemed to be able to step back, see all of this, and consistently make the best decisions. This is a hard thing to do not just in business, but in life generally, and usually takes some practice. But I think just being aware of this approach is a step in the right direction.
Author: Paul Peters is content marketer and job ad writer with Betterteam. Before Betterteam he spent 6 years building an education startup, where he was involved with many aspects of the business, including hiring. He lives in Whitefish, Montana.