Hell would freeze over before I'd do any cooking back then -- especially since I lived alone in Manhattan. So I ate out every night.
I got to be friendly with some restaurateurs. One in particular, Jerry, owned a fancy steak house. Jerry was always ready with a handshake and a slap on the back. I was a "regular" who hunkered down on a New York strip steak at least twice a week. Jerry usually comped me a glass of wine or an after-dinner drink. You see, Jerry was a great guy -- and he was "connected."
Jerry would occasionally sit at my table, and we'd commiserate about the state of the world, or his business.
One night while I was inhaling a gargantuan slab of prime roast beef with baked potato, Jerry sat down with me.
"Business looks great," I said.
"Great? I barely make my margins.
"I have forty paid enemies."
Jerry was referring to his employees: waiters, grill chefs, busboys, janitors, bartenders and kitchen help. Jerry then gave me an eye-popping education in the myriad ways employees stole from him and ate into his profit margins.
First, Jerry had to watch carefully over the kitchen's chief porter. He's the guy who weighs the meat as it comes in from the purveyor. He also weighs the fish and other stuff -- including produce. If the weight is overestimated, or if the fish includes water or half-melted ice, the owner is paying for nothing he can sell. He's blowing money into the wind. If the porter is on the take, the weights on these items are overestimated; the porter signs for the goods, and the restaurant comes out on the short side -- even before the food gets into the back door.
Speaking of back doors, there's another profit-eroding kitchen scam. Steaks come off the truck in vacuum-sealed packs -- twelve to a pack. A sneaky porter signs for them and tosses one pack into a black, plastic garbage bag out back. In cold weather, the meat stays perfectly good, and at the shift's end, the thief makes off with twelve steaks he can use at home or sell.
The bar is the area of greatest profit -- and therefore, of greatest potential loss. Jerry once caught a barkeep in a scam. The guy brought in bottles of Stoly or Bombay Sapphire from his own private stash. But inside the fancy bottles was booze no better than kerosene. Since the average drinker can't discern the difference between nectar of the gods and rotgut, patrons knew nothing. When a customer ordered a Stoly vodka or Bombay Sapphire gin, the barkeep would pour from his own stash, and never ring up the sale; he'd pocket the cash. Jerry couldn't know what was happening because the restaurant's inventory wasn't being used. All tallies matched up. Jerry earned nothing on those orders. He discovered what was going on when he made himself a gin and tonic, and to Jerry's refined palate, the stuff tasted like detergent.
Dozens of scams can put a restaurant in the red -- from waiters giving away free drinks to comping patrons deserts for generous tips.
So that night, sitting with Jerry, I learned about the restaurant game. The owner has to be as vigilant as a circling hawk -- or else he'll be eaten alive and out of business.
Crime... petty or otherwise comes in many guises.
Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad.