Emily Flowers

From the blog

The most demotivating speech I’ve ever heard at the Cheesecake Factory


For those who work at the Cheesecake Factory, I mean this to be in no way bashing it. I too worked there for a while, and for those who can work efficiently through the stressful peak hours and handle the corporate lameness and policies. Great. You’ll probably make decent money and have a job in the service sector that provides flexibility AND healthcare.

But there is this one thing that annoys me, to this day, 5 years after working there.

The thing that annoys me most is not the way that we had to wear all-white uniforms with a perfect iron crease down the front of our white aprons. No, I got used to that headache after a while. It also wasn’t the way the servers got rated and demoted on how often their customers sent food back to the kitchen. (Now compare that with Spain where the servers don’t even ask if you’ve enjoyed something much less let you pick something else off the menu without paying for the first item.)

It also wasn’t the way everyone assumed you lacked ambition if you worked there and should’ve attended University.

I still remember my tables who tried to be helpful by suggesting I attend university and get a degree…which by that moment I had 2 BA’s proudly hung on my wall, but half-covered by my extra Cheesecake Factory aprons.

I also remember the pretentious newbie server. Who was pretentious and condescending as only the most naive and freshest university graduates can be. Ones who don’t yet know how the world works.  They are the ones who stumble into a field that they think isn’t worthy of their newly-minted degree, grace the place with their ingenious presence before stumbling off to professions better suited to their liking. (Or unceremoniously fired for being smart enough for a college degree, but too stupid for the Cheesecake Factory’s standards.) I knew the type well. Very well in fact, as I was one of them.

One day this new server, fresh off orientation, declared that she wouldn’t be working at the Cheesecake Factory for very long. When I asked her why, she replied to me with much posturing and arrogance that she had a college degree. I let her gloating words hang in the air for a few seconds before I started laughing at her hysterically and simply said, “Welcome to the club!”

No, the thing that annoys me most was probably the most demotivating speech of my life. A speech so demotivating, that I shall never forget.

It came to my attention one day, during the tenure of my employment with the ever regal Cheesecake Factory, that I was on the bottom half of servers at the restaurant. How could this be, I asked myself. Though I couldn’t engage in the self-deception that I was near the top of servers, as my managers never let me believe that lie, I also didn’t see how I could be near the bottom.

At the Cheesecake Factory, the annoying corporate lameness that everyone must follow comes down to the way servers are graded. They are graded on percentage of tips (so cash tips affect them negatively), and also on the ticket price of food that’s returned to the kitchen. At the Cheesecake Factory, it’s the server’s fault if the table doesn’t like the item they’ve ordered. Not the kitchen’s, not the picky patron’s, the server’s.

Because I was on this cursed list, I now had to attend a very early morning meeting on a Saturday.

It was during this meeting where our general manager waxed poetic for over an hour on the virtues of putting customers first. Yes, if we put customers first, then they’ll return, always eat at Cheesecake Factory, this is more than just a job, yada, yada.

Of course it was during this time of the pep talk where the space for personal anecdote was to be inserted. The problem with the story wasn’t in what he said, but rather in what he didn’t say. It was the message between the lines that we were all thinking in our heads. It was all the things wrong with society and our place in it.

I don’t remember the speech verbatim, but here’s the paraphrased version with my after-the-fact commentary in caps:

Here’s a story of great service that involves me personally. One day at the Cheesecake Factory, a young lady was seated with some old sorority friends. She had just graduated from University of Southern California SOME EXPENSIVE PRIVATE UNIVERSITY THAT COST 50K A YEAR TO ATTEND, BUT THAT HER FATHER HAD PAID FOR OUT OF POCKET, BECAUSE IT REALLY WASN’T THAT MUCH TO HIM and was eating lunch in our restaurant before her job interview with a very important company like Google. It was for her first job out of University and it was for a very important position. BECAUSE HER FATHER HAD CONNECTIONS EVERYWHERE, SHE WAS ABLE TO SECURE A MID-LEVEL POSITION FRESH OUT OF UNIVERSITY WITH A 3.2 GPA IN A USEFUL DEGREE LIKE BRITISH LITERATURE. It was then that disaster struck, the lady backed into a tray of food and the server spilled the plate onto the lap of her very expensive dress. A dress costing around $300. IT WASN’T REALLY AN EXPENSIVE DRESS TO HER, BUT THIS WAS STATED TO US AS WE PROBABLY NEVER WOULD’VE PAID THAT MUCH FOR AN INTERVIEW DRESS. The young lady was very upset. SHE HAD NEVER HAD ANYTHING WORSE HAPPEN TO HER IN HER PERFECT LIFE AND WAS QUITE BENT OUT OF SHAPE OVER SOME DROPS OF SAUCE ON A CHEAP-FOR-HER DRESS. Realizing that she had the interview in an hour and couldn’t possibly have time to get the dress laundered, I slipped down to Bloomingdale’s, bought the same dress, and handed it to her just as she was finishing her red velvet cheesecake. SHE PROBABLY WOULD’VE GOTTEN THE POSITION ANYWAY DESPITE SOME STAINS ON HER DRESS, AND THE FACT THAT SHE COULD AFFORD SUCH AN EXPENSIVE DRESS BEFORE GETTING THE JOB SPEAKS TO THE FACT THAT SHE PROBABLY DOESN’T REALLY NEED ONE.

She wrote a thank-you card to corporate and got the job. Now, I ask each and everyone of you, what can you do to provide WOW service? SINCE NONE OF US HAVE ACCESS TO THE PETTY CASH TO RIGHT THE WRONGS OF OUR CLIENTS’ CLUMSINESS WITH CA$H MONEY, NOT MUCH.

I don’t know why this speech still grinds my gears. Perhaps it was in his attempt to take a story of a girl who was already so privileged and given so many opportunities, and trying to get us to feel sorry for her. When more than half of us were sitting there with university degrees and potential just waiting to be used, being told a sob story that was really a tale of problems of the rich and spoiled was very demotivating. We realized that day that not only were we at the bottom of the server list, but at the bottom of society. Our potential cast away easily due to not having the right status. We weren’t safely escorted from university to first job (which happened to be well-paying) like others, because our families lacked the right connections. Instead we were faced with the real world. We had to take jobs in places like the Cheesecake Factory where we weren’t treated like the special snowflakes we all thought we were. It was a reality people like us soon realized when first applying to “real jobs” and not receiving any interviews or even responses to our emails or calls. It was a harsh reality people from her status in society would never glimpse. She would always be sheltered and given free cheesecakes and free expensive dresses when mistakes were made while people like us would always be the ones serving people like her the cheesecakes.

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