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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Of Fires, Dogs, and Fruitcakes

December 18, 2006

Of Fires, Dogs, and Fruitcakes

Every year we close the restaurant early one Sunday before Christmas and host a large party for all 150 of our employees. Each employee brings a guest and we open the bar, hire a band, and prepare a feast from the kitchen. I host a dinner for all of the managers in the immediate hours before the party. This is where we get a chance to visit with each other outside of the restaurant, share a meal together, and I give them their Christmas bonus checks.

For years I served the managers at my home. When we outgrew my house we began visiting various independent restaurants. When we made that move, we also included the manager’s significant other. Last year we ate at my favorite barbeque place. This year we planned to eat at one of my favorite steakhouses.

We reserved the entire restaurant. The 30 of us were gathered around a large table ready to eat our salads when the room filled with smoke. As we evacuated into the parking lot we saw flames shooting out of the exhaust fan on top of the roof.

The entire management team immediately shifted from festive and jolly into professional crisis prevention mode. Luckily the steakhouse’s grill man was thinking quickly on his feet and grabbed a water hose, scaled an exterior building, and doused the fire on his own.

The restaurant had filled with smoke, the hood system was broken, and the dinner was called off. I passed out bonus checks in the gravel parking lot and we all headed to the company Christmas party with empty stomachs and grateful hearts. Grateful that the steakhouse— after enduring a restaurateur’s worst nightmare— was still standing, grateful that we have a management team that works so well together, and grateful for Christmas bonuses.

In the end I learned it doesn’t matter if I pass out bonus checks in my home, in another restaurant, or in a gravel parking lot. In high school I worked for a company that passed out fruitcakes to their employees for Christmas. I can’t think of a less grateful statement or more clichéd gesture than to hand out a fruitcake to your employees. It’s a big collective holiday up yours.

Never— I repeat never— visit Santa on pet night.

The local mall in my hometown has a great Santa this year (well, actually it’s one of Santa’s helpers) who works hard day and night posing for pictures with children. My wife and I decided to take the children so they could sit in his lap, tell him what they want this year (we needed to listen to that part), and have a photograph made. Unfortunately we went on pet night.

Pet night is the weekly occasion when anyone who so desires can bring one or all of their pets into the mall to have Santa pose with Fluffy, Fido, or Spot. Folks, it’s a little piece of holiday hell on earth. Some in line were normal family people with children and pets, others were typical pet owners, but some were those freaky pet people. You know the type. They speak baby talk to their animals, assign them human characteristics and personality traits, and probably have 300 cats climbing on their furniture at home.

The line for Santa was long. Dogs and cats were everywhere. My son, who at times can be classified as having animal behavior, was restless. There was barking, and howling, and meowing, and all manner of mayhem. One family with two large dogs spent 15 minutes getting the animals to pose correctly. An Airedale left a steaming pile of presents for Santa’s elves, and a Tabby cat got stuck in Santa’s beard and almost clawed the big man’s eyes out. All this in the first few minutes.

On second thought, it was actually an event I might like to attend— for observations sake— without my two impatient kids in tow.

In the end we have learned that a healthy hood system is vital to a restaurant’s success, receiving bonus checks in a gravel parking lot is better than not receiving checks at all, and fruitcakes suck, period.See you next week on pet night; I’ll bring the popcorn.

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