Everything I need to know about life I learned at Bob EvansWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
During the mid-1980s, I spent a few years working at the Bob Evans restaurant on Woodville Road. I frequently shuffle the mental deck of experience to choose which cards to play as I guide our sons through life’s lessons, so I am increasingly aware of how much of my understanding of life stems from my days “down on the farm.”
I was hired to work outside, keeping the parking lot and landscaping in order a few hours a week, but earned a meteoric rise to busing tables, running the dish tank and eventually landing in the kitchen as a prep cook. I was the last cook to make the biscuits at that location by hand, rolling the mixed dough in a ginormous frame to an exact and even thickness, then cutting them and placing them in pans to be frozen for later baking. I made hundreds of thousands of biscuits for Bob Evans, often joking I was risking exposure to “white lung disease” from the flour and dough that permeated the air, my clothes and my hands.
One black day, I learned the chain was going to stop making biscuits in-house every day and would begin shipping in pre-made frozen biscuits. I’m pretty sure I felt the same way the last horseshoe maker felt when he saw the first automobile drive by.
It was shortly after the “Great Biscuit Revolution” that I decided to take a good look at going to college. I learned a few things there, too, but I am often surprised at how much of my “life degree” I earned in that red building with the red-and-white-checkered décor.
- Keep an eye on food costs. At Bob Evans, wasting food prep materials was the greatest sin in the kitchen and getting every drop or crumb into service was a priority. It was the prep cook’s job to scrape every atom of cottage cheese, applesauce, butter, etc. from its container. It was critical to make sure raw goods for salads and sandwiches were used while they were fresh. To this day, I make sure every jar is definitively emptied of its contents and every leaf of every green is utilized. The day-to-day impact may seem trivial, but it really does add up as time goes by.
- Men and women are different. I had absorbed the most obvious elements of this fact long before I was hired at Bob Evans, but it was in the microcosm of the restaurant that I learned about the subtleties of communication between the sexes. There were women at Bob Evans who ranged from Shirley Temple sweet to Ilse Koch evil, and learning to (mostly) get along with all of them in the name of the job taught me a lot about the shades of gray sometimes required when talking to women. In a way, those staccato bursts of traded semantics across the stainless steel counter were a precursor to e-mail; a lot of nuance and intent can get lost in translation, so learning which words to choose was a slow and painful process.
- Find a mentor. At the Woodville Road Bob Evans, I was fortunate to work with Hal Holland, who had served the chain for decades and who knew the insides of every pot and the secrets of the kitchen as well as anyone who ever tied on a white apron and placed a white paper hat upon his head. Hal taught me lessons about dedication, honesty and follow-through that sustain me to this day. He also taught me the line between respecting managerial authority and refusing to be abused by that authority. I’m not sure I ever properly thanked Hal for his time and investment in me, so … thanks, Hal.
- There but for the grace of God go I. Bob Evans provided my first experience working with a mentally impaired co-worker. His name was Mickey and he was a nice guy, a hard worker, and I did not begin our time in the restaurant together on an intelligent or respectful note. My interactions with Mick taught me a great deal about understanding the challenges such people live with and greatly improved my subsequent relationships.
- Sometimes, by the book sucks. I served a second, shorter stint at the Bob Evans location on West Central Avenue by the U.S. 23 exchange. One winter day, my car failed to start and I had to get to the restaurant by 1 p.m. I took a TARTA bus to Westgate, then walked the 3.5 miles to the restaurant. It wasn’t snowing, or uphill, but it was a hike.
I arrived at the restaurant about 10 minutes late.
Bob Evans’ policy was to write up call-offs, no-call/no-shows and late arrivals. I had accrued a near-perfect attendance and on-time record at Bob Evans, and was surprised, upon my arrival, to see my timecard had been pulled and I would be subjected to the late-arrival “point” penalty.
“I just walked 5 miles,” I slightly exaggerated. “I have never been late. Is this really necessary?”
The manager said it was “by the book” and held out the form for me to sign. It was soon after that my earlier ruminations about college became reality and I left the restaurant business behind. I never forgot that feeling of injustice under the heel of “the book” and have tried to be as flexible as possible when administering other “books” as my life and career progressed.
- Respect people who work in restaurants; it’s a tough, dirty job. And while it offers many long-term lessons, the short-term reality of it is difficult enough without any lip and attitude from you.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at email@example.com.