Charley Browns - Where everything is prime?

Tale of termination by Lucille Brown.

I was on the third floor of the Cannery where a new Charley Brown's restaurant was opening. I had come on a lark and didn't expect even to fill out an application for a waitress job, much less be interviewed. My fellow applicants looked more experienced. "Are you a good salesperson!" he asked in a very disinterested, disdainfully bored manner. "I can be," I answered meekly, thinking that I wanted out of there.

Also, it was already clear that Mr. Arrogant Dining Room Manager and I were not exactly hitting it off. Mr. Arrogant left me feeling about two inches tall, so couldn't believe it when I was scheduled for a second interview with the general manager. My beefed-up waitress experience must have been convincing after all. The second interview went much better, and I was asked to return that coming Saturday at 1 pm with two legal-size self-addressed stamped envelopes. "Can you handle that?" he asked.

When I arrived it was clear that I had been hired. The first speech was from the head of operations for Northern California, who said: "You should congratulate yourselves for being among the 110 or so people chosen out of about 1200 applicants." He made it clear that it was an honor to be chosen as food servers, hostesses, busboys or cooks by Charley Brown's Restaurant, and stressed that the company had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to fly up a team of trainers from Southern California to provide us with a week of intensive orientation. We were then handed our training schedule and uniform requirements. Training would last for four days, 10 am-6 pm, with one day off in between. "You'll need that day off to rest," he smiled ominously. I scanned the uniform requirements for food servers: black A-line skirt, white button-down oxford shirt, black leather pumps with a 1'/2 inch minimum heel. An apron and a tie would be supplied by the restaurant.

I wasn't, however, prepared for the training. From the moment we arrived for our first day of training until we left at night we were kept so busy we barely had time to breathe, let alone go to the bathroom. I soon came to feel as though we were being indoctrinated into some bizarre cult.

Our Teflon Trainers had personalities that combined those of a stereotypical cheerleader and an army drill sergeant. They were slick, hard, and so rah-rah enthusiastic about Charley Brown's that I became suspicious. We were promptly divided into teams, each with a trainer as its captain. Scores were kept for each of the many tests and games. In our first huddle we were made to come up with names for our teams. "The Prime Cut Pranksters," "The Waitrons" or "The Dreamboats" were what they had in mind. Our captain a woman named Malory, gushed about how much she loved working for Charley Brown's and how much money she made. She also mumbled something about employee softball games and parties. She was trying to convince us that working for Charley Brown's would be like belonging to some big happy family.

At our first lecture we were presented with Charley Brown's bible, a 70-page food server manual which we were to study faithfully. along with another 20 pages of handouts. The manual covered everything from detailed personal appearance standards, to portion sizes and all the brands of liquor sold at CB's, to the words of CB's Under personal appearance standards were listed the following commandments: Personal Hygiene -"Bathe or shower and use deodorant daily; brush teeth regularly"; Nails--"Nails well manicured, medium length; nail polish may be any shade of medium red or pink frosted or unfrosted. May not wear exotic shades of green, purple, sparkled, flowered, etc."; Jewelry--"One small ring per hand to be worn on ring finger only." And let's not forget Undergarments--"White or nude color only, style to complement outfit, undergarments must be worn!"

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity. We viewed slides of all the entrees and appetizers and were told to memorize all the prices, codes, ingredients, methods of preparation, portions and appropriate garnishes. The presentation was given by Anna, director of Sales and Service. I promptly developed an aversion to Anna, who was always unnaturally and impeccably coifed and color-coordinated from her head to her pointy patent leather high heels. She batted her heavily shadowed eyes and opened them wide whenever anyone asked her a question--a perfect little kewpie doll.

The day also included a rather terrifying relay race in which we had to carry loaded food serving trays and cocktail trays, a lecture on company benefits, and a bizarre speech on "Sanitation as a Way of Life." The grand finale was a contest over which team could sing Charley Brown birthday songs the "best," i.e. the most enthusiastically. Songs were sung to the tunes of "Hey Big Spender" and "Baby Face," and had lyrics like: "Here at Charley's we always say Celebrate, you really rate, and have a great birthday!"

At the end of the first day we were told what to study for the test the following morning. The list was long; I felt as if I were back in college as I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. cramming codes, prices, portions and ingredients.

The next two days again brought a dizzying number of things to learn. There were lessons in writing guest checks and obtaining credit card authorization on the computer, a video on wine serving and selling, a wine bottle-opening session and instruction on everything to do with the bar. I discovered that we were to be cocktail waitresses, too. To top it all off there was a cash and carry system; we were responsible for all the money. At the end of each evening we were required to fill out a very long and complicated accountability sheet, and of course any shortages would come out of our own pockets.

Throughout the training we were instructed in "Charley Brown's Sequence of Service." Everything we were to do or say was programmed from the moment the patrons sat down. Into this program we were expected to insert our own "personality" and be friendly and enthusiastic. The motto was: "No silent service." Everything placed on the table had to be introduced; for example: "Your hot sourdough bread, Sir!" When customers gave us an order we were to compliment them with an enthusiastic "Excellent choice!" or "Great!" In fact, "Great!" was the most frequently used word among the trainers at Charley Brown's. We were also taught never to ask: "How would you like your meat prepared?" The word "meat" was too open to "loose" interpretation according to our team captain, who confided: "I have a very dirty mind, and if someone asked me how I wanted my meat prepared..."

Meanwhile, throughout each day's training, the only break was a half hour for cold sandwiches, which we lined up for and ate together. The only really enjoyable part of the training came when we got to sample all the desserts served at the restaurant. The rest of the experience was painful and tension-producing. At first the group seemed to have some awareness that the training experience was, as one fellow commented, "like joining the Moonies." But soon many trainees seemed to have swallowed the Charley Brown line; some were even getting chummy with our trainers. I imagined them becoming clones of the clones. They would start talking alike, dressing alike, acting alike, thinking alike. Horrors! Would I too start incorporating Charley Brown vocabulary into my speech, saying "Great!" and referring to a drink or food item as a "puppy?" Would I start wearing shiny patent leather high heels that hurt my little "tootsies" and so much make-up on my eyes that I would have to bat them to keep them open? Did I want co-workers like Gary, a tall, blond, slick-looking Southern California type who didn't have an ounce of warmth or compassion in his steel-grey eyes, only utter boredom and emptiness?

On the last day of training I was ready with my new uniform ($75 for shirt and shoes alone). The only thing I didn't have was motivation. Still, I thought I would try it for a couple of days, for curiosity's sake.

However, when I walked in that morning I was called into the general manager's office. Somehow I knew what was coming. They told me I was being terminated because I didn't "fit in" and mumbled something about test performance, although I had done well on all the tests. They handed me my pay for the past three days and asked for the apron and the tie. "Good luck," said Mr. Dining Room Manager. "Good luck to you," I said with all the civility I could muster. Suddenly my head was spinning. "Try to have a nice day," he said. I felt as if I might cry if I tried to say anything else. It was the indignity of the thing, and the shock. I had never been fired before. I had barely made enough money to cover the cost of the high heels and the shirt.

As I left the office and walked out of the dining room filled with my former co-workers taking their daily training exam, I suddenly started feeling better. I walked outside into the brilliant sunshine with the sapphire blue bay as backdrop, Feeling wonderfully free. I decided I was going to have a great day after all.

--by Lucille Brown