The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Sanity loses

Since we started Head Spinners, readers have passed along instance after instance of beans being swiveled by the sort of things that made P.T. Barnum a rich man. We’ve steadfastly resisted the impulse to report on two-headed servers, ham slices that look exactly like Bill O’Reilly, and restaurants with giggle-worthy themes (three alone with a toilet motif).

But this week it can’t be avoided. In the last seven days, insanity trumped reason in the restaurant business, starting with a regulatory agency where we’re pretty sure they’re now wearing underwear outside their pants and trying to speak with cats.

1. The NLRB rewrites your ops manual

Imagine if a disgruntled employee could hang out on the premises whenever she wanted, buttonholing co-workers as they completed or arrived to start a shift to convince them they’re in a lousy, exploitative job.

The grouser could keep up the tirade after she clocks in, bellowing personal gripes about the pay and working conditions in the dining room, the break room, behind a counter, in the kitchen, and presumably at the drive-thru window.

And if she lashed out at the business by sabotaging customers’ orders—not posing a health risk, but making the finished items look less attractive—the employer could only go so far in taking corrective action. For instance, the renegade worker couldn’t be sent home.

Try to wrap your mind around that situation, because a National Labor Relations Board administrative judge decided this week that it should be restaurants’ new reality.

There’s no exaggeration here. A complaint was filed against a 22-unit Burger King franchisee for actions like forbidding off-duty staffers to hang out in the parking lot, sending home a kitchen worker who purposely messed up sandwiches, and directing her not to use staff meetings as a soap box to complain about her wages and hours.

The kicker: The NLRB judge’s compass for deciding what was legal or illegal was how the employer’s actions impacted unionization efforts. He ordered the franchisee to rewrite its operations policies so that employees could caucus at will outside the restaurant on the benefits of unionization, or discuss underlying working conditions inside as they worked.

He even specified that organizers could disseminate false information about the place as long as they believed it to be true.

Cue the “The Twilight Zone” music…

2. Striving to be the worst

Imagine, if you will, what a pre-shift meeting might be like for employees of a restaurant whose main point of distinction is complete disregard for the public’s well-deserved loathing. “Today we’ll show them what it means to be bad!” “They don’t know terrible until you dine with us!” “Let them go eat in a caring restaurant if they want service!”

Amy’s Baking, the industry’s poster child of dysfunction, continued to defy logic this week by literally attacking a customer and presumably reaping the business rewards. The patron was asked to leave after antagonizing Amy Bouzaglo, the Amy of Amy’s Baking, who said the man was sloshed. The guest left as requested. But Amy’s husband and business partner, Samy Bouzaglo, grabbed a knife and confronted the man outside.

The incident was caught on a cell phone video, which you can see here.

Getting slammed by Gordon Ramsay and Yelp users is routine for Amy’s, but the co-owners must have realized an armed attack might be too much even for the curiosity-seekers who have turned the notorious restaurant into a tourist attraction. They insisted that the silvery item flashing in Samy’s hand is a pen, not a blade. And what’s the big deal about threatening to stab a customer with a pen?

The effect on Amy’s business has yet to be reported, but we suspect it will be positive, proving bad can be very good.

3. Weaponized marketing

Indeed, potentially deadly weapons rivaled LTOs and bargains as the marketing tool of choice this week. While Amy’s was scoring headline after headline, a po’ boy specialist in Louisiana was packing the house with the promise of a 10-percent discount for anyone carrying a gun at lunch.

Bergeron’s Restaurant was merely trying to draw law enforcement officers when it announced the deal via an in-restaurant sign, proprietor Kevin Cox told the media. Places like Dunkin’ Donuts and Winchell’s try to accomplish the same thing by offering free coffee and doughnuts or table space where cops can complete their paperwork.

Bergeron’s offer pulled far more than enforcers in uniform. It was soon packed with gun enthusiasts, prompting Cox to point out how safe it was to dine in his establishment, and how unsafe a Chipotle could be (the chain has adopted a no-guns policy even in legal-carry states.)

There was no indication of extending the deal to patrons wielding pens that look like knives.

4. Making a killing from shooting bad guys

You can make the case from Dave & Buster’s recent SEC filings that the chain is a big beneficiary of lethal shootings, albeit on game consoles. Pre-initial-stock-offering documents show that the 69-unit restaurant chain generates the majority (51.2 percent) of its revenues from arcade games, not food and beverage sales. The absolute numbers for the year ended Feb. 2, 2014, were $325.1 million versus $325.5 million, respectively.

For anyone who might be inspired to install an arcade area, keep in mind that 10 percent of the games have to be updated every year, according to the filing.

Perhaps the real head-turner in the filing was the indication that D&B’s is going public despite being unprofitable for the first half of fiscal 2015. The company generated a loss of $2.4 million for the 26 weeks ended Aug. 3.

5. Concept crazies

Given this week’s theme, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include a way-out-of-the-ordinary new concept. But our choice has more to do with extreme eccentricities in the newcomer’s heritage than any strangeness in the operation itself.

Howard Hughes Corp. indicated this week that it’s getting into the restaurant business with a new high-end concept called Robard’s Steak House. The prototype will be the signature restaurant in the renovated Woodlands Resort & Conference Center outside Houston. A company executive said more could be built to complement Hughes’ real estate holdings.

Robard’s was Howard Hughes’ middle name. Jason Robards was the actor who portrayed the eccentric billionaire in the 1980 movie Melvin and Howard.


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