In general my time working with pizza from Village Inn Pizza to Rocky Rococo’s is an example of learning the business side of the restaurant business as well as the operations. I was in “management” nearly the whole time, did nightly, weekly and monthly books, was proud of keeping my labor and food costs below the goal, and consistently had the best record for low labor cost percentage. Yet it was there that I had what I have to call a “Marxist moment” – a time I got so pissed at the corporate capitalist structure that I struck a blow for the workers by allowing free pizza and even beer after close. I then backtracked and decided that wasn’t the thing to do. Looking back, I think my basic instincts on politics, ethics and economics can be seen in a microcosm in that experience.
I was still 18, had not started college yet, and in my first months as supervisor. We were told that the big boss (I forgot his name) was coming from Spokane, Washington, for an inspection of whether Warren had fixed the problems the store had been suffering. We had to clean the store spotless. As we worked I started to hear Warren and the assistant manager talking about hiring a prostitute. They needed to find someone attractive, sexy and not sleazy or scuzzy. “Hard to do in Sioux Falls,” was one comment. I just kept working; generally I’m not judgmental so it didn’t seem a big deal.
I also noticed that it was being paid for from the till, and that somehow it seemed the books were being manipulated to cover what the expense was for (“corporate will cover this,” I heard Warren say). I wasn’t quite sure — I was trying to be observant, but obviously this was done with office whispers, glances and signals. “What’s going on,” one worker asked. I shrugged. “Getting ready for the big boss.”
Finally, the “big boss” arrived. He was quiet, sneered at the workers, and was fat and ugly. After being introduced (he muttered something to me, not shaking my hand) I recall walking through the door. “What’s the big boss like,” someone asked? I made a face of general disgust. The guy was gross. We made little jokes about him (eating the profits, keep him out of sight of the customers or it’ll drive business away, etc.) as he walked around the store, muttering things now and then, but generally seeming to be sort of a dick.
Finally Warren came up to me and said “we’re leaving, the store is yours.” As they left I heard the big boss asking Warren about “the girl” and assuring him that the money would be “taken care of.” Warren didn’t seem especially comfortable with all this, but clearly had no choice. Finally they were out the door. I waited a few minutes and then took some trash to the dumpster. The cars were gone.
“God, what a pathetically horrible excuse for a human,” I said loudly as I walked back in. Everyone laughed, though I was the only one who knew about “the girl.” We made jokes about his girth and poor social skills as we worked, and I bit my tongue, so tempted to spill the beans about the prostitute. The next week the assistant manager told everyone the story; my silence had been unnecessary.
I was getting angry thinking about the guy. He was ugly, gross, and buying a prostitute with Village Inn money, getting wealthy on our work, while we sweat and get paid minimum wage or slightly above. What’s fair about that? Who gives that wretched excuse of a human the right to come in, force us to scurry around, please him, and then let him get rich off our work?
“You know what,” I said at about 10:30, “we’re eating on the house tonight, make up a couple large pizzas.”
“Really?” I think it was a guy named Steve I was working with. “Cool!” Steve started making pizzas. “Why?”
“I’m pissed off at the big boss (I’m sure I used his no forgotten name at the time).” He’s disgusting, I want to take away some of his profits.” This was before I had studied anything about political philosophy so I wasn’t really using Marx or any one to justify this, it was an emotional reaction.
“All right!” The crew was enthused. We made the pizzas and all of us (about five people at that time) chowed down free of charge (usually food was half price). After close we even had a few beers. I realized at that time I was on a dangerous path. If Warren found out I’d be in big trouble. “OK,” I said, “this is a one time thing. Just to spite the big boss.” There was disappointment at that pronouncement, and others tried to get me to do it again. I was surprised Warren never found out — or perhaps he did and decided to ignore it that one time.
As I reflect on it, I think the emotion of disgust combined with the realization that a$$holes like the big boss were living pathetic yet wealthy lives on the work of lower paid folk, is the moment I realized that structural force exists in the system.
Yet, the knee jerk reaction to just try to take back value — in this case pizza — to compensate for the exploitation is misguided. “Workers of the world unite, revolt against the oppressors, take back the means of production” — it was the reaction of 19th Century socialism, a revolt against the system — at least in its logic. Yet I realized quickly that this was a path that made no sense. It just wasn’t right.
Maybe the system is unfair, but it’s what it is. And while the big boss may have been disgusting, he isn’t the whole corporation or system. There may be exploitation going on, but there is also opportunity. My ability to get hired and quickly promoted — and reasonably well paid for a high school senior — was testament to what the system could offer. Compared to other parts of the world, that’s pretty good! Some might say I stole those pizzas — but I had worked off the clock to avoid overtime enough that I’d contributed free labor to more than pay what they cost.
I determined that my ethics as a manager would be to always respect and treat workers well, and not act like the grotesque blob I thankfully never saw again. I still think there is a lot of exploitation, and the wealthy use their status to manipulate the system in their favor. That’s why despite my belief in markets, liberty and individual initiative, I still am not a free market capitalist. I don’t trust capitalism any more than socialism or any “ism” – human behavior is too complex to be captured by an ideology.
The disgust I felt at the time to me symbolizes the legitimate disgust hard working Americans have about the fat cats — the financial bankers who gamed and rigged the system, the ponzi schemers who manipulated the real estate market, manufactured AAA rated crap derivatives, and pushed us into a global recession. Yet like most workers, I don’t trust government to come in and equalize things, or to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Rather, the system needs to provide equal opportunity and block the wealthy from using their status to enhance their opportunities at the expense of others.
Nothing is perfect, and what we have is pretty good. Rather than destroy it in the quest for some ideal, it’s better to work with it, and try to improve it over time.