I don’t know if you ever forget the first time you got burned hard, by a colleague.
Memorial Day, 1998. I’d been managing Uncle Julios, the Tex-Mex restaurant we dubbed the million-dollar taco stand on the corner of North and Clybourn in Chicago.
The management team was ranked by number: #1, the highest rank, being the GM, and #6 being the hostess manager. Technically, I was a #5, one up from the lowest rung at the time of the night in question. However, my GM was training to be a #3, a kitchen manager. This did not please the number #4. He should have been the one training to be the #3. If the numbers are confusing–put it this way. I was skipping through 2 ranks to jump ahead of someone who had been there for years. Enough to make jealousy, and more, rear their ugly heads.
Since writing about people as numbers pains me, the number 4 was Kevin. He’d taken me under his wing when I was promoted to manager. He looked out for me at work, and we were friends outside of work. That is until I started excelling.
I felt a shift, a distancing, but didn’t think anything of it. He’d been so supportive and encouraging I assumed that vibe would continue as I got kitchen-trained. Wouldn’t you want to see your protege succeed?
Memorial Day Monday, I headed into work knowing we were in for a busy shift. I was pumped. I was in the kitchen, and Kevin was on the floor. I looked up to check the time becasue the kitchen was strangely quiet. There were no tickets pumping out of the printers, which was weird for that always-busy place.
I asked a server to grab Kevin from the restaurant floor so I could know what was up. He came through the swinging doors with a combo of annoyed and arrogant looks on his face. I asked, “What’s up out there? It seems slow.”
“For now…I held off seating. I put us on a false wait, so people are waiting for their tables in the bar. I’m about to seat them all. You’re about to get slammed. I wanted to see if you could handle a busy kitchen. Good luck.”
He stood there and looked at me with a smug smile, challenging me to react.
You could hear a toothpick drop in the kitchen. Everyone was frozen. All eyes were on me.
I felt time stop. There was a moment of disbelief. This wave coursed through me like, no, wait, he’s got to be kidding. He wouldn’t do that to me. We’re friends. We’re colleagues. WAIT WHAT DID HE SAY HE JUST DID. He couldn’t have done that. But he did do it! Then the wave shifted from disbelief to disappointment, betrayal, shock, and anger–all pummeling my insides.
As he sat there leaning on the kitchen line with that smug smirk on his face, that moment of whisky-tango-foxtrot clicked into a moment of clarity. A switch clicked inside of me.
I thought he wants to see me go down. To freak out. To lose it. To cry.
Not going to happen.
I took a deep breath and in the five seconds it took me to pivot from the kitchen doors to the line, I could feel my confidence, my power, my Jersey Girl strength and feistiness swell up, and I knew it was on.
I locked eyes with Francisco, the head cook. If that look could talk it would have said “We got this. I’m not going down. We’re not going down. You’re either with me or against me, and you choose right now.”
He gave me a little head nod. He was with me; if he was with me, the rest of the kitchen was with me.
With a confident and commanding tone, I called, “Vamos! 20 pechugas, dos guacamoles!” Here we go! Get 20 chicken breasts on that grill and start smashing avocados, my friends, because it’s on!
The tickets started to come in CVS receipt style–continuously flowing out of the machine with no stop. I pulled my copy, put it up on the expo board. Pull, rip, place. Pull, rip, place. Within minutes, the board was full, and I was doubling up tickets. I’d never seen that, even on our busiest Saturday night.
Uncle Julios ran a tight ship (when managers weren’t screwing over other managers, that is.) The servers were trained to write their order times on their tickets. If the food wasn’t out in fifteen minutes, they would let the kitchen manager know. Sure enough, about thirty minutes after the deluge of tickets, I started to hear, “I’ve got 17 minutes on table 21.” “I’ve got 18 on table 43.” One after the other after the other.
I calmly reassured them that their food was on the way and asked someone to have Kevin come into the kitchen. He swung through the doors with the most sanctimonious, cocky, satisfied look on his face, like he had shown me! I couldn’t kitchen manage! I couldn’t get the food out! I had crashed and burned!
With a smooth smile on my face, I let him know the food was coming out momentarily, but he needed to do table visits at tables 5, 21, 43, 104, 32. The floor manager was responsible for visiting tables whose food was late–Kevin had given HIMSELF a whole lotta work.
There was a cacophony of “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!” as the servers were calling out his name because they needed table visits and food and drinks comped off their tables.
The look of panic that Kevin was hoping to see on my face now contorted his. In trying to screw me, he had screwed himself hard.
Not just himself: the customers, the bartenders, the hostesses, the busboys, the servers, the kitchen staff. He had sparked a shift from hell and everyone was stressed and had suffered.
As Kevin ran around in the weeds dealing with angry customers and annoyed servers, I left the line and went to help out the servers with their comps and discounts. While I could have stuck it to Kevin and made them wait, they had endured enough. Plus, that’s not how I roll.
Kevin tried to zing me, to put me through some sort of test. I passed. He failed. My night was more stressful than needed, but it strengthened my ties with the kitchen crew. They saw I could hunker down, that I wasn’t going to take any sh@t, and that I would jump in and support them no matter what the circumstances.
Kevin had a horrible night. The staff was rightly pissed at him. He’d messed with their tips. The customers were angry. He would have to account for hundreds of dollars of comps and discounts.
The real cost? My trust. My faith in him as a colleague shattered. I worked under the assumption that Kevin and I were colleagues and friends and there to work as a team. His decision destroyed all of that. I realized the friendship had been a sham from the start; he wanted to manipulate me, not care about me.
From that shift forward, Kevin’s and my relationship changed. Duh.
At first, I thought about how stupid I was, how naive I was to have trust in someone, to not have seen it coming. I felt myself start to harden and pull back. I felt jaded and started to shut down. Betrayal sucks. It hurts.
What I slowly came to realize, was that night was Kevin’s doing. He looked like the jerk. I kept my cool. I gained respect from the staff for how I handled the situation. I never threw Kevin under the bus. I didn’t say one negative word about him that night. I looked after the team because they were my responsibility. That was what I could control.
That Memorial Day Monday was my first memory of that level of coworker/friend betrayal. (It would not be the last.) It toughened me up. It scratched a little of the rose-colored glasses view I tend to take of people. It made me a bit more savvy and strategic about where I put my trust.
I didn’t let it harden me. I didn’t let him take away my impact on that team.
It made me remember who I was working for–the team–and how I’d shown up for them.
It made me realize that I get to choose, moment by moment, how to show up.
To choose to show up in my integrity and be able to look at myself in the mirror.
Because the Kevin’s of the world will come and go, but I have to live with me daily.