Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

How not to succeed in business (or governance, love, or just about anything)

Pragmatism, Serb Hall, Unions, fish fries, Milwaukee

Last night I had the pleasure of being kicked out of a bar for the first time. I guess at 62, it’s about time. But then, I’ve never much enjoyed bars or confrontation. It’s no surprise it took this long.

The bar in question was Serb Hall’s, one of the biggest bars around. I’d gone to meet a friend for a fish fry. If you’re not a local reader, fish fries are a pragmatic Milwaukee sacrament started during Prohibition, when all the bars needed to find new ways to make money. The tradition is honored to this day, only with large quantities of beer and other adult beverages.

(Serb Hall is another Milwaukee institution, the site of weddings and union gatherings, presidential visits, and more. A vast building, it also holds a bowling alley and promises “extraordinary hospitality.”)

I didn’t know at the time that this wasn’t any random gathering. Most of the others in the group of ten, people I didn’t know, were union supporters and activists, and they were there to show support for the handful of union staff left in the organization. The idea was to go, ask to be seated at the server’s tables, enjoy dinner, and leave a generous tip. You can read the backstory here.

But it was not to be. The host announced that we couldn’t be seated, as the waitress already had a table of 15 (people I later learned were doing the same thing we were, supporting union employees). That made sense to me, although my daughter, a waitress, informs me that she’d be delighted to be given two big parties. We were offered other waitstaff’s tables in the largely empty room but declined.

At which point the bartender, also a union employee, came up with a quick-minded pragmatic solution. “If you eat at the bar, I can write your tickets. You’d have to do the buffet: I can’t serve tables while bartending.” So we all said yes--good idea, paid our money, and started heading toward the buffet.

One or two of us actually made it. The food looked lackluster and smelled worse, but that seemed beside the point.

The rest of us were stopped before we made it to the dining room. The manager, sitting bulldoggedly at the bar between us and the buffet line, started yelling at the bartender and the one union waitress serving in the adjacent room, who, although we'd requested her, had just been "cut" (sent home early for lack of work in restaurant parlance).

“Come here when I call your name! Do you want me to write you up?!” the manager growled.

He told us it was against policy to serve food at the bar. Which seemed odd, one of the group mentioned, as the last time she was there she was told the only place she could order food was at the bar.

Heated discussion but no fisticuffs ensued. “Customers don’t tell us how to do our business,” the manager kept saying.

I was an interested but not involved party to the flurry of tweeting, recording, and filming going on throughout this encounter. Meanwhile, customers in the dining room watched or tried to avoid watching, looking miserable and uncomfortable.

After all, we go out to enjoy ourselves and leave the day behind us. I suspect too many of the customers had just left bosses like this one.

At this place, once the go-to place for working people, ego and ideology seem to have taken the place of the kind of pragmatism that lets you run a business successfully, especially a service business. The manager’s need to be in control and to run his staff through fear and punishment was stronger than his need to get our business or create an environment to attract  and keep customers.

I suppose he’d say it was a matter of principle. But adapting to circumstances is more effective.  As Tim Harford wrote in The Independent, “Pragmatism requires compromise and change, often a painful reality.” But it lets you change direction and survive.

As one respondent to Harford's article  tweeted, “Pragmatism is a painful process of continually correcting errors; ideology is a blissful path of being oblivious to them.”

There’s an old story often used in sermons about how pragmatism works. This verson appeared in something called Bits and Pieces.  I wish I could share it with the angry manager and the Board of Directors who are responsible for the direction of this storied Milwaukee institution.

The Little Sisters of the Poor were going from door to door in a French city, soliciting alms for old people. One nun called at the house of a rich free-thinker who said he would give 1000 francs if she would have a glass of champagne with him. It was an embarrassing situation for the nun, and she hesitated. But the hesitation was short--after all, 1000 francs meant many loaves of bread. A servant brought the bottle and poured, and the brave little nun emptied the glass. And then she said, "And now, sir, another glass, please, at the same price." She got it.

Mediocre food. No lines. Empty tables. Abusive bosses. Inflexible with customers. Extraordinary hospitality indeed.

How's that working for your bottom line, Serb Hall?


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