Friday, May 13, 2011

Ruth's Chris and the Usual Diversions

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN'T FIND MY BLOGPOST DRAFT?!? I WAS ALMOST DONE WITH THAT POST! IT WAS BRILLIANT! IT HAD BABY PICTURES AND BANANAS AND PAC-MAN AND... and... seriously, it's lost? Dang it. You mean I have to start writing it all over again? Ugg. That really sucks.

Hey, wasn't Ugg that little purple guy from Q*Bert? I LOVED that arcade game. It apparently made a great babysitter, because my mother would drop little nine-year-old Jim off at the university arcade for an hour or two with just a dollar in his pocket, but that dollar would be more than enough to keep me playing and entertained the whole time I was stuck there. I miss arcades.

The post I began yesterday that somehow got erased was about some of my experiences at Ruth's Chris steakhouse. Don't get me wrong: I'm not the kind of guy who eats a lot at places as fancy as Ruth's Chris - I'm much more likely to be found at your local neighborhood Popeye's. Although I tend to get confused every time I go to Popeye's, now that you mention it. There's a reason for my confusion... a good one, I think. It all started a long time ago, back to even before I was kicking the SLU undergraduates' butts in the local arcade.

I remember going into a Popeye's for the first time - I was four, maybe five. I remember earnestly looking up at the lady behind the counter and trying to explain to her, in my best patient-with-the-stupid-grown-up voice, that something was very, very wrong about this restaurant. "Popeye is a sailor-man," I think I remember myself saying. "He sails a boat in the ocean. They don't have chicken in the ocean. Why do you have chicken? Popeye likes fish and spinach. Where is the fish and spinach?"

I can't remember her exact reaction, but I do remember that she gave me some tasty (albeit bewildering) chicken in a little box that looked a lot like one of Popeye's boats. There was a little blue rubber figure of Popeye inside - my toy surprise nestled next to the mashed potatoes. I asked Little Blue Rubber Popeye what he thought about a restaurant named after him, selling chicken instead of fish. He just kind of stared at me and looked a little blue. Well, a lot blue, actually.

So I took him home and did with him the only thing I could think to do: I had him join all of my Star Wars toys in the fight against the evil Galactic Empire. Unfortunately, Little Blue Rubber Popeye was relatively small and puny compared to my action figures, and his hand couldn't hold a blaster or a lightsabre. As a result of his size and lack of weaponry, he didn't do too well as part of the Rebel Alliance. Before he knew it, a cadre of stormtroopers had captured him and thrown him into the Cloud City carbon freezing facility. By the time he escaped, his neck was nearly severed and his bulbous forearms were situated at angles that really didn't look very healthy. Not long after that, Luke and Han made a joint decision to retire Little Blue Rubber Popeye from active duty.

Nowadays I'm confused by Popeye's Fried Chicken for a whole other reason: Popeye has mysteriously vanished. No signage, no statues, no toys, no kid's meals... although the restaurant is named after him, there's no sign of the poor sailor-man. I suspect it has something to do with the Cloud City incident.

But anyway, I'm seriously digressing here: I'm supposed to be writing about Ruth's Chris, right? Great place. Tasty place. Very, very expensive place. We're talking fifty bucks for a steak, and that's just for the steak: no sides, no salad, no drink. All of that is extra. But it's a really, really good steak. USDA Prime beef, the very best meat you can get. That's a lot better than what you can get in the supermarket, or what you'll find in other restaurants. Which reminds me of a funny story: one time I went to Applebee's, and I told the waitress I was very hungry. I was a little disgruntled at the time: I was starving, I'd been waiting forever for service, and of all possible musicians, Kenny Chesney was playing a song on the bar TV. The perky waitress tried to convince me to order a steak by bragging that "Applebee's serves only USDA Select beef!" I asked her if she knew what USDA Select meant. She replied that it meant the beef was "very high quality."

Of course, being an ag-boy from way back and an FFA alumnus, I know exactly what USDA Select beef is: it's the lowest grade of beef fit for human consumption, one grade above the stuff that's usually found in dog food, animal feed, and delicacies at Taco Bell. The poor waitress seemed a little deflated as I gave her a crash course in USDA meat grades. Then I ordered chicken fingers.

I don't like to go to Applebee's that much because they don't serve Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb. Every time I ask, they tell me no. I can't prove it, mind you, but I think their refusal to serve my favorite drinks goes back to that USDA conversation....

The amazing thing is Applebee's advertises their USDA Select beef. They brag that they serve the worst beef in America. Why? Because they can count on the fact that the average American consumer doesn't know a damn thing about what they eat or what they buy. It's the same principle that allowed Sprint PCS to brag about their crystal clear service ten years ago, and lets Chevron boast about Techron. If we the consumers were smarter, we'd know better... and we wouldn't buy this stuff. But that's marketing for you.

So, back to Ruth's Chris. I went for the second time in my life last week, treating Debby on the occasion of our tenth wedding anniversary (and no, if you forgot to wish us a happy anniversary, don't bother... too late now. We'll accept cash in lieu of your well-wishes, though!). It was obscenely expensive, but on a special occasion like this and with a pretty girl like that, it was worth every penny. The best part was when the waiter brought out one of Debby's anniversary presents, a vintage diamond and opal pendant, out to her on the dessert tray. Or maybe it was when I first sank my teeth into that tender gigantic ribeye. Or maybe it was watching the hostess's look of dismay when I told her that I wouldn't need a wine list.

The first time I visited Ruth's Chris wasn't quite as pleasant as this time, but no less tasty. That was back when I was with the Schwan's Food Company, four or five years ago, when I was their regional manager in charge of the state of Louisiana. I had a fair degree of autonomy in that job, as well as a company car and a corporate charge card. Given my division's sales growth and profitability, if I'd wanted to use that corporate card to eat at expensive places like Ruth's Chris on a regular basis, I probably could have gotten away with it without anyone in corporate batting an eye. Instead, most of my expense reports had names like "Sonic", "Wendy's", and, of course, "Popeye's" on them.

In fact, I remember this one time when I turned in my first expense report to my brand new boss. He sent it back to me for corrections, because he couldn't fathom how I could have possibly bought dinner for $2.13 at Sonic. I explained that I wasn't very hungry and Sonic had a good smoothie. I think he was still confused. He told me that he didn't mind if I went to a nicer place for dinner. I replied that sometimes I did, and sometimes I would, but for the most part, I realized that any money I spent on my meals was less money that I could offer to my top sales staff and leadership in bonuses and spiffs. I only ever really ate out at nice restaurants on the company dime when I was taking one of my top managers or employees with me as a reward.

I know a lot of people who take advantage of corporate cards and expense accounts. They live high on the hog while they can because, after all, it's not their money. I've always been uncomfortable about that. Having the power to purchase something on behalf of an organization, even something as small as lunch, gives me a responsibility to spend that money wisely. How much is a steak in my belly worth to the company, compared to the other good uses that money could be put to? Don't we as executive leadership types waste enough money on ourselves, instead of on our people? Shouldn't we put more of that money into the cogs of the business that keep the whole machine running, like front-line sales staff and local operations personnel?

That first time I went to Ruth's Chris, I was with a junior up-and-coming executive who did not agree with my philosophy. He was in town visiting my district overnight, and got a little whiny about wanting to go to Ruth's Chris and have some wine. I refused persistently until he agreed that my division of the company wouldn't pay for any of it - his division would. I still didn't like it, but I obviously had no power over what his branch of the business did. So we went to dinner - I had a small steak and some sweet potatoes. He had a large steak, two sides, dessert, and an awful lot of wine. The bill was astronomical, and it all came out of the general fund of a company that was already losing money.

That night got me thinking about management priorities, which probably contributed to my ending up here at Georgia Tech studying organizational behavior. I'm a big believer in servant leadership - the concept that the leader works to protect and develop his or her employees, serving them just as they serve the leader in return. A lot of managers don't see it that way - they see the benefits of power but none of the responsibilities. This individualistic view is the second biggest thing wrong with America if you ask me... right after our overwhelming emphasis on Hollywood, celebrity, and style over substance.

But that's beside the point. Ruth's Chris is really tasty. You should take someone special there sometime.

And I hope you enjoyed the baby pictures! Kris and Ben say hi.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're back! Now if only I could tell which baby was which!! :)

    PS What happened to Silverbolt? How did he/she die?