Saturday, May 9, 2015

AJ's Fish Merchant

Souls are like athletes, the 20th century American Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his seminal autobiographical volume, The Seven Storey Mountain, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.

Meeting your human flesh opposite is disconcerting. I was bound to run into him. I knew he existed, somewhere, but I wasn't eager about meeting him.

He’s a wee man, short and without much definition. Balding. His sense of style is that of an overgrown child clinging to sneakers and hoodies. There isn’t much to the guy. He has a lot of trouble making eye contact, a sure symptom of at least an Asperger spectrum. He won’t allow a verbal exchange to extend beyond two sentences, and he’ll often punctuate them with Sure, sure and then walk away while the other person is in mid-sentence. His voice cracks. He gulps when he’s afraid. He shakes like a scared Chihuahua as his daily anxiety rears.

Generous and kind, Stacey of The Trails. 
All of it evidenced when local celebrity chef and restaurateur Stacey Poon-Kinney confronted him, the anti-me, on a bright and early Sunday morning in mid-December. In her hand were AJ’s Fish Merchant menus, menus he’d unethically thrust at a poor girl I'd hired to hostess. His instructions were to poach customers waiting outside the successful restaurant just down the other side of the strip mall, Poon-Kinney’s The Trails Eatery.

I don’t fucking care, he typically blustered (small, cowardly dudes are prone to peacock displays when no one is around), go right up to their customers outside! Hand them a menu! Tell them we’re open. Tell them to get in here.

AJ’s Fish Merchant had in fact been open for almost seven months at that point, and it wasn’t going well. Not at all. Every decision the little guy made, literally every single one, turned to garbage.

He’d goaded and pleaded with his family’s matriarch, the only person who managed to eek out a steady paycheck and credit line, to leverage all of her available resources in order to buy him a career. The frail woman, his mother, was already paying for his house, for his car, for his never-ending struggle to keep a job (he’s been formally fired from almost every employer he’s had his entire adult life due to incompetence or worse). 

There was, when one met his mother, this sense of lingering death floating around her. It wasn’t hard to imagine something akin to The Giving Tree, completely drained by her parasitical son, Stephen L. Bennett. And now the restaurant was deep in debt, hemorrhaging cash, and all he could think to do was threaten his mother with quitting if she didn’t funnel more and more money into his resume-building catastrophe. What were her alternatives? He wasn’t able to hold a job, and he really couldn’t function as an adult, … so she continued to lose to his outbursts.

Poon-Kinney, however, wasn’t his mother. 

She was indeed a functioning adult, and though her restaurant went through a very public set of frustrating ups and downs, The Trails was booming due to prudent decision making. She’d come, slowly, to the idea, the grand free market idea, that more traffic to the small, tucked away mall was good for everyone. To then see AJ’s Fish Merchant agitating her customers was a little too much, even for her.

In she came without niceties or introduction. 

Stephen Bennett’s shoulders sunk in her presence. He was terrified. She dressed him down, This isn’t neighborly, she scolded him. 

I sat at the end of the bar and watched the spectacle. 

If things aren’t going well, I’d be happy to sit down with you and tell you about our experience, Stacey offered, annoyed and yet very aware she was scaring him (she moderated her tone and posture). I get along with all the tenants here. Ask them. Don’t do this again, she warned.

I was on record as being agnostic about such a tactic. It was desperate. It was childish. It was stupid. But it was his to do. 

Where Stephen Bennett showed his true colors was when he lied straight to Stacey Poon-Kinney.

He blamed the low-level employee for misunderstanding his instructions. She was, he gulped, only supposed to go out into the parking lot … and before he could finish the ‘t’ in that sentence, Stacey Poon-Kinney dismissed him out of hand. 

No, she rightfully scorned. No. You know what you were doing.

For all of his posturing and big talk, all this coward could do was muster a hoarse, cracking Okay, okay at every one of Poon-Kinney’s other admonishments. Even I felt a little sorry for him.

Disgusted, she put collected AJ's menus from her customers on the dais, and exited triumphantly.

Fuck her, he swaggered back.  He could sense all of us were laughing deeply at him, something in his rare moments of sobriety he feels to his core (he’s deathly afraid of being outed). He spent the next couple of hours pacing back and forth, finishing sentences no one heard him begin, and bolstering points no one cared to hear him make. 

The most he’d ever looked into business or leadership or anything remotely adult was picking up popular understandings of ownership. I guess he watched the dramatic fictional account of Facebook’s founding, and so he intended to make me aware that was the model on which he based his actions.

Oi vey.

I attempted to explain to him how, as I had urged many times prior, he really should take her up on the offer to find a better way to do things. My constant refrain, as the man-child announced some new and destined-to-fail idea, was to find best practices in the context of where he was (the client base, neighborhood).

Copying is all he could ever muster. 

And while it is a sincere form of flattery, in the culinary world they’re known as hacks. A hack just outright steals whole forms without any attribution. A hack grabs from real chefs, real business people, and pretends at his own originality. 

Stephen Bennett is a hack.

The entire menu and format, even the ingredients and preparation and opening times, of AJ’s Fish Merchant was stolen by Stephen Bennett from the pioneers and innovators at Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill

Eerily so. 

Compare everything they do, and you'll find it right down the line. If Stephen Bennett were a student of mine, I would've failed him for plagiarism. Remember the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America? Murphy’s character falls in love with the daughter of a restaurant owner who has lifted McDonald’s in every respect.  John Amos as Cleo McDowell claims to have the BigMick, which is totally different from the BigMac, and so on. 

Stephen Bennett is the Cleo McDowell of cooking. Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill toiled and worked out their success, using the live ammunition of profit and loss. Bennett’s AJ’s Fish Merchant concept attempted to ride their coattails, and hard. 


But that’s what posers do. They pretend. 

Everyone around him loathes him. 

His wife, an illegal immigrant emotionally tortured by the man in public and on regular occasion, no doubt remains with him due to her precarious status (though I haven’t proof, I’d bet he’s threatened her with deportation at every turn). We worked closely together. And the dictionary definition of unfulfilled would have her picture. She easily was the hardest working person on the staff, constantly coming up with great suggestions at cost-saving. She’d confide in me about her husband’s lack of integrity and lack of work ethic. But, she’d often sigh, he is her husband and she has to abide.

The family surrounding him is a genuine and fun group. They’d come in and patronize the restaurant often, taking dog shit days and turning them into salvageable on the money scale. Bennett insulted them. He belittled them. He sucked the entire air out of the house floor when he entered. 

I’d never seen anything like it. 

His extended family had dealt with his antics for decades, and yet they came to help – most likely out of sense of duty to his parents. I cannot put it any other way. Everyone fucking cannot stand him. I’d been around murderers, rapists, career criminals, and I’d never gotten such a sense of plain disgust than I did when even family members were around him.

Employees wanted to be anywhere he wasn’t. When he worked, which was not often (he’d spend hours and hours and hours looking at his phone), they could sense productivity was about to crash. They’d come to me and beg me to get between them and Stephen Bennett. I would. I’d draw him away, and allow the restaurant to at least function for a while.

I think I turned a real corner with the dude long before Stacey confronted him. 

I was there because I made a commitment to the project, and I felt a sense of duty to see it through. But any personal affection for Stephen Bennett left me entirely when I caught his interaction with his then four year old daughter, the business's name sake.

Sit down and shut the fuck up, Stephen Bennett growled at his toddler. 

She might be one of the smartest little girls I’d ever met. And I wasn’t immediately sure who he was speaking to. He used such barking orders often with those he felt he had some power over (he knew better than to address me that way). I was huddling with employees before the shift when we all heard him. I am not going to tell you again, Stephen Bennett spat at his daughter, sit the fuck down!

One of the female employees turned back around after she caught sight and sound of the incident. She covered her mouth, and her eyes watered in my direction. Noticing the employee’s discomfort, I too looked. It was Stephen Bennett’s daughter, all of four years old, slouching on a bar stool, who was on the receiving end of his barrage. Another female employee (we began exchanging detailed email and Facebook messages over these incidents, and so it’s all recorded in sad scenes), quickly excused herself and went to the other side of the restaurant to cry.

I audibled and asked if maybe the little girl would like to take a smaller broom and dust pan and help me clean. She descended quickly from the stool, and shook off the tirade and focused upon picking up trash pieces from the house floor.

All the employees were aghast. Most chalked it up to the stress of starting a new business, but then a long suffering employee confessed she’d witnessed such displays by Bennett many times. I cataloged the scene, but went back to work.

Then something else happened.

My new wife volunteered her babysitting services for free in order to help AJ’s Fish Merchant during its leanest times. The business was failing badly. Stephen Bennett blamed not having his wife, again objectively the best worker there, take care of things as a contributing reason to his ongoing failures. I explained to my wife how this was something we could give as a team, and that as the business succeeded so would we. We didn’t have a car. We also had a kid. It was a trek at times, but she did it. She did it for me. For us.

When I came home after a typical 13 hour day, my wife was waiting for me. Don’t make me go back there, my wife cried. Please.

She explained his house was an unmitigated mess. It’s what one might expect when mommy is paying for everything. Home ownership when earned means something. Pride. When a home is given to an ungrateful looter, well, it’s what I figured. Messy. Shit everywhere. Writing and stickers on the walls. His lone child was left to run amok, obviously.

Who cares if it’s messy, I responded. We have to help where we can. 

No, she shook her head, it’s not just that. He kicked her, Craig. He kicked that little girl.

When Stephen Bennett and his wife returned home that afternoon, his daughter rushed to greet him. He leaned down to pick her up, and as he did his daughter grabbed at his shorts. He immediately threw her down, and the child’s grip held firm. Down the shorts came.

Stephen Bennett yelled at his four year old, and promptly kicked her in the back where she’d fallen. God damn it! he flailed.

Stephen Bennett’s wife screamed not to kick their daughter. Fuck you! Stephen Bennett shouted at his wife in response, Everyone just saw me naked!

That was it.

My wife had also taken to filling-in at the restaurant when hostess shifts were left vacant, a key job especially when the restaurant was busy. 

I cut it all off. 

I announced to the staff my wife was no longer working there, and I informed Stephen Bennett she wouldn’t be available for babysitting any longer. I didn’t say why. I had a job to do, and I wanted to honor the trust and opportunity his parents gave me. But my wife’s contribution was a fringe benefit. I didn't want our families mixing, at all. I made it a point to keep him out of my personal life. 

I was done with Stephen Bennett. 

From then on, I let loose on that stupid fucker. I kept a running journal, one I sent to both he and his father, about the daily drama Stephen Bennett inflicted on the staff and customers (I plan on publishing the Business Log, all of them, very soon). Missing money. Spendthrift purchases. Alienating customers with his constant shouting and fighting with his wife. Buying narcotics off of employees. If the business was to fail, I wanted his parents to know why.

And they did, I am sure.

For nine dollars and sixty cents an hour, I handled marketing, I crafted and made menus, I created original graphics, I innovated commercial ideas, I ran payroll, I hired the best employees and fired the worst (Stephen Bennett’s hires were awful), I bused tables, I hosted, I served, I created events, I used contacts I had to help make the ugly little place at least presentable, and I cleaned up his daily messes. 

I am insanely proud of what I managed to do with the disaster I was given. Every single employee and family member was extremely saddened to see me go. Even customers posted about my leaving.

The left is my creation; the right is the original menu.

Stephen Bennett quit at least three times a week. He walked off the job many other times, leaving the kitchen to wither and survive on its own. I held AJ’s Fish Merchant together for nine months, and I did it all out of a sense of devotion to his parents.

A final conversation I had with him revolved around menu prices. I explained they were much too high for the experimental diner to take a risk. He ranted and raged, claiming I was clueless and had no idea.

I carefully pointed out to him how the incredibly fucked out menu he’d commissioned (it was ugly and ill put together) placed all the priciest items at the top. I thought it was sticker shock causing would-be patrons to balk. They’d grab that amateurish menu Stephen Bennett paid many hundreds of dollars to have created, and their eyes would pop. Sticker shock. It was a theory I’d confirmed many times.

I basically told him to get out of my way. 

In between scrubbing dishes, organizing events, video editing, I used a sloppy, porn-ridden personal laptop of his to create an acceptable menu. Lower prices were pushed to the top. Expensive items I shoved to the bottom. It was an original document. Nothing like it, graphics wise, existed. And I did it for nothing, without anything more than suite software like Word.

Business almost immediately improved. Where before we’d see passersby looking at the menu and leaving, they’d now sit and order.

But prices were still too high for a curious foodie.

What the hell does Craig fucking know! I heard him shout at his father. He didn’t know I was there. The problem is not the prices, he continued shouting in a typical tantrum.

When he appeared, I doubled-down on my theory. Prices were too high. They’d have to come down a lot. Absolutely not! he shook in fear of the truth.

The business continued to die, and its death was coming faster and faster now. I made the executive decision and decided to start chatting up online social platforms like LivingSocial and Groupon. 

I made contact with representatives of both. They’d offer free marketing upfront, but would take about 25% percent of the door when all was said and done. I did the math. That was about right in my estimation. Prices were almost exactly too high to that amount.

Over weeks of Stephen Bennett quitting, insulting customers, barraging the parents who gave him everything, I planted the mental seed in his infantile brain.

I was able to seal both deals before leaving AJ’s Fish Merchant for good.

It took a heroic amount of coordination to ink those offers, getting him to see at this point he literally had nothing to lose.

After all the posturing, the stealing of other peoples’ ideas and concepts, he fell back on what he knew: let someone more sober handle shit. It was the best decision he made, although he made it by default.

His real daddy, me, had rescued him once again.

LivingSocial and Groupon offers completely saved AJ’s Fish Merchant, at least for a couple of months. Without social online coupons reducing his stupid price structure down around 30%, no one would step foot inside. There were $200 nights regularly, and something on the order of another $2000 was in coupons. 

It's perhaps academic to insist a sizable amount of that money should be sent directly to Blue Market Seafood & Grill for intellectual theft.

Beta males cock about, strutting as if they’re something when they’re nothing. They prey on the unfortunate and champion the undeserved. They themselves know the truth. Their wives know the truth. Their kids know the truth. Their professional peers know the truth. Their family knows the truth.

Now you do too.

And I mean it. 

1 comment:

  1. brilliant man. i love this. it was a long read but worth it. i wish more people had the balls to tell the truth. keep up the great work.