Monday, February 8, 2010

Learning etiquette from less than etiquette oriented people

I love this time of year. It is when my clients call me and ask that I, once again, provide a dining etiquette seminar as part of their curriculum in the schools we have under contract, mainly Lindenwood University and Missouri Valley College and St. Louis College of Pharmacy. I do it also in the K-12 market at Chesterfield Day School for the younger kids, such a good time. I have been doing it for years, teaching young people about business dining and etiquette during a business dining social setting. I started the concept in 1991 with my wife at the Media Club in Downtown St. Louis. We would entertain the children of the members, teach them dining skills while their parents eat in the formal dining room.

Yep, I was the Matre D'Hotel there, one of the "Cadberry" type dudes with a tuxedo on and a crisp folded napkin over my forearm. I was pretty good at it too, once I got used to the staff and overcame a fear of flaming desserts. I was a table side cook, what I would later carve out as a skill called "chef d' Rang. I also did this at the famous, St. Louis Club for 5 years. So the private club business has been part of my life for quite a while.

I was the one who knew how to "press the flesh" when the members got off the elevator and stepped on to the 30th floor of the downtown skyscraper. It was their fairy tale place where they were ultra important. They needed a lot of pampering because they paid a hefty fee just to belong to the place. It was I who knew the first and last names, the wives names, kids names, the menu likes and dislikes. I knew what they drank and who drank too much, who fought with their wives, who would slide me a twenty or a fifty from time to time. I knew who had girlfriends, who gambled. I knew who's business was doing good or bad. I knew who was sure to be going to jail...and some of them did.

Case in point, Jim Gibson, the lawyer who bought the National Food Mart Chain in 1996. This guy was a piece of work and I just knew something was up. He used to let me park his Ferrari downstairs in the parking lot beneath the Laclede gas building. Btw, I thought it was a POS, couldn't find the gears, ground them all the way to the bottom lot where his sacred spot was kept. There was a reason he would toss me those keys, that which any 30 year old wannabee would jump on the bandwagon and hold a high regard for him.

He had a big house at Signal Hill in Bellville IL, and his wife was involved with the zoo. They were quite charitable and I learned a thing or two about charity by handling a lot of the personal catering there. They did fund raisers, had big parties with lots of wine and booze and good food produced from St. Louis's finest kitchens. Jim, as I called him, had a passion for the good life and it was apparent that he had the funds to do it.

Did I say he was a lawyer? There were no less than three lawyers and members of the Media Club who went to jail during my time there, mainly for manipulating the "second injury fund" and false workers compensation claims. That buidling came crashing down around then. In fact, one of the subjects was part of an investigation at the club itself, with an employee in the athletic club.

Jim would soon follow them to the big house after stealing money from his clients to purchase the faltering National Food Market Chain. Unknown to many until the bankruptcy, Gibson had actually used money that wasn’t his from trust funds to purchase the stores. Unfortunately, given the state of disrepair he was never able to resurrect the volume of business National once did. They found ole Jim hunkered down in Argentina somewhere, slapped a 40 year sentence on his butt and that is how the story goes. I should try and contact him to get the real story someday. He was a pretty enigmatic dude.

But far be it from me to judge. These people were impeccable dining etiquette pros. And since I was there to do my job, I never questioned the idiosyncrasies. It was my job to serve the Partners from (a local law firm that will remain unmentioned) a three to four "Manhattan Lunch". We had a fairly important high stakes poker game late nights upstairs in the athletic club. But who is talking about that?

No, these guys (and some women) knew how to sit and power play over lunch and dinner, and it was a process. For the high integrity folks, I made it my passion to serve them in a way that they would remember, Cherish. It was like choreography, always serving things a certain way and with purpose. Because that is what was expected.

The funny thing about the entire process, is that this group, the membership as a whole, was basically a dysfunctional group of folks trying to find their way through the world. I suppose they were burdened with money, greed, instant gratification types of values that didn't work out well in the end. I was certain that I made a Friend or two there, but I am also certain that I felt sorry for most of them, in some way, regardless of their furs and expensive cars and hidden secrets.

So I crafted my process out of the only thing "good" I could find out of this group; the tradition of good business dining skills and the process by which they did business while sitting across the table from one another. I was introduced to politicians, royalty and dignitaries while there. All seeming to have a clear understanding of how things are meant to be done at a dining table.

It is unfortunate that I learned this from some who are less than stellar citizens, but so be it. Tradition and conformity must be part of our fabric, regardless of how sleazy you can be on the inside.


Anonymous said...

Nice post as for me. I'd like to read something more concerning this theme. Thanks for giving this material.

Ralph Pfremmer said...

Um, there are a couple themes up in this here piece. I am thinking you want more dining etiquette? Or do you want to hear more stories of not so genuine storyfolk? I have tons of stories of them.