The Food Baron vs. Mister Horne

ImageI was a shift supervisor at the Java Shack in college.  We served sandwiches, salads, artisan coffee, and baked goods.  My job consisted of counting tills, writing schedules, hiring associates, firing associates, customer service, and supervising.

Matt the GM was usually there when I started my shift, so I made myself busy.  Counted the safe, did the checklists and the pan up, arranged the baked goods.  Refilled the coffee and called in people to replace call outs.

Matt always left at 6, at which point I’d retire to the office to make art on Microsoft Paint.  Fire-breathing dragons, velociraptors, motorcycle gangs, volcanoes, zombies, hummingbirds.

Around 7 I’d walk to the front of the store for the dinner rush.  Afterward I’d give all the associates free food.  My friends regularly stopped by for smörgåsbords.  Paninis, salads, pastries, cappuccinos, soups.  All they could eat and then some for the road.

My reputation for generosity preceded me.  I became known as The Food Baron.  If upper-management had gotten wind of my antics, they would have fired me for theft.

One day the district manager, Dawn Davis, dropped in for an impromptu meeting with Matt.  She was red-faced.  Matt was sweating.  They were flipping through paperwork.  When she left he took me into the office and interrogated me.

Food cost was through the roof.  70% above projections.  Matt figured associates were stealing. Told me to fire anyone caught sneaking food.  I was to make an example of any thieves.

I went from being The Food Baron to Scrooge in a day.  From Caesar Augustus to Nero overnight.  Started swimming the store like a shark looking for thieves.

If I found a chewing employee, I’d ask for a receipt.  Caught our sandwich guy munching on an illegal Artisan Turkey Cheddar Chipotle Panini in the walk-in freezer.  I barged in and he tried to hide the sandwich in his pocket but I’d already seen it.  Fired him on the spot.

Food cost dropped dramatically.  Matt complimented my vigilance.  Even phoned Dawn to let her know how well I was performing.  Gave me a 25 cent raise.

Then I caught old Mr. Horne stealing.

We were in Melbourne, Florida, which was one of the world’s premiere retirement destinations.  God’s Waiting Room.  Old people loved to stop by to read the paper and sip coffee and play bridge.  Our dining room was slacks and bifocals and velcro tennis shoes.

Mr. Horne was maybe 80 years old and just over five feet tall.  He had coke-bottle glasses and stringy white hair.  Looked like a barn owl in pastels and knee-socks.  Mr. Horne was a permanent installation in the dining room.

He’d order a cup of coffee and sit by the window and stare off into space.  At first I had the impression that Mr. Horne was beyond conversation, but after a while he took to chatting Matt’s ear off.  Mr. Horne never talked to me, though he watched me closely while I worked.

The first time I rang up Mr. Horne he ordered a small cup of coffee.  I handed him a cup and he gave me a five.  The till popped open and while my eyes were fixed on the cash, Mr. Horne’s arm snatched an extra cup from the stack next to my register.  Fast as a striking snake.

Mr. Horne stared at me blankly, like nothing was amiss.  He’d stacked the second coffee cup underneath the first.

I considered apprehending him on the spot.  But, it occurred to me that Mr. Horne was very old and his papery skin was probably sensitive.  More than likely, Mr. Horne wanted an extra cup to shield his withered fingers from the heat.

After the dinner rush I noticed that Mr. Horne was using both cups.  One cup for coffee.  Another for hot tea.  A liver-spotted paw wrapped around each cup like they were Oscars.  He wasn’t even using sleeves.

When I arrived at work the next afternoon, I found Matt glazing cinnamon buns in the bakery.  I informed him of Mr. Horne’s thievery and he told me to keep an eye on him.  Shoplifting was illegal, regardless of age and background.

A few hours later I spotted Mr. Horne in the dining room.  He was sipping a cup of coffee and a cup of hot tea, simultaneously.  I started wiping tables in the dining room.  I noticed him watching me from behind his coke-bottle bifocals and decided to make small talk.

How are you today, Mr. Horne?  Oh I’m quite alright.  Beautiful night, isn’t it?  Oh it certainly is, certainly is.  Say, you sure do like coffee, dontcha Mr. Horne?  Oh don’t I!  And you seem to like tea, too.  Sure do.  Not often you meet a man likes to drink coffee and tea at the same time, eh?

Now.  I’ve been sized up before.  One time I was sized up outside a club on A1A.  Another time the cable guy gave me a good once over when I told him off for being late.  A thousand times in the locker room in high school.

But there’s nothing like getting sized up by an 80 year old man with coke-bottle glasses and velcro tennis shoes.  He jutted out his stubbly lower jaw and scanned me with yellow eyes.  Then he shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and coughed dismissively.

I was vexed.

The next day I deployed all associates to the food line.  Normally we had one person making sandwiches, one for salads, one for soups.  Tonight I had ten employees crammed into the line.  I was gong to ring up every single customer.

As a result, we had a line to the door all night.  Customers were griping.  All of my cashiers were asking why they couldn’t help me out.  I kept telling them I was trying to apprehend a criminal.  Told them to leave me alone and do as they were told.

Mr. Horne came in around 8.  He stood near the doors, surveying the scene.  He knew I had him.  He shuffled over.

Oh good evening Mr. Horne so good to see you again.  Say it’s kinda chilly outside might be nice to have a hot cup of coffee.  Or would it be better to have tea?  Sheesh I dunno what I’d choose if I were in your shoes.  If I had to pay for it… Ya know?

He ordered a small cup of coffee without comment.  I avoided eye contact like a shy toddler.  Urging him to steal a cup.  Kept my eyes on the register long after his receipt had printed.  Long after he left.  The next customer asked if I was okay.

After the rush Nate, our salad guy, flipped out over chicken.  He was prone to tantrums about this and that, as salad guys tend to be.  Wanted to know why the chicken was always improperly portioned.  The corporate checklist said chicken was supposed to be prepped into 1.75 ounce portions.  But our chicken was always weighing in at 1.25 ounces.

Mr. Horne moved like a Russian gymnast.  He somersaulted to the register.  Grabbed a second coffee cup.  Back at his table.  All in a matter of seconds.

I excused myself from the chicken conversation and stormed over to Mr. Horne.  Said I’d caught him red-handed.  Had security cameras to back me up.

Other customers were staring.  I snatched his hot tea and threw it away.  Told him to get out and never come back or he’d be arrested.  He nodded.

Mr. Horne had no defense.  He said he understood the consequences of his actions and that he’d never return.  Then he asked if he could use the store phone to have his son pick him up.

A woman got up from her table and handed him her cell.  She told me she wouldn’t be returning to the Java Shack.  Said I should go back to manager school.

I told her that I wasn’t in manager school at all.  I was studying history.

I went back behind the sandwich line.  Nate picked up where he left off.  The corporate checklist said to weigh chicken portions at the start of every shift, and those portions should be 1.75 ounces.  He said that our portions had been 1.25 ounces for several weeks.  Asked me to reprimand our prepper.

I took Nate aside and explained to him that Dawn wanted us to keep chicken portions at 1.25 ounces or smaller.  She felt that the corporate rule of portioning at 1.75 ounces was absurd.  So, the prepper was doing as he was told.  This franchise portioned chicken at 1.25 ounces.

Nate grumbled about that being bullshit as he walked out of the office.  I turned to the security monitor and watched him stock his station.  Then I noticed Mr. Horne shuffling out the front door.  I smiled.

I’d done my part for the greater good.