Dennis Rymarz

Dennis Rymarz
Publisher, Don't Tip the Waiter

Tottered on: 18 May 2006
Temperature: 59 F
Ceiling: mostly sunny
Ground: spring grass, needs cut
Wind: W at 20mph

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TT with HD: Dennis Rymarz

[Ed. note: Don't tip the Waiter is a monthly printed publication distributed in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area. For a sampling of what you'll find there, check the website. If you're not a part of the service industry with easy access to restaurant break rooms, try Schoolkids, Dawntreader Books, or Border's Liberty Street location.]

HD: Alright, shall we mount?

DR: Please. Let me back up a little here.

HD: Is this going to work for you?

DR: Yeah. Yeah, that works.

HD: ... ... Alright. Well, welcome to the teeter totter.

DR: Thanks.

HD: My name is Dave, I'll be your tottering host this afternoon. I'd like to say a little bit about how the teeter totter is constructed: it's made out of giant pieces of wood and galvanized steel pipe. Would you like a minute to adjust your seat or are you ready to totter?

DR: I think we're doing fine!

HD: Yeah?

DR: Yeah. Are you comfortable?

HD: I am fine. I'm noticing that your feet are not even coming off the ground. You're a big long tall drink of water.

DR: I think I outweigh you a little bit, yeah.

HD: But you're also tall. So are you going to be able to get enough leg extension?

DR: I'm very comfortable. Extremely. Ever since we first spoke, I've been getting into condition for this.

HD: You've been training?

DR: I've been practicing, calisthenics, training, yes. Sort of a cross-training, eating Doritos smothered in cheese and walking up and down the stairs to grab more cheese.

HD: Well, you're somewhat of an industry insider, so you might have some insight into these standard [Ed. note: miter saw from neighbor's kitchen renovation pierces the solitude of the totter] ... well, that will be an interesting noise to compete with ... some insight into these opening spiels that wait staff recite, when they arrive at a table. What is the story with those? Are they generally prescribed by restaurant management? I just find them tortuous when I'm confronted with them as a diner.

DR: Give me an example of one that you've heard as a diner that irritates you.

HD: It's not any one in particular, it's anytime I can recognize that this is the standard opening: Welcome to our Establishment, my name is such and such. As soon as it's recognizable as a standard spiel, I'm put off and I just want to say to the person [Ed. note: miter saw] ... I just want to say to the person, Look, you don't have to do that.

DR: Do you say that?

HD: No, I don't, because I think it will make them feel bad.

DR: We're pretty thick-skinned, but I can appreciate what you're saying. I guess there is a standard, Susy Sunshine comes up and has a big smile or the perception of a smile and goes through the list of specials or what have you, and it is pretty standard. I've been out of it for about a year, but for the last 10 years I worked at Chuck Muer's Big Fish in Dearborn. Big restaurateur in the Detroit area. Fifteen years ago, don't hold me to that, but roughly around fifteen years ago, he and his wife and another couple were on their craft in the Atlantic Ocean, tried to outrun a tropical storm and didn't make it. They've never been found. And after the appropriate length of time, the family directed the sale of the company. We were bought by a couple of other corporations and when it was no longer the family business, it was like, Here's your script! And I would imagine at a lot of the places, the corporate entities like a Friday's or a Bennigan's or an Olive Garden, Red Lobster, this is what they say. This is what you have to do. I never liked saying my name. I hadn't written down an order for the last five years I worked. You know the orders weren't that complicated. And the company that bought us, that was part of procedure: you write down the order, you read it back to them, no matter how small ...

HD: ... and confirm?

DR: And confirm. And if you think about it, logically, it does erase the opportunity for errors. That's just not how I did it. And there were other people who didn't do it that way, you know? But yeah, there's many things other than just the greeting that are company policy. And I can see how that would grate on you, because it's not individualized.

HD: As a diner, I have to say, I don't necessarily mind errors. On occasion, I've said, Oh, this isn't at all what I ordered, but I don't know, looks pretty good, it's something I wouldn't have otherwise even tried ... unless it's something I know I don't like. So if they bring me a vegetable plate and I was looking for the steak, then I'm going to say, Excuse me, but this isn't what I ordered.

DR: Right.

HD: Or even minor things, that might be slightly different from what you expected, my inclination is to say, Oh well, this is the world telling me: Dave, here's something you need to try. Maybe I'm just too easy to please.

DR: That's funny. Just from that, you're on your way to becoming a server or bartender's dream. Because there are people who are completely the opposite.

HD: Well if you had a choice between someone who's really cooperative, and easy to get along with as a diner, versus somebody who's just a pain in the ass, but who also tips really well, like obscenely well, like puts 30% down on a tab, versus somebody who puts nothing down but is really easy to serve, would you be able to choose between those two extreme scenarios?

DR: Dave, I was, and I'm not even a little bit ashamed to admit that I was a really bad waiter. I was a really bad waiter.

HD: Did you see that reflected in your tips?

DR: Never. Because I liked people. And to the degree that I could, I really cared about what they were getting, about what kind of service, about the quality of the food, that was important to me. But as far as the procedures, the not-writing-down-the-order is just one example of not following procedure. I took a lot of short cuts, I'm pretty lazy.

HD: But when you say you were a bad waiter, that's from the point of view of management, then? From the point of your boss, maybe you were a bad employee, but maybe not a bad waiter from the diner's point of view?

DR: You know we're trained to follow certain procedures and to deliver service a certain way. And I'm kind of like you in that I never liked that when I was receiving that cookie-cutter service. It was easier just to be myself than to memorize all this crap and just spit it back out. There's a lot of managers who would just cringe at that, because they feel that consistency is vitally important. Bring a little bit of your personality to the table, but at the same time you want the guests to have, anytime they come in, even if you're not there, they get somebody else who's going to give something that's roughly equivalent. I just don't always agree with that philosophy. So when you ask me if I'd rather have somebody who's easy to wait on but doesn't tip right, or somebody who's just a pain in the ass but tips through the roof? Again I'm different from a lot of servers in that the money wasn't the all-encompassing thing for me. So I'm probably out for the easier person, and I'd want more of them and try to make up the money in quantity. I'd rather work less knowing that I'd make less money, but you know there's somebody right after them. Generally, I don't think that's the philosophy of servers and bartenders in the industry.

HD: So what made you think you could successfully publish a print publication and make a living at it? I mean for the web, any numbskull can come up with something and throw it up on the web, I'm living proof. But a print publication in this day and age, starting a new one, what made you think you could do that and that you could be successful at it?

DR: A couple of years ago, right before Don't Tip the Waiter started, a friend of mine, also a waiter, and I started a sports publication. And you're probably familiar with the philosophy that if you don't know something is supposed to fail, you usually can do it? Well, we didn't know we weren't supposed to be able to do this. So we went out there and we both had a background, to some degree, in selling in general. I love to write and he was real good at the technical stuff, so it was like this natural thing. And at a time in my life when I was looking for something besides waiting tables, right? So we did this and it worked out. We had the software and we had the expertise and I loved to write and we put it together. So it lasted about 3 or 4 issues. There's a lot of sports stuff out there. It's a sports town and you'd think that people couldn't get enough of it, but there is just a lot of it. And I love the culture of waiting tables. Not necessarily the job, but I love the people. It definitely is a culture all its own. And they're looking for humor. I mean, it's not a coincidence that we're modeled after The Onion. The reality is, if you take that and put it in a restaurant atmosphere, people are going to read it. It was like a no-brainer, really. People ask, What brought you to that?! I just looked at it and said, These people want break-room reading. We used to mess around and put a break-room newsletter together, gossip about the people around work. We made everything up and they loved it. So then the next step was, looking at the industry and realizing that this is a very overlooked, virtually untapped industry. Think about this: there's people who every day leave work with cash in their pockets. I'm speaking in general terms here, but for the most part, they're spontaneous or impulsive spenders. A lot of them are, for the most part, a younger crowd. So maybe they don't have the same obligations as somebody older that would require a dual income, right? Well, it didn't take long for the potential advertisers to realize this. They had never before thought: well, they have to buy their work clothes somewhere; they have to keep them clean; if they're going to go drinking somewhere, why not here? And it doesn't have to be the cheapest thing on the block. For the most part, servers and bartenders are not cheap. If you ever wait on one, you know that, because they eat a lot, they drink a lot, and they're the best tippers. And they're patient.

HD: So if I'm not in the restaurant industry, how do I find a copy of Don't Tip the Waiter? You're now in the Ypsi-Arbor area?

DR: We're in the Ypsi-Arbor area exclusively right now. I just read one of the interviews you did with Mr. Izzo of the Improv Inferno, somebody who owns a place on Main Street. He said: it's a restaurant town; after 7 o'clock there's no place to go other than to eat. Of course, I love that. Not to exploit, but hopefully entertain and reach those people. So we go directly to the restaurants. And we're in The Planet. Adam [de Angeli] was one of our first advertisers and loves what we're doing and he 'gets' it. That's the only way I can put it: that he 'gets' it. We were originally distributing over at the Border's, what is it at State and Liberty?

HD: Hmmm, yeaaaah, Liberty and ...?

DR: ... and Maynard?

HD: Yeah, Liberty and Maynard.

DR: We were distributing there and they were gone very very quickly. So people are grabbing them. You can get them at Schoolkids. So it's not just the restaurants. You'll see them around. Dawntreader Books, places like that. We try to go the bars and restaurants in the area, directly to the employees, and then to coffee shops and bookstores, places where we feel that servers and bartenders will congregate. Our distribution system is extremely complex. We're out there at five in the morning, they're all wrapped in plastic which we do in-house and we throw them on the doorstep like a newspaper. Really, though, it would take forever to go into each one. In the beginning, we went in to every place and handed them directly to the hostess or the bartender. You know, 12 days later you're almost done. So you learn. So right on the issue, this is the third, we're working on the fourth right now for Ann-Arbor-Ypsi, we put a little note saying that if you prefer not to have it distributed, or if you have advertising questions, just give us a call.

HD: You said something to the effect of you know Adam 'gets' it and there is actually something to 'get', right? So all the material in there is fake, except for the advertisements. The content, though, is fake?

DR: It's all made up.

HD: So there's no chance that the wait staff at Ashley's on State Street in Ann Arbor are going to be appearing nude on the web? Well, as best you know?

DR: To the best of my knowledge. A very good point. To my knowledge, no. And the restaurant manager at Applebee's, as far as I know, doesn't give sexual favors to her employees as a bonus. But a lot of what we've written is cultivated from actual experiences.

HD: Are you concerned at all about possible litigation? On the one hand it's clear that's is parody, that it's not real. Yet it's presented in a format, it's printed on newsprint, even color-prinnted on the cover, it's laid out in a professional manner, so it has all of the immediate visual impact of a legitimate journalistic news publication.

DR: Thank you.

HD: But I imagine that would represent some sort of a legal risk?

DR: No more so than The Onion deals with. Our attorney says not to worry about it, that people should know and will know that it's treated humorously. He said basically the worst case scenario is that somebody says, Hey, don't write about us anymore. And we won't, if somebody says that. It's that simple.

HD: So it's not the case that the only establishments that get written about are the ones that have given their tacit approval by advertising? You'll write about any establishment that you want to?

DR: Yes, certain ones make more sense than others. We have made mistakes before and the establishment said: Can you please keep us in this particular kind, not that kind; if you're doing something sexual, we'd rather not be a part of it. It brings up a really interesting point. There's such a separation sometimes between ownership or management and the actual servers and bartenders. And what I mean by that is that the readers of the publication, the people who this is meant for, their mindset or their sense of humor is either underestimated or not understood sometimes by some of the people who make the decisions regarding advertising. You're always walking that fine line between advertising and editorial content. You have to be very careful. You're not doing anything to cater to necessarily an advertiser, but you have to make sure that they have a product or service that is a decent offer for your audience. But when you don't understand the reader, and you look at an article and you say, That's just not appropriate! But to the reader it is. In the reader's mind, in the server and bartender's mind, all of a sudden that establishment, to them, is cool. We all know this is a joke and now these people [who are advertising], they get it, too, so let's go there! Weber's Inn is a great example. We wouldn't even distribute there, because we were worried about, they were a little up-market, or whatever. And they've been there since 1937. But they called us and said: Why aren't you distributing here, and can we be in it? So we're doing a server-and-bartender appreciation party, a service industry night, there on June 4 to open off their season. The point is that the servers get it. They're looking at Weber's now and going, How cool! ... ... And really, I think this particular format, made-up manufactured news, fits just about any industry. I think you'll endear yourself to your customers or your employees, if you've shown you have some self-effacing humor or that you have any kind of a sense of humor and that you're not taking yourself too seriously. To me, that's a virtue. So if somebody came to me and said, I'm in the real estate business, I want to do something like what you're doing, first of all, I can see an application right away because it can be applied to anything.

HD: Well, you're targeting a very narrowly-defined demographic, which is essentially the lesson, I don't know if it's the web that taught us this, but in web-advertising, people talk about how the wonderful thing about contextual advertising is that you can target advertising to the content in a very specific way. But really there's nothing magical about the web that allows that. It's just that in the physical, print world you can't say, Oh, I have an idea and a half-hour later you have the ad launched in a campaign that fits the content. Also for the web, the specific content already exists and the ads are fit to already existing content.

DR: Yeah, we didn't print our first one and then go out and get ads. We had a prototype. You have the prototype and you say, This is what we're doing. And your ad prices in the beginning reflect that. You're not making the $3000 for a whole page that the Metro Times makes, I don't care what you're doing. Unless it's slick and glossy, and that costs money, too.

HD: You mentioned a little earlier that there's a separation between the management of restaurant and the people who actually are in the trenches, the people who are working the floor.

DR: Sometimes.

HD: Take for example, the Old Town, which is an advertiser of yours. Chris [Pawlicki], who owns the place, he's in there working, and he has on occasion brought the food or drinks to my table. I mean, it's not something he does really often, but I get the sense that he's around the place and in the thick of things. What I really wanted to ask you in connection with the Old Town is about their ad in Don't Tip the Water, which promotes Michigan beer. This is sort of a non-sequitur, but I wondered what your reaction would be to focussing on Michigan's beer as the key to revitalizing the entire state's economy. People talk about bio-tech, or nano-tech, computers, all these very intensely technical industries as alternatives to cars that are going to be the key to the Michigan economy. But there's a lot of good beer in Michigan.

DR: There is.

HD: Where did that ad campaign come from with the Old Town? Was that Chris' idea?

DR: Yes, completely. It's actually two brothers [Ed. note: Chris and Steve Pawlicki], who own it, and they say it's Ann Arbor's oldest bar. The beautiful thing about them is that they really don't need to advertise. They 'get' it. You want to talk about somebody that gets it? You know why they're advertising? To give something back to the service industry. That's incredible to me. That's what we're about. Now I sound all lofty and I don't mean it like that. It's a business. But it was totally their idea. It's funny that you bring that up, because Trey Baily who works with me, he's our account manager, we're talking about a trip to Kalamazoo to Bell's, to sit down and talk to them. I've been sober now for over two years, but I still think so many different ways you can use alcohol in a positive manner. Like you say, boosting the economy. And I've never tried Bell's, but from what people say, it's just phenomenal.

HD: Too late now, huh?

DR: Yeah, I live vicariously through other people. I really would like to meet some of these people who do these micro-breweries. Because you don't need necessarily to have Miller-Lite run a full-page ad. You can work out deals and keep it local.

HD: So I read through this third issue and every word I think, I just wanted to read you my favorite part, maybe you can already guess what my favorite part was, but anyway from the Publisher's desk: " ... I asked Angela why she was laughing in light of what just happened, and why she didn't help bail me out. She said she couldn't help but laugh. She said that when the back plate--which wasn't placed securely on the serving tray--started to teeter, then ultimately tottered off the rear of the tray, the tray appeared to get front-heavy ..." and then it goes on from there. This is an epsiode where you dropped a whole tray ...

DR: ... and that's a true story. That's how it got it's name.

HD: So was it the whole tray?

DR: Everything on there, yeah.

HD: Not one bit of it was salvageable?

DR: Well, no. You know, if these guys were real guys they would have picked it up, blown on it and put it on their plate, but no, they needed a re-cook?! I'm kidding. The fact is that yeah, I could feel it falling back, I moved forward, because it was heavier and I realized what was happing and I over-compensated. Don't Tip the Waiter, it was all over. I teetered and tottered.

HD: So are you familiar with the game put out by Ideal ...

DR: ... in the 70's, right?

HD: Yeah, so you haven't heard from their lawyers or anything?

DR: No.

HD: I wouldn't think so, I guess. It's clearly a different concept. You have newspaper, they had a game.

DR: When you go and register a business name, they do in fact check and do everything and I would have been stopped right there. That is one of the things, people are a little averse to the name, Don't Tip the Waiter, that's sending a bad message ...

HD: ... it's reverse psychology.

DR: The fact is I was in the industry for 12 years. I'm going to put up a billboard between Ann Arbor and Ypsi or further west that says: If you get good service, the standard tip now is 20%. I want people to know that. We'll get bumper stickers.

HD: Anything else on your mind?

DR: For me, this has just been an awesome experience. I expected to be reasonably well received in Ann Arbor and Ypsi because of the amount of restaurants. I live in Dearborn now, but years ago, before I met my wife I lived out here. And there's a certain mentality here that I thought would go well with what we're doing ...

HD: ... what is that mentality, would you say? The Ann-Arbor-Ypsi mentality?

DR: Well, I can't group them together, that's for sure! I can't. I think that in Ann Arbor people do things based on principles. I mean, they really do. Their ideals are focussed. And how do servers and bartenders fit into that? I haven't quite figured that out yet, other than when people say, You know this is good, we needed this. People that are at real high-end restaurants and have a reputation for being ...

HD: ... snobby?

DR: Snobby, but not to me, because I've seen it, because they're the restaurant elite or whatever. And they say: We needed this, do you need a writer? So more than what the cultures are like in the two areas, it's more like I concentrated on how well this would be received, and it exceeded my expectations. People looked at it, and no matter where they worked or what they did in the restaurant, or even outside of restaurants, they have received it well. I get emails from people that don't work in restaurants. Because you make fun of the servers, too. I mean you've got to give people equal time. You're going to get your pockets of people who don't get it, because humor is extremely subjective. But overall, the response we've been getting has just been amazing.

HD: I guess I find the material interesting from a voyeuristic point of view, because it's clearly written for an audience that I'm not a part of. And you can recognize that in the use of insider jargon and nomenclature, even things as simple as referring to a table with four seats a 'four-top'. As a reader, you can understand what that is from context, but recognize that as industry jargon meant for somebody other than me, and there's a voyeuristic pleasure in reading it, nevertheless.

DR: Right, and I think that even some of those stories themselves if you look at the first issue, I can't remember the exact headline, but it was something about "Waitress Appears Serious about Getting a Real Job". Somebody in insurance might look at that and say, So what? But it's a common phrase [real job]. Because waiting tables and bartending is, for the most part, a stepping stone or a transitional job, not necessarily a career. A lot of them right now are talking about: Oh, I just graduated school, and now I can go out and get a real job. So somebody in the insurance field may not see that. But you're right, it's an inside view of the industry of what's going on. It might not make you want to go out and go do it, but you do have to remember, the people who are waiting tables were tricked. I was tricked. Because you're told you're going to make X amount of money, depending on the size of the bill and the quality of the service from each table. And it's pretty much left up to your own ambition and your personality and your ability to handle stress. But the reality is that the people who get great food, great service, at an affordable price are apt to tip like complete idiots. And the irony is, the people who are training you, they already know this. And as they're assuring the first-time servers that this is a job where, for sure, you can start a family. They're going behind a door and laughing. They're lying on the floor peeing their pants. So yeah, you're tricked to a degree. But once you get in it's a very difficult thing to get out of. It's hard to quit waiting tables, because of the cash every day. Some people would say: Because the money's so good. Hopefully. But the reality is, when you leave work everyday with whatever amount, it's tough to start waiting two weeks for a pay check. We're talking about some spontaneous spenders here. The saying in the industry is that: it's not how much you make in a night, it's how much you wake up with in the morning, that really matters.