At "the Plough & the Stars," a popular Irish-themed bar and restaurant tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of Old City, the staff is well-acquainted with the Penn crowd. Though it is a relatively low-key establishment, few of its employees fail to tell of the Penn fraternities that occasionally make en masse ventures to 2nd and Chestnut streets. From the kid who was carted out in an ambulance after drinking too much at a fraternity shindig to the party of 500 expected that very night (the mind boggles at the prospect of fitting 500 people into the large but hardly sprawling eatery), Penn is a fact of life for those who work here.
But thankfully, they don't have to worry about most of that until after sundown. A weekday lunch is a much more relaxed affair, and since each waiter must work a lunch in order to be able to work a presumably more lucrative dinner -- where each server's tips have the potential to double -- everyone gets his or her fair share of rushes and lulls.
At 1 p.m. on a Thursday, four servers -- two young women decked out in the requisite all black and two men wearing black pants and a blue dress shirt -- cover the entire area of the restaurant's two floors. Sparsely populated with diners, mostly in small groups or even alone, the scene hardly hints at the chaos soon to come. Those working the upstairs mezzanine have no problem delivering orders for those stuck on the often-busier bottom floor. Nonetheless, the latter rarely has an idle moment. And the former, when there is no food to run, water to refill or breadbaskets to carry, bides its time folding linen napkins for dinner, clearing tables -- no busboys during lunch! -- or straightening up the place settings.
Amidst the deliberate and constant movement, the Plough is not an easy place for a reporter to land an interview. There's no downtime for a lengthy conversation, although the servers still manage to joke with each other -- a poke here, a murmured comment there. Still, there's always something to do.
All of the diligence pays off -- literally. The Plough employs a unique system of tip-sharing. Where the typical restaurant allows each server to keep most of what he or she earns, minus a small portion for the busboys, food runners and bartenders, here at the Plough, each night's haul is pooled and then divided equally among that night's wait staff, with the busboys taking from 10 to 15 percent depending on how many are working that night. This arrangement encourages the waiters to help out when someone is in a jam rather than creating an every man for himself mentality.
As for cheaters? According to the Plough management, there aren't many. Although someone could conceivably report only part of his earnings, the good faith system generally works. If suspicion arises, it's possible to check the waiter's sales for the night and look at how much he turned in relative to that number.
One would think that this vaguely communistic system would reduce the incentive for any one waiter to give extraordinary service in the hopes of a large tip -- after all, the money is pooled at the end of the night, anyhow -- but the arrangement works out better than actual Marxist theory. Simple human nature all but eliminates this impulse.
"When we hand in the money at the end of the night, we always tell how much we made, and you never want to be the one with the lowest amount," waitress Kasey Bumber says. And indeed, slacking never seems like an option.
But even with slackers eliminated from the viable workforce, there are still plenty vying for the waiters' life. According to Rick Rollins, that afternoon's host, the Plough gets around 10 walk-in job applicants per day, most of them for server positions. Applicants are put through a rigorous screening process, involving at least two interviews, so that, as one server bluntly puts it, the restaurant doesn't "hire a lot of idiots."
During one such interview, conducted on the fly during the manager's lunch break, questions cover an unexpectedly wide array of topics, ranging from schedule conflicts, to extracurricular activities, to simply whether or not the applicant enjoys fine dining.
She does. She also lands the job.
When not eating lunch or interviewing potential new hires, the managerial staff is exceedingly hands-on. For every minute spent on more "managerial" tasks, such as researching the wine list -- from an imposing-looking magazine with very, very small print -- the manager on duty seems to spend another walking around the floor and delivering formal lines such as: "Hello ladies, how are you? My name is Maryann. I'm the manager, and I just wanted to come over and ask you how your lunch was ... Well, thank you so much for joining us."
On very busy nights, however, when as many as 250 dinner customers threaten to overwhelm the restaurant's resources, just keeping the restaurant afloat "takes a lot of planning -- two hours for a four-top, more for a six-top," Manager Maryann Lerro explains. The owners are a constant presence too, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings, but mostly letting their managers handle these specifics.
If the placidity of the lunchtime hour threatens to lull one into a bit of a stupor, a Friday night dinner serves as a stern wake-up call. The previous afternoon, the brightly lit bottom floor seemed roomy enough to do back handsprings; now, with the lights dimmed and people packing the bar and cocktail area, there is barely room to step. The waiters and waitresses maneuver through the crowd with trays of brightly-colored drinks and plates of chicken tenders, contorting their bodies and bending out of the way so as not to spill on unsuspecting bar patrons.
Oh, there's pressure. But it's also manageable pressure, with someone always around to help out. Still, "if you're on the cocktail section, you have to run," Bumber says. And yes, among the calm, collected, fast walks, one can occasionally spot a server doing a practiced little scurry.
Though much of the same staff from Thursday afternoon is on duty, the working atmosphere is distinctly different. It becomes almost impossible to pull a server over for a word; servers rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds, and when they do stop, it's only to catch their breath before dashing off again. The bartenders perform the mildly impressive feats one would expect from bartenders -- flipping bottles, carrying unreasonable numbers of glasses in their bare hands, all the while managing not to mix up the orders coming in from both customers and servers.
The only ones whose job stress level seems constant from lunch are the hosts. There are now two instead of just one, and their job description is still the same: answer the phones, seat the customers and try to rotate new diners among the different waiters. Overseating and -- perhaps worse -- underseating are two missteps that the hosts expertly sidestep.
Aside from the occasional Penn party, upscale Old City doesn't attract too much of the underage bar hopping crowd; and the Plough doesn't card at the door before 11 p.m. Still, servers occasionally face the awkward prospect of asking for ID right at the table. The brave pop the question themselves, but asking a manager to do it in a more official capacity is also an option. The rule of thumb seems to be a loose card-'em-if-they-look-young approach, but the servers are occasionally strict.
Bumber recalls a young party that came in one night. Only one guy had ID, and when he ordered a drink, Bumber looked at him and said, "You can't share this with anyone else."
Then there's the problem of the plastered patron, the guy who's had one too many, yet still demands one more. Here, the usual rule about not serving the visibly intoxicated applies, but dealing with the tipsy who demand a refill remains a delicate matter.
"I don't want to offend them," Bumber says. "Sometimes I just bring them a glass of water and say 'why don't you drink this? Then maybe in a little while, I can get you your drink.'"
In the middle of the evening, as if things weren't already hectic enough, attention shifts to a table where a young man is about to propose to his girlfriend. Manager Mike Reilly is poised to bring over strawberries and a bottle of wine, and the guy is going to pop the question. Myself, waiters, managers and bartenders all watch from a distance, not wanting to betray the surprise or miss the special occurrence.
Oddly enough, nothing seems to happen -- the Big Moment isn't very big after all. By the end of the couple's meal, everyone is looking to see if the woman has a ring on her finger, but can't reach a consensus. She certainly doesn't look like someone has just proposed to her. So did he do it? Did he chicken out? Or was he just pulling a fast one on the rest of us? We may never know.
As the evening continues, the clientele seems to become progressively younger, and come 10 p.m., the atmosphere changes yet again. The lights dim further, the upstairs gets closed-off to allow the remaining dinner patrons to finish their meal and the bar area becomes still more crowded. It's time for the Plough to bring out the stars and go from being a restaurant and bar to just being a bar.
Bouncers begin to roam the floor, looking all the more intimidating because of the earpieces all of them wear to alert them to trouble (though most of them don't expect any to break out). One is stationed at the stairs to prevent eager bar-goers from going up and bothering the leftover diners. In a couple of hours, a bouncer will begin carding prospective drinkers at the door. The managers retreat into the office to get out of the way of the bar scene. The cocktail waitresses start to file in, clad in short skirts. The menu also changes, from steak and pheasant offerings to more plebeian items such as chicken fingers and fries.
No fights break out that night, but it is not an unheard-of occurrence; some time ago, a general manager fractured his arm trying to break one up -- or so goes the Plough urban legend.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the day-to-day operations of the Plough is how little actually does go wrong. Customers don't throw fits. Waitresses don't break down in tears and run out the door. And food orders don't go to the wrong tables. The biggest "problems" are a missing jacket from the coat-check room and the large fireplace briefly running out of fuel before a manager can tell one of the hosts to add more wood and prod it with a stick.
At first glance, the dinner hours seem chaotic, until one realizes that everyone has a job, and a place and a function. Pre-shift meetings are held several times a day to make sure everyone is on the same page and that the servers know of any problems, such as "an 86" -- the kitchen running out of a particular menu item. These meetings prove indispensable when the dinner rush begins and there is no longer time for questions or discussions.
After a while, a unique sort of majesty emerges from the rhythm of the restaurant staff. As Reilly puts it, "It's almost like an orchestra. How do you know who is going to play what instrument? Everyone has their part, and everyone knows what it is."
The cymbals crash one last time, and the curtain closes on a yet another successful night at the Plough & the Stars.