The news has been full of stories about harassment on the job — mostly high-profile cases with truly egregious behavior. They’re in the headlines because the men involved are famous and because the conduct falls far outside the normal realm of human interaction at the workplace.
But the ordinary unpleasantness many people face at work — rudeness, yelling, pressure — also takes its toll. And restaurants are notorious for that; it’s kind of a cultural imperative in the business. But, said Bob Platzer, 66, who started PJW Restaurant Group, it doesn’t have to be that way and change starts at the top. He points to himself as Exhibit A, how changing his attitude built a culture of workplace cooperation and employee retention.
Platzer opened his first bar in Lehighton in 1983 and now runs 20 restaurants — mostly P.J. Whelihan’s Pub and Restaurants, but also The ChopHouse, The Pour House, and Treno Pizza Bar, employing 1,600.
When I worked in diners, I liked waiting on my customers, but sometimes the short-order cooks were almost bullies. Yes. it’s hot and crowded in the kitchen and the pressure’s intense, but still. … Plus, no matter how rude they were, you had to be nice to them, if you wanted to serve your guests.
I grew up in a lot of kitchens like that where you were at their mercy and I was that kind of a cook at one time. If my food wasn’t getting picked up on time, I’d be screaming and hollering. I was a product of what I learned, what I saw, when I was growing up in these crazy kitchens. And you know what? That really wasn’t me. I’m a pretty happy, jovial guy. I had this monster that came out of me when I cooked.
Some people are still with me from then, and I guess they told me one day, “Knock it off, or I’m out of here.” It’s kind of like when you’re a bully, and someone turns around and punches you in the nose. You change. It never sat right with me to make someone upset. I calmed down and it made my life a lot better. Everything I’ve done that was right made my life so much better. You realize you’d better change your ways, or else they’re not going to put up with you. Then what are you going to do? That was my driving force. I needed them. I was building this business. I tell [the cooks], treat [the servers] like it’s your daughter at work. If somebody doesn’t want the hamburger, no arguing. Make another hamburger. No problem. Just make the customer happy. Don’t make the girl go out in tears. Don’t make her explain that the cook said you can’t have it. We’re all about the guests. Just make it easy. That’s, probably, one of the best things we ever did, because it takes the pressure off.
It seems like every day a new restaurant is opening up.
It’s a very, very competitive market out there. Especially since fast-casual has come on so big, the Chipotles and the Mod Pizzas. And it’s not just restaurants. Movie theaters serve food now. Grocery stores have cafés now. Uber Eats and GrubHub delivery is huge. Even Wawa. You have to go to Wawa at lunch and see the business they’re doing. It blows my mind.
As far as food costs, what’s killing you now?
Chicken wings are a huge part of our business, and chicken wings were up 45 percent this year. They really spiked. Supply and demand. I think they were seeing where the point of resistance was. They found it. They’re dropping down now in price. You used to get them for $80 a case, $72 a case. I think they approached $115, which is huge. Now they’re somewhere in the $85 a case, but they’ll spike for the Super Bowl.
How big is a case? How many wings?
That was the other issue. Say there were eight to a pound, so 120 to a case. Now they’re growing the birds bigger, so you’re getting six wings to a pound. Not only is the cost way up, the count is way down. We sell them by 10s and 20s. You have to give more weight to get those 10 wings for an order. It was a dilemma. It’s a cycle. Some days you eat the bear, other days the bear eats you.
Family: Wife, Donna; daughters Danielle McClure, Jacqueline.
In the business: Donna, Jacqueline, and nephews Chris Webb, Jake Karley.
Diploma: Pennsauken High School.
Childhood ambition: To own a bar.
Favorite wing: Hot and Honey
P.J.W. RESTAURANT GROUP
What: 20 restaurants — P.J. Whelihan's Pub, 15; The PourHouse, 3; Treno Pizza Bar, 1, The ChopHouse, 1. One food truck.
Revenues: $78 million to $80 million.
Employees: 1,600, about 35 percent full time.
History: Opened first restaurant in Lehighton in 1983. Never closed a restaurant.