I started my restaurant career in a stadium.
At 17, I was hired by Chef Gunther to organize the vending of souvenir key chains and hot dogs at the grand opening of the Canada Summer Games.
The only business experience I had at that time was a paper route.
My only experience in stadium vending was watching the hot dog guys at hockey games.
I hired a crew of 60 guys and three girls and organized a supply system around three field kitchens. The fastest guys were running through the stands selling.
The three girls were hired to count the money because they were smarter.
There was a big push to sell the key chains because my dad had sold them to Chef Gunther and they were a high-profit item.
I decided that the best way to sell the key chains was to hang them from hockey sticks.
I did not have high ambitions for the chains. I failed to see their utility.
We did not own a car, and even if we got one, my dad was never going to let me drive it.
During the first half hour, everything worked well.
Then our grand opening turned into a grand bust when a political hack at the school board sent a thousand kids in school buses to see the ceremonies.
They seated the kids on the steps in the stands, and my sales guys could not get up the steps to the crowd. Sales ground to a halt.
Kipling wrote that you’re a man if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. My German chef boss and everyone else was losing their heads and blaming it on me.
In the deep darkness of that chaos, there emerged a bright star – Louis LeBlanc.
Louie was the best pitcher in little league.
As our distribution system shut down Louie innovated.
He had the people in his section passing money down to the front, and he was chucking hot dogs up into the stands.
I was immediately taken with the cleverness of his plan.
I was also impressed by his accuracy.
That boy could chuck a hot dog.
It took me a little while to get all the best chuckers in the right places, but we got a system in place for selling the dogs.
The day was not saved, but disaster was marginally averted.
Chef and I did not make nearly as much money as we had hoped, but Louie made out like a bandit.
Louie often made out like a bandit because Louie was a thief.
It was an economic imperative.
Louie was a French Canadian kid who was tougher and faster than everyone because he had to be. He was born dirt poor.
The dirt poor in our town lived in the cellars near the docks. The floors in the cellars were dirt floors. The rats who lived there were not crazy about the accommodations either.
Louie was determined not to stay poor, and stealing his way out was not the only way, but it was a way.
Louie was an unabashed thief all of his life.
As he matured he got better at it and stole better stuff.
It has been my experience that people who have nothing have more motivation to steal.
The obvious exception is very rich people who have banks and hedge funds and insurance companies.
Louie had helped me recruit our staff.
I did not know, but he was getting 20 percent from everyone he hired.
Louie was also pocketing a cut of the cash boxes because the girls I had put in charge of the cash all had a crush on Louie.
In the confusion, his brother was stealing the key chains.
As the crowd departed, I sat in the bleachers with Chef Gunther. He commended me on my hot dog chuckers but he was clearly heartbroken at the disappointing sales day.
None of us saw the school buses coming.
As he sat, dejected, mumbling in German, he fiddled with one of his key chains.
Louie and his brother were outside the stadium selling the rest of them.
They moved better than I thought they would.
That day should have taught me to stay out of the restaurant business.