In late summer of 1999 I was on the phone with the lovely people from McDonald’s, telling them the size of shirt I needed, and they were promising me three brand new shirts for my first day working there on the following Monday. Keep in mind I hadn’t really accepted the job at that point, but it was their sign that they were pushing hard to sign me to a long term deal. I felt like Dikembe Mutombo when the Sixers offered him big money to play basketball for them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to play for the Sixers. McDonald’s wasn’t quite the job I wanted to have on my resume as a 21-year old man who had no designs on working fast food for the rest of his life.
Luckily for me that same day I had an interview with Mr. Gatti’s, a buffet pizza chain with several franchise locations in the Tennessee area. It was my last chance to get out of O’Charley’s, where my hours had dwindled precipitously as the summer tumbled head over heels into autumn. Because I was the only one working, I needed a place that could give me hours and a chance to move up so I could make even more money over the long haul, and I somehow didn’t think McDonald’s was that place. But I was so desperate to get out of O’Charley’s that I was seriously considering it. And then Gatti’s happened.
Funny enough, my first wife and I had just visited the establishment on Kingston Pike for lunch one day and saw the employment sign. I had filled out an application right then and there (back in the time where all applications were still in paper format), but had nearly forgotten about it by the time I received the call from McDonald’s about the shirts. Not less than half an hour later I got a call from Mr. Gatti’s, I went in for the perfunctory interview, and the rest is history. I was happy to call McDonald’s back and let them know they could give those nice new shirts to someone else who wore size XL.
If you’re not familiar with Mr. Gatti’s their claim to fame was that a pizza from there was featured in the film, Miss Congeniality. It was all the rage back then because the movie was in theaters when I worked there. We were quite famous, or at least we thought we were at the time. It was the classic buffet setup, with a huge dining room, two smaller party rooms, and a huge buffet line that dominated the entire left side of the restaurant. And they served Pepsi and Pepsi products, too, which if any of you know me, I much prefer to Coke (bleh!) so I was already sold when I found that out.
And the pizzas, oh the pizzas! I’m a huge pizza fan, so it was amazing to be able to work around them all day long, every day (yes, I even worked on Sundays, and most holidays). We made a huge variety that always stayed on the buffet, including veggie, pepperoni, sausage and onion, cheese, and two dessert pizzas (apple cinnamon and lemon), along with garlic bread. There was also an option of deep dish versus regular crust. And you could have the entire buffet, featuring spaghetti as well, for only $5.49! Can you tell how much I told customers that when they came in? “Only $5.49!” It was an amazing deal, and the lunch rush was incredible every single day (except for Sundays — no one heading to Gatti’s after church. How sad).
I quickly got into a routine, getting there at 6-7 in the morning (the store opened at 11) in order to work with the dough. It was funny. We had a huge dough mixer that required a precise mix of the pizza mix (a huge bag of something that resembled flour), and a certain temperature of water, in order to help the dough set correctly. And the dough for deep dish was a lot different from the dough for regular crust and required a different water-to-mix ratio and a different temperature.
I learned that the hard way when I first started. I was responsible for mixing the dough at night before we closed, and putting it into huge tubs that would help it rise during the night. That was the fun part, figuring out how much dough we would need for the next day and getting it all prepped. Then I would come in first thing in the morning, get those tubs back out, and go to town with the dough press and the form cutter. It would quickly get boring because it didn’t take too much of my mind process to do the repetition necessary to get perfect forms every time, even with the deep dish dough. So, I took to getting out the radio and playing top 40 while working. I would sing along at the top of my lungs because only one other person would usually be there that early as well, the vegetable prep, Mandy.
And yeah, Mandy got pretty used to my caterwauling, belting out the latest Britney Spears or N*Sync song while doing an improv dance as the machine did its work in the corner. As my time there progressed I was given more responsibilities, like being responsible for the make line, which was the people and the order in which they worked at the buffet. There was someone to deal with the cash register, someone to start the line, someone to put on sauce and cheese, another to put on toppings, and one more at the oven to retrieve the finished pizzas, cut them into 12ths, and put them on the line. I would generally work on the line only when necessary, or to help out if anyone got backed up. Otherwise I would be in the back helping things move along smoothly, bringing in more supplies when necessary, and and keeping the dining room clean, along with several busboys we had working there as well.
The best thing about the lunch rush was that the time moved quickly, but the worst thing was when the line wasn’t working smoothly or when we were slammed and not enough pizzas were out at any given time during it. I recall one lunch rush when we were slammed right before a football game and we had pizzas lined four deep (they were usually just two deep) and the oven just kept on spitting them out. The time flew by, though, and before we knew it the time would be 2 o’clock and we would be completely dead. It was an all-or-nothing proposition at Mr. Gatti’s. Then things would be really slow until the dinner rush at 5, which lasted until 7.
We had a bet one New Year’s Day (we were open regular hours) about when the first customer would come in, and I won with my time of 2:30. In the down time periods (between buffet times) I would go to the bank in my green Ford Probe to deposit the cash and to manage accounts. I would also be responsible for changing the large sign out front that was about 25 feet tall. In order to change the words on the sign I needed a huge pole that we kept in the back with a large suction cup on the end of it. I would also need a large bowl of water in order to moisten the suction cup, attach it to each letter in turn, then lift the letter up into position. It would often take me over an hour to change both sides of the sign so it could be seen from both ends of Kingston Pike.
There were good times in that place, and bad times. One of my favorite moments was when I personally catered a large party in the back party room and when I returned after they were gone, each one of them had left me a $10 bill as a tip. We ate well that night, because I got to keep every single one of my tips (unlike O’Charley’s where I only got a percentage of them). And one of the worst was on a Monday morning in September of 2001 when I was summoned from the back prep room to see the second plane slam into the second World Trade Center tower. It was so surreal, and I will always equate that moment with Mr. Gatti’s. Every American knows where they were when that moment occurred, and I just happened to be at Gatti’s working hard.
In the pantheon of jobs, it was just another one, but it taught me a lot about responsibility, being responsible for a work force, making sure I could get the numbers to come out right, and being prepared for every eventuality, like a guy coming in with a $100 dollar counterfeit bill and then yelling at the cashier for busting him on it. I had to call the police on that one. And it was really fun when there were 20 people moving quickly through the buffet line and I was at the oven sliding pizza after pizza out, slicing each one with swiftness, and putting them out there for consumption. It was like the customers were validating me and my job when they liked the pizza. And that felt good.