My Dad started with the old school lessons early. I was in the first grade and was complaining about the one-mile walk to the elementary school in bad weather. Dad said, “That’s nothing. When I was your age, we walked to school two miles in the blinding snow and freezing rain. Uphill. Both ways.”
Once I figured out that last part, he moved on to, “If you don’t get good grades in school, you’ll end up digging ditches.” While I had never seen anyone actually digging a ditch, the thought of it seemed a lot worse than the walk to school.
I was 14 when he opened up his second delicatessen in 1968, and it was unspoken that my weekends and summers would now be spent working there. The thought of having an actual job was exciting. I would get paid! Have my own money! When we stocked the shelves for the first time, my cousin, Johnny the math teacher, helped out by figuring out the markup on items, taking into account something I’d never heard of: Overhead. Ah, so the markup isn’t pure profit. A little business knowledge. A few days before we opened, Dad tested me on making change, since back then cash registers didn’t do the math for you. “Someone spends six dollars and five cents. They give you a 10. How much change?” When I answered that question, he tossed in a nickel. “Now how much change?” To this day I can still do math in my head.
Two years after we opened, things changed when I got my driver’s license and bought a car (with my own money.) Now it was my job to open the store on Saturdays so Dad could sleep late and have a little time off. I had the routine down pat. Open the door. Turn on the lights. Unroll the awning if the wind wasn’t bad. Make the coffee. Slice the tomatoes and shred the lettuce for sandwiches. Check the bread and toss the stale slices to the ducks out back. Fill the deli case with potato salad and coleslaw. Feed the cops for free. I was proud that Dad thought I was responsible enough to open his business at that age.
But real-life classes continued, stuff you couldn’t learn in a book. I dealt with the delivery guys, checking their invoices, reminding them we’d need more stock at certain times of the year. There were lessons to be learned. One time Dad took a week off and left me in charge. The Coca-Cola guy showed up with his weekly delivery of five cases and offered me a deal. “If you buy a hundred cases today, I’ll give you 20 cases free. The deal is only good this week.” No luck getting Dad on the phone, so I made an executive decision. Dad would be thrilled with 20 free cases of Coke!
He returned from vacation and found Coke stacked up everywhere. You could barely move in the back room. He was not pleased. I learned that sometimes a deal might seem like a good thing, but in this case, the resulting stress of having to contort yourself around stacks of soda for weeks wasn’t worth it.
Dealing with customers was something else, as I found you can’t always judge a book by its cover. A very pleasant teacher at a ritzy private school named Jean Harris was a regular. Well, she was a regular until she landed in prison after murdering the Scarsdale diet doctor in a story that went national.
And Dad had rules about customers. Specifically, they weren’t always right. If someone was rude or difficult, you didn’t have to put up with it. One day he looked up and saw a small child had crawled into the dairy case. He politely asked the mother to remove the child. She said, “He’s just expressing himself.” Dad replied, “He can express himself outside.” We never saw her again. Which was fine with us.
One hard and fast rule was that we didn’t accept personal checks. I learned that not only did you lose the amount on the check, but the bank whacked you with a pretty big service charge. Ouch! After a few bounced that first month, Dad did two things: he taped the bounced checks on the front window (those who had written them quickly showed up to pay them) and he put a sign on top of the cash register in bold letters. NO CHECKS CASHED. This led to a hilarious confrontation when actor Christopher Plummer came into the store. I had no idea who he was, having never seen "The Sound of Music" (still haven’t) and Dad wouldn’t be caught dead watching a musical. Plummer puts a bunch of items on the counter and pulls out a checkbook. Dad taps one knuckle on the counter and points to the sign. The actor looks up and reads the sign. “But I’M Christopher Plummer!” Which means nothing to my father. “And I’M Nick Tatano, and I’m not taking your check.” Plummer huffed and puffed and pulled out some cash. We later found out he was an actor, but it made no difference since we treated everyone the same. Never saw him again either.
But the vast majority of regular customers were nice and I learned that if you treated them well you built relationships. The Pan Am flight attendant brought me stuff from around the world. The wealthy woman who spent a lot of time in Europe gave me foreign coins and newspapers, which were cool. Our one deaf customer taught me a few signs so I’d know what he was ordering. The realtor gave me a nice tip one day after he asked me to “Make the best roast beef sandwich you’ve ever made.” Fine, I took a little extra care since he was a good guy. The next day he showed up and said, “Wanted you to know George C. Scott said that was the best roast beef sandwich he’d ever eaten.”
Then there was a huge lesson that really applies today. One of our very nice regular customers decided to run for public office. He stopped by and asked my Dad if he could put a campaign sign in the window, but my father politely declined. The guy seemed to understand. After he left, I asked my Dad why he wouldn’t allow the sign even though I knew we’d be voting for him.
“When you’re in business you can’t be political. Half the people might not like him, and if they know we’re supporting him we could lose business.”
That is a lesson that is lost on a lot of companies that take a political stance these days. “And never tell anyone how you vote.” That came in handy when I became a reporter; another lesson lost on many members of today’s media.
The stuff I learned went beyond cooking and making sandwiches, and the hard work was definitely an incentive to stay in college. I made enough to pay my entire tuition, books, room and board. No student loan required. By the time I graduated the work ethic was ingrained. And though I never took a business course in college, I knew how to run one if I ever decided to do so.
After graduating during a recession, the only journalism job I could find was a part-time gig at a weekly newspaper. So, I kept working at the deli. And here’s where personal, face-to-face connections came in. A regular customer named Georgia asked me if I’d found a full-time job. When I told her I hadn’t she said, “Did you know I own a radio station? Why don’t you stop by?” I visited shortly thereafter and became an intern, even though I was already out of college. And that’s how I got into broadcasting.
What’s the point of this story? That today’s high school and college students can learn some very valuable skills that come with having a job. While work ethic and responsibility remain old school, learning to deal with people on a personal level is invaluable in an era where kids only communicate with cell phones. There are so many life skills that young people can’t learn from a book. They may grumble at the suggestion of actually going to work but trust me, you can’t put a price on the pride and education that comes from having a real job.
Education doesn’t stop in the classroom. And there are other classrooms out there that aren’t part of any school which can teach your kids a lot. My classroom was a deli. A department store is a classroom. A restaurant is a classroom. Any business is a classroom. But these days, some kids spend their weekends and summers sleeping till noon and playing all day on their cell phones.
Others can get a head start on life and learn how the real world actually works, simply by getting a job.
I would never tell anyone how to raise their children, but if you want your kid to be ahead of the game, it’s worth considering.
Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.