An Appreciation of Forks: Episode 7, Season 2 of The Bear
A lesson in service and the importance of paying attention to details in a small business
At some point in the streaming era — even before TikTok and YouTube Shorts — I switched from watching long-form video to skimming it. The part of my brain that allowed me to sit through an entire movie or episode of a TV show glitched; “just the highlights” became its default mode. I couldn’t reset it to the factory defaults.
By skimming, I mean if the people on screen do or say anything interesting or surprising in the first few minutes, I’ll hang around to see where it goes. But usually they don’t. Usually, there’s nothing going on in their world or in their heads — or anything about their way of confronting or coping with it — that affects or interests me in my world or my head. You can’t draw water from an empty well.
Thanks for reading origami.ca! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
So once I get the gist, I’ll start dragging the slider to the right, scanning for anything that stands out: a scene, a complication, a moment of clarity; a genuine moment between friends or enemies or strangers; something, anything, that looks and feels like a payoff. Usually after a few minutes of this highlight seeking, I’m done. If I’m still curious about any plot points I skipped over or any characters I couldn’t place, I’ll read the Wikipedia episode summary. By then, I have the main points. I’m good.
I can get through whole seasons in an hour or two this way. With an entire series, I’ll Google the best episodes and speedrun those to figure out character, context, and long-term plot. This skimming habit — while begging the question, why watch at all? — has proved useful in keeping my investment low in a pastime where the returns have also proven to be consistently and frustratingly low (and declining) — a pastime I should but can’t give up.
As for the reason I can’t give it up, I give you Forks, the seventh episode in the second season of The Bear. By some mysterious variable-interval reinforcement schedule, the investment of time and partial attention in long-form narrative video occasionally pays off. Sometimes I get the exception not the rule. The thing I’m half watching slaps me upside the head and forces me to sit up and pay full attention. How does it do this? It shows me something that matters.
If you haven’t watched, the rest contains spoilers.
The show’s second season sees its cast rushing to open the eponymous The Bear, a fine dining restaurant they’re building out in the same location and space as The Original Beef of Chicagoland, the run-down sandwich shop that was home for the first season. Money and time are tight, the pressure’s up to full. There’s a lot to do and learn, and the old restaurant resists change and is full of unpleasant surprises.
The season features the show’s excellent secondary characters in personal and professional growth subplots: a trip to Copenhagen for linebacker turned pastry chef, Marcus; culinary school for line cooks Tina and Ebra; a chance to intern at “the best restaurant in the world” for Cousin Richie.
There’s also an engaging and realistic entrepreneurial storyline for the young, inexperienced, and out-on-a-limb leads, Carmy and Syd. They have to figure out the menu, manage the restaurant build, source suppliers. They have to pass inspections, secure the necessary licenses and permits, and hire and train front and back staff in a tight post-Covid labor market. As partners, they’re both figuring out how to work together and trust and support each other, both trying to understand how to lead and guide their staff, both hounded by doubts they can pull it off. “Keep going,” they tell themselves after each new setback.
As usual, I skimmed the first six episodes. It’s a really hard habit to shake — even when I recognize that I’m watching something well above the ordinary. But I stopped often enough and long enough to keep track of what was going on.
The background for the seventh episode: with Carmy’s sister, Sugar, stepping in to a management role at the start of the season, Richie, the family friend who looked after operations at the former sandwich shop, finds himself, at 45, displaced, purposeless, divorced, struggling to keep up, and afraid of being left behind. To get him unstuck, Carmy sends him to stage (an unpaid internship) at a three Michelin star restaurant.
It’s been voted the “best restaurant in the world” in The Bear universe. Carmy wants Richie to learn how to run a hospitality business, really run it, by working with the restaurant’s top notch staff. For his part, Richie thinks it’s a punishment, a tactic to get him out of the way during the renovation. He doesn’t believe. He tells Garrett, his minder at the restaurant, that Carmy’s “punishing me for being ancillary.”
Richie’s bad attitude lingers for the first few days. He’s tasked with polishing forks. That’s it. That’s all he gets to do for his entire early in the morning to late at night shift. There’s a chance he’ll make it to spoons later in the week if he gets “lucky.” But the work has Richie feeling anything but lucky. He drags, he short cuts. He shows up, but he isn’t present. The bad attitude isn’t lost on Garrett, the 30-year-old head of the restaurant’s back wait staff and Richie’s minder for the episode.
Garrett can’t accept his 45-year-old intern’s ass-dragging and indifference. He expects Richie to polish every fork to the restaurant’s high standards: no streaks. Richie, dead-eyed and circling the drain of his own problems, doesn’t see the reason for the fuss. When Garrett refuses to give him another assignment and instead points out he needs to do a better job on a fork he’s tossed aside, Richie snaps: “Yo. They’re goddamned forks.” Garrett takes him outside. Richie, still incredulous that such a small thing should matter so much, asks: “You really drink this Kool-Aid, huh?” Garrett, without hesitation, replies yeah, he does. Here’s his response when Richie asks why:
Because I love this, Richie. I love this so much, dude. Did you know that when this restaurant opened twelve years ago, it won the best restaurant in the world the same year? It’s retained three stars because we have a waiting list that’s long. Five thousand people waiting at any given moment long. Do you see their faces when they walk in here? How stoked they are to see us and how stoked we have to be to serve them? It takes 200 people to keep this place in orbit. And at any given moment, one of those people that is waiting in line gets to eat here. They get to spend their time and their money here. I’m sorry, bro, but we need to have some forks without streaks in them. Every day here is the freaking Super Bowl.
This level of buy-in from an employee may only be possible if you’re operating “the best restaurant in the world.” But how can you become “the best restaurant in the world” without the buy-in? This is the delicate, behind-the-scenes people part of any business — the recruiting, training, systems, and culture part — that’s both fascinating and frustrating for the people in charge. It takes a lot to pull off a product or service that wows a customer. Getting good people and getting them to believe and buy in is no small part.
Later in the episode, Garrett tells Richie that he had a drinking problem in his younger days but he managed to recover. Along the way, he learned about “acts of service.” He’s sober, he’s happy, healthy, and grateful; and he “just likes being able to serve other people now.” To him, that means recognizing how much the diners look forward to their visit and how sharp the staff need to be with all the details to make sure each diner’s experience is one-of-a-kind special.
Richie comes around and, as he does, he opens up to what’s happening around him. He begins to notice more and more how each of the different parts of the restaurant — the chefs, the front wait staff, the back wait staff — have to work in concert (and at a high level) to create these special experiences for their customers, how alert and committed they have to be in order to make it work, how they have to communicate and be on the same page. And how creating these experiences has become a sense of purpose for the staff, its own justification. One of them tells him: “Every night you make somebody’s day. You asked me how I can do this and that’s how I can do this.”
Richie gets a chance to experience this himself when he runs out to get a Chicago deep dish pizza for a guest at table 9. One of the wait staff has overheard her telling her family that “she was bummed that she was leaving Chicago without getting a chance to try” the signature dish. Richie hoofs it to pick up the pizza and get back to the restaurant. After some magic performed by the chef, Richie takes the transformed dish out to the table. The mother exclaims: “Oh, my God. [I can’t believe this.] You all are wonderful.” Richie, back in his element, comes back with a “Stop it, you’re wonderful. You guys good on drinks?”
By definition, most small business owners aren’t operating “the best X in the world.” There’s only one of those in each category X. But all small business owners are trying to create the best possible results for their customers with the means they have available. They have to; their business survival depends on it. Customers vote with their feet. Getting small business staff to show Garrett and crew’s level of agency and commitment, or something remotely in the same postal code, seems unrealistic for the many, many small businesses who fall short of “the best” tier.
A couple of quotes from Isadore Sharp, the Toronto-born founder and chairman of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, are helpful here as they show a template for building such a customer-focused culture. “We want people who like other people, and are therefore more motivated to serve them. [They’re motivated by an inner need to do well by others.] Competencies we can teach; attitude is ingrained.” The Sharp approach to hiring is to hire for attitude.
On top of that, Sharp felt that the most important thing that employees value is “a sense of purpose, and a feeling they’re working for more than a paycheck — that they’re helping to build a company that they can take pride in. In short, some daily meaning along with their daily bread.” The second step, then, once you’ve found the right employees, is to give them something to believe in: something positive and bigger than themselves to work toward. That’s on you, the owner. You have to create a sense that what the business does for its customers makes those customers and their lives better off. You can, of course, also get results by underpaying, overworking, and turning over staff. But, if you do, service is probably not what your customers are paying you for. And you both know it.
That is definitely one way to go, though it takes a type. Some hard-nosed people, tough operators who squeeze every nickel, can pull it off, and I’ve known more than a few. But I think most entrepreneurs would be more receptive to the advice Warren Buffett had for small business owners:
The best advice for a small business owner is never stop thinking about how to delight your customer. Not to satisfy your customer, but to delight your customer. When you wake up in the morning, start thinking about it; during the day, think about it; at night, think about it and then dream about it. No company has ever failed that had millions of delighted customers. And you don’t start with a million. You get them one at a time.
In small business, there’s always a tension between big and small things. Owners have to get into the details but not be consumed by them. They have to get the different parts of their business to work together but not lose sight of the distinct needs and capabilities of the individual parts. Forks suggests that service, exceptional service, always comes down to the small things. That’s what customers remember. Miss the details, miss the opportunity to delight customers.
Richie’s experience is neatly tied off in the closing scene. On his last day, he spends some early morning time peeling mushrooms with the restaurant’s founding chef, Terry. She tells him she grew up in an army family so there were a lot of standards. It turns out, she likes standards. She says the peeled mushrooms are “… just a nice little fun detail so when the diners see it, they know that someone spent a lot of time on their dish.” Richie understands but wonders why she’s doing it. “I like starting the day with this. Respect. Feels attached. I think time spent doing this is time well spent.”
“Time well spent,” Richie muses. “That’s what it’s all about?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
This is a really great scene. Terry, the person at the center of the restaurant, the one who created its menu, style, culture, its high standards and expectations, is calm, approachable, nurturing, curious, and honest in her self-assessment. In the few minutes she’s on screen with Richie, we can see she also knows how to read and relate to people. She acknowledges her own very public failure in an earlier restaurant — she was younger, on fire, and arrogant — and owns up to “blaming everybody else for the time I’d lost and the money I’d lost, all of it” when she was forced to close. At 38, unemployed, angry, and depressed, she wandered Chicago on a rainy night and waited, staring, under an awning until the sun came up. She happened to be standing outside the restaurant she’d go on to lease. With financial and emotional help from her mom, and, we’re left to infer, with her new-found wisdom, she turned it into the best in the world. Richie calls it a “never too late kinda thing.” “Never too late to start over,” she agrees.
The three Michelin star restaurant has a motto: “Every second counts.” It’s written on a sign right below the wall clock in the kitchen. The episode closes with Richie, on his last day in the restaurant, staring lingeringly at those words. Now, I don’t know if any of us can look at an account of our lives down to the second and be satisfied that each one counted, that all our seconds ended up in the good column.
How can I, for example, justify even the skimming of these shows and the many, many seconds I commit to my long-odds gambles? After all, those seconds get counted too, though likely not in the good column. In the workplace, the phrase suggests the need to act urgently and efficiently, one more reminder to optimize, optimize. In the show, however, the phrase is also connected to the dusky idea of catching at something that too quickly slips through our fingers. Time passes, whether we waste it or attend to it. But I can see how, among all possible pastimes, time willingly spent serving others would feel like time well spent.
Thanks for reading origami.ca! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.