Monday, November 14, 2005

LABOR RELATIONS: Communism and the Lunchtime Assembly/Production/Delivery Line at Cafe Phillips

Image of the Communist Rulers Gallery from CzechSite

I FINALLY GOT AROUND TO READING the cover story of the most recent City Paper, "Sleeper Cell" where for "D.C.'s communists, the struggle isn't about acquiring the means of production; it's about getting together." In the piece, Chris Peterson quotes Dustin Tasker, 22, a graduate student at American University pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy. Mr. Tasker, who is a communist, says to get a good grasp of modern-day communism, all you need to do is fully understand burrito production.
... Specifically, Chipotle Mexican Grill. “If you look with the right eyes, you see them taking raw materials and turning them into commodities,” he says. Anyone who’s ever eaten at Chipotle knows the drill: At one end of the line, an employee gets the burrito started, placing rice, beans, and/or meat on a tortilla, then passes it along to the next employee, who’s in charge of other ingredients. The third employee rings you up. It’s about as close to factory-floor industrialism as locals will get these days.

Burritos, says Tasker, explain the evil interdependence inherent in capitalism. “The bourgeoisie needs the proletariat, and the proletariat needs the bourgeoisie,” Tasker says. “This is why communism is a revolutionary idea. The system itself is the problem, and it all needs to be uprooted.”
Obviously, Mr. Tasker has never been to Cafe Phillips, the hand-carved sandwich emporium with a handful of locations in the downtown Washington area.

IN MANY WAYS, Phillips may best demonstrate Mr. Tasker's burrito production labor theory. While the Chipotle production line needs four people to operate properly (tortilla/rice/beans/sometimes meat person, sometimes meat/salsa/cheese/lettuce/guac person, the foil wrapper/bag-of-tortilla chips retriever, and the cash register clerk), Cafe Phillips can have as many as eight people working the food production and delivery process. It also shows how complex modern-day production interaction can be between workers, overseers and everyday consumers like you and me.

IT GOES SOMETHING LIKE THIS at the Cafe Phillips at 50 F St. NW:
Worker A is standing somewhere between the bread repository and Worker B (the meat carver). Worker A takes your order and gets your bread and calls out what meat Worker B needs to carve for your sandwich. Worker A works closely with Worker C (the toppings person) and will sometimes take on the role of Worker C. In some instances when it is really busy, Worker A will only repeat the order. Other times, Worker A will actually do some work, like open the bread and lay down a piece of lettuce, slap on mayo and/or mustard (spicy or yellow) in advance of the meat Worker B will deliver and the toppings Worker C will add about 2 seconds after the meat is firmly in place.

As the counter makes a sharp right turn, workers D and E will be waiting. Worker D will sometimes facilitate communication between workers A and F, who is stationed at the grill, in case a customer orders a reuben or cheesesteak. Most other times, Worker D will be equipped with a knife to slice and close the sandwich, to hand it off to Worker E, who will wrap the sandwich in the appropriate foil or butcher paper. Sometimes workers D and E will be the same person. It is either D or E who will hand off the sandwich to the customer and tattoo it with a black marker scribble to ensure that Workers H and I (later described) aren't getting cheated by cunning customers.

In some instances, Worker E will be Submanager A, who is keeping an eye on whatever goes on in the back kitchen. Submanager A is often stationed at the salad production area where the counter makes another right turn. Submanager A has a pretty low-impact job of tearing romaine lettuce into similarly shaped pieces, slicing tomatoes into precice quarters and laying them down at precise angles in the corners of the flat plastic containers which will be delivered to the publicly accessible refrigerated case in the front of the establishment. If salad responsibilities get too troublesome, Worker G who is back in the kitchen will come in and fill little plastic snap tubs with salad dressing as Submanager A is spooning up soup or (overpriced yet tasty) chili and gathering crackers to go with said soup. There is no Submanager B.

During the lunch hour, few customers order complicated coffee or espresso concoctions. They know better. In such a lunchtime operation, fancy coffee is an indulgence that simply cannot be tolerated when there are 10-15 people in the process of completing their sandwich order. Any gridlock between the cash register and the salad station could cause a backup. And Worker A way over at the meat-carving station would be looked down upon by Mother Phillips (the operation's no-nonsense task master) if he would not be doing his assigned duty by carving turkey, roast beef and ham as furiously as possible. I wonder if Worker A starts to fret and sweat when there are a bunch of vegetarian or egg/chicken/tuna salad orders in a row and the day's quota of turkeys consumed doesn't meet Mother Phillips' expectations.

Next up is the cash register operation, where there are always two Phillips associates, workers H and I, ready to process the cash-only transaction and bagging operation as quickly as humanly possible. Mother Phillips is usually hovering behind workers H and I, ensuring that the payment/bagging process is running at optimal efficiency. Sometimes Mother Phillips will throw the sandwich in the bag, sometimes she'll calculate the correct change quicker than Workers H and I. Sometimes she'll smile. And sometimes, just sometimes, Mother Phillips (with perfect hair, make-up and the finest of clothes), will even say thank you, no matter how many times Worker I will say "Thank You" during the cash exchange process. (Worker I has been known to say "Thank you, have a nice day" as many as four times as the customer delivers the sandwich for bagging, digs through a wallet for cash and change, waits for change and accepts the bag once the transaction is complete.)

Mother Phillips and Worker I will trade turns -- depending on how busy it is -- to handle dessert and treat orders. Certain treats, like blondies, must be baked with either crack (much like the chicken salad is) or mounds of butter. They are addictive, which is precisely what Mother Phillips must want: a captive pool of F Street workers who become so seduced, so mechanized by the process, they become enslaved by the Phillipian system, much like the workers who handcraft your sandwich every day. Soon enough you're spending close to $9 on lunch five days a week if you're not careful. The Greek deli over on G Street is so mismanaged -- it is the anti-Cafe Phillips -- that you always return to Cafe Phillips. Mother Phillips is much like Medusa (seen here, courtesy Caravaggio and the University of Texas), or perhaps she's just Stalin With a Smile. She'll turn you into a stone-faced zombie and you’ll be unable to loosen yourself from her clutches. Pity the railroad association workers who dominate the building. They might not know any better. (If Mother Phillips is reading this, your sandwiches are wonderful, by the way. I miss the chicken salad.)

>> "Sleeper Cell" [City Paper]
>> "Cafe Phillips Owner Promises Clients ‘The Best Coffee in the World’" [Roll Call]


At 2:00 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

Blondies with crack are the only way to make 'em...

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