When I worked at the Algonquin Hotel…

algonquin… in beautiful St. Andrews, NB, in the early ’80s, there was one spot that was the undisputed best place to party – a bar/restaurant called the Brass Bull.  The Algonquin is a seasonal establishment, opening in May and closing after Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  Most of the 400 or so staff members are from out of town and live in 3 big dorms behind the hotel.  So it’s very much a party atmosphere.

Therefore, the Brass Bull was almost always full of 20-something people with tip-money in their pockets and binge-drinking on their minds.  It was a blast every night of the week.  I have some great memories of dancing the night away to Prince and the Police and Eurythmics.

Anyway, when we were in St Andrews last month whale watching, we went to the Brass Bull, which is now called The Gables, and the dance floor is now a family-friendly dining area.  It has completely changed the way it markets itself, and consequently, its clientele.

I spoke to the owner of the establishment (who was tending bar) about my nostalgic recollections of the old Brass Bull.  It turns out he used to work there during that time, and shortly after my summer there, actually bought into it and eventually became sole owner. 

He told me that things changed during that period – his younger crowd of customers stopped being gleeful drunks and started turning into nasty drunks.  After a while, he decided it wasn’t worth it any more, and turned the place into a restaurant around 1990 and it has remained that way.

He’s happy with his decision, but I have to wonder if he wasn’t surrendering in a way.  He let the customers control the “story” about what the Brass Bull was all about, instead of creating  the story and having customers self-select if they liked that story.  I’d like to think that he could have preserved the fun party-place, instead of throwing up his hands and letting a bad crowd run him out of business (or rather, into another business).

It reminds me of a story in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, about how the NYC subway was transformed from a very dangerous, crime-ridden atmosphere into the relatively pleasant place it is now, in a very short time.  They didn’t put thousands of cops down there, or put security cameras everywhere, or any other kind of force majeure.  They did two things – eliminated graffiti, and arrested everyone who jumped the turnstile instead of paying.  They created a story of a place where small acts of bad behaviour would not be tolerated, and this in turn created an atmosphere where people were much less likely to perform greater crimes.

If the Brass Bull had handled its marketing/story better, could it have remained a fun bar?



Whales Were Watched

And the award for worst marine mammal photographer of the year goes to:  “Me!”  Believe me when I tell you that this is the BEST picture of the few dozen I shot on Saturday afternoon.  It shows two Finback whales side-by-side, one just exhaling while the further one is already starting to dive again.  The little bit of lighter colour in front of the plume is the lower jaw of the nearer whale.  The further one was about 70 feet long, the closer about 50.  That’s another whale-watching boat in the background.  We were just off the northeast corner of Campobello Island.

Here’s my defense for the poor photography:  I only used our lower end digital camera with non-optical zooming for these shots.  I have a nice film camera with a nice telephoto lens, but I learned long ago that trying to shoot transient, distant, moving things through a viewfinder means frustration and a depreciation of the whole experience.  It’s way easier to just wave your digital in the general direction of the action about 50 times and actually capture the whale 10 or 12 times.  So, in this case, I believe the substandard quality of the whale pix was worth the additional enjoyment I got from the moment.

Here’s a better quality shot of Bishop with a live Starfish.  (The crew was very smart with hot soup, face-painting, pirate costumes, and the live ocean critter experiences they offered on the way BACK, when the excitement of the whales had worn off and it was getting FREAKING cold.)

The whole flickr photostream is here for fans of blurry dark objects surrounded by pixelated blue water.  Oh, and sunsets and beautiful girls.


Mandatory Tipping

Tip JarDuring a trip to NB once while we still lived in BC many years ago, my wife and I went to St. Andrews by the Sea.  It is a beautiful small town frozen in time  – around 1890, I’d say.  During our visit, we had dinner at a lovely little hotel down on Water St. whose name escapes me now.  It may very well have changed names by now anyway.

The reason I remember that meal is that there was a little tent-card on the table explaining that a 15% gratuity would be automatically added to our bill.  The card directed that if we had any feedback on the service (which in a normal hospitality business would presumably be indicated by the size of the tip), we should write it on the form provided and leave it on our table.

I understand why they operated this way.  St. Andrews is overrun with bus tours every summer.  I worked at the Algonquin Hotel there one season (where most of the tours stay), and I can tell you that the mostly elderly people on those tours do not tip very well, partially because they get used to staying places where a group gratuity charge has already been built into the fee for the tour.  So when the oldsters venture downtown to dine at this other establishment, they forget to tip.  So to protect the employees, management has decided to make sure they remember.

Well, this is wrong on many levels.  I cut my serving chops in Montréal, where service is GREAT, and servers get paid GREAT.  “Waiter” is an honourable profession there, and the best waiters at the best places make some serious coin.  Inferior waiters (and bartenders) get tipped poorly, and either get better, or get another job.  The small-c communist system at work at that St. Andrews establishment would eventually guarantee that every server would sink to the lowest level of effort that would still ensure they received the same compensation as everyone else.  There is no incentive to be excellent.

And a good server, who regularly makes far more than 15%,  would never go to work there in the first place.