They Don’t Make Them Like That Any More, Thank Heaven

Fred Bolton was the sort of entrepreneur who gets Salmonella a bad name. I worked for him over three or four seasons as a waiter, in summer vacations from school and, later, university. Fred was the proprietor of Fred's Grill, a single-storey jerry-built building, all windows and low ceiling, on the sea front of what was then a popular resort. He also owned a hamburger kiosk out front on the promenade and a similar establishment with a café and a caravan, selling full meals, hot dogs and jugs of tea at a beauty spot a little way down the coast.

The secret of Fred's prosperity was simple; charge the going rate for what you sell, but go for cheap buildings, cheap ingredients and cheap labour. I was part of the last element. There was no minimum wage in the late fifties, but if there had been, Fred would have paid less, and especially to schoolkids. For the first season, I worked in the caravan out at the Bay. It was a hot summer, and the caravan was glassed all round and contained a grill and a chip frier. The presence of an ice cream freezer, paradoxically, only added to the heat except in the brief, blissful second when it was opened. Supplies were obtained from the caff; crates of cheap fizzy drinks – no named brands, they cost more and had to be sold at the same price as the other drinks which gave more profit – tubs of ice cream, cones and wafers, rather small buns, and great globs of hamburger mixture, unusual in colour and texture, sent down from Fred's Grill once a week. The chips, too, were blanched at the Grill and sent along on trays ready for a quick final fry.

When supplies ran out, it was difficult to communicate with the caff by frantic waving, and anyway my busy period tended to coincide with theirs. It was simpler not to run out, which meant that one's cooking and serving activities were circumscribed by the presence of boxes and crates covering all of the floor except a narrow path between counter and cooker. At off-peak moments it was still not permitted to leave the caravan, but the caff would send a waitress across from time to time to see if I needed anything. Sometimes she would stay and keep me company. I was still too young and too well brought up to wonder why she lingered, always wearing the same hopeful expression. Even had I understood, I can't imagine what we could have got up to in a crowded caravan, surrounded by windows, in the middle of a seaside field surrounded by happy holidaymakers.

The next year, I was promoted to be a waiter in the Grill. The loss of independence, having to work all day – and often half the night – under Ted's eye, was softened by the tips. We all kept our own tips, left on the table by kindly diners. You had to be quick to clear the table, because if you weren't, somebody else would do it for you. The oldest waiter was most adept at this. I would come into a dining-room to find my table cleared. 'Oh, thanks. Was there a tip?' 'No. Mean buggers this week.'

Mean buggers, in fact were rare. I regularly made twice my (admittedly pitiful) wage in tips, which were understood to be tax free. In fact, looking back, the whole thing was tax free. Fred paid in cash, with no pay slip and no questions asked. The tips varied slightly from week to week, according to the origin of the visitors. Those were the days of Wakes weeks, when the whole industry of a textile town would shut down for a week and the workers go on holiday. Oldham was a good week, Bolton inclined to be a bit thin. Best of all was, surprisingly, Glasgow.

It wasn't that Glaswegians were actually more inclined to lavish spending than their reputation would suggest. The real pickings were on the first Sunday morning, when the Grill opened at four o'clock just as the coaches began to arrive. Their passengers had been loaded the previous evening in Glasgow, each containing forty holidaymakers and two crates of Whisky. By the time they arrived, they were happy and hungry, the pubs were closed and the boarding-houses wouldn't take them in until midday. All three of our dining-rooms would be full, extra tables slotted in everywhere, vast quantities of food consumed, and the tips were phenomenal. It was not uncommon, on a Glasgow morning, to have a single table give a ten-shilling tip – the same sum as my pay for the early shift. 'Ah, spoil yersel', laddie, I've a year's holiday pay in ma pooch'. The landladies knew it, too, and would extract every last penny of their bill before opening the room; they knew that their guests would be stony broke by Wednesday, yet somehow still drunk till Friday, sober only for a short time on Saturday until the coaches arrived to take them home, complete with a couple more crates of Scotch.

There were, as I have said, three dining-rooms and a hamburger kiosk. There was also a Fish and Chip shop, on the side of the building and therefore off the promenade. The Council had decreed that Fish and Chip shops were not allowed on the sea front, though they didn't seem to mind the equally smelly and messy hamburger stall. Perhaps they were proud of Fred's hamburgers, which had a wide reputation and were extremely popular. 'Best hamburgers in Lancashire', they would say, 'So much tastier than all the others'. The Chippie was almost a separate establishment; we waiters and waitresses never went in there, collecting some of our food from the doorway. At the hub of all this activity was a cubby-hole containing the till, the telephone and Fred. From there, directly or through an array of mirrors, Fred could keep an eye on everything that went on in the Grill. If a punter patted a waitress's bum, Fred would see. 'Good tip coming there, gel'. If a diner sent food back, Fred would stop you the moment you were out of sight. 'What's up with that steak, then?' 'Says it's not cooked right.' 'Turn it ovver. T'other side always looks different.' And back the steak would go, different in appearance, to a grateful customer, who, having asserted himself and been satisfied, would in turn leave a good tip.

Fred himself always had a good tip, but of a different sort. The telephone was constantly in action, not taking bookings – we didn't do anything as fancy as that – but keeping Fred in contact with his bookie. I don't think he ever missed a race; but all the time his eyes were on the business, seeing everything, missing nothing. 'Rescue that chicken', he would bark as I came flying past him with the débris from a table, or 'Rescue that 'am.' All the rescued food went into a special bin, which Fred himself took down to the basement at the end of the day's work. It was the great secret of the ever-popular hamburgers. No wonder they looked and tasted different; they contained chicken, ham, fish, meat pie, the occasional twice-turned steak, all the leavings of a busy restaurant. They were, I must admit, delicious.

Of course, all our customers had grown up during the War, when to waste food was the greatest of sins; none of them, in all probability, had ever owned a refrigerator; all of them had developed an immunity to germs which a later generation, schooled in American concepts of hygiene, has, alas, lost. But most of them would have shuddered had they known some of the other little secrets of Fred’s grill.

The kitchen, for a start, was tiny; there was just room for the one cook, and no more. It was never cleaned – there was neither time nor space – in the course of the day; at ten o’clock at night, the cook would scrape out the accumulated underfoot mess and wipe the work surfaces down with a solution of bleach. Ted insisted the bleach be diluted ten to one, though he bought such thin stuff in the first place that the waitress who, one day, accidentally drank a cup of it suffered no ill-effects at all. The cook, actually, would make a fairly thorough job of this, as he was rarely in a hurry to retire to bed. Most of our cooks – there was a pretty fast turnover in a twelve-hour-a-day seasonal job – were ex-navy, over from Ireland for the summer, and most of them slept rough, usually under the Pier. What this did for their personal hygiene, I shudder to think. If one came in early in the morning, the cook would usually be found bare-chested, washing at the sink; but below the waist, nobody dared contemplate.

Food preparation was original, too. I have already mentioned that chips were blanched in advance, for a quicker fry. I have not mentioned that the blanching was done on Thursday, a quiet day in seaside catering, and the blanched chips were spread on bread trays and stacked up from floor to ceiling to be used through the week. Not one member of Fred’s staff would, even for a bet, have eaten chips on a Wednesday.

The food preparation area was in a basement under the kitchen, a narrow, low space – I had to bend under the ceiling – with an open drain running down the middle. Here, at off-peak moments during the day, the cook would frantically cut steaks, slice ham, chop carrots, while I or one of the waitresses attended to the potato peeler. The potato peeler was fun; a carborundum drum in which the spuds rolled and tossed and were abraded, to the size of a pea if you weren’t careful, and the resultant slush pumped by a continuous stream of water into the drain underfoot. Sometimes it got blocked, and the potato slurry rotted amazingly quickly and smelt terrible. But that basement was hardly a perfumery at the best of times.

The menu never changed over the years I worked for Fred. Steak, ham, chicken I have already mentioned. There was roast beef, too, and liver and onions. They were served with chips or mashed potatoes (instant, of course, but don’t tell ‘em), boiled carrots (kept in a steamer all day and pretty well softened by dinner time), sprouts ditto, and peas – canned or mushy. A board outside announced ‘Today’s Special’, which was always and invariably pie and chips. Amazingly, not one customer ever complained that when the Special arrived it was half a pie, cut diagonally and liberally covered from the steaming vat of gravy kept constantly bubbling on the back of the stove and constantly topped up with gravy powder and the occasional bone.

The actual job of a waiter at Fred’s was easy. You took an order, wrote it down, went and stuck it on a spike in the stillroom and yelled it at the cook. Everything was always ready cooked – everything, including steaks, ham and the fried eggs at breakfast time; so the plates were quickly filled and carried out to the tables. I was young, tall and dressed in black trousers, white monkey-jacket and black bow tie, like the evening wear of a ship’s steward on a cheap cargo-passenger boat. I amused myself by playing the stately-home butler as I handed out the food, and got twice the tips of the poor waitresses simply on impressiveness. It was all a performance, and one which came in useful a few years later when I had a part in a play which required me, actually as a manservant this time, to serve a four-course meal on stage. Setting and clearing the tables was less fun, except for the little presents tucked under the plates; it was the performance that brought me back year after year. And, of course, the amazing fact that in all the time I worked there, we never actually poisoned anybody.


Hedley Grenfell-Banks

Hothfield 2008

2024 words