Never get into business with someone you're not sure about.
I always had a sneaking suspicion that Frank might be a fraud. In the couple of weeks after Johnny Rockit's opened, evidence began accumulating. Incontrovertible evidence. Mountains of it. I mean, I had always taken Frank's stories with a grain of salt, but my confidence in them containing even a grain of truth was starting to unravel. It was very disconcerting. Frank had been mistaken about the piles of cash that were headed our way.
Business the first night was dismal, nearly nonexistent. A few friends dropped in, my folks of course were there, and more than a couple of drunk students looking for the Bluebird mistakenly happened by.
They would look around and ask, "Where's the band?"
"Is this the Bird?"
"Wait a minute...?"
And of course, my favorite; "What the fuck?"
Then they would back up out the door and look up at the sign quizzically, glance 2 doors down the street and sigh with relief, before heading to their real destination. The biggest crowds we got were girls wanting to piss in my toilet, or rather on my toilet. After a few nights of long lines, no sales and cleaning up urine and vomit, I decided that our "public" restroom would become unavailable after 10:00 pm. That took care of that. (Until a year later, when I closed it at 8:00 pm.)
Two nights or so in, Craig made it clear this wasn't what he was looking for and we started looking for actual employees. I was grateful for the bits of knowledge he had imparted; like how to count out a register at the end of the night, how to count back change and how to start a system of writing out tickets. All of these things I had overlooked. I probably didn't tell him, but I was very grateful for those insights. I hadn't even considered that I might have to do math as part of owning a restaurant. I don't know why, but I suspect it may have had something to do with being wasted all the time.
Within a month we had a small crew of people working for us, some of whom Frank didn't like. He also didn't want to pay the counter girls I hired with a paycheck. A couple of them quit after the first couple of weeks when it became apparent that fair pay wasn't forthcoming.
"I'm sorry Kevin, I can't do this anymore...," they'd say to me.
I also had a turnover in drivers fairly quickly for numerous reasons. I fired my first friend/employees early on too. I hated, and would always hate, that part of the job. I was working twelve hour nights with no breaks, seven days a week. This was turning out to be a very unstable and unprofitable endeavor. I started to seriously doubt Frank's sapience.
Frank and I did an interview for the "lifestyle" section of the newspaper a few days before opening. The kid that showed up, sat and drank beer with us and hardly took notes. Frank regaled the young man with tales of his rock and roll credentials, the funniest was the claim that he worked at Max's Kansas City in New York. This was a famous bar that, along with CBGB's, helped spawn the early '70's punk scene. Frank waxed on about serving drinks to Joey Ramone, David Johansen, Debbie Harry and Richard Hell. I almost suspected it may have had some truth to it, because I couldn't picture Frank knowing those names on his own. He was a Sinatra guy, a Dean Martin guy, not a punk rock connoisseur. With Frank however, I couldn't tell what was true, when it all sounded like bullshit.
When the article came out it was full of mis-quotes and inaccuracies, it mentioned the bar alright, but the kid thought the Kansas City part, was its location, so he put MO after it. Seems we got him a little too drunk. The quotes by me were totally made up. He did get the gist of what we said, though, so we didn't object when the piece hit the newstand. Business jumped for a couple of days and then fell back. We did two more article/interviews with the same results. Frank seemed puzzled that we weren't raking in the dough, and I was puzzled that Frank was puzzled.
It was during this time that Frank put a bunch of our remaining money into a 30 second TV commercial. He hired some guy to shoot it and we asked a few of our friends to participate. First we got my friend Deke to narrate the spot. Frank thought Deke would make a perfect pitch man and I had to agree.
"Deke's a fuckin' good lookin' guy." Frank would tell me.
"Yeah, I like Deke. His band Chiba Dowa is the shit," I added.
"I don't know about that, but he's fuckin' handsome, know what I mean? If I was a broad, I'd fuck'im. He's perfect for the spot." Frank smiled, pleased with himself.
We also got Frankie Camaro to do the background score. I was real happy about that. It was another way to pay homage to local musicians and friends of mine. The script was simple and short. A spiel by Deke, some shots of people eating and Frankie Camaro jamming out in the background.
It seemed like a great idea, even though the planned shot of our sign was compromised because the flying v guitar burned out (we had to take it off for repairs). Frank also had a young lady come in to act as our counter girl for the commercial. She turned out to be the older sister of my friend Anita. Frank thought she looked like a model, so he changed the script to focus on her more. I wasn't so sure, but forward we marched, off to make Johnny Rockit's Famous Pizza, well...famous.
I put the word out about the shoot and we started making pizzas for people to eat in the commercial. We opened the doors and a bunch of the waiters from The Villa and a few of my friends showed up to be in the scene. The guy shooting it was a bit of a greaseball, and he spent a lot of his time with his camera pointed at the counter girl's mouth. Frank loved that part. The commercial itself was a little amateurish, but we were very satisfied none the less. The only friend of mine besides Deke to get any coverage was an ex-girlfriend of mine, Angie. Frank and the camera guy decided the rest of us were a little too raggedy and they opted for the frat-boy waiters instead. The spot ran on channel 4, a week later.
Nothing happened. A small bump in deliveries, but business remained relatively flat. It ran double time after midnight, but still, nothing.
I remember a high school friend poking his head in one night.
"Hey Burd-man! I saw that cheesy ass commercial of yours on TV last night!" His voice echoed in the empty space.
"Oh yeah," I answered.
"Yeah, that was the dumbest thing I've ever seen. The Don's Guns commercials are better!" He turned and left, laughing out the door, not even buying a slice.
Next, we tried advertising in the paper. This time I convinced Frank to let me try something different. Instead of copying Pizza Express's coupons, which were 1$, 2$ and 3$ off, I'd try listing a pizza and what it cost up front and see how that worked. My thought was, if people knew what they were getting up front, instead of having to ask a bunch of questions to figure out the best price, they'd be more likely to order. So, I made a coupon for a Rolling Stone pizza for $8.95, and we featured it with a little piece about the restaurant in the paper. It worked like a charm. Business suddenly started picking up.
"Wow, that was my idea. Not Frank's..." I'd think to myself. "Hmmm..."
I was also aggressively working the bars around town. I made a deal where Bluebird employees would get 1/2 price food and the bands could eat absolutely free when they played. I sent pizzas over to the doormen at Jakes, 2nd Story, The Video Saloon and the Bluebird sporadically to drum up business. It started working too well.
One night a Grateful Dead cover band called The Spirtles came in with a bunch of hangers on. They ordered around 6 large pizzas, drinks for about 15 people and multiple breadstick orders. I realized the flaw in my plan. I couldn't stay in business by giving away the store. I had to adjust my strategy. There were hard feelings a few months later when I started charging the bands 1/2 price and had to tell the Bird employees to pay full price. I felt awkward doing it but Frank insisted, and I knew I couldn't continue feeding groupies. I still sent pizzas to the doormen though, and offered pizzas for memorabilia. That remained a goldmine of free advertising.
By winter, things were starting to look up. I was feeling more confident about the business. Frank was even talking about giving me a paycheck soon, if things kept going the way they were going, and I was relieved about that. He paid my rent and let me take $5 a night out of the register for cigarettes, but I was seeing little money otherwise. A tip jar on the counter would get me a couple of bucks a night, but hardly anything approaching a liveable sum. Whenever I'd get squirrelly about cash or how long until my "shares" were paid off, Frank would give me a drink or a line to shut me up. It worked. I still had keys to The Villa so staying drunk wasn't a problem.
I had also made friends with a lot of the Bluebird employees. On certain nights, when they didn't have a place to party after work, I opened Johnny Rockit's for a little after-hours fiesta. They would bring a few cases of beer and I'd make a few pies and we'd all drink and listen to music until the sun came up.
It was short lived though. When the Health inspector came for a visit one afternoon and Frank opened the place to find dirty dishes, beer cans and cigarette butts in the dining area, and used condoms in the bathroom. The Health inspector freaked out on Frank, who in turn freaked out on me.
"What-the-fuck-is-the-matter-with-you? You stupid asshole! You wanna get us closed down? What the fuck were you doing in there last night? JeezusFuckin'Christonacrutch! You know what kind of bullshitting I had to do? Goddammit!" Frank went on and on.
"I...uh..." was all I could get out.
"Stupid fuckin' dumbshit asshole motherfucker..."
"They'll fuckin' shut us down, you fuckin' dumbass. Whatnthefuckisthemattawityou?!" Spit and rage. It seemed like it lasted hours. My hangover made it worse.
"Won't happen aga..." I tried.
"Fuckin'-A it won't happen again! I'll make sure of that!" He paced and stomped.
"O.K. already..." I was squinting against the pounding in my head.
"You're always fuckin' late, fuckin' hung over! You need motivation is what you need! Fuck!!"
He took back his Villa keys and asked my parents to help me prep in the early afternoon, which they surprisingly did. My Father always wanted to try working in a restaurant, (I don't know why) so, he came in faithfully at 2:30 pm everyday thereafter to help make dough and get the place in shape. My Mother tagged along and quickly asserted herself in the front of the restaurant, cleaning the dining area and learning to take orders for food. They would stay until 8:00 pm or so and then saunter off home, returning the next day like two people on a mission. I suspect they just didn't want me to fail, despite my predilection for drinking too much and coming in hungover all the time, a behavior which in hindsight, screamed: "I want to fail!" My partying was seriously impaired from that point on, but somehow I managed.
In December of 1990, tragedy struck, putting a wrinkle in my life that would eat at me for months afterward. A dear friend of mine, indeed, a friend of the greater Bloomington Tribe with whom I belonged, took his life. His name was Steve Millen and his passing came with more than a little shock and surprise. If there was anybody in my circle of friends who I thought would be around when I got old, it was Steve. Despite the verve with which he partied, I always thought he was a rock. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, I mean I physically felt pain. The scenario screamed echoes of a tragedy two years before. The air was hard to breathe for a while.
I hadn't seen Steve since I opened the restaurant. I had heard he had been arrested, but I didn't think it was a big deal. Hell, I had been arrested 4 times at that point and "detained" numerous others. I just paid the fines or did the bit of time, and went about my merry way. I didn't know it had such an effect on him. When we spoke before I opened the place, he had scoffed at my partnership with Frank.
"You've gotta be kidding! Frank?" He had said incredulously. "Not fuckin' Frank."
"Burd, Frank's a hack, man." Steve's candor even now, is amazing to me. "Go in with anybody but him."
"He owns a successful business. He knows what he's talkin' about Steve. Seriously, c'mon man."
"His fuckin' wife owns a successful business, it has nuthin' to do with him." Steve laughed at me. "Frank...hah!"
"Will you come and eat my food?" I asked him.
I was begging for his approval really, but he wasn't gonna just tell me what I wanted to hear. I respected his opinion, but I had already made the decision and signed the papers, so I couldn't back out. Steve was, in many ways, like a big brother to me. He seemed to take to the role with relish, often being brutally honest, but with more than a touch of humor and affection thrown in. I've come to appreciate honesty like that, because of Steve. A good friend should be able to tell you what a fuck up you are with impunity.
"Sure, I'll come." He said.
And he did that first week.
I still miss him.
His death hurt me and my drinking increased exponentially. Don't ask me how, but I managed to stay fairly schnockered even though my main source for booze was taken away. It may have been my connections at the bars, the two new girlfriends (who bought me beer) I had managed to acquire, or the fact that I was "borrowing" more money from the till each night. I honestly can't remember. I stayed drunk though, and that resourcefulness would serve me well in the future, but right then, all it did was eat away at my liver. This was about the time I discovered Jagermeister and it's nearly narcotic effects on my nervous system. I had a new best friend.
While I was bleeding the cash register, Frank was doing a little "borrowing" of his own, but on a much bigger scale. He started to use the Johnny Rockit's account to purchase food for the Villa. It was never explained why, but it would come to light a year or so later. The thought was that maybe he was trying to hide his own indiscretions from the Villa's till. I never found out why, but hundreds of dollars in produce was delivered to The Italian Villa and charged to the Johnny Rockit's account. On top of that, Frank also had "forgotten" to pay the United States Government their taxes. They sent 2 notices and then started adding interest. In addition, he "fell behind" on the payments to the equipment pimp, who also started adding interest. The best was yet to come however...
"We need to talk man." Frank had appeared one night while I was busy making food. I was bleary eyed and desperately trying to get a buzz. I remember trying not to breathe in his direction, so he couldn't smell the liquor. The six pack was in the cooler behind the pepperoni, I'd only been able to drink one beer.
"What's up?" I fished a pizza off of the conveyor belt and dumped it in a box.
"Come over to the Villa, I need to show you something."
"Hey Dad, can you cover these tickets?" I asked.
"Sure." He was sitting at the front, doing a crossword puzzle.
I followed him over to the Villa's office and sat down. Frank took out an opened envelope and tossed it on the table in front of me. He took down a small glass.
"What'll you have?"
"Double Stoly's?" I answered.
He poured the drink for me, one for himself and then cut us a couple of lines from the folded up piece of paper in his pocket. We finished our alkaloid powder and then he nodded at the envelope.
I opened the letter. The top margin identified the sender as a law firm from California. They represented one Johnny Rockets Hamburgers. They were a west coast hamburger chain and very successful. Apparently, they owned a federal trademark on the name, Johnny Rockets. They had heard about us from a commercial we had run on the television. (At least somebody had been impressed.) They demanded, in no uncertain terms, that we change our restaurant's name within 90 days or we'd be sued. There was a lot of legalese, but it was pretty much understood that we didn't stand a chance. They even went so far as to list venues, that had similar names who they had vanquished; Johnny Rock-its Bar and Grill, John Rocket's Record Store, Johnny Rockit's Gentleman's Club etc... In each and every case they had succeeded in forcing them to change their names in Court and at considerable expense. We didn't have a legal leg to stand on. They were the big fish.
I suddenly remembered a trip Frank had taken to Arizona to see his Mother, he had also made a stop in Vegas while he was out there. Johnny Rocket's Hamburgers had stores in both states.
"How'd you come up with our name again?"
"I just thought it up, man."
"You sure Frank?" I asked.
"Man, I'm telling you. It's a fuckin' coincidence, that's all" his eyes were wide, trying to look sincere. Trying to look too sincere...
"Shit. What are we gonna do? We got menus, boxes, ads, our fuckin' sign for fuck's sake!" I couldn't believe this idiot had stolen the name of our restaurant from a national chain!
"First we'll change the menus. Send them proof and then run out all the boxes and change the ads." Frank did another line. "(Sniff) Then we'll take down the sign. (Sniff) That oughtta get them off our backs. (Sniff) Yeah, that'll work. I really had no idea, man."
"I can't believe this." I was crushed.
"I know. Me too."
But he didn't know. I was crushed because it was apparent now that everyone was right about Frank. I was mad. In my mind I thought; He was a buffoon. He was a hack. He was a fraud. I was an idiot for not seeing it. I defended him over and over. I felt so betrayed. I felt so stupid. How did I not figure this out? Even the comments I heard from some customers should've tipped me off to the name grab.
"What? No hamburgers? I thought you guys had hamburgers?" They looked at the menu confused.
"I think you're thinking of Opie's three doors down." I'd say. I was clueless.
Sitting there in his office, I couldn't even finish my Stoly's. I just sat there like a lump. We had built this story around the menu. Changing the name would screw that up. Unless...
"What if we just dropped the Johnny from the name?" I asked.
"I don't know, man."
"Try it. Send them the front of a menu that just says; Rockit's Famous Pizza."
He did it and they relented.
Rockit's Famous Pizza was born in 1991. That was also the year that my delusions about Frank, and his other-worldly competence, died. He was just a guy, not the genius I thought he was. Just a regular shmoe. The 90's would become, from then on, my decade of clarity.
But first I needed another drink...