I just went through eight hours of management training (which wasn’t so bad, surprisingly), and some of the activities required me to go tripping down memory lane to jobs I’ve had in the past.
All through my undergraduate years, I worked in fast food. I probably shouldn’t name the names of the places for fear of being sued, but one of them was THE fast food place, then there was one of the big-time pizza places, and finally there was one of the big-time ice cream places.
While some of my coworkers were high school or college students, some were career fast foodies. There are some really interesting characters in fast food. Some of the managers were awesome, and some were asshats. It’s about like anywhere else I guess, but then again, in some ways it’s not.
The customers are one way it’s not. While working in an office gets boring sometimes, I will say I am thankful for one major feature of office work: The door. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, can walk into a fast food place.
There were some usual suspects that showed up regularly.
I want ONE pickle in between the two patties placed on the left of the lettuce, but don’t let the mayonnaise touch it! And I want twenty-three cubes of ice. Not twenty-two, not twenty-one. I want to pay for my ice cream now but don’t make it until I come back up here! And when you do, I want three swirls to the left, with all the chocolate on one side!
Everyone rolled their eyes when she came in, and some of us would mutter “Here comes that crazy bitch.” Usually, S-SL had a favorite counter girl (I say girl, because this was in the 90s and the place I worked at had counter girls. The boys were cooks. And I say boy and girl instead of man or woman because nobody treated us like adults.) whom she would treat like a pet poodle which had learned to do delightful tricks. “I’m so glad you’re here! You know how to make my order!”
I was never that counter girl.
The Help me! Crowd aka I Thought This Was a Sit-Down Restaurant
Related to the above, these are the customers who would place a seemingly normal order, then they wanted Things Done With It. Can you cut it in half? Quarters? Can you put the cream in for me? Can you blot my fries to take off the oil?
It didn’t end when they sat down either. If any unsuspecting worker tried to go clean the dining room or walk by to clean the bathrooms, they Needed Something. “Could you just hand me a few napkins?” “Could you bring me a refill?”
Normally these customers weren’t too much of a bother, and we were glad to help people who actually needed help. But when repeat customers who appeared able-bodied in every other way tried to pull this shit as a busload of people pulled up, or during a rush time, everyone pretended to be busy or have a hearing problem when they came near.
I nearly got fired once when I was working at the pizza place because a lady honest-to-god asked me if we could open early for her lunch group that same day. We opened at 11am, and she wanted to come in at 10:45 to beat the crowd.
I told her no, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. I said I’d ask my manager, so I went to get S., one of the coolest managers I’ve ever worked with. Largely because she didn’t fire my ass that day.
Here’s what went down: I thought if I put my padded potholder over the phone and talked low, the lady on the phone couldn’t hear me. Oh, how wrong I was! And those of you who know me, know I use profanity on the regular. So what came out was something like this: “S, this crazy bitch on the phone wants us to open the restaurant early just for her! I tried to tell her no but she wants to talk to a manager. Do we even do that? Like, wouldn’t we have to have the waitresses come in early? What do I tell her, do you want to deal with it? Can you talk to her?”
S. was arm-deep in dough, so she said “Just tell her we can’t do that.” But when I took my potholder off the phone and said “Ma’am…” what I got was
“DID YOU JUST CALL ME A CRAZY BITCH? CANCEL MY ORDER! I AM NEVER EATING THERE AGAIN OH MY GOD DID YOU SERIOUSLY CALL ME A CRAZY BITCH? I’M GOING TO CALL YOUR MANAGER AND I AM HAVING YOU FIE-ERRRRRRRRRD!”
So I hung up, and sure enough the phone rang again. I let S. pick it up and she did a lot of “Mmm-hmm”-ing, “I see”-ing, and cajoling. After she hung up, she came to tell me that she told the lady she was going to fire me and that was that. I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone in my own voice for a while. I did a good job, so she wasn’t going to fire me for real. I showed up, made pizza, and mostly didn’t call people crazy bitch to their faces. S. did tell me for future reference, dumb-ass, don’t assume someone can’t hear you just because you put something over the phone.
The Church Guys
We always had a little rush when church let out. Flocks of mostly older folks would come in and continue their chatting after they’d been freed from their pews. They were generally an amicable bunch, and patient; they’d just stand in line and chat away while we filled their orders.
But the old spice. My God, the old spice.
I don’t know if every man over 60 wore it, or if it was just one man who marinated himself in it. But the damn old spice was so strong it made your eyes water. Suddenly you couldn’t even smell burgers and fries anymore. All you could smell and taste was that distinct boozy spicy tang of Old Spice. To this day, if I smell Old Spice I suddenly feel this urgent need to drop extra baskets of fries.
Christ, how long does it take to fry a damn cheeseburger? I’ve been standing here for fifteen minutes! This food is crap! This burger is cold! My fries are stale! I want to talk to your manager!
Everyone who’s ever been to a restaurant has probably seen this one in action. Maybe you’ve even been this one.
Sometimes the asshole is legit. I mean, if you want to have a shitty experience in a restaurant, the chain fast food place is pretty much the place to go. The goal is to move most of the customers in and out at record speed, and to produce little clone-bags of clone-food that taste acceptable and don’t kill anyone. But sometimes shit goes wrong, and when it does, some people are patient and understanding, some are frustrated and swear never to return, and others flip the Asshole Switch.
Then there are a select few that plan on being an asshole. Or they’re just an asshole by nature and can’t turn it off. These are the ones who tack on threats at the end of their order: “And the fries had better be fresh.” Or “If there’s ice in my coke I swear I’m gonna throw it in your face.” Then when you hand them their bag they dig through gleefully looking for something wrong.
This happened to me when I was a counter-girl a few times, and I usually just Got the Manager. But one day I was stuck in the drive-thru and I was stressed. People had been zooming through being assholes for nearly a whole shift and I was tired of their shit. The kitchen was down a person and food was coming out slow, which was why the asshole ratio was way up above normal. Then this guy came through and wanted to talk shit to me.
First off, the lady in front of him ordered a whole bag of cheeseburgers. Like six or eight. Then he came along and tried to order a combo. We were out of cheeseburgers. So I told him he needed to park.
He yelled “I’m not parking for a damn cheeseburger! How long does it take to make a damn cheeseburger?!”
I tried again: “Sir, someone just ordered all the ones we had made, so we have to make some fresh. If you’ll just go over and park…”
“Listen honey, I’m not moving this car until you give me my order! I shouldn’t have to park for a damn cheeseburger!”
That’s when I lost it. I leaned out the window and snapped “Fine, I don’t give a shit if you sit there and f*cking rot, you aren’t getting your damn cheeseburger any faster here“—I pointed at his truck, then to the park spot —”than you are from over there.”
He did a double-take, looked like his head might explode, then he rolled the window up and zoomed over to park the truck. I started to take off my belt and headset, because I figured he was on the way inside and I was about to be fired. But it felt great to say something back, even if I was going to be filling out another stupid application up the road at the next fast food place soon.
Then a weird thing happened: He did come inside, and he looked pretty pissed. But when he got over to the counter, he said “Ah, look, honey, I’m sorry I yelled and cussed at you like that. I know you aren’t the one making the cheeseburgers.”
I was still in shock when his burgers came out and I bagged them up, handed them over and muttered a weak “thanks?” I didn’t even have the wherewithal to apologize for cussing him.
The Extraordinary Gentlemen
Then there were the absolute show-stoppers: customers so unforgettable that all these years later I remember encountering them clear as day. Two come to mind immediately: Suitcase Guy and Loud Drunk.
I was still pretty new when Suitcase Guy showed up—maybe a month or so old. It was a slow shift and I was working it with just a few other people and my favorite manager, who was in the back office. A regular-looking guy came in wearing a rumpled suit and pulling a suitcase on wheels. Of course, the other counter girl was on break or lunch or something.
The first thing I noticed was that he stood there staring at the menu for several minutes whispering. But who am I to judge? Some people move their lips when they read and whispering is just a variation of that.
He approached the counter and I asked “How may I help you?”
He said “Can I have some tea?”
I rang it up and gave him the total.
“No…can I just have it?”
Nobody was around, my internal hinky-alarm started going off a bit, and I didn’t feel like dealing with it for the big $5.25 an hour or whatever I was getting paid. So I said “Sure.” I zeroed off the tea and just gave the dude a medium tea.
He said thanks, took it from me, and then looked down at the suitcase, giving the handle a little tug. “Come on.”
How I kept a straight face is beyond me. I did that thing with my mouth where you are about to let it hang open wide, then you catch yourself and pretend you were yawning. Thinking who knows what a man who believes his suitcase is alive will do if I laugh or gape at his bizarre behavior?
He sat down and drank the tea and hung out for a while, and the next time I looked he was gone. I thought he had left. My coworker, a guy named Paul, walked by to clean the bathroom. But he came right back instead. He said Suitcase Guy was in the bathroom stark naked taking a bath with some napkins and washing his clothes. So Paul just closed the door and put the “closed for cleaning” sign on it to give him some privacy.
Loud Drunk was not so benign, and he was a repeat customer. He lived near the place, and every so often he’d get schnockered and lonely, so he’d wander over to hang out in our restaurant.
It would start out innocently enough with him ordering something to eat, and he’d sit down and eat it. But then the theatrics would begin. First we would notice him loudly talking to anyone who sat near him. Then we’d notice that everyone near him had abruptly packed up and left.
Strains of “I’m dyyyyyyiiiinnnng!” would begin to filter through the white noise of the restaurant. People would start to look toward the counter with their “Is somebody going to do something?” faces on.
I sure as hell wasn’t. I always got the manager, who knew this guy well. She seemed to have a formula down pat for dealing with him. She’d go out and talk to him for a while and spend maybe 10 or 15 minutes trying to convince him that either a) he wasn’t dying, or b) if he was indeed dying, he couldn’t die here because he was disturbing the other customers, or c) she was going to call either the hospital or the cops real soon, based on whether or not he was dying or just drunk unless he started dying a lot more quietly.
Most evenings she could get him to go home. Sometimes she’d take him some coffee or extra fries or something to try and sober him up. One night there was a really bad scene when he fell off his chair and busted his head; he freaked out at the sight of blood and managed to roll around and fling it over about a quarter of the dining room. She did call 911 that time and both the cops and ambulance showed up. The manager had to sanitize the hell out of that dining room, and she was a bit less patient with Loud Drunk after that.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the nice customers. I did, because they weren’t the other customers. But truthfully, I didn’t give a shit if they came back or not. I was making minimum wage, so I didn’t care about any of the rah-rah Be a Member of the Team! bullshit that peppered the corporate materials practically nobody including management read or adhered to.
The customers weren’t even the most interesting characters in Fast Food Land. I haven’t even touched on my coworkers or management. But since this is getting so long I will save those stories for another day.