At all the restaurants where I worked, most of the time we really did function like a team. Sometimes it was a team of miscreants if we didn’t get along with management or had to deal with difficult customers, but still…when it came to moving customers through the line and filling orders, everyone did their part.
Aside from the shared goal of “Get the customer in, fed, and back out the door,” there was an unspoken agreement I quickly picked up from my restaurant peers. In a nutshell, it was “Do your job, don’t interfere with anyone else’s job, and MYOB.”
During downtime, food-snatching was rampant. Everyone nabbed a few fries on their way by the bin, or quietly stashed the stale fries somewhere for snacking when they were officially supposed to go in the trash. It’s not that they didn’t feed us – we got good discounts or free food – but sometimes people working short shifts wouldn’t get a lunch, or someone just got hungry outside their break time. Plus, when you stand around inhaling fry grease all day, there are stages of acceptance:
Stage One: “OH MY GOD look at that sea of fries, I gotta get me some of those.”
Stage Two: “More Fries!”
Stage Three: “I could still go for some fries, but I have salt blisters all over my tongue.”
Stage Four: “I never want to eat those disgusting fries again.”
Some of my coworkers went a step further and every now and then, when I went to wipe the counter, I’d find a cheeseburger stashed under the rag I was going to pick up and use. Or a pack of chicken nuggets would be hiding out on a shelf shoved behind the condiments. My coworkers would hide their for-laters randomly around the counter or storage areas until they could return to them later at a quiet moment.
At the burger joint, I worked with these two guys – let’s call them Rob and Pete – who read on the side of the box that the hand sanitizer was made of grain alcohol. They proceeded to mix it with orange soda and drink it every shift. This was explained to me when I saw Pete spike a drink by squirting a few pumps of sanitizer into the cup. I didn’t know it was his drink and I thought maybe he was going to poison somebody. So when he saw me looking at him strangely, he let me in on the secret, encouraging me to try it. I said no thanks; it smelled a little too clinical. Since they were both the kind of kids who acted drunk even when they weren’t, I don’t know how well it worked for them, but they kept it up for weeks until the novelty wore off.
Petty food thefts were commonplace, but there was one girl I worked with who took it to a whole new level. This was at the ice cream place, which is also where I encountered my weirdest restaurant boss.
By the time I landed there I’d already been through two restaurants, so I knew Fast Food Land could be weird. But the ice cream place blew the others out of the water. I mentioned I worked at three locations, and the characters I’ll introduce you to next are part of the reason why.
The boss had a camera set up so he could watch the front counter where the ice cream was prepared and served. It showed the kitchen, too, but you really couldn’t tell what was going on in there. He showed me the camera at the end of my interview; I’m sure some lawyer had told him he had to do this, and ostensibly it was so that he could ensure that the ice cream was being weighed and rules were being followed.
I guess he didn’t want to walk down from his office and look around to see if the rules were being followed, but whatever. It was weird. And, the reaction to it was exactly the opposite of what he intended. Instead of saying “Oh my, I must do my job precisely because Big Brother is watching,” the first day one of the girls showed me where the blind spots were in case I wanted to stand around and gossip with them or eat ice cream.
I got to know some of the girls I worked with (they were all girls, which made the camera situation climb a little higher on the creep scale), and as I learned my job, one of them stood out as interesting. I’ll call her Jane.
Jane was a hit with the customers; she was full of that type of sticky-sweet Southern charm that you know is a front but can’t help smiling at anyway. She also may have been a sociopath. She was definitely addicted to a few substances.
Jane told me stories about her life in between customers. She was one of those people who had absolutely no filter, so I heard a lot. She grew up in the same neighborhood as my husband (who was still my boyfriend back then). When I mentioned Jane to him and asked if he knew her, I believe he said something like “That family? Oh Jesus.”
Jane’s boyfriend had a job at the local cemetery as a grave digger (I heard all about that too; I will spare you the details but I must say, cremation is the way to go). Sometimes he would come rolling through the drive-thru in a hearse. When that happened, Jane always asked me to cover the counter. I didn’t know why but she would disappear back through the rabbit-warren of storage rooms behind the counter. I thought maybe she was going to talk to him or make out or whatever. Not my business.
One day I had to leave the counter and run back to get some supplies. I saw Jane lugging a case of chicken from the freezer toward the back door. She grinned guiltily at me. I just went on back to the front. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but when she came back up she outed herself: “Don’t say anything. Sometimes I put a case of chicken or hot dogs out for him to pick up.”
I assumed they were eating the contraband, but she continued. “We know a guy who likes the food so much he’ll trade shit for it!” She assured me the boss never noticed the missing food. I assured her it was not my business.
A few times I saw Jane ring up a big sale, take the money from the customer, give change, and then zero off everything after they’d walked away. I thought maybe she was really bad at the register and was fixing something with the order, until the day I saw her slipping cash into her apron and figured it out. She was totaling the order, counting the change back in her head, then taking the amount of the sale out of the register and keeping it.
Once she told me that when she was a kid, she and her sister went around town selling raffle tickets for a dollar each to win a handmade quilt. They printed them up at the local library, wrote numbers on them, and told people proceeds go to charity. There never was a raffle.
I’m not sure how much Jane’s shadowy activities had to do with it, but after I worked there a few months, the boss decided to close the place down for the winter. He said business wasn’t profitable in the winter months. He owned another store elsewhere, and some of the employees were transferred there, while others were offered recommendations.
I tried out the other location, but it was a long drive, so I went to work at another franchise for the same company. I don’t think Jane got transferred or hired back after the original location reopened the next spring, but I’m guessing wherever she ended up, she landed on her feet. And the boss’s business probably got at least a little more profitable that next winter. Although if he had known the market potential of trading chicken and hot dogs for crank, he probably could have made a killing.
Another interesting tale from Fast Food Land was the inspection scramble. This was the same everywhere I worked. The health inspector visits were supposed to be totally random, but that was utter bullshit. Someone from the first restaurant in our town to get inspected would call their friends, who would call their friends. “The health inspector came this morning!”
The first restaurant was always the martyr. Sometimes they’d even get shut down, because they had no warning.
At every other restaurant in town, every available employee would be told to get everything up to code. Sometimes we didn’t even know what that meant. Managers would run through the restaurant yelling random orders: “Flip those utensils! Throw out that lettuce! Go get the rug from up front and put it over that hole in the floor!”
The pizza place was where inspection was the most fraught with terror. Not because of the way the place was run; the building was just falling apart. Every time I swept, bits of brick would come up. The walk-in cooler leaked and for some reason the owner kept putting down stick-on tile that just floated right back up and was something else to trip over.
Granted, some of the codes are silly – for example, utensils are supposed to have their handles up, with the part that touches the food down in a container, and that’s where dust collects. Mine at home are handles-down. I guess they didn’t want our dirty worker-bee hands grabbing the utensil part? I have no idea.
But others are pretty important, like “have a solid floor throughout building” or what-have-you.
So when you see that 100% or 99% on the wall and get that cozy feeling that everything in that restaurant is clean as a pin? That restaurant probably got five calls from the managers of other restaurants, so it’s possible that the only difference between the one that got shut down and the one that passed with flying colors is which one the inspector visited first that had no warning. But I’m sure deep frying everything in hot grease probably kills a lot of pathogens, so bon appétit!