Price Breaks and Heartaches
a journal of retail and failed romance
The Fries And The Fury
(The following story is as true as the movie ‘Braveheart’. The names have been changed because I was bored.)
They say it always brings tears to a mother’s eyes the first time she sees her son in uniform, maybe that’s why my Mom was crying as I headed out of the house in my Empire Burger duds that first day of work. At least I told myself that was why.
Now you might not agree that working in a fast food joint isn’t retail but I think otherwise. Those places aren’t restaurants. A kid’s lemonade stand is run more like a restaurant than your average Taco King or Long John Burger. Employee turnover is high, no one, from the manager to the guy sweeping the floors, sees fast food as a long term career move. And that’s the way it was at Empire Burger, everyone there was either keeping time until a better opportunity came along or was trapped there by personal or economic circumstance. No one in their right mind was happy to be working there.
Except of course for me.
After the indignities of Nice Shopper, Empire Burger was like a breath of fresh, flame broiled air. The pay was better and it looked like there might be a chance for recognition and advancement. The manager Mr. Prowse was more than happy to have an enthusiastic eighteen year-old on the payroll. I still remember the tour of the facilities. Of course there was the dining room with tables, booths and dented napkin dispensers; it was decorated with a cast of poorly thought out cartoon mascots and dusty plastic plants. Then there was the front counter, with four cash registers and a drive through window; the green Formica countertop was dulled and scratched with the passage of time but it still had enough of a shine to reflect the illumination from the florescent lights back into the cashiers’ faces making them look ghoulish and haggard. Past the registers was the food prep area with fryers and microwaves clustered on one side, buns and condiments were stored on the other. The broiler dominated center of the room; a boxy Rube Goldberg-esque machine, it spat flames and hissed grease as a pair of automated metal conveyor belts took frozen burger patties and hamburger buns in one end and dropped (barely) cooked meat and slightly scorched buns into chutes at the other end. Past the food prep area was the cramped manager’s office, the spacious freezer, the sinks and the rear exit. At peak times every part of the Empire Burger kitchen was buzzing with activity.
Mr. Prowse also introduced me to the assistant managers Ms. Colley and Skippy Vanderhausen. Ms. Colley was a sad-eyed single mother with tastes in men and cars that were equally ruinous. Skippy Vanderhausen was a graduate of a prestigious culinary institute. His inability to secure work anywhere but at Empire Burger had turned him into one the most bitter human beings I had ever met- and speaking as a writer that’s really saying something.
I was working the evening shift as a closer. That first night they had longtime employee Rick Raleigh show me the ropes;
“Ok each hour there are a certain number of burgers and buns that need to be left in the steam chute.” Rick explained as he led me around to the back of the broiler. He had wild red hair that was forever struggling to be free of his official Empire Burger visor. He was in his final years of study at the State University and his major was in political science. I secretly laughed at him because of that, certain that there was no future in such a degree. A creative writing degree on the other hand? I knew THAT was where the real money was.
“Steam chute?” I asked.
He led me back to the front of the broiler and showed me a metal drawer. It was the kind of drawer that a villain in a James Bond flick would use to house the controls for a doomsday weapon. When Rick slid back the metal door however all I was greeted with was a cloud of vapor and a row of soggy-looking hamburgers. “Now,” He explained, “The burgers can only stay in here for twenty minutes after that they go in that green pail over there.”
“Isn’t that kind of wasteful?”
Rick shrugged, “If we don’t do it we’ve violated our freshness guarantee. Now don’t forget to mark down the number of burgers you’ve thrown away on the clipboard attached to the green bucket. And when the bucket is full dump it in the big garbage can over there and take the discarded burger inventory sheet in to the manager.”
I nodded. I had eaten at Empire Burger for years and my stomach seemed to twist a little more at each new thing I learned about their operating procedures, “And what happens then?”
The only answer I got was another shrug as I was led back around to the front of the broiler. “Now what you do is you look up on the green screen on the wall there and it will tell you how many burgers should be holding. You take the frozen patties from the cooler there and put them on the lower conveyor belt to cook them. The buns go up here. The guys working the condiments station will prep the food based on the orders being given. Here why don’t you try making a burger?”
“Sure.” I said eager to prove my mettle.
“Well not too bad,” Rick commented. “I mean everyone burns their finger at least once and since the heat cauterized the wound from the fingernail that got torn off you’ve saved the company the cost of a bandage.”
I blinked back tears and let him lead me to the bubbling vats of the fry station. He showed me how to load frozen fries into the little metal baskets, lower them in and set the timer. “And once the fries are done,” he explained, “you want to dump them here under the heat lamp. Each load gets five dashes of salt from the shaker. We change the shortening every week or if the customer’s start complaining the fries taste like feet. Here why don’t you try it loading it yourself?”
I can only assume the clasp of my wristwatch was faulty because it landed in the sizzling shortening with a tiny splash.
“Don’t grab after it!” Rick pulled me away.
“We have to shut the fryer down so I can…”
“We don’t shut the fryer down until midnight. Corporate policy.”
“Natalie lost her glasses in there last summer and she has astigmatism.” Rick explained, “I still don’t know how she made the drive home alive.”
“My grandmother bought me that watch.”
“Sorry man. Why don’t we go over here to the shake machine? There’s no way you can burn your fingers on that one eh?”
“Ok sure.” I said, “I always wonder how the milkshakes were made here.”
“Ah.” Rick smiled ruefully, “That is a common misconception. You see these are not ‘milkshakes’, these are shakes. Milk has nothing to do with any aspect of their production.”
My hand drifted to my gut, phantom pains wracked my bowels, “Oh.”
“What you do is you take this plastic bag of flavored of flavored oils and fat, and hook the nozzle up to the shake machine.”
“What does the machine do with those interesting chemicals?”
“No one really knows but for God’s sake don’t let any of the unprocessed shake mix get on your uniform. It stains.” Rick said, “Now why don’t you try loading the bag of shake mix into the machine?”
“Sounds easy.” I said and following Rick’s instructions as carefully as I could.”
“Now.” Rick explained when I was done, “That was good, but next time you want to do it without tipping the machine over. Still though, we would never have known about that nest of brown recluse spiders if you hadn’t so lets call it even. Why don’t you go back to mopping again for a while I fix this. Just try not the break any more windows this time ok?”