Fast Food

When I was in high school, I had a fast food job in the local shopping mall. I was in Danbury, CT, which was close enough to New York City to attract a lot of business from urbanites looking for a change of scenery on the weekends. This made for very busy weekend shifts, and absolutely insane holiday rushes. Each day as Christmas of my senior year approached, hungry shoppers would be stacked up in twisting lines, five people deep, in front of every restaurant in the food court.

The back of our shop was a kitchen for both our restaurant (a grilled chicken place) and the restaurant next to it (frozen yogurt). The front of our shop had the grill, the sandwich-making stations, deep fryers, warming trays, and cash registers. On a slow day, two people could easily run the front of the shop. During the holiday rush, it took at least six people to keep up the pace – which was about 90 seconds per order during peak serving time.

On my last Saturday shift of the calendar year, I punched in at 8am to help get the shop ready before the mall opened at 9. The kitchen was already buzzing as I set to work on the front of the house with some of my coworkers. At almost a year into the job, I was considered a long-timer for the front, and by luck that day only one or two of the other folks were totally new. We went through the setup procedures and then sipped our coffees as the mall opened for business. By 9:15 there were at least five hundred shoppers in the mall. By lunch time it would be at least three thousand.

The shift started off shaky. There was a pair of managers for our pair of restaurants, and they had to step into both shops to deal with early equipment problems (our soda fountains went down temporarily, as did one of the fro-yo place's mixers), and later they were back out to break up an argument at the other shop's register. As lunch hour approached, one of the new folks on my team left for a smoke a break and never came back. When it became obvious that we were down a person for the rest of the shift, we barely had time to think about it. As we rolled into peak, between the two stations we were making and selling around twelve sandwiches every three minutes.

I didn't notice when it happened, but at some point in there, the managers had stepped back into their office in the kitchen, and five of us just did the work of six for the next four hours. We caught our first glimpse of the end of the rush around 3pm. One of the managers came out at 4:00 to swap out the registers and print out sales reports for lunch. He gave the slip a look before carrying everything back to the office.

I helped the incoming team to get ready for the dinner rush, but it was never as crazy as lunch time. I was tired, burnt, grease-stained, and ready to punch out when the managers called me into the office. One of them handed me a hundred dollars in cash, which was about what I made in a week. The other manager told me that we broke the record lunch sales for a single day. He explained that after the issues of the morning, and particularly after one of our teammates had ghosted us, I'd stepped up to run the front of the house.

I genuinely don't remember it that way. I remember that I was in a kind of flow state for six hours. I remember that I was totally in sync with four other people for six hours. But until my manager pointed it out, I didn't understand that I was keeping our collective shit together for six hours. I guess my managers saw that, and when they saw it, they just got the hell out of the way.

As a people manager myself now, I don't think much about the mechanics of selling grilled chicken sandwiches. When I think about that job at all, I think about how those managers handled emergencies, how they put their trust in their associates abilities, and how they celebrated their associates' accomplishments. I hope that as a manger now, I'm that good under pressure, that supportive, and that observant.

One other thought – as the weeknight cook at my house, I still strive for speed and efficiency. Without using a microwave, I can have broiled salmon with couscous and caesar salad from fridge to table in about 20 minutes :–)