April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.
Working at McDonald’s throughout my teens was certainly an education in many, many ways. One of the most striking things I learned was that people will eat anything. Especially from McDonald’s.
Once I recall the store I worked at was repaving the parking lot. The exit was blocked and cars had only one way to enter and exit. I was working over supper that day and felt confident we’d have an easy shift. When it turned out to be crazy busy like any other shift it was eye-opening. “We could build a wall around this place”, I quipped “and people would still find a way to get in”.
Something certainly was lost when they came up with the clamshell grill. A large lid came down covering the patties on the grill. When they were done, the lid would pop open. Gone was the artistry of the ‘turn/lay’ (see part Three). I was also surprised to see microwaves show up in the back area. The way it was explained to us was that if the food a customer received was very hot, it was assumed to be good. Like, really? Well, what did we know? The new methods also included warming ovens. We would run a set of patties and put them in the warming oven. When an order came through, we’d grab a patty, dress a bun and throw the sandwich in the nuker. This technique removed the last remnants of style in the back area. Also, many things began to come to us pre-made like scrambled eggs and hotcakes.
It should come as no surprise that eating at McDonald’s is not the healthiest way to go. Even under the best circumstances. Then you have to factor in the idea that it’s carefree, young people that are preparing this food when really they would be hard-pressed to make toast at home. You could also say that eating fast food late at night is unhealthy. I can confirm that ordering 20 McNuggets at 1:45am on a Saturday night at Highland Road McDonald’s in the late 1980’s was VERY hazardous to your health. Keep in mind that a good ‘closer’ gradually goes down to the bare bones as the shift progresses so that, ideally, when the sign gets turned off and the store is closed, you’ve already got most things put away and the place clean so that you can get out of there as soon as possible. I remember one shift early on in my career when I was closing with my good friend Steve who I mentioned in Part Two. We had minimal food left in the back area near the end of the shift when some joker orders 20 nuggets. Steve curses and rips open the drawer where the cooked nuggets are kept. The count came to 19. I was still rookie enough to wonder aloud if we had to drop (cook) a whole bag of nuggets just because we were short one. Suddenly, Steve gets down on one knee and looks underneath the fryers. Smiling, he jumps back up with a nugget he found that’s been on the floor under the fryer for who knows how long. As I slowly open my mouth, he drops it in the vat to heat it up a little, adds it to it’s 19 more edible brethren and serves it up. As I look at him in admiration, he utters the legendary phrase: “that’s what you get when you order 20 nuggets at closing time”.
There was another close I recall during the pizza era. Once again, it was getting late and we had most everything put away. An order came through for a personal pepperoni pizza. OK, that’s cool; I’ve got one left sitting in the big walk-in fridge at the back. I open the fridge door and push aside the heavy, clear plastic strips of curtain that hang just inside the door. I grab the personal pep and turn, parting the strips to get back out of the fridge. One of the strips knocks the pizza out of my hands and on to the floor. The customer is waiting, we’re just about closed. ALL the pizza shells, sauces and toppings are neatly put away. The clock is ticking…so I gather up the fallen shredded cheese and pepperoni by sliding the edge of my hand along the floor – also gathering up anything else that may be on the floor – and arrange it neatly on the pizza shell. I throw the rescued pizza in the oven but I’m shaking my head at this one. I serve it up and it goes out to the customer who apparently lives after eating it. I justify it to myself with another bon mot that will get a lot of mileage over the years: “Hey, we mopped that floor yesterday. It was pretty clean”.
Even my shoes were legendary. Workers were required to wear a black casual shoe. As a teenager, I never owned anything but runners so acquiring these shoes was always sketchy. To keep costs down, most of us would buy cheap casual shoes from dollar stores. Of course, these wouldn’t last long and you’d constantly be having to replace your shoes. I inherited a solid pair from a departing co-worker, I think, and decided they would last me forever. As they began to take on the dirt and food stains of many back area shifts, not cleaning them became a thing with me. (I remember the same went for our ties in that era. Managers would finally look at them in horror and get us new ones) I mentioned earlier about the ‘back area rodeo’ – the art of being stylish with your spatulas while cooking. There was also the fine art of back area ‘hacky sack’. If a patty should fall to the floor, we became adept at sticking out our shoes to catch it before it hit the floor. A few times we would kick the patty two or three times trying to keep it off the floor until finally it disintegrated and was (usually) deemed unservable. Over time, my shoes became disgustingly filthy, something I wore like a badge of honour. Once, I dropped a patty and caught it on my shoe. I told the manager: “It’s OK. It landed on my shoe”, to which the manager replied “I’ve seen your shoes. I’d rather it fell on the floor”.
In the days of the ‘turn/lay’, before the clamshell grill came long, if you forgot to turn the patties at the appointed time, eventually the grease floating on the patties would actually acquire a greenish tinge. No sweat: you’d just turn them over to brown them up a little and away they go.
Once I was working a breakfast shift. It was back in the days of the hotcake mix. We would add water and mix it up in a big bowl. As I poured a couple of bags of mix in the bowl, I was taken by how fine it was. I stuck a hand in to more fully enjoy it’s velvety consistency. When I had both hands wrist-deep in hotcake mix, the district supervisor happened to stroll by. He looks at me bewildered and says “Hey, Gary. What are you doing?” Always a fast thinker, I come up with the brilliant “Uhhhh, I dropped my ring in here”. Big Shot accepted that but he must’ve been distracted; an unfound ring in the hotcake mix – a ring you’re not supposed to be wearing in the kitchen to begin with – could be cause for concern. Much worse than some kid’s grubby hands feeling up the hotcake mix.
Let’s face it: you go into a restaurant and use cutlery that’s been used by a thousand people. You spend the night in a hotel and walk on a rug and sleep under sheets that have known many bodies. Experts say we inadvertently eat several hundred bugs over the course of our lives. Unless you go around wearing latex gloves or never even leave your house, you’re going to run into some less-than-hygienic conditions. We served some substandard food MANY more times than we ever got complaints. Actually, I don’t remember ever getting taken aside and being told someone got a green nugget. This just encouraged us to carry on as we were. “Fast OR good”, we would say, “not both”. Anytime we thought back on some of the stuff we served, we would just shrug and say “Well, nobody died”.
The closest I ever came to killing somebody at McDonald’s had nothing to do with the kitchen.
Up Next: The Toilet……………..