Wednesday, July 07, 2010

McDonald's 3 (Jobs v. Life)

Jobs v. Life is an exploration of my life through the jobs I've worked. McDonald's is the second job I ever had. The Table Of Contents is here.

I don't recall how long I worked the fry cook position at the McDonald's; I only worked there about a year-and-a-half, which seems, in retrospect, an incredibly long time for me to have worked there. I do know that eventually I was promoted-- promoted being a relative word, here -- to working on the burger-cooking end of things.

That was the next level up: I got to make the burgers that people loved, instead of the fries that people eat with their burgers because they think they're supposed to do that. Have you ever thought about that? Why do people order fries with burgers, automatically? I do that, anyway, or used to: almost everytime I went to a fast-food restaurant, I ordered fries with the burger, and did so even in the days before the extra-value meals and super-meals and meal-deal-meals and other prepackaged specials that encourage me to buy food that I don't particularly like.

Becuase I don't; I don't particularly like McDonald's fries. Or Burger King's fries. Or any french fries. They're okay, but they're not what I'd choose to go with a burger, or a chicken sandwich, or, now, a mishmash of Big Mac ingredients in a tortilla, which has to be called a wrap because if you call it a tortilla people will get confused and think it's foreign food. Or that they're at Taco Bell. Either way, they'll be freaked out.

If I was given a choice of what to get as a side for my burger, etc., I'd probably choose potato chips, which only serves to highlight the strangeness of my mind... because when I see restaurants that let me get potato chips as a side to my meal, I (a) almost never get them, and (b) assume that the restaurant is kind of a cheesy, low-rent operation.

(Subway, where I'd work in the future, falls into that latter category, and may have contributed to that cheesy-low-rent belief, not least because I worked there.)

Part of that belief stems from the fact that the potato chips you get at restaurants as a side dish are almost comically too small. The bags don't even look like they'd hold any chips, let alone sufficient chips to form a side to the meal I'm getting. Part of being a self-proclaimed (but still accurately-described) expert on what things should cost is also being an expert on what size portions are the right size for a given part of a meal. I can do that; I'm an expert on how much of something you should get, which, when combined with my expertise on how much things should cost, makes me very valuable to society. (Note that, future inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic world. You will not want to use me for monster bait, since I will be able to serve our new society by telling you how big portions should be and what they should cost.)

Some portion-sizing things are easy: Ramen noodles, for example: the correct portion size is "one packet." Once, Sweetie made some Ramen noodles for Mr F for his dinner, making them at the same time that she made them for me for my lunch the next day... and making both packets at the same time in the same container. I watched her as she doled out Mr F's dinner noodles and then packed up the remainder into my lunch, and I was pretty sure that she'd gotten the portions wrong, that Mr F was getting more than a packet while I was getting, for lunch, less than a packet. I didn't begrudge Mr F the extra portion, but I did feel robbed the next day.

Potato chips, too, have a serving size, and that size is "Those bags that you get for 99 cents at the convenience store." That's one serving; anything less and you're getting ripped off. Anything more and you're a glutton. So you can see where the problem comes in, when buying those micro-bagged chips at the restaurants that are too cheap to install a deep fryer and allow you to buy french fries: I feel I'm getting ripped off, and don't want to buy the chips.

I don't want to buy the fries, either, really, because I don't really like fries, so I shouldn't hold it against those loser restaurants that don't serve fries, but I do, because if you're going to be a fast food restaurant, you ought to serve french fries, even if people like me don't really want them. We'll still buy them, because you'll package them in a Meal Deal that convinces us it's worth it to buy the whole deal rather than separately getting only the ingredients we want, and maybe it is. If I'd pay $3.99 for two cheeseburgers and a soda, and $4.19 for those burgers, a soda, and fries in a "meal deal," shouldn't I get the fries for just twenty cents even if I don't really want them? For twenty cents, I kind of want them.

I have a complicated relationship with fast food restaurants, is I guess what I'm trying to say, and I wonder how much of that stems from my dimly-remembered 18 months at McDonald's, where I longed, always, to move up in work stations, never satisfied with my lot in life but yet never wanting to actually work hard enough to advance to the next level more quickly. I'm sure it took a longer time than usual to move from fry station guy to hamburger grill guy, given my attitudes.

When I did move to hamburger guy, the level of complexity moved up a notch. Fry cooking had been easy: Dump some frozen, breaded stuff into a vat, hit a button, and wait until a high-pitched beep told me to take it out. Once it was out and relatively cool, I would package it in whatever those things are supposed to be packaged in: fries went into paper or cardboard packets (back then, there were only two sizes: regular and large), pies went into cardboard sleeves, and filet-o-fishes went... I'm not sure. I don't remember what I did with those. Probably gave them to the hamburger guys to put on buns and give to the crew chief who'd wrap them and slide them down the heated bin where things were kept back then -- a series of black slides filled with Big Macs and burgers and filets, each with a number behind them, a "1 to 10" number that represented when the food was to be thrown away. Food was supposed to be kept under the lamps no more than 10 minutes, so if you put a burger in there at 12:55, you'd put a "1" behind it to indicate that when the minute hand was on the 1, that burger was to be thrown out.

That wasn't my job yet. I wasn't ready for the complexities of wrapping burgers and putting numbers -- in part because the crew chief was also responsible for telling burger guys how much of something to make: I need 10 ham, the chief might holler, and we'd have to cook him up 10 hamburgers. Or I need 5 macs, judging, based on whatever criteria the crew chief had, how many Big Macs we'd need in the next 10 minutes.

My job... at the time...was to cook those 5 macs, or 10 hams, or 12 cheese. My setup was a grill, with three lights above it. The first light was the one I'd hit when I first put down the patties. The second light would then blink and beep when it was time to sear the patties and flip them -- pressing the spatula down on them to squeeze out the juices and help them cook all the way through. The third was the light that would blink and beep when the patties were done.

That was how I learned to cook burgers; I didn't learn at home, from Mom and Dad, even though we had hamburger night nearly every Friday for my entire life. I never watched Mom or Dad cook hamburgers at home; they made them on the "super grill," a large electric skillet, and they were delicious, but I didn't watch them because I had no interest in cooking dinner, not for myself or my family, growing up. At McDonald's, I had no interest in cooking dinner, either, but I did have an interest in getting paid, so I cooked burgers for $2.35 an hour, and applied the McDonald's cooking style to every single burger I'd ever cook for the rest of my life: When I cook burgers nowadays, I still flip-and-sear, when I can; I feel a little lost when I cook them in some way (like on a Foreman grill) that doesn't let me flip the burgers and sear them.

The automation-- removing any need to think from the mind of an easily-distracted, daydreaming 16-year-old -- was necessary, as evidenced by my later adventures in cooking burgers outside of McDonald's, because while I still flip-and-sear, I tend to do so a bit too much: I flip my burgers (and my pancakes, and my grilled-cheese sandwiches, and anything else that can be flipped) a lot -- probably too much, searing them when I can (I've tried to sear pancakes and I don't recommend it), and then, when I get bored flipping-and-searing, or distracted by the Internet or Mr Bunches or a really good song, I forget entirely about the burgers, etc., until they're burnt.

(The only food I don't flip is eggs, which I am incapable of frying. I cannot fry an egg, and I don't even really try. When I'm forced to fry eggs now, I break about five into a pan, set it on medium heat, put a top on, and let them sit until everything in the pan is solid. The eggs turn out tolerable.)

Nothing was left to chance at McDonald's; I was not allowed to use my judgment as to when to flip the burgers or when they'd be done. So when the crew chief yelled I need 10 ham I'd simply grab ten pre-frozen patties out of the freezer (located right next to the grill), lay them out on the grill, hit button one, and wait for them to be done.

It took about 2 minutes to cook a burger, maybe 3. During that wait, I had things to do, like toasting the buns. The bun toaster was right behind me, so I'd lay out the burgers, then grab the buns from a rack and slide them onto the tray to put into the toaster, which looked like nothing so much as a series of hot metal slabs -- which is what it was. Each slab heated up when activated, so buns sitting on them would toast. The top lid lifted up to help scrape hot toasted buns into the tray where they'd be transferred to the table to be ketchupped, and that top lid led to a workplace injury: A burn on my wrist, that I got when I lifted up the tray too high and too quickly, causing it to fall off the hot metal slap. I was holding it by the handle, the only part of the lid that wasn't white-hot, and it swung in an arc to touch my right wrist -- burning it instantly in a burn that blistered up like crazy.

I had to stop what I was doing and get someone to watch the burgers and go back to the big sinks where trays and stuff were washed. With the assistant manager, I ran the burn under cold water until it hurt in a different kind of way. He looked at it, said "Okay, back to work," and I was back to the grill, wrist throbbing without even a bandage on it.

I still have the scar today -- my only workplace injury, ever. It's not something I show off, but looking at it, I can still remember watching the hot metal tray swing towards my arm and wondering what to do, almost in slow-motion.

The buns from the toaster would go to the table where all the toppings sat in dishes: ketchup, mustard, onions, lettuce, pickles, cheese, and the "secret sauce."

When I started working at McDonald's, I didn't know what the secret sauce was on a Big Mac. Being that I'd always thought of our family as kind of poor -- I don't think we really were, I think my parents just instilled that belief in me -- we'd never really had Big Macs. We hadn't even gone to McDonald's all that often when I was a kid, and certainly didn't go as often as I take my own kids nowadays. The Babies! and I are probably at a McDonald's once a week, on average. But if I went 10 times as a kid before I worked there, I'd be surprised. Our family didn't go to fast food restaurants, or restaurants, hardly at all. When we did go somewhere to eat, it was usually either the Mama Mia's pizza place where they had the giant garlic breads that everyone loved, or to a drive-in restaurant in Oconomowoc called "The Kiltie," (it's still there, I see) where we'd all get ice cream -- never a meal, just ice cream.

So I'm not sure, when I started at McDonald's, that I'd ever had a Big Mac, and I didn't know at all what the secret sauce was. When I began on the grill, there the sauce sat, in a dispenser that wasn't like the ketchup and mustard dispensers.

The ketchup and mustard dispensers, like everything else at McDonald's, left nothing to chance: they were nothing so much as buckets-with-handles, and a lever. I'd pick up the bucket, squeeze the lever with my thumb, and a pre-approved amount of ketchup, or mustard, would be dispensed onto the bun. The ketchup and mustard were put onto the top bun, as was the pickle and the cheese; only the patty went on the lower bun. The onions were sprinkled onto the burgers as they cooked, to kind-of-fry them.

That was it: Lay out the burgers, toast the buns, ketchup, mustard, pickle, cheese, then scoop the burgers onto the bun and hand the tray to the chief for wrapping. The whole process was timed so that you could toast and fix the buns in about the time the burgers cooked, leaving little down time for a grill guy -- unlike fries, where there was lots of down time and lots of time to lean, time to clean.

Big Macs were more complicated: there's that third bun in there, the middle level, plus lettuce, plus the secret sauce -- which I was all excited about when I saw it, in its own dispenser that was kind of like a caulk gun.

I was working with a guy named Brian Drifka, who was my older brother's age; I was kind of friends with Brian's little brother Steve, who was in my grade. Brian was training me on the grill, and I looked up to him: he was a cool guy, one of those guys who could play hacky-sack and who knew how to act around girls and was good at sports.

I was not a cool guy. I was a sweaty, fat kid with glasses who wanted to be cool like Brian Drifka, so working with him was a start. When I pointed to the secret sauce, on my first day of the grill, I tried to be cool as I said:

"Ooh, the secret sauce. If I work here enough I'll learn the ingredients."

Brian Drifka just looked at me... coolly... and said "It's just thousand island dressing."

"Yeah," I said, trying to pass off my uncoolness as a joke.

Any disappointment I had in learning that the secret sauce was simply salad dressing was replaced by my learning that I could make my own sort-of-Big Mac when I got my meal for each shift: We were allowed a burger, fries, and a soda for every shift worked, and we could put extra toppings on our burger if we wanted. One day, I saw a girl working there put secret sauce on her burger, and I realized that I could do that, too -- so from then on, my burger was actually half-a-Big Mac.

Which I'd eat, with my fries, in the break room. I always got the fries, even then.

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