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Day in fast-food trenches raises awareness

As humans, we tend to trivialize fellow humans that are on our margins economically. We deride the filthy rich for possible excesses, convinced we would do better. The poorest among us are often treated as though they are invisible.

To identify the two classes, we often use the type of work being performed by the individual as our greatest clue. CEO, doctor, governor, etc. – we assign those professions to the privileged class. But to represent the less advantaged economic group, we jump on clerks and fast-food workers.

I’ll never be CEO for a day, but I did get a senior all-nighter volunteer opportunity at the other end of the spectrum – fast-food worker for a day at a Gonzaga University men’s basketball game. Not taking the assignment lightly, I did my research before the event by asking sales personnel, “Who was you worst customer?” The following contains our experiences.

Volunteers report to Zags games up to four hours before the event to do food preparation and for uniform pickup. This is where the lack of respect for food handlers begins. We’re not dressed for success. Goofy functional hats and shirts that repel flying trans fat are the norm. Luckily, I was assigned some nondescript gray uniform because it’s a proven scientific fact that many of society’s worst sociopaths can be traced to the horrendous Hot-Dog-On- A-Stick uniform they wore on their first job.

Another fast-food failure is poor training. I was assigned, sans experience, to run a cash register in the ultra busy Carvery. This cash register had special keys for each sales item, plus different keys for cash, credit, student credit card, and some obvious beta Home Security thumbprint technology called IMYE – I immediately yearn to do something easy – like splitting an atom.

A recent conversation with Danielle at Costco Optical comes to mind. She said, though the pay is the exact same, she is treated with far more respect behind the optical counter than she was in the food court. She relayed this food court example:

A customer orders a “berry berry.”

Danielle, wanting to get the order right, asks, “Do you mean a berry smoothie or a berry sundae?”

The customer leans over, raises his voice, and drawls at a snails pace “This is fast-food. How hard can it be?”

Five minutes into my first sales, suffering from keyboard anxiety in front of lines of customers, I decide it can be darn hard.

Soon our booth, full of very friendly volunteers, is moving like the Rockettes, dancing around each other in confined quarters, as we pass out sodas, candy, pizzas and sandwiches, while ringing in sales. I confide to the clerk next to me that the only thing I think I’m doing well is making change. The absolute next customer states, “Hey buddy, you shorted me a dollar.” I hand him a dollar, stating, “Hey, I’m pre-WASL, what do you expect?”

Like any other job we have rules. One customer places an order and pulls out an American Express, a credit card we don’t take.

I recall a tale from Staci, working in the River Park Square candy island, who said her worst customer was a lady with a child who went ballistic when she couldn’t charge 50 cents to her credit card. Staci’s manager set that rule but the brunt of the reaction falls on the clerk. Staci’s a sales pro, though. She used to work in Victoria’s Secret and could teach a class in tact. Skillfully telling a middle-aged lady the bra size she wore “since high school” has changed, takes major diplomacy.

The Marilyn chronicles come to mind also. This pleasant Outback waitress has run the gamut from being spit on for not selling alcohol to a man serving minors at his table, to loading a woman into a taxi after her date broke a wine glass over her forehead, to receiving a $500 tip from a man in post-Katrina Mississippi who pronounced something about “Thank your lucky stars for FEMA, baby.”

The customer reaches into his back pocket, surely to grab brass knuckles, I think. It turns out to be another credit card.

The day ends well, but for me it’s one-day career, making me a wiser amateur for sure but no pro. I think there’s a Golden Rule to fast-food that applies, and not just the “fries are done when they’re golden.” It’s how the customers should treat those who graciously wait on them.