Wednesday, June 29, 2011
From Burger Flipper to Burger Journalist; My History with Restaurants
Like Linda, without setting up trays of buns (lest they get dry), I could assemble 12 for toasting in seconds, gathering the tops in between my fingers in one sweep of my hands. (Two in-between-fingers had to hold two bun tops each; you try that at home!) In between toasting buns, I usually had time to help the "tray dresser" apply the catsup, mustard, pickles and cheese to the toasted buns while the burgers were finishing on the grill. And I handled all the Filet-o-Fish and pies as well.
With my white paper McDonald's trainee hat, I started where everybody did: cleaning the tables, floors and bathrooms in the dining room. Then I graduated to making shakes. From scratch. Not pulling the lever and dispensing them into a cup. I said it was a long time ago.
From there, the possibilities for moving up dazzled: making fries, working the counter, cooking the meat and, good God -- filling in for a manager. I stood at the front of the store, wrapping burgers and putting them in the warming bin.
This last assignment left one positively glowing. It involved "calling production," or balancing the supply and demand curves perfectly. Running out of food meant customers waited -- a near mortal sin in those days -- but making too much meant that when food sat around too long, we had to toss it out. Such awesome responsibility.
I was pretty good at most jobs and eventually made it to manager, opening a nearby store in the morning when we first began serving breakfast. Yes, all of those eggs were in fact cracked from a whole egg and scrambled. No mixes in a quart container were used.
One of the benefits of that job was the free food: a sandwich, an order of fries or a fried pie and a refillable drink or a shake. From behind the counter, we also savored the delights we weren't allowed to serve to customers: fries dipped in gobs of tartar sauce, Big Macs with extra everything; the odd sloppy joe assembled on the grill using two beef patties, onions, catsup and mustard and a little sugar; pies with a piece of cheese melted on top; fish sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes. (This was long before Burger King's "have it your way" challenge: no lettuce was permitted on McDonald's fish then.)
At closing time, anything left in the warming bin was fair game. You could have a Big Mac and cheeseburger nightcap while you were washing down the french fry area for the next day.
Is it any wonder that my weight shot up from 140 as a high school sophomore to 180 by the time I left for Michigan State University? My experiences eating at restaurants in college are a blur, save for the Taco Bell and the bagel shop that were near to the student newspaper. Can you imagine how cheap the all-bean burrito was in those days?
After school, I took a job at The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. After a couple of years there covering neighborhoods and city hall, I became a business writer. It was the dawn of daily newspapers' interest in serious business journalism.
Wichita's business community was known for two things, both of which I would up covering in my five years there: chain restaurants and aircraft manufacturing. It was the place where two brothers, Frank and Dan Carney, founded Pizza Hut in 1958 and minted chain restaurant millionaires all over town. At the time, Wichita also was home to Cessna, Beachcraft, Gates Learjet and Boeing Military Airplane Co.
The interest in chain restaurants was palpable. Pizza Hut was acquired by PepsiCo in 1977, and everybody in town seemed to be looking for the next big thing. There were guys who dabbled in what the industry called "casual theme dinnerhouses" such Chi-Chi's; Wendy's was in its major growth spurt; and the gourmet burger trend was just getting started with Fuddrucker's.
With the vast wealth of PepsiCo behind it, Pizza Hut began seriously experimenting in those years: pizzas with odd ingredients such as barbecue sauce and chicken and my favorite innovation: a multi-layer stuffed pie that tons of crust and cheese in addition to the toppings. It was sort of like a Chicago-style pizza. I'm amazed to find a Bring Back the Pizza Hut Priazzo Facebook page devoted to it and this video on You Tube.
The notion of chain restaurants serving healthy fare was laughable. No one felt the slightest inclination -- save for the folks behind D'Lites, a novel idea from a former college football player that flamed out by the end of the 1980s. Clearly an idea before it's time.
So it's encouraging to see some progress in the industry. With the obesity epidemic we have, you just wish there was more.