The summer after my freshman year in college, I went to work for Burger King. In case you are not familiar with the advertising, Burger King is the franchise that promises to prepare your hamburger “your way.” This promise serves as both the strength and the weakness of Burger King. On the one hand, customers may elect to choose between any one of thousands of possible burger combinations. Whopper with mustard and onions only. Whopper with everything, but no mayo. Double Whopper with cheese, tomato, onion, lettuce, ketchup but no mustard. Literally, one would be hard pressed to have the same Whopper twice in a decade’s span.
Yet with this advantage comes a horrible flip side. A terrible toll to which all Burger King employees must pay. Few Burger King customers seem to understand that “having it your way” results in a longer wait time than one might endure from the King’s chief competitor, McDonald’s. (Just try ordering a Filet O’Fish without cheese, bro. Try it.) But when you order, say, a Junior Whopper with ketchup only, the kitchen help isn’t scraping lettuce and mustard off an ancient Whopper Jr. left beneath the heat lamps. They’re grilling that fucker fresh for you, ace. Just remember that, chief, the next time you feel like bullying a powerless teenager into giving you your bag of food for free.
This is but one of about half a dozen penetrating lessons the Angry Czeck learned while toiling for Burger King. How I came to be in the King’s employ is a lesson onto itself.
It was the Summer of 1993. The Angry Czeck had just concluded his first angry year of college at the citadel of wisdom, Arkansas State University (Considered by some circles as The Princeton of Northeast Arkansas). My brother and I (let’s call him “Jennifer”) had intended to spend the entire summer watching reruns of The Rockford Files, but these plans were foiled by my angry mother, who insisted that we earn a living. Having spent the three previous summers as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool, my menu of marketable skills was discouragingly succinct. Even my CPR and First Aid qualifications had lapsed. But once you’ve enjoyed the absolute power that comes with being a lifeguard, yoeman’s work holds little appeal. Jennifer and I privately resolved to remain perfectly unemployed while mindlessly applying for jobs without exerting the effort to secure a post.
In this area of deception, Jennifer proved to be the Angry Czeck’s superior. He concentrated his limited energy to applying for disc jockey positions in-and-around the Hot Springs listening area. Too dull to develop an inaction plan equally as fascinating, I had Jennifer drop me off at Burger King, leaving him free to harass a nearby radio station.
To my great chagrin, I discovered that Burger King was hiring. But I played it cool. With slouching indifference, I asked the cashier to produce an application. Misfortune would be my soulmate that summer, as the cashier proved to be none other than the franchise’s night manager, a red-maned woman that I would soon come to know as “Carol.”
“Come with me!” said Carol eagerly, dragging me like a hostage to an empty booth. An assistant manager appeared like Burger King magic and joined us. Together, they quizzed me like tag team game-show hosts.
“Have you ever worked in food services before?”
“Have you ever run a cashier?”
“Are you familiar with working with hot grease?”
“Nope.” To my immense relief, I was failing the interview splendidly. There was no fucking way I was Burger King material. I began to wonder how long I’d have to wait in the parking lot for Jennifer to pick me up.
“When can you start?”
My brain froze. They might as well have asked me to describe the shape and texture of my testicles.
“Uh…well…you know…right away…”
“Great!” said Carol, pumping my hand like a politician. “How about right now? You know, just to get you used to the register?”
As the assistant manager prepared my brand new punch card, I staggered out of Burger King to tell my brother that I had not only just gained employment, I had gained immediate employment. Jennifer did his best to disguise his glee. I asked him how things went with the radio station. “Man, they’re not even looking for interns!” he declared happily.
Employee Training at Burger King consists chiefly of watching a couple of videotapes. Some grim copywriter, crazed by the prospect of writing a lifetime’s worth of fast food training videos, tried to spice up the script with a far fetched scenario involving two teenage boys marooned on a dessert island (a result of a never-discussed shipwreck, the details of which shrouded in mystery). Hopelessly bored awaiting rescue, one boy pleads with the other to disclose the secrets of preparing Burger King delicacies, like Whoppers, The BK Big Fish (you may fondly remember the Big Fish as The Whaler), French fries and milkshakes. (“Come on! Tell me again how they make those shakes so good at Burger King!!”)
It soon became evident to the Angry Czeck that the unsaid ingredients to Burger King’s financial success were “Efficiency through Consistency.” For example, every Whopper, though made the customer’s way, is essentially prepared in the same manner to exacting standards across the board. A standard issue Whopper is made with two swirls of ketchup, with one swirl of mustard inside the two swirls of ketchup. Precise measurements of lettuce, onions, pickles and tomato were then added. Slapping a second square of cheese on a Whopper is a crime of the worst offense.
Burger King advertising would have you believe that big, juicy Frisbees of beef are grilled to dramatic perfection upon a mighty brick hearth. Fuck that, said Burger King. Rather, puny hamburger pucks are fed into a steel firebox via conveyor belt. In precisely two minutes, eight seconds, the puck appears at the other end of the conveyor fully charbroiled. Buns are toasted in a similar fashion.
My favorite was frying up a BK Big Fish (I ate about forty of those fuckers every week). Too prepare a BK Big Fish, you only had to toss it into the French Fry fryer for two minutes and fifteen seconds. Then presto, you were eating white-hot fish, my man.
Sadly, there would be very little Whopper making in my Burger King career. Carol the Night Manager threw me right out front, manning the register. It was my understanding that a cash register had, like, a number pad and fun buttons to press like “SALE” and “REFUND.” Not the Burger King register. The Burger King register is a sort of coded “masterpad” that enables the cashier to ring up nearly any combination of food imaginable. If you ordered a Whopper Junior without pickles, you pressed WJr./X/Piks. Even George Bush could have operated it without error, though my register routinely failed to cash out for the first four weeks I worked there. (By the way, Burger King managers are much more forgiving when your register contains more money than it should, rather than less.)
One day, a man without teeth approached my register and ordered a “Raahhh…rah rah!” Shit, I had no idea what that meant. I just kept staring into the toothless hole that was his mouth and pleasantly asked him to repeat his order, like, five times. I nearly had the old guy write his order on a pad of paper, when suddenly his words became clear: “Whopper! Jay R!” The man wanted a Whopper Jr.
After three weeks manning the cash register, it came to my attention that everybody in the kitchen hated my guts. Not even the Angry Czeck is comfortable with people hating his guts. I forget exactly how I came across this piece of intelligence, but I do remember that once I knew, it was pretty plain that everybody in the kitchen wanted me dead. I took my concerns to the Lesbian Night Manager, who I quickly learned also hated my guts.
“You’re too much of a pretty boy,” she sneered at me. I asked her to explain.
“Listen, when somebody tells you that you have pretty eyes, just say ‘thank you,’ and leave it at that,” she said. Of course, this didn’t explain anything. So I pressed her for clarity.
“You smile too much,” she revealed. “And you keep bugging the kitchen people with things like, ‘I need a Whopper, no onions!’ It bugs people, okay?”
At least the last portion of her managerial analysis made sense. See, when somebody orders a Whopper no onions, they expect the cashier to produce one from his goddamn pants. Customer’s get irritated quick when they actually have to wait a second for their Whopper Their Way. To placate waiting customers from descending into a cashier-killing frenzy, the key is to appear like you really give a goddamn about their fucking sandwich. So every now and then, you turn your head to the kitchen and shout, “Need a Whopper, no onions, ASAP!” But shit! Then the kitchen people start hating your guts, and soon they’re sandbagging your orders just to make the Lesbian Night Manger think you’re a pretty boy. It took me a couple weeks to develop the delicate balance that repaired my street cred with the kitchen guys while preventing a lynching from irate customers. For that, I got minimum wage.
your Burger King kitchen will look a lot like this.
In just a few day’s time, I began to despise hungry people, who are an unpleasant lot. The lowest man on society’s totem pole is the Burger King employee. Because when you walk into a Burger King, you have an instant stable of hapless bitches at your command. It doesn’t matter who you might be. Are you a lumberjack with an anus full of herpes sores? Visit Burger King for an inoculation of self-esteem! Perhaps you’ve just been released from prison for forcibly violating pre-teen boys. Not a problem. Just make a cashier cry for failing to super size your fries, and nobody will even notice your electronic prison anklet. When you are drawing a paycheck from Burger King, you are at the end of your tether, and everybody knows it. One man, his softball uniform dirty and sweaty from a day on the diamond, staggered into Burger King with his young son in tow. He didn’t want the Value Meal, but demanded a Last Action Hero promotional cup anyway. You couldn’t get the Last Action Hero promotional cup without first ordering a Value Meal, and that’s exactly what I told him. Mr. Softballs went nuts, and he cussed me out in full display of his little boy. What a terrific lesson for the youths. That’s how grown-ups get their Last Action Hero cups, son. They act like complete assholes.
The most reliable man working at Burger King was Mike. He ran the kitchen, and he was more than forty years old. Like me, Mike worked the night shift, which meant he rarely got home before one in the morning. I later learned that he maintained a day job, too, as a custodian at a trailer park. I asked him why he’d subject himself to brutal Burger King nights when he had a perfectly good day job. “Can’t stand my wife!” he replied.
The cashier can hear you when you say something mean about them at the drive thru intercom. And before you say something macho and ridiculous, like “Good! I’m glad those idiots can hear me,” just remember who may or may not be sticking his greasy thumbprint in the middle of your burger patty, genius. Take my advice and keep your opinions for the highway. Oh, and remember that “Sprite” sounds a lot like “Fries.” And if you zip off without paying for your bag of food, Capone, Burger King Management takes it out of the cashier’s paycheck. No shit.
It bemuses me when I am with someone who becomes enraged with the quality of fast food service. I knew one guy who claimed to have thrown a milkshake through a drive-thru window, just because it wasn’t the right flavor. Why we expect sterling service from bumbling teenagers getting paid the very least amount of money possible as approved by our Republican government, I cannot understand. The smiling, cheerful motherfuckers you see portraying Burger King “Associates” in commercials are a complete fiction, America. In reality, they don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your family. They are given one, ill-fitting blue shirt for a uniform, and are then told a second shirt will cost $15. Furthermore, it is the employee’s responsibility to purchase their own black pants and black shoes. Failure to adhere to the Burger King uniform will result in immediate termination. Burger King employees cater to an ill-mannered clientele who view the person behind the counter as something less than human. Meanwhile, the managers gleefully remind employees that their actions are constantly being videotaped to discourage theft. Think about that before you throw a self-righteous hissy fit when you mistakenly receive a Coke instead of a Diet Coke.
It was humbling for a 19-year-old college pretty boy to learn that most people working at Burger King did so to earn money for things as basic as rent. My night manager, Carol, put in long hours because her husband could not. He was undergoing chemotherapy. Mike might have hated his wife, but he still needed the paycheck to survive, just like nearly everybody else I eventually counted as fellow confederates clinging to the fringe of society. I was too ashamed to telling my co-workers why I worked the night shift at Burger King, which was too earn some spending cash for a family trip to Florida. I was embarrassed to say that I would be spending my autumn and spring studying American folklore and Shakespearean Contemporaries. My Lesbian Night Manager had pegged me right: I was a pretty boy, but by the end of my shift, I felt somewhat redeemed, with my hair stuck to my face and the shine of burger grease across my forehead. I was not completely exonerated. I was still, after all, the same arrogant Angry Czeck that shirks manual labor and too often refuses to extend a helping hand to his fellow man. But if my sack of fast food should not contain the correct size of French Fries, I calmly ask that the order be corrected, and I thank the staff pleasantly upon my exit.