We were talking about summer jobs earlier tonight, and I recall one summer that almost changed my career path....well, not really, but it would be interesting to see how life would be different today had I given up college for BKU.
A brand new Burger King restaurant opened in my town the summer after I graduated from high school. I waited a little too long to look for a job that summer, so when I applied and they offered me closing shifts, I had no option but to take the job. I was the only high school student who worked the night shift, and I generally arrived at 5pm and worked until close at 1am, then cleaned the restaurant until 1:30am or so. As you might imagine, the work was fairly easy—make the sandwiches that came up on the board as fast as possible.
Burger King, at least when I worked there 35 years ago, cooked their burgers on a grill armed with a timer, so you would drop frozen patties in the shoot at the end of the counter and wait until they emerged at the end of the conveyor belt, browned and greasy, then put them on buns with the appropriate fixings, wrap, and drop them in the warming drawer for the cashier to bag them. They also have strict freshness rules, so any burger or fries that sat in the warming drawer for more than 10 minutes had to be thrown out.
I was an excellent employee...conscientious, detail-oriented, and driven to keep up with demand. My shift manager noticed, and offered me a shift working the drive-thru. I was honored! The drive-thru was like being a solo pilot in my own cockpit. I had total control of the fast food distribution process—manning the microphone, filling drink and fry orders, bagging food, working the cash register—and I didn't smell like grease for most of the evening. It was all like a game to me....how many orders could I manage and get out my window as quickly as possible?
My window was my domain...for 6 hours each shift I was 100% customer service representative, making sure orders were filled quickly and correctly. If someone came into the restaurant because I packed a Whopper Jr. instead of a Quarter Pounder with cheese in their bag, I was devastated. But that rarely happened, and my manager was well aware of my success.
My friends, however, were not as excited about my ground beef prowess. We had just graduated—they wanted me to go parties, to the beach, or just hang out with them. If they came through the drive-thru during one of my shifts, they would clog up the line and only spend a dollar on a soda. So to avoid them distracting me, I would give them big bags of food. Our cue when they came through my station was to order a small coke and a small fry. The order came to 89¢, but I would load up a bag of food that was slightly past the 10-minute freshness deadline and pass it out the window, knowing full well that the managers count what's thrown away for inventory purposes.
As the summer wore on, I worked the drive-thru exclusively. Cleaning my station after close went quickly, so I often got to leave a bit early unless they needed me to mop floors. We wore shit-brown short sleeve polyester zipper-back shirts and matching brown pants for every shift, but my uniform was rarely laundered. Each week you worked in the restaurant, your uniform would absorb the grease in the air and become stiffer and heavier. I can't imagine that I washed my uniform more than twice per summer, and towards the end of the summer just standing at my register became a chore as my clothing was heavy and dank.
One weekend when I called in to get my shifts for the following week, my manager asked if I would meet with him for a few minutes before my first shift. I was pretty sure he had caught on that I was handing out discard food to my friends, so I sheepishly agreed to meet him. I did make sure to wash my uniform that weekend, and tried to think up a few excuses that I could tell my parents if he fired me.
When I arrived for our meeting, I was relieved that the manager was friendly and smiling. I sat down in front of his tiny desk and he handed me a large binder with stripes of red, orange and yellow. It was an introduction to Burger King University, BKU for short, and the manager went on to explain that he thought I had what it takes to have a successful career managing a franchise Burger King restaurant of my very own. In two short years I could be in business, flipping burgers and counting profits for many years to come.
I can't say that I wasn't a tiny bit flattered, but I was terrified to turn him down. I knew full well that I was heading to college in the fall and that making a splash in a music career was my ticket to success. I did finally break the news to him that BKU wasn't in the cards for me, and I think he was genuinely disappointed. I do sometimes wonder, though, as I pass by BK for McDonald's (they have better fries), what life would be like if I had jumped on the chuck wagon train that summer.........