Fast food, hard work: What I learned as an underpaid Chick-Fil-A employee
I want all my children to work fast food someday. Why would I subject the little darlings to low pay, hectic dinner rushes, rude customers, demeaning work, ignorant coworkers, monotonous tasks, slippery shoes, and stinky clothes?
The short answer: Life is filled with the above, so you might as well expose ’em while they’re young. The long answer: Much of what I learned in business I learned from fast food. Not the creative stuff. Not sustained rejection. Certainly not cerebral problem solving.
But working fast food taught me the essence of hard work—livelihood’s version of basic training. After two years as a low-level cooking, toilet cleaning, truck unloading, chicken suit wearing, stench absorbing, fry serving, drive-thru calling, and overly perspiring wage-worker at Chick-Fil-A, here’s what I learned about business, customer service, teamwork, and life:
- Work is monotonous; deal with with it or suffer the consequences. Every occupation involves monotony. Some more than others. Fast food is brimming with it. Drop, flip, package, serve. Repeat 1,000 times in a single shift. Presented with that reality, you have three options: Whistle through it, become spited by it, or quit. The latter two lead to failure, anger, brain-pain, and entitlement. The former results in victory. It boosts your resolve, makes the valleys in life bearable, and enables persistence. And persistence with purpose leads to success. Even jobs you love require monotonous tasks. The difference is they require a whole lot less, which makes them easier to love. Either way, you must learn to accept and withstand monotony.
- The customer is usually right—not always. I served a lot of customers in my two years at Chick-Fil-A—an estimated 27,000. Most of the time they were pleasant. Sometimes they were insufferable and dishonest, but still worth the business. In rare cases, my managers taught me to refuse business to the really bad ones and/or ask them to leave. To this day, I still say “no” to the really bad ones, freeing me of mental drag and undue drama while minimizing unprofitable transactions.
- Everybody has to clean up crap. You know the guys in Vietnam movies whose faces lose color and eyes gaze 1,000 yards when asked “What was is like?” That’s kinda what my face looks like when I get asked about cleaning deep-fried garbage, public toilets, and fast-food dumpsters. I’ve seen some stuff man. The good news was, everybody had to take turns. Well, except for maybe the really squeamish girls when it came to dumpster diving. But they had to clean some heavy duty lavatory messes instead. In other words, everybody has to clean. Everyone’s hands get dirty, no matter who you are. While I don’t see that kind of filth anymore, I’m glad I plunged my hands in it then, which as a point of reference makes the wreckage I encounter today seem less messy.
- Chicken suits are as sultry as they are humiliating—might as well dance while you’re in one. My store was located in the corner of a busy intersection. To drum up business, our owner brought out the dreaded chick suit (before switching to cow suits) to catch the eye of passing cars during the hot summer. Keep in mind I grew up in Georgia, The Deep South. I scoff when people from Texas (or those visiting Texas) refer to it as “humid.” Texas is a light mist compared to Georgia in August. Anyways, my first turn in the chicken suit didn’t go so well. I was miserable and embarrassed, even though I was wearing a full body mask. It was excruciating. The next time my number was called, I started my shift in the same way. And then I changed my attitude. Might as well embrace and make the most of this. For me that meant cartwheels, fist pumps, worm dancing, summersaults, the running man, imaginary high fives, and friendly finger points at smiling cars. Pretty soon people started honking, and I fed off their energy. Wearing a chicken suit didn’t seem so bad in those moments. In fact, I dare say I had fun doing it, all because I learned to laugh at myself through temporary humiliation.
- Everybody is underpaid sometimes; entitled people all the time. A lot of people working fast food are underpaid. Not all, but most are, I believe. I no longer consider myself underpaid, but I’m sure I will again at some point in life. Point is, everybody feels underpaid sometimes. That’s a good feeling to have. It makes us hungry. It drives us. It humbles us. And it leads to better outcomes than succumbing to the alternative: feeling entitled. Nothing good comes from that. The world doesn’t owe you a thing. You have to earn everything you have. Luck is too unreliable. Handouts eventually expire. The sooner you accept that, the less you’ll feel underpaid. The sooner you understand that, the quicker you can say goodbye to feeling entitled, which is a crippling, enslaving, and helpless state of mind.
- How to prioritize multitasks, sudden orders, and personal demands during crunch time. I say “how” because no one truly learns this lesson. Prioritizing demands is a lifelong pursuit. But working fast food certainly gave me a leg up in that regard. For instance, the next time someone declares they’re a good multitasker, ask them if they ever worked a drive-thru, preferably the fast food kind. It’s enough to intimidate even the most intelligent worker. You mean I have to remotely take one person’s order while simultaneously bagging another’s and communicating to cooks and coworkers what’s outstanding with both orders? Then do that for four straight hours??!! What do you want from me!!! The trick, of course, is quickly determining what are more critical requests while queuing secondary ones for later. That and grace under pressure. You can’t survive drive-thru, setbacks, and life’s hardships without having grace under pressure.
- Everybody has to work with people they don’t like. A lot of ignorant people work in fast food. Some indignant, others harmless. Working with said people was often taxing. But it taught me how to identify shared interests, build camaraderie, and understand what motivates different kinds of people. Although I haven’t worked fast food in decades, I still encounter uneducated, misinformed, or coworkers with widely different expectations than mine—even while working for myself. But like donning a chicken suit, dealing with monotony, or appeasing difficult customers, interacting with people you don’t like is unavoidable. Might as well make the most of it, learn from it, and fight for unity because infighting will kill your spirit.
I’m sure I unconsciously learned other lessons from fast food. And there are other entry-level jobs that serve as effective stepping stones to overcoming life-long work. But those are the lessons that stood out in my experience. Happy Labor Day, readers.