Three Saturdays ago my wife and I returned to town after a long, long drive and had neither energy nor willpower to cook supper at home. We weren’t in the mood to wait 60-120 minutes for a table at your Olive Garden/Red Lobster level of weekend hotspots. We’d already racked up a number of single-day expenses and were neither amenable nor properly dressed to go overspend on a nicer, classier, posher, less crowded establishment. So we decided to stop for fast food.
On a Saturday night. I know better than this.
When things went south, they set off a series of flashbacks to my previous career track and reminded me exactly why I should know better.
Once upon a time I spent twelve years in the restaurant business, most of it toiling through nights and weekends because at the time I didn’t have much of a life for those shifts to obstruct, and those hours suited the night-owl rhythms I’ve lived by since high school. I was great at the basic customer-service level aspects of the job, but not everyone around me could say the same.
Very, very few humans claim fast food as their dream job when they’re under 18. It’s not inspiring or tempting. It’s not a subject that any eight-year-old wants to cover for Show & Tell or illustrate in Crayola for art class. For most it’s a low-risk fallback position. It suited me fine during a time when I convinced myself I had no reason to aim for better. To an extent I’m grateful for my time there because the experience taught me several volumes’ worth of life lessons. Like any job ever, it’s possible to find happiness and make peace with it, but it requires a certain skill set to survive, let alone thrive.
During the early years at that first job of mine, I soon learned there was a vast difference between employee cliques, depending on what shift you worked.
For older applicants seeking full-time work and some semblance of professional demeanor, or for friends and relatives of same, they insisted on working day shift, from breakfast till just before dinner rush. The place was a well-oiled machine during breakfast and especially lunch because that’s when all the upper management worked, when the owner was most likely to drop by and when the regional corporate headquarters would send in representatives to inspect the quality, service, and cleanliness during a quote-unquote “normal day”. They nearly always announced when they were coming and gave everyone time to clean up and rehearse so that “normal” meant 100% by-the-book for the space of a single 9-to-5 day.
Then all the corporate honchos, our upper managers, and the owner went home for the day as if they had an ordinary average Monday-through-Friday job, as if those were our only business hours. The corporation was content. The clean-cut adults who liked wearing ties were content. The owner was satisfied. The lunchtime crowd was happy. A-plus restaurant.
Then there were us closers.
In Glengarry Glen Ross closers are the top salesmen who seal the deal and rule the roost. In my world, closers were the misfits who worked the evening shift until closing time and had the responsibility of shutting off the lights, locking the doors, cleaning up eighteen hours’ worth of messes, and being stuck there on the clock till the entire place was restocked and relatively spic-‘n-span — lobby, restrooms, parking lot, grill area, front counter, backrooms, prep areas, workspaces, kitchen equipment, utensils, tools, trays, etc. — so the openers could come in at 5 a.m. and prepare to mess up everything all over again. Cook, cook, cook, sell, sell, sell, lather, rinse, repeat.
Most of the time, closers weren’t usually the cream of the crop. They were adults with second jobs, high schoolers who didn’t care if they had time for both homework and sleep, desperate people fallen on hard times who really really really needed the money and would take any available shifts doing anything, and drunkards and stoners who got turned away by all the other no-experience-necessary businesses in the area. Technically night shift had the same job qualifications as day shift, but since the corporate office and upper management never checked on the place after the dark…let’s just say potential closers never had to navigate multiple formal job interviews. Turnover among closers was so high that managers couldn’t afford to be choosy unless they wanted to come in and cover those shifts themselves, thus putting their family quality time and prime-time TV at risk. As a descriptor of our ideal applicants, the phrase “warm bodies” was not uncommon.
Occasionally you had guys like me who sort of stumbled their way into it, clean-cut kids who weren’t morning people, or who didn’t like being surrounded by managers, or who had to juggle schoolwork and work-work alike. For us youngsters who needed grades and cash, night shift was the only time we could earn any hours. Sometimes we’d band together and become a happy, scrappy little team, united by intellect or class-clown defense mechanisms or odd musical preferences or whatever. Whenever a few of us shared such a wavelength, it became like a friendly game of sorts. Sometimes we’d find things to do together after work. There was a bowling alley with a video arcade, or a nearby Meijer for silly window-shopping, or a Waffle House where we could unwind with drinks or desserts. Good times.
My kind rarely stuck with the night shift for the long term. Usually we were outnumbered. By those who kept to themselves and were there only for the money. By those who had to hurry home for four hours’ sleep before returning to their better-paying day job. By those who didn’t care if they did their job well or not and kept us at work longer because we had to wait for them to redo everything — or worse, wait for us to help them redo everything.
My least favorite were the cliques who couldn’t wait to get off work between midnight and 1 a.m. so they could go get hammered. Drinking and drugs were never my scene, not even as a tee-totaling tagalong. Those years don’t hold the same heart-warming nostalgia for me. More than once I watched helplessly as kids like me fell into that crowd, became more like them than like me. Kids like me who stayed like me generally found ways or reasons to escape the job much more quickly than I did.
All that’s just me talking about normal night shifts. Saturday nights were a different monster.
No one in their right mind wants to work a Saturday night. Ever. During my later years as a manager, I was in charge of crew schedules for years. I can tell you from experience Saturday nights were the hardest time frame to staff adequately for projected sales needs. Most employees didn’t want to work weekends in the first place. Of those who were willing to work weekends, no one ever wanted to work every Saturday. Even restaurant workers have family gatherings, school events, social outings, concerts, sports, or whatever else America has decided can be done only on weekends because of the working week.
If they had to work on Saturdays, 99 out of every 98 employees wanted to work in the morning and be off by 5. That’s when all the concerts, parties, and other Saturday shindigs happen. Those are what make Saturdays Saturdays. But most fast-food joints don’t close early on Saturdays. Someone has to give in and work nights.
Or at least, they had to agree to be scheduled at night. Six or eight or ten names can be written on the Saturday night schedule, but for the Saturday night manager it’s a big gamble to see how many of those actually show up, how many call in due to illness (real or fake), how many have to leave early because reasons, or how many just pull a no-call-no-show and assume they’ll patch over their offense the next day. I ran many a Saturday night on a skeleton crew or less because of other people’s moral failings. I distinctly remember two nightmarish Saturdays when I had to run the entire store for the final hours with just myself and one other person, no other help in sight, and no point in calling the other managers to bail me out. I remember the names of each of those lone, hardy closers on each of those terrible nights. As I recall, one quit a week later, and the other developed a substance problem that soon cost him the job.
That’s why I avoid fast food on Saturday nights. Odds are they’ll be severely understaffed and overwhelmed. Those who report for duty are like prisoners trapped under protest, or suckers who couldn’t get out of it, all serving under the swing manager nearest the bottom of the totem pole who drew the short straw, and who’s no more motivated to be there than the rest of them. If a fast-food joint has unresolved issues, the best way to find out is to visit on Saturday night and count the disasters.
Three Saturdays ago, my defenses were down. We’d driven two hours away from home, walked a few miles around another town, and driven two hours back home. We needed food and we weren’t in the mood to have to reason through it. Theoretically, choosing a restaurant shouldn’t require a lot of guidelines. But as former restaurant employees, my wife and I do have some.
But I was exhausted and we normally like the place where we headed. I’ll be charitable and protect their identity, so let’s call them Bluto’s Alaskan Pantry, and let’s say they were in a neighboring town called Stratford. We drove a few extra miles out of our way to Bluto’s in Stratford because that’s how much we like their grub. So we entered Bluto’s around 7:20 and found several customers ahead of us. Some had already ordered and paid, but were patiently waiting for their meals. The lone cashier had been there since 9 a.m. but didn’t want to leave her manager shorthanded, so this was literally her eleventh hour. She was polite and surprisingly cheery, and honest whenever she had to admit which menu items they were out of for the night. I counted four or five other heads bobbing around the drive-thru and kitchen areas at speeds that implied either elderly reflexes or fatigue worse than mine.
We ordered and got our drinks. They were out of napkins and medium drink lids in the lobby, which hadn’t been wiped down or swept in a good while. We grabbed a booth, I propped my legs up, and I zoned out with my phone for light entertainment. I needed relief from driving and time to unwind, and a public bench was as good a place as any. Sure, home would’ve been better. Food first, then home.
Over the course of the next half-hour we watched as the people who’d been there before us slowly, ever so slowly, glacially paced even, one by one received their orders piecemeal. Right before the half-hour mark, my wife took the initiative to go up and stand by the front counter instead, maybe put a bug in the nice cashier’s ear.
Time continued to crawl. I was still decompressing in a fuzzy, comfy rabbit hole deep inside my head. Normally it’s not a good idea to starve me because you wouldn’t like me when I’m starving. Luckily for them I was 100% drained and they had the privilege of dealing with my wife, the Good Cop.
Somewhere beyond the forty-minute mark, the cashier figured out what went wrong. At some point a back-line helper had bagged all our food and set it down in a particular spot without telling anyone what it was. The cashier had noticed it and asked more than once which order it was. No response, more than once. I’m assuming my wife’s investigation of the matter remained calm and possibly even chirpy because she’s a better person than I am in many respects, but eventually someone was spurred into opening the mystery bag and discovering our food had been inside all along. Surprise!
The manager gave my wife the food, plus a few extra morsels, plus a full refund. That was above and beyond our expectations. Thankfully most of the food was still warm, and exactly as delicious as we’d hoped. Pyrrhic victory.
But as I ate and felt the calories slowly solving a few of my problems, rather than grouse about the minutes of life wasted, I began to feel sorry for adding to their burdens by showing up in the first place. I know fast-food Saturday nights are a thing that society says has to exist, but I remembered how it was my least favorite shift of every week. I remembered what it was like working hundreds of Saturday nights and surely missing countless opportunities to connect with other humans on a social basis. I remembered the misery when everything went wrong, the customers we aggravated, the hours of cleaning we couldn’t begin till everyone went away and left us alone, the occasional doubt about whether or not the hassle was worth it. And I didn’t like that, in my own minute way, I became part of someone else’s bad Saturday night exactly like all the bad Saturday nights I had in my time. Eventually I escaped, but I couldn’t take the world with me.
Next time you’re hungry on a Saturday night, low on funds, and looking for cheap meal options, maybe give that creepy Burger King and that ever creepier new Hamburglar a pass. Make a peanut butter sandwich. Pick up some TV dinners from the grocery. Scrounge for leftovers in the back of your fridge. Find some years-old ingredients in your cabinets and challenge yourself to make something out of them. Pretend you’re on Chopped and Ted Allen is challenging you to create an entree from French onion soup powder, canned albacore, instant oatmeal, and hazelnut spread.
If you still think an Extra Value Meal on a Saturday night is your best solution, just remember either your server will be the kind of person you wouldn’t trust within 500 feet of your home, or they’ll be a decent person regretting their choices and wishing this Saturday night had never happened.
Good times? Great taste? Good luck.