Lessons and perspective from fast food

I started working in fast food when I turned 16 and needed to fund my habit of aimlessly driving around the backroads. I ended up spending five and a half years in the industry (the last few of which were only when I was home from college), advancing from a meat patty thermodynamic technician to crew trainer to floor supervisor. In the end, I was effectively a shift manager. I supervised the store’s training and safety programs.

It’s should be no surprise that I learned a lot about myself and about leadership during that time. Even a decade on, stories from my fast food days come up in job interviews and similar conversations. As a result of my time in fast food, I’ve learned to be very patient and forgiving with those who work in the service sector. I’ve also learned some lessons that are more generally applicable.

Problems are often not the fault of the person you’re talking to. This is a lesson for service customers more than service providers, but most providers are customers to. In fast food, when your order is wrong it’s sometimes the fault of the counter staff putting the wrong sandwich in the bag, but sometimes it’s the fault of the grill staff for making it wrong. In any case, it’s rarely the result of malice or even incompetence. People, especially overworked and under-engaged people, will make mistakes. This holds true for customer service staff at most companies, particularly large ones where the tier 1 staff are temps or outsourced. (That doesn’t imply that actual malice or incompetence should be acceptable.)

Sometimes the best way to deal with a ¬†poor performer is to give them responsibility. One story I’m fond of telling involves a crew member who was, in many ways, the stereotypical teenage fast food worker. He was smart, but lazy, and didn’t much care for authority. The fact that I was only a year older than him made it particularly hard for me to give him orders. He’d been working for a few months and was good at it when he applied himself, so the trick was to get him to do that. After a little bit of fumbling around, I found the trick. I started spending more time away from the grill area and more time up front, and I made it clear that he was in charge of the grill. I gave him some autonomy, but I also held him accountable. Lo and behold, his behavior improved. He also started taking opportunities to teach new employees the tricks of the trade. He could have let the authority go to his head, but instead he acted like an adult because he was being treated like an adult.

Don’t nitpick behavior, but don’t put up with crap. The standing philosophy on my shifts was “don’t make life hard for me and I won’t make life hard for you.” I didn’t like bossing people around (in part because they were either old enough to be my grandmother or because they were 16 and all the bossing in the world wasn’t going to have any effect). If people were doing their jobs well, I put up with some good-natured shenanigans (the exceptions being food safety, physical safety, and customer satisfaction). One time a fellow supervisor had written up a crew member for a really trivial infraction. I went to her file later and tore it up. This person was a good worker and harping on her for minor issues was only going to drive her away. By the same token, I came in from taking the garbage out one night to find two normally good workers having a fight with the sink sprayer. They were both sent home right away (granted one of them was off in 10 minutes anyway).

Spread the unpleasant work around, and be willing to do some yourself. Some of the managers and supervisors liked to make the same people do the unpleasant tasks all the time. I hated that approach because it just seemed to reinforce bad behavior. The people who made my life unpleasant certainly came up in the rotation more often, but everyone had to clean restrooms, empty grease traps, etc. Including me. I didn’t try to make a show of it, but I wanted the people who I worked with to see that I wasn’t using my position to avoid doing things I didn’t want to do. And if I’m being completely honest, there was something I enjoyed about emptying the grease traps (except when I’d lose my grip and pour them into my shoe).

Don’t be a jerk. I won’t delude myself into thinking I was universally loved. I know I wasn’t, and I’m okay with that. But for the most part, I think I was pretty well-liked among the crew and management because I wasn’t a jerk. I took my job seriously (perhaps too seriously at times), but I was flexible enough to try to work with people the way they needed to be worked with. I tried to make work fun and cooperative, because working in fast food sucks and anything that can make it less sucky benefits workers and customers alike.