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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Today At A Fast Food Joint ...

I love drive-thru fast food ... tasty, relatively inexpensive, and oh so convenient. But when I order a juicy burger with onions or a chicken club, I have never asked for a side of incompetence ... yet it always seems to wind up in my to-go bag.

Just a few days ago, I stopped after work at a place that serves these boneless wings I love. There's a few flavors of sauce from which to choose. I always get the "Asian Kick" ... although when they first come through the glass partition they smell more like "Chinaman's Ass." Anyway, I bought a six-piece combo, paid and collected my food, and then drove about a mile to the parking lot of a "superstore" where I could dine before starting the official commute home.

Let me describe my meal: a diet cola I had ordered with no ice (whatever sank the Titanic was in my cup, however) and a grease-stained bag containing a box loaded with six juicy (one quite small, however ... obviously the runt of the hen house) boneless chicken masses slathered with maroon-colored sauce ... so much sauce, in fact, that it had leaked into the bag. No problem, though ... there was nothing else in the bag to get in the pungent sauce's way. No napkins. No fork. No wet wipes. No fries. Nada.

Who exactly trains the drive-thru food technicians of today? A dyslexic chimp? A seared scallop? A down-on-his-luck stockbroker? It just seems like common sense to me that with every order you include napkins, plastic cutlery, and the actual items the customer ordered. And the messiness ... people don't take pride in the simplest things. I find true beauty and craftsmanship in a well-wrapped burrito or a condiment-heavy burger that comes out of the Styrofoam box neat as a debutante at her coming out party. Why can't the people who actually make and/or serve them find the same kernel of pride?

Usually I'd cry a "youth foul" at this point, claiming that young people just don't possess a decent work ethic like those of us just 10 or 12 years their senior. For the last two years of high school, I made and delivered pizzas for a small independent chain. Other than the owner, the entire staff was between the ages of 17 and 23. I know the drill about being young and in the food service industry would... we used to do unspeakable things to orders made by people we knew and didn't particularly care for. We deliberately burn (slightly) certain orders so we could eat them on break or claim them at closing time. We used to climb on top of the pizza shop (when the owner/manager was gone) and smack dough balls at passing cars with the huge pizza oven spatula. I even personally screwed up my very first delivery by placing the thermal delivery case sideways in the backseat so that all the toppings and sauce on the pizza slid right off the crust.

But here's the thing ... as stupid as we acted at times, we never let the front-end of the business suffer. We answered the phone lines on the first or second ring. We were respectful and courteous of all customer requests. We made every attempt to remember things like "extra sauce" or "olives on the side." We kept boxes of extra napkins, Parmesan cheese packets, plastic spoons and forks, and pre-moistened towelettes in our delivery vehicles in case something was missed at the shop. And when I screwed up that first delivery, I told the customers (an older married couple) I would make it right ... I called my manager from their phone to get a replacement pizza started and offered the phone to them if they wanted to speak to him directly (they declined), drove straight back to the store(luckily I didn't have any other orders in my car), and then returned with the pizza and a complimentary six-pack of cola. They actually gave me a generous tip.

But it's not just "young people" ... I'm an equal opportunity nitpicker. There is a wave of retirees and senior citizens re-entering the workforce, and many of them end up at fast food establishments. The older lady who seems woefully ill-equipped for the breakfast rush, who can't make change, and thinks the electronic order screen is "magic" gets a "10 for ineptness" rating just as quickly as the teenager who pops her gum or stops taking my order to check the incoming text on her cell phone.

So today, I was heading to get some groceries. It was just past lunch time and I saw that one of my favorite burger joints was offering a special on chili dogs. I LOVE CHILI DOGS! So I ordered, paid and retrieved, and then drove to the grocery ... just about three blocks. My mouth was watering as I parked and grabbed for the food. The restaurant worker was apparently trying something from my playbook. She'd packed the two coney containers on end to fit in the bag more conveniently. Points for creative storage ... demerits for the mess. All the onions, mustard, and sauce had smeared down the cartons, completely saturating the bottom third of bun and wiener. And of course, no napkins to help sort out any of the mess.

I don't even "Hardees," I mean hardly, remember driving back to the restaurant. Just that everything was moving slower than normal, my breathing was really loud, and everything had a lovely red tint to it. I went inside and asked to speak to a manager. After just a few seconds, a nondescript man in his late 20s or early 30s came over and asked what I needed. I explained the situation and just paused to gauge his reaction. Then, swear to God, I saw his eyes glaze over and in a robotic voice he started issuing this apology statement which used the word "sorry" a great deal and mentioned something about how the establishment hoped every customer enjoyed their food upon arriving home. I was pissed. I suddenly and very vividly remembered every chili and soup I had ever ordered where I received no plastic spoon or crackers, every salad where the dressing never materialized, and every "no cheese, thank you" sandwich request I had made only to come face-to-face with an orange square of slightly melted edible wax.

"Hey, I've got a question for you," I said, interrupting his emotionless delivery. "Do you ever drive through places for food yourself?"

"Yeah, sure." He looked somewhat confused.

"Do you always go straight home?"

"No," he candidly replied. "Sometimes I've got errands to run, or I'm heading out of town to see my girlfriend."

"Hey, and do you ever get customers here who are just passing through the area and decided at the last minute to grab something to eat?"

"Sure ... lots of people jump of the highway to grab some food for them and their kids. Some come in and some just cruise through. A bunch are even from out of state."

GOTCHA!! Suddenly, he looked a bit uncomfortable. Trapped.

"And do you think those out-of-state-tourists and their kids wait, oh I don't know, two or three days until the get home to eat your stinkin' food? Do you think if you forget to give them a spoon with their clam chowder they wait a few hours until they can stop somewhere and shop for spoons?"

At this point, I looked at the manager squarely, sure I would spot a look of regret or contrition. But I kid you not, he looked awed instead ... like he had never thought of these customer-centric questions and their answers in his entire professional life.

POINT OF RANT: I'm emending my question ... who trains the people who train and manage the drive-thru technicians of today?

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