Every once in a while I get the urge to go to McDonald’s. It doesn’t happen every week or every month for that matter, but a couple of times a year the call is too great to be ignored.
So, yesterday I took Johnny for a burger after school. He’s still on half days until next week, so it was a chance for us to dine alone, something of a rarity with six kids in the house.
I ordered the usual Quarter Pounder meal and went for a large (Super-Sized). I miss the Double Quarter Pounder meal available in the States; alas they don’t make them here in Scotland. Johnny had the Chicken Nuggets Happy meal, I had a Coke and he had the Fruit Shoot.
I don’t know what it is about a McDonald’s hamburger, but it always tastes just right, ditto for the fries. But, within hours I’ve either got “the shakes” or my stomach hurts, or both. Yesterday I was reaching for the antacids at 5 PM. It usually takes a couple of months to forget this experience before I go back.
As a teenager McDonald’s was my first job. Twice a week, I worked the evening shift from “five ‘till close,” which usually meant 10 or 11 or later depending on how long it took to clean up. My first night on the job something triggered the smoke alarm and the entire kitchen was doused with a layer of dusty fire extinguishing powder. One of my colleagues, Bruce was his name, said, “John, don’t worry about. I’ll stay and clean it up.” I was grateful for his generosity and realized only later it would give him a good excuse for missing school the next day. He and the manager were there until 2 AM.
I was a cook at McDonald’s and learned how to do everything from chicken McNuggets to Filet-o-Fish, to Big Macs, French fries and apple pies. I was never allowed to work the register or take orders at the drive-thru, those jobs were reserved for the girls who were either thought more attractive, or too dainty for the heavy grease work in the kitchen.
Cooking is easy at McDonald’s almost idiot proof. Everything is timed. You put the frozen patties on the grill and push a timer. When it goes off, you flip the burgers and push the timer again. When it goes off again, you pull the patties and place them tenderly on the buns you’ve prepared and loaded with ketchup, pickles and onions between timer beeps. Big Macs are usually cooked by the dozen, as are Quarter Pounders, or Quarters as they are known in the business. “John, I need ten Quarters and five Quarter Cheese.” Down go the frozen patties, on goes the first timer. For the Quarter Cheese, a half slice of cheese is added to the patties just before pulling them from the grill.
Everything is accounted for at McDonald’s and periodically over a shift the managers are required to pull food out of the waste bins and count the number of burgers that have fallen to the floor during prep, or failed to sell before their allotted waiting time in the sale bin. Every time burgers are placed ready for sale, a little marker is placed next to the batch to indicate their relative age. Anything that goes past that time is removed and counted.
McDonald’s prides itself on cleanliness and have a motto, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.” Any poor schmuck dumb enough to kick back and chat with his mates is quickly hit with an order from the manager, “John, give me a sweep and a mop,” meaning a sweep and mop of the entire kitchen area. Invariably, in the middle of that onerous task, things would “get busy” up front and your sweep and mop would be interrupted with, “I need a twenty piece,” which means someone’s ordered a twenty piece McNugget box. If there are no McNuggets waiting in the heated drawers, then frozen ones are dropped into the vat, timers are punched and the sweep/mop recommences.
My favourite part of the clean-up at the end of the night was washing the dishes. I know it sounds strange, but when you’re bent over the massive sinks no one bothers you. They just heap up more aluminium cookware and giant hunks of pressed metal as the various ovens and fry centres are “broken down.” If you were lucky there would be fries leftover and you could happily much away on the remainders as you watched the hot soapy water wash the grease down the drain.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the job was cleaning or changing the grease in the deep fry. It involved using a large tub and required draining the vat and running the oil through a filter. Oil deemed “past its best” was pitched and a new cube of congealed oil was brought from the storehouse. These cubes were about one foot square and were simply cut into medium sized chunks and dropped into the hot vat. I always enjoyed watching these things melt down and loved the sight of a vat full of fresh oil.
One of my first impressions one my first night was how slippery the floor was behind the counter. No matter how many times you “sweep and mop,” there’s just no way to get all the grease off the tiles; you have to learn to slide your way around and be careful not to move too quickly.
And then there is the grease you wear; a few hours at the grill and you become one with the stuff. Coming home at night I reeked of grease and went straight for the shower. My uniform needed washing after every day on the job; like everything else at McDonald’s it would congeal when it cooled. Within a few weeks my shoes were ruined and became designated work shoes.
A half hour dinner break was mandatory for all staff and we enjoyed a hamburger, fries and a drink on the house. As I sat munching my greasy goodies in the back room I read the “degrees” hanging on the wall earned by the managers who’d graduated from, I kid you not, the McDonald’s School of Hamburgerology.
McDonald’s was also my first introduction to the wider world. I worked with guys who would probably end up making a career at McDonald’s. Most of the them worked to pay for their cars or their auto insurance.
“What about Bruce?” I asked innocently one day.
“He works to support his habit,” I was told.
“Is he sick?”
“No, John, he’s not sick.”
I stopped asking questions at that point.
There is a “McDonald’s way” of doing everything at the Golden Arches, including hamburger assembly. The manager patiently explained to me after I was promoted from “chicken nugget fryer” to the hamburger grill that, “as a customer bites through a hamburger it’s important they have the right taste experience. They’ve got to have sweet, then sour, then sweet, then sour. So, the ketchup goes on first, then the pickles, then the “special sauce,” followed by the onions and finally the patty.”
I know is sounds corny, but I’ve become a believer. Try it on your next burger and see if it’s not true. You may not have the special sauce, a closely guarded industry secret, but you can experiment with mayonnaise or Miracle Whip or your favourite salad dressing.
Maybe then you’ll know why I keep coming back to Mickey D’s. “I’m lovin’ it.”