First jobs result in the kinds of stories that fascinate me. Each of us has, at one time or other, had some pretty humble employment, something that we have (hopefully) grown beyond. Mine was at a Burger King.
Teenagers need money. Has there ever been a statement that is more true? I will admit that the definition of “need” may be a bit broad, but just try telling a sixteen-year-old that music, entertainment and fast food are luxuries rather than necessities. When I was that age in the mid 1970’s it was no less true. Except that music came from a record store and entertainment was at the movie theater on Saturday afternoons.
I suppose my actual first job was cutting the grass at home. I got paid $2 for each wrestling match with the Toro. The minimum wage was probably around $2 at that time, so I suppose the rate was not unreasonable. Still, a guy can’t make much scratch at $2 a week, so a real job would be required if I wanted to to that utmost teenage thing and buy my own car.
My first choice was to work at a car dealer. I had always loved cars, and a job washing and moving them around the lot would have been something I would have done for free. I made the rounds of several car dealers that were reasonably close by, without much success. The American Motors dealer was momentarily intrigued because they needed someone to do “new car prep”. Unfortunately, the US auto industry of the day (and perhaps AMC in particular) saw to it that “new car prep” involved some significant experience twisting wrenches instead of being a job for a kid to pull protective plastic from new cars for a few hours after school as it would probably be today.
With my car dealership idea played out, I saw a classified ad for help wanted at Burger King. “Hmmm”, I thought. “I like Burger King better than I like McDonalds, so maybe . . . . yeah.” I stopped in and got an immediate interview with Lonnie. I still remember Lonnie – I thought of him as a big shot at the time, a guy who wore a knee-length leather coat and drove a fancy Monte Carlo with swivel seats. Lonnie stared at me intently and was only mildly threatening when he said “Everyone makes mistakes. If I tell ya’ something and ya’ mess it up, I’ll understand. But if I tell ya’ again and ya’ mess it up again, that’ll be a problem.” I momentarily wondered if I could handle the pressure, but when Lonnie told me that he would give me a try, I vowed to give it my best. At least he didn’t wear a crown on an overly large and creepy head.
I was told to buy some black pants and was issued a two-tone orange . . . shirt? smock? tunic? Whatever it was, it was hella 70’s ugly. And then there was the big round white nametag that said something like “HI I’M [blue label tape with my name on it] HOW CAN I HELP YOU?” It seemed needlessly cheerful, but it was a condition of employment. I only forgot it one day. Unfortunately, that was the day the District Manager (an even bigger shot than Lonnie} came to inspect things.
At that time Burger King got frozen patties of beef in two sizes – for regular burgers and for The Whopper. There was a chain-link conveyor belt that ran through a gas-fueled fire, and my job was to put the cold patties on the belts and get them off at the other ends, when they would go into a steam-heated container, all ready for the guy actually making the sandwiches “your way”. So yes, “flame broiled” was a thing. I thought I had hit the jackpot when I learned that I could eat for half-price (except for shakes, which were full price). But then came “the grease bucket”.
Near the end of each shift someone had to empty “the grease bucket”. This was a container that hung under a drain hole and caught the fat drippings from the flame broilers. You have not lived until you have carried a warm bucket of fat/grease/whatever it was out to a huge container out back to dump it in with its older, congealed counterpart. The experience was not pleasant.
The joke turned out to be on me because after about the first week and a half I no longer had a desire to eat a hamburger from Burger King (or from anywhere else, for that matter). This was saying something given my predelection for hamburgers (one that continues to this day). It was about six months after leaving my job before I overcame that issue. And leaving that job was something that happened about three weeks after starting it, for my all-time shortest employment stretch ever.
The single insurmountable problem was that the pay was $1.90/hr (an amount lower than minimum wage that was due, no doubt, to influence form the franchise fast food industry) and that I was being scheduled for, on average, six hours per week. By the time taxes were withheld (in an amount that was an unpleasant surprise), payday was not nearly the joyous experience I had been expecting.
One evening my mother mentioned to me that a longtime friend of the family told her that the Fort Wayne Public Library where she worked was hiring “pages”. Yes, the stupid name for people who shelved books made me groan and grumble a bit. But then she got to the part about $2.10/hr and twenty hours weekly (forty in the summertime). Hard choices were made but the money talked and I turned in my notice to The King.
What did I learn? At least I hope I learned something because it would be a shame to spend three weeks at Burger King and have nothing to show for it. I learned that you had to get there on time and you had to find things to do when nobody was at the counter. You had to learn to mop a floor and clean a bathroom, and you had to do what the boss wanted you to do the way he wanted you to do it. I also learned that the distinctive odor of Flame Broiled burgers has not changed one whit, which is why Burger King remains in the bottom half of my fast food choices all these decadees later.
Image Credit: Vintage Burger King graphic from flannelsuit.net where someone wrote about vintage fast food training videos.