My (Very) Brief Career With Burger King

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.

30 thoughts on “My (Very) Brief Career With Burger King

  1. Ah, the grease bucket. The Burger Chef where I worked at in high school had about six 55-gallon grease barrels in the back, near the door. And the bucket in this case was the oblong stainless steel pit attached to each side of the grill. So it was heavy and awkward and I only had to empty it a few times.

    Like you, hamburgers were not on my favorites list for a very long time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The funny thing is that I worked in a pizza place for awhile and ate pizza every day I was on duty, and I never did get tired of it. But the hamburgers were a whole ‘nuther thing.

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  2. Hmm, sounds fascinating. I never worked in fast food, probably due to my stellar social skills. My first job was detassling corn, getting dropped off at one end of an enormous field and pulling tassles all day in the hot sun. I forget what the hourly rate was but I made a few hundred dollars in a few weeks.

    We were thankful that our daughter got her first job at Canadian Tire instead of Tim Hortons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have heard plenty about detassling corn, that it is a grueling job that pays quite well. I was too much of a suburban kid to have that opportunity.

      Canadian Tire sounds pretty good – did she get a good discount on stuff for your cars? Although from what I have heard, it would be no worse of an idea to use Tim Horton’s products on your cars instead.

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  3. Not counting caddying, or paper routes, my first job was in a busy re-upholstery store. The guy would rip apart sofas all day and I would come in at 4 PM to clean up the mess. After a week he promoted me to couch ripper-aparter. This guy was a dork, he kept yelling at me for incorrect ripping aparting. How can ripping aparting be done so wrongly? I quite after two weeks (cough-hack), correctly claiming asthma as the reason, and his help wanted sign went back in the window.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, that’s pretty bad if you lacked the skills to rip old upholstery from sofas. 🙂 I have dust allergies too, so I can only imagine what a tough environment that must have been. My breathing is tightening up just thinking about it.

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  4. I’m still stuck back at Lonnie with the knee-length leather coat. I was fortunate never to have worked at a fast-food restaurant, mostly because we lived in the country and that would have required wheels. But I do envy you your library job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Looking back, Lonnie probably had a tough job – hiring a bunch of stupid high school kids (or worse, those who lacked the talent or inclination for high school) and trying to whip them into good employees in jobs with very little prestige or pay.

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  5. You know, this was back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but my parents warned us to NEVER work in Fast Food and none of the 4 of us sibs ever did. I considered them very smart for the era in realizing “no good” could come from it! This was back in an era where most parents would have thought a job at the Golden Arches or the King would have been an OK past time for a kid! I have a buddy who ended up a nationally known journalist, who worked at his small town local drive-in when he was in high-school, and he informed me of the “hierarchy” associated with the high-school food trade: wherein it was considered far better to work at a locally owned café or drive-in, than any of the big chain fast food places; something I did not realize!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe it. I had very little in common with most of the others there, who looked like stoners to me.

      None of my 3 kids worked in fast food, except for one who had a bike delivery gig for a sandwich franchise during his last year of college. Although it got him in the best physical shape of his life, he hated it there. We were fortunate to live near an older country club and they all had great jobs there – the boys with the golf course and my daughter as a banquet server.

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      • Country Clubs were a great source! My Dad and his brothers worked as caddies at the Evanston country club back in the 30’s, and I believe it was the same place Bill Murray was a caddy in his era (He was from Wilmette). Hence the ideas behind the Caddy Shack movie!

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  6. My first job was at Kentucky Fried Chicken and just when I learned everything one could learn about chicken pieces and stirring up slaw in a big vat, I mentioned college in the Fall when he wanted to change my hours. “I trained you and you’re going to school?!” That was end of KFC and it was right out of high school, so I found the diner job – best job as it brought me out of my shell, so I’m forever grateful for that gig. We didn’t need to take the grease out, as the manager did it every morning, but we had to vinegar wipe down all the stainless steel, sterilize the milkshake machine and creamer and run ice and salt in each coffee pot at the end of our shift. The place was spotless. Nowadays, the owner of that diner has a ham and corned beef place and the front screen door is left open all Summer. That’s cringeworthy and my manager would roll over in his grave if he knew that. 🙂

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      • I got sick of smelling it JP though I still liked to eat it. I had to lean into the drawers of chicken … they kept the various chicken pieces and varieties in different pull-out drawers. Not only did the smell waft up into my face, but the steam fogged up my glasses and it was hard to tell the smaller pieces apart. The smell of the fried chicken got into my clothes, my hair, my skin. My mother made me get out of my uniform downstairs and leave the smell behind. 🙂 I only worked there a few weeks, then got the diner job.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Linda, I think you verbalized what my parents were worried about back in my era. We didn’t have any money, so college was going to be a struggle for me, but they didn’t want me falling into a fast food job where they were predatory about converting half-way smart “line” workers into asst. managers and then store managers! Get a few bucks in your pocket, get offered a few more, and then the idea going to college starts to recede. My parents were very smart to realize this in the early 70’s, probably because my Dad went to college “late” after WWII. As JP describes “Lonnie” above, there would probably be people thinking: “…hey, that could be me in a few years!” Lucky I wasn’t brought up to think that was a option!

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      • You are correct about that Andy. My parents felt that way too and pushed me to go to college and not doing so was not an option for me either. With most of the fast food jobs, they want to push you up the ladder in record time … the lure of a position, title and more money, rather than being a struggling college student. My father didn’t go to college, but did go to trade school and was a tool-and-diemaker. He did press me to go on to higher education as did my mom who went to business school.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Reading the stomach-churning description of your grease-emptying endeavors was made up for by learning that you then became a “page” in the library.

    I wish you had gone past that intro to cover that job in greater detail. But there are always more posts to write…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Gee, my first job was a peach compared to yours. I microfilmed closed claim files for Illinois Casualty, the family business. In an air conditioned office, with coffee. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I worked at a San Diego-area McDonald’s for two summers as a teen and have to admit it was a positive experience (at least, for a first job). My fellow employees were good people. We learned to fear the word “bus” or the time on the clock when the nearby movie theater let out. Your experience at BK – at least the responsibilities and the uniform – sounds almost identical to mine at McDonald’s. I remember my mistakes too: sending up a tray of Quarter-Pounders to be wrapped… without any beef patties on them. The time the sauce gun exploded on me. I think fast-food attracted teens in the ’70’s because McDonald’s hired young. If you were under sixteen you could at least clean tables and bathrooms, if not work the grills or the counter. Also, McDonald’s contributed to the work ethic I have today. When things were quiet we were polishing counters or sweeping floors. Never a down moment. Perhaps that’s because Ray Kroc had a house nearby; never knew when the head honcho might stop in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have often wondered how it might have been if I had stayed at BK longer. I’m sure I would have gotten to know the others who worked there. But it was in a high traffic location near the mall and not near a residential area, so the work force was mostly young adults out on their own. Ray Croc living nearby would certainly keep management on its toes.

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      • This reminds me of a family vacation in 1999. My parents took us to South Padre Island for Christmas. One evening we stopped at McDonald’s for takeout. I ordered a Big Mac with no onions. What I got, after we got back to the hotel, was three buns and two patties-nothing else. No lettuce, pickles, sauce, cheese, etc. Didn’t want to go back so just added some ketchup and mustard and just ate it!

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      • I used to work with a guy who ordered his McDonalds burgers plain, just like the one you got. I have tried it, they taste very different – and not in a bad way.

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  10. My first job was as a car hop for A & W. That was back in the day when you could still sit in a parking lot and get your food delivered to your car on a tray that sat on your window. We had ugly orange and brown fortrel uniforms!

    Liked by 1 person

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