The Stigma of Fast Food Work

When a young father starts working nights in the fast-food industry while his wife finishes school, he recieves stigmatic reactions and wonders why someone should be shamed for trying to make an honest living.

fast-food

"To him, I look like another wasted life, another victim. He thinks I got my girlfriend pregnant, that I never graduated from high school, that I can’t do any better than flip burgers at two in the morning. He feels sorry for my kids." - Joey Franklin

Photo by fotolia/Christopher Howey

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With honesty and wit, Joey Franklin explores what it takes to raise three boys, succeed in a relationship, and survive as a modern man. My Wife Wants You To Know I'm Happily Married (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) is an uplifting rumination on learning from the past and living for the present, a hopeful take on being a man without being a menace to society. In this excerpt he discusses the stigma placed on the employees of the fast food industry, which he encounters while working at Wendy's.

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Working at Wendy's

It’s a quarter to nine in the evening, and I’m standing in front of the counter at Wendy’s. The restaurant smells of french fries and mop water. In my right hand I hold my résumé. I don’t know whether I need a résumé to apply for the Wendy’s night shift, but I bring it anyway. It anchors me as I drift toward the sixteen-year-old kid behind the counter and ask to speak to his manager.

“One mandarin orange salad?” the boy asks.

“Uh, no. Actually, I’d like to speak to the manager.” As the cashier retreats to the back of the store, I recognize a large kid with curly hair working the fryer — he used to play football with some of the members of my Boy Scout troop. He looks up at me, and I avert my eyes. Part of me wants to turn around and leave before the manager comes out. A couple in their twenties walks into the restaurant and stands behind me. I step away from the counter and pretend to read the menu, holding my résumé close to my chest. The urge to leave increases. Just then the manager comes out and asks, “You here about the night shift?”

As I hand the manager my résumé, I realize it is a mistake. He doesn’t want to know my service experience, or my academic references, or my GPA. All he wants to know is whether I can spell my name correctly.

“The application is over there,” the manager says, handing back the résumé and pointing to a file folder mounted on the wall next to the counter. I take the application to an empty table in the corner of the restaurant and hunch over it, wishing I had a drink, or a hamburger, or something to put on the table beside me.

The next day I go for an interview with the hiring manager. I sit down at a table in the lobby and answer two questions: “What hours do you want to work?” and “When can you start?”

When he was sixteen, my brother Josh got his first job at McDonald’s. He lasted two weeks before deciding the greasy uniform and salty mop water weren’t worth five bucks an hour. His manager used to show off rejected applications to the other employees in the back of the store. Most were high school dropouts looking for spending money, but a few had college degrees. One application was from a doctor who had recently left his practice because he “couldn’t handle the mortality rate.”

I think about that doctor now as I sit in a small back room at Wendy’s. I have just watched thirty minutes of training videos about customer service, floor mopping, heavy lifting, and armed robbery. Chelsea, the training manager, hands me two neatly folded uniforms and a brand-new hat. Holding the hat in my hand, I look out into the kitchen at my new coworkers. At the fryer is the large high school kid I remember from the night before. A skinny, brown-haired, Asian-looking boy, who must be about nineteen years old, is washing dishes. Two girls are at the front of the store taking orders, and the manager is on the phone with an angry customer. “Can I do this?” I ask myself, and I put on my hat.

Chelsea is pregnant. During our training session, I guess she is about six months along. It turns out she is due in three days. “This is my last week on the day shift,” she says. “After the baby is born, I’ll be back on nights.” This is her first child, she explains, and says she is looking forward to being a mom. She smiles as she pats her stomach and asks about my son.

“Eighteen months,” I tell her. “A real handful.” I explain that I want to work nights so I can take care of my son during the day while my wife finishes her last semester of college. I ask about the pay, but I already know her answer.

“We start at $5.75,” she says, “but the night guys get $6.00.” I ask her what she thinks about $7.00. She says she’ll see what she can do.

Chelsea trains me on Tuesday and goes into labor on Wednesday. I don’t see her again for three weeks.

Kile Livingston’s mom ran the register at the Taco Bell on the corner of Lombard Street and Allen Boulevard in a poorer section of Beaverton, Oregon. Her name was Deb. She was divorced and had three boys. She shared a three-bedroom apartment with another single mom and her own five children. They listened to Snoop Dogg and Ice-T, drank forty-ounce malt liquors, and walked over two miles round-trip every Saturday to watch the neighborhood boys play basketball at Schiffler Park.

On welfare-check days, Deb went grocery shopping and brought home twelve-packs of Pepsi, stacks of frozen steaks, crinkly bags of potato chips, several gallons of 2 percent milk, and bag after bag of Malt-O-Meal cereal. The week before welfare checks came, they ate eggs and instant ramen — lots of ramen.

Her son Kile was my best friend in sixth grade. We often walked to Taco Bell together to visit his mother. She usually bought us a taco while we sat in a booth in the corner of the store and talked about bicycles, girls, and football. Once, on the way home from visiting his mom, Kile said, “She used to sell drugs, you know. We had plenty of money, and nobody thought she was a bad mom then.”

My first night on the job, I work with Dave. He is seventeen years old, five ten, and keeps his hair short, like a soldier. He goes to an alternative high school if he wakes up in time and is looking forward to enlisting in the military when he turns eighteen. His dad, who recently remarried and moved, told Dave he would have to find his own place to live. When Dave isn’t sleeping on a friend’s couch, he lives in his car — a 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit with a hole in the floor just beneath the gas pedal.

Dave works with me a few nights a week and knows the business well. He’s quick with a mop, can make all the sandwiches blindfolded, and has the entire computer memorized. When he’s not working, he hangs out in the restaurant lobby trying to steal Frosties and old fries when no one is looking. The manager says she will give him food if he needs it and asks that he not steal anymore. “Asking gets you nowhere,” he says, and keeps stealing.

Because I live just two blocks from the store, I recognize a disproportionate number of the late-night drive-through customers. Mostly, I see parents of the Scouts I work with or other Scout leaders and occasionally a friend from school. When they pull up to the window and see me in the Wendy’s hat and headphones, the following conversation ensues:

“Joey, I didn’t know you worked here! How’s it going?”

“Good, good. Just flipping burgers.”

“Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Then I explain the job is temporary, and it’s the only job in town that allows me to work at night so I can watch my son during the day while my wife finishes school. I tell them in another month I’ll be back in school and working at a better-paying, less humiliating campus job.

One evening a fellow Scout leader comes through, and after the typical exchange, he says, “Hey, more power to ya. I know a lot of people who think they’re above that.” He thanks me as I hand him his triple cheeseburger, and he drives around the corner and out of sight.

At 250 pounds, Danny really fills out his uniform. He played varsity football for the local high school, has earned his Eagle Scout award, and knows his way around a car engine. On several occasions he has changed spark plugs or jumped batteries and has even replaced brakes on the cars of fellow employees, usually right in the store parking lot.

Wendy’s is the first job Danny has ever had. With six months’ experience, he is the senior employee and is being considered for a management position. He brings in about a thousand dollars a month, much of which he gives to his grandmother. At closing, he always saves the good salads for me and talks the manager into letting me go home early. He likes listening to Metallica, working on his Trans Am, and talking with Tonya, a high school junior who also works at the store.

While I’m washing my hands in the bathroom at work, a well- groomed twenty-something man standing at the sink next to me starts a conversation. “Do you like working the night shift?” he asks.

“It’s not bad,” I say, shaking my wet hands over the sink. “How long have you worked here?”

“Two weeks.”

“Have you ever thought about college?” he asks. I want to tell him I’m in the top 5 percent of students at my college, that I am two semesters away from graduating, and that I’m on my way to grad school to get a PhD in English literature. Instead, I shrug and tell him the same line I tell everyone: “Oh yeah, I’m just working here until my wife finishes.” He doesn’t believe me. To him, I look like another wasted life, another victim. He thinks I got my girlfriend pregnant, that I never graduated from high school, that I can’t do any better than flip burgers at two in the morning. He feels sorry for my kids.

“I only applied here because I knew I would get hired,” says Sara the first night I work with her. She is a nineteen-year-old single mother with a sixteen-month-old boy. She is very tall and wears her long, brown hair in a ponytail pulled through the hole in the back of her Wendy’s hat. I ask her why she needed a job so badly.

“I had to get one,” she tells me. “My parole officer said it was the only way to stay out of jail.” I start at this and then ask, “Why were you in jail?”

“Drugs,” she says and pauses, testing me. “I was wearing my boyfriend’s jacket, and the cops found a heroin pipe in the pocket.” I ask how long she was in jail. “One year,” she tells me. “I just got out a month ago.”

When I was in fifth grade, my dad got a job delivering pizza. As an eleven-year-old, pivoting on that blurry edge between boy- hood and adolescence, I found myself bragging to my friends about the prospect of free pizza and then wishing I hadn’t told them anything about my father’s job. He worked a few nights a week, and when he came home, his uniform smelled like steaming cardboard and burnt cheese — but he always brought home pizza.

Oren is nineteen years old and works at Wendy’s to pay for his cell phone bill and to get out of the house. His parents are devout Mormons and think he is a disgrace to their entire family. He wants to sell marijuana because he believes he can’t do anything else. “I don’t do anything well,” he tells me one night while washing dishes. “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.” He asks Sara to find some pot for him to sell.

Oren’s mother is Japanese, born and raised, and speaks to her children in her native tongue. That means Oren speaks Japanese and has family connections in Japan. Oren also owns an Ak-47 and likes to go up into the canyons and shoot jackrabbits. He showed me a picture once of a rabbit carcass, its innards all blown out and dangling for the camera.

Tonight while working the grill, Danny tells me he has never been on a date. “Girls don’t like me,” he says as he flips a row of sizzling, square, quarter-pound patties. I can tell he believes it. Danny, by his own admission, is the kind of guy girls like for support. He is a gentleman, he asks thoughtful questions, and he’s always willing to talk. He thinks his weight and his scruff turn girls off. He tells me he is going to ask Tonya to a movie this weekend but isn’t sure she’ll say yes. Later Tonya comes into the store, and Danny disappears with her for a few minutes out in the lobby. He comes back with a large smile on his face and says, “I’ve got a date this weekend. Can you work for me?”

I don’t like when Dave works the front line with me. I can’t make sandwiches very fast yet, and he gets tired of waiting. More than once he pushes me aside to finish an order. If he sees me hesitate on a step, he barks, “Red, green, red, green! Ketchup, pickle, tomato, lettuce! Come on, Joe, it’s not that hard.”

Later, while I’m mopping the floor at closing, Dave comes by and takes the mop from my hand. “Like this,” he says, scrubbing the tile vigorously. He thrusts the mop back into my hands and walks away, rolling his eyes.

Chelsea is back at work tonight for the first time since having her baby. She appears fairly happy, and I’m surprised at how well she seems to have adjusted to being a working mom. The phone rings several times, and Chelsea takes the calls in her office. She tells me her husband has lots of questions about putting the baby to bed. After the lobby closes, Chelsea disappears into the bathroom for nearly a half hour. This happens every time I work with her. I wonder if she is sick. Then I notice the breast pump in a case on her desk. Another employee tells me Chelsea has been expressing milk in one of the bathroom stalls on her breaks.

Danny and Tonya have been dating for two weeks. He shows up for his shift an hour early to see her before she gets off. They sit in the lobby holding hands and talking for almost the entire hour. When they’re not in the store together, she sends text messages to his phone, which I catch him reading while he stands at the grill.

Tonight Danny approaches me while I’m opening boxes of french fries. He wants advice on how to ask Tonya to her junior prom. “I want to do something romantic,” he says. I suggest Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet. He has never heard of it. “‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ... ’” I recite. “She’ll love it.” I print off the sonnet at home and bring it to work for him the next day. He writes it in a card and delivers it with flowers. Two weeks later, in a rented tux at Tonya’s junior prom, Danny gets his first kiss.

I call my dad tonight. He asks about school, about my son, and about work. I tell him about Wendy’s.

“What? Who?” he says.

“Me. I got a job at Wendy’s.” Long pause. “I needed a job I could do at night.” More silence. “It’s not so bad.” Still silence. “I work from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. a few nights a week.”

Just when I think the line must be disconnected, Dad clears his throat and asks, “What happened to your computer job?”

“The guy ran out of work for me.”

“Oh.” More silence. I imagine he looks around the room to make sure no one is listening before he says, “Wendy’s? When did that happen?” I want to tell him that it didn’t happen, that it wasn’t an accident, but I’m stuck wondering how to make him understand and at the same time wondering why I should have to explain anything at all. What would his reaction be if I had chosen to get more student loans instead of the part-time job? I choose to say nothing. Then I offer him my employee discount on fries next time he’s in town. He says he’ll take me up on it.

When I come into the store tonight, Dave is talking loudly to some employees gathered in the lobby. I ask what all the laughing is about. They tell me that last night Dave and Oren siphoned all the gas out of Dave’s stepmother’s four-wheeler, and then they urinated on her car door handles.

Everyone dreads working with Chelsea. When she is not in her office counting the till or on the phone with her husband, she sits on the front counter and complains about her mother-in- law. She does very little to help prep the store for closing, and we rarely get out before 2:00 a.m.

Tonight she tells me about her mother-in-law’s most recent visit. “I cleaned the house for hours before she came,” Chelsea says, nursing a Diet Coke. “And the first thing she says when she gets there is how disgusting the place looks. She won’t even eat my cooking.” According to Chelsea, her mother-in- law has hated her ever since she got engaged. She wouldn’t even visit except that Chelsea has a baby now, and she feels obligated. Chelsea’s mother-in-law is disappointed that she is still working. “A mother’s place is in the home,” she says to Chelsea. “Your kids will be ruined.”

Tonight Waymon Hamilton comes through the drive-up window with his family. Waymon lives around the corner from me. His two sons are in my Scout troop, but they spend most of their free time traveling around the state playing premier Little League baseball. They order a few value meals and some drinks, and they ask how I’m doing. There is no hint of concern or condolence in their voices, and I appreciate it.

I hand them their food and watch them drive away. Most people know Waymon the way I know him, as a dedicated father who works hard at a thankless job to provide for his family. His unassuming nature and warm smile are what I see when I think about him. Few people know him as the fleet-footed running back who helped Brigham Young University win the Holiday Bowl in 1981 and 1983. Few people know he’s held several byu scoring records, including second place for touchdowns in a season, third in career touchdowns, and fifth for both season and career points scored. I didn’t even know he played college football until someone mentioned it at a Scout meeting. I once worked an afternoon with Waymon, putting in a new driveway for a neighbor, and he never mentioned his football days once. He told me about his boys, about teaching public school in California, and about pouring lots of concrete.

After the store closes, I come home, take off my uniform, and climb into bed with my wife. She rolls over, tells me she loves me, and murmurs something about the smell of french fries. I kiss her on the cheek and close my eyes. It is winter, but the house is warm. My son is asleep in the next room. There is food in the fridge, and I have a job that pays an honest wage. In the morning I will make breakfast and send my wife off to school. And then, after the dishes are done, if the weather permits, my son and I will take a walk to the park.


Reprinted with permission from My Wife Wants You To Know I'm Happily Married, by Joey Franklin and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2016.