Why I’m Glad I Worked Fast Food

This post brought to you by National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The content and opinions expressed below are that of Evil HR Lady.

What do Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and I have in common? We both got our start in fast food–he started at McDonalds and I worked at Burger King. Do I wish I could have skipped the grease and crabby customers and gone straight into an office job? Well, 17-year-old me would have said yes, but 42-year-old me is happy for the experience I had there. Nothing teaches you about humans and what makes them tick than working in a restaurant.

Jeff and I (we’re on a first-name basis because I order so much of his stuff) aren’t the only ones who learned about business and people through asking “would you like fries with that?” According to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), one in three Americans get their start in a restaurant. That’s a ton of people. And it’s not just about earning some money, it’s about learning how to work.

Why do I look back fondly on my time at Burger King? Well, for one I love fast food–and restaurant food in general–but it’s more than that. I learned a ton during my time. Turns out there’s even a  Food and Beverage Service Competency Model that describes what most of us learn from our time in a restaurant. I didn’t stay in the restaurant business, but the first 3 tiers of their model apply directly to me.


Tier 1–Personal Effectiveness Competencies. 

I learned quickly that if I wanted the good shifts and to move from the back line to the front line, I should work quickly and carefully. By being dependable and always showing up on time, my boss trusted me with the coveted morning shift. Why would a bunch of teenagers on summer vacation want a morning shift? Because then our evenings were free! (Yes, I napped in the afternoon.)

When I moved onto other jobs, I had a solid foundation. I knew how to work. I knew how to interact with a manager. I knew to double check my own work in order to prevent errors. I knew how to handle customers. I gained great career skills in those early years in a restaurant. I took the opportunity to learn how to work, and that has paid off well in other jobs.

Tier 2–Academic Competencies. 

The way the drive thru was set up, the cash register wouldn’t calculate change for you. You had to learn to count change. Fortunately, I didn’t have a problem with that, so I got to work drive thru a lot. But, those that didn’t know how to count back change had to quickly learn.

What about communication skills? I had to interact with hundreds of people every day–some of whom were not the most pleasant people. The Burger King I worked at was right off the interstate on the way to Zion’s National Park, which meant busloads of tourists–many of whom did not speak much English. I learned to communicate through gestures, pictures, and smiling even when I was frustrated.

I also learned how to think and plan. In the mornings, it was frequently me and one other person. We had to organize and get all the opening work done while serving customers. It took planning and coordination and the ability to be flexible. These are things that our teachers want us to learn, but that the schools struggle to teach us. Working in a restaurant will teach you those things.

Tier 3–Workplace Competencies. 

People who eat breakfast every day at a fast food restaurant tend to be (in my experience) a difficult crowd. They were mostly retirees who expected us to have their order memorized and ready by the time they got to the counter except (and this important) on they day they changed their mind. I, as a 17-year-old cashier, was supposed to know that *today* was the day that Bill would want a sausage-egg-and cheese croissant instead of his normal bacon-egg-and cheese croissant.

I learned to handle these things with a smile and continued prompt service. In fact, I would apologize for my lack of clairvoyance in a way that kept the customer happy. This skill has served me in innumerable ways as an HR person and a writer. You’re in my office complaining about the fact that your boss is angry at you for (drum roll please) not doing your work? I’m not going to blow up at you and scream that you are an idiot, and you know why? Bill and his daily Burger King habit. These skills gained in a restaurant transferred directly to my career in HR.

Another transfer? OSHA regulations. I learned how to comply with government regulations from my very first job, and that has helped me through the paperwork necessary to keep a company in compliance.

Some of the most basic career skills are taught in the restaurant business–showing up on time, working hard, getting along with coworkers who you wouldn’t chose to be friends with, and many other things. All of which, I got at very young age.

Upward mobility was also part of the restaurant world. True, I quit my restaurant job when I left for college, but I came back the following summer. What did I find there? Well, two of the girls I had trained were the new shift managers. The restaurant manager was now managing two restaurants instead of one and a former shift manager was now working at a competitor as a restaurant manager.

I’m glad I got a chance to start out frying things and 20+ years later, I’m pretty sure I could make a whopper with cheese without any instructions, but that’s not the only skill I took with me. Most importantly, I learned how to work.

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10 thoughts on “Why I’m Glad I Worked Fast Food

  1. Amen Sister. I started out working in grocery stores before spending 15 years moving my way up in a retail company. Starting from “the bottom”, learning what the customer wanted, and then using marketing tactics to influence decision making were the big lessons I learned. It helped me understand how the business operated, that there were different kinds of people in the world (who knew), and desensitized me from marketing manipulation so I could make better purchasing decisions.

    I now groan at flashy commercials with super models holding items they would never use when out in the wild and understand the product presented on TV most likely will not look like the menu item placed in front of me.

    I’m okay with that – because it’s really not important. If it were important I would become one of those crabby people you’ve had to deal with in the past – and that type of behavior isn’t good for anyone.

  2. I worked in a restaurant and in retail. The skills and real world experience both of those jobs taught me have helped me immeasurably!! Not just in the work environment, but the psychology of how to deal with and interact with people on a social level as well.

  3. Everybody should work in a service profession (either food or retail) at least once, so they understand how to be a good customer. Sometimes it’s tough to remember that the further you get from those jobs, but if you have ever been screamed at or had a patron make impossible demands on you, you’re much less likely to be a squid-lipped jerk when you’re on the other side of the counter.

    Plus, you understand how hard the work actually is. Anyone seen the video of Daniel Radcliffe trying to be a receptionist? He had NO CLUE. It was funny, but also kind of a wake-up call for anyone who has never done those lower-level jobs!

    1. Yes, so they know how to be a good customer!

      Too many times I’ve seen someone blow up at a service employee not caring, or not realizing, that whatever happened or didn’t happen was beyond the control of that employee.

      Things like the store being sold out of a popular item 2 days before Christmas – and the frustrated customer is now yelling at the store employee. Or the customer wants to order breakfast and it is now 11:30 AM and breakfast is no longer being served – yep, take it out on the wait staff!

      I’m also reminded of that YouTube video in which a customer goes through the drive-thru of a Chick-fil-a and berates the server about what a “hateful” company Chick-fil-a is because of something the CEO said at a Christian conference about gay marriage. This was a video recorded and uploaded by the very same guy; I’m guessing that he never worked in customer service since he didn’t realize how much of an idiot he came across as. On a good note, his company fired him for being a jerk.

      Oh, if only he had that “lowly” customer service work experience on his resume he might still be employed.

  4. My first real paying job *was* in an office… as a temp secretary, who did staff the front reception desk for a little while. I was a “Kelly Girl”, so to speak (even though I was a teenaged boy). I did learn a lot and would not trade the experience, and I’m not sure food service would have served me better.

  5. Were it not for my first job at McDonalds, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have been as successful as I am today. I really learned a lot about patience and interactivity with multiple personality types.

  6. Not fast food, but pumping gas at a gas station; similar interactions with people (later at night was always fun. You could tell who just came from the bar)

  7. My teenage son worked at McDonalds. He got a better education than the one provided in his high school. He learned food hygiene and how to be good employee. That he got paid was a bonus, and I would happily have paid them for the confidence and life skills he got.

    Years later, when I was working as a sociologist, I was in a discussion about how we all (sociologists) hate Micky D’s because of a worldwide phenomenon of “Mcdonalidization”. This is a very, very bad thing in sociological circles. My experience did not match their discourse, and I explained why.

    They looked at me like I shot my cat! I lost a lot of sociologist street cred, but I still think my son owes a debt to gratitude to McDonalds. He got enormous self esteem teaching other kids how to make chips. As an anti-social type guy he requested to stay in the back rather than deal with customers, and they let him work where he was most skilled and most comfortable.

    I wish my “elite” university employers were as supportive to individual employee strengths as McDonalds is. As a teacher I can say their scaffolded training program (circa 2000) was better than any course we offered at university.

  8. First job was washing dishes in a 24-hour coffee shop. This was 43 years ago. Was in high school at the time. Manager was June Hock. She was always balanced, fair, and firm. I never had much interaction with June, but she occasionally asked me to work on special tasks on my off days. I remember scrubbing all grease traps and exterior surfaces on the three grills for their annual cleaning. As always, June was grateful but never fulsomely so. Wherever June is, a big thank you from me for setting an excellent example from which I learned and carried the lessons with me for over four decades.

  9. I can’t help feeling an odd mixed reaction to this. I worked for 5 years in part time food retail while in school, followed by 3 years full time at McDonalds after I graduated. I don’t regret having done this work as I feel I did learn some useful skills as described above etc. However I also had some very negative experience. Some useful experiences. Some gave me workplace ptsd. For the first few months in my current (lovely admin) job, I jumped or flinched whenever my boss said my name despite the fact she has never given me any reason to fear her. In my final year at mcd, I developed a uti after repeatedly not being able to use the toilet, and I once passed out after 9 hours into a 10 hour shift where I had still not had my break (and eating or drinking (even water) was not allowed outside of breaks). I know a number of people who fainted on shifts, usually from heat when doing grill etc in the summer.

    This was a franchised store and these problems only came after a change in management. My first year and a bit there were actually enjoyable and my main upset was feeling like I couldn’t find a job suited for a graduate. My part time retail experiences before then were also positive. Also, one of the changes had been my store going 24 hours which really screwed my sleep especially as they ignored rules to do with minimum time between shifts..

    So i think it depends a lot where you work, what management is like, and also whether you are full time, part time, or temporary or basically there for life. One thing I have noticed about long term fast good workers is that is does seriously age them.

    To put a positive ending on this, it did generally improve my social skills, body language and confidence and also made me a less awkward customer myself. I used to feel very awkward being on the receiving end of customer service and it helped me to be on the other side of the transaction. I now know how best to place an order, or how to go about the transaction if I need to make a special request and I typically receive great service everywhere I go

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