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Lessons learned from burgers

By Anna Tomani / For The Pitt News

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Life gets expensive, so we find employment, we find jobs, to pay for life. And we find jobs to put us through school, which will allow us to find better jobs that give us more money to pay for life. 

Part-time jobs can be a drag, working long and hard hours for minimal pay, but we can gain more than just a paycheck. If we pay attention to the experiences we have at work, we can learn much about workplace environments and dynamics, life and even ourselves.    

Over the past few summers, I’ve worked in the food service industry at various locations. Consistently, I’ve worked at a family-owned and -operated Mexican restaurant, Don Tequila, and several fast food locations — e.g., Wendy’s — have filtered into the mix as well. My time at the family restaurant and at the fast food restaurant often overlapped, allowing me to make real-time comparisons between the two. There are benefits, as well as drawbacks, to both types of work, and one could be preferred over the other, based on the type of work experience for which you are looking.

Dress Code

At the family restaurant, I could dress however I wanted for work as long as I looked professional and presentable. It was exciting for a while to pick out a new outfit every day, but soon clothes became stained with grease and salsa. Clothes I once considered cute or fun now carry a taboo as a “work dress.” My once-favorite dress — a bright yellow skirt juxtaposed with a black and white top — is now discolored from wiped-off salsa and spilled Pepsis. But, if stains are avoided, at least post-work plans are possible without having to worry about remembering to bring a change of clothes.

At the fast food restaurant, I was handed a work shirt, baseball hat and name tag and told to wear them every day. No matter how many times I washed them, they still smelled like grease and meat. Forgetting a name tag or hat — thankfully, no one forgot their shirt ­— resulted in being sent home for the day, without pay, of course. The same goes for wearing nail polish, too many bracelets or rings and not wearing a belt or having inadequate footwear. The end result? A completely androgynous-looking human being.

Pressure 

Working at the family restaurant carried a bit more pressure to perform well and make sure the job was done right. All the crew members — except the bartender and myself — were the owners’ family and friends from Mexico. One server, Jorge, always told me that he works long hours to make money to send to his family in Mexico and saves up money to bring them to the States. Even if he had 17 tables, no customer ever waited more than two minutes for a drink refill. Every night, I had groups requesting Jorge as their server. Workers like Jorge, and my respect for them, made me want to do the best job I could, for one lost customer could turn into 10 people advised not to try out “that Mexican restaurant on Allen Street.”

At the fast food restaurant, I learned how I was supposed to do my job from online training videos and I made index cards to help learn how to make all the sandwiches and wraps. Then, I learned from my coworkers how I actually should do my job and started grabbing chicken fingers with my bare hands and placing cups that’d dropped on the floor back into the holder, later to be given to some unsuspecting customer. I even accidentally requested off the wrong week for our family vacation and ended up being scheduled to work 30+ hours while I, instead, fried my face in Miami. No one even cared. I was allowed to keep my job.

Coworkers

Since the family restaurant crew was an entire family from a country to which I’ve never been, and they all spoke a language I had only high-school-level experience with, I felt a little left out. And while my coworkers were relatively happy, fun and inclusive people — always asking me to stay after my shift to eat dinner with them during the week — I didn’t exactly mind the distance.

Imagine traveling from your home in Mexico to work inside the same four walls with the same 10 guys six days a week. Now, insert a 19-year-old girl five hours a night, four nights a week. Boundaries definitely needed to be established. A girl can only stand a certain amount of Hallmark “For Someone Special” cards. 

At the fast food restaurant, I worked with many kids my own age — and we all spoke the same language, too — so I made a few friends. When the drive-thru was slow, my coworker Simon and I would play ring toss with the onions and the condiment bottles. A car once came through the drive-thru with a kangaroo in the backseat, so another coworker took a picture and showed everyone for a week straight. Even though we were doing the greasy grunt work of the fast food industry, having friends around made shifts go by faster. Sometimes I even looked forward to coming into work.        

Customers 

No matter whether or not I was at the family or the fast food restaurant, I had customers who were polite, customers who were apathetic, customers who were rude and customers who were grateful. Ultimately, the food service industry is a form of retail, and we are there to give the customers the best quality product possible. In the minds of some customers, it seemed that if we failed to provide the best, then we were deemed incompetent. If we succeeded, then we were merely doing our job. Other customers seemed to realize that employees are people, too, and treated us as such.

Through my part-time jobs, I gained plenty of useless skills, like how to build a Baconator or how to guestimate table waiting times. But I also learned how to provide better customer service and work with people I am not particularly fond of. I ended up gaining a respect for a clean work environment, improved my (dirty) Spanish and developed a fairly solid work ethic. Broke as we are, working the long, grueling shifts for $7.25 an hour might be enough for some, but a part-time job really could be so much more. It just depends on what you decide to make of it.

Write to Anna at aet29@pitt.edu

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Lessons learned from burgers