Sunday, July 12, 2009
The Day Arby's Ran Out of Roast Beef
Your first job is much like puberty: It can’t be avoided, you know it will lead to better things in the future, and yes, it is going to be hell on earth. This summer, with teens everywhere lacking gas money that’s quickly approaching our national debt, I’ve been thinking back to my own personal nightmare, when I was 16 years old and starting my first job as an “associate” at Arby’s Roast Beef.
I’m sure it is every 16-year-old’s dream to work in a fast food restaurant for their first job. Sure, the pay is great, the outfits are fabulous and the clientele are high-class, but the real reason is how much you learn about being a grown-up. For starters, your managers -- well, okay, at least one of them, probably, is a grown-up. There’s no better way to learn about what you want your grown-up life to be: just do the complete opposite of what this person is doing.
I was lucky enough to work there with three of my best friends. It made the job more bearable and gave me someone with whom to share the pain of Bill, the nighttime manager three days a week at the Arby’s Roast Beef in south Decatur, Illinois. Bill was actually quite a testament to the quality of Arby’s food. He was usually found stealing the just-made fries to take to the back to help complete his paperwork. (We quickly learned this was simply eating food at the manager’s desk).
Bill, it turned out, was not a jovial person, despite the stereotype I had been taught about larger men who work with the younger crowd. He didn’t take well to joking while working or other silly things, like teaching employees how the equipment worked before having them use it. And it only got worse.
One night it began raining about 4:30 and didn’t stop. The torrential downpour was adding wind and gaining strength. It was so bad that power lines were going out all over town. No one, however, deemed it prudent to close the store. I guess there are people that will venture out for a Beef-N-Cheddar no matter what the odds are of safely returning home. Then something really scary happened: The cook (yes, the guy running the slicer is actually called that) looked and there were no roast beef loafs thawed out for the evening. There wasn’t time to thaw one out, either, since it takes about eight hours. There wasn’t going to be any roast beef. At Arby’s Roast Beef. Oh, Lord.
After a quick gulp of a large container of Curly Fries, Bill pulled himself back together and regrouped. He called for a huddle in the break room.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” said Bill, after everyone was sufficiently huddled. “We’re going to give the standard greeting, and let them know right off the bat we’re out of roast beef so they won’t even ask for it. Quickly offer them a turkey sandwich or a cup of soup. Don’t give them time to prepare their stomachs for what they can’t have.”
This seemed pretty lame to me, and the other girls, too. Wouldn’t our customers have come there for roast beef in the first place? And since a small hurricane was forming outside, didn’t we owe it to them? But we had to admit, there wasn’t much else we could do. We headed back up front, praying for a tornado to hit the building. Then, maybe, we could close for the night.
I was surprised at how many families were actually coming in. They must have been caught out at one of the kids’ games or after-school functions and hoped to wait out the storm there at Arby’s. They were so relieved to be dry and somewhere warm that no one seemed much more than a little taken aback by the new greeting: “Hello, welcome to Arby’s. We’re out of roast beef.”
This was before the days of the deli sandwich or of chicken in many varieties. This was the days of three things on the menu besides roast beef. So I was pretty happy at how well things were going. But then Bill started to panic. And suddenly, right in the middle of my conversation with a very nice family ordering some turkey sandwiches, Bill broke into the conversation and told me to “just get the order, I’ll take care of this.” It was embarrassing and condescending, but mostly weird, since the people were literally still ordering their food. I turned around so the customers wouldn’t see my face turning red from the embarrassment and anger I was feeling at being humiliated in front of them. I heard the woman in the group say, “She was doing just fine until you got here, you….baboon.”
Suddenly, angels started singing out of nowhere. A medicated feeling came over me, and my turn made a full circle back to where I had just been. What had just happened? And thank you, by the way, whoever was in charge. I looked up at Bill, but he just stood there, dumbfounded by the woman’s revelation. I took my place back behind the register, finished the order with the biggest smile on my face I could muster, and then hurried to get the food The Best Family in the World had asked for. The woman winked as she whispered, “I just hate it when people treat kids like that just because they’re in charge. You’re doing just great, honey. And don’t you worry, we didn’t want any roast beef, anyway.”
I’d like to tell you that’s the end of my story, that there are good people out there that don’t treat teens at fast food restaurants like they are stupid just because they are young and working at a thankless job. I’d like to tell you that I got promoted, or discovered as a magazine cover model. What happened, however, is that the next week I was fired for money disappearing from my drawer after Bill counted the total. I was taken into the freezer to be fired privately, and apparently, in the most humiliating way possible, as my tears literally froze onto my face.
My point here? Give the kids a break. While the humbling days of the first job are necessary and I’d like to think will make you a better person in the long run, there is nothing worse at the time. Take them out, give them a little gas money, and show them you care.