Cheryl Rice is the author of "Where Have I Been All My Life?"
Mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, onion, and pickle.
Though I haven't worked at Burger King for 30 years, I reflexively rattled off those ingredients to my husband as we watched a recent news report showing fast-food workers picketing for higher wages. And with pride I recalled carefully layering each ingredient on sizzling burgers, topping it all off with a sesame seed bun. (I made a mean Whopper in my day. The messier the better.)
Shortly after that news report, I defended fast-food workers at a dinner party when my friend's husband expressed horror that his 16-year-old son had secured a part-time job at McDonald's. He hoped his son would apply for a flashy internship with a top Philadelphia firm instead, as he believed people who worked at fast-food restaurants "won't get anywhere in life."
A bit indignantly I told him that I had worked part time at Burger King for four years, and it didn't stop me from getting somewhere in life. In fact, the lessons I learned there actually contributed to me getting exactly where I wanted to be.
Perhaps it's not just a wage gap fast-food workers face but a respect gap as well.
I started working at the Burger King on Route 202 in King of Prussia when I was 15. It was 1979, and my starting wage was $2.79 an hour. I eagerly wanted to earn money so that I could get a phone line in my bedroom just as my friends had, pay for gas for my car, and buy clothes I didn't need but wanted just the same.
Drenched in nerves on my first day of work, I was sure I would faint into an oil-filled vat of french fries. Fortunately the stalwart store manager, Peg, assigned me to beverages, where the likelihood of fainting or messing up in any way was decidedly reduced. I was a quick study and within the next few weeks was rotated through all of the food stations.
I'll never forget my pride and excitement when Peg told me I was ready to work the cash register - the ultimate sign of her trust in me, as I would be required to not only handle the money but also to greet the customers, with a smile, of course. Even when I felt grumpy from a bad day at school, I'd push myself to be welcoming and attentive. My customers always smiled back.
Lesson 1: Emotions are contagious.
Oh, how I treasured the simplicity of it all. People came in hungry and, within minutes, they were full. Not only that, but for a few glorious moments they could "have it their way." No pickles? No problem. Extra ketchup? My pleasure. Double crispy fries? We got it. After all, the real king (or queen) at Burger King was always the customer.
Lesson 2: People want to feel heard.
Sometimes, after I assembled the burgers, I'd take a black wax pencil and draw a big smiley face inside the lid of the box the sandwich went in. I did this until another manager, Jim, told me to cease and desist. He was concerned the wax would leak onto the bun and compromise the sandwich.
Lesson 3: Quality control matters.
Like many of those workers in the picket lines today, this was Jim's second job. He worked all day at a manufacturing plant and then worked the night shift at Burger King to support his family. He never complained. He was decent and kind. And he looked out for me, especially on Friday nights, when groups of high school boys would come in after the football game and crudely demand to have it their way.
I loved everything about working at Burger King: the camaraderie and teamwork with the other employees, getting to know the regular customers' names as well as their orders, and cleaning the dining tables to a shine as if they were my own.
When I close my eyes, I can still feel the unforgiving brown-and-mustard-colored polyester uniform on my skin. The same uniform my mother lamented always smelled like french fries no matter how many times she washed it.
I loved working at Burger King so much that I begged my parents to let me forgo college so that I could accept Peg's invitation to go through Burger King management training instead. I still consider it one of my father's finest moments when, after I had slammed my bedroom door in a fit of teenage rage, he came into my room, sat on my bed, and said quite calmly, "There is nothing wrong with being a Burger King manager, and if that's what you want to do with your career, your mom and I will support you fully. But you are going to be a Burger King manager with a college degree."
I didn't attend Burger King's management school. But the lessons from my years working there remain with me.
I consider myself lucky. My parents could afford to send me to college, so my Burger King earnings could be spent on incidentals like gas, not on necessities like a car. Today, many fast-food workers have to stretch their wages to pay for the essentials of daily living, never mind a college education.
A few months ago I took my stepdaughter to "my Burger King" for a quick bite on our way to the King of Prussia Mall. Amazingly, the store is still there, but it has been completely rebuilt. Now the customers get their own drinks and watch mounted TVs while they eat.
"What can I get you ladies today?" the woman behind the counter asked with a smile.
Looking her in the eyes and smiling right back, I answered: "We'd like to split a Whopper without pickle, please. The messier the better."