Even now, five years on, I can still vividly remember my first day as a crew member at McDonald's. It was 11am on a Saturday and the store was packed. Customers were already queuing outside the front door and, inside, the scene was equally chaotic. Babies were spilling drinks, mothers were shouting orders across the counter, children were moaning about their happy meal toys, and crew members were scuttling around like ants, trays of food in one hand and dustpans in the other.
Over the following months, I'd come to realise that this scene was pretty standard for a Saturday morning but, at the time, it came as quite a shock. I'd never been an avid McDonald's fan and, as a result, the chaos was new to me.
I pushed my way through the crowd, packed lunch in one hand and uniform in the other, complete with my brand new starless badge, my 'M' baseball cap, and a pair of pocketless trousers. The trousers were both an anti-theft and an anti-mobile phone device--only management, it seemed, were to be trusted with pockets.
And so began my first shift at McDonald's. Over the next six hours I learned several valuable lessons. I learned how to open a fry box (easy), how to correctly pack a takeaway bag (like playing burger Tetris), and how to cook four Big Macs at once (difficult-speed is everything). I also learned - my most valuable lesson - that pretty much all of my preconceptions about working at McDonald's had been wrong.
Before I began work as a crew member I, like most of my friends, held a fairly negative set of beliefs about both the restaurant and its workers. One common insult at school had been to shout "whatever, McDonald's worker" while, at the same time, spelling out the letters WMW with our hands. The implication, along with most similar insults, was that McDonald's workers were slow, stupid, and miserable, and that working as a crew member was the classic 'dead-end' job.
The first of these myths was debunked almost immediately. Since my job at McDonald's I've worked in a variety of different jobs, but none have really demanded the same quick thinking skills as lunchtime shift at McDonald's. Meal times were a frantic sequence of taking orders, taking money, and putting together food, all of which had to be done within a couple of minutes and without spilling/dropping/burning anything. Sometimes, on a busy day, we'd go for an hour without having time for a glass of water. Slow or lazy workers were quickly singled out; after all, each shift was a team effort and, like most jobs, slow workers just meant more work for everybody else.
Generally, however, the only issues came from the customers. Most people who've worked in customer service could rant for hours about moody, patronising, and unknowledgeable customers, and McDonald's was no exception.
One major shock was the sheer number of regular customers. Between 4pm and 6pm the drive thru would be filled with MPVs, each carrying a family of at least two parents and two kids, but usually more. These were, for a number of reasons, probably the worst class of customer. Almost invariably a degree of confusion would occur at some point during the order. These were customers who visited the restaurant five times a week and yet, during every visit, at least one family member would either change their order or turn around to engage one of their kids in an argument or lose their wallet, often all at once.
In fact, genuinely nice customers were such a rarity that they achieved a kind of cult status amongst the staff. One woman, referred to only as the 'coffee lady', was universally liked by both crew members and managers. This wasn't down to any particular character trait-she didn't give gifts to staff or crack jokes-but she did ask how everybody was during every visit, and this was all it took.
Of course, there were a few staff members who perfectly fitted the crew member stereotype; after all, there can be no denying that getting a job at McDonald's is easy-during my own interview, for instance, I was asked just one question, "do you have a car?", before being handed my uniform.
However, stereotypical crew members always made up the minority rather than the majority. Almost half of the staff at the time were students and most of the others were on some kind of training or learning programme.
Because of this, I've reached the conclusion that most McDonald's workers (or anybody with a McJob, for that matter) are only deemed slow or miserable because of the workload placed upon them. Take me, for instance. I'm pretty cheerful-you only have to look at my smiling photograph to see that-and yet I'd often find it hard to smile at a moody customer, or a terrible joke; after all, there are only so many times a person can appreciate the hilarity of "a full fat coke, please".
And the same was true of the workload. It's far easier to appear knowledgeable and composed when working in an empty clothes store than in a packed fast food joint, and it's for this reason that I'll always try to stay friendly, even if I am given the wrong dip.