Monday, January 9, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Chain Restaurant Hell


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on a generation of people who came of age during the decade.



"When you're on break, whatever you do, don't eat the food."

*****

It's 1992. I'm in high school, and working at a Ponderosa Steakhouse. We call it Pondo, or my personal favorite, Pondegrossa. Clever. This is a new franchise of the venerable restaurant chain opening up in our hometown. Word spreads through school: they needed an entire staff of new employees to open the place by end of summer. It seems like everyone I know both applies and gets hired.

It's mid-summer when we begin training. Yes, it's going to take several weeks of rigorous practicing to whip our sorry teenage butts into shape. They fly in a district manager from Ohio, or a "DM" to those of us in the biz. He'll oversee our indoctrination into The Ponderosa Way. We learn important stuff, like whenever the ketchup dips below the illustrated pickle on the side of the Heinz bottle, you must refill immediately. Customers go through a lot of ketchup at Ponderosa, clearly. Probably to mask the sorry taste of the food.

We seem to have a staff of thousands. There are too many of us working to fit inside the restaurant at any given time. How crowded will it be once it opens and we have actual customers? People start to settle into their roles during training—many of us become waiters (including me), others dishwashers, some cooks, then a few that work register and manage the ice cream station. The wait staff is composed mostly of teenagers like myself. Of all the staff we probably look the most harmless, I suppose, yet we're full of the usual teen angst to keep things interesting. On the other hand, the kitchen staff is comprised of the most depraved bunch of miscreants and mischief-makers you're likely to meet outside of a pirate ship. About half the restaurant's staff is from my school, the rest from neighboring districts, then a few older dudes. We're all feeling each other out, through the typical teen currencies of sarcasm and flirting.

*****


During training I make friends with a waitress from another school. Just friends. Of course, I'm intrigued by her. She's flirty with most everyone, including me, but also treats me like a brother. She confides in me, probably because of how nonthreatening I am. I'll take what I can get. It's not often that a girl asks for my number, or invites me to her house, or wants to lounge next to me on the couch, so I'm fine with letting her determine the parameters of our relationship.

We talk regularly and even hang out at her house sometimes. She vents about boy troubles and I try to sound interested. Is this what college life will be like, I wonder? We do share a similar sense of humor. Making her laugh makes me feel good, so I try to do it as often as possible. We're the same age but she seems exponentially more worldly, with far more confidence than I possess. She seems to have lived already, while I'm still waiting for my life to begin. She's unlike most people I know, but seems like a precursor to the kind of friends I might make when I'm older and emerging from my shell. If only I was ready to be in her league right now, we'd probably have even more to talk about. She talks plenty for both of us though, so I don't think she minds.

*****

Once the restaurant opens for business after what feels like an interminably long training period, the pace immediately intensifies. No longer coasting along in our utopian workers' paradise—no customers to interrupt our witty banter!—we're now thrown in the trenches, up to our necks, every day. Customers, it turns out, are no joke. They can be vicious or delusional or frustratingly passive aggressive. Sometimes they're all three at once.

A family accuses me of holding their food in the back so that it would cool down. After I repeatedly try to reassure them I would do no such thing, they refuse to hear  it. I finally snap, "Sure, yes, you're right. I'm holding food back because I want to mess with you. You got it!" Their indignation is now on full blast. They call for the manager. This guy is a restaurant lifer, probably in his late thirties, early forties. He gives absolutely zero fucks. He trudges over, zombified, shoulders set in perpetual slump, bags under his heavy-lidded eyes. He listens to the unhinged customers rant, says he's sorry they feel that way and the meal's on us. As we walk back to the kitchen, he mutters under his breath, "Fuckers," and we each stifle laughter.

*****

There's a thief in our midst. Over the first month, money keeps disappearing from the register. Finally, the person is caught and let go. Shockingly, it's one of the register girls. Fine detective work from our astute management finally deduced that it was, in fact, the girl with direct access to the money.

A waiter is fired around the same time for trying to sell pot to customers. While he was working. One of my good friends, also a waiter, got a ride home from this same kid one night a few weeks back. He feels like he was lucky to escape with his life. Not only did the guy drive like a maniac, but the floor of the car was rotting out. This left gaping holes where you'd normally rest your feet. For the entire ten minute ride, my friend keeps his feet suspended in air above the floor to avoid scrapping them on the pavement at 60 miles per hour (in a residential 30 mph zone). He says it was like getting a ride in a Flintsone's car. That imagery will never leave my brain.

*****

One of the dishwashers is, to put it mildly, coming apart at the seams. Whether its drugs or mental illness or I suspect some combination of both, he's terrified nearly every female staffer at least once. The girl I tend to share a wait station with most often, a genuine sweetheart, has a series of uncomfortable encounters with him one night when we're working together. Every time she brings dishes to the back, he asks to stay at her house for a while because he's been evicted—he'll stay on her floor, heck, even her front lawn will work. He's persistent as hell about it and she's rightfully scared—the dishwasher has to be ten years older than us.

She begs me to bring the dishes back for the rest of our shift. I don't even think twice. I say sure and immediately start formulating what I'll say to him. The next time I bring back a load of our accumulated dirty plates and utensils, I let the dish-jerk know that he needs to stop harassing my wait-staff partner. After I speak my piece, he shoots me daggers with his crazy eyes, there's a brief flash of serious malice in them. I'm scared speechless for a second. Then he tries to laugh it off with some off-color remark. I respond, "Yeah, sure, just leave her alone, thanks." I don't know where I find the courage to confront him, but she can now relax and I'm still alive, so I think the two of us win this round.

*****


Someone spits in a meal that's been made for one of the managers whose on break. No one likes this guy, he's humorless and a hard-ass. Still, after the cook throws down his dare, a series of people come and go through the kitchen, none willing to do the actual spitting. It's never clear why the cook doesn't do the spitting himself, especially because he seems really invested in it. Then a waitress flies into the kitchen. At that moment the cook is repeating his salivary request. Without hesitating or even breaking stride, she turns her head and hawks a loogie right onto the plate. She's a blur, in and back out of the kitchen before we even realize what happened. Wait, did it happen? Did you see her do it?

The manager that no one likes tucks into his meal. Bon appetit, I guess.

*****

A pipsqueak of a waiter unwisely mouths off to a tough-as-nails waitress one night. I would certainly never mess with this girl. She threatens to beat the snot out of him, and then places a call to her boyfriend, very loudly for us all to hear. Boyfriend's coming over to kick your ass and he's huge, she informs pipsqueak. Thus begins the long wait for the ass kicking to commence. Pipsqueak hides out in the back of the restaurant, practically vibrating with fear. He's begging people to walk him out, as protection, and one by one we all turn him down. Eventually I hear that he bolts for the door and leaps into a waiting car, which speeds away. He'd called his mother to pick him up, apparently. Boyfriend never did show.

*****

A group of us waiters spend inordinate amounts of time staring out one of the windows at the Friendly's restaurant next door. We're experiencing serious pangs of jealousy and imagining life is full of rainbows and unicorns over there. Chances are it sucks to work there too, but we can't fathom it would suck as much as working here does. Most of the time we're not even hiding our Friendly's pining, causing customers to look at us incredulously as we ignore them to dream of a life spent serving the Jim Dandy or Reese's Pieces Sundaes. Dream big, young turks.

*****


"Don't eat the food" becomes our mantra. We repeat it every time one of us goes on break. Yet, never fail, we wind up eating there most times. Convenience and cost savings (we get a minimal discount, gee thanks) win out over our health, clearly. The food at Ponderosa is often inedible and other times downright scary. Sure, you can indulge in the mac and cheese or chicken wings and probably live to tell the tale, but that's after a prolonged trip to the emergency room to have your stomach pumped.

One time I bite into some bloody chicken. I nearly hurl right there at the table. Look, it's not all bad, some of it's perfectly serviceable food. We're teenagers with a penchant for exaggeration but there's a reason we chant, "Don't eat the food" so often. I don't know why anyone would willingly pay for this food if they didn't have to rush-eat on their break like we do.

*****

We have a cook who fancies himself a talented singer and all-around entertainer. He's got a look he's cultivating and it's based squarely on the lead singer from Color Me Badd. The meticulously groomed facial hair and high top fade are stylin', for sure. Every night he serenades the wait staff as we pick up our food in the kitchen. He sings a variety of contemporary hits—including of course "I Wanna Sex You Up," duh—and also a selection of originals he's composed in between undercooking the sirloin tips and overcooking the pasta. Here are the street corners we can find him at outside work, he tells us, to hear more of his song catalog. He's going to be big, he tells us. Just think, we can say we knew him when.

*****

Another night, another ice cream cone left turned upside down, melting and oozing across the table and off the sides, dripping onto the seats. It always leaves us with a perfect visual representation of what it's like to work here. The first few times it happens, we're appalled. Who are these customers anyway, animals?!? We want to find the brats in the parking lot and force-feed them the ice cream soup they left behind. After months of this garbage though, it doesn't even faze us. Eh. Another night, another kid leaves a sloppy, sticky vanilla/chocolate treat behind for us to clean up. Another night, another set of parents who didn't care to at least make a cursory attempt to wipe up even a little of it. Okay, that part still pisses us off.

*****

5 comments:

  1. This is a great look at behind the scenes in a restaurant. It also has the feel of a Waiting or a Hot Wet American Summer. I love your writing style, Michael. It makes the 90's come alive!

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    1. Thanks, Susan. It's been interesting excavating the depths of memories from those days. Working in chain restaurant hell was such a part of those days for me, it left me some great stories to tell at parties (which I have done!). Only seemed logical to include these memories as part of this series, too. Those days working at Pondo were a lot like the movies you mention: they were absurdly hilarious.

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  2. Great set of stories! When I worked at a fast food place during college one of the rules was "don't eat the food," but that was not an edict from management. It was more like an internal employee warning.

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    1. Exactly, same thing in my experience. We started saying to each other as a joke but then quickly started being deadly serious about it. God it was terrible food.

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