Skip to main content

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.

*****

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!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete
  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.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.
When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra:  Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because t…

Even walls fall down

Memories rushing in, like waves crashin' on the beach.
I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her / I'm a bad boy, for breakin' her heart
Young and selfish, unhappy and escaping to a brighter, better place, self-preservation conquers regret, self-loathing replaced by a tentative confidence. A perfect song, this was on constant rotation during those years, both on MTV and inside my head.
I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you'll be the girl at the high school dance
Summer '95, outside, evening air, then-girlfriend, me, and 25,000 other voices, singing every word at the tops of our lungs, as if our very existence depended on it.
Sometimes you're happy / sometimes you cry / half of me is ocean / half of me is sky
'96, then-girlfriend is now ex-girlfriend, but hearing this then-new song helps me remember, and appreciate, a heart so big it could crush this town.
The waiting is the hardest part
Must've included this song on every mixtape I …

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

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

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun in…

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

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

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world d…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.
Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the…

It Came From the '90s: For D’arcy (Sail on Silver Girl)

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

Search any dorm room across campus, circa 1995, and you'd likely find a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Many copies would've been acquired through BMG's or Columbia House's music clubs ("12 Hot Hits for a Cool Penny"). "Cecilia" was always a hallway jam favorite, especially in the girls' dorms, but "Bridge over Troubled Water" was deep, man.

Sail on silver girl Sail on by Your time has come to shine All your dreams are on their way See how they shine Oh, if you need a friend I'm sailing right behind Like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
That image of "Silver Girl" was particularly evocative to me—of what, I wasn't quite sure, but it was all so lovely and damaged in its own twee way. Who was this Silver Girl? Was I s…

It Came From the '90s: Kelly Bundy and the Alternative Family Ideal

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

Very few television series in the 1990s were as polarizing as Married...with Children. People either loved it or they loathed it. TV critics and good upstanding Catholic families like mine fell into the latter category. Soon after it debuted during my first year of junior high in 1987 (not quite the '90s, but on the brink), my parents made it clear that we would not be watching. I believe the words they used were "vulgar," "unfunny," and, one of their perennial favorites, "risque." Of course, this meant it immediately took on a prurient appeal for me. Parents can never win, honestly.

Kelly Bundy—the talented Christina Applegate, who never gets enough credit for elevating the blonde airhead trope into an art form—only further piqued my interest. She was like the girls in school with the absurdly voluminous hair and ridiculously short ski…

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to kn…

It Came From the '90s: "I want to write her name in the sky"

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

It wasn't just Tom Petty's words and music that imprinted on us, it was also his videos that resonated, their images forever stored inside us, helping guide us through life. They seemed to originate within us, as if Petty was simply reflecting back our own lives and experiences.


We were the MTV generation, and for a stretch during the '80s and '90s, words and pictures melded together in perfect harmony, a perfect pop cultural storm. None more perfect than Petty's videos.


"Free Fallin'", from 1989—when the earliest and bravest explorers of the uncharted '90s first started beaming back messages to the mother planet— is one of Petty's more straightforward video-stories, yet it's still packed tight with an unassuming yet sharply wrought commentary on contemporary Americana—Petty's stock and trade, after all.


Our teenage hero…

It Came From the '90s: Against the '70s

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

"The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s."

Fewer lyrics better encapsulate growing up in the '90s than those in Mike Watt's "Against the '70s" (shrewdly sung by Eddie Vedder). We teens and young adults of the decade were often subconsciously measuring ourselves against the mustard-yellow, shag-carpeted "Me Decade." We expended an awful lot of energy raging against and fetishizing the 1970s.

The '70s provided several underpinnings of the '90s, including of course the notion of authenticity. In the '90s it was enormously important that we be, above all else, authentic. As authentic as Bowie or Springsteen or Scorsese were in their '70s work that we idolized. We were utterly obsessive about not selling out, about keeping it real. Maybe it's because so many Gen Xers were born in the '7…