Almost ten months ago, I posted a poll regarding topics for future blog posts. Since then, I have only posted a couple times, so I haven’t used any of the ideas included in that poll. Now that I’m hoping to start blogging more frequently again, the obvious way for me to start is to go back to that poll and write some of the potential blog posts that got the most votes back then. The clear winner was “Things You Shouldn’t Say to Food Industry/Retail Workers”, which, by a lucky coincidence, is also one of the ones that I had already started writing. So I’ve gone ahead and finished it up to post now. I’ve changed the original concept (and the title) a little by writing specifically about fast food jobs rather than including waiters/waitresses and retail workers, since there is a significant difference between those types of work environments. Also, it’s probably worth acknowledging that, because I no longer work in fast food, my perspective on the topic is different than it was when I started writing this post back in March. With that for an introduction, here is the list.
“Why don’t you have [item not on the menu]?”
Because we don’t have the necessary ingredients in stock. Because we don’t have the necessary equipment in our kitchen. Because we haven’t been trained in a specific procedure for making that product. Because the franchise owners have come to the conclusion that it isn’t financially advantageous for the company to offer that particular product. There are several reasons and none of them are under the control of the employee who takes your order or hands you your food. Personally, I always agreed with the customers who said that they wished we had milkshakes or onion rings or Swiss cheese for the cheeseburgers. (Especially onion rings, because I’ve made onion rings at home before and they’re lots of fun) It’s a little less understandable to be upset about the lack of vegan meals in a place that specifically sells hamburgers, or to take offense that the only way to get a gluten-free burger is to order it without the bun, but even then, I can agree that it would be great if I could have offered those options. But I couldn’t change the menu, and they never wanted to hear me actually answer the question. It’s a rhetorical question anyway; I think anyone who asks it is really just expressing their frustration, not wondering about the answer. And it seems to me that it takes a pretty unreasonable attitude for a consumer to get frustrated that a certain place doesn’t offer a certain product, when they could just leave and go someplace else that does have it. But if you’re ever in a situation where you actually have reasonable cause to be upset that a certain item isn’t on the menu, you should still know better than to take it out on the minimum-wage worker behind the counter. He or she is frustrated too, maybe even for the same reasons, except that it’s a much larger part of the employee’s life. If you can’t buy the chocolate milkshake that you wanted, that’s a very short-term disappointment, but if you have to deal with furious chocolate-milkshake-deprived customers every day of your life, it makes for a very discouraging work environment. For the benefit of those of you who don’t have experience in this type of job, I will clarify that I am not speaking in hyperbole; certain complaints are indeed daily occurrences. If you are genuinely curious about the logic behind the menu, that’s a different story, and it’s certainly okay to ask about it, but I never encountered a customer who asked a question like this out of actual interest.
“You’re new here, huh?”
It should be acknowledged that people who ask this question are usually correct that the employee is new. It should also be acknowledged that this question is usually asked as an indication that the customer understands the situation and is not judging the employee for his or her inadequacies. Nonetheless, it’s never pleasant to hear a customer comment on your work performance. If there’s an actual problem, such as an incorrect order or a defective product or unethical behavior on the part of an employee, then the problem should be reported and solved without any condescending small talk regarding how long the employee has been working there. But if it’s a matter of a cashier taking a few too many seconds to count out change or referring a question to a manager, there’s no need for a customer to make remarks about that at all.
“That’s way too expensive.”
Every time a customer said this to me, I wished I could agree and commiserate. The food at my workplace was indeed extremely expensive; the only reason that I ate it was because I got a free meal for every shift I worked. (At least, in theory. There were quite a number of occasions when I never got to go on break and didn’t get to eat at all.) But I was pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to publicly criticize the business for which I worked, and I had absolutely no control over prices. It’s all about what the owners decide, which has to do with basic economic principles. The price of a product is determined partly by how much it costs to produce that product and partly by how much the business can charge for the product and still attract an optimal number of customers. If an individual customer feels that a certain product is too expensive, the obvious solution is to not buy it, or at least to buy it from a different business that has lower prices. Not only does this mean that the customer is saving the money that he or she doesn’t want to spend, but it also means that the business with the higher prices has one fewer customer. If most customers agree that prices are too high, then the business won’t have as many customers as they want, and then they might consider lowering prices, whether that means lowering the quality so that the product can be produced more cheaply or whether it means making less profit on each item sold. For that reason, customers actually have more power over prices than a minimum-wage employee behind the cash register. Of course, a customer doesn’t have any immediate and direct control over the prices, but neither does a cashier. Most customers realize this, but they instinctively take out their annoyance by complaining to the cashier, and some customers add comments along the lines of, “With prices like these, you must make a lot of money working here,” which is an incredibly frustrating thing to be told when you make minimum wage. It’s a little bit hurtful every time a customer speaks to a cashier this way, and it’s extremely discouraging when it happens multiple times over the course of a shift.
“You need better training here.”
I only got this specific comment once, but the situation is an example of the kind of attitude I had to deal with all the time. It happened during the lunch rush on a particular busy day, and I was trying to sweep the dining room floor as quickly as possible so that I could get back to the grills and fryers as soon as possible. But before I could return to the kitchen, an elderly lady poked me on the shoulder so that she and her friend could quiz me on random trivia associated with the franchise. What year was the company founded? In what city was the original location? When did this particular location open? In what region of the country was it most popular? Nationwide, how many customers did we serve each year? To my credit, I actually was able to answer some of those questions, but others of my responses were estimates. At that, the customers sighed and shook their heads and one of them responded with the afore-quoted remark. I actually did agree that the employee training was unsatisfactory, but it was the training methods, not the content, that was problematic. For the record, our training included only a very brief spiel on the history and sales data of the company. Most of the training consisted of learning procedures for how to make each of the menu items, lists of tasks necessary to keep the place clean, and reminders to be friendly to the customers. Considering that those things were all specifically relevant to my position, I think it makes perfect sense that they were the focus of the employee training. But what really bothered me about that exchange was that the customers had the desire to critique me in the first place. I was already busy doing what I was supposed to be doing, and they pulled me away from my actual duties and acted as if they were specifically trying to catch me in a mistake for the sole purpose of making a demeaning remark. I doubt that they actually were being that deliberate about it, but they certainly were being extremely insensitive.
“Can I have a free [item]?”
There were three different types of situations in which people asked this question. Sometimes, customers thought they were being funny by making a deliberately unreasonable request. Just for the record, that’s not a particularly humorous joke. Every now and then, a customer would apparently be under the mistaken impression that we actually did give out free samples. More frequently, a customer would think that we should give them a free item because they had waited a little longer for their order than they had expected or because they hadn’t been fully satisfied with some other aspect of their meal experience. For the record, we did re-make things for no additional cost if something wasn’t right, even if the problem was that the customer had made a mistake while ordering. But no, you don’t get a free order of fries just because your burger had a little more mustard than you wanted. What many customers don’t seem to realize is that, in general, the cashier does not have the authority to give things away for free. Depending upon the situation, it might be technically possible for an employee to hand something over without ringing it up at all, but there are various reasons that such things can’t happen very often. Even a manager, who has override codes that give them extra power within the cash register system, can’t get away with doing anything that will have an effect on the business’s income and expenditures. While individual employees might want to be generous, they are still bound by rules and regulated procedures that are motivated by the company’s goal of making as much money as possible.
“You aren’t listening.”
There are lots of reasons that someone might need to ask a customer to repeat or verify something. For instance, the cashier is usually a lot closer to loud kitchen equipment than the customer is, and it can be hard to hear over all those sounds. A customer might also have an accent, or be speaking quietly, or have their face down because they’re looking at the menu. Sometimes, customers will call an item by a different name than what it’s officially named, which makes it necessary to verify what they mean. (This is especially the case when it comes to sizes. Where I worked, we didn’t have a kids’ menu, but a lot of people would order a “junior” or “kid’s” burger instead of ordering a “little” burger. Sometimes, they really did mean that they wanted the little burger, but sometimes, they thought that we had a wider variety of size options than we did, and I had to clear that up for them.) Also, fast food workers are generally trying to simultaneously communicate with coworkers, interact with customers, and keep an eye on the dining room. And if all that isn’t enough, it’s also worth noting that anyone’s performance will be affected once they’ve spent several hours at work in a loud, chaotic, and busy setting. My cognitive efficiency, hearing, and voice were all temporarily impaired by the midpoint of a typical shift. (I didn’t know until I worked in fast food just how similar the words “one” and “four” sound when yelled across a busy kitchen, or how similar “green” and “grilled” sound when spoken by a customer who may or may not be actually looking in your general direction while placing the order.) So don’t criticize someone for having to double check to make sure they heard you right, or for asking you to repeat those last two toppings again. Instead, be satisfied that they’re making the extra effort to be sure they’ve got your order right.
“You look [tired, bored, hung over, etc.]”
When I was working in fast food, I was also a full-time graduate student. Yes, that’s right, I had a college degree and worked in fast food. Believe it or not, in this economy, that happens. I lived more than an hour’s drive away from school, (often more than two hours if I got caught in rush hour traffic) so I spent a good deal of time and energy driving, too. And, during some of those eleven months, I was working multiple jobs. Some of my coworkers were in similar situations. As far as I know, I was by far the one with the craziest schedule, but the fact of the matter is that most people who work minimum-wage jobs are very busy, very overworked, and very tired. If I looked tired at work, that’s because I really was exhausted, but that doesn’t mean that my fatigue was a good topic for small talk. Likewise, if I looked bored or uninterested, it was because I was so exhausted that I couldn’t muster much of any genuine enthusiasm. Besides, fast food really is a monotonous and non-intellectually-stimulating line of work. Based on the comments of some customers, I was evidently actually pretty good at keeping a semblance of cheerfulness, but that didn’t stop other customers from commenting when I did fall a little short on the act. But the one that really bugged me was a few times when customers asked me if I’d been partying the night before or said I looked hung over. For the record, I very rarely drink alcohol and have never had enough to get hungover. While I’m not morally opposed to moderate drinking, I can’t help being slightly offended if other people assume that I drink more than I do. I always really wanted to suggest that they try pulling consecutive all-nighters while working eight-hour workdays (sometimes longer) and see how it affected them. But, of course, that kind of remark would constitute bad customer service. Instead, I had to just laugh it off and maybe say something about being tired. Also, I learned the hard way that, when you have a migraine, you should never say that to a customer, because people think that “migraine” is code for “hangover”. When you have a migraine and have to go to work anyway, the last thing you need is customers incorrectly judging you for the lifestyle that leads to having to go to work with a horrible headache.
“What’s the healthiest thing you have here?”
At some places, this question may be entirely appropriate. For example, many coffee shops and bakeries have food options ranging from light snacks to extremely high-calorie baked desserts. But if you’re really looking for a nutritious and low-calorie meal, you wouldn’t typically choose to get it at a burger place with a reputation for particularly unhealthy food. The answer to this question was almost undoubtedly that the veggie sandwich was healthier than any of our burgers, and that anything on the menu was healthier without fries and soda than with them. But who goes to a burger restaurant for a veggie sandwich and a glass of water?
As much as I wish I was extremely beautiful, I guess I should probably be glad that I’m not good-looking enough that people flirt with me very often, because I get really panicky every single time it does happen. I know that’s not exactly normal, but I think that most people would agree that it’s annoying to have to deal with frequent flirtation from random strangers when you’re just trying to do your job. Since I worked the overnight weekend shift for a while, I did sometimes have to put up with random drunk guys telling me that I was the “sexiest cashier” they’d ever seen, or suggesting that I ditch work and go out for shots with them, or giving me their number even though I didn’t indicate any desire for it, or telling me how sexy it sounds when I say, “What would you like on your cheeseburger?” Even during regular lunch or dinner shifts, I had to deal with the occasional customer who thought they were being clever by ordering “a double cheeseburger all the way, medium fries, and your phone number” or who were willing to hold up the whole line to talk to me about themselves. Yes, I acknowledge that there are some people who might be flattered by that kind of attention. And yes, I acknowledge that working a fairly menial job is not the only thing that makes someone a target for flirtatious conversation. But that doesn’t mean that it’s no big deal to use someone’s customer service responsibilities as a way to force them to converse with you.
The bottom line is that people who work in those types of jobs are not just cogs in the machine of the business or franchise for which they work, and accepting unfair criticism from customers shouldn’t have to be “just a part of the job”. As a customer, you are paying for your food, you are paying for the labor it took to prepare that food and serve it to you, and you are paying for the experience of eating out, but you are not paying for the privilege of being unkind to other human beings. Those of us who are fortunate enough that our jobs come with some degree of dignity and respect should have enough decency to remember that we are not automatically superior to anyone whose job doesn’t require a college degree and does require wearing an apron.