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In The Trenches With America's Fast-Food Workers

I spent a week working at Taco Bell. The job wasn't so bad. But sometimes, the customers were.

In The Trenches With America's Fast-Food Workers

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Cheesy Gordita Crunch button. Where the hell is the Cheesy Gordita Crunch button?

It’s an absurd question that I’m asking myself, over and over, with an increasing panic. Because all of these buttons look the same, and I’m at the mercy of a 28-year-old white guy in a blue North Face jacket—a 28-year-old white guy in a blue North Face jacket who might smile at me in any other context—whose face twists with disgust as I can’t find the "Cheesy Gordita Crunch" button fast enough.

After a full 20 seconds of waiting, he snatches the receipt I finally produce with a pitying smirk but no eye contact. Whatever Darwinist view of capitalism he has is reaffirmed.

Like 2.3 million other Americans, I’m working an entry-level position in fast food. The work itself isn't so bad. But sometimes, the customers are.

I’m making $10 an hour—due to Chicago’s rising minimum wage—at this flagship Taco Bell in the city’s trendy taco capital, Wicker Park. An area once known for Hispanic-owned taquerias, Wicker Park gentrified into a late-night stomping ground for hipsters in the mid aughts. Amidst the financialpocalypse, Chicago chefs capitalized on the demand for cheap eats for young people with haute tacos of their own in the area.

Taco Bell

Capitalizing on the trend, Taco Bell has teamed up with local franchise owner Neil Borkan to plant a flag, and launch their first "Cantina" store, with Chipotle-esque unfinished wood paneling, graffiti art, and optional booze. The Wicker Park Taco Bell is an affirmation of new taco culture, but also an indicator of the recent success of fast food in a tumultuous economic climate. Since 2010, 44% of new jobs have been low-wage jobs, and most of those jobs are in the fast-food industry.

Now $10/hour is actually a bit higher than the national average of $9.15 an hour (but nowhere near the $15 an hour that fast-food workers are fighting for), but with a mere 1 in 50 chance of ever becoming a manager, and a 68% chance that I’m the primary wage earner for my family (a vast majority of fast-food workers are over 20), the odds are that I’ll still have to apply for government assistance to get by, despite having a full-time job. Waiting on my first day for the bus ($2.25 each way, or $100 per month), I contemplate if I should call an Uber to be on time. It’s an early proof point that, while I may look the part, waiting for the bus in the Taco Bell T-shirt and a pair of black orthopedic shoes I’ve been provided, both my home life and my bank account are immune to the real repercussions of the job.

My wife is able to stay home with our two-year-old, meaning I’m not forced to figure out child care on an hourly wage. We have a mortgage on a two-bedroom condo, so Chicago’s escalating rent doesn’t affect me, either. The real cost of fast-food employment won’t really affect me, and I'll be able to shed the difficulties of the job when I clock out every day. But my hope is that, even just working the nine to five will give me some insight into what these millions of fast-food workers go through to make life work on low pay and uncertain hours.

Duane Prokop/Getty Images

I Just Want It Normal

Gabriela, who is somewhere in her 20s, absurdly friendly, and has 10 nails manicured in 10 different black-and-white patterns, handles my training. During a slow midday shift, she funnels customers to her terminal while I shadow the orders, often still looking for the first item button long after she’d finished. When we’re out of customers, she leaves her terminal to walk through the front doors over and over, each time playing a different customer archetype to stump me with the more oddball menu items, like the Gorditas and Chicken Chipotle Grillers. She really gets into the acting portion of it, studying the menu with all the sweaty fervor of a true Taco Bell customer. One time she walks up with a Valley Girl accent, ordering a number three combo.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

"I just want it normal," she says.

"Normal?" I ask.

"Yeah, normal," she responds, copping a real attitude. "No tomatoes, no sour cream." Duh. A few minutes later, a girl walks up to Gabriela and orders with the exact cadence she’d just imitated.

After a day as cashier, I create a horrible game in my head to break up the monotony. Before each person orders, I guess what they’ll be eating.

For lunch, guys in their mid 30s (like myself), walk up to the menu jaw dropping from the options. These men don’t eat the menu. The menu eats them. I know what they’re ordering before they say it: A number three, or a number five, or whatever number they blurt out in premature panic because they feel like they’re taking too long. But then, because Taco Bell’s combos seem designed to scratch one itch raw while neglecting the entire rest of your appetite, they have to add on another item or two. These guys might drop $15 without realizing it.

The blue collar types, high school students, and homeless people order smarter. They order from the dollar "Cravings" menu and spend under $3. And they’re quick, since they had it all planned before they came in. I came to respect the Cravings orderers—these were the card sharks of the fast-food industry, always reading the odds and keeping their losses low.

Taco Bell

The Perfect 2.8 Ounces

Taco Bell has been good to Jessica Alvarez, and Alvarez has been good to Taco Bell. Nine years ago, she picked up the job on a whim while looking for work at a California military base where her husband was stationed. Within two months, she had her first promotion, and she has climbed the ranks of management ever since. Now she runs what’s arguably the riskiest, most publicly facing store in Taco Bell’s entire empire: this test store where Taco Bell will add a shot of Don Julio to your frozen drink, and eventually, cater and sell merchandise, too.

Jessica might stand five feet tall, with a cheeky smile and braces that would allow her to blend in at the Justin Bieber concerts she attends with her nine-year-old daughter. But looks can be deceiving, and at Taco Bell, Alvarez runs a tight ship. Alvarez weighs my tacos as they come down the line, to see if they hit the perfect 2.8 oz. If they’re heavy, I’m politely scolded for using too much beef. If they’re light, it’s always because I’ve cheated the lettuce. "More lettuce," she says again and again. "It should look like it’s overflowing."

Food is never really cooked at Taco Bell. Instead, it’s unboxed, prepped, and then reboxed in a prettier box to be sold at a premium. A Cheesy Gordita Crunch starts with a piece of flatbread on the grill for 20 seconds on one side, and 10 on the other. It’s topped with a cup of tricolor cheese and slid into the steamer for eight seconds. Meanwhile, you prep a hard-shell taco with a scoop of beef, line of ranch sauce, a two-finger pinch of lettuce, and one-finger pinch of cheese. You pull the flatbread from the steamer, wrap it around the taco, and it’s done.

The Crunchwrap—despite also having "crunch" in its name—is an entirely different beast. It starts with a 12-inch tortilla. After grilling it for five seconds on each size, you pump a squirt of nacho cheese. A scoop of beef. Then you place a tostada shell on top and twist. You top the shell with a circle of sour cream. A four-finger pinch of lettuce. A one-finger pinch tomatoes. You fold it inward six times. And you toss it on the grill press.

It’s silly, but these meaningless distinctions within Taco Bell’s menu taxonomy are a constant source of frustration when I work the line. There’s no logic dictating that some items get cheddar cheese and others three-cheese blend, no learning the four mother sauces to suddenly understand the foundations of French cuisine. And so there’s no alternative but repetition to learn the menu.

It’s a point cemented the first time I successfully make a Crunchwrap all on my own, and my assistant manager Tomas looks at me like a proud mentor. "Now you know how to make that, you can make it in any Taco Bell—anywhere."

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Steaming Is A Lousy Job

During one shift, so many people order Spicy Potato Tacos in a row that we run out of potatoes. My colleague Dave tosses a new batch into the fryer, forcing the customer to wait while the line backs up. A few minutes pass, and I can see the customer getting agitated through the glass.

When the potatoes are finally done, I look at the dripping basket, fresh out of the 350-degree oil, knowing what I had to do but dreading the pain. I swallow, touch the potatoes, and immediately have to yank my hand away. It’s hot. Instant burn hot. But those customers are getting angry. So I reach in again slowly, legitimately afraid of a pile of preprocessed potato bites.

That’s when Dave swings in from nowhere. "I got you," he says, reaching his hand straight into the mound of glistening, freshly fried cubes, pouring them into the measuring cup for me.

"Well that's emasculating," I say. "Thanks."

"I don’t even feel it anymore, man."

Dave is from the west side of Chicago. He has the perpetually clenched jaw of a kid who grew up in the city, a resting tough face, that from what Jessica has told me about her typecasting organizational philosophy, is probably what got him the position stuffing tacos in the back rather than charming customers in the front. Over an order of nachos during his break, Dave tells me that school wasn’t for him. Now he’s in training to be a manager, but he’s having a tough enough time just getting the 40 hours a week of work he’d like in the meantime—an all-too-common complaint of fast-food workers who work in the industry as a career, who say that managers prevent them from working full-time in order to save on benefits.

Dave is superb at steaming, which is the hardest and hottest part of the line, in which you start a customer’s order by grilling tortilla shells and topping them with meats and molten cheeses, before passing them to the stuffer, who gets to fill the tacos with cool-to-the-touch shredded cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. The stuffer also gets to fire off the always-fun sour cream dispenser, which is more or less a semiautomatic caulking gun loaded with dairy fat.

Steaming is a lousy job. Imagine you’re holding a 12-inch tortilla right above the grill, so it’s searing into your hand. Then you top that with a bunch of lava-hot liquids that, because the tortilla is flat, are always about to spill over the side. You’re moving as fast as you can to stop the burning, but your wrist angle is never more than a few degrees away from dumping nacho cheese sauce all over your pants. The temptation is, with no better option, to leverage my pelvis under these giant tortillas for some extra support. But nobody looking into the kitchen wants to see my junk in their crunch, so it’s a habit I try to break quickly.

Dave, on the other hand, takes wave after wave of orders and never loses his cool. In fact, I see Dave mess up a single order during two shifts. He’s steaming, and I’m stuffing, as the store’s owner, Neil Borkan, swings by to check in on me. Neil is a northside franchisee who owns 39 Taco Bells in the region—and he’s the guy who has so much pride in his operation that he ultimately said "okay" when I asked Taco Bell corporate if they’d let me work at a store and document the experience. Borkan’s is the first white face I’ve seen behind the counter all week, and it’s the first time I internalize the store’s racial head count, that all of my coworkers have been black or Latino, while the vast majority of our customers are white.

Borkan couldn’t be nicer to me, asking if there’s anything else he can do—any other position I need to work within a store, or experience I need to have—to write the authentic piece I’m looking for. We laugh a bit about Taco Bell’s confusing menu, and the sheer amount of food that people are capable of ordering.

And that’s when I see Dave carry a half-made bean burrito to the trash, because he’d missed some substitution on the order. Borkan pretends not to notice, but I can only imagine the expletives firing off in Dave’s head.

Flickr user Steven Depolo

11:30 Is When The Party Starts

On Friday night, in anticipation for the waves of hungry late-night partygoers to come, the crew is in full force. We’re almost triple the size now, with a staff of roughly 10. For the first time, I see my coworkers fraternize, teasing each other for claiming the easier items to make, laughing from private jokes, and using the cramped workspace as an excuse for harmless flirtations.

"After 11:30, that's when the party starts," Tomas tells me with an anticipatory gleam in his eye. For a moment, I see why he and his brother gave up the family business of window washing and construction.

The bouncer, wearing cutoff gloves and a black muscle tee with "Live Mas" in giant neon green, arrives at 9 p.m. Someone throws a friend’s passport onto the Taco Bell sign out front. Tomas fetches a ladder to get it down. Two ladies in their early 30s have an intense two-hour chat while slurping on spiked Catina Punch freeze, their lips gradually turn the color of glowing red dye.

Groups begin to come in, backing up our line with a list of orders that seems like it will never end. My hands move fast. The clock moves faster. I no longer ask the ingredients of most items—surely sneaking by some mistakes that I’m sure tasted fine—but for the most part, I’m impressed with my new ability to fill the 15-second eternity of grilling a perfect quesadilla with other activities like taco stuffing, wrapping orders, or topping off my stash of lettuce.

I call out an order for a "Kara." It’s not even his order, but a skinny bearded guy mocks my pronunciation to his girlfriend. Later that night, when he returns to his apartment, he’ll realize that my motivation in rewrapping his spilling Double Decker taco might have been, shall we say, lacking.

But my bad attitude is an anomaly. Despite the fact that most of them are younger than I am, my colleagues are more mature, treating the customers with constant respect, even when it’s not reciprocated. When I probe for customer horror stories, nobody has much to share. I understand why. The worst moments aren’t when customers are rude, but when they pity you: It’s how they look—even the friendly ones—at you as if you were, by nature, below them, just because of the three feet of fast-food counter between us. As a teen working at a country club, I got that look from adults. Now, for the first time as an adult, I got that look from my peers (and as a white man, I probably sidestepped a good deal of extra prejudice), as customers flashed me a look with an "It’s hard out there" nod of appreciation, before scarfing down a gordita.

"It’s not hard," Dave laughed, shaking his head to himself, when I recounted the difficulty of using the cashier terminal for the first time. An hour later, I knew he was right. Every button was literally labeled with menu items like "Soft Taco" or "Quesadilla." There were a lot of buttons, yes. There are also a lot of buttons on the average TV remote.

It took me a minute to decode Daves’s subdued gesture, that little chuckle with a headshake, but I finally did. What he really meant was, "Don’t talk down to me."

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Some names have been changed in the interest of anonymity.

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