All the things you learn when you work at McDonald’s

Everything is a bit sticky

When I was 16, fearing I would not be able to afford to get the bus to the park to sit near – though not next to – some boys, I dutifully dispatched a CV (or, an A4 page on which was printed my mobile number and “Bronze DoE Award”), and got a job at McDonald’s.

The branch was situated in a retail park in one of Glasgow’s rougher quarters. I had a stupid accent (a mongrel form of RP and Glaswegian, that came out inexplicably transatlantic); I was gauche and uncomfortable. I was being privately educated, and arrived at many of my shifts wearing a thick wool blazer and purple and navy kilt. Obviously, everyone hated me.

You would, really. Though sensing this made me far worse at every simple task; there’s probably a lesson in management there, and there was definitely a lesson I was supposed to be learning in resilience. Unfortunately, I preferred to go to the staff loo and text one of my mates a sad smiley off my Motorola 360.

I discovered several lessons about how McDonald’s works.

A perfectly choreographed Happy Meal

A perfectly choreographed Happy Meal, or, “my broken dreams”

Folding a Happy Meal box is disproportionately difficult

It requires dexterity, unlike stuffing its contents in your mouth. You must tuck the sections of flimsy technicolour cardboard in a very specific order or your box will gape, like when you misjudge how much wrapping paper you need and Mum can see the underside of the not-very-expensive handcream you bought her for Christmas. If it gapes, the chips – in their little paper bag – will fall through and your manager will stare at you like you are subhuman.

Everything is a bit sticky

If every person who passes through spills just a little bit of ketchup, and every staff member gives every table just a very cursory wipe, then by 6pm every public surface is covered with a thin, gloopy substance. It’s not properly red any more, more the kind of snotty, silvery red that you might find on the desk of a primary school child who has recently suffered a not very serious nosebleed.

People get genuinely upset when they miss breakfast

I thought this was a plot device in a buddy movie: a hungover, slightly overweight man really losing it because it’s 10.31am and he just really needed that Egg McMuffin. Actually, middle-aged, middle-class mothers implored me to serve them the breakfast menu.

There was a ‘star’ system

Staff wore stars they earned on their small black caps. This was probably my first lesson in reality. At school, if there was a star system, I was raking in those stars. Obviously, this didn’t make me especially popular. But at McDonald’s there was a star system, I didn’t rake in those stars, and I still wasn’t popular. I finally understood the expression, “life’s not fair”.

Being on the till is the pits

Being on the till is the pits

You really wanted to be rota-ed on drive through

On drive through, you got to sit by a window (fresh air! Your hair wouldn’t smell like McNuggets!) and you were protected from people (who I was starting to learn I didn’t really like) by a window that you could shut if they yelled at you. You could sit down. I never got put on drive through.

You get given a free McDonald’s meal on your shift

Turns out people think you’re a stuck-up princess if you get carrot sticks instead of a McFlurry. And if, on your third shift, you bring a homemade cheese sandwich (wrapped in tin foil, by your mother) then they will call other members of staff to the staff room to laugh at you. You laugh too – “I’m on a health kick!!!! Haha, I’m so WEIRD” – though no one’s listening and calling yourself weird is only cute when you’re with indulgent friends, not strangers who think your behaviour is an affront to how they live. Which it is, a bit, and you probably should have just had a McDonald’s and stopped being neurotic. Either way, you stop eating on your shifts and now everyone thinks you’re a stuck-up princess with an eating disorder, which they discuss really loudly in front of you.

Simple things are actually really hard to do 

You scooped chips out of the tray using a shovel that tapers into a funnel; the first time I used it I sprayed a portion across the floor, and once someone sent theirs back because I’d short-chipped them. The manager apologised profusely while I stood, cringing and humiliated. I couldn’t put my hair net on, and when I mopped the floor I left small footprints in my wake. I re-mopped and made some more, so shifts often ended with me turning around in a circle, over and over again, the mop orbiting my rotating body like a really slow, shit moon.

giphy (1)

What walking onto my shift was never like

You had to literally clock in on a small black box

Once, I forgot and didn’t get paid for an eight-hour shift that started at 3pm and ended at 11pm on a school night.

giphy (2)

Practice didn’t make perfect

Constructing burgers is hard

You had to do everything in the right order (which is dictated by a chart in the kitchen) and if you muddle the order, the patty will likely disintegrate in your hands (the McIlluminati strikes again). You then need to push it down the correct metal slide so the server doesn’t pull out a cheeseburger and bag it when they wanted a beefburger. As you will alternate one shift on till followed by one shift in the kitchen, the system does not become second nature, and you’ll keeping stuffing patties down the wrong side.

People who request menu items WITHOUT garnishes do not know how difficult they are making your life

“Can I have it without pickle/cheese/meat/lettuce?” The till is slow and clunky (especially if you go to private school where there’s a fancy computer lab and you didn’t know computers like this existed), the buttons are greasy. You hate these people and want to cry when they start stringing off an order.

Mostly, though, I learnt that not everyone is a middle-class, privately-educated neurotic with anxieties about the calorie content of a Filet o’Fish. And that people really do spit in burgers, though it’s usually on spec gobbing rather than targeted. You have to do something to enliven an eight-hour shift.