Revisited: Life in the fast (food) lane

I do most of my blogging away from my home. Not only can I escape the lure of attractive nuisances like breaking up cat fights, but I can also watch the comings and goings of the general public while drawing inspiration from their activity. Just as J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series in an Edinburgh coffeehouse and Mark Twain penned his masterpiece Mark Twain from the Super Bi-Lo near his Missouri birthplace, I’m currently visiting a nearby commercial establishment.

Today’s location is different from my usual hangout because of the topic I’ve chosen. I can normally be found writing in the local Panera – where they’ve mysteriously stopped the free samples since I wrote about how generous they were – or in the Earth Fare organic grocery store, watching Rock Hill’s alternative community (all three of them) buying their whole-grain biomass. Instead, this afternoon I’ve got my laptop sitting precipitously on a greasy plastic tabletop in the local Burger King.

I’ve chosen this spot to do on-site research for today’s topic, the purchase of fast food. To witness the experience up close, I should actually be typing away out in the parking lot near the drive-through, because that’s the part of the transaction I find most fascinating. But the smell of run-over Whopper Juniors baked flat in the mid-May sun is a little more inspiration than I wanted.

Drive-through restaurants in America date back to the 1948 opening in California of the first In-n-Out Burger. McDonald’s surprisingly didn’t open its first drive-through until 1975, and all the other fast-food restaurants quickly followed in line behind them. Today, more food is sold at these outlets through the window than is sold over the counter inside.

The typical experience for most diners begins several blocks away when they find themselves stuck behind a slow car with only three hubcaps and half a dozen of what we politely call “country folk.” Inevitably, you can’t pass these bumpkins until you’re at the entrance to the drive-through, and then they pull in ahead of you and up to the menu board. You’re now fully engaged in the fast-food experience, also known as “waiting.”

When you’re finally at the speaker box, you’re likely to be faced with one of two possibilities: you’re given no time to consider the options before someone asks for your order, or you’re met with an eerie silence. If it’s the latter, you should lean in as close to the mike as possible and shout “IS ANYBODY IN THERE?” If it’s the former, you begin considering a perplexing array of three or four different foods prepared in a huge variety of styles and combinations. It doesn’t help when the pre-recorded professional announcer asks “would you like to try our new Badger Bits?”, and you’re regretting how sad is it that Ed McMahon has been reduced to working at a burger joint to pay for his mortgage and neck brace.

Soon enough, the announcer is followed by the actual employee, who sounds like one of those throat cancer victims with the artificial larynx, only with more static and less gusto. Even if you know the item you want, you still have to negotiate whether or not it should be part of a combo, and how many of the items in question you want.

I recently was at the drive-through of the disturbingly named Jack-In-The-Box and for some reason found myself wanting to order hash browns. The following is the actual exchange that took place:

“I’d like to order the hash browns, please.”

“How many do you want?”

“How many do you have?” I responded.

I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic nor was I trying to take inventory of their entire supply room. I wanted to know how many items came in the $1.29 order shown on the menu.

“What I mean is, how many in an order?”

“Three,” I was told.

“OK, then I want three,” I said.

“Three orders?”

“No, three individual, separate and distinct browns. One order, three hash browns.”

“OK, that’s one order plus three hash browns,” came the response. I had to admire the attempt to upsell, then thought of abandoning the entire hash brown experience in favor of French fries. Surely they wouldn’t ask you how many fries you want.

Once your order is complete, you’re told to pull ahead to the window even though you’re impossibly grid-locked in your current position by cars to the front and cars to the back. Those folks just ahead of you are now randomly passing cash and food bags amongst themselves, while an indecipherable conversation takes place between the driver and the clerk. As the pitch and tempo of the talk rises, you sense things are not going well. When food is no longer being passed from window to car and instead the flow has reversed, you can be certain you’re in for a long wait. Finally, the brake lights go off and the car creeps away. Now it’s your turn.

First, a word of warning. Do not, under any circumstances, pay an amount different from the figure shown on the display screen. If you are asked to pay a different amount, call the corporate headquarters immediately. This sign first appeared a few years ago as a way of letting customers know how much the restaurateur trusts that its employees won’t be skimming dimes and quarters from the take. It doesn’t do a whole lot for your confidence that the people who hired these workers have so little faith in their integrity. Just to be on the safe side, I check not only the price on the screen, but also for signs of spittle on my grilled chicken sandwich.

On the window are a number of stickers advising me of the restaurant hours, the credit cards accepted and other information that barely allows you to see inside the facility (I guess that’s the idea.) One of these signs warns that pedestrians are not allowed at the drive-through. I checked this out on Wikipedia and sure enough, under a heading that read “Non-car Usage,” it says “pedestrians sometimes attempt to walk through the drive-through to order food.” Is this really something that sober people do?

Finally, the order is ready and it’s time to pay. You begin a tentative exchange of cash for food – first you hand over the coins, then she gives you the drink, then you give her the bills, then she gives you the bag. You half expect her to continue clutching the grease-soaked sack until all the money is accounted for. The surrender of a quantity of ketchups is agreed upon, and the transaction is officially complete.

Watching all this transpire from my position inside the Burger King gives me a very different perspective. Employees scurry about in their headsets like so many flight controllers, hard-working and honest. There’s little traffic at the indoor counter, with all the focus on getting cars through the queue outside. The yahoos on the other side of speaker system sound almost comical as they stagger through their list of demands, sounding about as organized as the Republican Party.

“Uhhhh… I’ll have the Sarah Palin … no, wait … make that the Rush Limbaugh … what? Wait a minute … uhhh … Are you still serving breakfast? Then I’ll have a pizza … what, no pizza at Chick-fil-A? Uhhh…”

So now I have some sympathy for both the workers who toil at these establishments as well as their customers. And yes, I would like fries with that.

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2 Responses to “Revisited: Life in the fast (food) lane”

  1. Healthy Choice Says:

    Nice post… it’s fun to read it.
    Keep up your good work..
    Thanks.

  2. The Dude Says:

    To answer your seemingly rhetorical question “Is this really something that sober people do?”, yes! At my particular dorm there is a Wendy’s within 3 minutes walking distance that closes its dining area at 10, however the drive-through stays open so that “You can eat great, even late!” I have frequently found myself walking through the drive-through. The first few times they wouldn’t serve me. I befriended the night crew during hours right before closing and now I get good food whenever.

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