My first job was as a fast food worker. Sure, I had previous experience in corn detasseling and newspaper delivery, but this was my first real job. I worked as crewmember at the McDonald’s in Forsyth, Ill. I was 15 years old from a low-income family. This company gave me an opportunity to earn money when I needed it.
People often look down upon fast food workers. There is a perception that people who work in the industry will be or are nothing. This could not be further from the truth. As a fast food worker, I learned principles of business that have helped me throughout my education and career. The money I made helped me get to college—I later earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. Moreover, I gained foundational skills and knowledge that I have used throughout my career. These include customer service, teamwork, process improvement, understanding and building relationships, service recovery, business development, time management, increasing efficiency, problem solving, planning and enjoying your work.
So next time you scoff at the fast food worker, remember their hours are great, the labor is tough, they make significant contributions to our economy, and the lessons they know and learn are incredibly valuable.
1) Customer Service: Be nice to people.
In every single interaction, your goal is to ensure that the customer is happy. You learn the basics – please, thank you, have a nice day. You also learn the next step – what brings the customer back. You begin to anticipate their needs.
The Example: There was a woman who ordered eight large coffees every evening. I do not know why she did, but I had her fresh coffee brewing and ready so she did not have to wait.
The Lesson: When you are polite and anticipate the customer’s needs, they will come back.
2) Service Recovery: Make it right.
Making it right is simple. You apologize, you correct the problem and you thank the customer. It does not matter if it is your fault.
The Example: A person came to me who was convinced that someone had taken a bite out of the bread of her sandwich. She was irate. In reality, it was a tear from the toaster, but she had reached a conclusion and she was angry. I apologized to her, explained the likely scenario and offered a new sandwich for her damaged one. She calmed down. I thanked her for alerting me to the issue and gave her an apple pie for her trouble.
You want the customer to come back.
Maybe you are asking yourself right now, “Why? I am not making the millions this restaurant is.” The answer is because you are a part of that team and business – the success of the business is your success.
The Lesson: When you recover business, it not only benefits the company, it benefits you personally.
3) Teamwork: It makes the dream work.
Working at McDonald’s taught me to never say, “That’s not my job.” You rely on each other to complete every process. To serve every order efficiently, you cannot do it alone.
The Example: If there is a bus of basketball players or the truck is in with the delivery, you have to pick up one another’s responsibilities to serve and get the job done.
The Lesson: When you work together, you can get the job done.
4) Process Improvement: Continually serve your customers better.
Efficiency in business is vital. McDonald’s continually reviews and improves processes to serve the customer better and faster. There is no this is the way we have always done it mentality. Since the time I worked there, I have seen more than a hundred process changes to ensure quality and speed.
The Example: When I worked there, you had a TTL (total time in line) for each customer. The company made it a race to figure out the best means of reducing times to get customer through. It was a fun competition and helped us to find ways to reduce wait times for our customers.
The Lesson: When you have the opportunity to improve a process, take advantage of it.
5) Navigating Personalities and Relationships: Own your reaction.
I would learn repeatedly throughout my career that you should not expect others to work as you do, learn as you do or interact as you do. When you work in fast food, you have a plethora of different personalities, life experiences and cultures. Personality conflicts will happen – how you respond to them is up to you.
The Example: I had an upset co-worker and felt obligated to side with them. It all seems trivial now. Avoid taking up someone else’s disagreement as your own – aid them in advice and support, but do not act for them – it can negatively impact you.
The Lesson: When you experience a conflict in the workplace, you own your reaction to it.
6) Positive Thinking: Happiness can carry you and others.
Positivity benefits you and everyone around you. You can and should enjoy your work. No matter what it is, if you are unhappy, find joy. Joy, kindness and laughter is contagious. It works in fast food – it works in every job you’ll ever have.
The Example: I may have deviated slightly from my scripted greetings while working in drive-thru, “Welcome to McDonald’s, Home of the Mighty, Mighty Big Mac!” Everyone got a good laugh out of it, including the customers.
The Lesson: When the people around you are grumpy and dark, be the joy and sunshine.
7) Supply Chain Management: A place for everything and everything in its place.
Checking stock and restocking is a constant. Planning and making sure you have enough product to run your shift, tomorrow’s shift or the next rush is important.
The Example: If you are working on a Saturday and lunch is approaching, you start cooking and stocking up. You can also assess when you have overstocked and adjust accordingly.
The Lesson: When you are prepared, you can handle chaos with ease.
8) Time Management: Make yourself useful.
What can you do with your time? If you are at a station, and are doing nothing, it is a poor use of your time. Clean trays, restock or take on another project to use your time wisely. Boredom does not benefit you or your employer.
The Example: I worked holidays and frequently there was little to no traffic, I cleaned the walls and baseboards.
The Lesson: When you have nothing to do, find something useful to do.
9) Empower Employees: Engagement matters.
You may not think of McDonald’s as a place to empower employees, but it is. The managers took our input and encouraged us to lead others.
The Example: At the time I worked there, we had team leaders who helped the managers to communicate information and complete the tasks of each shift.
The Lesson: When you empower your team, it benefits operations and morale.
10) Sales and Fund Development: It does not hurt you to ask.
McDonald’s regularly provided resources to suggestive sell products and fundraise for charities, and provided incentives for success.
The Example: Around Valentine’s Day, there was a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House charities, and we were encourage to get as many donations as possible. I was proud of the number of hearts I contributed to the wall.
The long reward? Later on in my career, I met people who benefited from the services of the organization.
The Lesson: When you provide employees the tools, they will sell your brand or product.
You have all heard it, “You’re just going to end up flipping burgers.” However, millions of us have worked in fast food – 1 in 8 Americans at McDonald’s alone. Like many of you, this was my first real job, and it was more than just making hamburgers for the masses. I learned the principles of business and hard work. A foundation built on hours on my feet and swiftly moving to feed hungry customers.
P.S. McDonald’s French fries are delicious.