10 min read

Why can't these fast food idiots ever get it right and why are they making $15 an hour?

When I was in early recovery after I rode a bicycle from Spokane to Seattle/Portland and northern California in 2015, the only job I was able to get when I previously had been making north of $100k as a network support engineer was as a fry cook at Zips on Third Avenue and Lincoln downtown.
Why can't these fast food idiots ever get it right and why are they making $15 an hour?

True story, when I was in early recovery after just having moved back to Spokane after I rode a bicycle from Spokane to Seattle/Portland and northern California in 2015 and found out 'the fun way' I still had misdemeanor warrants from when I lived in LA in 2010 by getting a free ride down there sans my bike and gear, the only job I was able to get when I was out looking (previously had been making north of $100k in Spokane as a network support engineer) was as a fry cook at Zips on Third Avenue and Lincoln downtown.

I was broke and sleeping on my dad's couch with a hand-me-down bicycle looking for work downtown, which doesn't leave many options beside fast food/service/restaurants, and when I asked for an application at Zips - they said 'that will be $1'... so I responded 'seriously? Why would I pay a dollar for an application?' The manager replied that so many people ask for them and never turn them back in they started charging for them but also they were doing ‘open interviews’ and if I were to fill out the application and be there at 10:00a sharp the next day that I would get an interview and probably get hired. This was encouraging enough that I forked over one of the only (think I had 4$?) dollars I had, and I set to work filling out the application. I did not figure putting

‘I had a $100k+ network/systems engineering job five years ago but now I am a burnout drug addict trying to work at a fast-food franchise’

was a great idea, so I just put 'drug addict, 90 days clean, just trying to get my life together' in the "Explain any Gaps in Employment" section and put down that I had worked at McDonalds when I was a teenager for a couple years. When I showed up for the interview, the manager, John, had been working there 40 years and been the general manager for 35 of those years, sat down to look at my application and was like 'well, this seems like a really bad idea - but at least I admire your honesty, so I’m going to take a chance - you start tomorrow;' I had to borrow money from my girlfriend (now wife) to get the clothes that comprised the uniform - black t-shirts, black slacks, and black shoes – they wouldn’t give you a “Zips” t-shirt unless you made it several months (one of which I never obtained despite being there several months eventually lol). I showed up to the first day of work, and because I did not have any money to get glasses/contacts - could not see the words on the screen that showed the orders.

My first few shifts the dude training me also had sight issues and was as blind as me without glasses, so he understood and just called things back to me, but I also had a really hard time remembering what went on all the sandwiches and flipping the burgers and dropping stuff in the fryers... plus, they had so many goddamn things that went in the fryers that all had different times to cook but not a specific timer like at McDonalds or something with the benefit of millions upon millions of dollars in test kitchens and industrial process managers - you just had to intrinsically know when to pull something and with the chicken even if it had been in the allotted time - you still had to break it to make sure it wasn't pink in the middle. Eventually, an old friend who had way more faith in me than was warranted and living on very limited means (like a buck above minimum wage with a house and a family) shelled out like $250 for me to get some glasses, which was fortuitous - as I would have been fired in a day or two if that did not happen.

I kept on working there a couple months, and the thing is - aside from a short bit as a construction laborer that I struggled *even more desperately if you can imagine* to pick up - I just was not getting it. The same type of mental capacities that include hyperfocus and systems analysis that serve me so well in technology was the antithesis of what made a good fry cook at Zips because I could not turn my analytical microscope on ten simultaneous physically different things. Ironically, during my time at McDonalds as a teenager - I always would get 40h and frequently could get overtime, because the same industrial processes I explained Zips not having basically made it impossible to be bad at McDonalds - as they had engineered all of the workflows to such flawless perfection - that you always got the same result from doing the same things... a measure of idempotence - that was completely lacking in even a regionally large fast-food franchise.

I was the worst damn fry cook in Zips history!

I normally was scheduled for evening and weekend stuff and never got more than 15-25 hours a week because hours went to the best workers, but I picked up a Thursday lunch rush shift (lunch rush was the hardest work so they wanted the most skilled people doing it - they were not available so they got me lol) when the owner, Dennis, was there doing his weekly “I’m going to see how my store is doing by stepping in on the line in the middle of lunch rush and seeing  how much my clumsiness affects the abilities of my employees to perform” thing that he did every couple weeks.

Now, Dennis, for however good he is at running a fast-food franchise (the Zips he runs by far have the best food/cleanliness/speed - Downtown, Five Mile, Northwest Boulevard, and Fancher - I will not eat at any of the other ones unless I really need a cheeseburger and his are closed) he sucked pretty bad lol, compared to his FTEs, at making the sandwiches and expediting orders. John - who already had warned me several times about how I would be out of work if my performance did not improve - had me right next to Dennis assembling sandwiches, and early on – Dennis realized that, even after months of working at Zips, I had even less business being in the kitchen than he did. Dennis didn't say anything to me directly, but he had like a 15 minute conversation with John who I know was basically begging him to let me stay, left, and then John told me to follow him out into the lobby and sit down at one of the booths where he told me the same thing he had been telling me for months: I had to be faster, I had to know the times, what goes on the sandwiches, not get orders confused, be able to do all the different things at once, or he was going to have to fire me.

The most messed up thing is I was showing up every day *genuinely trying my ass off* to become better and obtain some level of competency at the Zips kitchen so I could get more hours, get more money, get at least like a roommate that was not my dad, and get into school. Also, it was a pride thing – I never had been bad at any job I ever had my whole life, aside from the whole being an alcoholic/drug addict/unreliable/constantly cutting out early after showing up late/always having ‘liquid lunches,’ etc. - but when I actually was ‘working’ I knocked it out of the park every time. I had been going to the adult education center to get my GED and already passed two of the three tests, but because I literally have a (diagnosed by clinical psychologists on paper lol) math learning disability where I am in the fifth percentile globally of all adults who take the same (exhaustive - two whole eight-hour-day) panel of tests with mathematic/symbolic reasoning - even high school math was beyond my abilities despite the stupid amount of money  I earned in the tech sector. Because of this, it took several months of study for me to barely nudge my GED math scores on the practice tests they have at the Adult Learning Center. It is funny in retrospect that in my youth, I was such an 'Excelsior Kid' (generational trauma, behavior issues, 'neurodivergence,' and just plain old Oppositional Defiance Disorder from a shitty upbringing) growing up that my refusal/inability to do math problems and failing pre-algebra five times in high school was just lumped in with all my behavioral issues, but literally - even as an adult, I spent months and months at the GED test prep center with an enormous amount of studying and barely passed the GED test.

My (now wife) girlfriend was starting to think after a couple months that maybe I was not the sort of person who could work and hold down a job/provide/be an equitable partner and decided to pack me a lunch and drop me off at a job fair. While I was pretty indignant about this intervention on the inside, I really couldn’t argue outwardly with her concerns – so I figured I would just try to find something else that was shitty and minimum wage that maybe I would not be so terrible at. I did not have a resume or professional clothing - just a t-shirt and jeans - but walked around to all the booths cutting to the chase: 'do you all hire felons; I have a felony drug charge and don't want to go through all the hassle of applying if I’ll get denied because of a background check.' I don’t know why, but there were a *lot* of law enforcement agencies represented at this hiring event, so for kicks I would walk up to them and say, ‘hey I used to be a suspect but now I’m a citizen – I know y’all won’t give me a gun and a badge, but can I at least like be a janitor or something?’ The response always was ‘hahahaha no’ or just plain dumbfounded silence. As I progressed throughout the more prominent booths at the fair and ended up at the outskirts, or dare I say even 'dregs' of the event, even the shitty call centers and carpet cleaning businesses said, 'nah sorry.' When I asked at the ABHS booth (local to Eastern Washington substance use disorder treatment clinic) they said you needed 3y clean and 5y since the last criminal charge, so I was beginning to feel pretty discouraged and that my girlfriend might be right and perhaps I should just apply for Social Security or something. I made it to the Excelsior booth where Josh (HR manager) was there just looking at his watch waiting for this unproductive lame recruiting event to be over (I think he only hired one other person from the whole thing) and when I asked about what Excelsior does, he talked about kids with behavior issues, multiple placements, group home/BRS (Behavioral Rehabilitative Services - most of what they/we did at the time), and inpatient/outpatient substance use treatment targeted towards youth and their families. It sounded like a dream job for me, honestly, even though Josh was pitching it as super difficult - because I sure wish I had people when I was going through that stuff who actually knew what it was like instead of just having an intellectual idea of it, but was pretty sure the fact it was working with kids would make it so my, minimal by the standards of 'real' criminals, justice involvement would be a big fat no.

I was like 'hey man that all sounds great, but I only have like six months clean and I have a felony drug charge from 2010, but I volunteer at a youth outreach in West Central (the Watts or Compton of Spokane) and I’m trying to work with the same kinds of kids in their spiritual lives, you know?' That is when he said they just got approved for a contract for WISe and were putting together teams for that new program and that I should fill out the massive application packet and call him on Monday. At the interview, everything went well - but I was like "I don't have my GED or my drivers’ license which are requirements of the job on the top of the application," and he said that he saw something in me and would be willing to figure out the details. I took the last GED test a few days later and told him I passed it, and he said he was still waiting to hear from the licensor if they would let me work there with my one drug charge and like twelve 'lifestyle crime' misdemeanors (disorderly conduct, obstructing, pedestrian interference, etc.).

Many weeks went by where I had not heard from him, and I was still doing the best I could at flipping burgers. By this time, John had tried to hire/train my replacement three different times with them all fired for no-call no show, stealing, or constant tardiness/absenteeism. I just kept showing up, on time, every day, willing to give my 100% that never was good enough and with the knowledge that even my colleagues that thought I was a decent guy hated working with me because I was so incompetent in the kitchen. Knowing that I was about to get canned did not discourage me more – it actually got me even more motivated to ‘beat this thing’ and by now I was working evening shifts in the kitchen by myself; every time I showed up to work the manager on duty would groan and facepalm because shit would be backed up all night.

I was at work one day – it was a Friday in July of 2016 - when my phone rang while I was behind the line at Zips and out of curiosity, I looked at the caller id and it was from Excelsior! I immediately told my compatriot to cover for me and walked into the freezer; when I picked up Josh said, 'hey man, I got your stuff through the licensor - can you start Monday?’ The freezer door opened while the manager came in already loudly chewing me out about not answering phone calls while on the clock, and I said “well, even though I suck at and hate this job almost as much as they hate me, I probably should be a responsible adult and repay them for their patience with me by at least giving a two-week notice” loud enough that I wouldn't have to say it a second time to the manager. I then went back to work vigorously, realizing that despite everything my own negative core beliefs and the world was signaling that my value was - I at least had been granted an opportunity to do something new, and for the first time – do work that *really* mattered even if it never would pay me anything like my old tech gigs. It was an opportunity to start again and do something new that didn't involve my inability to physically do ten different things at once when ironically, as a Systems Engineer I have to psychologically/intellectually do thirty different things at once which I do with ease.

I never knew I would fall in love or become hopelessly devoted, but here we are and here I am almost half a decade later running their tech infrastructure and more pleased about it than I ever could be even working for a FAANG type thing with their salary/stock options.