It’s a trope as chewed up and spit out as stale fries: a teenager slingin’ burgers at a fast-food joint. For six memorable summers, I lived the cliché while I worked at a Wendy’s in a delightful haze of grease, Frosty mix and enough burgers to make Wimpy salivate.
My parents’ friends were friends with a married couple who owned a pair of Wendy’s in a seaside Massachusetts tourist town and for reasons that probably wouldn’t pass the mustard that goes on a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger today, they agreed to hire me in 1989, when I was all of 14 years old. I was ecstatic. A kid working in a fast-food restaurant? Pure caloric, acne-inducing bliss.
I rose from mousy youngster clearing trays and cleaning tables in the dining room to fry guy to cashier to crew trainer, becoming a two-time employee of the month along the way, accomplishments that remained on my resumé even after I graduated college.
I did it all: cooked hamburgers, manned the drive-thru, took out trash and even had one very traumatizing encounter with a clogged toilet. I learned about customer service, the importance of being responsible, how to work with others and just how much goes into running a restaurant. Wendy’s marked the first time I truly had to stand up for myself when I asked for a raise (which I got). My fascination with franchising, one that has twice taken me down exploratory trips to possibly open my own eatery, was borne out of my time there.
It’s easy to create the narrative that I was a teenager earning extra spending cash and socking money away for the future, but there is so much more to the experience that I still carry today. My father taught me there's no shame in making an honest living and I got to see that wisdom play out in real life before my very eyes. It’s a lesson I intend to pass on to my own kids.
I was working with a wide range of adults who really needed that money to make rent and take care of their children. Some had had run-ins with the law, some had struggled with addiction and some were uneducated. No matter — my respect and appreciation for hard work was forged in those days.
The owners impeccably ran this franchise with precision, but the turnover rate, like many fast-food restaurants, was high, and every summer new faces lined the roster of employees.
There was an older man with a developmental disability who cleaned the dining room. There was a lanky, salt-and-pepper-haired man with a ponytail who looked like he answered a casting call for “guy who never left Woodstock.” There were multiple Brazilian immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. There were scores of Irish exchange students, including one I had a massive crush on. There was Michael Arcebuche, a friendly teen a year older than me who now works as a pilot for a cargo company. He landed his job at Wendy’s a month after arriving in the United States from the Philippines. All opened up a world to me I had not known existed.
“What I really remember is a lot — including me, I would say — a lot of people that worked there from different countries, different cultures. I learned a lot from that,” Arcebuche told me during a call about our experiences.
Employees were issued two shirts, one pair of sandpaper-grade navy pants, an apron, a name tag, a visor and a pair of black sneakers that made orthopedic shoes look suave. Employees earned pins for good performance and achieving benchmarks they wore on their apron or hat, “flair” before it became an “Office Space” buzzword.
My cologne of choice those summers? Grease. I couldn’t get the stench of it off of me fast enough after coming home and jumping in the shower each day.
My memories of Wendy’s are piled higher than the fixings on the rarely ordered triple. The chain’s late founder, Dave Thomas, visited our store one summer and I got to meet him, which, to this day, serves as good conversation at cocktail parties. His book was distributed to employees and I enthusiastically read it, my interest in fast food growing.
The customers ran the gamut from the friendly to the weird. I created a backstory for the elderly woman who ordered the same thing every single day one summer. There was the man who slammed a Chicken Cordon Bleu on the counter and screamed about a refund. To this day, I laugh at the thought of the guy who pulled up to the drive-thru late one night and very matter-of-factly said, “Gimme a large f------ chili.”
There are people out there who know what I mean when I say “white, red, green” when it comes to placing toppings on a sandwich. The four-corner press is still how I make hamburgers. Scrubbing potatoes was not the most enjoyable task. And, yes, the Frosty was delicious. This being the pre-Internet era, rumors of a vanilla flavor remained just that.
But, above all else, and hokey though it may sound, I learned about life. Being a teenager, I failed to realize at the time that I was not just earning a paycheck but soaking in lessons that have stayed with me to this day and meeting people who I wouldn’t encounter otherwise.
“I think Wendy’s was a really good start for me and that’s what I can take out of it,” Arcebuche said.
A few years ago, I stopped in to that Wendy’s, my first time there in well over a decade. The photo of me and Thomas, which hung in the lobby while I worked there, was still on display. One of the managers from my time was there and we said hello. The son of the owner, who was a manager when I worked there, was on site, lending a hand. He’s now an owner himself. We exchanged an awkward greeting, punctuated when he called me by the wrong name because he had forgotten it.
“It’s Drew,” I corrected him.
It’s one of the other things I learned: We are all replaceable.
Maybe I didn’t have that much of an impact on this Wendy’s. It sure did on me, though.