Scarred for Life by a Food Industry Job

One of my very first jobs was working in the food prep station of a Burger King the summer after I finished high school. It was a job for which I was enormously grateful, and not just because it paid me the princely sum of $2.75 an hour and showed me my potential future if I didn't go to college.

The real advantage of working at a BK for a summer was that it permanently cured me of my addiction to fast food.

I had this job for a summer more than 20 years ago, yet to this day french fries are the only thing I can eat at a Burger King or at a McDonald's.

And it's not because of any lack of sanitary standards--the Burger King franchise I worked at was pretty darn clean. It was because I made thousands and thousands of burgers. Cheeseburgers, hamburgers, double cheeseburgers, Whoppers, double Whoppers--all ordered with every combination and permutation imaginable of ketchup, mayo, mustard, pickles and special sauce.

After every shift I had to take a shower to get the Burger King smell off me. I saw burgers in my sleep. It was a fast food version of immersion therapy, except instead of desensitizing me, it it had the reverse effect.

Being around this food so much cured me of this "cuisine" for the rest of my life.

Have you ever had any food industry jobs that taught you lifelong lessons? What were they?

Related Posts:
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food
Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by purchasing items from via links on this site, or by linking to me or subscribing to my RSS feed. Finally, you can consider submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon. Thank you for your support!


Kevin said...

Worked at a Subway in '89 during college before "sandwich artists" existed. Taught me how scary mayonnaise can be, and how tasteless iceberg lettuce is.

Julia said...

When I worked in restaurants, dogs used to follow me home because so much food "juice" had caked on my shoes.

For me, restaurants were a great experience -- I cooked in fine dining for 5 years. I learned how to multi-task, work as fast as I can, and work through pain.

Unknown said...

Great minds think alike! I mentioned a similar experience in my recent recipe on making a Vietnamese Sandwich.

I worked at McDonalds for a few years as a teenager, and it was years before I could go back into one.
*The beeping...the beeping! Someone get the fries!!!

I can't say it "cured" me; I'll go to one when I'm on a road trip. It's my preferred stop at turnpike rest areas, for some reason.

Other than that...I only go because I have kids. In spite of my best efforts, they think Chicken McNuggets are the height of culinary achievement. (Sigh).


Kate said...

In college I worked for more than a year in an ice cream shop that was just opening. They made all their own ice cream and I served as a guinea pig for many of the flavors. I also spent a Sunday working with one of the owners who was attempting to perfect a brownie recipe. I tried 14 pans of brownies over a 6-hour shift. I would stand over a bank of hot irons and make scratch waffle cones for hours and hours. Needless to say, I became over-saturated by sugar. Once I quit I could not eat ice cream for years, and the sight of a brownie made my stomach turn. Even now, when I walk into an ice cream shop and smell the waffle cones being made, or the sickening sweet smell of butterfat, I still feel kind of ill, but I can eat ice cream again in small amounts.

Joanne said...

While I have never had the "pleasure" of working in the food industry, I did work at Express for a while (the clothing store) which made me realize why going to college was so important. I never want to work in retail again!

One of my good friends used to be a waiter at IHOP and now he can't go back and eat there, mostly because when he walks in he has flashbacks to many hours of folding napkins.

Liz T. said...

My first job, at the age of 14, was at the local Dairy Queen for $1.25/hr. I was underage so my mom signed the work certificate. They liked to hire really young 'uns 'cause they didn't have to pay us the full two dollars-plus.

It was YEARS before I could go back into one. The worst smells were the giant vat of 'chocolate' used to dip the Dilly Bars and such, and the ketchup crusted around the tops of the ketchup squirters that I had to clean and refill each day.


JJ (Lady Di) said...

I guess either I'm different or there's something wrong with me, food-wise I don't have any bad after-effects from working at Taco Bell during college. I've worked at plenty of other food places also, hotels, college-dining halls, etc., and I've always walked away with learning something. In the case of TB- I learned how to roll a Burrito correctly and believe it or not I really want a sour cream gun because it's so much easier to put a nice looking stripe of sour cream down a taco with it than a spoon (I know, you can use a pastry bag).

Thanks to all of my food industry jobs I get ideas on how to improve what I make, what I can do to "copy" a restaurant (fast food or fancy) meal [with the "downside" being we don't like to eat out as since I can mostly make it better] and I can usually play with my food so much better because of it.

Daniel said...

Kevin: you had me at mayonnaise. Shudder.

Julia: glad you had such a great experience, but I feel like you're holding out on me--there MUST be some food you won't touch thanks to your years of restaurant experience. :)

Mike: Oh yeah, I heard that beeping for years after I quit! Thanks for helping me recover a repressed memory.

Kate, I think you have a high class problem if you can only eat ice cream in small amounts. ;) And that brownie experience must have been horrifying.

Joanne, you should write about your retail experiences in your blog... I bet you have some really good stories to share.

Liz C: I'm heartened at least that your DQ had a policy of actually cleaning those ketchup squirters. I'm not so sure about the DQ near us. :)

Lady Di, great point about a sour cream "gun"--never really thought about it that way. And I'm glad that you're one of the very few of us who bears no scars from your food industry experience!


Janet C said...

The only food-related job I ever had was the summer I was waterfront counselor at a family camp (a place where families went to camp; there were about 60 people staying there at a time so it wasn't very large). Yes, I was mainly hired for my WSI certification and the fact that I could teach kids how to handle the Sunfish on the doc...but for breakfast and dinner I was also made assistant cook. It actually was a good learning experience: the cook had some great recipes that I still use to this day, and it taught me how to cook for a crowd. My favorite mornings were the ones where the cook was too hungover to get up and I had to do breakfast all by myself....

martha in mobile said...

I worked the midnight to 7am shift on the sorting line at a tomato cannery one summer during college. The truck yard outside the cannery smelled like rotting tomatoes. The floors were poured concrete with gutters that ran red with tomato juice. I was the oldest unmarried person on the line (I was 19!) and was viewed with some suspicion because I coveted the job where you had to do simple math to average the can weights (it was better than the tedium of standing for 7 hours, sorting tomatoes on a conveyor belt). I watched a woman get her arm stuck in a machine (breaking her wrist) and saw a man get burned by boiling tomato juice when a hydrovat boiled over. I can eat fresh tomatoes, I can preserve my own tomatoes and eat them, but commercial tomato sauce still makes me gag 30 years later.

Suzie said...

I used to spend fridays peeling prawns for the prawn roll special at a local pub. I went off prawns for years, but on the bright side, I am a very fast prawn peeler now. I also learned that when nothing else will clean the smell of prawns off your hands, try washing them in soda water. The worst bit was the little nicks and cuts all over my hands from the shells.

Daniel said...

Janet: I bet the meals were a lot better on those days when you took over!

Martha, I can only imagine. That workplace sounds like it could be the set for a horror movie.

Suzie, I could have used your skills for a shrimp recipe I'll be writing about in another week or so--and thank you for the tip on using soda water, that's a really good one.


NY Wolve said...

One of my college jobs was as a waiter at a burger/fries casual restaurant (think Chili's, but it wasn't Chili's)

One lesson: never touch the soup. It sits there in a nasty pot all day, and is just not fresh. Plus, it was always prepackaged in a tube and re-hydrated on site. Not very appealing.

Plus I nearly cut my fingertip off slicing lemon wedges for iced tea. And I saw a guy slip, and watched his foot fall into the french fryer one night.

And about that decaf coffee? Um, if the decaf pot was low, and there was a pot of caf sitting there....

Melissa said...

Oh man the smell. My sister's first job was at a Whataburger (Texas chain - killer onion rings) and every day when she would come home, she REEKED. I was shocked and confused as to what the smell was. Now I know... mostly chemical.

As for me, I was a waitress for about a year in my early twenties. I loved it. I loved the constant motion, I loved memorizing orders for 20 and impressing the table, I loved the food where I worked (kind of down home cooking, and I had grown up eating there). Only one thing I didn't love - my coworkers. I have to say, and I know without a doubt this wasn't just at my restaurant, that waiters/cooks/managers, etc., can be, ummm, well? Kind of crazy. And a little bit sleazy. It's a nutty business.

Daniel said...

Hi NY Wolve, Whenever I eat out, I have *always* been paranoid about whether the coffee was really decaf... usually at 3 in the morning after that night's dinner. :)

Melissa, you clearly have some impressive cognitive skills if you can instantly memorize orders like that! I'd be toast in that kind of a setting.


Natalie Que said...

Haha, loved this one too. So great. I worked at a smoothie store so it didn't have the same affect and I still love smoothies -though in my post-child-bearing body they are not any where near being worth the calories and I don't have them, ever.

The one that gave me nightmares though, was my years of working as a cashier at a grocery store {started out as a bagger / bathroom cleaner and moved up}. I used to dream all night that I was scanning and scanning food. I felt like I should clock in and be earning money through the night since the dreams felt so real! I practically woke up with a sore back from all of that 'standing' all night! And without fail something always was wrong in the dream, either I was out of change in my till, or couldn't accept their chec,k or my scanner was broken. The dreams were very stressful. So glad to be a stay-at-home Mom now, needless to say

Susan S said...

Well my first food service job was Burger King. I live in a college town and this one was right across the street from the favorite freshman pickup bar. Drunk college students at two in the morning. I still feel the hatred after all these years. Then I worked at Arbys. Not too horrible but seeing the raw beef roasts was nauseating. Worked at McDonalds a few times. So much grease. And I despise chicken mcnuggets. And yes the sounds of beepers going off. Makes me want to scream. I just recently quit my job at a family owned Mexican restaurant. I was there four years. Worked my ass off. Did prep, waited on customers. Fried taco shells, tortilla chips. My fingers are still from handling fry baskets over and over again. But they preferred drunks and drug addicts for employees. I don't drink or smoke or do drugs. I never showed up at work drunk like one former coworker who still works there. Another coworker sold vicadin she bought from a former coworker to fellow employees. Two of the managers smoked pot on their breaks. I am now looking for a non-food service job. Susan

Marcia said...

I worked at a pizza place on campus in college. It taught me that I'm not very good working with people. :)

No really, I got really tired of pizza. After a semester or two making pizza, they moved me to cashier, because I actually showed up for work on time. But my fellow students were RUDE, and I was, frankly, rude right back. Which I got yelled at for. But I was making $3.65/hour and I showed up for work...

mabelgold said...

I worked at Ben & Jerry's factory one summer as a tour guide. Best. Job. Ever. We scooped samples for the tourists at the end of their 30 mins and helped out at festivals here and there. As part of our training we had to work in the factory for an 8 hour shift. For our breaks we got to eat the still-soft ice cream straight off the line. I think our youth was the only thing that kept us from gaining the "Ben Ten".

Kristine said...

I worked at McD's during high school. Yuck. I could still eat some of the food, but the burgers - no way. And I learned the tricks for getting fresh food (order fries w/o salt, go during the busy times). Then I worked at what amounts to a dorm cafeteria. In the dishroom for a while, then as a food "runner" (put food out for the servers). It wasn't awful, but I still hate that "chicken cordon bleu."

foodcreate said...

Worked at Coffee shop for awhile for me restaurants was where I found the love for cooking !

Thanks for sharing you scarred for life food industry job

Have a wonderful Day ~

Karen said...

Scarred in a good way -- About 5 years ago, during my sabbatical, I hosted at a new restaurant in Vancouver, WA (just north of Portland, OR) I learned a lot - fine dining is very heirarchical, excelent service is its own form of performance art and patrons don't expect the host(ess) to have even half a brain. I had just come from a corporate insurance job and my only presentable clothes were suits, so I wore them to host and so a lot of patrons assumed I was the owner or his wife and would keep asking to see the hostess. I was a great gig for its 5 month run.

Brenda Pike said...

I worked in a Wendy's for a semester to save up money for an apartment deposit. While I was a vegetarian. I always had to shower the smell off when I got back to the dorm at 12:30 a.m. Also, the manager tried to make me lean over a hot grill on a stepladder to clean the vent. Can you say dangerous?

Devon said...

My first job was also at Burger King. Minimum wage was at $4.50. Working at BK actually made me want the food more! The job only lasted 2 months, but I would get the chicken sandwich every shift. can't eat it now, though.

Anonymous said...

I waited tables at a family-owned red-gravy Italian place for a while. It was one of a few in that small western New York town, and I got to know many staff members from the restaurants. Best lesson was, there is a proportional relationship between the friendliness of the owners and the grossness level of the food. These people kissed the customers' asses like crazy. They wanted to make a good impression out of misguided guilt because they were serving lasagna that was literally WEEKS old, just stuck in the walk-in every night and then back to the steam table the next day. I saw the owner use his bare hands to pull dead flies out of a pie, smooth down the finger holes, and serve the slices to a customer, beaming all the while.

Maybe more relevant in general: the limp iceberg/carrot shreds/radicchio salad you're getting at these places, garnished with a soggy grape tomato and liberal splash of house dressing, was either assembled with the server's bare hands right before service, or stored in a leaky fridge with the dirty plates of other pre-made salads piled on top of it.

Any time I go to a restaurant that comes with a house salad, I cringe.

Anonymous said...

I had some similar experiences in the same era in a McDonalds across town from your BK. Except somehow my managers never assigned me to sandwiches and stuck me on the fryers so the foods I can't stand are fries, pies, chicken and fish, in large part because in those days they were cooked in lard and the lard was filtered and recycled from fryer to fryer before finally going outside for good...