The stigmas of fast food service

     I am an employee of a local northwestern fast food company and have been for five years. I can work every position in the store -counter, drive thru and on the grill- as well as know how to work all shifts such as opening, mid-day, and closing. Over this time I have learned that my viewpoint and my opinion of employees at other fast food places around the world have changed. Due to todays over consumption of television and journalism, the media has played a strong role in influencing society as well as my own opinions. American society inaccurately views fast food workers as degrading individuals who lack responsibility, who are uneducated, and who are young. Being one of the many employees that do not fit into these unjust labels, I feel as if it is my social responsibility to step forward and prove these stereotypes to be inaccurate.

To start, when you watch a television show, a movie, or watch a commercial all the employees that are working at a fast food joint are teenagers. With this image constantly being shown, society has made a social stigma that you can only work in the fast food industry when you are young. The Nickelodeon show ALL THAT made a film out of a set of skits called “Good Burger” that exemplifies this stereotype. Good Burger is a 1997 film about two high school boys working at a local hamburger joint that has to compete with a rivaling Mondo Burger across the street. At both locations the employees are all teenagers; even the owner of Mondo Burger is under the age of 18. There is however one employee who is an adult, and he is portrayed in a greasy uniform and conveys poor hygiene which nobody would want to be depicted as (Good Burger). This is usually interpreted by individuals that it is unfit to be working in the fast food industry once you reach an adult age.

Yet when one looks through the stereotypes to sort them out and to dig into these stigmas, one finds that many are not accurate. MC Donald’s did an analysis of their employees to figure out the true demographics. From this study, “Forty percent of fast-food workers are 25 or older, with an additional 30% between 20 and 24, the group found. Just 30% are actually teenagers” (Picchi). At the restaurant I work for, I can agree with this study. Out of 40 employees, only 12 are under the age of 21. Each person has their own story and reason for working in fast food. I do not feel ashamed that I get paid to make burgers for other people. Real life shows that working in the fast food industry is a job for everybody, not just for teenagers who are looking for extra money.

In addition, Good Burger’s main employee is a kid named Ed who is dim witted and constantly repeats “welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”(Good Burger). There is this scene where he upsets a guest by giving him a plain hamburger bun. The guest freaks out that there is no meat on in and in return Ed says “you ordered a burger with nothing on it, well meat is something so I didn’t put it on it”(Good Burger). In response the guest flips out and leaves. This may seem like a small part in the film; however it shows society that common sense is hard to come by in employees at fast food locations. When I take orders at my job, people talk to me as if I do not understand what they want so to insure that I understand they speak incredibly slow and repeat items to help me not mess up. Also when I take orders, if I ask you one question to clarify how a guest would prefer their meal, many repeat the entire order because they think if I missed one item then I must have missed the rest of their order as well. My coworker puts it as, “I am 42 years old, I am an adult. I deserve the same respect from others whether I am working here or at my old job as an accountant”. I believe that representation of my job in movies like Good Burger is partially to blame for this irritating stereotype.

This stigma irritates me the most. People assume that because I work at a fast food restaurant that I have a basic education level. I do not have a degree yet but I am working towards my bachelors in business administration. In two years I could be the one filing the taxes for the business these customers work for, or work in the human resource department of said company. But currently, these customers treat me as if I am thoughtless and foolish. The same study by McDonalds highlighted that “more than 70% of all fast-food workers hold a high school degree, while about a third have some college education.”(Picchi) think of it this way, every third time you go to a fast food restaurant you are talking with someone with a higher education and understanding of their job. At my restaurant, there are a lot of crew members currently working to get themselves through college. In the next few years my restaurant will have employees that will have become an accountant, a nurse, a dietitian, a human resource specialist, a pastry chef, a teacher, an engineer, and a sociologist. Being one of them, I do not find my current job to be degrading, but more like a supportive stepping stone to greater achievements.

The last stereotype I want to focus on is the notion that all fast food employees are lazy and lack responsibility. Previously I analyzed a children’s movie which may be deceiving, but looking into other genres of film shines a similar light on working at fast food restaurants. The movie American Beauty (1999) is a story about a family man who goes through a midlife crisis and ends up sleeping with his daughter’s best friend. Seems irrelevant? Well, in the beginning he worked for a prestigious company as an accountant. Yet he spirals into depression and quits his great job to work for a fast food joint. He did this because he did not want to have any responsibility in his life, that all he had to do was be brainless and flip burgers because a job like that has no risk of failure in it. His wife took this so poorly that she would rather he be unemployed then stoop so low to work there because it would be degrading to her and the family (American Beauty). I know people who need help finding a job but will not work fast food. The idea that being unemployed is better than having a job is all too common. Yet those that do work in the service industry have it easy because one doesn’t have to really work for their paycheck. The general public needs to sort out these stereotypes.

Conversely, the McDonald’s study pointed out that, “25% of workers are raising at least one child. And among fast-food workers over 20, more than a third are raising children” (Picchi). Working to support your family and raise children is a great amount of responsibility. Just supporting yourself on a minimum wage pay is difficult and takes a level of responsibility as well. But because fast food workers are in the lowest bracket of wages compared to other jobs, many are forced to use government assistance. That in itself is a gigantic reason why others view fast food workers as lazy, because they need help. Considering the fact that “(t)he median hourly wage for frontline fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average — at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year” (Owens). Because of the lack of pay yet the ever needing more money to get by -in addition to paying for college- I found the only way to stay financially stable was to work two part time jobs. Because of that, I work over 50 hours a week and attend school full time. I would not consider myself or anybody else working in fast food restaurants, who live on their own, or raising a family on minimum wage to be irresponsible or lacking any sort of motivation to work.

The tasks that are required of an employee are contradicting to this idea as well. On an average night, I have to make good quality food while keeping items stocked, filter oil, lift fry boxes, rotate shipment orders, sweep and mop, clean the grill, compact trash, and hand wash a mountain of dishes. Working is usually stressful because you have to do cleaning tasks while meeting the speed of service (how long a car sits in the drive thru) and making premium custom food orders. There is hardly ever a moment to stand around not doing anything and if there is someone will assign you a task to complete. In the five years I have worked in this industry I have seen a lot of people leave because they were not able to keep up under pressure. To work in fast food, you must be physically and mentally capable to work hard.

Putting my own experiences against shows like Good Burger and American Beauty I find that the media has been proven wrong on how they portray fast food workers. Now I understand that there are times where you may deal with an employee of a fast food restaurant that may give the impression of being just a slow, irresponsible teenager; however, base your opinion on a case by case basis. Society as a whole will view working for a fast food industry to be a degrading job until the media portrays these individuals differently or until each person in society takes the risk to drop the stereotypes they hold.

Work Cited
American Beauty. Dir Sam Mendez. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch.     DreamWorks, 1999. DVD.
Good Burger. Dir Brian Robbins. Perf. Kell Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, Sinbad. Nickelodeon, 1997. VHS, DVD.
Picchi, Aimee. “ Forget The Stereotype of Teenage Burger Flippers”. MSN Money. August 7th 2013. Web. February 28th 2014.
Owens, Christine. “Trying to Raise a Family on a Fast-Food Salary”. Reuters: The Great Debate. August 29, 2013. Web. February 25th 2014.

3 thoughts on “The stigmas of fast food service

  1. Heather,
    I had the pleasure of peer reviewing your essay last week and I love the changes you’ve made to your essay. This essay really made me think about Fast food and its employees next time I visit a fast food restaurant I will definitely treat the employees better. Thanks for this eye-opening essay I think you really were able to break down the stereotypes!

  2. Hey Heather, great essay! Although I have never worked in a fast food enviornment, I get a good picture of what it’s like from your essay. The work that they do is exhausting and often not rewarded well enough. I thought you did a great job by using Good Burger as an artifact. It seems that society has just accepted that fast food is a place for younger people to work, when in reality it employs much more than just teenagers and young adults.

    With fast food being such a large industry, it would be nice to see the employees of these corporations and firms to receive more attention. I really enjoyed reading your essay, you brought up great information and questions I wouldn’t otherwise have acknowledged. Thank you!

    • Thank you! With the strikes last summer for fast food workers receiving more than minimum wage, i am surprise that the firms and corporations still haven’t seen much attention also.

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