Cents and Sensibility

My First Job: Reflections from the Drive Thru Window

My very first job for a real company was working the drive thru at a major fast food chain. I made minimum wage (which was around $6.00 an hour at the time) and worked around 30 hours a week. I was 16 and thankful for the opportunity to have some extra cash to spend now that I was old enough for cars and boys and clothes that my daddy wouldn’t like.

Something you should know about working in fast food – it blows. The uniforms are unflattering. It’s no fun spending your weekends asking people if they want fries with that. You always run the risk of being seen by someone you know. And if you are not careful, the food and the grease in the air can do a number on your skin and your waistline. Despite the many downsides of the job, I am actually perpetually grateful for my days as a drive thru girl.

In the service industry, especially when you are at the bottom of the ladder, you learn a lot about people. That sounds cheesy, but you are exposed to all walks of life through that drive thru window. From the busy morning rush of professionals who are groggy and in a hurry to the late night inebriated young adults on Saturday night and all the busy moms, local homeless and students from the nearby middle school in between, you learn how to interact with all of them. You learn how to be patient with the indecisive, how to stay cool with a rude customer, how to help shy child order a kid’s meal. I even picked up a little Spanish!

Working the drive thru is also a lesson in swallowing your pride. It’s never fun dealing with rude customers or managers on a power trip. Grace and a calm temperament are imperative, as is the ability not to take things personally. Ten years and countless summer jobs/internships/part time gigs later, I can affirm that rude people and pompous bosses exist at every workplace and I am glad I got an effective crash course to teach me how to stay breezy.

The most important thing I learned from the drive thru was kindness. Obviously, most customers appreciate a positive attitude. But drive thru workers appreciate courtesy, too. Just because the customer is always right doesn’t mean the customer gets to throw a condescending tantrum when he/she doesn’t what he/she wants exactly perfect right away. There is really no need to yell at any fast food worker, barista, receptionist, store clerk, server, etc. If anything, they’re the ones doing all the grunt work. They are having a harder day than anyone else. I still take extra care to be kind to these workers because I know what it feels like to be in their shoes.

I’ve gotten lucky. I’ve been moving up the ranks in the corporate world on time and found a steady job I enjoy. But I’ll always look back on my days when I was just starting out, my gigs as a file clerk, temp and yes, even a drive thru girl, as some of the most enriching and educational moments of my career. For me, these days weren’t spent at “the bottom of the ladder.” They were spent establishing a foundation.

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