For most of my senior year in college, I worked at a sandwich shop. It was in a downtown area with lots of office buildings around, which guaranteed a lunchtime rush. The sandwiches were very good, so many people were regular customers.
It wasn’t my ideal job. I made shakes and sandwiches and scooped cups of soup and worked the register. There were a lot of days when I came home and wanted to cry because I disliked it so much. But I did learn a lot from it.
So, in no particular order, here are five things I learned as a sandwich maker (and shake expert).
1. There is a ton of behind the scenes work that goes into that sandwich.
I’d never worked in the food industry before. Obviously the sandwiches didn’t appear out of thin air, and the food had to be ordered and kept stocked, but I had no idea how much time everyone spends in prepping everything.
Each day had a checklist of things that had to be done, like scooping salad dressing into individual cups or slicing enough meat and cheese for the day. I spent a lot of hours filling containers with mayonaise and sliding little cookies onto straws for the shakes. There were goals to be met everyday with number of sandwiches sold, number of the latest menu item to be sold, and always watching the total sales.
My general manager spent hours tracking all the food that was used and wasted, all the money that came in and went out, and all the employees’ schedules and availability. I commented to him one day that I had no idea that much work went on behind the counter before I worked there, and he looked at me and laughed. It was a tired laugh, because he had just spent ten minutes assigning tasks to my coworkers and me to get ready for the dinner rush.
2. Some people really do spend their entire working lives as restaurant employees.
Not all of them climb the management ladder either. One of my coworkers had worked there for over ten years, in the exact same position with low hourly pay. Others, like my general manager, had started at the bottom and worked their way up.
All my coworkers thought the general manager was weird because, from all appearances, he was passionate about making great sandwiches, just like the company’s mission statement said.
Some of my coworkers were perfectly content in their jobs; others, like me, were in school and had other aspirations, and some had bigger dreams but couldn’t figure out how to get there on the money they made at the sandwich shop.
3. Customers have no concept of the process.
The person at the end of the counter would call out, “Three large chocolate shakes!”
Since a large shake equals two regular size shakes, and the shake machine only had three spindles on it, I’d have to hop to it so those shakes were close to ready when the customers paid. But often, they’d give me weird looks and impatient sighs when I told them it would be just a minute longer. I don’t think they meant to be rude, they just had no idea that they ordered a time consuming item.
Or when people were irritated that someone else’s order took a few minutes, because it consisted of five sandwiches and a salad. No matter how fast we worked, someone was never happy.
One time, a customer ordered a PB&J sandwich. We had to be very careful with the peanut butter because peanuts are an allergen, so my coworker toook the ingredients off to the side to make the sandwich. I was on register, so I could not jump in to help with the sandwiches coming out of the oven. The customers in line started making rude faces and exaggerated gestures, because they thought my coworker was ignoring them and slacking on the job. It only took a minute or two to finish the sandwich and take care of them, but they were so irritated they got the manager to give them the sandwiches for free.
Maybe I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t think they actually understood what was happening on our end with the special sandwich. Rather than asking, though, they threw a fit at the register and demanded special treatment.
4. The weather matters, a lot.
I worked at this restaurant during one of Michigan’s coldest, snowiest winters. Over and over, the managers checked the daily sales figures and shook their heads. I was sent home early from a shift more than once because not a single customer had shown up in over an hour.
The lunch rush was only mildly affected, but after two o’clock, especially when it was very cold, very few people came out for dinner. I had no idea that an indoor business would be so strongly affected by the cold and snow, but I should have known better.
5. Hard work makes a difference.
I didn’t like making shakes and sandwiches, or counting change out, or getting ice cream all over my shirt as a shake flew off the shake machine again.
But I always do my best, no matter what the work is, and my coworkers noticed. The managers noticed. Different people told me, more than once, that they were glad they had a shift with me, because I pulled my weight and helped others. My money drawer was almost never off the recorded amount, and I always had a good attitude.
On my last day, the general manager told me that he would gladly be a reference for me, and that he would miss me working there. I didn’t even ask for a reference; he just volunteered it.
I hope never to work there again, but now that I look back, I’m glad I did. I made some friends, to my own surprise, and learned more than I thought I would.
The biggest lesson I took into the future? Never underestimate what you can learn from a job, no matter how irrelevant it seems.