Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, we’ve got more stories from fast food restaurants. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
In December of 2016, I had just recently graduated college and moved cross-country (California to Illinois) to begin my first real job. Now, my birthday is in January, and birthdays have always been a big deal in my family. I’m also a pretty shy person, so suffice it to say, I was feeling pretty lonely and homesick on this particular birthday. But I decided to keep my chin up and signed up for the newsletter for a midwestern chain (Steak ‘n Shake), having heard they offer you a meal on your special day.
When the day came, I had a not-so-fantastic day at work but still decided I’d head to Steak ‘n Shake for my meal, if for no other reason than to get out of my apartment for a bit. Looking back now, I probably should have just stuck to the drive-through, but I was determined to get the full dine-in experience since it had been a while since I’d eaten out at a restaurant.
Anywho, I walked in and sat at a table in the corner so I could see the whole restaurant. My waiter came over and asked if I was waiting for anyone else. I said no, it was just me, and so he left me with a menu and a water as I looked over my options. Unfortunately, this was when my eyes began to water. I’m not sure if it was because he asked if I was dining alone or what set me off, but when he returned and asked what I’d like to eat I replied with “the birthday meal” and immediately started bawling uncontrollably.
Now, this poor waiter looked to be in high school, and he had no idea what to do about the crying mess of a girl in front of him. Luckily his manager popped up a few seconds later (he was just standing with his mouth gaping open) and she asked what was going on. Somehow, through the tears and many “I’m so sorry’s”, I was able to gasp out that I had just moved to the area and was feeling incredibly alone. I was so embarrassed at this point, but the manager was a total sweetheart about the whole situation. She pats me on the back as I continuously apologized for the mess that I was while trying not to catch the eye of every patron in the establishment as they all stared at the spectacle I was creating.
The manager asked to see the email I’d received for my free birthday meal, and somehow I pulled it up on my phone despite my shaking hands and ever-present tears. The poor waiter was still standing there aghast, obviously very uncomfortable and unsure what to do. He ran to get a pile of napkins and handed them to me. I’m pretty sure they hadn’t covered this is his training, but to his credit, he was highly attentive the rest of the meal.
He brought out my food – along with another large fistful of napkins to catch the rest of my tears – and asked if I wanted anything else. By then I’d finally managed to get my emotions under control, so I smiled at him as nicely as I could and said, “no thank you, thank you so much”. He went away, but I could feel multiple eyes on me as I scarfed down my meal as quickly as possible; at this point, I just wanted to escape from the embarrassment I’d caused myself. The manager came over once more to make sure everything was okay, and I gave her a proper apology for my behavior before she returned to work nearby (presumably to keep an eye on the unstable girl at the corner table).
When it was time for the check, another employee who I hadn’t seen before came up to me and told me my meal had been taken care of. I’d ordered a milkshake on top of my free birthday meal (which was valid that whole week), so this came as a huge surprise to me. I looked around for my waiter so I could hand him his tip and thank him again profusely for dealing with me, but he was nowhere to be seen and the manager was busy with other customers, so I left my tip on the table and skedaddled.
When I look back at that day, I feel so embarrassed but also incredibly touched by the kindness of strangers. To this day I don’t know who paid for my meal — was it the manager? another customer? — but I’m very grateful they did and can’t thank them enough for their gesture on my bad day.
In high school, I worked at the local Dairy Queen. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite jobs despite dealing with busloads of soccer teams pulling 10 minutes before close, customers complaining about the prices or the fact that we didn’t serve chicken strips or burgers (our location didn’t have fryers or grills), or being covered in sticky toppings or Blizzard splatters after a rush. For the most part, my mostly high school and college-age coworkers and I had a ball.
One customer in particular was just a treat to serve, and I always hoped I was scheduled to work during his usual visits. Wally was his name, and he was a retired gentleman in his mid-70s who stopped by several times a week, usually around 4pm on weekdays when we weren’t busy. He always had a simple order (cone or sundae with a cup of coffee) and chatted with us about our day and what we were up to in school. The best part was that his routine included stopping to buy a newspaper and lottery tickets at the gas station across the street, and he would buy a handful of scratch-offs to hand out to whoever was behind the counter at the time. He must have spent a couple hundred dollars a year on lottery tickets for us alone.
A nicer guy I have never served, and I hope to this day he’s still stopping by the old DQ for his ice cream and coffee.
It was a tradition among my middle school friends group to ride our bikes to go get lunch during the summers; for reasons I still can’t entirely fathom, seven or eight of us would meet up in the park across from my neighborhood and begin the three-mile journey across town, navigating busy intersections and dense woodlands to reach the promised land: a Burger King attached to a gas station.
Being one of two fast food places in the whole town meant that there was zero incentive for the BK workers to do anything that remotely resembled a competent job: food was regularly sent out late and orders were more often than not incorrect, cleanliness was on par with a dorm bathroom, and based on workers’ attitude, you’d think they constantly had wet socks, but it was a tradition, so summer after summer, we kept coming back.
Anyway, one day the eight of us or whatever are eating our food when one of the workers starts mopping the floor near us. After a few minutes, he spies a huge puddle of Hi-C that had been spilled across an adjacent tabletop. In full view of us and three other tables, the dude looks at his mop, then at the Hi-C, then back to his mop, and again to the Hi-C, and with a wet slap begins mopping the table, the entire time giving us this shit-eating grin, like he couldn’t believe his own ingenuity.
It was after that we decided we should probably start looking for somewhere else to eat. Shockingly, the BK was shut down a few years later in what was described in the papers as “one of the most egregious examples of health code violations” the inspector had ever seen.
This happened at Wendy’s drive-through at peak lunch time.
Employee: Before you order, I have to tell you our credit card computer is down, so it’s cash only right now.
Me: Uhh, hold on. *I quickly counted my cash* Ok, it’s ok, I have enough to cover what I wanted to order.
Employee: Great! *takes my order*
I pulled up to the window and paid. When they brought my food, she said, “Because you were so nice about it, we gave you free fries.”
That’s pretty cool, I thought. But since this has happened to me a couple more times at that exact Wendy’s – I got free food or a bigger size than what I paid for, basically for displaying the base level of human decency of politeness.
Good lord, how shitty are the rest of their customers?
Right after college, desperate for a job, I got an assistant manager position at McDonald’s (just say no to history degrees, kids). [Editor’s Note: FUCKING SECONDED.] I ended up bouncing around to a few different locations until I got to my last store. I wound up working overnights every Friday and Saturday night because the overnight supervisor could not handle the weekly bar rush. It was a 2-3 hour never-ending line of drunk people. It sucked.
About three weeks into my time, I had a car pull up at 3:30 AM after the bar rush was over. In the car were two strippers from the local strip club. Where I was at the bars closed at 1:30, but strip clubs could stay open till 3 AM. They ordered some food and we made small talk while they waited. It was nice to have a non-drunk customer for once. I made a stupid joke about paying in ones. They laughed, then said they could if I wanted them to. I needed ones, so I said that actually, I did need them. They asked how many I needed. Due to the way that our armored car deliveries worked out we were always short ones on the weekend; the delivery came on Thursday and people got paid on Friday, so we had to make a lot of change on the weekends. I told them I would take whatever they had.
I ended up buying $250 in ones off of them. The next night they came back and did the same thing. It quickly developed into the routine on the weekends.
The only problem was the stripper ones tend to have a fair amount of body glitter on them. So come every Monday, the store manager would always be complaining about the glitter in the safe. For the life of him, he could not figure out why the weekend cash delivery was always covered in glitter. He asked all the other manager and supervisors; everyone said they had no idea, and I kept my mouth shut. He even went so far as to call the armored car company to ask for an explanation.
This went on for eight months or so, until I got a better job. When I put in my two weeks notice, I confessed why the glitter was in the safe every weekend. I have never seen him laugh that hard.
On my last day, he told me how proud he was of me and how happy he was that I was moving on to a better job. He told me that he had gotten me a going away present but not to open it until I got home. When I did, it was a glitter bomb. I got glitter all over my apartment.
Well played, sir.
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu? Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.