Reporter puts a smile on
Gazette's Viola Pruss tries her hand at fast-food service during McDonald's McHappy Day
Saturday, May 10, 2014 06:00 am
Since its inception in 1977, the one-day fundraiser has raised money to support local children’s charities, most notably Ronald McDonald House.
The facility offers families of seriously ill children a temporary home away from home while their children are treated in the city. In 2012, 855 families stayed at the Northern Alberta Ronald McDonald House.
Rob and Karen Chiasson, the owners of the four St. Albert McDonald’s franchises, have been involved with the charity since they first joined McDonald’s 25 years ago. On McHappy Day, they donate $1 from every Big Mac, Happy Meal and hot McCafé beverage to the house, and 10 cents on every other day. Karen is also on the board of directors of the Edmonton house.
This year, the four local McDonald’s raised $9,500 for the charity. Across the country, all 1,400 participating restaurants raised more than $4.2 million.
But the day also offered about 70 people from local government, education, businesses and the newspaper an opportunity to spent some time working in the restaurant, for a look behind the counter.
I always thought there’s nothing to a job at McDonald’s.
But at 5 p.m., I am surrounded by a cacophony of noise, staring at a bright computer screen with five different (abbreviated!) orders, while employees hustle around me like a colony of bees.
There are people yelling, packing bags and scrambling for the first hot sandwich coming off the grill.
And then there’s me, slightly confused, and staring at a partially filled Happy Meal box that I’m in the process of assembling.
Did I pack the sauce for the chicken McNuggets? Who ordered the fries? How do I know which burger comes with no onions?
A volunteer for McHappy Day, I spent an afternoon at the downtown McDonald’s on Wednesday to get the inside scoop on work behind the counter.
As I move from station to station – packing meals, preparing burgers and handing bags to people waiting in their cars – I learn that this job takes more than just a friendly smile.
“Two mini fries,” hollers one employee at the man who’s packing the salty-golden, potato cuts into small, paper bags.
“We need more red meat,” calls another into the kitchen.
What makes a burger
There’s organization in the frenzied movement around me.
Most employees look after one specific work station throughout the day. It’s all about teamwork.
There are two cooks in the kitchen, consistently frying up beef patties and chicken. There are people preparing the burgers. There’s the man watching the French fries, salting them and packing them in small bags.
Some employees place the orders into their appropriate bags. Others hand them to the customers. And one runs the coffee and smoothie machines while working the drive-through.
“You can do it,” says my supervisor, enthusiastically encouraging the young man preparing sandwiches in the kitchen.
With almost robotic ease, he adds sauces, salad, cheese and wrapping paper to the bread in front of him. Then he slides it sideways along the surface of his workbench so the person working next to him can add the meat.
The patties are separated into containers, each identified by a number, indicating their type –fish, chicken or beef – and size. A small light beneath each container shows which ones need to be served first.
For a regular order, the meat gets placed on the bun with the sauce and salad. Then you place the bottom half of the bun on top, close the lid and flip the package over. If the order contains no onions, you place a small piece of paper indicating that information to the side of the wrapping.
It’s fast, efficient, and everything stays in place. Of course, with me involved, it all takes a little longer.
And it’s not easy keeping track of all the orders. Did I remember to add the cheese?
The screens above our heads keep showing up with new orders, telling us which meal comes with (or without) sides, pop and fries, and where to bring them.
As a newcomer, I’m not up to speed. But the employees act quickly and keep their cool. They’re in constant communication, navigating chores, yelling out orders, and still have time to crack a joke or two.
“So do you think this job is something everyone could do?” asks Rob Chiasson, owner of the four local franchises.
No, it’s not.
As a reporter, I interact with a number of people on a daily basis. They often dictate the pace of my work but I rarely deal with too many at once. I’ve also never worked in a restaurant.
It looks so much calmer in front of the counter.
Chiasson tells me that the business is constantly looking to improve its service and to keep customers happy.
That’s why there are now more automated machines, filling the pop into cups, and a dual-lane drive-through with two windows, to serve larger orders in the front and smaller ones in the back.
Last year the restaurant added Wi-Fi, a self-serve beverage station and a new playground to its many services. A complete re-build of the central McDonald’s near St. Albert Centre also took place.
“It’s a very challenging environment and it becomes more and more complex over time,” says Chiasson. “Because consumer expectations change. People want us to be faster, have more variety, something new that’s fun and engaging, more conveniences.”
Throughout my shift, I am often lost as the frenzied work unfolds around me. Sometimes I think I’m catching on.
By the time I start at my last station, salting the fries and sorting them into their bags, I feel like part of the team. Then it’s time to leave.
My shift ends an hour-and-a-half after it starts. By that time I’ve developed a healthy respect for the teamwork that goes into making meals this quickly.