"Sorry about the wait," she told me. She was wearing thick navy eyeliner that made her look a little older than she probably was - a teenager - but when she said it, with her back half turned to me, she dipped her shoulder nervously and gave a little jerky wave of her hand. She turned her back toward me and peered at someone I could not see and I could swear that she was holding her breath. Her shoulders rose a little and she glanced back at me, waiting for me to show signs of impatience.
I was sitting at the pick-up window of the drive-through of a fast food establishment. It was dinnertime. When she apologized, I had been sitting at her window for the length of time it takes to play the introduction of American Public Media's Marketplace, right up to the part where Kai Ryssdal says, "But first, let's do the numbers." Thirty seconds, and this girl was hopping with anxiety that I had been waiting so long.
If you've read any one of the recent critiques of the fast food industry, you know that many, many fast food employees are teenagers. You may also know that many franchises track the time that it takes for a car to move from the ordering speaker to the pick-up window. The times are averaged for each employee, and long wait times can result in the employee being disciplined or fired.
I once knew a woman who worked in management for a company that owned a number of fast food restaurants. She told me a story one day about having to terminate an employee for "product loss." I assumed that she meant that he was eating without paying for his employee meal. No, she told me, he spilled a 50-gallon container of food product, which cost the company money. "Food product?" I asked, confused, "What exactly was it?"
"It was chocolate-flavored," she said, flipping her hand in a vague way.
I couldn't bear to question her further.
Here I am, turning a semi-critical tone on the fast food establishment, even though that's where I got my dinner last night. As a food blogger, you'd think that I would have better taste than to eat fast food, even when pressed for time. My husband has made this point a million times - there are a dozen places that he will go for a quick meal before he would consider the particular restaurant I visited.
I was in a hurry, driving to a late client meeting, and I needed something I could eat with one hand. Fast food was developed to fill exactly this kind of need.
I understand why fast food took off the way it did. It fills a need. Perhaps the teenager in the window would not have a job if it wasn't for that restaurant. Perhaps I would not have eaten at all if I had not been able to spend 3 minutes in a drive-through.
There is a lot of criticism of the fast food industry, and I will join in that chorus (bad for our health, bad for the environment, etc.), but I have to tell you, there are a lot of realities that get overlooked in those critiques.