Banner_Slate

The American Way of Eating: I got hired to do the hardest job at Applebee’s

This is the first of three articles adapted from Tracie McMillan’s new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

Slate • Feb. 15, 2012

Nearly three years ago, Tracie McMillan left New York to go undercover within the American food system. McMillan had grown weary of lectures about local food that dismissed the importance of price to working-class people. At the same time, she knew from her work as a poverty reporter that poor families cared about the quality of their food, too. McMillan hoped to get a ground-level view of how Americans actually make decisions about their meals, especially when money and time are scarce.

After working in farm fields in California and a Wal-Mart produce section outside Detroit, McMillan returned to New York in the hopes of landing a kitchen post at one of the city’s 23 Applebee’s restaurants. Though she couldn’t find any openings in food-prep, McMillan fared well during her interviews with managers in one New York location and was offered a position as an expediter.

Expediting, I am told at orientation, is the hardest job in the restaurant. The primary responsibility of an “expo” is to coordinate the flow of food from line to floor. To paraphrase Bernardo, the frenetic bear of a general manager who runs my orientation session, everything I do keeps the restaurant moving. If I don’t do my job right then the orders won’t look right, and people won’t come back, and servers’ tips will be lower, and the restaurant won’t make as much money, and then they can’t afford to pay an expediter, which will mean the servers will have to expo their food themselves, which is never a good idea since it tends to result in the orders not looking right … and the downward spiral into chaos and bankruptcy begins all over again. I am the first domino in line; if I fall, we all go down.

What did you just do? I ask.

Huh?

To the screen?

Oh, I bumped the ticket.

What do you mean?

Tony gives me a look equal parts teacher and irritated boss. It’s not on the screen anymore, he says, already pulling plates out of the window and calling for sauces. I scoop them out and hand them to him. A server walks past, sees the plate and barely pauses as he grabs them. The plates go out.

I soon realize that the computer is the nervous system of the restaurant, the circuitry that receives information, routes it through the brain, and enables the body to do something with it all. The cooks here never see paper tickets; instead, each station has its own computer screen. An order comes in and each dish crops up on the respective cook’s screen—they don’t know what else was ordered at the table. Simultaneously, the complete order, every dish and every last substitution of mashed potatoes for fries, eighty-six that onion on the Firepit burger and all the rest, is listed on mine. Appetizers are supposed to be ready in seven minutes, entrees in fourteen, and each order has a time clock counting down next to it. When a cook finishes a dish, he hits a button—“bumps” it—and, on my screen, it turns green. If an order is running over its allotted time, it gets highlighted in angry, blinking red.

Around 4:00, with the kitchen still slow, a young black woman named Claudette replaces Tony. She ties on an apron and sidles up alongside me, humming with energy, and starts barking at the cooks immediately in English I don’t yet fully understand: Where’s that Cowboy? How long on that sweet and spicy for fifty-three? Is there an Orange Chick Bowl coming? Can I get a five-ounce? She tells me to get ranch for the barbeque wings, blue cheese for the hot ones, and a scoop of sour cream on top of those nachos, thanks. During the lulls, she breaks into Haitian Creole with Geoff, the dark-skinned cook on mids, swinging between coy laughter and sass. She bumps tickets with abandon, clears the screen as fast as it fills up, and bosses me around without being a bitch. I like her immediately.

She turns to me. You ever work in a kitchen before?

In college, a little. But that was ten, twelve years ago.

She stares at me. How old are you?

Thirty-three. Why, how old are you?

You look … a lot less than thirty-three.

How old are you? I ask.

Twenty.

You’re just a baby, I tease and she shoots me a look of disdain in return.

I ain’t no baby. I got a baby, she says, and turns back to the line.

We go on like this for a few hours and then another manager, Matt, tells me to take my break a little before 6. They might send me home as early as 7 or 8, he says, but I might as well get some food; since I’m in training I can order off the whole menu for free.

I put my order in for a Shrimp Island—skewers of grilled shrimp on a bed of rice seasoned with cilantro and citrus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *