My very first job, that is the first one I got paid for, was at a McDonald’s in Arleta, CA. I was sixteen years old and had just gotten my driver’s license. My first day I did nothing but make milkshakes. My second day I bagged french fries. Then they discovered I knew how to work the cash register and to make change. From then on I worked the window, taking and fulfilling orders. I had nightmares involving endless lines of people who ate every meal there (at least lunch and dinner; McDonald’s didn’t serve breakfast in 1963) every day. These dreams were based, in part, on the fact there were several customers who did eat there every day. It was a frightening thought.
My second job was as a bus boy at Pancake Heaven, which no longer exists but was just around the corner from the McDonald’s I cut my working teeth on. I eventually became a fry cook there for a while and learned how to make breakfasts, for the most part. At least, that’s all I can barely remember. I also worked at Mike’s Pizza on Van Nuys Blvd. for a while. The only thing I remember about that job was sneaking out a bottle of Chianti in a trash can filled with the sawdust I was responsible for changing out every few days so the floors were reasonably clean.
The Summer before I graduated High School, which was actually the Summer after I should have graduated High School, I worked as a “bus boy” at Pacific Ocean Park (POP). My job was to walk around the pier on which the park was built and scoop trash into one of those self-opening dust pans and empty it into one of the larger trash bins that were placed all over the “park”. It actually had nothing to do with food or food service, other than that most of the trash was created by people who had purchased something to eat and were too damned lazy to deposit the trash in a receptacle themselves.
I didn’t work in or around food service again until 1973, when I tended bar at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, where I was raising money for my upcoming trip to Cuba with the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. I had studied Hapkido with Ed Pearl, the owner of the club. It was a favorite target for anti-Castro Cubans and was burned down for the third and final time shortly after I worked there. I don’t think we had a liquor license; only a beer and wine license, so tending bar wasn’t quite as intellectually challenging as it would have been had I been required to remember dozens of mixed drinks, but it was a busy venue and I enjoyed my time there.
Shortly after returning from Cuba, in my first year of law school, I secured a position as a “wiener clerk” at The Wiener Factory in Sherman Oaks, CA, where I served up the finest hot dogs, knackwurst, and polish sausage to ever cross a taste bud. Even though they closed on December 31, 2007 (15 years ago) it’s still talked about as the top example of how a hot dog should be presented to the discriminating public. I loved it there. PS – Click on the link and you might find my posthumous review of the place, which I posted almost 12 years ago.
I didn’t work in food service again until sometime in the mid-nineties. I had left my job at Rocketdyne to rejoin my brother in a family wholesale food/restaurant supply business our father had started when I was 13. After less than two years it wasn’t going well and I decided to leave and fend for myself. One of my customers was Les Sisters Southern Kitchen in Chatsworth, CA. The owner at the time, Kevin Huling, was working his butt off and wanted to be able to take a day off during the week. I offered to run the place for him on Wednesdays and, until I returned to Rocketdyne, I managed the restaurant once a week. My favorite day was when I had to wait on tables. I made quite a bit more money than I did from just managing the place (hint: tips!).
In addition to all these jobs, my father was working at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles when I was born. He worked at Faber’s Ham Shop, which was a stand in the market that sold lunch meats and fresh chickens. He liked to refer to himself as a butcher, but my birth certificate lists his occupation as “Food Clerk”. I remember my mother taking me shopping there when I was about five years old. We took Pacific Electric’s Red Car on the Red Line that stretched from San Fernando, running right through Panorama City, where we lived, to downtown L.A. My father put me in a far-too-large, white butcher’s coat, and put a Farmer John paper campaign hat on my head, stood me on a milk crate and had me selling lunch meat for an hour or so. I learned my first three words of Spanish behind that counter, which were “¿Que va llevar?” literally “what are you going to carry?”, but was more loosely translated as “what’ll you have?” or “what can I get for you?”
Later on, specifically right after I handed over every check I received for my Bar Mitzvah gift to my father so he could buy a truck, he went out on his own. He became the broken wienie king of Los Angeles, buying (essentially) mistakes from packing houses and selling them to his old boss, as well as to other small markets scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Until his death in 1984, I spent virtually every school holiday being his “swamper” on his route or later on delivering and selling on my own as part of the business. Somewhere around 1994 I left my job at Rocketdyne to rejoin my brother in the family business, once again selling almost exclusively to restaurants.
My point is, I have no formal training in the culinary arts, but during a rather large portion of my life until I was around 50, I spent quite a bit of time working in jobs and being involved in businesses that involved food; at times merely delivering it and at other times preparing and serving it. I know my way around a kitchen and I know quite well how to operate a successful food business. It’s not easy. People can be real assholes when they’re hungry, and people who cook can be real prima donnas, so learning to satisfy your customers can be a painful experience. It is, however, quite rewarding when it works out. I think you have to genuinely like people in order to do it well.