The Time I Burned My Hand on a Sizzling Fajita Skillet and Other Tales From the Chain Restaurant Trenches

Food & Wine editors share the life lessons learned from working at Chili's, Chi-Chi's, Starbucks, and other food franchises.

Interior of a chain restaurant

Photography By Tonelson / Getty Images

There are certain subjects that are considered to be part of a core curriculum in the American school system — reading, math, biology, and the like. The intent, seemingly, is to provide people with a shared foundation in the basics they'll need to function in society, but there are some things it just doesn't cover. Namely, how to do things like deal with the often terrifying general public in the midst of chaos, handle cash down to the penny, and keep your cool in front of customers when you have burned the living $!*% out of your hand on a blazing-hot fajita platter.  

It's an axiom often repeated that everyone should have to, at some point in their lives, work in the hospitality industry so they can learn these sorts of skills and processes. How better than a chain restaurant, where these systems are spelled out down to the letter, and the full buffet of humanity is there for you to experience? Plenty of Food & Wine editors have clocked their hours at the counter, slicer, fryer, window, table, and host stand and are here to serve up the best nuggets of wisdom and weirdness they picked up along the way.

I Can't Believe They Trusted Me To…

"Give away sandwiches and gift certificates to anyone I wanted to to help promote the stores. My friends ate really well that summer and fall of ‘96." —  Hunter Lewis, Then: Sandwich Slinger at Jersey Mike's/ Now: Editor in Chief

"Manage those wait times. We regularly had a two- or three-hour wait for a table. I’ll never forget Saturday nights in April and May, when kids from small towns would drive in for pre-prom dinners, and sit for hours in tight purple sequin gowns and ill-fitting rental tuxes, waiting for their tables." — Chandra Ram, Then: Restaurant Host at Chi-Chi's / Now: Associate Director, Food

"Upsell Margaritas before I even drank alcohol, much less falsify wine recommendations, which has made me very skeptical when I question servers now." — Ashley Day, Then: Hostess and Server at Chili's / Now: Updates Editor

"Open the store at 4 a.m. Waking up with enough time to get ready, warm up and defrost your car (especially during a Buffalo winter), and drive to the store in time to open it was quite a lot. No matter how hard I tried I always showed up at 4:05 a.m. Not egregious, but after a year I transitioned to closing the store rather than opening." — Sean Flynn, Then: Shift Supervisor at Starbucks / Now: Senior Editorial Director 

The Weirdest Corporate Policy

"I was so far below the corporate policy level, I don't know of any. This is like asking a bug about God." — Ray Isle, Then: Ice Cream Scooper at Baskin Robbins / Now: Executive Wine Editor

"The debate between the managers of the locations in Lexington and Louisville over whether it was morally appropriate for hosts to wear their uniform tops on or off the shoulder was really something." — CR

"As portrayed in movies, the dress code could be deputized and dramatically enforced. I was sent home for wearing an embroidered black shirt with holes over a black undershirt to return with a solid black shirt." — AD

"No visible tattoos. For a coffee chain that highlighted 'the best' of coffee culture and the uniqueness of its baristas, I always found it funny that employees had to cover up their tattoos when they worked." — SF

The Corporate Motto That Lives Rent-Free in My Head

“'Ready position!' When working the slicer, stand in the ready position and bend your knees like a shortstop in baseball so you can catch the deli meat coming off the blade and layer it on the bread quickly and efficiently." — HL 

"I don’t remember particular mottos beyond never blaming the kitchen for a delay and staying on the good side of whomever was expediting, but I’ll never forget a regional manager interviewing me at Chili’s because he was on location when I came in with my resume. As soon as we sat down at a booth he said, 'Sell me this salt shaker, convince me to buy it.' And that may be a common interview tactic, but it completely caught me off guard at 17 years old, and improvising on the spot was completely out of my comfort zone: the perfect preparation for keeping strangers happy." — AD

"Being 'set up for success'. This was mainly used between shift supervisors when we handed off from morning, mid, or closing shift to the next team. We were tasked with making sure that the place was clear, stocked, and the next team was prepped and ready to roll. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s a corporate term that I use to this day." — SF

My Biggest Screw-Up

"Touching my face and then not washing my hands afterward.  A customer complained. I felt like a dirty disgusting pig." — Cheryl Slocum, Then: Ice Cream Scooper at Baskin Robbins / Now: Senior Food Editor

"I set down a sizzling skillet of fajitas and let the wooden plate it sits in slip so my bare hand met a burning skillet and the table was treated to some sizzling language before I ran away." — AD

"Never, ever scoop ice with a glass. I did that about 10 minutes into my first shift and the entire restaurant had to go without ice for hours while we emptied the ice machine, scrubbed it, inspected it for broken glass, and waited for it to refill. I’m still red in the face about that one." — CR

"On a hot summer day, I prepped loads of ice coffee and didn’t realize until hours later that I’d accidentally been serving everyone decaf coffee. Thankfully nobody noticed, but I’d easily sold dozens of coffees. For those who were regulars I comped their drinks the following day out of guilt, or gave them an extra shot of espresso." — SF

"Multiple times of messing up with the shake machine and spraying liquid milkshake in a disc-like spatter pattern around the store." — RI

My Most Memorable Customer Interaction

"The details have faded somewhat, but it was a literal collision of an overserved customer, a waiter with a six-top table’s drinks balanced on his tray, and a poor little kid who got doused with a Margarita." — CR 

"Starbucks had a policy between baristas where if someone went above and beyond, that other baristas could share a card with them to thank them for their commitment. One woman came in and was looking for a coffee to take to her mother in Japan. I walked her through the different offerings and she went on her way, happy and caffeinated. A few months later she came into the store and brought me a mug that she picked up in Japan, and it included a card from baristas at her local store there, thanking me for working with her to pick out a great coffee. It was a cool experience to share with baristas on the other side of the world." — SF

"My friend Ted rolled up a roach in a scoop for a kid at our high school that he loathed. The guy ate it, had no idea. That was alarming." — RI

"I worked the To Go window when pickup was just being introduced at sit-down chains and no one knew we were working for tips. People frequently claimed items were missing to get free food when the entire role was to check off that everything ordered was in the bag. While I dealt with never-ending rudeness at tables, the takeout corner was universally dreaded." — AD

The Wildest Thing That Happened to Me on the Job

"Going out to dinner at the fanciest French restaurant in our town with the owner and manager (they were best friends both in their 20’s) and one of my co-worker (she and I were both under 18).  It wasn't exactly a double date, but it also wasn't not a date.  Also pretty pathetic that after the fabulous dinner we ended up back at the store in the backroom partying. — SC

"I had an acquaintance from high school come in after making it in the NBA with a bunch of other players at the table. They already had a large check from many steak orders, but they tipped me an extra $100 or something, big enough to work up all my colleagues." — AD

"I met my wife at Starbucks. We worked together for a year and started dating towards the end of her time there. Best perk of the job!" — SF

"When the owners weren't looking, we (the useless high school staff) would break off most of a cone, jam the bottom full of ice cream, dunk it in the hot fudge sauce, and jam it into our mouth before they looked back. 'Dude, Ho Sen isn't looking! Mini-cone!' Also, Ho Sen, the owner, fought in the nationalist army in China before coming to the US and would often polish his revolver in the back room when he was bored. He drove a gold Cadillac." — RI

The Best Thing I Learned 

"Shredded iceberg lettuce rocks! It’s the most underappreciated ingredient ever. Just make sure you don’t slice more than you need because it browns quickly and loses its freshness and crunch. I also learned that I thrived working in restaurants because I was working with food, loved the camaraderie with my team, and the adrenaline of instant deadlines when the tickets came in. I continued to work in restaurants off and on for the next 14 years." — HL 

"Aside from learning how to make fried ice cream? It’s that I fell in love with restaurants here. The camaraderie of working as a team, with people from disparate worlds coming together and becoming friends. We depended on each other as we tackled fast-paced work, and did our best to be kind to each other along the way. It was hard work and so much fun." — CR

"That I had what it takes to be very responsible and how to pack pints and quarts. I also got my first taste of 'pastry work' when I was trusted to decorate the ice cream cakes. Most importantly, I learned that even when the job is kind of crappy it can be fun, and that ice cream is delicious, but too much ice cream is horrifying. You only make that  mistake once." — CS

"Understanding the diversity of human expectations and decorum in restaurants is the original IYKYK situation, and I was exposed to a literal world of variation at the Lake Buena Vista Chili’s right outside the entrance to Disney World. There are cultures so accustomed to coins they’ll leave a heaping pile of American coins as a tip. There are cultures comfortable walking to the kitchen or calling across the room to get their server. And there are of course cultures who treat servers and even restaurant chain managers as lower class citizens. Even regionality in America affects restaurant etiquette. In Florida, all diners get water as soon as possible upon being seated because of the relentless heat. It took me a while to get used to having to ask for water in other states, and it took many guests by surprise to have the table overcrowded with so many waters in addition to other beverages. I learned how to best behave as a diner and how to optimize my experience and compensation as a server with patience, empathy, and intentionality." — AD

"Patience. I worked out of the Niagara Falls Boulevard store in Buffalo, New York (shoutout to a great team, many of whom still work there and I try to visit whenever I’m in town). Because we were on a highly trafficked street, we were regularly slammed and had a relatively small staff. We had to be organized and diligent, and most of all calm as we were the only thing that stood between someone and their coffee." — SF

"If you're being served food by a teenager who would rather be hanging out with their friends, no matter how much they smile, they are wishing death upon you." — RI

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