Admittedly, my first choice for fast food work in 1984 was at the Princeton Plaza branch of McDonald’s, also for $3.35 an hour, which was the era’s bottom-floor minimum wage. After straight-up hiring me during my initial interview — warm, pimple-pocked bodies always welcome — McD’s, alas, only gave me three hours of work per week for my initial month. My weekly gross of $10.05 just wasn’t going to cut it, even in that Reagan era of low taxes and high margins, so I quit McDonald’s before I’d even scraped my first grill or wrapped my first Filet-o-Fish.
Wienerschnitzel were more than happy to bring me aboard the team, however, and they threw me as many evening and weekend hours as I could handle. The chain, some of you may remember, was once called Der Wienerschnitzel. This is the place my dad used to take us to in the 1970s in Sacramento, a hot dog palace with a massive triangle-awning design (much like the old International House of Pancakes) and yellow-and-red color motif (representing mustard and ketchup, one presumes). The company did away with the “Der” in 1977, it is said, because their German conjugation was stupefyingly incorrect; it would have been rightly called Das Wienerschnitzel, but the place I toiled at seven years later was merely christened “Wienerschnitzel”, as it is to this day.
They were, and remain, “The World’s Largest Hot Dog Chain”. While they kept several varieties of hamburger on the menu, including a rye-bread-meat-&-cheese delicacy known as the “Patty Melt”, Wienerschnitzel was all about the dogs, and for what it’s worth, those dogs were fairly tasty, as harmful calories go. There were 5 core dogs during my day: the simple “Mustard Dog”, as no-frills as you’d imagine; the “Kraut Dog”, a nod perhaps to the company’s mangled faux-German ancestry; the “Chili Dog”; the extremely popular “Chili Cheese Dog”; and my hands-down favorite, the relatively healthful “Deluxe Dog”, which included mustard, onions, two tomato slices and a bun-length dill pickle tucked behind the meat. We had fries, we had drinks, and that was about it, save for a gross batter-dipped “corn dog” on a stick that only a handful of children very rarely ordered.
My first exciting day on the job — on any job — nearly got me canned before my 4-hour shift was even done. I was shown how to man the “french fry station”, in which my responsibilities were to pour frozen potatoes from a plain brown bag into a basket, then drop the basket into a fryer for two minutes, then salt the resulting fries profusely once cooked. More importantly, I had to listen to the audible orders called out by the cashier (“Three chili-cheese, two large fries, one patty melt”) for my lone cue word — fries — then scoop them into either a large cardboard holder (you know the kind) or a flimsy paper bag.
As you’ll see from the image to your left, french-fry scooping is totally and unfairly a right-hander’s game. I happen to be left-handed, and I’m embarrassingly uncoordinated with my right. Within minutes I was slowing down orders and angering customers as I fell way behind in my scooping, prompting the mealy-mouthed boss, a balding, middle-aged nincompoop named Dave, to patronizingly swoop in to “school” me on how to properly shovel french fries into a bag. I was trying to do everything with my left hand, and it wasn’t happening. “Is this even going to work??”, an exasperated Dave asked, rhetorically. Luckily mercy — or the pain of having to fire and hire yet another teenaged moron — intervened, and Dave hrumphed and mumbled his way into an immediate “lateral transfer” of me over to the drink station, which is where I wanted to be anyway.
Ah, drinks. Working the soda machine was home for my first 4–6 months at Wienerschnitzel, and it was glorious. I stood immediately to the cashier’s left. She’d slide over the paper receipt, I’d eyeball the various requested sizes of Dr. Pepper or Coke or Sprite, and I’d then position the appropriate cup under the nozzle after filling it halfway with ice. That’s it. Self-serve drink stations hadn’t been invented yet, or rather, were only situated at places like 7–11. It was way better than working “in the back”, flipping burgers or squirting mustard on hot dogs. I got to interact with the customers, too, and it turned out I kinda liked that.
Granted, my interactions with the hoi polloi were usually of the “a little less ice/a little more ice” variety. San Jose has a heavy Mexican immigrant population, and one time a young Mexican guy came in and looked me dead in the eyes & said with the utmost gravity, “Give me lots of ice”. I duly responded, yet when I handed him over his cup he retorted, “I said lots of ice, homey — I don’t want no snow cone”. Still one of my favorite customers of that or any other era.
We moved a great deal of high-fat caloric product, especially during meal times. Wienerschnitzel’s “rush” was an all-out war to quickly feed legions of people, and it could get really stressful. Thus, those of us who “closed” — working until the store shut down at 11pm, plus another hour to clean up — relished the relatively peaceful late nights for all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans. There was a oafish guy whom we worked with named Ralph who told the assembled crew one night that he’d actually drink the grease trap — the accumulation of hamburger drippings and fat runoff — on a dare. Not for money, merely on a dare. I believe I actually made the initial dare, which was rapidly seconded by all 4 of my remaining co-workers, at which point he loosened the metal contraption from beneath the grill, hauled it outside behind the store, tipped the contents into his mouth, made one swallow, and promptly barfed. And yes, his name was Ralph.
Late nights were also when the drunk-driving customers would stagger in. One night the cashier position was being womaned by a sassy Latina named Deena, and I was again working to her left, pouring drinks/snow cones. Two disheveled alcoholics shuffled in, and one proceeded to order, “One cheeseburger, dropped on the floor”. We both engaged in some customer-friendly double-takes and polite clarifications — “Sir, can you please repeat your order”; “Sir, that’s not something that we serve here”; “Sir, are you sure that that’s what you’d like” and so on. Once he’d confirmed his demand, we were absolutely going to ensure that supply kept up; or rather, Deena was, as she first loudly announced the exact order on her microphone to the entire staff and all Wienerschnitzel patrons, then proclaimed “I’m going to make this motherfucker myself”. She then strolled back to the hamburger station, grabbed a waiting cheeseburger with the flipper, lifted it high above her head, and slapped it down hard onto the disgusting tile floor, the same floor that Ralph, myself and others had been striding across all night. After putting it on a bun and dressing it just so, she then delivered it directly to his table, rather than calling him to the counter, which was truly customer relations above and beyond the norm.
I, like Deena, used my burgeoning skills to eventually graduate to direct customer relations, and for a time I was the only male cashier on the Branham Plaza Wienerschnitzel staff. My winning personality and customer-centric charm may have been a factor; more likely, I had not yet succumbed to any graft nor embezzlement outside of the odd Deluxe Dog, and therefore could be trusted handling small bills. I had a high school friend also named Dave who’d come in after football practice, and he would routinely proceed to order (and eat!) 2 hamburgers and 3 hot dogs in one sitting. I may have occasionally cut him a deal or two on that extra chili-cheese dog, but I think manager Dave found me to mostly be “on the level”, even if I couldn’t scoop a fry to save my life.
I bungled the biggest opportunity presented to me, however, and it’s something I deeply regret to this day. As McDonald’s had its clown and Burger King its king, so Wienerschnitzel too had its mascot — “Der Wiener Dog”. One Saturday it was announced by our new manager Kim that Der Wiener Dog himself was going to be spending the day waving at cars on the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, which meant that an employee of Wienerschnitzel at Pearl & Branham was going to be spending his or her day holed up in the Der Wiener Dog costume.
The only criteria for the role was that you had to fit into the thing, and as it turned out I fit into it perfectly. Immediately overcome with a rash of hormone-surging teenage embarrassment — “this is so lame” etc. — I announced that I wouldn’t do it, no way. Thankfully, my co-worker Debra was another person whose shape filled out the costume as remarkably as mine did, but I proceeded to watch her with envy from my cashier station all day as she handed out lollipops, danced with children, and flagged down Camaros to pull into the parking lot for 2-for-1 chili cheese dogs. I was so instantly filled with regret for passing up this golden opportunity to break from the norm that for years I told a “white lie” (OK, a bald-faced, straight-up lie) to friends that I, indeed, had been the Der Wiener Dog for one unforgettable day. But no.
Around the time I was going to the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball with my co-worker Cheri (more about that here), I came upon my one year anniversary as a Wienerschnitzel employee in good standing. My reward for my year of service was a raise — a whopping ten-cent raise from $3.35 to $3.45 per hour. As would become my annoying stock in trade in subsequent jobs, I immediately argued to Kim that my immense contributions to the firm were outsized relative to those of my slothful co-workers, and that I deserved at least a twenty-cent boost in my hourly enumeration. Rebuffed, I quit Wienerschnitzel without so much as two weeks’ notice, choosing to meekly call in my resignation from the comfort of my familial home rather than bombastically give it face-to-face to my exploitative corporate overlords.
I never worked in food service again. Perhaps Kim blackballed me. More likely, once I graduated to lucrative $4 per hour phone soliciting jobs, there was no looking back. Wienerschnitzel, including the location at the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, survives to this day, although as a lesser light in the pantheon of American fast food. I dropped by there a couple of years ago for old times’ sake (and because I was hungry as hell) after visiting my parents. They still have all the same hot dogs, and a whole lot more. They’ll now even put chili on your french fries — something we didn’t have the gastronomic foresight to even suggest to management! I excitedly told the young man at the drink station that I’d once held his job, over 30 years ago (!), in this exact same location, in that exact same spot, doing the exact same thing behind the same Wienerschnitzel counter…!
He told me “that’s cool”.