The American Way of Eating

The truth about money and class at Applebee’s.

Jean-louis Vosgien

This is the third 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.

You can also read Part 1: I Got Hired To Do the Hardest Job at Applebee’s, and Part 2: Who eats at Applebee’s—and why?

YO, FRY GUYS, I need a five-ounce, NOW. Hector and Luis, the two fry cooks giggling back by the freezer, jump visibly at my command.

I smile sweetly, reposition my voice an octave higher, a significant number of decibels lower. Please?

What you need, sweetheart? asks Hector.

A five-ounce, please.

Aiight, Ma, I got you, says Luis, and the other cooks titter on the line.

That was mad sexy, says Geoff, the Haitian cook manning the flattop, where burgers and quesadillas are made.

I felt that, says Rick, the server waiting on the five-ounce—slang for fries.

Well, you told me to bark, I say, pulling the five-ounce out of the window. Rick used to do expo before he served, so he tries to give me pointers when he sees me struggling. Pointers like, They’re not listening. You need to bark at them.

I can be loud when I have to be, I say, and I hand him his fries.

It’s Valentine’s Day, a Sunday, and last night we were packed; I walked in the door at noon and didn’t leave until midnight, going home just long enough to collapse into sleep and turn right back around. In at noon again, and I’m working the line with Terry, another kitchen manager, who drives me mad by pulling appetizer trios—infuriating platters containing a made-to-order constellation of appetizers that change with every customer, some nightmare I suspect was dreamed up by an executive who’s never worked the line during rush—and pushing them down to me at the far end of the line without the sauces. This means I have to double back and grab them out from under Terry, wasting time and energy. As the rush builds, Terry lets the printer tickets spiral down, down, down into the expo line, invariably dipping into the honey mustard. I grit my teeth every time he calls for a trio.

Tonight, what I really learn—and not for the last time—is just how little I know when it comes to my job.

It starts around 8 or 9. My eyes are burning—it’s all the gas in the kitchen, explains Freddie, offering to give me some eyedrops—and I’m blinking and rubbing my eyes furiously as the screen starts to fill up. By now, I know my place. I’m not good enough to direct the line, but I’m getting better at helping it move.

Here we go, says Freddie. He and Terry start pulling tickets and barking out dishes: Ribeyes, chopped steaks, Shrimp Islands with rice, kiddie hot dogs, Bourbon and New York strip steaks, garlic herb salmon, chicken penne pasta, shrimp pesto bowl, quesadilla burgers, hot wings on the bone and boneless honey barbeque wings. I duck in front of the managers, bending full over the pass so they can reach over me, and dress plates according to the laws I’ve managed to memorize: Ribs get coleslaw, anything that swims gets a lemon, anything with quesadilla in the name gets salsa, chicken fingers get honey mustard, fried shrimp gets cocktail sauce, fish filets get tartar, baked potatoes usually—but not always, I have to check the ticket—take butter and sour cream, and salmon gets smeared with garlic butter.

Let’s be clear: I’m no pro. For one thing, I don’t have the hands for it, a function of not yet having enough calluses. My hands are so tender that I yelp in pain regularly during service, once so badly that Geoff comes around from behind the line and, without warning, grasps my hand and massages ice onto my thumb. But the real reason I can’t pull plates is because I can’t identify dishes on sight and have to ask the cooks to tell me whether this steak is a rib eye or a nine-ounce.

At 9:30 I am shoved aside. The rush has slowed for the cooks but it has migrated to the pass, a stampede of meals run amok. There are bowls of pasta teetering curvily on top of each other; platters of ribs sitting in pyramids; towers of chicken baskets and trio plates hitting the top of the window. This food has to go out now. I’m ousted to the head of the pass, relegated to wiping down plates and checking orders against tickets before they go out. Now the real fun begins. Everyone’s working their own tickets, calling for plates from every window, a furious flurry of arms and cheap porcelain flying up and down the line. I’ve heard line work described as being as graceful as dance, but this is harder, faster, hotter, meaner. What comes to mind is neither battle nor ballet, but a simultaneous expression of both— capoeira. I work until 12:30.

In a particularly sadistic (if lucrative) affront to restaurant workers everywhere, the calendar has placed President’s Day on the day after Valentine’s Day, which fell the day after Saturday. Three straight days of whirling plates, high-strung servers and endless fry grease.  So while school children and office workers luxuriate in their day off, I head back to the kitchen on Monday.

By the time I finish my stint at Applebee’s, I’ll have learned how to spot the other members of my tribe on the subway: heavy-lidded eyes, blank stares, black pants bespecked with grease, hard-soled black shoes. I see them frequently on my commute, a scrappy crew of warriors heading to battle so that the rest of the city can eat.  As a new inhabitant of the Applebee’s kitchen, I can verify that my fellow workers live up to restaurant kitchens’ reputation for being a haphazard melting pot. Luis, a runner, just came to the states from rural Oaxaca few months ago; the dishwasher Amadou used to run several businesses in his native Senegal; Tony was a musical theater devotee in high school in Puerto Rico; Hector ran an event production company with his wife before falling on hard times; Eric is paying tuition at a local college.

I’m the only white in the kitchen, one of a handful of non-immigrants, and the only woman putting in regular hours with the line. Although about 38 percent of restaurant jobs are in the back of the house, whites are relatively unlikely to work there, with 17 percent of white restaurant workers in those positions; I notice that of the five white people on our staff of several dozen, two are managers. Women seem to do okay here; there aren’t any consistent female managers in our store but a few come in from corporate now and then. The balance of management is black and Latino, though, which is noteworthy given how rare it can be elsewhere in the restaurant industry. In 2007, famed New York chef Daniel Boulud settled with Mexican workers who filed a federal discrimination case against him; a buser from Mexico claimed to have trained four different French bus boys and watched each get promoted ahead of him.

But even if I move up the ladder, from expo to line, it doesn’t guarantee much improvement when it comes to wages. When Freddie hired me, he told me I’d make $8 an hour for training and $9 an hour after that, putting me on the lower end of kitchen workers, whose median wages range from $8.69 for prep and $10.09 for cooks. Geoff, who cooks the burgers on mid, and Calixto, who does steaks and sides on broil, tell me they earn around $12 an hour, which sounds like a lot until I calculate what it means in annual salary: $24,000.

The wages I hear about at Applebee’s are fairly consistent, starting around $8 and going up into the low teens, and are always well within the law, but this belies its status as a corporation more than it exposes any norms within restaurants. While Applebee’s is the biggest “casual dining” operator in the country, the 1,868 American restaurants bearing its name in 2009 represented less than one percent of America’s full-service eateries, the majority of which are independently owned or members of small restaurant corporations running a few boutique eateries. As in agriculture, enforcing labor laws among a vast, decentralized army of employers is difficult, making it easier for employers to skimp on pay.

At Applebee’s, I never encounter the systematic wage theft I saw in the fields, but adherence to wage and hour laws seems to be as contingent on my currying personal favor with management as anything else. I was so intent on getting to work on Valentine’s Day, for instance, that I forgot to clock in and out, despite spending 12 hours at work; a manager assures me he’ll take care of it, but the hours don’t appear on my check until I cajole Freddie—a different manager—into doing so a couple weeks later. A training I’m called in for never shows up on my checks, either. The management doesn’t hand out paystubs unless we ask, and so it takes a couple paychecks before I know that I’m being paid $8 an hour instead of the $9 Freddy had lured me here with; he promises to take care of the problem, but never does. In the wonky terms of social science, this is a “partial nonpayment,” or, optimistically, “a backlog.” Either way, there’s another word that researchers who examined New York City’s restaurant industry in 2007 would likely use to describe it that I find even more disheartening: common.

From The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.