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Sour Milkshake Blues: How The Fast Food Industry Is Betraying Us All

05/28/2010 03:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My wife and I have a five month old baby and last night, he decided to cry for a couple of hours right around the time we were going to grill some salmon. It got late, and we were frazzled and drained and hungry so we decided to just get something easy for dinner. We live in a small town and about the only restaurants open late within a 20 mile drive are fast food restaurants...but we were really tired.

As a warning, you should stop reading this right now if you have a weak stomach. There are a couple of gross food stories coming but it's a really sick story about the restaurant business and American economy. Don't kid yourself; it affects you, even if you never eat fast food.

I drove the ten minutes to a well known fast food place. My ten year old daughter wanted a milkshake, so I ordered her one. "Sorry", said the nice young woman on the speaker. "We've already taken our milk shake machine apart for the night."

Ah, the vanishing shake machine.

This is something I've seen dozens of times in the past few years. About an hour or two before closing and the shake machine isn't available. At least this woman was being honest. Usually the excuse given is a simple lie like "Our shake machine is broken." These shake machine always magically repair themselves by lunch the next day.

It was about 8:20pm. I asked, "What time do you close?"

She politely answered, "On the weekends, 10:30 but during the week usually about 9:15. Sometimes 9:30."

I didn't argue. I haven't worked in a restaurant in twenty years but my experience was enough for me to know not to complain or argue too much before getting served. Those rumors you hear about vengeful cooks putting bodily fluids in food are true.

When I drove up to the window, a sign on the window showed that closing time was supposed to be 9:30 on weeknights. My assumption is that most nights the crew just ignores that and leaves at 9:15. Again, at least she gets points for honesty. Most places just turn off the lights and hide in the back.

When I got home, I took a few bites of my roast beef sandwich before I hit an eighteen inch long strand of blond hair. It's been a couple of hours since dinner and I still taste the hair product in my mouth.

I see a connection between closed milk shake machine, early closings and the hair in my food. If cutting corners at the customer's expense is okay in some areas, it's foolhardy to expect a strict standard in hygiene, either.

But something much bigger and more important here; a toxic attitude in American business that spreads like an oil slick. This is not about one restaurant chain or one region of the country. Picture how many times daily that a minor variant of my little story is happening all over America. It's probably happened to you, right?

Is closing a restaurant early really a mortal sin? Depends on your motivation. In his great business book Rework, Jason Fried talks about a restaurant in Chicago that closes when the bread runs out. That's a virtue - they care so much about their customers that they only want to serve their sandwiches on good, fresh bread. When it's gone, there are done.

On the other hand, when a restaurant shuts down the milkshake machine an hour before closing time, it's because someone is trying leave early. There are two main motivations for that. One is the desire of workers to leave work early and the other is the desire of management to create a slight savings in labor costs. Get the crew off the clock a little earlier.

If it were just about me and a hairy sandwich, I wouldn't be writing this. If I called the corporate offices of the restaurant in question, I'm sure I'd nice a gift certificate for a free meal. I'm sure I could wrangle a nice apology letter if I tried.

It's not about one lazy worker. Don't believe for a second that the corporations who set policy for the people in the field haven't noticed the late night vanishing shake machines. This is a top down problem.

Modern cash registers automagically record and transmit all sorts of data, often instantly sending it back to corporate. Restaurants keep close track of hourly sales data because it helps them plan labor costs and spot trends. It's not hard to notice, "Gee - it seems like we sell zero milk shakes in the last hour of business."

There's a tacit understanding between the low paid workers in the restaurants, the low paid managers and regional managers that supervise them and profitable corporations that head everything up - it's okay if you take shortcuts that may screw a few customers as long as it saves the company a little bit of money. If customers drive across town to get dinner and you're closed fifteen minutes early, whatever. If customers can't get food that's listed on the menu, whatever. The company saved ten bucks in labor costs and multiply that by a thousand or so stores and it all adds up. The customer will live.

So, the restaurant industry knows. They also know that handing out an occasional gift certificate when someone actually complains...well, hey, that's actually good for business. Repeat business and all that.

The real tragedy is the trickle-up that happens into the rest of the economy. Food service work is often a training ground for people entering the job market. It used to be that even fast food restaurants spent time training their employees to hold standards for quality and customer service. I see a lot of evidence that those standards have slipped and slipped... but the companies are still making a profit, right? Whatever.

Workers are taught to cut corners. It's approved by the manager and the regional managers and the company and ultimately, by the customers. We all accept it as the way things are. Lesson learned. That's the system.

It's just a sandwich. No big deal, right?

But somehow I can't help but wonder if any of those food industry trained workers went on to work on an oil rig for BP.