When I was 15, my mom cut me off from “going-out money.” At that age, I knew that keeping up my mall-rat lifestyle was a non-negotiable, so, to fund Auntie Anne’s pretzel runs, I needed to find a job. First, I applied to all the cool stores — Zumiez, Claire’s, Hot Topic, Hollister — but sadly, none of them would hire someone under the age of 16. So, instead, my first job was at…
…Togo’s, my neighborhood’s sandwich shop.
On my first day, I showed up in uniform: an army green T-shirt, khaki apron, and khaki visor. My main responsibilities were to welcome customers and build hefty deli sandwiches. For the next few hours, I muddled my way through meeting co-workers, bantering with customers, and memorizing 30 recipes. I left the shift feeling overwhelmed, like the tiniest fish in a very big pond.
But over the next couple weeks, I got my bearings. Co-workers I was afraid to talk to turned into friends I liked to tease. I stopped glancing at the sandwich recipe prompts. And my conversations with customers sounded less like timid mumbles and more like sincere chitchat. I actually began looking forward to putting on my visor and hanging out behind the granite counter.
I ended up spending three years in that 500-square-foot shop. I grew up there; it was my crash course to the real world. Here are five life lessons I learned during my sandwich-making career:
— If you don’t click with someone right away, give it time and talk it out. In the beginning, I spent a year in a passive-aggressive war with another co-worker. Then one day we sat down to clear the air, and she became one of my closest friends.
— Taking care of the dishes is the hardest job at a fast food restaurant. You touch gross things; you spend the majority of your shift alone; you have less face time with customers, which means fewer tips; you leave your shift drenched in water and smelling like mildew. So, major respect to all the dishwashers.
— If you want a raise, ask for one. Beforehand, make a list of all the ways you’ve helped improve or grow the business, then review it with your manager.
— Be aware of people’s conversational energy levels. When a new girl, Erika, joined our team, I tried to win her over with round-the-clock gabbing and questions. I thought things were going well, until a couple hours later, she mentioned, ‘If I’d met you a year ago and you were talking this much, we would not be friends.’ It was then I realized that she needed a break — and not everyone likes 24/7 chatter.
— Customers are real humans with real emotions that often don’t have anything to do with you. Sometimes they’re snappy; sometimes they’re running on autopilot; and sometimes, when you ask how their day is going, they’ll tell you. Nanci was a middle-aged women with a blonde bob and kind face, and she always ordered two chicken salads. My first time helping her, I asked how she was; and she told me, “My husband has diabetes and has to have half of his foot amputated.” I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I could listen, remember her situation, and keep asking how she and her husband were doing. So I did, and every time she’d come in, she’d wait in line until I helped her.
Even though the pay was just okay and I’d leave every shift smelling like a walking pickle, I stayed at Togo’s for years because I felt safe there as a teen. I worked with people of different ages, races and backgrounds, and we could all be ourselves. They would laugh at my jokes, let me know when my jokes weren’t funny, and play 21 Questions; and we’d have each other’s back when a customer would get out of line.
I count myself very lucky and will always say my first job was one of the best.
What was your first — or weirdest — job? I’d love to hear!
(Top photo from Good Burger.)