My First Lessons in Business: What Flipping Burgers Taught Me About The Importance of Good People


My first job was at Rally's hamburgers (called Checkers in some places). It was one of those double drive-thru places that didn't have inside seating. I was 16 and was working for minimum wage which, if I remember correctly, was $4.25 per hour. What follows are the three key lessons I learned in the two years I worked there.

1. Good employees are worth more.
After a few months there my boss called me outside for my first performance review. He said that I had done well and that $.10 was the average raise for his employees. He asked what I thought I deserved.

"10 cents," I said.

He looked surprised. "Why so low?"

"Because you can find anyone to come in here and sweep floors, make sandwiches, etc." I told him.

"Put yourself in my shoes," he said. "It's tough to find good employees, and it's easy for you to go get another job making minimum wage. If I want to keep you, I need to pay you more than the McDonalds across the street. Good people are hard to find." And with that I got a big raise compared to the other store employees. I think it was 50 cents per hour more, but I don't exactly remember.

2. Lots of bad employees don't add up to a few good employees.
At Rally's we had timers that measured the length each car spent in front of the drive-thru window. Our goal was to average less than 30 seconds per car through the lunch rush. Since all the food was made fresh, this could be very challenging. It took 5 minutes to cook a burger or chicken sandwich and we could only hold them a few minutes, so the key was to constantly have some in process, always projecting how many you should have getting done every few minutes.

Each side of the store had a sandwich maker (sometimes two) to make the burgers and a coordinator to bag the order and hand it out the window. The grill person and fry person served both sides. One day I was working the grill and the sandwich maker on the busy side (driver's side window) was a bit slow. The coordinator for the side was our general manager (a common position for a GM during the lunch rush). I started picking up some of the sandwich maker's slack by cycling the burgers on the grill in larger, less frequent batches, and helping to make sandwiches for big orders. The GM too, started making some sandwiches. Eventually the other side was getting backed up, and frankly our sandwich maker was slowing us down, so the GM sent him to the other side of the store to help with their sandwiches. Now they had two sandwich makers. I ran the grill and made sandwiches, the GM coordinated and bagged the orders and made sandwiches too. We ran sub 30 second timers through lunch without a sandwich person.

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It wouldn't make sense to most people. How do you get things done faster with fewer people? By getting the roadblocks out of their way. We knew what had to be done. We were the fastest sandwich makers in the store. We had worked together enough to know how the other one worked.

3. In the long-run, most people get paid what they are worth.
I always volunteered to do whatever needed to be done, and other employees would sometimes ask me why. "If they only pay me $4.45 an hour, that's all the harder I'm gonna work," they would say. I think just about everyone in the store told me that at some point or other. So I worked hard for $4.25/hr, on up through $5/hr, through $6/hr, and on into $6.50/hr and a position as shift manager. I guess the other employees didn't want to show they could handle shift manager responsibilities until they got paid shift manager wages.

I left once I had enough college engineering classes to get a nice part-time day job doing Autocad work for $9/hr.

It's funny that at the time I didn't feel like I was learning anything working in fast food. Looking back, it taught me quite a lot. I think most situations are like that if you keep your mind open and your eyes out for the learning opportunities.

So wherever you are in life, even if it isn't where you want to be, keep your chin up. Remember that good business lessons sometimes have unlikely sources, and all kinds of experiences can be good for you.