Taco Bell is the sole surviving fast food joint in the dystopian world of the movie “Demolition Man”. As much as audiences groaned, I really wouldn’t mind that. Taco Bell holds a special place in my heart. Due to a quirk, I did not receive my I-20 from Clemson in time, so I had to enroll at LSU and then transfer over once I arrived in the country. When I got to Clemson, I was a week late, classes had started and I spent the first few days registering for courses, completing paperwork and generally settling in. What I did not do was to look for a campus job. After a couple of weeks, my financial situation hit me. I had arrived in the US with a loan and the conversion rate magnified my expenses.
I was late to the game, however. Most of the campus jobs were gone and so I started running around looking for jobs. The job market was tough, lots of international students vying for a small number of jobs. Visa restrictions ensured that I could not work outside of campus, I did not have a car and would not have been able to do so anyway. It was demoralizing to make the rounds every day to the dining halls, campus store, sub shop and Taco Bell only to be told to try again later. So I was relieved when I got the humble job of a “steamer” at Taco Bell. The Taco Bell was located on campus and it was really just a small kiosk adjacent to the East Campus store. The East Campus store was a convenience store of sorts and also had a deli called Lil Dino Subs. I started on the Monday morning shift – 10 am to 2 pm and then was lucky enough to get two more shifts – Fridays and Sundays – 4 pm until midnight.
A taco when ordered went through various stations in the kiosk. The meat and beans were stored in pans that were heated by hot water. The steam was directed up to a cabinet that had perforated shelves, the tortillas were housed in this cabinet and they were kept warm and moist by the steam. The role of the steamer was to take an appropriately sized tortilla, place it in a wrapper, scoop the meat/beans in it, add sauce and pass it on to the “stuffer”. The “stuffer” would then add the toppings – lettuce, cheese and pico de gallo sauce if required and pass it on to the “dispenser”, who wrapped the tacos, dispensed drinks if the cashier had not already done so, stuffed the tacos or burritos in a bag along with napkins/sauce (if not kept outside) and read the name of the person who ordered the item and handed out the order. We had a person working behind the scenes in a back room, shredding the lettuce, throwing in food bags into a cooker to warm them up, making pico de gallo saucs or washing all the dishes.
The Sunday shifts would get really busy especially during football games. We would have a long line of hungry customers. In order to keep up with the demand, we would stage the burritos and tacos in advance, i.e we would prepare them in advance, up to 30 min prior to the anticipated rush and store them in a warmer. So a trick is that if you are ever ordering at a Taco Bell during rush hours, order something minus an ingredient, you are bound to get a fresh order.
Friday nights would be light from about 9 pm till 11:45 pm when most of the students were out drinking. Our boss wanted us to clock out as soon as possible, so we would start cleaning up at around 11:30 pm. But we would be deluged by a throng of hungry students who after a night of drinking would make a beeline for the Bell to get some food before closing. This would result in spillage etc and we would have to clean up again. Monday morning would find a scowling boss asking us why we did not close up by 12:15 am. If business was light, we were made to scrub everything within the kiosk. If there were still no customers, we had to clean the deck and tables outside and if the business was still lighter, we were sent out to clean the parking lot or help out with inventory in the store. Cleaning up was not fun. By far, the worst thing to clean was the nacho cheese dispenser. The entire contraption would have to be disassembled. The cheese would have devilishly worked itself into every nook and cranny and it took a fair bit of hot water and elbow grease to get it out!
When I look back, I enjoyed the work. Academics were tough, we had a lot of projects to work on, I struggled with some of my advanced courses. Working in Taco Bell was in a way a release from the pressures of studies. The work was busy but it did not tax the mind. I learned a few lessons from my work there. For one, I learned to value my education. I was paid $4.25 an hour and I worked 20 hours a week. My monthly earnings were enough to pay for my share of my rent as well as groceries. Nothing more than that. The crew also included non-students and I realized that while this was a part-time job for me, this was a full-time job for these individuals. I could never really envision myself working for the rest of my life in the same role.
It taught me the value of hard work. This was really my first job. I had briefly interned at my neighbor’s office in Bangalore but this was my first real paying job. I was an honest, hard worker. I think in all, about 70 people worked across all the shifts at Taco Bell as well as the adjoining East Campus store. When summer came around, only 5 employees or so were retained and I was one amongst them. I worked 40 hours a week there during my first summer. I celebrated by saving some money and buying my first stereo system with the money. I saw a stunning rise in my brief career there, rising from a humble steamer to a shift supervisor. I don’t think my professional career will see such a meteoric rise! The promotions came with additional responsibility but no bump in pay.
Jokes aside, it also taught me a little bit about myself and management. Some of the guys who worked with me were seniors who were waiting to finish their thesis and get a job. They did not take the job at Taco Bell seriously and would generally slack on the job. After asking them to do something a couple of times, I had the choice of either reporting them to the boss (which would mean they would get fired) or I could do the job myself. I did some of their work myself, I did not want them to get fired.
At a recent reunion at Clemson, my friend and I went looking for the store. It has been replaced by a larger building and the parking lot has pretty much disappeared. The student center now boasts of a food court that features a Subway, Panda Express and a Grill. There are a lot more food choices now and the Indian students I met on campus somehow seemed to be a lot better dressed and well to do than I was.
I do have fond memories of the Taco Bell though. Especially of my first couple of months when on wintry nights, I would step outside for my break with hot tacos. The steam would mingle with the fog from my breath and float upwards into the clear starry sky. As I enjoyed the fruits of my labor, I dreamt of enjoying a fancy meal at a nice fancy restaurant. My town and surrounding towns do not have any Taco Bells and as I am driving somewhere, if I spy a Taco Bell, I stop by for old times sake and enjoy a steaming taco. It stills tastes good and yes, I still enjoy the fruits of my labor!