A Personal History of Shift Meals
Depending on the restaurant you’re working for, your shift meal is either free or half-off, usually from a limited version of the regular menu, that you can eat during your breaks. I never worked for a restaurant upscale enough for a staff meal (where the whole place shuts down while everyone eats a communal meal specially prepared by the kitchen), which is a shame, because it was my highest ambition as a server and I never achieved it. I always imagined that working at the kind of restaurant that offered staff meals involved a lot of slow-motion laughter about chic little anecdotes, access to an on-site herb garden, free sommelier training, and better-looking customers. But shift meals were pretty good too: “Finally, it’s my turn to eat here.”
Portillo’s, 2002-03: This was absolutely the high-water mark of shift meals. It was my first real job, and I had to get a special work permit since I was only 15; I was determined to work at Portillo’s because it was the restaurant my family went to most often. I was an excellent customer and figured that was a solid basis for employment. I wasn’t wrong, either. They made me put a band-aid over my new eyebrow piercing, and once I got in trouble for saying “Thank you sir, may I have another?” to a customer who I felt was making too many dumb jokes and holding up the line, but other than that I had a pretty good time. I became best friends with a coworker whose name I no longer remember. It might have been David? I remember almost nothing about him except a hazy, fond loyalty. In my mind, he is a light and pleasant vapor, and I hope he’s doing well, where and whatever he might be today.
The shift meal was free and almost wholly without external constraints, although I remember mostly getting the same thing over and over: A Chicago dog on a poppyseed bun, a cheeseburger, a large order of fries, and a shake. This sounds impossible, even ruinous to me now, but I was 15 and not yet subject to any of the illnesses the flesh is heir to. The cheeseburgers were a thing of beauty. A frozen puck would sail through the grill conveyer belt in exactly 90 seconds and emerge transformed. That’s a lot of free beef, and I’m glad I grabbed at it with both hands, because I never found that kind of shift meal latitude again.
Cafe Borrone, 2004-2009 (intermittent): Certainly a step up in terms of nutrition, but the shift meal was half-price instead of free, which I found utterly bogus. And you could only order from the most basic salad-and-sandwich part of the menu, which in practice meant you had to be friends with someone in the kitchen to get away with an Italian sausage melt. The cashiers were forever getting scolded for topping up our free sodas. You were allowed unlimited water but only one free cafe drink per shift, and it couldn’t be anything fancy like the frosted mocha, and you weren’t supposed to let a customer or a manager see you drinking it, much like the paides in ancient Sparta. It was a turkey sandwich (admittedly an excellent one) loaded with as much contraband as I believed I could get away with, depending on who was in the kitchen that day. Banana peppers and so on. The point was to get free stuff, regardless of flavor, so if I couldn’t get anything but a standard turkey sandwich I’d ladle salad dressing over it, because I’d earned that vinegar.
But if you worked closing shift, you were allowed to take home any unsold ham and cheese croissants, and there were often at least one or two unsold ham and cheese croissants at the end of the day. If I was working close, about two hours beforehand a maniacal and protective mood would descend upon me, and I would employ every available method within my power to subconsciously dissuade customers from even looking at the pastry dome. You do not want a ham and cheese croissant. You do not want a lacy veil of Gruyere. You do not want a to-go container of mustard. You want to go home and let me stack chairs.
I want to say Michael’s Cafe?, 2006-2007: Onerous. I can’t even remember where we ate our shift meals, because there was never a free table out in the dining room. There are two kinds of restaurant workers: Those who would never dream of eating off of a customer’s plate, and those for whom the leftovers on a customer’s plate are half the point of working in a restaurant in the first place. I moved quickly and cleanly from the first camp into the second at this job. The fries were incredible. I got in trouble for eating them in view of customers, and after that I only permitted myself to filch them back in the kitchen, standing over the trash. I saw to it that I got mine.
The coffeeshop part of Borders, 2010: I was never trained as a barista, but the usual barista was always disappearing to hang out with his girlfriend, and once he asked me to cover for him, so I mostly took over for a few months. I never learned how to make anything. Anyone who approached the register would be met with “Did you know there’s a Peet’s Coffee right next door? Our coffee isn’t very good,” which worked about half of the time. The other half of the time I’d have to pull out the little trapper-keeper with all the frozen coffee recipes, read it aloud to myself, and try to guess how to make a shot of espresso.
The food was astonishingly bad, so I stole it in vast quantities to make up for the lack of quality. What I wouldn’t have given for a plain turkey sandwich! —But I finally was allowed to wear my eyebrow piercing without a Bandaid, which something and not nothing, after all.