When I was 15, my mother cut me off from “exit money”. At that age, I knew that maintaining my mall rat lifestyle was non-negotiable, so to fund Aunt Anne’s pretzel races, I needed to find a job. First, I applied to all the cool stores – Zumiez, Claire’s, Hot Topic, Hollister – but unfortunately none of them would hire anyone under 16. So instead, my first job was at…
…from Togomy neighborhood sandwich shop.
On the first day, I showed up in uniform: a military green T-shirt, a khaki apron and a khaki visor. My main responsibilities were to greet customers and make hearty deli sandwiches. Over the next few hours, I managed to meet co-workers, joke around with customers, and memorize 30 recipes. I left the shift feeling overwhelmed, like the smallest fish in a very large pond.
But over the next two weeks, I got my bearings. Colleagues I was afraid to talk to turned into friends I liked to tease. I stopped looking at the sandwich recipe prompts. And my conversations with customers sounded less like shy mumbles and more like heartfelt chatter. In fact, I started to look forward to putting my visor on and hanging out behind the granite counter.
I ended up spending three years in that 500 square foot store. I grew up there; it was my crash course into the real world. Here are five life lessons I learned during my career as a sandwich maker:
— If you don’t get along with someone right away, give them time and talk about it. At first, I spent a year in a passive-aggressive war with another colleague. 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 in a fast food restaurant. You touch gross things; you spend the majority of your shift alone; you have less time in front of customers, which means less tipping; you leave your shift drenched in water and smelling of mold. So, big respect to all 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 convince her with gossip and questions around the clock. I thought things were going well, until a few hours later she told me. say, “If I had met you a year ago and you were talking so much, we wouldn’t be friends.” That’s when I realized she needed a break – and not everyone likes to gossip 24/7.
— Customers are real humans with real emotions that often have nothing to do with you. Sometimes they are lively; sometimes they operate on autopilot; and sometimes when you ask them how their day is going, they tell you. Nanci was a middle-aged woman with a blonde bob and a kind face, and she always ordered two chicken salads. The first time I helped her, I asked her how she was doing; and she said to me, “My husband is diabetic 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 came in she stood in line until I helped her.
Even though the pay was decent and I let every shift smell like a walking pickle, I stayed at Togo’s for years because I felt safe there as a teenager. I worked with people of different ages, races and backgrounds, and we could all be ourselves. They laughed at my jokes, let me know when my jokes were not funny and play 21 questions; and we supported each other when a customer walked out of line.
I consider myself very lucky and will always say that my first job was one of the best.
What was your first – or strangest – job? I would love to hear!
(Top photo of Good burger.)