On the restaurant chain gang: I wore a giant bird suit
How many people have taken a life-altering inner journey of self-exploration and undergone a paradigm shift of both attitude and career transformation -- all while dressed in a giant bird suit and passing out free onion-ring coupons at a movie theater?
It was a Friday night at a Red Robin, a link in the burger chain that got its start in Washington in 1969, and is now based in Colorado, with a dozen restaurants in the metro Denver area. Every server, host and busser in the building was avoiding catching the manager's eye, because to do so would result in a dismal conversation, with that conversation having the potential to turn what was normally a lucrative night at a burger- and beer--peddling store into an abject lesson in humiliation and down-ticket marketing strategies. Someone had to take one for the team. Someone had to leave their station for the next few hours during peak volume. Someone had to wear the giant bird suit.
Rounding the corner, I smacked right into the general manager and while, struggling to keep my baskets of steak fries from falling onto the tiles, I had a Joss Whedon-inspired flashback to the conversation I'd had with this same manager an hour before. It didn't go well. I had asked on numerous occasions for my college class hours to be off the table for restaurant scheduling. I had an easy class load that semester, and I was only going part-time in order to juggle my work, classes and what little I had of a social life (I had hopes for this), and I thought that I done my fair share of self-sacrifice to the altar of corporate needs and cheeseburgers for one semester. "Mitch," the general manager, did not feel the same.
"You need Tuesdays and Thursdays off again?" he'd lamented. "You had them off last week."
"I have class, Mitch, and I have to pay them whether I show up or not, so I'm kinda wanting to do that," I replied.
He shuffled the papers on his cluttered desk and muttered something about college being useless.
I didn't take the bait.
"I give you guys my school schedule every semester so it shouldn't come as a galloping shock to you every week that I have class," I said.
He eyed me. I eyed him. I left the office.
Employers really love hiring college students -- until they need to go to class or take a final.
But now I had was nicked the grudge-holding Mitch, and I had to go impale myself for the greater good.
The Red Robin mascot is a big, bright red bird with large yellow feet and a little blue vest. His name is Red. Parents and kids love Red, because he cuts wacky capers and gives out stacks of coupons for free onion rings with purchase.
It was obvious that Red hadn't been dry-cleaned in a while, and while gingerly easing myself into the dark, smelly interior of the suit, I would have given my entire night's pay for a bottle of Febreeze or a pistol to gnaw on. Dignity is cheap, and so was the minimum wage I was earning by trodding past the other sympathetic but grateful employees on my way out the door and over to the movie theater across the parking lot.
I don't know which is worse -- dealing with mobs of squalling children or putting up with their parents. This particular night I got to stand around in a musty mascot getup and make happy with hordes of screaming, unkempt spawn with snot and jelly in their hair, tugging on Red's shaggy unmentionables while their parentals punched me in the arm and asked me charming questions like "You wearin' anything under that suit?..heh heh heh," "I didn't know birds ate onion rings!...heh heh heh," and my favorite: "I hope they are paying you good for this."
There are times when all of us have to stop, freeze time and reflect on where we are, who we are and how we got here. This time came within about ten minutes for me, as I huddled up against a cement planter in a giant bird suit. The clouds parted, a ray of brilliant sunlight shone down upon me, cherubs were floating around singing and playing their little golden harps. My moment of divine insight and clarity had come. In that moment, I realized two things: There is no god, and unless I wanted to continue a career in theme park entertainment I needed to do a bit of employment housekeeping.
As I stumbled back to the restaurant, tripping on my gigantic bird feet, I rationalized everything by thinking that giant red bird suits fill an honest need in an industry that requires every available marketing gimmick imaginable, because how else are consumers going to be suckered into an eatery with the promise of free onion rings that then coerces them into spending money that fuels a capitalist and customer service-based economy that relies on both them and onion rings to ensure that the terrorists will not win?
Then I remembered I could get a nasty case of scabies from the suit, and I burst in through the front doors of Red Robin with drive and purpose -- and again smacked right into Mitch, who was ferrying a tray of burgers and broccoli cheese soup to table fifteen. "You could have used the can at the theater, dammit!" bellowed Mitch as he rounded the corner.
But this wasn't about a bathroom break. This was about freedom, respect and principles, and as I did actually need to use the bathroom I did that first, then stalked into the office, dumped the bird suit on the desk and waited.
Mitch finally noticed me through the glass when he lumbered back to find more ranch dressing, and he asked me what the hell I was doing jerking around when I was supposed to be on bird detail.
I stood my ground. "I'm leaving," I announced unceremoniously as I brushed past him to go find my purse. He trailed me, spewing strong language, and as I made it up to the host stand he finally said, "I'm so goddamn sick of you spoiled college kids thinking you are too good to work."
I replied, "I'm too good to get crabs from that sick-ass bird suit, so I'll take my chances." Eloquence is a rare art form, and I didn't use it.
Working for chain restaurants may or may not be fantastic experiences depending on individual points of view, but there is something to be said for character-building exercises, and you just can't place monetary value on having an epiphany while dressed as a giant bird.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.