I’ve worked in medical publishing of one kind or another for nearly 30 years. I sit in offices, respond to email, talk on the phone, and attend meetings where people say things like, “We need to T up resources,” “What’s the opportunity cost?” and “Are they a stakeholder group?“ Everything I need to do my job is contained in a 14” laptop weighing 4 pounds.
But most of what I know about the business world I learned years ago from pouring coffee and bagging donuts at Dunkin Donuts. I worked at franchises in New Jersey and Boston, throughout high school and college. Here’s what I took away from those years:
- Understand where your paycheck comes from. I was 16 and thrilled when I got my first real job at Dunkin Donuts. Surrounded by racks of glistening French crullers and jelly donuts bursting at their sugary seams, I breathed in the scents of fried dough and chocolate frosting the way other kids breathed in pot smoke. For a girl teetering on the edge of chubbiness, it was a dangerous environment to work in.
I never drank coffee, so hadn’t given much thought to selling it. But I quickly learned that “America—does indeed—run on Dunkin.” Though we sold a lot of donuts, it was the coffee that lured customers in. Starting at 6:00 each morning, they’d queue up in lines that ran out the door and along the front of the building, sometimes enduring rain and snow just to get a cup of coffee. As a non-coffee drinker, it amazed me. Why didn’t they just make it at home?
Identify your company’s priorities so you know where to direct your efforts. At Dunkin Donuts, that meant we were grinding beans and brewing a fresh pot or two of coffee at all times. That’s what kept the registers ringing, and that’s what allowed the owners to pay us the grand sum of $2.50 an hour.
- Anticipate your customers’ needs. At first, the “regulars” annoyed me simply because they were always there: Taking up seats on the long Formica counter, lingering for hours at a time nursing a mug of coffee and a cigarette (back when Dunkin had counter service and allowed smoking. I’m really dating myself here). But I quickly realized that regulars tipped well and made my job easier. As soon as I saw them getting out of their cars, I’d pour their coffee, grab their donut, and have it waiting on the counter when they walked in. If they did take out, I’d have their coffee bagged and ready to go. In the midst of the morning rush hour, it was a relief to have regulars stream through because I didn’t have to stop to take their order.
Everyone likes to be known. To be understood. Give people what they need before they even ask for it, and you’ll (possibly) have a customer for life.
- Show up. According to Woody Allen, “80% of success is showing up.” In the world of fast food, where staff are often young and always underpaid, and the work is physically draining, it’s a constant problem: Somebody assigned to a shift doesn’t come in. Doesn’t call. Up and quits without telling anyone. The rest of the staff are left scrambling to wait on long lines of angry customers. I still remember the names of co-workers who called in on Saturday nights claiming to be sick. I’d stay on after my own shift to work midnight to 6:00 am (we were open 24 hours), serving customers, filling/frosting donuts, and trying to keep my donut-tree smock clean. So please: Show up, punch the clock, do your job. Your colleagues are counting on you.
- Plan your vacations far in advance. While we’re talking about time off, let’s talk about the planned kind. One night while working in the kitchen, I noticed that the baker’s hand was bandaged. He’d asked for a few days off, but the manager wouldn’t let him take it. So he stuck his hand in the fryer. They had to give him a week off to recover.
There are less painful ways to get a vacation, of course. Submit your request far in advance. Get somebody to cover your work while you’re away (if needed and possible). And work your butt off before and after your vacation.
- Accept that some trade secrets are better left unknown. I was in love with Boston crème donuts long before I worked at Dunkin Donuts: The plump shell of custard. The thick layer of chocolate frosting. Sometimes I wonder if I chose to go to college in Boston because it was my beloved donut’s namesake.
When I wasn’t waiting on customers, I was in the kitchen finishing donuts for the “showcase,” as we called it. Giving me the job was akin to appointing an alcoholic as bartender: A Munchkin here, a cruller there….I’d eat my way through my shift.
Finishing donuts was a messy, time-consuming, and potentially unclean process, depending on who was doing the finishing. Custard and jelly were stored in big plastic buckets and scooped—with a spoon, a spatula, or even bare hands—into tubs with spigots on the end. The tubs attached to a machine that made the custard or jelly shoot out of the spigots into the warm, yeasty interior of the donuts, two at a time. The donuts were held by bare hands.
Sometimes the plastic buckets of jelly and custard were left uncovered and you’d find flies or cockroaches in them. Similarly, the glaze we dipped donuts in sat exposed for hours, subject to the same insect invasions. I had other issues with the cleanliness of the kitchen, and I’m sure those issues are shared by all commercial bakeries.
Over time, it became more and more difficult to enjoy the gush of custard in a Boston crème donut without imagining the bucket from which that custard came. Or the hands that might have held the donut as it was being filled—I worked with a lot of strange people (see below). I stuck with donuts like chocolate honey dipped that weren’t handled very much after frying. It seemed safer.
There are similar trade secrets at all companies that may dampen your enthusiasm for the product or service you sell. Try to accept those things if you can’t change them. I did. Despite all I knew, I never got tired of eating donuts while working at Dunkin, and to this day, I still enjoy a Boston crème from time to time. Go figure.
- Learn to get along with different types of people. People are weird, and I’m not just talking about customers like Moon Man, who brought me stories he’d written for a fictional publication called “Moon Magazine.” My co-workers could be challenging as well: The lazy ones who never mopped up counters or washed coffee pots; the competitive ones, who tried to pour coffee and box donuts more quickly than anyone else (yes: seriously); and the ambitious ones who aspired to be key holders and flirted with the manager (again: seriously). Go with the flow and don’t try to make people act less weird than they are (it won’t work). Ultimately, you’ll be happier and more successful.
- Don’t shit where you eat. My friends and I called him “Kinky Kevin” because there was something a little seedy about him. He’d come in every day or so dragging his club foot and settle onto a stool at the counter. Staring up at me through glasses so thick they made his eyes look fuzzy, he’d order coffee and a plain donut. Even when he wasn’t sitting, the top of his balding head only came up to my shoulders. He wasn’t an attractive man by the usual standards, of course. But I had a crush on him. I was young and naïve.
The night we were supposed to go to the drive-in, he got lost trying to find my house. Suddenly overwhelmed with just how seedy he might be, I sat in my bedroom listening to the phone ring on and on, frightened at the prospect of being alone with him in a car. There was no such thing as a GPS back then, so he never found the house. Much to my relief.
Needless to say, it was awkward every time he came into Dunkin after that.
Don’t get involved with somebody you work with—or around. We all know this, of course, but it’s difficult to follow. Sometimes such relationships work out—I dated a baker for 5 years. But usually, you’ll end up like Kinky Kevin and me: Embarrassed, resentful, and unable to look each other in the (fuzzy) eye. But hey, the way I figure it: He could have gotten his coffee elsewhere.
(Sue, Jake, and I have been sitting near telephones since last week when we thought our daughter-in-law was ready to give birth to the twins. Sherri kindly offered to pinch hit since it sure looked like a road trip to New York was about to occur. Well, Alyssa hasn’t had the babies and we’re still by the phones. Thank you Sherri for covering. Zach)