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Friday, July 15, 2011

change with cheese

So here we are, in another chapter of the 20th anniversary of my Great Burger King Adventure of 1991.
I don’t know why my ten summer weeks at Burger King happened to fall during a period of great change, but they did. Being smack in the middle of it provided me with yet another valuable life lesson:
You do not want to be on the front lines of change. People may say they want change, but they mostly don’t.
It was an odd chapter in Burger King history, when the Whopper Jr. was temporarily renamed Hamburger (or Cheeseburger) Deluxe, and the old-school Whaler fish sandwich was now the more-PC Ocean Catch. This proved to be impossible for long-time customers to comprehend, let alone accept. It’s not like there was an ad campaign that explained the change, or even massive signage to clarify the situation... it just happened. And I’d see customers come to the register and crane their necks up at the menu board, brows furrowed, eyes darting and searching... and then, in small fearful voices, they would ask:

Um... what happened to the Whopper Jr.?
“What happened.” As if something just horrible had happened to the little guy.
And I’d explain that it was just renamed Hamburger Deluxe, that the sandwich was exactly the same, but often, they wouldn’t believe me. There was much less trouble with the Whaler/Ocean Catch, as it was possibly the least-popular item, but even that change was met with just as much skepticism. 
It wasn’t my fault. These things had been renamed months and months before I’d walked through the King’s doors. It was somewhat easy for me to shrug off the inevitable question: why is the name different?
But during my tiny tenure, two massive changes occurred that would rock the palace. Changes that, on first glance, seemed positive and swell... but would prove to be quite controversial.
The first one was big, and that was the change from boxes to paper wrap for large sandwiches such as the Whoppers, chicken, and fish sandwiches. Mind you, Burger King was already ahead in the environmental game by using cardboard burger boxes when styrofoam (granted, a superior heat-retaining material) was still the norm at McDonald’s. Moving to wrap was even friendlier to the trees.
This required a small learning curve and a little more concentration from those who assembled the sandwiches. A box could easily contain  and control wayward leaves of lettuce. Wrapping involved flipping and folding, and while regular burgers had long used wrap, their smaller size and fewer toppings made packaging them a little easier. A large, floppy, unwieldy Whopper could get out of hand, fast. But when all was said and done, it was a good change. Sure, you no longer had a place to dump your fries like you did with an open box, but hey. Small price to pay for Mother Earth.
I had moved up quickly from Day One and was mostly positioned at the burger station during my first weeks on the job. I’d not yet graduated to the Specialty Sandwich/Fry station, but I did have the honor of experiencing the changing of the guard and using the very last Whopper box and the very first Whopper wrapper at our restaurant. It was a new era, indeed.
Before the Internet, comments had to be spoken aloud and in person. One thing has never changed between then and now: most people who choose to comment are not saying lovely things.
The complaints were instant and many, and all variants of What the Hell is This? But those complaints paled in comparison to the ones that were hurled when we changed from Pepsi to Coke. 

Another lesson: People are staunchly loyal beverage-ists
By this time I was working registers, so I was fully exposed to the immediate reaction. I knew there’d be a bit of a backlash, but not quite in the way I’d expected. The Slice (remember Slice?) drinkers were fine with Sprite. The Orange Slice drinkers were fine with Fanta. The Diet Pepsi drinkers could happily handle Diet Coke for the most part, and many of the Pepsi drinkers were actually fine with the switch to Coke. Those who weren’t usually found solace in our sweet tea (this was, after all, North Carolina).
But I’d grossly underestimated the ire of the Mountain Dew enthusiasts. 
I am no prude, and I am not a fan of censorship, but even still, I cannot in good conscience relay here the words that were spewed, spat, and screamed by Southern gentlemen to describe Mello Yello. I had no idea that any fizzy, neon sugar water could drive men to this level of anger... and they were all men. Every single rant against that *adjective* *adjective* *adverb* *adjective* Mello Yello clearly stemmed from a chromosomal connection to Mountain Dew.
And I couldn’t use the Hamburger Deluxe/Whopper Junior argument. It was not the same thing (even if it kind of was). There were a lot of things to feel helpless about as a rising college junior scrabbling for minimum wage in the immediate post-Gulf War era, but in those moments of being stared down by irate customers, I was truly and wholly helpless. 
Of course, time passed and eventually, those who chose their fast food establishments solely based on beverage contracts turned to Arby’s, and everyone else learned to adapt. But I still felt my stomach turn to stone every time a man ordered a Mountain Dew.
I say it again: You do not want to be on the front lines of change... but if you do, you’d better have the stomach for it.
And it’s fascinating to think that twenty years later, this lesson still applies to people in far, far more respectable positions than I.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.

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