I never made the choice to become a manager at Pizza Hut. That choice was made for me by a police officer at the intersection of RT 47 and Donald Barger Blvd in Glassboro, NJ, during the autumn of 1999.
I started working at Pizza Hut a year before. I hadn’t wanted to get a restaurant job at all, after the bad experiences I’d had in the past. I had just recently quit a job at KFC, after a long, greasy summer that left me tired every day. I was sick of coming home smelling like food and covered in flour. When I got my first car, a bright green ’94 Geo Tracker, I decided I could expand my job options beyond the local restaurants in walking distance of home. I started driving around searching for quiet, clean retail establishments where I could fill out job applications. Since I had just started school at Rowan University, I expanded my search to the Glassboro area, hoping to find a job within a reasonable driving distance of school.
I wouldn’t have walked into the Pizza Hut on RT 47 if not for the sign hanging out front: “Now Hiring Delivery Drivers – $10-$18/hour.” Having just come from a minimum wage job making $5.50 an hour, this was a huge opportunity. I decided to give the pizza place a shot. After all, I figured, I wouldn’t get all that greasy or smelly just delivering the pizzas, as long as I wasn’t stuck cooking them.
Delivering pizza was the easiest, most profitable job I ever had. On an eight hour shift, I probably spent less than an hour actually in the store. The majority of my time was spent on the road. I got to drive around town with the windows down, the radio playing, the sunroof on my Geo flipped open, and my sunglasses on. I could stop at a fast food place or a Wawa if I didn’t have time between deliveries to eat at my store. I could hang out on campus when I delivered pizzas to all of the college kids. I got invited into frat parties when I delivered to them, and as the Pizza Man, I was always escorted to the head of the keg line. I accepted liquor and beer as tips, even though I was only 19. I rationalized my drinking and driving by telling myself that just having one or two wouldn’t hurt me. Luckily, I wasn’t drinking the first time a cop pulled me over during a delivery.
The first time I ever got pulled over, in spring of ’99, I was speeding through Pitman, trying to get back and forth on deliveries as fast as possible. The faster I got back from a delivery, the more orders I could take and the more tips I would earn. Going 43 in a 25 didn’t seem like a big deal. I hadn’t realized at the time how much of my tips would be wasted when I had to pay a ticket. Luckily, the cop who pulled me over that first time took sympathy on me, and gave me a “failure to observe sign” ticket instead of a speeding ticket. The fine wasn’t too high (though it cost me that whole day’s tips), and there were no points involved.
I told myself I would start driving slower. That I wouldn’t go more than five miles an hour over the speed limit. This decision lasted about a week, then I was back to cruising along with the top down, not a care in the world.
I racked up the tips all year long, loving my job. I finished my first year of college, and kept on delivering pizza full time during the summer break. Some of the other delivery drivers left when the summer started, and only a few came back when the fall semester started. Summer was mostly dead, since the majority of our business came from the nearby college. When students can pay for pizza on their meal plan, the local dorms become a hot spot for deliveries. During the school year, I’d be taking six orders at a time to each dorm building. During summer, however, deliveries were few and far between. I spent a lot more time in the store, and started learning how to cook pizzas and take phone orders, just for something to do in between deliveries. By the time autumn rolled around again, I had been working at Pizza Hut for a year, and I had learned how to perform most of the tasks in the store. I could cook, do prep work, take care of customers, and even direct the other drivers on where they were going on deliveries.
I was always eager to get back on the road, though. I’d pop into the kitchen for ten minutes, help the cooks get caught up, then be off as soon as a pizza came out of the oven. I never got another traffic ticket on the clock at Pizza Hut, but I also didn’t learn my lesson. I kept an eye out for the cops, slowed down on the streets I knew they frequently patrolled, and learned the timing of the local traffic lights so I always knew how much time I had to make a yellow light. I managed to avoid any trouble while I was on deliveries. As it turned out, however, the life-changing ticket came when I was off the clock.
That autumn, I took an art class at Rowan. It was a required gen ed, a class I had no interest in whatsoever. It was also the only class I was taking that didn’t require a $60 text book. Instead, the art teacher gave us a list of supplies we’d need for our projects: paint and brushes, spray paint, poster board, and a pack of 3’x5’ index cards. I was trying to save money, and didn’t want to buy these supplies in the Rowan bookstore. I decided to shop around and look for a discount. When I thought about where I could buy the poster board and index cards, I remembered an office supply store one block away from my Pizza Hut.
I headed straight from class to that store, heading through an intersection I’d driven through a thousand times on deliveries. As I was approaching the light, I noticed a cop in the nearby parking lot. Wary of getting another ticket, I tapped my brakes and wondered, How fast am I going? This decision turned out to be a crucial mistake, since a moment later, the traffic light turned yellow.
I floored it on reflex, trying to make the light. I’d done this hundreds of times at this exact same light, and if I hadn’t hit the brakes just a moment before, I would have cleared the light fine. When the cop pulled up behind me in the office store parking lot, I told him, “I thought I’d make the light.”
“You didn’t quite make it,” he told me as he wrote the ticket. “That’s why I was sitting there today. We’re cracking down on people running that light.”
I got lucky again and was given a lesser citation, one that didn’t put any points on my license. I didn’t think it was that bad. I paid my fine and move on with my life. It took another three months after the ticket before the real consequences reached me.
One day when it was getting close to Christmas, my Assistant Manager, Dave, pulled me aside with some bad news. “We ran your MVR,” he said. “You can’t deliver anymore.”
I was confused, and protested. He explained. Pizza Hut has a rule. If a delivery driver has two “moving violations” within a year, they aren’t allowed to drive for the company any more. It doesn’t matter if the tickets had points, or what the specific violations were. Anything that happens while you’re driving your car counts. Unbeknownst to me, the management ran a check on every driver’s license, a Motor Vehicle Report, every six months. Mine came back flagged because of my violations.
I entered a mild panic. I needed this job. Not because of my bills; I was only paying my car insurance and gas each month, and didn’t even have a cell phone yet. But I had gotten used to having spending money, and I have managed to save up $9000 over the course of the past year, money which I was setting aside for my future. The prospect of going back to a minimum wage job didn’t appeal to me. Not at all.
I was considering what other pizza places in the area I could apply to, perhaps Domino’s or Papa John’s, when my general manager pulled me into the office. “We’d like you to stay,” he said. “I can use you as a cook, train you on the phones. We can work something out. Then in a few months, we run your MVR again, and if it comes up clean, you can go back to driving.”
I considered the offer. I already knew cooking and order taking, though it would be a bit different doing these things full time. But I wavered; I liked my job, and I liked my coworkers, but I was only making $6 per hour if I lost my tips. When I hesitated, my boss offered me a raise, increasing my pay to $6.50. An 8% pay increase wouldn’t quite make up for the lost tips, but as raises went, it was a generous offer. I decided to stay, figuring if things didn’t work out I could still look for another delivery job someplace else.
My schedule changed. I started working weekend mornings instead of nights, and I was trained in how to make pizza dough. I’d come in at 8 am to start mixing and rolling dough, and still be doing it until around 3:00 or 4:00 pm. My store was one of the busiest Pizza Huts there was, and we sold hundreds upon hundreds of pizzas each day. We even won two awards that year, for Highest Sales and Highest Sales Growth, beating out every other Pizza Hut in the east coast region.
After finishing dough on the weekends, I was sent up front to help answer the phones, help customers, and cut pizzas as they came out of the oven. I also worked up front on weeknights, after I got done classes at Rowan. With how busy our store was, there would be at least half a dozen people behind the counter, just to take care of phones and carryout customers. Mostly, though, I stayed at the oven, cutting pizzas. This was a two-man job at our store. Our pizza oven had been replaced earlier that year, because the old oven had just been too small to keep up with the volume of orders we got from Rowan students. The new oven was a double-decker, triple-wide monster that fed pizzas through on a conveyor belt. At any given time on a busy Friday or Saturday night, there could easily be as many as 40 pizzas in the oven at a time, not to mention trays of breadsticks, wings, and garlic bread. If the person cutting pizzas didn’t keep up with the flow of cooked food coming out at the end of the conveyor belt, pans could get pushed off by the other pizzas coming up from behind. Slower cutters either had to pull pizzas out and set them to the side just to clear them out of the way, or else risk pans falling to the floor and splattering hot cheese and sauce everywhere.
When I was cutting, I had a system to keep up with the flow. An assistant to my right would prep the box while I grabbed a pan with a pair of metal tongs. I had perfected the flick of the wrist it took to flip the pizza out of the pan and onto the cutting board in one smooth motion. I then hacked the pizza into six, eight, or twelve slices, depending on the size, using a blade the size of a Klingon Bat’leth. I then slid it into the box, and the assistant sent it off where it needed to go. He worried about whether the order was for dine-in, carryout, or delivery. All I did was cut.
At any given moment, there could be anywhere from six to twelve pizzas nearing the edge of the conveyor belt. They would all have to be cut within thirty to forty-five seconds to prevent a backup. That left me, on average, about four seconds to cut each pizza. And I could do it; I was fast. I was like a ninja wielding the pizza cutter, focused on keeping up with the flow. I didn’t worry about customers, I just cut. I didn’t answer phones, I cut. I didn’t get to take a bathroom break, I just cut. This usually lasted from around 5:30 pm until at least 9:00 pm, when it would finally slow down.
Over time, I started realizing that we needed to maintain a strict level of organization in the front counter area. Otherwise, we would never be able to keep up. There were half a dozen tasks that had to be done between 4:00 to 5:00, before the main dinner rush hit. The managers never had time to worry about these things; one would be swamped dealing with the delivery drivers, another would be helping the cooks, and another would be in the dining room, helping with customers. That left the counter crew alone, with no leadership. I had to step up. When I first arrived, I would set my coworkers on the various tasks that needed to be done: folding cardboard boxes for the pizza; stocking up on tin foil, wax paper, and those little plastic box supports; prepping sauce cups for breadstick boxes and ranch cups for wings; and making sure everything was clean and sanitary. My coworkers got so used to me asking them to help with such things that when I entered the store, they would ask me, “What needs to get done?”
After awhile, they got so used to asking me what they needed to do that they came to me when problems arose. If there was a customer complaint, and no manager was around, I would have to deal with it. Often, this meant handing the pizza Bat’leth to my assistant, helping a customer, then rushing back to relieve the overwhelmed cutter as soon as I could. I started making command decisions that I had no authority to do, such as discounting a customer’s order when a mistake had been made. I had peeked at the manager’s computer password, and I used it myself when I needed to authorize a discount. By the time I started nearing my deadline, the date when my first ticket would no longer be on my MVR, I was essentially a manager in everything but name.
Then one day, my boss asked me, “Did you ever think about becoming a manager?”
I hesitated. The truth was, yes, I HAD thought about it. I thought that it would be a terrible idea. I thought that the managers were under far too much stress; over the past year, I had seen six assistant managers quit, two of whom had walked out in the middle of a shift. I also knew delivery drivers made more money than the managers. All I wanted to do was get back to being a driver, and back to making a fortune in tips.
So when my manager asked me if I’d thought about becoming a manager, I said, “Well, I’ve thought about it . . .”
A week later he pulled me aside and said, “Okay! I signed you up for the next management training seminar.”
This would prove to be the beginning of the end.
* * *
The training class was a two-day seminar that included all of the new manager trainees throughout the entire South Jersey region. After the initial training class, each trainee was sent for an eight week “hands-on” training period in a store in their home district. I was transferred to the training store in Berlin, working for Ted Hobbs, known throughout the local franchise as “Two-faced Ted.” During my first meeting with the other trainees at the regional training seminar, people had flinched when they heard I was being sent to the Berlin store.
“Here are the words that come to mind when I hear the name ‘Ted Hobbs,’” one of the other trainees had told me. “Asshole. Scumbag. Two-faced. Pig.”
I was worried, but decided to give Ted a chance. After all, it would only be for eight weeks, and only four days a week at that. On Friday nights I would be training in the Washington Township store, which was the store I’d be transferred to permanently at the end of my training. Working there one day a week was meant to help me get to know the new crew and how their store ran.
The training in Berlin turned out to be worse than I’d thought. Ted Hobbs was a liar, a cheat, and a passive aggressive asshole. Most of my “training” days were spent making pizzas, mixing dough, and sweeping cigarette butts out of the parking lot; things I’d done as a regular employee, and things which didn’t teach me anything about how to run a store. I quickly realized that Ted was using me as “free labor”; my pay during the training period came from a district-wide training budget, not from Ted’s labor costs for his store. By scheduling me to work as a cook during his shifts, he could save labor costs by cutting hours from his regular employees. And since there were two other trainees there at the same time I was, he was saving himself about 90 hours a week in labor costs.
At the end of the eight weeks of training—eight weeks I couldn’t wait to be done with—I had to sit down with the District Manager for a final interview. The District Manager, Rick, ran eight different stores in our area. He said that the final interview was his way of making sure he could be confident that I was ready to be a manager in one of his stores.
We met in the newly built, but not yet open for business Pizza Hut in Deptford. I had to take a written test first, answering questions about what I had learned during my training. It was mostly made of multiple choice questions about how to handle certain customer service issues, how to react in an emergency, how to handle disgruntled employees, and how to reconcile problems in the daily cash count.
After the written test, Rick asked me some questions to see if I was ready. Many of the answers I was able to quote almost word for word, having memorized them from my training manuals. I have a memory that lets me recall such things verbatim even years later. When Rick asked me what “L.A.S.T.” meant when helping a dissatisfied customer, I quoted, “Listen to the customer, Ask for more information, Satisfy their concerns, and Thank them for bringing the problem to my attention.” When he asked me what “C.H.A.M.P.S.” stands for, I quoted, “Cleanliness, Hospitality, Accuracy, Maintenance, Product Quality, and Speed.” When he asked me what toppings go on a Supreme Pizza, I rattled off the list, “Pepperoni, beef, pork, green peppers, red onions, and mushrooms.” I kept quoting everything with such accuracy that by the end of the interview, he had called me a Walking Procedures Manual. He also said that I was the strongest trainee to come through the new training program since they had implemented it a few years before.
I remember thinking to myself, Yeah, because I taught myself. The rest of the trainees had to deal with this douchebag training manager. I couldn’t wait to be away from Ted Hobbs and his two-faced manipulations and illegal activities.
As the interview came to an end, Rick said, “I think you’re ready. I’ll be glad to have you in one of my stores. But now I’ve got a favor to ask you.”
I tensed up. Nothing about this experience so far had gone well. First I had been strong-armed into becoming a manager, then I’d found out Rick had low-balled me on my pay (I was only being paid $8 per hour when other starting managers earned $8.50), and then I’d been stuck for eight weeks of “training” with Ted Hobbs, who had disappeared for four weeks of it to go on paternity leave. I just wanted to go back to being a driver.
“I know you’ve been working Fridays in the Washington Township store,” he said. “And I know you’ve gotten to know everyone there, and you were expecting to be working there when your training was done.” What I really wanted, but didn’t mention, was to be sent back to my home store in Glassboro. Rick didn’t like a manager to work in the same store they’d come from, since all of the other employees there were used to seeing you as their equal, rather than their boss. “But I’ve got a problem. We just lost a manager in the Clementon store, and that’s a much busier store. I really need someone there. Do you think you could go there instead?”
I only hesitated for a moment. After all, by then I was used to being sent where the company wanted me without really having much say in it. “Sure,” I said. “If that’s what you need.” I hadn’t wanted to be a manager to begin with. They weren’t likely to send me back to Glassboro any time soon. What difference did it make which store they sent me to?
I was completely unprepared for what was ahead.
In fall of 2000, I was transferred to the Pizza Hut in Clementon, New Jersey. It was a sorely understaffed establishment. When I first arrived, there were already too few drivers, servers, and cooks, and only one dishwasher. They were also short on managers, which is why I was sent there. What made it even worse, however, was that the General Manager was leaving on sick leave only a week after I arrived. He had been in a bar fight some time before, and had to have surgery performed on his wrist (as I understood it, he had broken his wrist on some other guy’s face). For six weeks, my new store would be running without a leader.
For the first couple of weeks, the only managers were myself and the Senior Assistant Manager, Carol. We were both working double shifts to cover the entire week, in a store that should have had at least four managers on staff. Two weeks into my time there, another manager joined our team, but like me, she was fresh out of training. Unlike me, she hadn’t managed to complete the training herself; Ted Hobbs has only taught her about 1/3 of what she needed to know, and she showed up on her first day with her training manuals in hand, expecting to finish them later and learn the rest on the job. Since the store was so short-handed, I ended up being the one teaching her most of what she had missed in training.
People in the Clementon store often quit after they’d only been working there for a week, and I often yearned to be one of those people. There weren’t many left who had been there for any memorable length of time, though there were some that would always remain memorable. Arthur was one of them.
Arthur was our dishwasher; the only dishwasher we had, even though the store was busy enough that there should have been at least three or four to cover days, nights, and weekends. Arthur had been the dishwasher there since before I came to work in Clementon, and as far as I know, he continued working there long after I was gone.
Arthur was mentally handicapped. This made it very difficult to talk to him. He was, in many ways, like a child, even though he was a grown man in his sixties. You could hand him a stack of dishes and he would hold it, very carefully, with both wrinkled hands. He would carry the dishes in front of him as he took slow steps to the dishwasher, then set them down on the counter and lift each one, one at a time, to examine it. His mouth often moved and made a sound not quite like speaking, but more like the spark of communication you see in a child before they learn words. He could understand you well enough to follow directions, but working with him always took great care. He would never quite look at you; he always stood hunched over, his graying head bowed and tilted away from you as if he were trying not to be seen. I never knew quite how to talk to him. He was good at his job, though, and that was what counted.
Working in this store was stressful for all of us, but it was hardest on Arthur. He sometimes had panic attacks. They usually came when the dishes piled up too high and he became overwhelmed. Sometimes the stacks of dishes were piled so high in the dish room that they formed a wall, blocking off all sight. I think Arthur felt trapped by that wall. He would pace back and forth, moaning and hitting himself in the head. We would have to clear the dishes out and give him time to relax so that he wouldn’t feel so trapped.
The problems were worse on the night shift. The busy dinner rush meant a lot of dishes, usually more than Arthur could keep up with. He was good at handling the dishes without breaking them, but he needed to take his time, and couldn’t be rushed. Night shifts at a busy pizza place are always rushed. It certainly isn’t the place to take your time.
We eventually moved Arthur to the day shift. Lunchtime was always slower, and he was better able to keep up with the work load. Of course, this left us without a single dishwasher on the busy nights, since any time we hired one they quit before long. Dishes would often pile up from 5:00, when we started the dinner rush, until midnight, when we closed. There just wouldn’t be time to send anyone back there before closing time, unless deliveries slowed down enough that we could send a driver back.
It was for the best, though. Arthur was happier once he was freed from the stresses of the night shift, and it was easier for the rest of us not having to handle his attacks. Despite all of his problems, however, Arthur may have been the best employee we had. He stuck it out, through all the hard times. Unlike the other employees, he never called up and quit on us. Unlike me, he never walked out in the middle of a shift.
I almost quit on the day Rick told me they were rearranging the districts. The company had promoted a new District manager, he said, and they were forming a new district for him to run. Each of the seven surrounding districts in the area was losing one store, dropping them all down from eight stores to seven, and those stores were being made into the new district. The store Rick was losing was the Berlin store. The one I had trained in. The one Ted Hobbs worked for.
Our GM was scheduled to come back from his sick leave that week. When I asked where he would be going, Rick told me he was being transferred to the Washington Township store; the same store I was originally going to transfer to. Ted Hobbs was being pulled out of the Berlin store and sent to Clementon. After asking around and talking to some of the other managers in the district, I found out why: Ted Hobbs and Rick were best friends, and that was the only reason (so it was said) that Ted still had a job. Rather than leaving him to work under, and perhaps get fired by, another District Manager, he was being transferred to stay in Rick’s district.
One of our servers came up to me the day the transfer was announced. “Am I going to have to quit?” she asked. “I’ve been here for seven years.” She had heard the same stories about Ted Hobbs that I had, and wanted to know if they were as bad as she’d heard. After working with Ted for eight weeks (well, four, since he was on paternity leave for half of my training period), I knew all of the bad stories about him were true. I didn’t have any assurances to give her.
More people quit. We had to hire more replacements, and half of our crew was inexperienced and incompetent. I called my old GM from my home store in Glassboro, asking him what I should do. He told me to stick it out. “I’ve been trying to get Rick to send you back here,” he told me on the phone. “I keep telling him how hard it’s been to run this store without you here, how I need you back.” I told him I’d try to wait it out.
On October 31st, 2000, I quit my job.
I didn’t go Trick-or-Treating that day, not because I was too old for it (you’re never too old for Halloween), but because I was working the worst day of my career as a manager at Pizza Hut. I was stuck in a store with not enough help and too many customers. I only had one server waiting tables (the other three that were supposed to be there had called out). I only had one cook making pizzas, and it was her first week in the store. I only had one delivery driver (one had called out, a second just didn’t show up, and a third called me to say he was quitting because “he wasn’t making enough money”). I tried to call the Ted, who was coming in later to do inventory, to come in early to help. He refused and said “You’ll be fine.” That left just me, an exhausted, undertrained, underpaid manager, with three employees that ranged from incompetent to just not giving a crap.
I unplugged the phone when the orders were rolling in faster than we could keep up with. Since the phones were down, an angry customer decided to come down to the store and scream at me in person, while I was holding a heavy stack of filthy dishes (we didn’t have a dishwasher either). I stood there, clutching a stack of plates and greasy pizza pans, and decided it wasn’t worth it anymore, doing this job for not much above minimum wage.
I locked the doors, preventing any new customers from coming in and allowing those who left to exit through the main doors that could be set to only open from the inside, locking automatically behind each customer after they left. I gathered my three coworkers around me and told them, “I’m quitting. I’m locking everything up, counting the cash in the register so I don’t get in trouble for missing money, locking it all in the safe, and then I’m leaving.”
The cook panicked, uncertain how to react when her boss said he was quitting on her third day. The driver just laughed (he was probably stoned). The server gave me a high five and said, “All right! I’m quitting too!”
When the cook asked what she was supposed to do, I told her, “Ted will be here in a couple of hours to do inventory. Just find something to clean until then. You won’t get in trouble.” Ever since he’d become our new general manager, Ted had been manipulating the inventory counts to cover up losses and hide the fact that the store was losing hundreds of dollars a week in wasted cheese (most of which got spilled on the floor while the cooks were too busy to be careful).
The server went back to waiting on the few remaining customers until they all exited the store. The driver went in the back to do dishes. The cook fumbled about, unsure of herself. I counted the cash, made sure to account for every penny, and locked it in the safe. I left a nice, nasty note for Two-faced Ted in the manager’s log book (the one that remains a part of permanent store records), letting him know just what I thought about him and his horrible managerial skills. He was also covering up cash losses from the register and manipulating labor costs to hide violations.
I was about to leave when my server came rushing back and said, “Two parties of eight just walked in! What do we do?”
Two parties. Eight people each. Both walked in the door at the same time. While the front doors remained locked from the inside, one of the earlier customers had unlocked the side door and exited that way. The side door didn’t lock behind someone when they left.
I paused for a moment, considering it. I had already recorded my exodus on the managerial log. I was committed. So I shrugged and said, “I’ll go talk to them.”
I walked up to the first party, clasped my hands before me in a very professional stance, and said, “I’m very sorry, but we won’t be able to serve you tonight. I’m quitting, and my server is quitting. So we won’t be able to help you.”
A confused woman, presumably mother of the teens she had brought in, stared at me in shock and asked, “What? What are we supposed to do?”
I shrugged and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Maybe if you call another Pizza Hut in the area and explain to them what happened, they’ll offer you a discount or some free food as an apology. Or my cook will still be here, maybe she can make you something. But I’m quitting, so I can’t help you. Have a nice day.”
I then walked around to the other side of the dining room and gave the same speech to the second party.
My server and I left, shook hands, and never looked back. The last thing I saw that night was the cook, on her third day, frantically trying to deal with sixteen confused and angry customers who wanted to know why the manager had just walked out.
I saw Two-faced Ted just one more time, when I dropped off my uniform and picked up my last paycheck. He didn’t say a single word to me when we exchanged clothing and check, but I’ll never forget the look on his face.