Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Big Matt and fries

Chipping away at McJob tag

Sweat shop or the first step to a lucrative career? Our man Matthew McCreary braved the heat of a McDonalds kitchen to see what the chain has to offer its staff

It has been difficult to ignore much of the negative publicity which has plagued McDonald's in recent years, from documentaries such as Super Size Me and scathing books like Fast Food Nation.

But McDonald's has come out fighting, introducing healthier options in its menus and promoting community sports initiatives for children and young people in the areas it serves.

The negative perception many people have of the store is not just rooted in the nutritional quality of its food, however. There has always been the idea that working in McDonald's is for those not bright or motivated enough to get a 'proper' job.

So what could I learn over the course of one afternoon working at Northern Ireland's second busiest store?

I've done a few McJobs in my time, although I would never, ever have described them as such.

All the same, I felt a sense of apprehension as I entered the store at Donegall Place, trying not to put a foot wrong before I'd even begun.

At midday the place was already heaving with customers, everyone from mums-with-buggies and teenagers, to office workers and van drivers.

I was introduced to store franchisee Paul Connan who, with 26 years service under his belt (including time spent in Croatia and Slovenia), is something of a McDonald's veteran.

I was then issued with my new McDonald's t-shirt and cap and taken under the wing of store manager Katrina Fox.

McDonald's stores around the world are exceedingly well-oiled machines. Not an inch of space is wasted in the confines of the kitchen, where I am to spend most of my time.

The first thing that hits me is the heat of the place. Even with just a light t-shirt on the air-conditioning has its work cut out keeping me cool. I try hard not to be a spanner in the works, but even just standing still I seem to be in the way of three or four people.

No matter how much we deny it, we all like to have a little skive once in a while, but in this place there simply isn't the possibility to slacken off - each person working in the kitchen is a vital part of a larger process.

I'm shown how to dress a Big Mac; everything from the exact quantity of sauce to the precise number of pickles is predetermined - alas there is no room for my own creativity.

I blink and the newly-dressed buns are gone to receive their burgers, replaced with more empty rolls, then more and then even more.

Then it's onto the deli station, which is more my cup of tea, it seems, and by sticking to the easy-to-follow pictorial guide at eye-level in front of me, I come up with a passable attempt at a ham salad deli roll.

After a quick stint at the fries counter and then the drinks dispenser, I take the opportunity to grab a seat and a cup of water. Almost an hour and a half has passed in what seems like just a few minutes.

Katrina fills me in on her background and career to date. She started part- time with the company in her mid-teens and has risen through the ranks to become manager of this store.

(I am later staggered to learn that the starting salary for a store manager is around £28,000, and a first assistant manager can earn £23,000.)

Such a position only comes with hard work, and talent or 'that certain something' is marked out early by the managers among their staff for the management development programme. Like all things McDonald's this is another well-organised process, but one with great rewards at the end.

With such career incentives the staff on the floor are keen to do well.

It is rare that any new start fails to pass the three-week probationary period.

Those working here are not the drop-outs of yore.

One employee, I'm told, has 14 A* GCSE's, many are doing 4 or 5 A-Levels. Many are university students earning a few pounds in their summer break. The kitchen also has its fair share of Eastern European and Chinese students, who are well-liked and inject a lively dash of multi-culturalism amidst the hard work.

Morale is pretty good here, and with incentives such as regular outings and trips away the staff are keen to work hard and do well.

I hardly get the chance to talk to anyone, but they seem like a nice bunch of people, and I feel almost guilty that I haven't had time to find out all of their stories.

For behind each t-shirt and underneath each cap is a person with a reason for being here.

Only an irredeemable snob would call what they do a McJob - and there are very few of those that I can see working in this particular restaurant.

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