It’s Fast-Food Week! Always cap the tomato slicer.
Inside a neat office with a large desk and imposing file cabinet, a man in a vest and tie turns to the camera with a flat expression. “When I was a new employee, I was shown the safety film that you are about to see,” he says. “That was a long time ago, but what I learned from that film still means a lot to me in my job today. Watch it, and you’ll see what I mean.”
Over a dark background, a deep-voiced narrator warns that “deadly dangers” are “coming soon to a Jack in the Box near you,” with those two alliterative words growing in size to the blare of clashing trumpet sounds. What do these Deadly Dangers mean for the viewer, a Jack in the Box trainee in the early 1980s? Well, there’s the danger posed by a back door left ajar, where an ominous shadow looms; by a dining-room floor left wet from mopping, on which a worker who boasts of being “sure-footed as John Travolta” slips and falls; by an “insidious tomato slicer” lacking a safety top, causing an overconfident chef to cut his hand; and by a cocksure employee who ignores a co-worker’s warning to not lift a heavy box with his back. The deadliest danger of all is an “inattentive young Casanova” who “flirts with 375-degree terror,” burning his hand in a puddle of oil after bragging to a colleague about his motorbike exploits. After placing his hand in the fryer, the young man doesn’t make a sound—instead, he turns silently to face the camera with a look of shock and agony.
I didn’t watch this semi-Hitchockian training video because of any prior gigs at Jack in the Box. Instead, I caught it while going down a strange YouTube rabbit hole. For all the well-documented troubles with YouTube, the platform remains underappreciated for what a vast, accessible historical archive it provides, thanks to the generous enthusiasts who upload their rare findings and collections for public consumption. You don’t have to try too hard to stumble onto gems like two-hour blocks of vintage TV broadcasts, otherwise-inaccessible movie soundtracks and rare vinyl rips, bootleg concert footage, remixed PSAs, or early works from beloved creators. But my favorites are 1970s and ’80s fast-food employee training tapes. Some of them are plodding, while others put on full display the lamentable labor conditions that still dog much of the industry today. And some are … well, just watch:
Whatever the quality, many of these videos remain fascinating time capsules. They’re charming, thanks to their bizarre props, characterizations, songs, and camera angles. And they’re scary, in how they utilize various kinda-sorta cinematic techniques to keep workers underfoot, uniform, loyal, and efficient. In an era where the term hadn’t been hijacked beyond all reasonable definition, you could even refer to them as Orwellian. And they all hail from your favorite brands.
The most instructive examples come from McDonald’s, whose treasure trove of instructional videos includes: 1) a 1972 video that utilizes a saccharine, vocal-harmony-laden song about how “the greatest gift is the smile you give to your brother,” all in service of instructing workers to shut up and flash those teeth no matter how rude customers are; 2) a 1982 tape that brings in Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell to explain why helming a successful launch into space is just like properly serving McD’s food; 3) a 1992 short that uses Michael Jordan, tacky text graphics, and then–McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi to break down why food service is similar to playing game-changing basketball. (These days, Rensi is vice chairman of the restaurant conglomerate FAT Brands and a frequent advocate against unions, wage hikes, and “woke” corporate policy.)
The entry that interests me most, however, is this 1983 in-house introduction to the brand’s then-novel Chicken McNuggets, typically credited as a Rensi innovation. This 40-year-old video steers away from celebrities and hackneyed songs; instead, it uses puppets named for the iconic products they represent—Big Mac, Coke, Fries, etc.—and who, late at night, are visited by a mysterious Styrofoam box of outer-space visitors: Chicken McNuggets. To the awe of these McDonald’s staples, the McNuggets explain why they’re so delicious, what sauces they’re paired with, and how quickly and easily they can be prepared. It’s a lot: Two of the sauces, sweet-and-sour and hot mustard, are showcased with cartoonishly racist Chinese and Japanese stereotypes, and there’s a whole plot arc about how disdainful the British-accented Big Mac is of these bite-size newcomers. By the end, however, the characters are all chanting the steps of the nugget-making process, Big Mac has come around, and we even see a McNugget who turns into a film noir–esque blond bombshell after being dipped in honey sauce. The ’80s, man.
Mickey D’s didn’t have a monopoly on surreal employee indoctrination. In fact, Wendy’s may have it beat there, with its decades-spanning reliance on predominantly Black music genres like hip-hop, funk, and R&B to present how cool it is to work there. (In 2020, the official Wendy’s account tweeted that “our voice would be nothing without Black culture.” No kidding!) One particularly egregious tango: 1989’s “Grill Skills” meta music video, helmed by Wendy’s Music International subsidiary and credited to “the Crew.” After a lead-in from chain founder Dave Thomas and a brief tour of a Wendy’s kitchen, the video depicts a white trainee who puts a grill-instruction tape into a VCR, only for the TV to start shaking and steaming; out of the rickety appliance, the sunglasses-wearing head of a Black Wendy’s worker named “the Duke of Grill” floats outward before sucking the trainee into the TV, Videodrome-style.
Inside the tube, the Duke begins dancing to a New Jack Swing beat before rapping all the steps to prepping beef patties on a grill. As if that weren’t wild enough, three of the cooking patties gain eyes, lips, teeth, and big primary-shape earrings, singing in harmony about how “we start to shri-ink/ when we hit that grill/ you know we will.” Appropriately, the trainee rubs his eyes in disbelief. Once he learns all the steps and demonstrates his newfound aptitude, our protagonist returns to the real world, where Thomas touts the special skill required to make a great Wendy’s burger, segueing into a kitchen sequence where all the workers sing along to a quasi–glam rock melody about having “grill skills.” (I’ll give them this: They’re not as rhythmically sloppy as 2007’s “the Fry Guy.”) The 2000s Bay Area–based Wave magazine once declared that the existence of “Grill Skills” proves “we as a country should be judged fantastically insane.”
There are many, many more harrowing examples from chains of all stripes (Subway, Pizza Hut, an Old Country Buffet instructional apparently uploaded by its star), but allow me to spotlight an especially deranged case out of Covington, Virginia—apparently home to the best Hardee’s in America, at least back in 1992. In The Best of the Best!, a waving man in a straw hat and a regal horn procession beckon employees to see just what it is that made this Covington location the winner of the Hardee’s 1992 Champion of Service Competition, beating out at least 300 other competitors to earn the prize. The focus falls on the senior general manager, a curly-blond white woman named Tammy Nichol, who made her “goal known early” on in the competition that “we’re gonna win this thing.” Indeed, as we learn from an award ceremony headed by Richard Jenkins, then the president of Hardee’s franchise operator Boddie-Noell Enterprises, Nichol’s leadership caused her branch to earn 127 out of 130 possible points, though we never learn how or under which criteria those points were granted. Still, thanks to testimonials from BNE executives and fellow Covington workers, we learn about the qualities needed to achieve this dazzling feat: emphasizing teamwork, cultivating a hospitable atmosphere, and mandating quick service. (From Nichol: “I don’t like for anyone to wait, because I don’t like to wait. That’s why it’s called fast food: It’s quick.” Very true!) Even then-Mayor Jack Jamison comes down to congratulate the restaurant, with the narrator proclaiming this to be an honor for the entire community. Funny enough, per the comments, it appears that the real Tammy Nichol herself found this resurfaced video, writing that she “left there in 1999 after 18 years of service. 1 of my prior assistant managers talked me into go into insurance (property & casualty) & that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years! My daddy (the man at the beginning of the video) passed away at 74 in 1999. He was always my inspiration!” And where is this award-winning manager now? “I don’t live in Covington anymore. I’ve remarried & live in Eagle Rock with my husband & best friend.” Hope you’re still killing it out there, Tammy.
That whole saga is a tad more wholesome than other Hardee’s videos tend to be. One 1988 video consistently warns employees not to screw things up because “your reputation is on the line—the front line, that is.” A shorter one from 1989 features three Hardee’s workers emphasizing the need to be fast, “and the only way we’re going to be fast is to get our ACT together.” You see, A.C.T. is actually an acronym standing for Action, Commitment, and Teamwork. Action, because there’s no reason to delay service to a drive-thru customer (who wants to deal with a human, not a machine); commitment, making sure to be devoted to said customer; teamwork, because everyone has a job. That training tape underscores the much darker side to these videos: the common elements they tend to share in emphasizing speed, full supplication to the buyer, and the imperative to look and sound cheerful no matter how rough things get.
If there’s anything the American public knows about fast-food labor, it’s that infamous cruddiness: the need to deftly handle dangerous equipment, the stress to produce as much as possible with as few people as possible, the decree to keep your mouth shut, the unrequited demand for loyalty, the long and grinding hours, the sexual harassment, the low pay and middling benefits, the union-busting—and the disrespectful, haughty customers. These videos may be relics of an earlier time, one where dangerous corporate propaganda expressed itself through cringeworthy rapping, but they’re also astonishing, once hidden windows into the fast-food id: the goal to impress upon employees that if something goes wrong, it’s because they didn’t do everything right and it’ll be all their fault. Just be chipper no matter what, and put a smile on.