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Going for Gold

Read Thursday, 12 Jul 2018

In the lead-up to Sydney 2000, Shannon Hick tried out for the McOlympic team.

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Illustration of Olympic rings dusted with sesame seeds, and a box of McDonald's french fries over the red ring

You had to be 14 years and nine months in Perth in the Nineties to get a proper part-time job as a minor. Not long before I reached that age, I started scouring local shop notice-boards for a checkout-chick job. I’d outgrown my paper round and it was time to step things up.  A supermarket gig seemed like a natural fit for me – I thought I’d be pretty good at passive-aggressive scanning – but for some reason, no matter how many times I checked the noticeboards, I never managed to find any openings in my area. It was a blessing, in hindsight, because it turned out I was meant for greater things. I was destined for the Golden Arches and – almost – for Olympic glory.

One day, around the time I was job-hunting, I saw an ad in the local newspaper. A brand new McDonalds store was opening up at the new Lansdale shopping centre and they were recruiting. I turned up at a community hall, along with about 50 other youngsters, clutching a copy of my resume. After some corporate waffle (something about the ‘McDonalds family’ and ‘teamwork’) a store manager met me and basically gave me a job straight away. Things got serious pretty fast. I had to open a real (non-Dollarmite!) bank account; I had to buy black lace-up shoes.

Cluey with cash-register buttons and basically capable of interacting with members of the public, I was a counter chick and drive-thru gal. I took orders, worked the dining room and channelled Madonna with my headset in the drive-thru isolation booth. I upsized your meals, flurried your McFlurries and salted your fries in the internationally standardised triple-arch motion (you had to draw three arches in the air above your fries with the salt-shaker).

The store manager at the recruitment drive had talked a lot about the importance of community and teamwork and and we really were a team. We shared a language (‘leaving three cheese’, ‘last Mac!’) and received a few corporate AAA store ratings in my time there, thanks to our outstanding order times and precision on the grill. We really did get cheeseburgers and shakes into customers’ hands in lightning speed, though we were seamless, too, in our cooperation against the interests of corporation and customer. ‘Dropping’ 20-packs of nuggets into the fryer right before close soon became second nature and almost a lifestyle. You’d look forward to a shift if you had good people in the washroom and a manager who cranked up the dining-room music and turned the exterior lights off ahead of time.

‘It turned out that our store’s reputation preceded us.’

Working for a major fast-food corporation meant I got to see the might of the marketing dollar first-hand. From Happy Meal collectible toys, to the roll-out of the McOz burger, we were always promoting something new in store. In the year leading up to the Sydney Olympics, the McDonalds IOC partnership was unavoidable: drink cups, fry packets – anything printed was emblazoned with Olympic rings. Crew magazine (the glossy rag for staff we sometimes browsed in the crew room during breaks) outlined ways in which all Australian McDonalds stores were embracing the Olympic spirit. There were sports grants for staff and torch-bearer nomination programmes. There was even the McDonalds Olympic Crew Challenge – the chance for staff to work at the golden-arches store in the Olympic Village.

Sydney seemed a world away from our northern-suburbs Perth hamlet. I personally wasn’t too invested in the Olympic hype – I had uni assignments and Sunday sessions to think about – and neither, it seemed, were any of my workmates.

But it turned out that our store’s reputation preceded us. Head-office reps came especially to visit the Lansdale outlet – pacing the floor with clipboards during busy service times, observing our flawless triple-arch salting motions and inspiring team cohesion  – and we were deemed eligible to compete in the McDonalds Olympic Crew Challenge.

Our store manager, Luke, broke the news to us one afternoon as we hovered around the crew room, waiting to clock on. ‘We’re putting together a team of the best crew to compete in the McOlympics!’ he announced. ‘Get involved!’

The staff at our store would battle it out against our Perth AAA-store rivals, Luke explained, for a chance to go to Sydney and work in the Olympic Village. We wouldn’t be competing on our home turf, we’d have to travel to a store in Melville, south of the river. This outlet was known not only as the busiest store in WA, but also one of the best. We would be graded as individuals, not as a crew, so we each had to perform at the top of our game to make the Olympic team.

Illustration of a McDonald's cheeseburger mounted to a ribbon, like a medal

On the big night, we carpooled to the Melville store together. We’d polished our shoes, ironed our green-striped shirts and centre-creased our pants. Hairnets, neckties, name badges, aprons: we were a credit to the McDonalds Station Observation Checklist (SOC). How seriously did we want to win? We’d been playing it pretty cool in the weeks leading up to the competition – joking about how we’d get to party together in Sydney if we did get selected – but we were a little bit nervous during that long car trip across the river, even if we didn’t want to admit it. Maybe we really did want a free trip to Sydney pretty badly. We knew we were good, but were we good enough?

The competition process, when we got there, was very formal but seemingly fair. Each team would work an hour of the Melville dinner rush and judges would assess who performed best. I was the order-taker, the first port of call for any drive-thru customer. My major responsibility was asking ‘Would you like fries with that?’ in a way that sounded natural, relaxed, not too rehearsed – with bonus points for upselling. Judges assessed drive-times (90 seconds is the ideal, anything more makes Ronald frown) and maintenance of burger stock levels. Food presentation was important, too. You may as well have jumped in the deep fryer if your 30-cent cone swirl turned out wonky.

We flipped burgers, we salted fries, we double-folded the takeaway bags and swept and mopped our little hearts out – all under the observant eye of our managers and the  judges. When our time was up, we pushed our managers for info: ‘How did we do?’, ‘Do you know our scores?’, ‘Who’s going through to the next round?’ Luke wouldn’t tell us, but I didn’t get a winning vibe. His usual perky smile had lost some shine, as though he had an inkling we wouldn’t be successful. This was confirmed a week or so later when the results were posted on the noticeboard in the crew room to minimal fanfare. None of us made the team.

‘Just like the elite athletes who trained for glory but didn’t medal at the games, we had measurable efficiency errors that let us down.’

Was it nerves – being away from our home turf? Was it the unusual number of special orders (‘no pickles’, ‘extra cheese and ketchup’ etc) that interrupted our flow? Maybe the cloth buckets, with their weird chlorine-smelling powder sachets weren’t fresh enough. Just like the elite athletes who trained for glory but didn’t medal at the games, we had measurable efficiency errors that let us down.

But we were philosophical about our loss as Olympic hype reached fever pitch during the Games. We knew that what we lacked in corporate procedural checklist perfection we made up for in other ways. Did the workers in the Olympic village know how to make jam donuts with cheeseburger buns?

In the end, I watched the opening ceremony in the comfort of my own home. I didn’t mind missing out on the action. Besides, if I’d been in Sydney – serving up McFlurries and meal-deals to bazillions of demanding customers – I wouldn’t have had time to do Nikki Webster impersonations over the headset for my friends between drive-thru customers the next day.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.