Burger King recently got some press for the roll-out of their new French fry, which is gluten-free. This is different than McDonald's, whose fries are neither gluten-free or vegetarian, which sort of boggles my mind. Even with GF fries, some folks are apprehensive about the fries because of issues of cross-contamination. Apparently there are some BK's that dedicate a fries-only fryer and who are very conscientious. That is great news! However, I feel like I need to share my story from the inside of the fast food world.
I worked as a manager of a Roy Rogers restaurant (remember them?) in the early 1990’s. It was the worst job I’ve ever had, but I did get some amazingly funny anecdotes that I still get to tell, and I got a huge insight into race and class issues, and techniques used for getting over on one’s employer (my employess enlightened me on the many ways they could steal food and money!). Now that I have to navigate a gluten-free existence, working at Roy’s was a gift in that I gathered loads of data on ways that food prep in the fast food world can lead to cross contamination. As a result, I will never eat at a burger-and-fry-centric fast food place again.
First, I have to note that I was in my 20’s and to my eye at the time, the food wasn’t that unhealthy (my 48-year-old eye has a different opinion, of course.) The chicken was just chicken and we had a dedicated staff person whose sole job was to bread and fry it all day and evening long. If the restaurant was slow some evening, we did let it sit in the warming window longer than company specifications allowed, but I wasn’t allowed to give it to the co-workers (lest they start over producing in order to get the food themselves), so we would have to throw it away and we had to count the waste at the end of the shift, which counted against me as the manager who made the call on how much chicken to make. The burgers were just ground meat (albeit already formed into patties and frozen for shipping). Sausage and bacon was the same as in the grocery store. The rolls came on big racks every other day and looked exactly the same as rolls I bought at the time for home consumption. The fries just looked like potatoes to me (the more I read about fast food fries now, I wonder what the heck was really in them). We cut up tomatoes and lettuce and onions every morning and afternoon for use on the fixin’s bar and for tossed salads. The biscuits were hand mixed and rolled (breakfast) or scooped (lunch and dinner) all day long. The oil in the fryers was vegetable oil that we cleaned daily and changed on a regular schedule.
Some items were pre-fab: The roast beef came pre-cooked, but we sliced it down wafer thin and heated it in pre-packaged au jus for the roast beef sandwiches. The chicken breasts for chicken sandwiches came frozen with char lines painted on. The instructions were to microwave them, but I would throw mine on the 2-sided grill and drop the platen on it for a few seconds to heat them through for a more tender offering. The chicken nuggets and fried chicken patties and hash browns all came frozen and were fried in the same fryers as the French fries. The eggs for scrambling came out of a carton. The pancakes came pre-made and were microwaved in their plastic clamshells.
I was 28, a middle class, college educated lesbian. The store was located at Broad and Snyder near a subway stop and a public high school and two hospitals in South Philadelphia. South Philly is a melting pot of races and cultures, but for the most part, though I lived just a few blocks away, I was not a typical denizen of the hood. I supervised a 65-year-old Cambodian lady for whom English was almost non-existent. She made great biscuits and introduced me to a funny kind of broom that was great for cleaning under tables that the company told me to get rid of but which we kept using anyway. I had two shift supervisors. One was a 55-year-old hard-living alcoholic who would blow her paycheck on booze every Friday night and show up first thing Saturday morning looking all askew in her clothes from the day before, and I was always so grateful to have her there (running short-handed on the weekend was the pits!) My other shift supervisor was a 16-year-old over-achiever who got straight A’s at Girls High. I supervised work-release inmates, budding mobsters, moms who had 5 kids, and a few men in their 20’s who had no real skills and no real promise for a better life.
My motto for my shifts was “Make every item as if you were preparing it for your grandmother,” or “Clean the dining room/bathroom as if your favorite aunt were coming to visit.” This resonated with some, but frankly, not everyone has the gene for good service. And as the manager, especially in a shop where labor hours were carefully watched, I’d end up at a station, like the cash register, for long stretches, so it was hard to keep an eye on what was going on behind the line in the food prep area all the time.
I give all that background to note the huge disconnect between a company’s policies around food handling and the realities of food prep at the actual store. If I worked at Roy’s under the same conditions today and they told me to dedicate a fries-only fryer in order to not cross-contaminate the oil, I would not have any confidence that when the restaurant was busy that a co-worker wouldn’t drop a load of fries into the contaminated fryer to speed things up. Fries are way more popular than nuggets or chicken sandwiches, and the line is long, and who’s really going to know, right? And what about the fry baskets? If a co-worker accidentally pours a bag of frozen fries into the nuggets basket causing cross-contamination, they are not going to throw all of those out on the off-chance that someone with a gluten issue might wander in. And then, depending on where they end up frying them, they’ve just contaminated either that load of fries or the whole gf-dedicated fryer, the warming bin for cooked fries, and the fry scoop.
And as far as items from the grill, I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be cross-contaminated. At the very minimum, an employee can get fresh gloves and a clean spatula and maybe even wipe down the grill, but midday cleaning of a hot grill in my experience was either just scraping grease into the grease trough with the same spatula or maybe pouring seltzer water over the grill and then scraping it down. Even if bread is not ever technically on the grill, spatula contact from burger to bun is how it’s done. And, as with my chicken breast sandwich prep for personal consumption, I’m living proof that employees don’t always follow company regulations.
In my restaurant, the veggie prep area was separate from all of the chicken breading and biscuit making and hot food cooking, so it would have been the zone least likely to experience cross-contamination. Not all restaurants have that luxury of space, so I wouldn’t count salads as a sure bet, but I suppose I might gamble and eat a tossed salad from a fast food place if I really had to, as long as it didn’t have croutons and the dressing came in a packet with a list of ingredients (or no dressing all together.)
So, in the end, I applaud any corporate efforts to accommodate the needs of gf patrons. Even if I don’t believe I can eat safely in these restaurants and cannot recommend that anyone with celiac disease eat there either, they are raising awareness both with their employees and the general public about gluten issues.