What I Learnt Flipping Burgers and Apportioning French Fries in California


By Washington Osiro,

A couple of days ago, someone thought they had “embarrassed” me by telling their followers that I was “…..now flipping burgers…..(instead of)…..making thousands of dollars from the comfort of my couch…..’conning men’…..” The individual made that claim with a triumphalism and self-congratulatory laugh that made it seem like there was something wrong working in a fast-food restaurant; that it was beneath him to “flip burgers.

I ignored the last part of the comment, i.e., the baseless, childish, and silly accusation about “making thousands of dollars from the comfort of my couch….” However, I thought about the supposed put-down – “…..flipping burgers….” – and wondered when it became fashionable to poke fun at hard, honest work – because I did not feel it beneath me or shameful to work at a fast-food restaurant – something I did when I was in college. 

A burger…

Flipping burgers” is the catch-all phrase/put-down some Kenyans (and Americans) use to describe working at a fast-food establishment – effectively “flipping” hamburger patties – to cook both sides – in preparation for making a hamburger. The job is menial, manual, and uncomfortable. It is menial because it is repetitious. One uses a spatula to physically turn over (“flip”) the round (or square) hamburger meat to cook both sides. Every so often, one must scrape off the carbon build-up that accumulates on the hot cooking surface and depending on the frequency with which one cleans the hot surface, the task can be physically challenging. Standing and working in front of a hot surface whose temperatures range from 155° – 175°F (68° – 79°C), in close (cramped) quarters with one or two other colleagues, is hot and uncomfortable. The additional heat from the 375°F (190°C) frying oil from the near-by fryers does not help matters. 

However, flipping burgers, cleaning toilets, and getting abused and assaulted by irate customers paid my way through college. Dodging human waste tossed at me by a late-Friday night reveler as I worked the drive-through also paid my rent and put clothes on my back. Beyond the obvious benefits of being gainfully employed, working at the fast-food restaurant famous for its zany commercials, tacos and New York-style cheesecake taught me life skills that have stayed with me since.

Flipping burgers and scooping/apportioning French Fries taught me patience and discipline. Working the grill, just before the inevitable lunchtime rush, taught me how to plan, prioritize and work efficiently. Working the cash register honed my communication and problem-solving skills while also improving my focus on the task at hand and yes, it taught me honesty – because I was handling cash – at a time when I was broke and often hungry! Importantly, flipping burgers taught me empathy – for customers who were oftentimes short a dime (KSh.10) for their order or completely down on their luck and “just want something small to eat.” And no, these are not some abstractions I’ve concocted for effect. I served many customers who did not enough money for their orders. Others simply did not have any money – but their hunger far surpassed their pride and ego.

Yes “flipping burgers” was physically and emotionally draining, but at the risk of sounding trite, it did not kill me. It made me stronger – apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche. It also gave me a sense of working in the service industry and reaffirmed that I did not want to do this if I had a choice. After a two-year stint at the fast-food joint, I left and joined a family-style diner famous for its pies. I was fortunate to be assigned to a diner located in one of the toniest neighborhoods in San Diego – the beachside enclave of Del Mar. The location of the restaurant proved an absolute “blessing” for my personal and professional life – and NOT in the Kenyan sense of the term “blessing/s.” I was with the diner for approximately two years when two events that would change the trajectory of my personal and professional life collided:

The first event was the chance meeting of a former boss and one of the restaurant’s regular customers. Dennis was my boss at a small injection molding (IM) company where I worked as a machine operator before I moved to the fast-food restaurant. He was also an avid athlete (triathlete) as I was but importantly, he lived in Del Mar. The coastal community was home to many of San Diego’s corporate executives and near-by Sorrento Valley housed many biotech start-ups which traced their roots to their proximity to University of California at San Diego’s (UCSD) highly regarded biotechnology and engineering programs. The two of us reconnected thanks to my working at the diner, i.e., “flipping burgers” and subsequently bonded over multiple long runs and bike rides up and down the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway.

One Friday evening, Dennis stopped by for dinner and being a 3-day weekend, business was slow since most people had left – to start their long weekend. This gave us time to talk. During our conversation, the former Navy captain asked me a series of questions which got me thinking about my future. Two questions stood out:

– Was I going to continue working in the service industry even after graduation?

– Beyond my college classes, what work experience had I acquired since leaving the IM company where the two of us had worked some 5 years ago?

Over a period of many discussions, Dennis, a seasoned executive helped me characterize and define my two years’ experience flipping burgers in ways I hadn’t imagined. The Senior Director of Operations saw in me, a human resource that was service-oriented, patient, competent, well-read, approachable, and communicated effectively, i.e., the proverbial “management material!” In short, talking about the experience I had gained “flipping burgers”: Patience, Discipline, Dependability, Planning, Prioritization, Efficiency, Effective Verbal & Written Communication, Empathy etc. proved invaluable.

As “they” say, success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. We kept in touch and maintained our workout routines and periodic discussions and in late 1994, years after we reconnected, the second life-changing event happened:

Dennis offered me a job supervising one of the production lines in his company – a medical device manufacturer that was expanding. He offered me the opportunity because he was able to think of and characterize my experience “flipping burgers” in ways I hadn’t done and frankly thought of. Dennis had seen me at work, i.e., “flipping burgers.” He saw how I interacted with him and with other customers. He saw and heard my dedication to the job, yes out of necessity, but also because I didn’t know what else to do given a most violent turn in my family’s life back in Kenya. Additionally, I was not ashamed to ask him (along with other customers) for advice. Again, as the proverbial “they” say, the rest is history – a history that brings me to the comment at the beginning of this piece: 

That somehow, as a culture, Kenyans appear less interested in the putting in the time and effort to rise through the ranks; to start from the bottom and work their way to the top – wherever that “top” may be from one individual to the next.

That hard, honest work is somehow to be frowned upon and disparaged!

That working hard (and if needed, smart) to earn a living is for those “who do not know…..”

I am sorry but given the infinite possibilities offered by hard and honest work, I cannot understand why some folks would ridicule those of us who work/have worked in restaurants, drive taxis, buses or trucks and my favorite, diss men and women who “wipe after ‘old’ people.” 

If the ongoing COVID-19 (COrona VIrus Disease – (20)19) pandemic has taught us anything, it is the indispensable role CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistant), LV/PNs (Licensed Vocational or Practical Nurses) and RNs (Registered Nurses) play in societies – across the world. And yes, they also “wipe after ‘old’ people.”

So What?