I got my first job – twenty years ago – at Burger King. I was 17. It was never a clean store or in particularly good shape. I remember we would have special cleaning details trying to put the store together better before one of the corporate “surprise” inspections. Even so, the best report we ever had was a 72 out of 100 from the inspectors, so you can imagine how well the store functioned normally.
We had a sale going on called “Two Burgers for a Buck”; pretty self explanatory. And it was very successful. We were making burgers in massive quantities as everyone was ordering 6, 8, 10 hamburgers at a time. I was in drive thru, calling the orders back, and every once in a while there would be a scream of frustration from the boards crew (the ones who actually made the hamburgers and put all the condiments on them), but for the most part things were going well for a Friday night until my orders stopped coming.
I told my customers that I would be with them in a minute and walked back to the kitchen to see what the problem was. McFly (that wasn’t his real name, but that was what we called him) was working boards. He got his job through the high school Work Studies Program (which meant he didn’t have enough on the ball to get a job at Burger King all by himself). But he worked hard with what he had and yelling at him would only slow him down, so I decided to help him out and pull some of the new burgers off the broiler, put them together and stick them in the steamer. I walked over to the broiler and started pulling patties off when I noticed they were smaller than usual. I knew we were setting the broiler too high to keep up with demand, but now the burgers weren’t much bigger than a silver dollar and many were rather crispy looking.
“What the f— is going on?” I yelled at McFly. “What are you guys doing back here?” McFly didn’t answer me right away. He had big eyes that bugged out normally, but they bugged out even farther now. And he wasn’t looking at me, but rather at a point just slightly above my left shoulder. He slowly lifted his arm to point at something behind me and I will never forget the mixture of fear and awe in his voice as he tried to answer my question.
Slowly I turned. There was a roaring sound coming from the broiler now. And the flames normally kept a few inches high inside the broiler (hence the concept of “flame broiling) were now great gouts of flame three or four feet rising out of the top. The meat going in was less being broiled rather than being incinerated. Patties were being spit out as misshapen lumps of black coal, some still on fire. I began to back out of the kitchen. The flames were getting higher and higher, reaching for the metal apron hanging above it. The edges were coated with grease and I knew when the flames reached it…
Perhaps I should run, I thought to myself, but it was too late. There was a whoosh as the flames set off the grease traps; a ring of fire wrapped around the apron and flew up the ceiling. There was a boom and a cloud of flame retardant dropped in a great green cloud which swallowed the kitchen and crew. Alarms went off, but through my headphones, I could still hear the people outside waiting to order.
“Wow, look at all that smoke coming out of the roof…”
McFly and the rest of the kitchen staff stumbled out of the greenish cloud of flame retardant coughing and spitting. I could see the powder all over everything in the kitchen, but there were still small fires burning around the apron and in little places on the burger boards. Our manager calmly walked out into the restaurant where customers appeared to be frozen, burgers and fries paused halfway to their mouths. But they all watched our manager as he slowly walked to the fire extinguisher, unhooked it, and calmly returned to the kitchen and flooded the place with another cloud of carbon dioxide. That was the cue for people to get up and leave. I could hear sirens coming and the people in the drive thru trying to get my attention. I flipped the intercom control on my waist to “TALK”
“Uh, welcome to Burger King. Can I help you?”
“Yes. Do you still have that two burgers for a buck deal going on?” I looked back at the kitchen, the broiler looking like it just re-entered the atmosphere, everything else covered in green dust.
“Uh, I don’t think we do… we just had an – explosion – and we can’t make any burgers right now.” There was a long pause.
“Can we still get a salad?” I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Several Hoffman Estates fire fighters dressed in full gear complete with axes and air supplies were pouring out of their truck and running towards the OUT door (which was a PULL from outside instead of a PUSH). The first fireman slammed into the unmoving door and the others smacked into him one by one. They backed up to reorganize and the first guy reared back with his ax, ready to chop, but one of the girls working up front ran over to open the door before any permanent damage was done. I checked the refrigerator up front and miraculously there was still a salad in there – untainted – in its plastic tray. I made my last sale of the night then turned to the incredible task of trying to get the store put back together (which we did; in nine and a half hours of back breaking toil) for breakfast the next day.