You Get What You Pay For

After the MBA professors sort out what went wrong at Enron, AIG and Fannie Mae, I hope they’ll take a fact-finding trip to the Taco Bell/KFC franchise on 14th Street near U Street in Washington DC. Though I can barely stomach the food, I stopped in there several weeks ago so that I could quickly eat something before meeting friends for happy hour. What a disaster. The incompetence impressed me so much that I’ve been back three times to observe the workers. Just now I waited 45 minutes for a bean and cheese burrito, a hard shell taco and a water. It’s fascinating.

As an In-N-Out loyalist, I’ve had occasion to observe the best in fast food workers up close. Hell if I can figure out what enables them to speedily deliver perfect fresh burgers and fries sans freezers or heat lamps, whereas the folks I’ve been observing can’t even manage to shoot the sour cream gun so that its contents are dispersed evenly throughout the burrito, rather than clustered so that your first or last bite is all sour cream. I’ve never worked fast food, but I am a frequent observer and regular participant in burrito assembly that doesn’t even benefit from the latest in condiment projectile technology. It ain’t that hard.

Funny thing is that the guy manning the cash register appears to be a model of competence. He takes orders quickly, gives accurate change promptly, and smiles as he hands you a crisp numbered receipt. This is where the process breaks down. Behind the counter are five employees whose attention is divided among the Taco Bell products and KFC products — that is to say, if anyone has clear responsibilities for any aspect of food assembly it isn’t evidence from the chaos the customer observers. The kitchen staff bumps into one another, shouts frantically, is always forgetting to put new biscuits in the oven, etc. The way they move you’d think it’s everyone’s first day, but I’ve seen the same faces again and again. A task like removing a plastic bag from a bundle of same, putting several tacos inside and handing it to a customer in exchange for his receipt lends itself to increasingly dexterous movements over time. Here there is a lot of fuss needed to separate the bags, a lot of fumbling with the food, and awkward receipt exchanges.

Worse than anything, however, is the sheer time elapsed. The average Taco Bell customer is conditioned to expect their food will be delivered promptly — it isn’t a surprise if you order a soft taco and are handed same immediately. The 14th Street location is filled with exasperated customers waiting for their Mexican Pizza or Chalupa or KFC variety bucket, and there is a certain camaraderie that develops as these folks make eye contact with one another, roll their pupils up in their head, and listen to one another’s stomachs growling.

I’m sure I’ll return again to observe some more — I’d really like to understand the place well enough to know where the actual breakdown is — though of course if the service becomes significantly better, I’ll definitely stop patronizing it, as there are far better options nearby whether measured by food or atmosphere. Perhaps some DC business consultant will read this, get curious, and visit for him or herself, in which case you should e-mail me. We’ll go together! I’ll even buy.