Professional Development

What One Disastrous Week in Food Service Taught Me About Marketing

Now that I am twenty years into my career, I know there are many things I am good at. Asking smart questions, marketing audits, and writing content that converts – that’s my jam. But if we rewind to my very first job, it is clear that retail was not the path for me. In a sandwich store in a suburban strip mall, I discovered a few things that actually help me in my day-to-day world as a marketer, even today.

You need a team.

It was when the seventh netball shirt walked in that I realized I was in trouble. I was about two hours into my fourth day as a “Sandwich Artist” (I’m not making this up), and the two more senior artists had called in sick. Despite being all of 13, I decided I could run the store by myself. There were lists for everything – how to proof and bake the bread, cut the salad ingredients, and of course, how to upsell. How hard could it be? Netballers, parents, and coaching staff kept pouring in the door. I wound up making 16 sandwiches and taking over half an hour while a line of hungry customers formed outside.

I began to ponder how I would solve the problem if I had help. Having another person taking orders and making the sandwiches would halve the work, but what if we split the jobs as well? What if we had one person slicing rolls and managing meats while the other added salad toppings and wrapped sandwiches? Aged 13, I was already starting to think about the division of labor according to competency. These days, I use this skill every day to figure out what a project needs to be successful and who has the skills and experience required to take on which part.

Consistency is essential, but so is creativity.

When the army of netballers left, I looked at my bread bin. There were maybe seven rolls left, and I was an hour from the lunch rush. Gah!

In case you’ve never baked bread before – which I had not before landing this job – it’s a bit of a process. You need to make the dough, let it “proof” or rise for at least an hour, then bake it, and let it cool. Being a fast-food joint, the store sped up the process by having frozen bread dough and an electric proofer, but it’s still about 2.5 hours from frozen lightsaber to glutenous torpedo. Ergo, I’d have to start cutting corners.

I fired up the proofer and filled it with lightsabers, knowing it would take 90 minutes to do its work. Then I got creative. I took ten lightsabers, splashed them with water, and microwaved them for a minute each inside their silicone baking trays. They came out wet and weirdly shaped but also slightly fluffy, so into the oven they went. Then I put a bunch of lightsabers in the oven frozen and hoped for the best. (Look – an early A/B test! What a nerd. 🤓)

The results were certainly less than spectacular. The rolls were smaller and less floofy than the proofed ones, but they were a stop-gap measure that meant I could keep the store open through lunch until the first of the adequately proofed buns were ready. I gave deep discounts and apologized for the quality, but no one asked for a refund. This taught me that some tasks need a pair of tweezers and a deft hand, but some tasks require a sledgehammer. The trick is to know when to use each.

Communication is paramount.

Late in the afternoon, my brother called me at the store. He had been a Sandwich Artist for several months and was calling to check in on his little sister (and perhaps on his reputation after twisting some arms to get me the job in the first place). I told him about my day, proud of my heroic feats of salad-throwing and sandwich-saving. “Why didn’t you call the sister store for help? Or more bread?” he asked. I was dumbfounded. What sister store?

It turned out there was another outlet less than ten blocks away that was fully staffed, fully baked, and could have delivered a swag or two of bread and an extra pair of hands if I’d only asked. Managers and senior team members knew to ask, but I did not. No one had told me because I wasn’t ever supposed to be alone. There was no plan for two seniors calling in sick on the same day, and the safety net failed me because I didn’t know it existed.

The following Monday, I checked the roster for my next shift to find that I wasn’t on it. I wasn’t on the next week’s roster either. In classic retail style, I had been let go without a single word. Just like that, my Sandwich Artistry career was over with one spectacular day.

Which taught me my final lesson: As a food service clerk, I should stick to marketing.