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Random Days in the Life: Summer 2016 Wall Drug, Part 1

This summer I am working at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota.  Maybe you have seen the signs if you have ever travelled on I-90.  I first heard about the company because of those signs.  It was in an advertising class in college.  Several years ago I was making a trip across the country and was going to spend a weekend in Pierre.  Seeing those signs along the way reminded me of the place and looked up opportunities for seasonal work.  I have seen a listing on CoolWorks since then.  They are one of those places that don't list every year, and I don't think this year was one of those times.  But when I was thinking of working somewhere in the plains, Wall Drug went to the top of my choices.

I began working the last Monday of April, and I will be here until the middle of October.  The workforce is mainly made up of a mixture of American college students, J1 international students, retired workkampers, locals, and a few of us others.  The company has purchased various housing in the town over the years, for those that are not camping in their RVs.  Food is on your own.  My housing unit is a mobile home on Buffalo St, a couple blocks away.  Well, it seems to be a common saying for directions in Wall...just about everything seems to be just a couple blocks from everything.

PDF Map of Wall and Business Directory

(My home for the summer)

For my on-going days in the life series, I have decided to grab a few days throughout the summer.  It will probably be divided into two parts for a little bit easier reading.

Wednesday, April 27

I arrived in Wall on Sunday and it was 84 F.  This morning it was cold enough it was snowing.  This could become an interesting weather watching place.  Right now I have my housing unit all by myself.  Sometime later, I should have a couple of J1 student housemates joining me.  The place has 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and dining area, and a living area with cable TV, wifi, and local phone service.  I'm working from 10:30 am to 7 pm today, so I'm in no hurry and wake up around 7:30 and make myself a little breakfast.  I had the day open yesterday, so I went to the local grocery store and bought some supplies.  I watch a little TV and then shower and get dressed for work.  It's a short quick walk, especially with the chill in the air today.

(My first impression of my housing and of Wall in general was that I stepped in some kind of 1970s /80s time warp with a few modern updates like wifi and a flat screen cable TV)

For the first couple of weeks, I'm working with Andrew, a cook that's year round and has been here for a few years.  This week we are doing the closing duties, next week we will be scheduled for opening.  The place is open from 7-7 right now.  I think once summer gets a little closer the time increases a couple more hours.  The menu is kind of simple, so even though it's only my second work day, I have most of it down.  Andrew kind of likes it that he only has to train on the menu and presentation...it sounds like many times he is training someone how to cook this time of year.

I'm kind of glad it is a simple menu.  Right now it's slow enough, but from what I have heard those signs work.  Up to 20,000 people every day will pull in off of I-90 to take a look around. I don't even know what that will look like, and I'm sure not all of them will eat.  But to do that kind of volume, it's best to simplify the menu.  You get two 10-minute breaks and a 30-minute break during the work day.

(My usual work space)

The food is ordered and served up until 6:15, that gives the crew 45 minutes to clean everything and close by 7.  It's not nearly as chilly when I leave work, so I take an extra walk around town before heading home.

Friday, June 3

I'm on the opening shift this week...5:30 am to 2 pm.  Drag myself out of bed, shower, get dressed, grab a protein bar for breakfast.  Get on my bicycle and ride to work.  Yep, bicycle.  Wall Drug has purchased many bicycles, maintains them, and will rent them to employees for the summer for a nominal fee.  Turn on all of the equipment...exhaust fans, fryers, flat top grill, char grill, toaster, syrup warmer.  Go back to the main kitchen and pick up some pans, for bacon and bacon, and pancake batter, and bacon, and for sausage later, and for bacon, and for a back-up pancake batter, and oh yeah, for some bacon later.

(A view of one of the dining areas early one morning)

Most places that I've worked busy breakfasts we sheet pan and bake bacon in the oven. Here there has been a cook already in before the breakfast cook and has filled all the ovens with roast beef...mega amounts of roast beef.  So we cook bacon on the flat top.  I'll get almost 50 pounds done before we open at 7, most of it for the breakfast buffet option over on the side.  Depending on the day, maybe a manager will have to cook some more on the flat top in the main kitchen. We'll definitely go through some on the line too.  But we try to keep a couple of pans of par-cooked which we usually catch up with during the overlap.  The closing cook is scheduled from 11:30-9, so the 11:30-2 period when two are there we can usually find some time to cook off another 15-20 pounds.  Yeah...you might have picked up on it...I'm rather tired of bacon, seeing it, smelling it, getting splattered with it....

I've cooked enough years at breakfast that for the most part it's pretty easy for me.  And lucky for me the J1s have arrived.  There is now a person at every spot along the line.  There's one that's frying potatoes and making toast and another over at the window.  There's also a set-up person, mainly for lunch but this early in the morning is slicing a lot of tomatoes and onions and putting several pans of LTO's together.  Today I'm working with a crew from Poland, Slovakia, and China, and there's a Jamaican at the register too.  It gets tough somewhere around 10 am on most days.  Breakfast only runs until 11, but people can order off the main menu anytime and they do.

Today it gets to me a little later, almost 10:30 when the mixed orders have rapidly come in and built up that I'm lost.  They are being called out, and they are on a screen, but things are beginning not to make any sense.  Cooks know what I'm talking about here.  Paul, one of the managers, gets on the line.  Says something about not sure about how much help he's being...but really just having someone else being there helps me regain focus and is a huge help.  Can breathe a little bit more smoothly after 11, bye bye breakfast orders.  But we do have a decent lunch push starting, so just a little easier.

11:30.  Happy time!  Andrew the closer has arrived.  Break time!  Well, almost.  First he's going to make a list out for maintenance.  Hmmm, that might sound a little weird most places.  Here there is food, and retail, and everything else is maintenance.  Stocking, receiving, scrubbing the floors, filling the soda machines with ice, being an extra hand wherever whenever, and yeah, normal meanings of maintenance too.  After making a list of everything that needs to be stocked, he'll page maintenance and jump on the line.  Yes, paging....that time warp thing I mentioned earlier.

(Took this pic on one of my first days in Wall in the Backyard.  During most days in the summer there is almost a constant line of people of all sizes and ages to have their picture riding the Giant Jackalope.  To me the most interesting time was during the Sturgis Rally when I saw several extra large bikers lining up to get their picture taken riding the Jackalope)

As I'm getting back to the line from my half hour break people watching in the Backyard, I notice the huge line forming with the telltale name badges on a lanyard around their necks showing a bus has arrived.  Normally I'd start washing the breakfast tools after returning from break, but for awhile I'll be meat and bun man.  Tossing various meats on the grill in their areas as they are called out and toasting buns.  Once the bus is through I clean up my breakfast stuff.  Refill the syrup warmer.  Make a run downstairs for stocks of cleaning supplies and gloves.  Give Andrew a 10-minute....then take my last 10-minute break.  Par-cook a pan of sausage patties.  Par-cook another 15 pounds of bacon.  Slice some ham back in the main kitchen.  As I'm bringing it back to the line cooler, I see another group from a tour bus lining up.  We knew about the first one, the second is one of those that just kind of show up.  I've had a bus at opening already....I've had a bus turn up a few minutes before closing.  Buses and Bacon might be a theme for my summer.

(The shelf wall extension of the Badlands;;;aka Baby Badlands is the Wall that the town is named)

Stayed a little later getting that bus out.  Rode my bicycle home.  Shower because I feel greasy.  Get some dirty laundry in my backpack and take a walk the long way by the Baby Badlands trail to the Laundromat.  A couple blocks farther than the couple of blocks more direct route.  The Badlands National Park is just 8 miles south of Wall.  There is a shelf that extends and curls all the way ending along the eastern side of the town...aka Baby Badlands.  After laundry I stop at Subway and get a sandwich for dinner before walking home.   But before eating it I get ready to go do a little exercise at the Powerhouse.  It's a gym and fitness center extension that was built on the old school.  They kept it there after they built a new school a couple of blocks away.  It's open to the public free of charge Monday-Thursday 2:30-8:30, but I went over to the school office and for a small fee you can get key card access anytime.

Get home.  Shower again.  Eat the sandwich. Check email and social media. Read. Fall asleep.

Wednesday, July 13

Today I am working in the Front Café from 10-7.  I rarely work a shift over here, a second line in the main kitchen.  Sometimes filling in to allow someone to take a break, but not an entire shift.  But to alleviate the numbers placed on one line during the summer, this one opens from 11-6:15.  So...the Back Café is runs from 7-8:15...there is also the Side Café between the two lines.  I have not worked that line yet...and probably will not.

I wake up around 7:30.  Go over to the Powerhouse for a quick workout.  Come back home and get ready to go to work.  Arrive a little early, so grab a seat in the Backyard for some people watching.

(The Fast Service Cafeteria Menu aka Side Café)

Check in and try to figure out all the settings on the equipment.  The flat top is already on, one of the managers had to cook more bacon for the breakfast buffet.  I do a quick look through the stock levels, taking a guess at what's needed and making a small list for maintenance.  A rough idea of levels right now...I'm not sure of cover counts, and really don't care enough to ask...but ticket counts are between 700-800 on an average day in the Back, I'm taking a stab at two to three hundred in the front, and a more wild guess at the same amount ordering directly off the side.  People can order side café items off of either front or back, or if they only want side café items on their ticket directly over there.  A ticket can have anywhere from a single to 20ish covers...but I'll take a stab at an average of 4 (parents and two kids).  In the back during a rush period I have seen 50 tickets in a half hour.  During those times, I'm getting more of an impression of the percentage of items and tossing amounts on the grill...it'll usually work out until I can get a grip when it begins to slow down a little.

(The Prairie Food Parlor is open in the Backyard. I take most of my half hour breaks back here)

The order system is a little different over here, it just shows up on the screen...in the back it is also called out over a speaker.  It's a little more compact on this line.  I'm working with a 20-something from Missouri at the fryer, and a J1 from Slovakia at set-up.  There's a local at the register, and another Slovakian (one of my housemates) at the window.

(When I punch out for my break I notice a new sign-up sheet for trips next week. I sign up for a trip to Mount Rushmore on Tuesday)

We have a few pushes during the day.  The most different part of the experience was getting used to where everything is located.  Things that are normally behind me are two steps to the side and vice versa.  When it gets busy, I was grabbing for items that were not there. After closing, clean up and get out. 

I noticed yesterday listing on CoolWorks for Rancho de los Caballeros for a winter opportunity.  I was there 4 years ago and had briefly thought about returning a couple of weeks ago.  The listing had me thinking about it again.  It stated there was a new executive chef, and last night I found out that my friends, Amber and Mark know and like him.  They have talked to me a bit here about staying for the winter.  I'm considering it...but I was really looking at going somewhere warm and a South Dakota winter sounds like anything except warmth.  But if I don't find anything more comfortable, I just might stick around.  I make myself a salad, and sit down and fill out the application.

(The strip along South Blvd. has several benches. It is one of my favorite places to sit and watch the world go by)

After I send the application, I go for a little walk.  Along the way I stop at the Dairy Queen and get a Blizzard.  Go home.  Shower. Read a little before falling asleep.

The story continues here: Random Days....Part 2

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