I won’t hesitate to tell you my hardest day of work occurred about ten years ago in Oakland, California. It didn’t have to do with intense corporate deadlines or big amounts of money – just hot dogs, long lines, and fake cheese. During college I worked for UC Berkeley’s student volunteer center, and arranged group trips for students to spend their spring break volunteering and learning about a specific social issue. We had found a compelling topic and a group of enthusiastic students – now we just needed some money.
Sign me up for the free food
At the time, student and other non-profit groups could raise funds by manning various stadium services. We secured a “Snack Shop” spot at a Raiders football game (one of those hole-in-the-stadium-concrete-wall establishments that sells nachos, bratwurst, and beer behind mile-long lines), which would be operated by ten of us volunteers. I had done several other fund raising efforts like this at my college’s football stadium – walking up and down the bleachers in the sun selling programs, and stadium clean ups the day after a big game. I thought this sounded way better – a free NFL game and stadium food for just a few hours of work? I would have done it just for a polish sausage and a coke.
5:45 am arrival
My co-leader and I showed up around 5:45am to check into the space. We walked up through the cold, completely empty stadium while it was still dark out to our locked up food stall. Inside there were large metal grills, huge supply rooms, and rows of cash registers. Those of you who read my blog know I’m pretty into food, and I was secretly excited to man a large industrial grill and play “restaurant” for the day. They showed us our supplies – frozen hot dogs, hug cans of Que Bueno! cheese, packs and packs of tortilla chips and buns. The other volunteers trickled in and we started grilling sausages and pouring in vats of fake cheese into large metal bins. The energy of the group was great – we blasted music while talked about our favorite stadium foods. I was one of the first to grill sausages, thinking about how it was too early to eat one now, but how I would get to eat as many as I wanted to after the third quarter (I’m gross, I know).
And then people began to arrive. The next three and a half hours flew by with a lot of shouting, sweating, and sub-par food preparation. We sold $8 hot dogs still partially frozen and $11 nachos with burnt cheese. I didn’t have time to acknowledge dropping whole hot dogs into the bins of nacho cheese, or spilling pints of sausage-infested-cheese on my feet. I don’t remember a lot besides the constant distress of mile long lines that didn’t let up. At one point one of our volunteers practically fell over me dripping with sweat to frantically ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?!?!” As if the place would literally implode by nacho-hungry fans if anyone stepped out for 5 minutes.
The most vivid memory I have was an old high school classmate coming up to my window to order. My sweaty self was wearing a big goofy green apron fashioned for a 300 pound man, and he had his arm around a pretty, perfectly manicured girl who clearly hadn’t been grilling sausages for the past four hours. He didn’t even recognize me until he was halfway through his order. “Can I have two Miller Lites, one order of nachos, and…. Wait, Debbie? Hey! Uh, how’s it going? What, um, are you doing here?” I was so frantic with the dozens of people angrily staring behind him that I couldn’t even think of a proper answer. “Yeah,“ I said to shoo him away, “This is for something else.” Something else? Like a drug addiction? The total bill for him and his girlfriend had been $46. He gave me $50 and let me keep the change.
We were given some relief at the beginning of the fourth quarter. We slowed down, went to the bathroom quickly but freely, and began to shut down. Shutting down, however, didn’t stop people from creaking their necks under our half closed windows to yell, “Are you guys still serving nachos?!” I have never wanted to punch innocent strangers so much in my life.
We were still cleaning up well past the end of the game. As the footsteps of departing fans thinned, we took turns soaking and scrubbing off boiled crusty cheese from their bins. We scraped off the remains of burnt hot dogs, sorted our trash, and scrubbed and mopped every inch of the space – finally facing all of that cheese and beer on the ground and in my socks. The last thing I wanted to look at let alone eat a was hot dog.
All the volunteers, except my co-leader and I, left after we had finished cleaning at 5pm. We waited, too exhausted to talk, until 6:30pm for the Arena official to pick up the money. He was a thick, slow moving man perfectly suited for the apron I had just discarded. He took our day’s earning and slowly recounted it in front of us. This part was by far the worst. We counted up every dollar, dime, and penny (including my $4 charity tip) and totaled a profit just shy of $500. This meant an average earning of $50 a person, and at about roughly $6 an hour each. We had not come close to breaking minimum wage. When we told the arena official that there must be some kind of mistake he shook his head, “Nope, that’s about right.”
Clearly this prompted many reflections on blue collar work, the fast food industry, and contract labor, but I’m not going to talk about all of those on this post today. I will say though that my view of stadium food has forever changed, even though I’ve regained my appetite for a poorly cooked bratwurst. Now whenever I go to a sporting event I volunteer to be the one to buy food; where I stand patiently in line, peering at those behind the window.