Andy Lewis is a product of Rolla, born, raised and schooled here in town. At the age of 28, he's a working man, bearing family responsibilities of those that could be much older. Like many his age, his working career thus far is a mish-mash—a little of this (burying phone cable) and a little of that (mechanics). But one of the jobs he had within fast food category, grill cook, led him to where he is today.
Andy Lewis is a product of Rolla, born, raised and schooled here in town. At the age of 28, he’s a working man, bearing family responsibilities of those that could be much older. Like many his age, his working career thus far is a mish-mash—a little of this (burying phone cable) and a little of that (mechanics). But one of the jobs he had within fast food category, grill cook, led him to where he is today. His stints with Burger King and Sonic gave him enough experience to embark on his next move in 2005, as an employee at Waffle House.
“They don’t just start you on the grill,” says Andy. “You’ve got to learn the system.”
Andy explains that it is not memory, so much as a trick of the trade. He says he takes a plate that has a jelly packet or other small item placed strategically like a game piece that represents the order as marked on the server’s order pad.
To show how the grill chef remembers all the ways a customer can have their eggs cooked, he says, “If I place the jelly packet here (he demonstrates), that means “over light.”
“If I put it in the middle of the plate, that means “over medium.” Over here, it’s “over well.” “The top is “up” and the bottom is “scrambled.”
“It’s really hard to learn when you first get started, particularly when there’s tons of orders coming in,” he adds. “While you’re learning the marking system, you’re also learning how to do toast and waffles. But that’s the easiest part of our job.”
Then, he says you learn how to cook hash brown potatoes. After all, they serve them six or more ways. He has several tricks of the trade to hydrate and dry the hash browns, because those are shipped and stored as a dehydrated product. They are generally cooked on the grill within a metal ring to form a nice round of potatoes, as opposed to being scattered on the grill, like you might do at home in a skillet. The potatoes have to be properly dried because if they aren’t, they’ll stick to the grill and that slows the flow of getting hot food out quick to his customers.
“Scattered means you don’t put the hash browns in a ring,” he says.
“If you don’t order them scattered, you get them in a ring. “Smothered” means you add onions. “Covered” means [add] cheese. “Topped” means add chili. Adding ham means you want your hash browns “chunked.” “Diced” means you add diced tomatoes and “peppered” is adding jalapeno peppers.”
Clearly, the jelly package marking system could get confusing in a hurry—but there’s more. If a customer orders hash browns, scattered, smothered and covered, Andy puts the jelly package in the right spot so he knows this customer wants hash browns. Then he puts a couple pieces of hash browns (signifying scattered) down on the plate, followed with a couple pieces of onion (smothered) and cheese (covered).
“There’s really no memorization to it,” he grins. Low-tech as it appears, he says with multiple orders, the marking system is pretty accurate.
Andy says you’ve got to learn to be fast.
“Our chicken is cooked under a dome at three minutes per side—that’s the longest cook time of everything we cook on the grill,” he notes. “The idea is to get the orders out fast and looking good. “People don’t eat with their mouths, they eat with their eyes. So, the food not only has to taste good, its got to look good.”
Andy gives an idea how this cooking flow proceeds. Knowing the Waffle House lingo is super critical.
A server still writes a customer’s order on a pad but there has to be a way to communicate that to a grill operator that may be busy cooking with his or her back turned to the server. Andy has to be able to multitask—cooking, listening for the key words like “scattered” or “topped”, for new orders coming in and organizing those orders using the marking system. It’s a system of paper pad, yelled key words and then marking them with jelly packs or bits of specific food on a customer’s plate.
“A server first calls out what meat goes with the order so the cook can get ham, bacon or chicken placed next to the grill,” he explains.
“We pull that out and set it on a plate on the board (counter). We then drop the hash browns on the grill and mark the plates. Then we’ll put bread in the toaster, slide the plates down and get the eggs going, put the meat on and drop the toast. Those three things take about the same amount of time to cook.”
He says Waffle House is very specific about food placement on the plate.
Getting food out fast around co-workers, open flames and cooking oil presents its own safety challenges for a grill operator. Aside from the occasional grease splatter, Andy says if a cook doesn’t watch what they’re doing, more serious burns can result.
“One of the worst burns I ever got was from putting down oil to clean a grill,” he said. “You take a grill brick and scrape it to get it clean. It splattered up off the back.” Andy says the hot oil landed on his forearm. He got three burns from moving a little too quickly. He says burns can also result from touching a hot waffle iron or the bottom of an egg pan.
Dishpan hands used to be a restaurant ailment, but not so much anymore. Plates and glasses are still scrubbed and rinsed by hand, but then put into a temperature controlled sanitation machine similar to a dishwasher. That means less time for hands exposed to hot water.
Currently as an assistant manager, Andy looks forward to moving up the chain until he can run his own business—whether that means a franchise owner of his own Waffle House or something outside of the restaurant business. He says he’s earning valuable experience.
“You start out as a grill operator or a sales person (server),” he explains. Referring to servers as “salespeople” makes sense. According to Andy, suggestive selling is viewed as not only being helpful to the customer, if the recommendations are relevant, more food and drink sales are made. Everybody suggestive sells right up the chain which is the shift manager followed by Andy’s current position. The top position is the general manager which Andy would like to become, but he will probably have to relocate to another Waffle House to take on that responsibility. After spending time in this position, it is possible he could also move up further to become a district manager.
Andy likes the foundation that the two original founders instilled into the business. It’s all about treating not only the customers right, but also the employees. As an employee, he likes that upper management has his back. While still young, Andy has had some growing pains that haven’t always been beneficial. His restaurant work has helped to keep him on a responsible path in life and he’s appreciative for that. His work ethic has grown in tandem with his work and family responsibilities. To relax, he hits the open road on a 750 cc ’96 Yamaha Virago motorcycle. He doesn’t know if he’ll stay in the restaurant business, but for now, he says “I just like cooking for people.”