Fry-Cooks or Dilettantrepreneurs?… Artists and Liberal Artists… What do you want to be when you grow up?

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Rona Economou dropped some serious coin on education and professional training
~ likely at least ~ US$ 200K…

This is where she works:

“The sweet smell of success? So this is really better than working at Mickey D’s?”

Maybe she would have been better off keeping that tuition money and getting the kind of free professional management training McDonalds offers its employees and spending that college fund on buying a few franchise locations or building her own restaurant concept later with the advantage of some relevant training and experience.

I. What’s wrong with McDonalds?

What originally began as a response to Pastabagel’s remarks about a potentially underemployed young Spanish artist prompted some more extensive reflections on self-image, status, and “What’s wrong with McDonalds?”

It’s sad that whenever anybody wants to caricature a bad low-status job, nothing better than a McJob as an example comes to mind.

Why does everybody look down on people who work at places at McDonalds?

Do clever people with their fancy degrees think they are better?

Even the young lady pictured here,
The sweet smell of success is french fries!

at least superficially, looks like a positive example of humanity – with her professional uniformed appearance and her friendly open smile (and indeed seems more cheerful than the poor exhausted Ms. Economou).

Or would you rather have some extensively tattooed liberally educated bored hipster artiste who is convinced that he is too good for working in food services?

Do you think that people who work at McDonalds are immune to having big ideas or deep thoughts?

Perhaps some of these fry cooks, burger flippers and cashiers are even lurking among us here at Partial Objects?

To be sure as scintillating as many highly educated and well-read elite Ivy League types may be, many are insufferable arrogant jerks blinded by their own brilliance. From my experience, I have also enjoyed interesting exchanges with what many might call “regular” working people that many might write off as likely clientele of ACORN community organisers or gun-toting, bible-thumping Sarah Palin Republicans. Perhaps they’ve never read Plato, Kant or Derrida and didn’t know how their big thoughts have been addressed by previous great thinkers, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute.
(Aw shucks, I’ve haven’t even read that Derrida and those other clowns either, should I even bother?)

So why don’t we at least give our friendly McDonalds associate a chance and invite her to join the conversation?

Granted McDonalds may hardly be the epitome of a soaring culinary experience, but for many it’s a fun treat from time to time while for others it’s a quick convenient and affordable solution to the inevitable recurrence of a growling belly or cranky child. As simple as McDonalds might seem at first glance, it’s a global operation that manages to uphold its standards in the toughest settings in the most challenging markets. Dictatorships or failed-states with barely functioning market economies and unreliable supply-chains? Dangerous and violent no-go-areas in war zones – or American inner-city ghettoes at the very least? Not to mention remote desert, tundra or other inhospitable environment? No problem. McDonalds somehow always manages fresh hot hamburgers and fries and clean bathrooms.

Criticise McDonalds if you wish, but they know how to choose and train their people for a professional operation. I’ve been to plenty of independent places, snack bars, greasy spoons, and so on. In too many cases the unmotivated slacker hipsters working there were too inattentive and bored to give decent service. Perhaps they think they’re too good for all that and above working in such a joint. In other cases incompetence owing to the amateur origins of dilettante proprietors is to blame for inadequate production flow in the kitchen or poor maintenance in a shabby dining area or dirty or chipped tableware. Passion is no substitute for experience. I can’t help comparing such to the associates at my nearby McDonalds that somehow manage to take McDrive orders on a headset entering them discretely on some nifty hip mounted device with one hand while at the same time using the other hand to tidy the dining area or work in the kitchen. How they manage such efficiency without breaking a sweat while still keeping the cheerful smile and voice? Respect.

II. Fry-Cook or Dilettantrepreneur?… Artists and Liberal Artists…

Indeed I hold Ms. McWorker in higher esteem than many artists who spread, at least figuratively (and all too often also literally), steaming hot manure on a canvas, stage or a page in an attempt to gain attention by being scandalous, ironic or “original.”

Ironically, people who earn their daily bread in a profession working with food like our example of a McDonalds associate are probably closer to the real meaning of life than our highly esteemed and high status “knowledge workers” who do nothing all day but staring at flickering screens or talking at an inanimate remote communications apparatus. Note how highly educated elite professionals dream of dropping out while some actually eventually do exit the kind of career trajectories that our society holds in highest esteem. Why do high-status lawyers, bankers and managers ditch their suit-wearing gigs to become “Cupcake ‘n Café Entrepreneurs”? It’s certainly not because running a small shop or production operation is easier or less work. Indeed being a single proprietor means working harder and longer hours than even Wall Street’s worst exploited banking or legal associates. What is it about legal briefs and spreadsheets that makes them less meaningful than working at the tedious back-breaking and unglamorous tasks in an independent small business?

In most cases these are prosperous bourgeois bohemian yuppies, hipsters and women married to well-earning husbands whose most basic human needs have already been resolved at some point, so they can devote their lives to creative expression and the pursuit of that elusive post-modern Holy Grail: individual fulfillment and self-actualisation. For their second careers they often choose to go on to create a product or service about which they’re passionate, perhaps some artisan craft which they may or may not have taught themselves as an amateur hobby = usually stuff privileged white people like.

Although I’ve never had the chance to check it out for myself on one of my infrequent visits to the US, I’ve read much about this “cupcake fad” that seems to have taken hold all over America, especially in the native habitats where Yuppies, Hipsters and other BoBos (Bourgeois Bohemians like our highly educated Spanish artist here) can be found. Make no mistake, “cupcakes” are a fine and tasty delight, but as far as baked confections are concerned, these are hardly a challenge except for those most helpless in the kitchen. Indeed cupcakes have always been that have been that easy and reliable treat that even the least ambitious housewife or mother can create to everyone‘s satisfaction. So why are there so many “cupcake entrepreneurs”? Of course cupcakes are popular and they play to people’s nostalgia for their youth. More importantly, I suspect, it is because it’s easy. As delicious as their product may be, these “cupcake bakers” are hardly professionally trained artisans. They may have taught themselves how to bake in their own home kitchens and then made the leap to baking for commercial scale.

Do these former high flyers ever humble themselves and try to join a successfully running operation to learn to master the craft as well as the discipline of managing a successful small business and to run an efficient production at full capacity? Or are they so used to being boss, that entrepreneurship is the only option that allows them to run the show from day one of their new life? I suspect many would have gained much from a baking traineeship or apprenticeship to learn more of the essentials of producing for a professional and commercial scale operation. Why do these new craft entrepreneurs waste time reinventing everything, when there are veteran master artisans and production managers who might share some of the many tricks of the trade that they’ve learned from the traditions of their predecessors or discovered through years of their own experience? Is this kind of tradition even still present in a rootless and restless post-industrial civilisation that is more interested in innovation and reinvention? How do these artistry and craft traditions survive at all that require a vast corpus of skill and knowledge to be transmitted from generation to generation from master to apprentice? A society that doesn’t maintain its artisan heritage is damned to reinvent the same crude crafts again every generation if there lack the institutions capable of transmitting this legacy across history.

Why is it that kids, by default, go on to study liberal arts or social sciences and spend years and hundreds of thousands when so many later end up yearning for a somehow more “meaningful” vocation?

Where are the apprenticeships for the kind artisan enterprises, like bakeries for example, and why aren’t we exposing the kids to these opportunities?

If anybody is familiar with any other cases of white collars and pin-stripes traded for aprons or overalls, please do share.

They used to exhort society to social mobility by asking;
“How much potential human genius is being wasted in manual labour in the workshops, kitchens and quarries?”

I ask;
“How many potentially genius craftsmen and artisans are wasting their precious gifted hands slaving away at keyboards on spreadsheets and legal briefs?”

You can’t even find among your own people an adequately skilled stone-cutter sculptor to create a monument for one of your greatest heroes.

How sad. You poor, poor, Yanks…

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18 Responses to Fry-Cooks or Dilettantrepreneurs?… Artists and Liberal Artists… What do you want to be when you grow up?

  1. Jerboa says:

    Americans consider fast food jobs to be horrible careers because many of us worked in them part-time during our teenage years. The absolute worst job I ever had was at Burger King. At one point I had accidentally thrown out a part of the broiler the night before, and the manager demanded that I go through the dumpster to find it. I opened every bag in that dumpster, and it was in the very last one. Then I was told to wash up and get back to making burgers.

    The people who actually worked there full-time, especially the managers, made Economou look like a pampered supermodel. If you’re wondering why we consider jobs like fast-food and retail to be unworthy of anyone, it’s mostly because of personal experience.

  2. mwigdahl says:

    Without addressing (for now) your main contention that aspiring restauranteurs ought to apprentice themselves in the business before striking out on their own, your throwaway anti-American link at the end of your article happens to not only be formatted incorrectly, but also doesn’t say what you think it says.

    Try reading this: MLK memorial controversy over sculptor and stone choice and tell me if you still believe the problem is that there isn’t a single qualified sculptor in America, or if the problem is simply that the bidding process and the constant desire to build on the cheap drove us to Chinese stone and labor. To me, the great irony is that even in the creation of monuments to great Americans, cost-cutting drove us to outsource.

    • Hypocrisy Illustrated says:

      Apologies for formatting error….
      I’m one of those infamous liberal arts wankers with no useful competences and no html markup experience.

      Never claimed that there wasn’t a single qualified artist. One article I read quoted the committee that chose Lei Yixin because they liked his proposal the best on aesthetic grounds. If that’s the honest reason is a matter of interpretation.

      Love America, but know you can do better.

      Are Americans themselves really happy with the situation, no matter with how much bravado they’re always claiming that they’re the greatest in the world?

      • mwigdahl says:

        You can’t even find among your own people an adequately skilled stone-cutter sculptor to create a monument for one of your greatest heroes.

        How sad. You poor, poor, Yanks…

        This is a long way from saying that a committee of people happened to choose a Chinese sculptor in this one particular instance, as you now appear to be admitting. But I suppose a nuanced, accurate statement couldn’t have been easily twisted to support your thesis about the death of artisan skills in America.

      • sunshinefiasco says:

        I think that if you’re a liberal arts grad that’s encouraging capable people to work for McDonald’s instead of starting their own business, you’re exactly the liberal arts kind of anti-American.

  3. sunshinefiasco says:

    Really, really important note:

    Working in a McD’s does not prepare you to work in a commercial kitchen.

    People who don’t rise to management at McDonald’s learn fewer skills and have no trade in comparison to someone doing a similar shit job in any other kind of restaurant. Also, your food related experience doesn’t transfer anywhere but to another chain– you may know how to manage/work with people, but you don’t know how to cook or manage food cost that isn’t subsidized/controlled by a corporation. You don’t even know how to prep or portion food– you may know some prep/have been near a frier, but they don’t all have alarms on them/operate by button. The only applicable skill that I can see (I’ve cooked commercially but not in a fast food joint) to another kitchen is experience with hot oil/pressure/being on your feet for too long/working long hours.

    Someone who runs a small food cart may be unhappy that they work longer hours and they don’t have tenure, but they are employable elsewhere: they cook, plan menus, order, store, and rotate stock, and have to do some math/marketing to stay afloat. They’re basically ready to move into catering if they can get the gigs/staff. Also, hipster cafes and food carts might be where you hang out, and you are paying a surcharge for all the salty attitude, but that’s a tiny fraction of restaurants overall. Most of them don’t work like that, because hipsters are the only people willing to pay extra to be abused (outside of prostitution).

    Talk some shit about liberal arts grads if you want, but also note: the fast food chains RARELY hire people with 4-year degrees. Why would they? There’s a pool of immigrant/high school/opportunity lacking/ex-con/former addict labor that’s far more ready to take a bunch of shit, and for far less money. Plus, I bet they get money from programs if they hire those sorts of folks.

    Secondly, lots of liberal arts grads work in food service. Are you kidding? They work in restaurants as waiters, bartenders and cooks (all of whom make more money than McDonald’s employees). In fact, I bet a lot of the people you claim are “un-apprenticed” were waiters, bartenders, and cooks in college.

    Thirdly, your point might make more restaurant sense if you chose Applebee’s or some place like that– somewhere that actually cooks food– but they don’t have the reputable management programs that you’re talking about.

    Lastly, why aren’t there more artisans? Because no one works with their hands, so no one teaches their kids how to work with their hands. They tell him/her — don’t learn this, study, go to college, and get a good job. A good 40 years of that sure worked out, eh?

    • thecobrasnose says:

      Agreed in nearly every respect, sunshinefiasco. But the reason there aren’t more artisans is in large part because the academy has killed the disciplines needed to create them. Technical skill took a backseat to theory decades ago, and now can be found almost exclusively in the commercial arts (which is why so much art looks like advertising and vice versa, though with a gloss of theory on it to mitigate the need for profundity). Outstanding practical skills like mosaic work and sculpture became too expensive to support in an era of cement faced buildings, and representative drawing and painting lost ground to photography and fashionable non-representational works. The skill sets behind the masterpieces of the western world may be lost forever.

      • sunshinefiasco says:

        I agree with you– the elimination of artisanal work came from both sides, in fact, the economic side probably did more of the heavy lifting.

        I also have found myself wondering about the precise extent to which building codes and standards have completely screwed small businesses and restaurants in particular, because I don’t think anyone outside of the business has paid any attention to how expensive a basic yearly inspection can be. (In fact, that probably has a lot to do with the spike in indie food carts instead of indie food cafes.) And I know some of them are necessary, but one look at food abroad makes you question whether 80% of them exist to protect customers or to dick restaurant owners out of insurance money in the case of an accident.

    • mwigdahl says:

      I kind of take issue with the whole thesis that there’s a “death of artisan skills” in the U.S. A withering away of artisan jobs, maybe. But certainly on the hobbyist level these skills are continuing — even thriving thanks to the communication (and skill-sharing) facilitated by the Net.

      Many hobbyists plow equivalent amounts of time, and larger amounts of raw work, into their hobbies than they do into their jobs. The fact that there are fewer people making their actual living from art, sculpture, and other physical arts should not be conflated with the belief that the skills themselves are dying.

      • thecobrasnose says:

        I honor hobbyists, and love the drive that animates the amateur art scene. It’s craftsmanship on the high order of a Michelangelo or Raphael, or even a Rodin or Sargent, that’s under threat of extinction.

  4. daniel says:

    This whole post could easily have fit into a comment on the original article (without losing any substance).
    The first half reads like an advert for MacDonalds (and I’ll grant that you make some good points: it’s an excellently run organisation, and we should have some respect), and the whole thing smacks of “get off my lawn”.
    Do you own a MacDonalds? Work in one?
    While I respect the fact that you respect good, decent work, and it’s a value well worth being reminded about, I think you may have overreacted somewhat to an offhand, comedically cliched and stereotypical/generic characterisation here.

    And finally, besides for misundertanding the MLK Memorial issue, you seem to have forgotten half-way through your post that we were speaking about Spain. I don’t remember you mentioning any evidence (or even reason to suspect) that this is an American problem (scandalous levels of cupcake-baking-enjoyment notwithstanding).

    • “Good, decent work”. Is it a human right? I wish, I wish. Anyone who has worked 12-hour days in a fast-food/restaurant with owners who rip you off, co-workers who slack, managers who embezzle will know that hard work – even if you give so much that when your period comes, you hemorrhage for two days – gets you nowhere. Too bad that when I moved to this country at 19 (even though I was born here) I swallowed the product of the deep-fried American Dream. It took me years to get off that malnourishing diet, to where I found the true wage is paid in time, spent as one wishes, with an eye to what needs cleaned up around our nation-house.

  5. Pastabagel says:

    As the author of the post referenced in your article, I wasn’t putting down McDonalds as a job. I would be that a significant percentage of Americans at some point in their lives have worked fast food, myself included. But McDonalds is specifically unskilled labor. They don’t teach you how to cook hamburgers there, they teach you how to carry out the very mechanical and mechanized process that is implemented in every McDonalds everywhere. Working McDonalds does not teach you cooking, it teaches your how to work – quickly, efficiently, and without complaining. I don’t think anyone looks down on the people who have those jobs (because we’ve all had them), but we look down on those jobs as “entry-level” or jobs for high schoolers.

    By contrast, running a bakery or your own restaurant is an entirely different operation, requiring actual cooking or management skills.

    But the cupcake fad is a different phenomenon, I think. It’s more an example of Trading Up – in which formerly pedestrian goods are repackaged as gourmet or high-end, and commanding a high-end price.

  6. Psychohistorian says:

    This is rather long, bitter, and, as has been indicated, takes the original statement out of context.

    The entire original point was that working at McDonald’s is rather unpleasant as jobs go. The pay is terrible, the work is highly repetitive and involves virtually no skill or creativity. Employee turnover is tremendous; benefits are basically non-existent. The difference between running your own bakery and working for McDonald’s is something like the difference between being a novelist and writing instruction manuals for DVD players.

    It is… fascinating that the author of this article views the rather uncontroversial statement that working at McDonald’s is not a particularly desirable job as being the statement that people who work at McDonald’s are not particularly desirable people.

  7. claudius says:

    As Pastabagel, Psychohistorian, and others have pointed out, no one is criticizing art or artists. We’re pointing out the absolute worthlessness of a liberal arts degrees in US colleges.

    Listen, there’s no reason to take this personally. The hard sciences, mathematics, and engineering fundamentally challenge students; these majors make you think in a variety of abstract ways, be disciplined, hardworking, and persistent. Those sorts of skills carry over to other fields. There’s a reason why introductory physics is the most failed freshman course in the US, and students take introductory level liberal arts classes “to get an easy A.”

    Most students who are liberal arts majors in colleges take their majors as a joke, and rightfully so. They’re not learning real skills. They know it, their colleagues know it, the teachers know it, and no one cares. Some people want to go to college for the sex parties, alcohol, and drugs. You can do those things if you have a “real major” but you can’t do it nearly as much.

    The ironic part is that most “art” students were already artists before they came to college, but they go to college to “get the degree.” That’s how the system is – everyone is expected to go to college, even if they do not need it.

    Even for the kids that just want to party hard – 200k is far too much to pay for that. They’d be better off going down to South Beach and starting a promoting business. At least then they’d get paid to do what they want, and they’d do it a lot better.

    If you want to be a scientist or engineer, you have use for a college level education because there are some advanced level courses that would be almost impossible to implement in a high school curriculum that are easily within the intellectual reach of a college senior.

    • RatB says:

      Introductory physics? Really?! I got a low eighty in that and I got ten of those percentage points blind drunk, because there was a weekly assignment due the morning after “thirsty Thursday.”

      I think liberal arts is designed, in theory, to teach students to understand and communicate effectively with other people. That’s a fine thing, and that some students get that out of their degree.

      I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the use of liberal arts as a cleaning house for bros and hoes that just want to drink and play ultimate must have some serious financial upsides for universities. I’m thinking that, although their facilities and (I hope to god) their professors are cheaper, they pay the same tuition.

      If the universities were serious about producing quality graduates from these programs, they’d fail a lot more people.

      Uh, yeah, if you want to party, go to Thailand.

  8. ryalex says:

    I’m a painting major/theatre minor who ended up changing majors and ending up in law school and have been self-employed since I passed the Bar.

    What the people in the article – and perhaps most sudden entrepreneurs – failed to realize is that owning and operating a small business takes over your life. Since I work for myself, I get to work “any 80 hours in the week that I want to.” You rarely get to unplug from the system you are responsible for. Most people are not ready for that.

    The second and larger issue – and one that I think that the poster here hits correctly (but viciously) is that most entrepreneurs are not those who were set to have their own business, but technicians who have a “burst” of entrepreneurial desire, set themselves on a course of self-employment or small business, and then suffer burn out problems 6, 12, 24 months in. The ultimate problem that they face is creating a Business System and training employees to run and maintain that system. Processes and procedures. Manuals and guidelines. Dreaming up cupcake frosting patterns and cute names is about .02% of a baker does with their time. And fair enough, the poster refers to the most well-known and perhaps best organized food system: McDonalds. McDonalds doesn’t have good food. It has consistent, rapidly prepared food.

    Most of the people who quit boring white collar gigs focus on the creative rather than the technical, operations side of the business they want to run. They want to dream about it. They don’t want to write an exhaustive procedure manual with painstaking details that allow any employee to replicate their work. However, for a business to grow and be sustainable, it is exactly this type of planning and “not fun work” that needs to get done.

  9. inarticulateinthecity says:

    This text is full of anger. As TLP would put it, “Why do you want to see them suffer?”