After I was ejected from Pittsburgh and went back to Gainesville I had to get some sort of job. Since I was a college graduate with a degree in graphic design, I went to work at Subway making sandwiches.
The owner of all the Subway stores in Gainesville was Bob Singleton, a sort of patronizing Southern businessman caricature. Technically his wife owned them, but he acted like he was the boss. He cared about each of his employees for as long as he could stand being near them, roughly fifteen minutes in a three-month period, when he'd come around to try to make us work faster.
You see, when we made sandwiches at Subway, we were supposed to take no more than ninety seconds from the time the order was placed to the time it was rung up. To encourage us to be more efficient, Singleton had these possibly illegal speed competitions every few months to help weed out the weak. You know, team-building. The store manager, Thomas, would time us as we made sandwiches, and whoever made one the quickest got a cash prize, $50 or something. The problem was the bread.
Subway bakes its own bread... it's a major selling point. The dough comes in crates of frozen pegs from the distributor, is heavily yeast-laden so that it rises in the proofer (kind of a humid hot-box) as soon as it defrosts, and is then moved to the oven and baked. Only when the sandwich is prepared for the customer is the bread cut. For that purpose we used cheap serrated razor knives. We were taught to slice down one side of the loaf, pivot it and then go up the other side, leaving a trough and a strip of bread. We were pressed to do this as quickly as possible, especially during the lunch and dinner rush. Guys were slicing their hands open all the time. Usually they'd slice their thumb, or cut open the webbing between their thumb and forefinger... they'd get a bandage, maybe go home for the day if they could afford to. I don't think anyone ever bled on the food, at least not any that got served.
At the one competition I attended, just about everyone (including myself) made a serious attempt to win, except for one guy who was rather phlegmatic about the whole matter and just took his time. $50 wasn't worth wounding himself for. (He was later blamed for the disappearance of ten bucks during the lunch shift, and fired.) Inexplicably, Thomas was allowed to compete, and he walked away with the money, as he typically did. His time was 32 seconds. I invite you to go down to your local Subway and watch the workers make sandwiches, and then imagine them whipping the razor knife around at about three or four times their usual speed.
Seeing half the staff with bandaged hands made me paranoid, so I always kept my other hand behind the blade and never cut myself. To Thomas and Singleton the possibility of injury was unimportant compared to the speed of the service. The pressure to perform during a rush was quite high... it was made explicit that if you weren't fast enough you would be let go. I've subsequently spoken with several Subway employees around the country, and none of them have admitted to being timed or forced to compete.
I was also told I could be fired if I spent too much time cleaning up the store after closing. I was a closer. The first couple of times I had someone working with me, but usually the closer worked alone. The other guy would bail at around ten PM, and then you were by yourself. It was expected that you start cleaning the store a half hour to an hour before closing, so that afterward you'd only spend fifteen minutes straightening up. But that wasn't always possible, especially not on weekends, and not when you were by yourself.
When I first ran over the allotted time for closing, I naively clocked it, and when I came in the next day, Thomas had a talk with me. Thomas was an entirely typical fast-food manager. Shitty mustache, bad hair, tenuous interpersonal skills and always ready to lie. In fake-friendly manager-speak he said that I couldn't put that much time on the clock. I explained that this was how much time it actually took, but that wasn't his problem. There were the usual veiled threats of termination. The next time I took myself off the clock a half hour after closing, and ate the rest of the time myself.
I think the worst example of this was a Friday where I stayed until 4:30 in the morning. The store closed at 2AM on weekends-- the strategy was to be the only place open at that hour --so it was where all the drunks turned up. There had been a weird run from 11PM until closing without any kind of break, and I discovered shortly before closing that someone had vomited in the men's room. I had to contend with that on top of putting away all the food, sweeping and mopping the floor, cleaning the counter, cleaning all the glass, cleaning the tables and chairs, soaking the cutting area in bleach, doing the dishes, etc. etc. almost all on my own time. I was furious as I rode home, but what was I supposed to do? I needed the work. Besides, if I quit then I'd be lazy, like my mother said I was.
Looking back on it, I'm surprised that I never got held up while working by myself so late. But it never occurred to me at the time... it wasn't like I worked in a convenience store. I did get threatened a couple of times. Anyway, I soon learned that being a closer had other advantages which somewhat offset its drawbacks.
There was one guy named Phil who worked closing. He was this boyish, handsome fresh-faced all-American type who looked like he was incapable of so much as stretching the truth. Phil turned out to be the biggest crimelord in the place. He must have sensed that I was equally treacherous, and after a few times closing with me he let me in on the game. I don't think he anticipated how far I would run with it but he knew I wouldn't rat him out.
Thomas was really worked up about olives. We were only supposed to put four slices of black olive on a foot-long sandwich. Apparently they were really pricey or he only ordered one can a month or something like that. But he was pretty lax when it came to most of the other supplies.
The only materials which were strictly counted every day were loaves of bread, cups, and balls of cookie dough. Mostly the bread. If you came up short on bread you were in trouble. At the beginning of each shift Thomas would count all the loaves and dough pegs. There was even a bread bucket under the counter, for loaves that became mangled or otherwise unusable, so he could count those, too. Everything else-- meat, vegetables, condiments, etc. --was loosely tracked so that we could be sure of not running out, not to see if anything was being stolen. So long as those three items added up, as far as Thomas was concerned everything was kosher. That was the key to the whole enterprise.
The basic scam was this: a customer would come in and order an expensive sandwich, say a Seafood & Crab, plus whatever else they wanted. After getting their food, you enter the order into the register, but instead of totaling it you'd hit NO SALE. The register rings, the drawer opens; to the customer it looks like any other transaction. You take their money and put it in the till, making change as necessary. I got really good at doing basic math in my head. Then at a later point in your shift, you go back and enter the order, except that you ring up a much cheaper sandwich, say a Cold Cut Trio, and you pocket the difference, which could be up to $3 a transaction.
As far as the records showed, nothing was being skimmed. The register said you sold this many sandwiches, and this many loaves of bread were gone. It listed how many sandwiches of each type were sold, but no one was keeping track of the ingredients, and it wasn't practical to do so anyway... especially not something like the crab salad, which was in a big bucket instead of being pre-portioned.
You got a free sandwich for working a full shift, and you could sell this off, too. Pure profit. In fact, that was how the whole deal started... if you could fake a transaction with your own sandwich, why not do it with any of them?
And if you really had to have chocolate chip cookies, you could occasionally spirit away some of those, too. The cup accounting was less critical than that of the bread, so you could ring up a large drink order as three cookies (same price) and take the heat for a missing cup, which was a relatively minor offense.
On top of that, as long as you weren't stupid about it, you could run off with piles of ingredients every night and keep your refrigerator filled. The only limit was how long it took you to get sick of the same food every day. By the time I left I loathed the stink of Subway stores... I couldn't set foot in one of them.
It was compensation for having to deal with drunk, insulting frat boys at one in the morning, or for having to submit to such deceitful and patronizing bosses. But rather than the undercurrent of vehemence, I think it was the boredom which made me take it as far as I did. Phil's reasoning was that you'd shave off $5 or so a night (or sell your sandwich), make up for the extra time you spent closing the store, and that was that. But it was so foolishly easy that I couldn't help myself. I was averaging $10 a night worth of graft, sometimes doing $15 if I was feeling especially perverse. It was so easy it became mechanical, routine. A big order came in and you'd bang NO SALE reflexively and sort it out later. You had to be a little careful, because occasionally Thomas would drop in after hours to steal some food himself... you didn't want to get caught stuffing your pockets with bills. But it came to be part of the job.
By the time I quit I'd cleared about $350 in skimmed cash, which I kept in a strongbox next to my bed. I later used it to finance my first trip to California. I never would have thought to do any of it when I was working at Chik-Fil-A or Wendy's. Sometimes all you need is a helping hand.
I quit Subway over scheduling. I asked Thomas about a month in advance for some time off during the summer; he said okay, not meaning it, and when I asked again he said I couldn't have it. Since I wasn't going to change my vacation plans, I quit. In the week before I left, Phil was busily indoctrinating one of the new guys into our crime family, so I knew the scam would be looked after.
I hear that Singleton and his wife contribute to a lot of charities. It's nice that they've managed to accumulate so much money.