by Gina Sestak
Members of an on-line group I belong to sometimes refer to seeing each other face-to-face as meeting in the "meat world." As a vegetarian, I feel a little awkward about "meat," so it may come as a shock when I tell you that I've held a lot of jobs that required working with meat.
The meatiest of them all was Arbys.
This was the late 1960s. Arbys was trying to distinguish itself from the hamburger joints by touting the fact that it served real sliced beef on a bun, not shredded beef like its competitors. Arbys' employees were all males, and they wore brown-and-yellow plaid neckerchiefs and tall yellow chefs' hats and looked as if they should be standing over a roasting steer with a carving knife.
I was one of the first women to work for Arbys in the Pittsburgh area. The job had been posted in the student employment office at Pitt, and I happened to apply the same day that the manager had had a visit from the Human Relations Commission. He needed a female employee, fast. I got the job but I couldn't wear the hat -- all the hats available were too big; they kept sliding down over my eyes.
Arbys had rules. Employees had to sign a pledge not to reveal the roast beef secret. [To the best of my recollection, preparation of the signature dish consisted of taking it out of a cooler and putting it in an oven.] Unlike a standard restaurant where the staff might approach a customer with, "Can I help you?" or "What would you like?", we were required to say, "Arbys, sir?" or "Arbys, ma'am?" To which all customers would universally respond, "Huh?"
I never tried the roast beef, but a lot of people seemed to like it. The real draw, though, was the eggnog. Well, not the eggnog, exactly. Arbys supplied shakers of nutmeg to sprinkle on the eggnog, and the local heads had discovered that, in sufficient quantities, nutmeg will get you high. It was not unusual to watch these freaky people dump a tablespoon or more of nutmeg into a single cup of eggnog. I never tried that either, but I kept refilling all those nutmeg shakers.
I also found myself in the middle of an awkward situation. Like many restaurants, Arbys routinely provided police officers with free coffee and half-price meals. This is not a bribe. It's just a subtle way to stave off potential robbers, who are less likely to hit a place where they see police going in and out. The Arbys I worked in was located near the Allegheny County Juvenile Court and the sheriff's deputies who transported and guarded prisoners would sometimes come in for lunch. We treated them like any other law enforcement personnel, until, one day, a sargeant came in and ordered about 40 sandwiches to go. The manager whispered to me to charge him full price, which I did. Boy, was he mad. Years later, when I'd finished law school and was trying cases in Juvenile Court, the other deputies were still laughing about it.