What Makes it the Happiest Place on Earth?

Do you know what my favorite job was? (If you work with me currently it’s my current employer; this post is over skip to the next, thanks!) It was running an drive-in, think old time A&W but without skates. I could have done that seriously forever. I honestly started out by volunteering there. When I was 16 I would get done working at a grocery store and go to the drive-in to pick up my sister who would inevitably work one hour longer than me. Obviously I wasn’t going to just sit there and watch them clean up, I was firmly taught by my parents that we all work until the work is done, so I would wipe counters, sweep floors, fill machines, whatever needed to be done. As I thought more and more about college, I needed a second job so I formally started there.

It was the perfect combination of a fun summer atmosphere, great music that we were always dancing and singing to, making stupid plans but then working too much to be able to carry many of them out (thank the Lord), phenomenal owners that knew how to show you how valued you were, and to top it all off you got to make customers truly happy. They could feel the culture of the business not to mention the joy of getting ice cream or burgers from your local drive-in as a summer tradition. After my first year of college they called me in the spring and asked if I would manage the drive-in the following summer. (This was the first time they had had a manager. In the past, because they also owned a construction business that the husband worked, the wife ran the drive-in. She was the one who had hired me and taught me everything I knew, and was then about to have a baby at the beginning of summer.) You would have thought I landed a job at Disney the way I reacted. The happiest place on Earth trusts me to take the lead with the next generation. There was a literal happy dance in the hallway of my dorm.

At that point my love for working there got even stronger. The basic structure was that I would open daily and schedule and oversee the 15ish employees during the day. When the owner was done working his other business he would come in and close up with the late shift. Our group was, eclectic; a combination of everyone from 14 year old girls with their first jobs to 30 year old dads. Some had experience in everything from cleaning machines and changing oil in the fryers and some could barely work the cup dispenser. It was crazy how much teaching and working with them taught me.

Just of few of the memories we made

When I first started I made a sundae that looked like junk. It was sloppy and took so long to make it that it would have melted all over the customer before they got a chance to finish it. The owner took it from me, smiled, and threw it in the garbage. He remade it and talked me through how to build it better. Fast forward to me working with one of our newest employees making a hot fudge sundae. It was like seeing myself years earlier. She was close to tears so I took the sundae and threw it away. Then, just like he had, I walked her through how to build it better. When we were done I told her I had been there and I’d rather see the bad ones in the garbage than in the customer’s hands.

We used to do experiments of what foods can be deep fried, the thought being that everything is better once cooked in oil. Also, when you are working 60-70 hours a week with a fryer you tend to get board and want to try new things. Things I learned there, corn on the cob is un-freaking-believable fried, burgers are not, and M&Ms will simply disappear. If you fry a chicken strip and wrap it in mozzarella and tuck them in a blanket of pita bread you have a whole new sandwich. If you come up with this on the heals of a natural disaster you can market it with a fun name like “Chicken Twister” and you will sell a ton of them.

On one particularly slow afternoon one of the girls was filling the waffle cones. She was thinking about how much packaging was in the box to keep those cones in tact. (If you’re not familiar, they come in plastic sleeves, layered with foam pads, in very large box. When the box is empty all of the plastic, foam, and cardboard just gets tossed in a dumpster. )She got the idea to make something out of it before we threw it all away. Mix her artistic talents with an adventurous high schooler and you get the first live ice cream cone that could wave customers in from the sidewalk.

That first summer, and the summers that followed, were some of the best I can remember. We ate fried food and soft-serve until we couldn’t have another bite. We confided in one another when things didn’t go right in relationships or with family. We planned work parties and days off together. We hid our cases of beer in the cooler behind the milk crates. We served customers in lines so long that the machines couldn’t keep up. We made up new recipes on the fly when parents came with kids with allergies or texture aversions so that everyone could get a special treat. We hid together during a tornado. We were open the next day serving all of the property owners and volunteers who were there for clean-up.

What made the difference?

Those summers were amazing, and do you know why? It’s not because of the free food and stupid decisions (though those things didn’t hurt). Without posting it by the door, or holding a company meeting, or making everyone memorize the buzz words, this small business instilled the company values of innovation, customer satisfaction, and utilizing all skills and talents in advancement of the company strategy. The biproduct of combining these things is fully engaged employees. It wasn’t about pay or title or status, it was about the people running the business understanding who their employees were and what each of them needed. We felt empowered to make the right decisions, even at the cost of profit. We were encouraged to try to new ideas and allowed to fail and learn in the process. We were reminded daily of how much they valued us through affirmation of the work we were doing and our dreams for the future. I am forever grateful for the values that this business and the owners taught me. Looking back I still get a tug in my heart thinking about how Northern D’Lites, my happiest place on Earth, trusted me to take the lead with the next generation.

A couple things I’m reminding myself of

Company values are determined by those who live them out. Many companies, of all sizes, utilize their top leaders and strategists, and maybe incorporate employee survey or focus groups, to determine a set of values for a company. They will then post them all over the building walls and the internet. I think this is great and I applaud companies who put money and resources behind developing this. It is really just one step in the process though. Posting a value doesn’t make it a value of the company. Living it out in all of the small actions does. It has to be adopted by the employees and embraced at every level. It is critical that the top leaders live it out in big and small ways and then communicate the connection between the company value and the action. If you have company values, make the best of them. I hope that you’re working in an organization that lives out their values day in and day out at all levels. If you are, instill them in your team. Lead your team to live them out too. If you are not, remember that you have influence over your team. Model what you want to see in your people and work with them to understand and live out the values.

There is so much to be learned out of playing. We are in a day and age where we are over stimulated all.the.time. Your brain just doesn’t have time to be creative that way. You have to give it space to dream, try, fail, and dream again to come up with the best things. For some reason we remember this with toddlers, forget and then regret with teens, and totally lose sight of it for adults. Guess what people, we learn from playing too! Keep playing, or more likely, start playing, at work. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. You could bring in your old Gumby dude and stretch him in different positions each day on your desk (Yes, I have seen this one). You could place bets with coworkers on how many calls you’ll each get in a day. You could take pictures with people who accidentally match one day. You could take a different route to the office or home. All of these things take seconds or minutes and will allow you to engage more, keep your mind flexible, and help you to take little micro breaks to play again.

People don’t quit jobs, they quit their boss. This one is kind of getting cliché right? We all know this. I never really thought about it until recently but it 100% goes the other direction too. People aren’t loyal to a job, they are loyal to a boss. Do you know that to this day, many years since I’ve built a burger or mixed a Flurry, if my old boss called me up and said she really needed me to work 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday, I would be there in a heart beat? (I mean at this point in the post its probably not a shock but still.) I will forever be loyal to those people and to that organization because of how much they valued me while I was there. I now work in insurance, not exactly known for being the most fun loving atmosphere, and I pray that I am pouring as much value into my team as those owners did into me. If I was able to call up a prior employee years from now and say, I really need you to run through this project plan with me, and their response was where can we meet, that would be a true sign. It would be a sign of my valuing them while they were with me, and their loyalty to our relationship.

As you can tell, I am so very grateful for the opportunities that working in this little drive-in afforded me. I am also quite reflective on what that job, business, and those owners taught me. Those two things, gratitude and reflection, are two of the biggest determining factors of success in my opinion. My experience is not special or unique, you have had experiences like this one too. Perhaps it was on your family farm, or in a gas station, or mowing your grandma’s grass, spend some time being grateful for those experiences and reflecting on what it taught you. I promise you’ll be better for it.

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