Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. One of the most unforeseen and fascinating aspects of life is how — if one lives long enough — the things that seemed so trivial or laborious in our youth wind up becoming applicable and practical in everyday life.
Even though I showed a little bit of promise early on, I wasn’t a fan of English, grammar or creative writing classes in school. Actually, I wasn’t a fan of any classes or any subjects in school. Yet I use the things I learned in those English classes every day. Even before I started writing for newspapers and publishing books, I employed the lessons I learned in those early English classes. Anyone, in any type of business, needs to be able to use the written word to communicate with others, whether they are customers or co-workers.
I worked as a server while putting myself through college. There weren’t many restaurants in my hometown of Hattiesburg back then, and when that one opened, it was slammed from the start. I was on the opening crew. The money was good, and I loved working in the industry that I hoped to make my full-time career, though there was one aspect of the job that I despised — making milkshakes.
It always seemed strange to me that the bartenders or the cooks in the cold station/pantry weren’t making the milkshakes. It was the thing that every server dreaded hearing a guest say — “I’ll have a milkshake.” The server’s work space was small and cramped and 10-12 people were always scurrying around making iced tea, soft drinks and fighting for space in the pass window to tray up food.
Over in the corner of the service area there was a small reach-in freezer that held tubs of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Above the freezer, on a small shelf was a blender. Somewhere in the vicinity was a small cooler that held gallons of milk. In the middle of all of the madness that was daily service, there was always someone jockeying for space in that cramped corner so they could try to make a milkshake — under battlefield conditions — for their customer.
Vanilla was the easiest of the shakes to make. We just used vanilla ice cream and milk. A chocolate shake was just a little tougher as we had to add chocolate syrup. I can’t remember if we used chocolate ice cream or vanilla for making the chocolate shakes. Decades later I would learn that chocolate shakes are best when made using vanilla ice cream. The worst thing any server wanted to hear from a customer was, “I’ll have a strawberry milkshake.”
Strawberry milkshakes always required a trip to the bar to ask the bartender for a scoop of frozen strawberries. The last thing the bartender wanted to do was to give the servers a scoop of strawberries. I don’t know what the problem was with the bartenders and strawberries, but it was always a dilemma. So, in addition to dealing with a tight, cramped space where 8-10 servers were playing a fast-paced, frantic, elbow-slinging, hybrid game of human bumper cars and restaurant rugby, we had to tiptoe around the bartender’s attitudes and fight our fellow servers for space at the blender.
Fast forward 30 years into the future, to January of 2016 and we opened a burger joint. It’s not a standard burger joint, but we sell all of the classics one would expect. One thing I knew I wanted on the menu was milkshakes. Every respectable burger joint needs milkshakes. As I was developing the menu, I spent a lot of time on the burgers — the type beef we would use, the bun, the accompaniments, and the mix of all of those things and how they relate to each other on the menu. I also spent time developing appetizers, the salad selections — and even the hot dogs.
I spent zero time on milkshakes. I was sitting on a stool at the bar on the morning of the first trial run and I asked my business partner and chief operations officer, “What are you worried about?”
“Milkshakes,” he said. It hadn’t hit me until then that I had mostly neglected the milkshake development phase of the restaurant opening. That lit a fire under me and — with only minutes to go before we would start serving customers for real — I got to work immediately on developing our milkshake recipes.
It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. It was like riding a bike of chocolate, vanilla, a few mildly crazy flavors — and even strawberry. I was slinging milkshakes right and left, and they were good.
In addition to the standard offerings, I dug deep into my childhood — to the early days, even before I was slinging milkshakes as a server — and made milkshakes with Cap’n Crunch cereals and all sorts of oddly creative combinations. They were a hit.
In the end, I learned a valuable lesson — be open to opportunities, be open to learning; one never knows what will come back and pay off in the future. To this day, I have never used algebra or geometry in my work environment, but after 11 books and over 1,000 newspaper columns, I can combine random words to form a readable sentence and I still make a pretty mean milkshake.