The Hardee’s biscuit slides toward the heat lamp, and the uniforms are waiting.
"Let's go," Brandi says, drumming her fingers. "Where's the egg and cheese?"
Two weeks earlier in Washington, a former Hardee's biscuit shift worker had appeared in front of 32 million Americans to present her vision for the country.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, delivering the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address, recalled growing up in the small Iowa town of Red Oak and working the biscuit shift at Hardee's to pay for college. Ernst, 44, cited her own striving as proof that opportunity is available to any American who wants it.
“You just need the freedom to dream big and a whole lot of hard work,” she said.
Brandi didn’t see the speech. Neither did any of her co-workers. They had never thought of the biscuit shift as a parable. Hardee’s is a job, and paychecks come out every other Wednesday. Trina Starkey, who is 18, spends hers on rent and ramen noodles. Emily Abell, who is 20, buys diapers. Brandi, who is 31, drives around Creston with a bank envelope to pay her bills, including a stop at Leslie’s Dance Emporium to cover her daughter’s tumbling class.
Of the 17 employees at the Hardee’s in Creston, only two use the job to pay for college. “One day, I hope to teach biology or chemistry,” says Chrystal Patten, 19, who works the evening shift and attends the local community college. But she’s the exception. The rest are working to live. Almost all rely on some form of government assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid. Some have made a career out of a low-wage job that two decades ago was considered temporary and transitional. Like Bobbie Lyons, the biscuit baker, who started at Hardee’s when her daughter was in the sixth grade; now, that daughter is 20 with her own job as a security guard.
After Ernst won her Senate seat last year, she cast Hardee’s as part of her improbable journey up. “It’s a long way from Red Oak to Washington, from the biscuit line at Hardee’s to the United States Senate,” she said.
If hard work is the answer, Brandi agrees.
“I was raised to work, not sit around on my ass,” she says. “Sitting on your ass ain’t gonna get you nowhere.”
The question she often wonders is, where will work get you?
There is no longer a Hardee’s in Red Oak — it closed years ago — just as there is no longer an economy where part-time fast-food jobs are remembered as a stop on a journey. But the biscuit ovens at the Hardee’s in Creston, 50 miles east on Highway 34, are still firing up every morning at 5.
* * *
Trina Starkey and Jeff Hicks live in a rented room half a mile away. They have a mattress on the floor and a leopard sheet for a curtain. They have a TV on a dresser. They have their Hardee’s uniforms hanging on the back of a chair. All they want is to leave Creston. Everything to make that happen keeps falling through.
One morning, Trina sits on the mattress watching Jeff get ready for his shift. He’s 19 and dark-eyed. She’s wearing a T-shirt and basketball shorts, sipping through the straw of a Hardee’s cup on the nightstand. A plug-in Scentsy pot has tipped over on the rug, drenching every molecule of air with Aussie Plum.
Jeff goes to the chair for his uniform, giving it a shake.
Buttoning it on, he sits back down on the mattress next to Trina, who nuzzles him.
Working part time at Hardee’s, they each earn between $140 and $170 a week. The plan is always to save money, and within five days the money is always gone. DVDs, cigarettes, HDMI cables, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, cherry Pepsi — Wal-Mart and Casey’s convenience store get most of their paycheck, while $250 goes for rent each month.
“Now that I’m 18, I should probably be working a different job,” Trina says. “I don’t feel like $7.50 is enough for me to get an apartment or a house or go to college, which I’m supposed to be doing.”
At 15, Trina was sent to a juvenile detention facility for what she describes as a methamphetamine-fueled car-stealing spree. “I was young and stupid then,” she says. She met Jeff a year ago, and not long after that she started at Hardee’s, ordering non-slip footwear from a catalogue called “Shoes For Crews.”
Trina’s mom works at Iowa Select Farms taking care of sows and piglets. “She cleans the pens, and she pressure-washes them with a hose,” Trina says. “She makes good bank — $28,000 a year.”
Working as a sow technician is not Trina’s idea of dreaming big; leaving Iowa is. The other night, Jeff was talking to his mom, who said there was more opportunity for him out there in California.
“I would go,” Trina says, “straight out there, right now.”
But they can’t get to California until Jeff fixes his truck, and that takes money. California also takes money, he tells Trina. At least in Creston, he could imagine buying his own house in five years.
Sitting on the mattress, Jeff picks at his new tattoo. For $200, he had the yin and yang symbol put on his arm to match his state of mind. “You wake up in the day and you fall asleep at night,” he says. “You can’t tell what the next day will be like, so you can’t make plans. So I just live day by day.”
“You need to put lotion on that, because it’s fading,” Trina says. “You’re ashy on the black part.”
“You’re ashy,” Jeff teases, standing up to leave for work.
Trina is slight in her uniform, like a child in black clothes. One morning she forgets her hat, so the manager has to go out to her car to rummage for a spare. Trina is standing at the register when a customer in a pink warm-up jacket comes in. Trina lights up. It’s her eighth-grade history teacher.
"You look good," says the
“I had some drug issues,” Trina says apologetically. She says she finished high school and plans on starting college, maybe in the fall and probably online, though nothing at the moment is firm except for her too-big hat and $140 a week.
“Everybody goes through stuff,” the teacher says, turning with her breakfast tray.
* * *
In gray morning light, a rust-eaten Ford pick-up truck rides through the Hardee’s parking lot and stops at the door.
“Emily’s here,” the manager says.
Emily Abell gets out of her father’s truck with damp hair. Tall and rosy-cheeked, she waves goodbye as the truck goes across the street to drop off her sister at the Super 8 motel, where she has a job cleaning rooms. The biscuity warmth greets Emily inside. A snowstorm is expected the next day. It looks as if the whole town wants a biscuit before the roads ice over.
“We’re moving fast today, honey,” the manager tells Emily, hurrying outside to deliver a steak and gravy biscuit to a waiting car.
Emily clamps on her headset. She looks like a fast-food astronaut with enormous blue eyes. In her soft twang, she begins gently up-selling a regular breakfast. She no longer needs the script. “Would you like to make that a breakfast combo?” she asks a customer, who says a combo might be too much food.
“You could take it home,” Emily suggests.
Large posters of Bacon Velveeta Patty Meltdowns block the morning sun, but if Emily stands at the register she can still see the Super 8 across the street, and beyond that, the Wal-Mart where she once waited in line at midnight for the latest Harry Potter book. Emily thought about attending college, but when she missed the deadline for financial aid, she got a job at the gummy bear factory in Creston. That’s where she met Nathan, her fiance, and 14 months later they had a baby, Lily.
Now Nathan has a better-paying job at a hog farm while Emily’s 30 hours a week at Hardee’s is more than she hoped for.
“How’s that girl doing?” a customer asks.
“She’s good,” Emily says, smiling.
“I bet she’s got a lot of hair, doesn’t she?” the man says.
“Yeah, she’s growing up,” Emily says with a rag in her hand. She goes from yellow booth to yellow booth, wiping away biscuit crumbs and bacon grime with a Wal-Mart engagement ring sparkling on her hand. Emily didn’t want a fancy ring. She wants a wedding at a lake. “It has to have something near so everyone can eat inside or if it decides to rain,” she says.
Suddenly, the lull is over. Customers are looking up at the menu, and cars are in the drive-through. “Can I interest you in a grilled cheese breakfast sandwich?” Emily says into her headset. The store phone is ringing. It’s Trina, who can’t make it in. The manager moves to the kitchen, taking orders on her headset while assembling biscuits.
“Bacon, egg and cheese, send it out, please!” she says, sliding the biscuit toward the heat lamp. The red numbers on the digital score clock flash higher, tracking each delay.
Just then, a blue Ford Focus with an ETHANOL bumper sticker wheels into the parking lot. Help has arrived.
* * *
Saturday is Brandi’s day off. She was out running errands when she started worrying that the crew at work might be getting slammed. She had six kids in the car — her four and her husband Luke’s two — but decided to stop at Hardee’s anyway, saying she wouldn’t be long. A half-hour later, Luke and the kids are still waiting in the parking lot when Brandi dashes out to say that Mommy might be a while.
Mommy earns around $20,000 a year as a full-time shift leader at Hardee’s. She has a low tolerance for laziness and tardiness — and employees calling in with lame excuses. Menstrual cycles, a broken truck, general fatigue, a lack of transportation, Brandi can detect malingerers. Lately, the “I don’t have a ride to work” excuse has cut down since Brandi started responding with, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Jumping in to help the kitchen, her management key ring swings on her zebra belt as she peels apart Velveeta cheese slices and fills pickle bins. Usually, Brandi wears long sleeves to comply with the Hardee’s No Tattoo rule but today, her Dream Catcher is flying. On the heavily inked pageantry of her arms is her credo: “Be a girl with a mind, a woman with attitude and a lady with class.”
When the crush is over, she strips off her gloves and the Ford Focus pulls up to the door, with smiling faces pressed to the foggy car window.
Home is an old five-bedroom house near downtown that Brandi rents for $675 a month. The wall is cracked and the floors are worn, but there’s space for Brandi’s four kids — ages 3 to 10 — Luke, three cats and a dog. When Brandi met Luke two years ago, he worked at Hardee’s. She wishes he were working now. He says it’s hard to find a decent job in a small town, and he contributes by watching the kids and taking care of dinner.
In the rooms of this house, money is the topic that never goes away. One attempt at extravagance was Thanksgiving, when Luke took TV chef Gordon Ramsay’s advice to go organic and drove an hour to the Whole Foods in West Des Moines for an organic bird. Luke wants to start a diet supplement business and needs $1,000 for the initial investment. Brandi will probably shell it out.
“I’ve been in relationships where the man tried to control me,” she says. “My middle two’s father was like that. If I was working, it was the wrong shift. If I worked the right shift, I wasn’t making enough money.”
No one hounds her now, but there are things she wants. The California Zephyr passes through Creston on its run between Chicago and San Francisco, stopping at the train depot downtown near the grain elevator. It has sleeping cars and dining cars and the loudest whistle, which reminds Brandi of what she wants. “I want to take the kids on the train,” she says. “To anywhere.”
One night the kids take their seats for supper. The 10-year-old can eat heaps of food because of the medication doctors give him for ADD and Asperger’s syndrome. No more than three rolls, Brandi says. Luke brings out pork chops and creamed corn. Heads are bowed and eyes squeezed shut. “Thank you, God, for everything,” says Dillan, the 6-year-old. “Thank you for this meal my dad just made.”
* * *
‘Mornin’, sunshine,” Brandi says to a regular in Dickies work pants.
A rusted Ford pick-up stops outside the Hardee’s double doors, letting out damp-haired Emily.
Ten minutes late for their shift, Trina and Jeff come walking through the snowy parking lot. They're wearing hoodies and shivering. Clocking in, Trina warms her frozen fingers under the heat lamp. "It's so cold out there," she says. Her name tag is missing. She thinks she washed it by accident.
In the fluorescent brightness a customer in a Caterpillar hat orders his regular two cups of coffee then leaves behind two pennies for the “fund.” The pennies are dedicated to a dream, of sorts: One of the biscuit bakers, who lives in a mobile home with his wife and three kids, said all he wants someday is a nice recliner to watch the Iowa Hawkeyes on TV. The pennies are adding up.
A crew worker named Josh, who walks to work, arrives with snow on his face. Trina wipes off the snow. Josh tries to sum up his workplace. “In essence, Hardee’s is not about one person,” he says. “It’s about a collective of people who come together to fix food for other people. It’s like the military. Right, Brandi?”
Brandi is scooping hash rounds. “What?” she says.
“We’re family here,” Josh says.
“Basically,” Brandi says.
Big dreams and hard work in 2015: Biscuits are sliding down the stainless steel ramp. The morning rush is picking up. The uniforms are circling the heat lamp. A train whistle is blowing in the distance, the sound getting closer until finally it’s so loud it drowns out the customer in the drive-through.
“Hold on,” Emily says into her headset, waiting for the train to pass.
And when it’s gone: “Welcome to Hardee’s. May I interest you in a combo?”