Noon time in the prep room at a Pal’s Sudden Service #5 is a beehive of activity. Grills, fryers, microwaves, drink machines and prep tables are all arranged compactly around the space. About 10 employees, mostly white and in their early twenties, work in swift, focused motions, pirouetting around each other as they do their tasks. On either end of the room are windows, through which other employees receive and deliver orders to drive-thru customers. The air is dense with layers of sound: burgers sizzle on a grill, fries are scooped into cartons, microwaves whine and beep, refrigerators hum. Above all the din is the amplified voice of the drive-thru order taker, Ashley. Customers at the window list out what they’d like, and Ashley announces each item individually into a microphone: “Frenchie Fries,” “Double Big Pals with cheese, plain, add ketchup,” “Tea half and half.” Other employees, listening, begin the orders as quickly as possible.
The customers lined up in their cars during this busy time of day have come to expect efficiency from this regional fast-food chain, and with good reason. The manager at this Pal’s tells me that speed in taking orders is a top priority, explaining that the reason Pal’s maintains an ordering window instead of using the intercom systems common to many fast food chains is because face-to-face interactions lead to less mistakes and saved time in the ordering process. The manager adds that Pal’s aims for customers to spend no more than 18 seconds at the receiving window getting their orders and change, “And most of the time we do better than that.”
Pal’s #5, with its large, unique fast food themed façade, sits just across from ETSU’s campus on the busy four-lane artery that is West State of Franklin Road. As a graduate student driving by Pal’s’ flashy signage every day, it hadn’t escaped my notice that the business prided itself on speed, using self-descriptive phrases like “Great Food in a Flash” and “Sudden Service.” I wondered what kind of vocabulary and pitch-based strategies were used to make the service at Pal’s so swift and “sudden.” I decided to pursue that question by recording during noon time at two different Pal’s locations (#5 and #29, see map below) and then analyzing my recordings using language coding techniques and observing pitch variations.
To start my project, I first needed to overcome the technical issue of gaining permission to record inside of a Pal’s. I called several area managers who informed me that I needed permission for my project from the CEO of the business. My request to record was sent to him via e-mail. I had thought this might be a block to my project, not knowing how long such a request could take and that a refusal was perfectly possible. But within a day the CEO responded with a “yes.” I think the swiftness of the CEO’s reply and his openness to recording technology being used within the Pal’s prep rooms is indicative of the regional and local nature of the business. At an earlier stage of my project I had considered recording at some larger fast-food chains on the State of Franklin Road, and those attempts were largely discouraged because of the complex hierarchies and protective atmosphere of those businesses.
In this project I also needed to address the ethical issue of recording two types of people: the drive-thru order takers and the customers. I felt it was important to have consent to record from the order-takers because they were sharing their craft with me in a high-pressure situation, taking orders at the busiest time of day. This was a kind of vulnerability, and I wanted to make sure my recording didn’t make them feel less able to perform their work. I also let the order takers know that if they let me record them they wouldn’t be identified in any online use of the recordings. At the first location where I recorded, I was given informal consent by the order-taker to record her. At the second location, the order-taker on shift, who had been informed about my planned visit, expressed discomfort of being recorded to her manager. So instead, another worker stepped in to take orders for the period that I was recording. In contrast, I was not concerned about gaining consent to record from the customers. Since this was not a commercial project, the customers were anonymous and the information they conveyed was not of a private or sensitive nature, I didn’t feel that consent was necessary.
After I recorded my material, I decided to use a few different analyzing techniques. I employed Wordsift, an online application that can organize and evaluate the vocabulary within text documents for their frequency and complexity. Next I studied my transcriptions to gain a better understanding of the sequential dialogue of ordering. Thirdly, I did some close listening to several orders to make rudimentary visual maps of the pitch patterns used during ordering exchanges. And last, I interviewed a Pal’s employee to gain a more in-depth perspective on the logic of the ordering systems at Pal’s.
There were two key concepts that helped to guide my study: the concept of “multiliteracy” and the concept of food menus as “boundary objects.” As I analyzed my recordings I listened for the ways in which the drive-thru order takers engaged in forms of literacy and how they used the Pal’s menu as a text to negotiate with the customer.
Drive-Thru Order Samples
My use of the Wordsift application helps to exhibit the ways in which certain vocabulary is prioritized in Pal’s ordering systems. I found the most common phrases from my recordings to be greeting words and branding terms: “Hello,” “Thank You” and “Frenchy Fry.” The runners-up were a mix of nouns, descriptors, and another branding term: “cheese,” “burger,” “tea,” “plain,” and “Pal.” The average syllables per word were 1.3 and the average grade level of language use was between 5.6 to 6th grade. These findings help to show how Pal’s ordering interactions are designed for brevity while incorporating brand identity. Though by some standards Pal’s drive-thru language could be labeled as having a low rate of literacy, Pal’s workers are proficiently multi-literate, using specific language to translate orders efficiently while using friendly greetings and promoting branding language.
My transcriptions (see bottom of post) and visual map of pitch variations reveal dialogue patterns and uses of tone that are the framework through which customers and employees construct the ordering process. The “hello” or a similar greeting is essential to begin the interaction, then the customer begins ordering without further prompting, with the order taker “translating” their order (more on this below). The customer uses tone or language to indicate that the order is complete, and the order-taker concludes the order by declaring the total cost and giving a “thank you.” My illustration of pitch variations from four orders taken at #5 and #29 show how the order takers use pitch to enhance the “dialogue framework:” #5 and #29 Pal’s employees used different tonal patterns for their greetings, but would reliably signal the end of an ordering conversation by lowering their pitch toward the end of their sentences. When giving orders into the speaker system, the order takers often dropped their pitch and then raised it again, which I speculate might be used to leave a sense of expectation that more orders from the same customer are coming, prompting workers to stay alert.
The recordings also reveal how order takers “correct” and re-translate the orders of customers so that they fit into a logic used by Pal’s employees (see the Pal’s online menu here). Here is an example from the Pal’s #5 recording:
Customer: “Hi there, let me have a small cheeseburger, and a Frenchie fry.”
Order taker into microphone: “Junior with cheese, Frenchie fry.”
The customer is using the more common terminology of a “small cheeseburger,” while the Pal’s employee translates this term into a brand name product. Other customers have learned how to directly reference the Pal’s menu and deliver what information is important, such as what is included and excluded with a food item, in a way that mimics the order taker’s language:
Customer: “Let me have a junior burger, no onion extra pickle”
Order taker into microphone: “Junior burger no onion add extra pickle.”
This “translation” of customer’s orders into branding terminology of course helps train customers to start using brand terms themselves, but there are other logics behind the order-taker’s language. In my interview with a long-term Pal’s employee, he explained to me that order takers say “Frenchy Fry” instead of “French fries” because the hard “i” of “fries” can be mistaken for “Sprite” over the intercom. The word “mayonnaise” is used instead of “mayo,” since “mayo” could be interpreted as “tomato.” Of course, Chris adds, special names like “Frenchy Fries” “add to the uniqueness of Pal’s.” Thus the order-takers vocabulary serves the purpose of adapting customers to branding terms and communicating clearly with employees in an aurally-busy work environment.
For this project we’ve asked ourselves, “What sounds are important, even though we do not actively listen to them?” and “What sounds are important in Appalachia?” Fast food culture can appear to be a ubiquitous part of many of our lives, so much so that listening to the sounds of drive-thru orders may seem absurd. But delving a little deeper, fast food interactions reveal specific dialogues that constantly negotiate and shape every day literacies. Furthermore, the literacies being shaped in my study could be thought of as having a regional identity. Pal’s drive-thrus are exclusively located in southern Virginia and East Tennessee, so when a customer dialogues with an order taker, the two are arguably engaging in a unique regional literacy. Pal’s drive-thru ordering is one of many languages that make up the multiliterate environment of Appalachia, and even something as common as a fast food order is worth a hard listen.