Former Chain Restaurant Employees Spill Their Secrets

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Creative Vix/Pexels

Spend a couple of hours watching reality shows on Food Network, and you'll realize that there’s a world of its own behind the door of every restaurant kitchen. Sure, there are health scores to go by, but, as diners, we never really know what's happening in our favorite food joints.

Let's take a peek behind the curtains. Reddit admissions and news articles have revealed some of the dirtiest little secrets behind the restaurants we love.

"Fresh" Macaroni

Panera Bread is a company that prides itself on serving fresh food made with natural ingredients. When an employee posted a TikTok video revealing how the raved-about macaroni is actually made, faithful patrons of the popular chain restaurant were shocked.

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Frozen chunks of the macaroni come prepackaged. The wrapped macaroni chunk is dipped into a deep fryer filled with boiling water and then the pasta is dumped straight into a bowl. Panera representatives have explained the macaroni is made fresh in central locations and then shipped out to restaurants. The employee was fired because the video is tantamount to disclosing recipes.

Chilling With the Rat Pack

One restaurant has a photo album nestled in the back of the kitchen where customers will never see it. Whenever a rat is discovered in the kitchen, employees take a photo smiling or posing with the rat before they...dispose of it. The album is packed because this older restaurant in California has a serious problem with rats.

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The person who revealed this shocking secret didn't disclose what restaurant it occurred at, but it could have been anywhere. Ask anyone in the restaurant or extermination industry, and you'll find out that most restaurants have problems with rodents and/or roaches.

KFC Serves Fresh(ish) Coleslaw

A former KFC employee named /u/MaggieMoon on Reddit revealed that coleslaw is the only dish sold in the restaurant that doesn't come in frozen, canned or powdered. The mashed potatoes and gravy come from a "just add water" powdered mix. The chicken is frozen, but it is breaded and fried in the restaurant.

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All of the beans sold in KFC are canned, and most other sides are frozen. Coleslaw, of all things, enters the restaurant as separate bags of ingredients and dressing. The ingredients are mixed together in large batches, and a new batch is made every couple of days.

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Trader Joe's Gives Back

In some countries, it's common for grocery stores to leave soon-to-expire food out at night for the less fortunate to eat. In America, concerns about liability from someone getting food poisoning have stopped many stores from doing so. According to /u/a_brilling_a_day on Reddit, Trader Joe's donates every bit of expiring food it possibly can.

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The store sends off everything it can't sell, including expired food. Meat is the only expired food that the chain won't pass on. According to the Reddit user, food banks that accept donations agree to sort through the food that may be inedible to save the store time.

Fast Food Restaurants Waste Food Every Day

Wendy's and Domino's were two of the restaurants mentioned on Reddit, but this happens everywhere. Many fast-food restaurants have pounds and pounds of food left over at the end of the night, and company policies stipulate that the food must be thrown away. Employees can't take it or donate it.

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Some restaurants even require employees to spray the food with dye to render it inedible before throwing it away. Maybe these companies are super stingy. Maybe someone took advantage of them before. Maybe this says quite a lot about the very short shelf life of fast food.

What Kind of Milk Is This?

A Reddit user named /u/GingerSnatch used to work for Starbucks, and she said that it was common practice at her particular location to substitute types of milk. If they ran out of skim milk, they’d use whole milk, 2% or any other type of milk they had, without telling the customer.

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They made sure not to make dangerous substitutions, such as using regular milk when the customer asked for soy, which could cause an allergic reaction. We'd like to think this doesn't happen at every Starbucks, but you never really know what you're eating unless you prepared it.

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More Than Ice Cream on That Spoon

At Cold Stone Creamery, guests can sample as many flavors of delectable ice cream as they want before deciding on the right flavor. According to /u/wr08 of Reddit, the manager at a particular location was having employees wash and re-use the little plastic spoons customers used to sample ice cream flavors.

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This is clearly not the policy for all Cold Stone franchises. As shocking as it may initially sound, we eat from utensils that have been washed in most restaurants. Those spoons are cheap and tiny, and plastic is recyclable. Surely, that incredibly cheap manager was making up some rules, though.

The Truth About Panera Bread

A user named /u/romanpa and other disgruntled ex-employees on Reddit expressed frustration over the way Panera markets its ingredients. Panera is known for using fresh, high-quality food. Some of the ingredients are premium, but, according to these former employees, many of the ingredients are the same as what anyone can buy in the grocery store.

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Rather than being made to order, many of the main entrees are made outside of the store or made in the morning. Large batches of paninis are made every morning and heated up when a customer orders. It takes a lot to add or remove something from a panini.

Want Hot Fries?

Fast food is often made in large batches and then either microwaved or kept warm throughout the day. This isn't a shocker. So many people know about this common practice that customers request things like "hot fries" or a "fresh burger." Despite the clear request, it isn't always honored.

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Instead, some employees merely drop old food into the fryer for a few minutes. If your "hot fries" come up really fast, they may not be freshly made at all. This is certainly not the policy for every restaurant, but several food-industry employees have admitted to doing this on social media.

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Sticky, Slimy, Moldy Soda

Soda dispensers are quite possibly the germiest equipment in any restaurant. Soft drinks in a restaurant start off as a thick syrup concentrate. When the syrup runs through a dispenser, that concentrate gets blended with water and carbonation. The spigots of these dispensers are made up of several small plastic parts.

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To maintain cleanliness, the spigot should be removed, taken apart and soaked in a cleaning solution on a regular basis. Sadly, many restaurant workers admit that these cleanings don’t usually take place on schedule. By the time people actually clean them, the grimy spigots are often moldy, sticky and smelly.

How Old Is This Sauce?

Policies and procedures are only as strong as the people who follow them. At one unnamed Italian restaurant chain, employees complained that the manager was pressuring them to change the dates on food packages. If food was expired, employees were told to carefully write on the bottles to change the dates.

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User /u/fourwindsgone shared this story on Reddit, but these kinds of tales aren’t uncommon. Some employees quit when asked to do such unscrupulous things, but others comply with their managers’ wishes. But what if employees change expiration dates for several days in a row? Yikes!

What Does the Chef Do?

In many chain restaurants, a surprisingly low percentage of the food you eat is actually cooked on-site. Some chefs do more microwaving than traditional cooking. Many of the biggest chain restaurants in the world also sell microwavable versions of their most-popular meals in grocery stores.

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When microwaved properly, the at-home version tastes just like the restaurant’s version. Although restaurants do reheat frozen food, many of them use industrial microwaves or convection ovens so the food still tastes fresh and doesn't get that soggy texture that can happen when frozen food is microwaved. There's no difference between a TV dinner and takeout.

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The Problem With Blizzards

Dairy Queen Blizzards are known for being perfectly blended. Reddit user /u/wintuition says that there’s a metal ring employees use to blend the Blizzards. At the locations she worked for, the rings were just placed in water in between uses rather than being thoroughly washed. This can pose a serious risk to people who have allergies.

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This isn’t just a Dairy Queen problem. Metal agitators are used in a variety of restaurants to mix ingredients in milkshakes. It's surprisingly common to just wipe or rinse these off rather than wash them with a rag and soap.

Selling Inferior Products

Some bartenders on Reddit claim that they’ve worked in bars where expensive liquors and beers are regularly switched with similar, less-expensive products. According to /u/misterbuckets, a bottle of more-expensive Jack Daniel’s whiskey was displayed where customers could see.

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Unbeknownst to the public, however, that "Jack Daniel’s" bottle was actually filled with Members Mark brand whiskey (no, not Maker’s Mark), which you can buy at Sam's Club. Although customers were receiving a far-less-expensive product, the bar was charging them the higher price for Jack Daniel’s. Unfortunately, this is not the first or last time this kind of deceitful practice has happened in a restaurant.

Other Customers Are Your Worst Nightmare

In addition to all of the less-than-clean things that employees might do, you also have to worry about other customers. Customers don't have rules to follow, they can't get fired and they’re often left alone to do whatever they want.

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User /u/radicalphoenix of Reddit says, "I work in a store that sells bulk food items. We have a lot of problems with people just putting their hands in the food, stealing and just generally being slobs with product that customers are going to eventually eat." This is a concern in any restaurant where customers can touch packages and exposed food.

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The Infamous Five-Second Rule

It doesn't matter how upscale the restaurant is. The employees are just people, and people can be careless sometimes. In the midst of a long shift, even the best chefs in the world can be tempted to cut corners.

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When food falls on the floor, there are plenty of employees who pick it up, clean it off and serve it. If they can do it quickly enough without being seen, some people have no problem with serving food that’s been on the floor for a short period of time. Hopefully, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Who's Really Getting Your Tips?

Tips can be a hot-button issue. Regardless of how much you leave, most people assume that the tip goes to the staff member who served them, but that's not always true. Tip policies vary from restaurant to restaurant.

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Sometimes, your waiter gets your tip. Other times, everything in the tip jar is divided between all the staff members who worked that night. There are some restaurants where tips that are included on bills with credit cards go straight to management and aren’t shared with employees at all. The latter example is fairly unusual, but it has been known to happen.

Allergies Aren't Always Taken Seriously

Everyone who works in the food industry doesn’t necessarily have the customer's best interest at heart. Some people are burnt out and couldn’t care less. On social media, many food-industry employees express a disdainful attitude toward people who ask for things like gluten-free, vegan or lactose-free options.

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Some employees view customers who order anything other than what's printed on the menu as pains in the neck, and a person with this kind of attitude could be lax about fulfilling the special requirements of the order. People with allergies should remain alert to avoid eating potentially contaminated food.

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Restaurants Buy Food From Other Restaurants

A California restaurant made headlines for selling Popeye's Chicken as their own. Although passing off another restaurant's entree as your own is frowned upon, the idea of selling another restaurant's food is actually pretty normal. Breads and cakes are commonly purchased in bulk from one restaurant and sold at another.

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In New Orleans, many famous restaurants buy baked goods from a handful of bakeries. Many restaurants sell desserts purchased from other restaurants or caterers rather than having pastry chefs work for them. If something on your plate tastes familiar, it may come from your other favorite restaurant.

Those Surveys Really Matter

Profit is extremely important to chain restaurants, so statistics on performance and income are carefully kept for each franchise of large chains. These numbers are used to compare one franchise to the next. Good numbers can result in awards and promotions, while bad numbers can lead to shutdowns.

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Scores from customer surveys are used to judge individual employees. Some fast-food workers on social media say that their hours were cut if their managers received negative reviews during the times the employees worked. In some chains with very high quality standards, anything less than excellent may be considered a negative review.

Why Special Orders Are Never Right

In many chain restaurants, food is made off-site, and re-heating, along with a little preparation, is the extent of the "cooking" that happens in the restaurants before people eat. That's why orders are often wrong when you ask for small adjustments to the offerings on the menu.

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If you ask for a burger without cheese or a sandwich without sauce, the employees may have no other choice than to remove the ingredient you don't want from a pre-made entree before reheating the food. This means that trace amounts of the ingredient will likely still remain in the dish.

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McDonald's Has a Special Way of Making Lifetime Customers

According to /u/genericxname from Reddit, McDonald's employees have been encouraged to focus on making children have memorable experiences in the restaurant. These experiences are called "golden moments." The idea is to give children special attention and special treatment so that they remember McDonald's as a positive place.

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Children who have happy memories of "golden moments" in McDonald's grow up to be adults who patronize the restaurant and introduce it to their own children. There has been a lot of pushback against advertising towards children, but there’s no way to police the way children are treated in a restaurant.

Why Your Steak Is Never Right

Steak gets sent back more than any other dish. Customers ask for it rare, medium-rare or well done. Servers write down these requests, but, in reality, not all restaurants have the ability to make these kinds of steaks.

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If a steak gets microwaved or reheated, as is common in many chain restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to control the meat’s level of doneness. Many restaurants have microwave cook times to make steak rare or well done, but it's tricky to achieve the nuance of medium-rare in a microwave. Hence, getting the perfect steak is a struggle.

Who Needs Gloves?

Unless you see something concerning, it's pretty rare to sit down in a restaurant and think about how people are making the food. Still, we tend to imagine that the people cooking our food are wearing gloves. That’s not always the case. It sounds gross, but gloves aren’t legally required in some states.

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They’re only necessary if the cook needs to touch your food with bare hands. Handwashing, however, is legally required everywhere. Studies show that cooks who wear gloves tend to wash their hands less and cross-contaminate foods, like raw meat and vegetables, more often.

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There's a Fast-Food Black Market

Many fast-food workers complain about being forced to dispose of several pounds’ worth of food at the end of every night. Why would a restaurant waste all that food when it could go to employees or to hungry people?

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There might be a good reason for that. More than a few Reddit users, who wisely didn’t disclose where they worked, admitted to taking food that’s supposed to get thrown away and selling it to their friends and family. The people buying the food get a discount, and the employees get free money. Most restaurants consider this stealing.

Applebee's Doesn't Want You Counting Calories

It's no secret that eating out means you're probably going to consume way too many calories, but some restaurants would rather not have you know how many calories you're eating. Back when Reddit user /u/creeper_of_interests worked for the popular chain, she was discouraged from letting customers know how many calories were in the meals.

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She became particularly concerned when several customers ordered chicken salad, claiming that they were going for something healthy. Unbeknownst to the health-conscious customers, the salad, at that time, had 1,500 calories. That’s as many calories as some people eat in an entire day.

The Morally Dirty Kitchen

Although it’s a work environment, the behind-the-scenes conversations in a kitchen can be extremely NSFW. Yelling and even cursing are ways of life in some kitchens. Some Reddit users commented that drug use became the company culture at their places of employment.

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As an industry, the culinary world is one full of dignity, respect and professionalism, but the culture within individual kitchens can become extremely toxic. Customers would probably blush if they could hear the conversations behind the closed doors in many kitchens. If customers could see what happens in some kitchens, it would be dinner and a show.

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Yes, This Really Happens

In movies, there are plenty of scenes where waitstaff and kitchen staff will put saliva, dirt and who-knows-what-else on the plates of an annoying customer. Sadly, this happens in real life. There have been countless cases of employees getting arrested for tampering with customers' food.

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On social media, there are also thousands of admissions about either tampering with or witnessing another employee tampering with a rude customer's food. This problem isn’t limited to a single chain: It can happen anywhere. The best way to avoid this happening to you is to be kind to everyone working in the restaurant.

Something Doesn't Taste Right

Although franchises are all supposed to follow the same recipes, the food that comes out on your plate depends solely on the manager and the cooks at the particular location you visit. An anonymous social media user who claimed to work for a popular cafe chain said that she was often forced to sell run-of-the-mill coffee for premium prices.

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Whenever the store ran out of franchise-approved ingredients, the manager had employees replace them with generic powdered sugar and Folger's coffee bought from a grocery store. Customers were paying cafe prices for coffee that they could’ve made at home.

The Dishes Are Probably Dirty

There's a high chance the silverware you eat with in a restaurant has never been washed by hand. Utensils are dumped into a strong detergent solution en masse. Sometimes they might get washed off, and sometimes they’re just left to soak there. If the restaurant is really busy, several sets of utensils are washed in the same dirty dishwater.

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The final step in the process is to sanitize the silverware, either with heat or a chemical. Employees who are responsible for rolling silverware reveal that they often wipe away stuck-on bits of food before they roll silverware in napkins for customers.

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