Friday night at the U of M

The Minnesota Daily spent last Friday night inside the Dinkytown McDonald's to observe and record what a weekend night is like inside the fast food restaurant at the University.
September 28, 2010

Photos mounted on the walls showcase collegiate excellence: touchdowns, gymnasts holding perfect poses and celebrations of victory.

Customers slouch in their seats just feet away from them, gorging themselves on fast food before stumbling to the next destination or going home to pass out.

In the eyes of many University of Minnesota students, the McDonald’s on the corner of 15th Avenue and Fourth Street Southeast is a late-night oasis, golden arches promising a cheap meal between bars or parties.

Just a block north of Folwell Hall , a block east of Dinkytown bars and steps away from off-campus housing, the restaurant is agateway between academic and social life.

That’s why The Minnesota Daily spent a Friday night there.

10:30 p.m.: All is calm

About a dozen employees are stationed at cash registers, frying machines and burger assembly lines. They seem relaxed. There are about 20 customers waiting to order or pick up their food.

The night is still young, but many inside the restaurant are already shouting with friends who are less than an arm’s length away.

"Do you like working this shift?" a girl asks the man working the register.

"Not really," he says flatly.

The girl and her six friends grab their food and cram into a booth meant for just four. They take pictures of each other.

"Guys, this is just one of many McDonald’s runs for the night!" one girl says.

Just two of them reappear before the night ends.

Students march through the front doors with purpose and crash up against the front line in waves.

One minute there are 30 customers congregated to order in a mass of bodies rather than discernible lines. The next minute that mass has disappeared, and most have moved into the dining area or onward to their destination for the night.

11:08 p.m.: Bustling inside

Owner David Choate doesn’t refer to those working security in his restaurant as security guards.

"They’re our hospitality people," he asserts. "They’re just there to help and make sure nothing gets out of hand."

The "hospitality people" at work tonight have to weave their way through a rush of more than 50 customers waiting near the entrance. This crowd doesn’t disappear as quickly as the one before it. Business is starting to pick up.

One hospitality person plants himself in the middle of the dining area as customers begin to flood in. The tall, slim man in his mid-20s is dressed in all black, including his black cap and do-rag underneath.

Despite his imposing presence, he says nothing as he watches students file past him to and from their seats.

The rush requires constant maintenance. He leaves his post frequently to throw away the remnants of meals left behind or keep the path to the restrooms clear, but he always returns to the same spot.

One disheveled man has spent the better part of two hours with his face down on a table in the back of the dining area, deep in slumber. Students eye him cautiously as they walk past.

11:20 p.m.: Music at the 'central hub'

As things pick up inside, passers-by outside are drawn to the corner of 15th Avenue and Fourth Street, where a group of four musicians has been

playing for almost a half-hour.

Some skip or dance as they walk by. Some yell "Whoo!" in support.

Fifteen delay their plans for the night to surround the troupe for a handful of songs.

"I’ve been around here before and I know it’s kind of a central hub where a lot of people out on the weekends stop by," St. John’s University student Jeremy Robak says during a break from tambourine and singing duties after ripping through a cover of Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues."

Robak and the other two members of his band Winston Drei Tod made it a point to team up with another friend from St. John’s to play street music while in town.

"Play that shit!" yells University first-year Derek Landseidel as the bassist begins a short solo.

Landseidel has been dancing and clapping and singing along to each song with increased fervor, mouthing along when he can’t quite find the correct words. It’s his birthday, he says, and at the moment he’s celebrating it outside McDonald’s.

"I was coming here to get a mediocre meal, and instead I got this amazing band," Landseidel says, his breath ripe with the smell of celebration.

12:15 p.m.: The shipwreck

A man in his early 20s dressed in a yellow button-down dress shirt and blue jeans stumbles away from the registers and makes his way to the dining area.

He sways left to right as he walks as if he were on a ship at sea.

He parks it, dumps his fries all over his table for one and begins to eat.

Not a minute later, he leaves his seat. When he returns, he approaches a table across the aisle from his own under the watchful gaze of the hospitality person.

"You’re over here, man," he says, suppressing a grin as he directs the drunken man to his real table.

He gets up yet again, nearly colliding with two girls sitting nearby. The customer returns to the wrong table and puts his head down for a few minutes. Finally he stands and heads for the door, leaving a mountain of fries nearly untouched.

Two tables away sits Chelsea Varilla, a University first-year polishing off a Mac Wrap before heading back to Territorial Hall for the night.

"We were at a frat party, and then my friends left me, so I’m here," she says with a nervous laugh.

In her three weeks at the University, she and her friends have made a habit of stopping at McDonald’s for a bite to eat before or after hanging out at Phi Gamma Delta.

By 12:35 a.m., the crowd has begun to swell. There is a sea of customers waiting now, making it nearly impossible to see through to the cash registers from the front doors.

Employees on the front lines begin to yell out order numbers to compete with their customers’ boisterous conversations.

1:00 a.m.: Customer chaos

"I need everyone to keep it down!" a member of the hospitality crew yells at customers crowded around the registers. The stocky man dressed in a blue uniform and a tie hustles over to repeat himself at the other end of the mass.

On top of battling the noise of 150 people inside and out, he’s done his best to herd customers with their food into the dining area or out of the restaurant. His frustration is visible.

Some customers are calm, others are obnoxious.

Out on the patio, sophomore Connor Heidbrink and two friends share a massive box of chicken nuggets as they wind down from a night of drinking with friends. Unlike most eating outside, the three are relatively quiet and reserved.

"We heard there was a 50-piece nugget deal," Heidbrink says. "So we got it."

After just a few minutes, the box is nearly empty.

Heidbrink knows this McDonald’s well.

"If you go in the bathroom, you see people shotgunning beers and stuff. That’s pretty weird to see when you go to McDonald’s," he says, laughing.

The smell of tobacco and marijuana wafts over from a table some 50 feet away, where six friends are passing a hand-rolled cigarette around a table covered with McDonald’s bags and dollar menu items.

1:27 a.m.: The buffalo sauce incident

Friendly teasing escalates into shouting among a group of friends outside. In a flash, the back of first-year Brian Berkowitz ’s Twins T-shirt is covered in buffalo sauce.

Berkowitz is quick to retaliate, hurling another plastic cup of the sauce at the culprit, his roommate Joe Borchardt.

"I threw it back, and then I thought about it," Berkowitz says. "He’s wearing my jersey."

The stained jerseys are only half of the casualties — sauce splattered into Borchardt’s eyes, too.

Berkowitz can hardly contain his laughter as he explains the origin of the fight while Borchardt nurses his wounds.

"I paid for 10 McNuggets and I ate three. They took like 95 percent of my fries!" he says.

Berkowtiz and Borchardt laugh at each other. Their friends laugh at both of them.

Borchardt tips his free cup of water into his eyes to flush them out.

"It feels so much better," he says afterward.

1:36 a.m.: 'A bunch of idiots'

Brian Nelson wears a winter hat, a jean jacket and a crooked, yellowing smile with a few missing teeth. He’s been sitting on the patio on and off since 10:30 p.m. with his bike and a cart that’s toting a lawn chair and other metal items.

"See, I used to be somebody, but then my woman died," he says.

He spends a fair amount of time around Dinkytown, he says, and has seen the best and worst of student life.

"Now there’s a bunch of idiots that hang out here and smoke weed. I’m not gonna say I never smoked weed," he adds quickly. "That’d be bullshit."

1:47 a.m.: The decline begins

The storm seems to have calmed for now. The staff inside have managed to fill orders that were coming in at a frantic pace less than an hour ago, and now just 50 or so customers are inside.

But those inside are doing their best to raise hell as if business were at its peak. Yelling and whooping have taken the place of normal indoor conversation.

The stocky guard’s crusade to get customers seated or out of the building has clearly failed.

"Everyone over here needs to sit down!" he yells at no one in particular. "I don’t care if you’re a girl, a squirrel or a chipmunk."

Few listen.

The crowd is starting to change. While some eat and leave for the next party or bar, most grab a soda and talk in a swarm of friends.

As the night progresses, fewer students fill the restaurant, though it’s still crowded.

2:11 a.m.: Freestyling on the patio

A small crowd of 20 builds in front of the registers, which the staff is able to brush off with no problem.

It pales in comparison to the onslaught just an hour ago.

A group of eight men who have been inside talking for about an hour walk outside in a hurry. Minutes later, they’re in a huddle just outside the front entrance, surrounding two among them in the heat of a freestyle rap battle.

The stocky guard comes to shoo them away from the door, but freezes in his tracks when he hears what is going on. He laughs and smiles as the two men exchange verses filled with insults before politely asking them to move a few feet to the side.

2:30 a.m.: 'This ain't nothing, man'

Fifteen people congregate on the sidewalks of Fourth Street as the stocky guard chases a Latino man in his 20s through the restaurant and out the exit.

"Go home!" the guard yells as he points west.

"This is public property, dog," the man responds, refusing to back down.

It’s unclear what the man did to warrant being thrown out, but the standoff ends quickly as he and a few friends walk off.

"This is a wild night," an onlooker comments.

"This ain’t nothin’, man," the guard responds.

By 2:46 a.m., there are only about 20 people eating or waiting for food, and most seem more sober than drunk. Conversations are peaceful.

Five minutes later, two employees leave their posts and walk through the restaurant, exchanging handshakes and stories from the night with coworkers.

3:00 a.m.: The aftermath

The golden arches that crown the two-story building shut off precisely on the hour.

Guards usher stragglers out of the restaurant and lock the doors. There are still a handful of customers waiting for their orders. Staff waits at the doors to let them out.

It’s closing time.

Buckets and mops are rolled out onto the floor for the 10 employees left to clean.

If this was a battle, McDonald’s has triumphed. But the cost of victory is high.

The urinals in the men’s bathroom are full of garbage, where the floors

resemble puddles more than tile.

The streetlights overhead cast a bleak red light on newspapers strewn on the corner of 15th Avenue and Fourth Street Southeast.

A man walks down the canopied stairway to the glass entrance doors and tries to open one. It’s locked. He yanks at the door again to vent his frustration before walking away.

McDonald’s will open for breakfast in two hours.

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