This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, the war hero.
For a nine-month period this year, I aided in serving rotten food to our veterans, their loved ones, and their doctors/caregivers while working at a Veteran Canteen Service (VCS) location here in Colorado.
From raw fish (that had been sitting in a puddle of its own liquid decay) being served as part of a breakfast special to raw chicken being stored at room temperature for such a long time that it would hit the grill already experiencing the throes of salmonella, the horrors I was a part of ran the gamut. Whether it was lettuce that was blackened and liquefying (eventually becoming a topping of a war hero’s burger) or cheese that had hardened with age from improper storage, what we served our veterans, their family members, and doctors was nothing short of a nightmare.
And for me, these nightmares continue to this day.
Before going into the grizzly details of how I saw foods turn from succulent to a side dish of mass destruction, it’s imperative that you know the reasons why I am writing this in the first place.
The most important reason stems from my father; a Korean War veteran who never forgot to tell me how proud he was that I was working at the VA—he absolutely loved the place. Because of his time in the Army, along with the health problems that typically arise in someone of his advanced age, he spent many nights being taken care of by the VA staff. He reminded me of this fact every time we spoke on the phone—this was always followed by him telling me how proud he was that I worked for such an amazing organization.
From my first day to my very last, these health violations happened throughout. Though I was able to look past my moral errors initially, as the days (and pride from my father) continued to accumulate, I kept feeling more and more horrible about the food crimes I was helping to enable.
A month before my time ended at the grill, a major event occurred which caused the need for my exit: my father died. The war hero fought his last battle. This event became too mentally and emotionally overpowering for me. It’s also this event that became a primary catalyst for me writing these articles. I’m hoping that by doing so, I can somehow “atone for my sins” and stop being haunted by the ghost of my father any time I see an elderly veteran.
Sickeningly, the second reason I’m writing this is much more nefarious: nobody in Washington cares.
Shortly after my father’s death, a group of officials from Washington came to visit the VA in an attempt to listen to the employees (anonymously) and find out where the problems were in order to root the cancers out. When I found out their specialty was in anything and everything VA-related, I saw it as my chance to right some of my wrongs.
When I was able to, I explained to them everything I had witnessed, along with how the levels of gross incompetence in management were directly responsible for everything negative occurring at the cafeteria.
Once I was done, I was informed that they could do nothing. Though they were incredibly “understanding,” they felt the best way to handle the situation was to send my concerns to another government department that would research it and then get back to me.
It was the oldest political trick in the book; using bureaucracy to create confusion in an attempt to shirk accountability. It’s for this reason that I am changing all identities and keeping the exact location of the hospital vague. If Washington—and the Regional Manager in charge of VCS’s in Colorado, Wyoming, and Oklahoma—is aware that we’re serving rotting food to our veterans and doesn’t care, then it’s highly likely that these relaxed standards are happening region-wide.
Knowing that Washington didn’t care was the final nail in the coffin. I only had one option, these articles. I knew that the only way to possibly change the system was by getting the public educated and involved. I’m only hoping that someone, somewhere, will read this and have the ability to see that these crimes are stopped.
PART I (The Food):
Every atrocity that occurred during my tenure working the grill at The Café can be traced back to one person in management—our Chief, a man named Whit—and his desire to achieve “Platinum Status.”
Platinum status was given to different VCS locations based on the amount of profits they were able to generate via the combined monetary totals of the cafeteria, coffee shop, and retail store. In fact, it was because of Whit’s success as a (non-military) high-ranking manager at a Wal-Mart in a major metropolis from somewhere in the South that he was given the loftiest position of the VCS in Colorado.
So, it should come as no surprise that our retail store was considered the model for what every other VCS shop should look like. However, retail and food service are completely different worlds, and it was apparent that Chief Whit never got this memo.
Though Chief Whit did have a major enabler in the form of our regional manager (more on him in the second part of this series), all the cost-cutting measures that were eventually implemented came from Whit—like never changing our disposable gloves in a shift.
One of the first things I remember witnessing that disturbed me happened whenever anyone touched raw meat, like the hamburger patties we served. Instead of changing their gloves, they would run over and wash their still-gloved hands. When I asked Whit why this was being done, given the fact that the gloves were disposable and there was a near-full box within five feet of the grill station, he informed me that it was a way to help save money.
He told me that our goal at the grill was to only change our gloves after every break and lunch. He also stressed that he would like to see us change our gloves four times a day, maximum. Even if we just dipped our hand in raw eggs to coat a piece of bread for French toast and the next customer wanted a raw, fresh-cut bagel, we were instructed not to toss the gloves and put on new ones. Chief Whit felt that, in the long run, the savings kept from having to re-order gloves so frequently was worth the health risk.
Some of the other cost-cutting measures I witnessed early on came in the form of a refrigerator I like to call “The Bacterial Box”—almost everything that came into contact with this device was growing some kind of colony.
Though it was once a working refrigerator, by the time I first saw it, it had been relegated to nothing more than an aluminum-sided table. On its top was a warmer that held all our burgers, grilled chicken, and other warm proteins that would be made into sandwiches for lunch service. This contraption was OK.
However, the series of buckets holding various cold items ranging from grated cheese to liquid eggs that were nestled next to the warmer was a different story.
Yes, some of the buckets were insulated and frozen overnight. But sitting in that specific location for the majority of an eight-hour shift often meant that the contents of each were sitting at either the “danger zone” (4.4° C – 60° C) or at room temperature for hours. During the lunch rush, if someone wanted shredded cheese on their burger, it wasn’t uncommon for us to have to use our tongs to brush away the darkened, crusted topping that would eventually form, in order to get to the “good parts.”
As far as the refrigerator itself was concerned, Chief Whit told everyone that it had only been broken for a “few weeks” (when in fact it had been down for the two years prior) and he had a fix-it ticket put in to have it up and working within two weeks. The two weeks came and went, and from what I understand, it still hasn’t been fixed to this day. What made this lie so troublesome was that during my tenure, Chief Whit decided to start serving beef and chicken Philly cheesesteaks and opted to use this (warm) refrigerator to hold the proteins.
At the end of the day, we would take the semi-thawed hunks of meat and return them to the freezer for future use. This meant that the outer layers would be constantly going through a room temperature/re-freezing process—breeding millions of bacteria. I’m surprised nobody got sick (that I’m aware of), given how much salmonella the chicken must have been swimming in.
What makes this entire situation that much worse is that the need to use the broken refrigerator was self-imposed. In an attempt to save more money—thereby gaining access to the Platinum award he so desperately coveted—he would often make choices that were completely counterintuitive to reaching this goal.
Like when it came to storing the meat in the bacteria box, he had no other choice. Because Whit had never gotten it fixed the years prior, the grill was forced to share a smaller refrigerator with the scoop-and-serve line next to us that shared the same primary kitchen we did … which led to a whole extra level of grotesque flavors; no pun intended.
Our raw foods like eggs and turkey burgers would often get uncovered in the refrigerator during a rush by one of the people from the pre-made line needing to get something out or put something away. I recall one time when we served cold-smoked salmon as a breakfast special and it became uncovered, remaining that way for a full week. By the end of it, the fish was swimming in some reddish-pink liquid that had to be removed by using paper towels before service.
The last (and most disgusting) method that Chief Whit would use to pad his numbers came in the form of running a bare-bones crew. To him, if you could have four people do the work of six, then why hire the extra? It was this tactic that had the most nausea-inducing side effects … all centering around rotting food making its way to the tables of our hungry soldiers and their loved ones.
Because of the length of time it would take to put away the shipments of food we’d receive multiple times a week, Chief Whit felt that the best way to make this process go as quickly as possible was by having a member of our team who was illiterate put everything away.
This individual was told to put a “received by date” sticker on every box, and just put them away as quickly as possible. The worst part of this situation comes from the fact that the stocker was never taught about the industry standard of “first in, first out,” thereby helping to expedite the increase of expired products. The reason I know this person was never taught the FIFO concept was because I had to teach it to them when I worked with them once when we were short-staffed in some other areas.
Because of this vet’s disability, along with most of the employees just grabbing whatever item they needed from the front of the shelf, all the products in the back would sit there for months. Due to this, we would have to throw away A LOT of products.
Though not all of it …
One day, when my grill mate called out, Whit joined me on the grill. During the shift, he made the burgers while I put together all the needed toppings for each sandwich. While asking a veteran what toppings he wanted on his burger, I noticed that the lettuce he wanted was blackened and mushy. When I showed it to Whit—along with many others who looked just like it sitting in the cold holding area—he told me that it was fine and to serve it. That it had just “got a little frozen.”
It’s important to know that I worked for a pizza joint for almost a year shortly after businesses started opening up during COVID, and our top-selling side dish was salads. I’ve seen lettuce in a myriad of different stages of decay, and the lettuce was rotting, not freezer-burned.
It crushed my soul a little when I put it on the bread for later consumption by the hero.
This wasn’t the only event that I was involved with that crushed my soul a little—I felt it every time I had to change the oil.
Because of Whit’s bare-bones approach, if anyone called out, it would require all hands to be on deck, at their station, with zero deviation. Since this was an almost daily occurrence, the filtering/changing of the oil would suffer as a result.
Fryer oil should be filtered daily and changed at the first sign of smoking/discoloration. Yet, the ONLY time the oil would ever be filtered is when I did a complete oil-change, which was about once a month—no matter the condition of the oil.
Sometimes the level of accumulated filth would be so high that when I set the basket of fries into the fryer, a plume of burnt food would erupt, coating anything in its cloud. It was at this point Whit knew he had no other choice: the fryer had to be cleaned. Eventually, like when we knew a health inspection was coming, Whit’s hand would be forced and he would manage to get everything back in shape … for a week or two anyway.
If the side effects from his bare-bones approach weren’t bad enough, Whit felt that the best managerial style to accompany this already burning dumpster fire was putting immense pressure on everyone to get everything done NOW. He thought this would get more people through the line more quickly, thereby increasing revenues.
Due to the limited time we were given for any task that didn’t result in making money, we had to forge our temperature logs. We did this by writing in whatever the proper temperatures were for any given food at any time of the day. When I was being “trained” by one of the prep cooks who worked in the main kitchen downstairs on what exactly to write and where, I asked why we didn’t actually check the foods. He told me it was because we couldn’t afford to take someone off the grill to do it—it would take too long.
When I asked the prep cook if my direct supervisor (and Whit’s assistant) Tim knew about this, I was told that he authorized it because he didn’t have a choice.
He NEVER had a choice.
I would come to find out that Tim was an unwilling executioner of Whit’s plans in almost every case. As someone with over a decade of experience in the restaurant industry—when you combine both his military and civilian lives—he knew everything he did was wrong. Yet, he also knew that Chief Whit had an enabler in our Regional Manager.
But Tim was a good soldier and did his job because that’s what you do; even if you are an accomplice to things that make you loathe the person in the mirror. Yet, Tim would eventually turn from an unwilling accomplice to a target once he started to become a “problem.”
As you will find out in Part II, between Chief Whit, our operations manager named Constance, and our Regional Manager, a plan was devised to take care of this “problem”—a plan so devious it nearly cost Tim his life.