A lot can be surmised about a party in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen: There will be a mix of finance bros and the lifestyle bloggers who date them, tourists adventurous enough to head west of Times Square, young clubgoers whose fake IDs were turned away at Marquee. But this party had none of those things. One, it started at 8:30 a.m., when the finance bros are headed to work and the more dedicated clubgoers are stumbling to bed; two, it was hosted by Taco Bell; and three, it was a hiring party — with baskets of pale tortilla chips, all-you-can-drink soda, and, most enticingly, opportunity.
Hiring parties are Taco Bell’s answer to record-low U.S. unemployment rates and its own increased staffing needs for the summer. Following a successful pilot in four of the chain’s Indianapolis restaurants last year, last week, 600 Taco Bell locations opened their doors to job seekers, who were invited to stop by, submit an application, and interview on-site before leaving with some company-branded swag (keychains, stickers, T-shirts) and — if they’re lucky — a shot at a second interview.
Tuesday morning might sound too early for a party of any kind, even one at the Taco Bell Cantina (distinguishable from its traditional counterpart by its digital ordering kiosks, open kitchen, and, most critically, booze), but by 9 a.m., this one was already in full swing. Store managers and employees from corporate milled about in all-black, Taco Bell-branded clothes. One corner was occupied by a camera crew from CNBC; in another, an event photographer clicked away like a paparazzo. Then, of course, there were the actual job applicants, of which there were 20 that day: a family of four united in the collective task of helping the youngest daughter fill out an application; two more candidates entering their employment histories on tablets at a counter; another engrossed in an interview with a manager.
At a moment when finding a job can mean repeatedly firing one’s resume into the abyss that is the machine-filtered application portal and hoping for the best, or joining the millions of Americans who pick up work for Uber, Postmates, TaskRabbit, and other on-demand services in the gig economy, Taco Bell’s hiring party — Mylar balloons and all — felt quaint, almost charming, an echo of the high school or college job fairs where so many hope to land their first real taste of employment through that age-old art of meeting someone face to face. That’s what Taco Bell seems to be banking on with these events: the possibility of a human connection (buttressed by the temptation of free snacks and the promised casualness of a “party”) when so much of work has been stripped of humanity, automated to death, designed to minimize the friction of having to interact with other people.
“People” are the selling point of working at Taco Bell, if you asked any of the managers at the party. Mohammad Monsur, a corporate area coach — overseeing the growth and development of Taco Bell restaurants in Manhattan — who figured prominently in the chain’s promotion of this event to the press, cited “the people” as the main reason he has stayed with the company for more than 20 years, since he joined as an entry-level restaurant employee shortly after arriving to the U.S. from Bangladesh. Another area coach I spoke to at the event, Timothy Houston, echoed the sentiment: “Over the years, I’ve had my guys go to college… They’ll go away to school, they’ll always come back to see me. You see people progressing through life.” Taco Bell put him through college, he said, allowing him to rise up the ranks. 2019 marks his 29th year with Taco Bell.
Armed with testimonials like these, the chain dangles a vision of a career that no longer seems to exist for the vast majority of Americans: steady, lifelong, with a ladder of upward mobility. Eighty percent of the company’s restaurant leadership roles are promoted from within, according to a Taco Bell representative. Just look at global chief operating officer Mike Grams, the representative pointed out: He started in the restaurants as an assistant manager 30 years ago, and now he’s in the C-suite. The American dream, fast food and all.
None of the applicants I spoke to at the party seemed to harbor quite so lofty or abiding dreams when it came to landing a job at Taco Bell. Frankly, they just wanted to work somewhere, anywhere (and who could blame them?). One teenager from Harlem mentioned college admissions as his main reason for applying. Another, Michael, said his aim was a part-time role for the summer. At 16, he already had a clear-eyed view of the importance of professionalism: “I used to have really long hair,” he said, gesturing to where his hair now hangs past his ears. Usually it’s in a bun, he explained, but not today — “You just have to act professional.” He wore the default uniform of high school boys everywhere — long shorts, graphic tee (Jaws, thank you very much), a baggy gray zip hoodie — and carried his resume in his drawstring backpack.
Too young to be lured into the supposed flexibility and Silicon Valley-adjacent sheen of the app-powered gig economy, but old enough to work the register at a non-Cantina (remember: alcohol), candidates like Michael are in that sweet spot of employment potential at fast-food chains. (Another apparent sweet spot: senior citizens.)
These companies don’t harbor any delusions about all their recruits staying with them forever; in a press release from November 2016, Taco Bell itself states: “Our people don’t always stay with us, they don’t always follow the same path, they don’t all come from the same backgrounds, education levels or experiences.” The hiring slogan is “Start With Us, Stay With Us.” For a company facing the realities of a labor shortage; costly, frequent turnover; competition with other chains; and the rise of flexible work, either starting or staying will do.
Still, given the choice, staying would be nice. “We know what that does from a customer loyalty standpoint — a repeat purchase standpoint,” Taco Bell’s chief people officer Frank Tucker told QSR Magazine in 2016. “This ultimately drives the whole equation. And a big part of that is people having a positive affiliation and a positive vision of Taco Bell.”
Needless to say, there are asterisks dotting that positive vision. Eight months before the launch of “Start With Us, Stay With Us,” in 2016, a California jury ruled that Taco Bell owed restaurant employees nearly $500,000 after underpaying them for their lunch breaks for years. In New York City, stories of fast-food job insecurity — like that of a Taco Bell cashier who was suddenly fired without just cause — inspired council members to recently introduce legislation guaranteeing fast-food workers more job protection. Even among Taco Bell’s benefits, which include impressive education support and one free meal per shift for all store-level employees of corporate-owned restaurants, there are chasms of difference between the perks extended to full-time versus part-time and corporate versus (many, many more) franchise workers, as the company’s Glassdoor benefits reviews underscore.
None of this, of course, makes for a comfortable conversation starter at a hiring party. At Taco Bell’s jamboree, things remained upbeat: snacks, smiles, selfie station with Instagram-ready speech-bubble signs printed with platitudes like “Never a dull moment.” But underneath the PR-ready gleam of the whole affair, there was still something appealingly egalitarian about the idea of a hiring party, and the accessibility that engenders. One job seeker in the Cantina learned of the party on Instagram; another, email; others, from mildly inscrutable in-store signage reading JOIN THE
TEAMPARTY as they strode past on the streets of New York.
Houston, one of the managers who will help whittle the 20 applicants down to 10 or so final picks, told me about a candidate who was walking by that day when he saw all the “hoopla” going on and came inside to apply for a job. “Come on,” said Houston, where else but here could anyone “just come right off the street and have a nice on-the-spot interview?”