Home of the Silo Sandwich
For most of us, the summer and part-time jobs we had during high school and college had little to do with our final careers. But, they often provided valuable lessons for the real world that would follow. One summer, I worked as an inspector on a drill boat for the Army Corps of Engineers, monitoring the blasting of the Hudson River bottom that deepened the Hudson for the Port of Albany. I worked a variety of paper felt processing jobs at Albany Felt in Menands. While attending RPI, I filled orders for drug stores at Thompson's Wholesale Drugs on River Street.
My most enjoyable, educational summer and vacations were spent working at Anderson's Dairy Barn in Speigletown. Anderson's was a local dairy that supplied milk, ice cream and dairy products to the Capital District. In addition to the dairy operation, Anderson operated a restaurant, Anderson's Dairy Barn, located just south of the dairy plant on route 40. Besides ice cream, shakes, sundaes, etc., the Barn had indoor dining. There was a food counter with seats and sit down dining at tables and booths. They served breakfast, lunch and dinner.
My search for a real summer job started in the spring of my junior year at Lansingburgh. One of my parents' friends worked at the Dairy and told them that the Barn was looking for a dishwasher. I made an appointment for an interview for the dishwasher job with the restaurant manager Bob. We sat at a table in the corner of the dining room. The first thing Bob asked, "Can you cook?" This caught me a bit off guard because I thought I was applying to be a dishwasher. I told Bob that I had done a little cooking in the Boy Scouts and I had earned a cooking merit badge. But other than that I had no cooking experience. "Good!", said Bob. "I'm going to teach you to be a cook."
The Barn was about 1.5 miles from my house. The walk up Northern Drive, Oil Mill Hill and Brickyard Road took about 40 minutes. On a bike I could make the trip in under 20 minutes. Hitchhiking only took 5 minutes once I hitched a ride. A perfect job for someone without a car.
My plan was to work weekends during school and full-time during the summer. The pay was good, $1.25/hours plus free food and ice cream. The first two weekends, Bob started teaching me the basics of short order cooking. According to Wikipedia, a short order cook is a cook who prepares fast, easily-assembled meals to order, often working in a diner or cafe. That described my new occupation to a T.
Sandwiches, burgers, fries, fried fish, french toast and lots of eggs. I worked behind the counter in full view of the customers. At the Barn, the cook also waited on customers who sat at the counter. I picked up most of the cooking quickly. The deep fryer was easy, sandwiches were not a problem, and I could handle the burgers on the grill. Eggs were a bit more challenging, because of the variety of orders and the difficulty in preparing them just right. But, with two cooks working during my training, Bob and I easily handled the workload of cooking for the counter and the dining room.
After two weekends of training, Bob hit me with a big surprise. "Next Sunday, I have to go to a wedding, so you will be the Sunday breakfast cook." Sunday breakfast was the busiest meal of the week. Bob had a lot more confidence in me than I did. That Sunday came quickly.
Talk about trial by fire. The place filled up early and the orders rolled in. I was completely overwhelmed. I remember making scrambled eggs for the first time; breaking the eggs on the grill and stirring them a couple of times with a fork and scraping them onto a plate. Over easy, over hard, sunny side up were all new terms to me. Fortunately, the counter crowd was friendly and some customers gave me advice on how to make the orders. One of the waitresses came behind the counter and helped. The dining room customers were also patient. Most of them were regulars and they were willing to wait it out, while the new kid figured out how to cook. The whole experience was a blur, but I survived.
By the time summer came, I was an accomplished short order cook. I loved working out front and enjoyed the interactions with my regular customers. I got to the point where I could handle any size crowd. I even learned how to manage the waitresses who often blamed "the cook" if there was a problem with an order. I gathered a few fans who came especially for my french toast. Although the other cooks used one egg and milk for french toast, I used two eggs and a little less milk. I remember thinking that I might want to be a cook for life.
I worked about 60 hours a week in the summer. Eventually, I opened the Barn at 6:00am in the morning. On my days off, I often rode up to the Barn and hung around, chatting with my co-workers and customers. Eventually, I received a raise to $1.30/hour. I even got a dishwasher job for my best friend George, or “Noontime George” as we called him. Another friend, Lee, scooped ice cream.
In addition to cooking, I learned a lot about interacting with customers and co-workers. I was exposed to stealing, laziness and workplace politics. In one incident, the boss noticed the cash drawer was occasionally short $25 or $50. This only occurred on shifts when a certain waitress was working. Once confronted, she confessed and was fired. Another incident involved a shift supervisor. She did very little to earn her pay and when things got busy, she disappeared. This affected the morale of everyone. Finally, I had to tell Bob. He had other complaints about her from employees and customers. He fired her.
One early morning, sleeping at home on Fourth Avenue, my grandmother woke me up and said the finance guy from Anderson's was downstairs and wanted to talk with me. He explained that they were firing Bob. He claimed there were some shady finances going on at the Barn and they had to let Bob go. He wanted me to run the Barn until they could get a replacement for Bob. I was shocked that they wanted me, a summer employee, making $1.30 an hour to run the restaurant. Besides that ridiculous proposal, they were asking me to replace a man I respected, someone who had become a close friend. I refused. I stayed working at the Barn but it was never the same without Bob.
I ended up working at the Barn through part of the next summer, after high school graduation and before RPI. I discovered later that there were unexpected benefits to my time at the Barn. One of those customers who enjoyed my french toast, knew that I was going to RPI and gave me a part-time job at Thompson's Wholesale Drug in Troy. Ellis Robison was the owner of Thompson's.
My most important customer was my future mother-in-law, Leone Warwick. She, her husband Jim and their daughter Terri, were frequent customers at the Barn. They went there for breakfast after church on Sundays on their way to visit relatives in Schaghticoke. Of course I had no idea about this until a few years later nor did Terri. I never met Terri while I worked at the Barn. We met in Saratoga after my freshman year at RPI in 1965. A couple of years later, after it was clear that Terri and I were serious, and I might become a member of the Warwicks, Leone told Terri an interesting story. The first time I brought Terri home, her mom recognized me, but said nothing. A few years before, while having Sunday breakfast at the Barn, she mentioned to her husband Jim how nice it would be if Terri could meet a nice man like that fellow cooking behind the counter.
My friends and family still cringe when I say, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was a short order cook?”
I almost forgot to talk about the Silo Sandwich. The Barn Menu was titled, “Anderson's Dairy Barn, Home of The Silo Sandwich.” The Silo Sandwich in 1963, pre-dated the Big Mac's debut in 1967. It consisted of two hamburgers served on a three-piece sesame seed bun, with a secret sauce. I could divulge the ingredients of the secret sauce to you, but if I did I would have to kill you.
Bill Lorensen, Lansingburgh '64