Social Conventions of a Fast Food Restaurant: an Ethnomethodological Analysis

Hope J. Schau, University of California-Irvine
Mary C. Gilly, University of California-Irvine
[ to cite ]:
Hope J. Schau and Mary C. Gilly (1997) ,"Social Conventions of a Fast Food Restaurant: an Ethnomethodological Analysis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 315-321.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 315-321


Hope J. Schau, University of California-Irvine

Mary C. Gilly, University of California-Irvine


"Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start."

(Williams 1993, p. 5)

"By 'culture’ I mean the ideas and activities with which we construe and construct our world."

(McCracken 1988, p. XI)


As reported in a Los Angeles Times article, approximately 96% of people living in metropolitan areas eat fast food at least once per month; American consumers spent $94.5 billion on fast food products in 1993 (Granelli 1994). Further, fast food is quickly becoming a global phenomenon as the culture of fast food is expanded around the world (Caglar 1995; Leidner 1993; Hume 1990). While consumer behavior and service marketing textbooks contain many fast food examples (Bitner and Zeithaml 1995; Solomon 1992; Mahatoo 1985; Peter 1987), there is a paucity of academic research on fast food as a cultural milieu in which individuals work and consume.

While consumers tend to refer to Taco Bell and similar operations such as McDonald’s as "fast food," insde the industry it is known as "Quick Service Restaurants" or QSR. The organizational focus is thus on quickly serving customers. Consumers, however, may have a broader definition of "fast" which includes the consumption process. Central to the fast food industry are the notions of routinization and standardization (Leidner 1993). Customers expect that their encounters with the fast food service personnel are routine and that the food is standardized. The maintenance of high uniformity in the encounter and product is a challenging task considering that both the employee and consumer must be familiar with the conventions of the fast food culture (Shelton 1993; Leidner 1993). Cultural participants must maneuver through the physical surroundings, performing the socially agreed upon behaviors or roles (Goffman 1959; Berreman 1962; Grove and Fisk 1983). Physical surroundings impact the local social order of customers and employees and ultimately influence the service encounter outcome (Bitner 1990, 1992; Baker 1987). This research represents an exploratory examination of the culture of fast food using ethnomethodological techniques. This inquiry is designed to examine the process of fast food service and social order found in the culture of fast food. Specifically, it will elaborate on four emergent themes: visible employee hierarchy, routinization through scripting and production parameters, queue formation and the counter as boundary region. The paper begins with a discussion of the study and method employed, followed by a brief description of the cultural participants, articulation of the emergent themes involved in the local social order and concluding remarks.


Similar to recent research on consumer culture in consumption venues (Sherry 1990; Belk 1991; Belk, Sherry, Wallendorf 1988; Sherry, McGrath 1989), the primary site of investigation is a Taco Bell restaurant in Southern California. It is located in an industrial complex on a heavily trafficked street that leads to three major freeways. There is an industrial plant, a bank and several office towers within walking distance of the restaurant. The attached parking lot accommodates 25 cars, but is bordered by the industrial parking lots, which combined have a parking capacity in the thousands.


The central task of this project is to describe and understand the social conventions operating at this specific Taco Bell restaurant in Southern California. The knowledge gained from examining locally produced social order is not expected to be generalizable, but rather transferable to other foci of inquiry (Burrell and Morgan 1979).

Ethnomethodology is an interpretive method similar to phenomenology that problematizes everyday life (Heritage 1984):

"ethnomethodology is the empirical investigation ("-ology") of the methods ("method-") people ("ethno-") use to make sense of and at the same time accomplish communication, decision making, reasonableness and action in everyday life." (Rogers 1983)

Ethnomethodology differs from traditional sociological methods in its efforts to articulate the production of social order. Social order is assumed to be locally produced (Livingston 1987). Although social structure is imposed on the local participants, it is their interpretation and performance of the social structure that is examined (Burrell and Morgan 1979). Talk or informants’ statements are treated as social acts, or behavioral manifestations of ordinary practice (Benson and Hughes 1983).

For this study, four weekday lunch peaks, five weekday dinner peaks and three off peak periods were observed, recording ethnomethodological data on the manner in which cultural participantsperformed their "ordinary" behavior (Garfinkel 1967). Customer behaviors of arrival, queuing, ordering, waiting, seat selection, eating and exit were plotted. Employee behavior in order taking, order filling, food preparation and orchestrating of functions were recorded. Behaviors were categorized in an emic perspective and issues to pursue in cultural participants "talk" were identified (Wierder 1974). Queuing, encounters and informal employee gatherings were observed. Seven informants familiar with the fast food service industry were interviewed, six of which were part of the local production cohort of the Taco Bell restaurant. The conversations were phenomenological in nature to access personalized accounts of lived experience in the culture (Kvale 1983). A management trainee meeting was observed and audio taped focus group sessions were reviewed to gain insights into the service philosophy of Taco Bell. A video taped interview with John Martin, CEO of Taco Bell, was accessed to contextualize the examination of the local Taco Bell culture. The resulting analysis is an ethomethodological study of a specific fast food venue augmented by insights into the corporate philosophy.

Informants: "Maria" is a current employee of the Taco Bell restaurant in Southern California. She is a Latina from Central America who entered the US when she was 10 years old. She is now in her early twenties, and has worked for Taco Bell for two years. Maria is usually assigned to the counter, but sometimes rotates to order filler or cleaning duties. Her primary language is Spanish, but her comments about the local production cohort were in English. "Ben" is a manager of a Taco Bell restaurant, Maria’s boss, and the coordinator of the day time activities of the restaurant. "Steve" is a management trainee. He is a corporate employee learning the operation from the restaurant level to the corporate. "Phil" is an executive with Taco Bell. He understands the corporation as a whole and is familiar with the intimate details of restaurants as well. "Dave" is a consumer and former Taco Bell employee. He was born and raised in Southern California. "Mike" is a consumer. He grew up in Southern California and is currently a graduate student at UC Irvine.


The Employee Domain

Order Takers are the front-line employees of this service organization. There are two main types of order takers: counter personnel and "drive-thru" personnel. Counter personnel stand behind the counter on the employee side. Their main tasks are: soliciting orders, recording orders on a computerized cash register, relaying orders to order fillers or filling the orders themselves, relaying special orders to the food preparation crew, handling cash, and instructing consumers on the wait procedure and the use of the beverage bar. Drive-thru personnel are order takers that serve the car queue. They wear headsets to listen to the car orders and perform order taking functions for the car consumers. Outside drive-thru order taking is an adjunct task used in peak times to facilitate efficiency. The outside drive-thru employee wears a cash belt, carries an electronic order pad and performs the order taking function to the car queue, bypassing the mechanical order board and touch pad. Embedded in the tasks of all order takers is the expectation of courteous, consumer oriented behavior.

Order Fillers are employees who manage the space between the order takers and the food preparation crew. Order fillers are responsible for gathering ordered items from the food preparation team and bundling them for distribution. The function is not always present in the service delivery chain. Typically, order fillers are used during peak times to facilitate efficient service.

Food Preparers are personnel who work in he employee realm to assemble Taco Bell entrees to fill consumer orders. All meat, chicken and beans are initially cooked off-site in centralized facilities to ensure standardized food products and are transported to individual restaurant locations for "assembly to order" preparation. The food preparers are responsible for assembling the cooked meats and beans, shredded cheese and cut vegetables according to specific corporate parameters of ingredient ratios, warming the entrees to corporately defined temperatures and wrapping the items for distribution.

The Local Manager is responsible for the daily operations of the restaurant. The manager organizes work teams, supervises employees and rotates human resources as needed throughout the day. The manager moves between the employee and consumer domain performing needed functions, and also fills in for underrepresented tasks, cleans and surveys customer satisfaction.

The Management Trainee is a corporate employee assigned to a local restaurant to become acquainted with the daily operations of the service sites. The trainee is rotated through every function in the service chain and taught to perform each function optimally.

The Consumer Domain

White-collar Employees: The predominant consumers during the lunch rush appear to be from the neighboring industrial office sites. Most of them walk in across the adjoining parking lots and are wearing office, or business, attire. They usually come in sets, not alone. Most often they speak throughout their queue, order wait and eating time. It is not always obvious if they are speaking socially or professionally; however, they appear to be friendly and cordial within and among sets.

Adults and Children: Also common during lunch peak are adult-child groupings. The children in these groups are very young, e.g., infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The adults are generally female and appear to be the mothers of the small children. The adult-child groups arrive exclusively by vehicle.

Workers: Some consumers appear to be blue collar workers on lunch break. They wear jeans, T-shirts or flannel shirts and tennis shoes or boots. A few consumers have considerable amounts of dirt and dust on their clothing which indicates that they may be on construction crews. The workers usually arrive by vehicle in sets of two or more.

Students: These consumers carry backpacks, books and note-books. They lunch alone or in groups. Students range in age from teens to young adults (thirtyish). They wear casual clothing. When in groups they tend to speak together in an animated manner. When alone they tend to read or write. All student consumers arrive by vehicle.

Consumer Interactions

Consumers enter the restaurant either alone or in groups. They usually enter the queue in the same social configuration in which they arrive. Often they carry on conversations in the queue that are unrelated to lunch activities. For most, the service encounter is a momentary, functional pause in their day. It is a behavior they engage in to facilitate the lunching process and not one that they spend considerable time contemplating or performing. Their behavior in this venue is indeed part of their everyday life that is taken for granted. One consumer states, "When I walk up to the counter it should be easy. I tell my order and I move on." One dimension of a successful fast food encounter is ease. The script should allow the consumer to quickly and accurately convey their order. (See section entitled, "Scripting")

When consumers choose seats in the dining area, they often sit with the group they entered with. Even in the case when spaces are limited, most consumers will wait rather than sit with other consumers. An exception to this practice are the white collar workers who enter the restaurant in groups, but do not always sit in those configrations. Among familiar sets, e.g., people who work together, people will negotiate space to accommodate the most consumers, breaking up initial groupings if necessary.


Visible Hierarchy

Taco Bell’s corporate policy includes the use of employee teams designed to redistribute power within the local restaurants. Teams of employees are purportedly assigned managerial functions like opening and closing the restaurant, scheduling and job rotation. The team concept attempts to empower individual employees and alleviate the monotony of the highly structured employee tasks. According to team policy, one would expect a relatively flat local organizational structure and dilution of the local manager’s power.

The hierarchy operating at the Southern California site is apparent to consumers and observers of the venue. It is manifested in the uniforms and in the behavior of the employees and members of management. Employees in the rank and file wear uniforms, while management personnel wear business attire. The predominant employee uniforms of this site are dark blue pants, a blue cotton crew neck T-shirt and a blue baseball style hat with the Taco Bell logo. Members of management wear dark dress pants and a button down dress shirt with a tie. [During our observations, we did not encounter any female management personnel. The management attire is most likely different for females.] The distinction is further delineated by the name tag. Employees wear tags that feature the Taco Bell logo and their first name. Members of management wear tags with the Taco Bell logo that identify them by full name and job title, e.g., John Doe, Manager. The clothing and name tags indicate the hierarchy of the social system. Management is afforded a higher degree of formality that in the larger society is indicative of power and authority. An employee commented, "If someone talks to me it’s like, they say 'Hey,’ or 'Maria, did you get that?’ When they wanna talk to my manager they say, 'Where is the manager?’ or 'Is Mr. Smith in?’ Even when we talk to him we don’t say, 'Hey, Ben, can I trade shifts with Juan?’ We’re all supposed to be on this team, right? But it’s not like nobody notices I got a T-shirt on and he’s wearing a tie." For the employees, the institutionalized distinction between them and management is unambiguous. As demonstrated in the quote, the consumers also practice a degree of deference toward the management by title reference and identification of mangers by their last name. Consumers are not aware of employee teams and the effort to create teams within the local employee group rings false in the face of the obvious visual distinctions.

The order takers, order fillers, food preparers and drive-thru personnel do not socialize with consumers or each other, but rather focus on preparing for, serving and cleaning up from the lunch crowd. The only words they exchange are either task related exchanges with consumers, or to each other regarding the ordered menu items. The manager speaks most often, moving among the employees and dispensing what appears to be advice or instructions, as well as speaking with the consumers as necessary to facilitate the encounters. One informant describes the manager-employee relationship as, "He is like a dictator and we are all his to order about." Employees are under continuous managerial scrutiny and do not feel empowered to consider issues beyond their immediate, structured tasks. An informant comments, "I wasn’t paid to think, just to do." The employees appear to accept the hierarchy as a part of fast food service delivery, despite the contradiction with the team emphasis.


Routinization is the process put in place to ensure that the encounter does not deviate across time or space. Routinization refers to the isse of standardized product and expectations. Scripting is a strategy to achieve routinization. It is a manner of routinizing the encounter between employee and consumer, similar to product specifications that attempt to achieve standardized product in every location. At the management trainee meetings, the trainees discuss the specifics regarding how much the items should weigh and the exact proportion of ingredients that compose the item weight. A trainee half jokingly said, "Always order the bean burrito. It’s the best value if you look at weight per cent spent." The goal of routinization is to achieve the highest degree of conformity for customers across locations. As with all services, the delivery of the service is difficult for consumers to separate from the end product in their overall evaluation. A former employee, and current consumer, justifies the emphasis on routine in the following manner: "People like to come in, order and eat what they asked for. They don’t want to have to think or worry about things. Fast food should be easy. God knows the food’s not great." For fast food in general and Taco Bell in particular, quality is a sum of the comfort of the encounter and the accuracy of the order. John Martin, CEO of Taco Bell, stressed the corporate priorities (based on consumer preferences) of restaurant cleanliness, encounter speed, order accuracy and appropriate temperature of food items.

Although the appearance of the food is not stated as a corporate priority, the images on the menu board act as a sort of promise to the consumer of what his/her item should be. It is a means to set consumer expectations. An employee comments, "Sometimes people get pissed off that the order doesn’t look like the picture." In an audio taped focus group session, one crew member confessed that when consumers complained about food items not matching the menu board picture, she was inclined to overportion to achieve visual congruence. Although overportioning is against Taco Bell policy, it is used as an employee strategy to meet consumer expectations. Accuracy incorporates a visual dimension.

Scripting is a specific term which refers to the role performances of the parties involved in the encounter and more particularly the dialogue (Solomon, Surprenant, Czepiel and Gutman 1985). Scripting is taught in training to employees. In Taco Bell the employees are taught exactly what to say in what order to effectively and efficiently carry out their duty as employees in the encounter. The scripts are memorized and become almost a rote behavior. The sequence of order taking, taking cash, making change and dispensing food items is carefully defined for the employees. A corporate executive describes the process; "We leave nothing to chance. Employees know what to say and when to say it. They know when to ask for money and when to relinquish the ordered items." A front-line employee says that in training "they told me exactly what I should say. 'May I take your order?’ Repeat the order back. 'Will that be all?’ Take their money. Make change. Hand them the stuff." Later she added, "They like you to smile, but they can’t make you." She feels that the exact wording of the counter personnel is very important and asserts that employees who deviate from the expectations are corrected by the manager. A former employee describes his encounter experience as "mechanical" and confessed that he was often "bored."

Scripting is taught in advertisements to consumers and is cued by the menu board. The ads expose consumers to appropriate terminology, e.g., Meximelt and "deals." Customers are given brief written descriptions of the food products matched with the name each product has within the local culture, e.g., a Meximelt is paired with its description and offered as a piece of the consumer script. Usually, the product is depicted by an image. The image is an encoding device for the consumer, who can peruse the menu board and determine what items are in the consideration set and encode them by name and/or picture and/or description. To be faithful to the script, consumers should order by enu title. Departing from the script can cause anxiety for the other party in the dyad. An order taker comments that some people do not order from the menu board and "describe" their order instead. She found this practice disconcerting and said it hindered her ability to quickly and accurately serve the consumer. When a consumer orders by description, the order taker must translate the description into the local terms. As with any translation, there is an increased chance for error as compared to people communicating in a common language system. Similarly, special requests cause confusion for front-line employees. An order taker states, "Sometimes a consumer tells me how the burrito should be made. I have to repeat this to the food preparer. I usually do that [special orders] in Spanish to Juan." Translation issues occur on many levels; Taco Bell vernacular and English to Spanish.

To complicate matters, some food options are not listed on the menu. New items are added and old ones are deleted every six months. Taco Bell serves entrees that are not currently listed on the menu board, e.g., the Enchirito. People aware of this practice may choose an unlisted item which the order taker must somehow indicate and charge the consumer for. In ethnomethodology, deviations of this sort are referred to as breaching exercises which lead cultural participants to falter in the performance of their ordinary behavior (Garfinkel 1986). The cash registers used at the Taco Bell restaurant are menu based and pose a serious challenge to order takers when faced with non-menu choices. Order takers must also hand relay the instructions to the preparers (similar to the special request scenarios) who are not able to decipher what to make from the register printout or computer screen. The management trainee asserts, "Some dead items live on at various locations, but the registers are standard. It’s a tricky practice. Since I started here I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. When I get into corporate I’m gonna see what I can do about forcing a more standardized menu to relieve this problem." Of course, consumer satisfaction will suffer if old favorites are banished.

The ideal encounter is highly routinized and contains little if any ambiguity. It is a phenomenon that the employees are trained to produce and that the consumers are taught to expect. An ideal encounter occurs if the encounter is tightly scripted, highly routinized and results in an accurate end product. In practice, few encounters are ideal, but many fall within acceptable parameters of success.

Queue formation

In ethnomethodological terms, queues have "particular-queue queue-specific properties" (Livingston 1987).

In a formatted queue the queue members have come together, organized themselves, managed and monitored their actions and the actions of others so as to produce, as their achievement, this immortal yet transient object. The members of a queue position themselves, enter the queue at its exhibited end, witnessably inspect the order of the queue, distance themselves from each other, advance in observably regular ways, and orient their bodies therein to show, and showing, who is after whom, where the queue is going, where the end of the line is, who is in the queue, who is not, and who may just be visiting. In the case of the formatted queue, the order of service-and all of its associated dependent, observable and observed properties- are produced in and as the way its production cohort has positioned itself so as to exhibit that order of service. (Livingston 1987)

In this local culture, all queues are formed from right to left (if facing the counter). Except for the drive-thru which depends on the driver aligning with the drive-thru window, there is no inherent advantage to the right to left queue formation. It appears to be a convention of the site, which is recognized by those who are familiar with the cultre.

The Main Entrance: The layout of the restaurant is depicted in Exhibit 1. The main entrance opens into the dining room, but there is no obvious path toward the queue area. The counter is located directly in front of the incoming consumers. A menu board extends over and in back of the entire counter area, not overtly cueing consumers to join the line from the right. A booth island obstructs movement straight forward to the counter. Customers are faced with a Y path structure, with access to the queue and counter area from both paths. Near the side door on the consumers’ right side are a set of red metal bars indicating queue formation. These red bars are not always readily apparent from the main entrance and are visually obstructed from the left path by the booth island. Perpendicular to the counter and to the consumers’ left is the beverage bar. As people enter the facility from the main entrance, they either immediately veer right to the queue area, or begin to go left and alter course at, or near, the beverage bar. The beverage bar functions as a visual cue to consumers in the process of line formation. For those who enter the restaurant and initially veer left, the beverage bar is a physical heuristic at which they conspicuously contemplate their behavior and backtrack to proceed right. At times during lunch peak, there is a large queue that extends into the dining area, but the consumers do not routinely utilize the red bar structure constructed for queue management. Even when the line overflows into the dining room, some consumers still veer left, stop at the beverage bar and backtrack to the right to join the line. No consumers enter the queue from the left.

From the layout and consumer behaviors described above, it appears that those who enter and veer right are more familiar with the local Taco Bell culture and possibly more familiar with fast food culture overall. Furthermore, the consumers who immediately veer right exhibit more confidence about the entire encounter than their left swerving counterparts. Those who immediately veer right demonstrate less hesitation in stepping up to the next open port and less indecision when ordering as compared to those who veer left and then change course to the right. A frequent fast food consumer and customer of the local restaurant offers the following rationale to the local queuing phenomenon: "No one walks past the drinks to order. It’s a known sequence: order, money, then food." From this statement, it is evident that within the general fast food culture and this specific venue, there are conventions that govern consumer behavior. Describing this phenomenon to Mike, another explanation emerged: No one wants to be accused of stealing from the beverage bar. One thing is clear, a socially accepted sequence exists and must be adhered to. In this case, entering the queue via the beverage bar would seriously and conspicuously disrupt the sequence, resulting in negative consequences to the individual disrupting the socially constructed order, e.g., labeled socially inept, or a thief.

The Side Entrance is rarely utilized because foot traffic from the street is minimal and to enter form the side requires the consumer to cross the drive-thru queue, a potentially dangerous act.

The Counter as Boundary Region

Boundary constructions and the practical order they create become important for cultural participants (Hall 1995; Pe±aloza 1994). Cultural participants must perform roles according to their presence in physical and social space (Goffman 1959; Berreman 1962; Grove and Fisk 1983). For this specific focus of inquiry, the counter becomes just such a symbolic border.

The Internal Counter: The counter separates the employee realm from the dining room. It serves as the window from one domain to the other. The counter is the primary site of financial exchange and food distribution. Associated with the boundary region of the counter are instructions in the form of a menu board to cue consumers to the appropriate manner t make their requests.

Although the counter represents the border between employee and consumer, employees can cross the boundary, while consumers are forbidden to do so. A sign indicates that entrance to the employee realm is for employees only. The door is perpendicular to the counter toward the right, side entrance. Furthermore, as the section on hierarchy demonstrates, some employees are less bound by the division between employee and consumer. The manager often crosses the border to clean the facility, direct employees and survey consumer satisfaction. Less often, order takers leave their posts to attend to the housekeeping chores in the consumer domain. Rarely are food preparers able to leave their posts to perform duties in the consumer realm.

The counter serves as a buffer between the realms. Society’s hygiene rules and the nature of the employee’s primary activities influence employee movement between realms. Food preparers are not seen cleaning the dining room, but may clean items in the employee area, for example, food preparation stations, floors, etc. Order takers and order fillers, who do not directly handle unwrapped food, are more often seen to move between realms as compared to those who directly handle food. Those who directly handle food are relegated to the employee realm and a higher degree of cleanliness and sterility. The trainee states, "Food preparers are supposed to wear gloves, but I have seen this is not consistently enforced." An employee comments, "Sometimes order takers do switch to food prep and I see them take money one minute and make food the next without washing their hands. This is not good. Money has many germs." For this employee, the above is not merely an infraction of policy, but is morally repugnant. Germs are a part of the consumer realm that must not be transferred to the food preparation area located well within the confines of the employee domain.


The presence of an order filler further demonstrates the distancing of the two realms. The front-line employees are not always in direct contact with the food preparing employees located in the inner sanctum of the employee domain. Often there is a barrier between the front-line, order takers and the preparers, that is, the warming trays.

The border is an artifact of the cultural divide between the employee in-groups and the consumer out-groups. The consumers are visitors in the fast food culture. They have the ability to contaminate, or dirty. This symbolic construction is similar to that found in research by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989). For the local culture, what ultimately is seen as unclean is "matter out of place." ( Douglas 1966). Phil confirmed Taco Bell’s commitment to cleanliness, "All Taco Bell restaurants have a high standard for cleanliness. Part of the Taco Bell brand image is based on healthy, clean alternatives to fat laden products, such as burgers and fries. ... Taco Bell is quality Mexican food sterilized for an American market."

The External Counter: For consumers participating in the external car queue, known in the local culture as the "drive-thru," the order board and window act as the border between the consumer and employee realms. The window is literally a window from one region to the other. The foot queue and face-to-face interaction between employee and consumer are modified to include a mechanical device and often a blind initial interaction. The consumer in the drive-thru does not initially see the employee with whom she/he is interacting. The voice encountered at the order board may not necessarily belong to the same person who takes the money through the window. While a camera often projects the image of the cars in the queue inside to the drive-thru attendant, employees do not have a clear image of the consumers phenotypes, nor time to study the projected image. The local manager suggests, "The video of the cars ordering and in line is just to give the attendant an idea of the situation outside. It helps them assess the number of incoming orders and get a feel for what’s coming next. It is also a security measure."

In extremely busy times, termed "peaks" [Peaks vary from restaurant to restaurant. For this location, the largest weekday peak is lunch, which is roughly between 11:30 am and 1:30 p.m. The second largest weekday peak is dinner, which is approximately from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Breakfast is a relatively new area for Taco Bell and has not yet developed a strong clientele.] by the members of the local culture, an order taker goes outside with an electronic order pad, change belt and head phones to relay car requests to the inside personnel who prepare the food items, gather and bundle orders and hand them to a window attendant who dispenses the order. The order pad, belt and headphones act as a counter surrogate. It enables the car consumers to participate in a more personal form of the counter interaction than afforded to those who order by external order board, either by touch pad, or voice communication. When the employee goes outside to take orders, she/he bypasses the electronic mediating device that often distorts the verbal message. Intuitively this suggests fewer communication errors, more accurate orders and increased satisfaction on the part of both actors in the dyad.

Although drive-thru window attendants are front-line employees, they are not in as much direct contact with the consumers and are also in more direct contact with the food preparation crew. Often the employee assigned to the drive-thru window will be reassigned to food preparation when the drive-thru traffic subsides. The employee assigned to the window is not deemed as contaminated as the counter personnel, even though they pass food to the cars and handle money without gloves. The local manager remarks, "The drive-thru window employees are not in as much direct contact with the consumers, especially if an outside attendant is taking money. In that case, I can rotate him through as if he were clean."

Break Behavior: Ironically, despite the careful attention to the manner in which employee tasks are rotated, all employees break in the consumer domain. Order takers, order fillers, managers, trainees and food preparers alike spend their scheduled breaks in the consumer domain eating meals, sipping drinks and/or chatting with each other or consumers. The strict rules of contamination are magically suspended during break time when employees are not officially performing their roles as Taco Bell employees.

All employees are required to wash their hands before they begin their functional roles. This policy enables the employees to ritually shed the outside contaminants. A similar policy mandating that all employees wash their hands prior to role switching, e.g., housekeeping to food preparation, would mitigate the physical possibility of germ spreading, but may not address the symbolic issue of clean and dirty. For Taco Bell management and employees, the employee realm is afforded the delicate status of clean and the consumer domain is relegated to that of the dirty.


In the analysis of the locally produced social order found in the specific Taco Bell restaurant, members know the local conventions across roles. The four aspects of practical action in the society visible hierarchy, routinization, queue formation and the symbolic counter, are apparent to all cultural participants. The finer nuances associated with the employees’ ordinary behaviors, i.e., order taking, order filling, and task rotation, are not of interest to the consumer members of the culture. The consumers are most interested in the service outcome as measured by the accuracy of the order and the ease of interaction with the employees. This difference in priorities and attention to the details of the fast food encounter are physically signified by the counter across which the encounter takes place. The relationship between consumer and employee is not antagonistic in nature as the expectations are not opposing, but rather are not identical. Employees have more dimensions on which to rate the encounter and more responsibility for the success or failure of each encounter. Possibly to cope with the inequity of responsibility among cultural participants, the counter has become an important boundary region physically separating the employee andconsumer domains.


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