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We work a shift at the new high-tech McDonald's restaurant in Cheriton, Folkestone

Opened last year, the newest of three McDonald's restaurants in Folkestone is a high-tech fast food joint that has created almost 140 new jobs in the town.

After experiencing the new location as a punter, our reporter Rhys Griffiths was invited to experience life on the other side of the counter. Here's what he saw when he went into the kitchen...

According to the arbiters of such matters, Y2K is having a bit of a fashion moment as Gen Z goes crazy for the styles and trends that defined the turn of the millennium.

Which means there is surely no better time for me to return to the McDonald's kitchen, a place where I was last found flipping burgers back in the summer of 1999 as I prepared to start sixth form.

I'll admit to feeling just a little nervous as I walked into the newest of the burger chain's three restaurants in Folkestone for my 'shift' under the Golden Arches.

Maybe memories of that long-ago summer were flooding back, or maybe I was just getting a flurry of the usual first-day nerves - even if I knew I would only be here for a few hours.

My mentor for the afternoon is assistant manager Sam Johnson, who presents me with the full uniform I'll need to be wearing if I am to get stuck into the role of a McDonald's crew member.

Senior reporter Rhys Griffiths spent the afternoon working at the Cheriton branch of McDonald's...24 years after he worked at the chain as a teenager. All pictures: Barry Goodwin
Senior reporter Rhys Griffiths spent the afternoon working at the Cheriton branch of McDonald's...24 years after he worked at the chain as a teenager. All pictures: Barry Goodwin
Rhys was just teenager when he first worked at McDonald's in 1999
Rhys was just teenager when he first worked at McDonald's in 1999

The 30-year-old began his career with the company as a crew member 13 years ago and has since risen through the ranks.

He radiates enthusiasm for his work, and is just the person to show me the ropes.

But before I can be let anywhere near the food production areas we have to ensure all proper hygiene and equipment measures are in place.

This means getting kitted out in my fresh grey uniform, complete with personalised name badge, and putting on a hair net and beard snood to ensure nothing untoward finds its way anywhere it shouldn't.

The final step is to give our hands a thorough scrubbing, and then it's down to business.

Assistant manager Sam Johnson trained Rhys during his shift
Assistant manager Sam Johnson trained Rhys during his shift

I am keen for Sam to show me every part of the process which leads to thousands of customers being fed and watered from this restaurant every week.

The two-storey branch at Cheriton - which has popped up in the far end of the Tesco car park and created almost 140 new jobs - is one of the most high-tech in the country.

Unlike traditional outlets where the kitchen is visible behind the counter, here the majority of the food prep takes place a floor above the dining area and drive-thru windows.

Once orders are cooked - and everything here is made to order, nothing sits about waiting to be served - a state-of-the-art transporter whisks the items from a conveyor belt and carries them to the staff serving downstairs.

Nosing around the kitchen, I am struck by the incremental advances that have taken place in the almost quarter of a century since I worked in this environment as a 16-year-old.

Rhys did everything from wiping down tables to preparing and serving a Big Mac
Rhys did everything from wiping down tables to preparing and serving a Big Mac

Although much remains the same, and I'll still be constructing burgers by hand, everywhere there are little signs of automation which combine to make the whole end-to-end process that little bit more efficient.

And there's nothing like throwing the new(ish) boy in at the deep end. First lesson of the day: assembling the iconic Big Mac.

The instructions come at me thick and fast. To keep the product uniform and the dining experience consistent, every element is strictly mandated.

The special Big Mac sauce is applied to toasted bread using something resembling a comically-large cartoon syringe. Onions are applied in a pinch, lettuce more liberally.

Cheese, two patties of ground beef and a pair of pickles - two, not one or three - complete the burger and it's ready to be sent down the conveyor belt and out the door.

Our man helps out on the drive thru
Our man helps out on the drive thru

We moved on around the kitchen, which is laid out with precision - four stations set up for food assembly which can be manned depending on demand from customers below.

The next stop was the grill, which Sam gave a thorough cleaning before I stepped up.

'Flipping burgers' may be the old cliche about work at McDonald's and similar chains, but those days seem to be a thing of the past now.

Instead I take two frozen patties and place them on the searing-hot metal plate. A lid is then lowered, cooking the beef to perfection on a timer before being released.

Then it's in with the spatula and tongs to whip the burgers off the grill and put them into a holding unit, with a strict timer on how long they can be held before being served up to diners.

Rhys serves regular customer Kevin
Rhys serves regular customer Kevin

Taking a break from the heat of the kitchen, we grab a coffee and I get the chance to speak to Sam in more detail about life at McDonald's.

"We know that people's favourite thing about working at McDonald's is the team that they work with," he said.

"Especially when you're 16, 17, and it's your first job.

"The thing that's going to appeal to you more is working with like-minded people of a similar age, and we really like to encourage you to work with your friends as well.

"So when we're hiring we ask our existing crew if they have got any friends that would be interested in a job, and they go through the process that way, because we're big believers in making sure it's an enjoyable atmosphere for our crew."

Rhys helps Sam portion up the fries
Rhys helps Sam portion up the fries

While staff are encouraged to have fun while also providing an excellent experience for customers, there is also a serious side for those who want to develop their career with the firm.

Not only can new employees join as an apprentice, there is also a route towards a degree in business management which is fully funded by the company.

Sam said: "We know that people learn in different ways and school just isn't for some people. Some people just don't thrive in that environment.

"But you can work alongside learning at the same time, being paid not even an apprenticeship wage, which is quite low in this country, but the wage you would be paid here anyway.

"It goes all the way up to degree level. It's not a 'McDegree'. It's with the University of Manchester, in business management, and that's something that young people should absolutely take advantage of as it's paid for by the company."

The restaurant in Cheriton is the third McDonald's in Folkestone
The restaurant in Cheriton is the third McDonald's in Folkestone

Break time over, and it's back to work.

We're now on the ground floor, where fries are portioned and drinks prepared ready for meals to be collected either at the dine-in counter, the drive-thru window or the dedicated collection points for delivery-app drivers.

The atmosphere down here feels a lot more hectic. It's a complete assault on the senses as screens flash orders, alarms go off on fryers and staff dash to and from bagging up food.

I'm given my first chance to interact with the public, handing over a meal to a drive-thru customer and taking out dine-in orders to the restaurant floor.

It's a real reminder of the need to be 'always on' when working in a customer-facing role - something I have forgotten in the years since I worked in the service sector.

"The truth is, this is hard work..."

Not wanting to be accused of slacking on my first day, I happily pick up the cloth and cleaning spray to give the tables a good, thorough wipe-down after diners depart.

It's been an interesting afternoon, and a real reminder that millions of people in this country toil in jobs which pay relatively little, attract minimal fanfare but are essential to keeping the world around us functioning smoothly.

And the truth is, this is hard work.

I am not sure I was particularly cut out for it in 1999, I am certain I am even less so in 2023.

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