Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. This week, we've got a grab-bag of stories whose common thread is that I stared at each in wonder when I initially read them. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.

Emma Stevens:

My boyfriend and I were on a road-trip from Chicago to San Francisco and had stopped around Kanab, Utah for the night. It was late and we were exhausted and hungry. Of course the only place left open in town was a McDonald's, so to the drive-thru we went. And there we sat for about 5 minutes, no one ever came onto the intercom. We figured since it was so late the McDonald's had a small crew and they probably didn't notice the drive-in had a customer so we drove up. There was only one drive-in window, and through it we could see there were two young men on staff, one short and skinny, and one was quite tall, overweight, and sweaty (we could see how much he was sweating through the window, it was insane). They were both standing, staring off into the distance right in our direction, but made no move to answer the drive-thru window. We knew the place was still open, so my boyfriend rolled down the window and began knocking on theirs. The skinny one snaps out of his trance and walks over to the window very wobbly, as if he was drunk. He finally makes it to the window and decided to pry it open with his hands instead of using the button. He greeted us with a resounding "huh?" and fell silent.

My boyfriend is patient man, and he calmly asked him to confirm the store was still open, because we would like to place an order. He proceeds to look at his wrist which has no watch on it, nods to confirm that they were open, and then walks away leaving the window open. My boyfriend called back to him again that we wanted to place an order, and he then very wobbly made his way back to stare silently at us again. Now the large one in the background had been staring at us the whole time this was happening and had not moved from his original spot. He made his way over to stare at us unblinking, over the shoulder of his shorter friend. My boyfriend said he would like a 10 nugget meal with a coke, and that I would like the southwestern salad.

The skinny one took a minute to process this and then responded "oh yeah man, nothing's ready, man so you're going to have to wait." And wait we did. Skinny went off to attempt to make our meal while the large one never moved from his spot at the window, continuing to stare like a zombie at us, sweating profusely. Fifteen minutes later, we have the chicken nuggets and our drinks. Skinny reappeared and maneuvered around his fat zombie friend to tell us in these exact words that he "f*cked up the little potatoes" and we would have to wait while he "gave it another try." At this point it was obvious the dynamic duo was on something, only one of them seemed to be partially functioning. Ten more minutes passed and we finally got some french fries that were fresh but overcooked (some were brown). Whatever, we just wanted to get our last item, the salad and get to our hotel, we had been waiting a half an hour for freakin' McDonald's!

My boyfriend reminded skinny of the salad and he fell silent and immobile again next to his friend. My boyfriend repeated the salad order, using large explanatory hand gestures, and skinny meandered around his friend and was off again. When he finally returned with the salad, it had no chicken in it. We then had to explain that the salads had chicken included with them, and then waited another 5 minutes for him to return with chicken in the salad.

OMG โ€” we were so close โ€” all they had to do was give us the salad dressing and we could get the hell out of there! We asked him for salad dressing and his face contorted with confusion. He told us we had our salad and were free to go. We repeated yes we had the salad but needed salad dressing for it. Skinny took a minute to think and then said "like the ketchup or the big mac sauce? You want that on the side? I can't do that man." We shared a look of disbelief- this kid didn't know what SALAD DRESSING WAS. I described what the packages of McDonald's salad dressing looked like with Paul Newman on the front, and Skinny was then off on his next mission of discovery. He appeared again with a large box, and scooted around his zombie friend who I swear to god had not moved from staring at us the entire 35 minutes we were sitting there.

"OK," he said. Then he began to try to read off what kinds of dressings were in the box, horribly mispronouncing EVERY SINGLE ONE, his pronunciations are as follows in parentheses. "We have Ranch (ron-chee), Thousand Island (thou-za iz-lay), Asian ( he didn't even try, he just called this Chinese), and...." he began mouthing words and became even more confused. "We have... we also have..... balsa dressing.... no.... bala-stic.... noooo...... ohhhhh.... BALSMUK Dressing!" He was trying to say Balsamic Vinaigrette, and smiled in the end, quite pleased that he had finally said it 'correctly.' I told him I would love some BALSMUK dressing, and we grabbed it and got the hell out of there, with the two of them staring blankly out the window at us as we left. It wasn't until we even got back to the hotel that we realized they never even charged us for the food!

Dan Sullivan:

Way back in the 1980's, my friends worked at a fried chicken joint. The place had just opened one of the first salad bars in the area and it was a real novelty. They even allowed patrons to grab a little styrofoam box and make a salad to go.

Late one day, the Iron Shiek comes into the restaurant. If you are unfamiliar, he was a professional wrestler from Iran and was a "bad guy" in the wrestling world. A big scary guy too. In broken English, he asks for a salad to go, and they try to convey the Styrofoam box deal to him. He agrees, pays $5 or whatever, but grabs a styrofoam cooler that the restaurant used for 50-piece take-out chicken orders. He proceeds to empty every last item off the salad bar while my friends are nudging each other with "you tell him" and "no, you tell him." They closed the salad bar early that day.

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Kinja user srirachachips:

I once worked at a kosher bakery and coffee shop. During the morning, we served meat-free breakfast sandwiches (no meat because we served dairy). We had a menu that clearly stated the options and a largely Jewish clientele who understood and appreciated our offerings.

Enter Bacon Croissant Guy. One morning, I'm working the counter alone and a regular-looking guy comes in and says, "You make breakfast sandwiches? I want bacon, on a croissant." I apologize and explain that we don't serve bacon or any meat, because of Jewish dietary restrictions, and give him a menu. "No," he says, "I want bacon, on a croissant." I suggest he visit the deli across the street, where they do have bacon. "No, I want bacon, on one of the croissants from this bakery." I finally offer to sell him a croissant and slice it so he can go across the street to the deli, get some bacon, and put the bacon on his croissant. "No, I want to get bacon on a croissant at *this* bakery."

Talking to him was like talking to an alien. I don't know whether he just couldn't understand or if he chose not to or if he was some kind of psycho who got off on perplexing teenage restaurant staff, but he seemed normal, except for his refusal to understand. I finally just told him "Sorry, I can't help you," and he left.

He came in every Sunday, when I was working and when I wasn't, and did the same thing. At one point our manager became suspicious and came in to have a lengthy discussion with him about kashrut and try to find out why he came in every week. Still, he refused to understand, and continued to come in for a bacon croissant and leave empty-handed every single Sunday. For all I know, he's still doing it to this day, because I stopped working there when I left for college.

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John Kameroff

I work in a small town, in a small family owned pizzeria/sandwich place (third generation).

We are busy for a small town. Again we have been in the area for over 40 years. Our pizzas and cheese steaks are distinctive and one of those comfort foods you grow up with. During our heyday (before the steel mills closed" we could easily do close to 1000 pies over the course of a weekend and regularly went through 700-800 lbs. of chip steak a week.

We have 6 LARGE pizza ovens. They each fit 8 small 12" pizza tins or 6 14" pizzas. They are stacked in sets of two, three sets across. The last set of ovens is directly next to the take out area and is frequently the victim of drafts from the back door causing the pilot lights to go out and half an oven to cool off. We have tried many things, but the configuration of the kitchen real estate makes it hard to put those ovens elsewhere.

I worked day shift (a farce โ€” it was 9AM to 8 PM) and the next shift came in at 4pm. It was a busy Saturday, and I was already over 100 pies in with no sign of slowing down. The second shift comes in and I am hustling; pizzas in, pizzas out, taking care of take out. I realize the damned pilot light had gone out again. I place my hand flat on the oven side and it's cold. I casually ask the guy just coming on if he will relight the oven. Something we do 6 or 7 times a night โ€” it involves holding the pilot button in and shoving a long lighter into the oven to see the pilot catches and then give it a minute to heat the sensor.

What we hadn't realized was that BOTH pilots had gone out and the gas was just filling up the bottom of the oven under the stone. I am carrying three pies to a customer just past the oven when BOOM the oven door flies open, a huge gout of flame shoots into the kitchen, all the soot and dust and ashes from the oven are launched across the kitchen with the two remaining pies in the oven. Meanwhile the nighttime guy screams, like a 12 year old girl and runs behind me while I am ringing out the customer, which I continue to do.

The customer looks at me and says, "Is he all right?" I don't even miss a beat, I turn around to look and he is gingerly patting his face to be sure all the parts are there. The only real damage is that he no longer has eyebrows, just some blackened dust above his eyes. I turn right around and say, "He's fine."

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Mike Graziano:

I used to be a bartender at a large high-volume restaurant in a busy commercial district in West Los Angeles. I was working a weekday lunch shift, which are typically pretty quiet. A very old and very frail-looking old woman came in for lunch and was seated in the section along the front wall with windows overlooking the street. This section was slightly elevated from the rest of the restaurant so you had to go up four steps to get to the tables. My buddy who waited on her later told me that everything had gone fine and that she had been very sweet.

At the end of the meal he dropped the check and moved on to service his other tables. At this point she simply stood up and began walking towards the front door. We were always told that if we suspected or witnessed a "dine and dash," that we were to bring it to the attention of the shift manager and let them deal with it.

My bemused friend watched the woman make her way towards the front door at a breakneck speed of about 1/2 a mile an hour for a few moments before turning to tell the manager, who just happened to be in the section she had been sitting in. He ran to catch her, but in his haste hit those four steps wrong and took a dive, cracking his head on the wait station and almost knocking himself out. As the wait staff rushed to his aid to make sure he was OK, the woman slipped out the front door, never to be seen again. (Editor's Note: This story makes me feel like Ron Burgundy when Baxter ate the whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator. I'm not even mad; that's amazing)

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Alice Stark:

I used to work at a sort of half-service pizza restaurant โ€” you order at the counter, pay the cashier, get your own drinks, we bring out the food. We had tip jars on the counters, big red plastic cups that were dingy, dusty, and dirty, clearly labelled "TIPS" in lovely bubble lettering. One day, one of our regular crazies came by. It was lucky that she ordered the same thing every time, because her mumbled voice, crazy eyes, and distant not-all-there attitude made it a challenge to figure out what she was looking for.

This day, like all others, she ordered her slice and a bottle of Tropicana lemonade. All is fine. I put a cup on the counter for her, knowing she'd want to drink her lemonade with a lid and a straw. Instead of taking the paper restaurant cup, she takes my tip jar. My cracked, red, labelled tip jar. Which has about $0.80 in it, all in nickels and dimes and pennies. Dirty, gross coins in a dirty, gross cup. It jingles when she picks it up. She doesn't notice. I try to stop her from taking the cup. She ignores me.

She proceeds to pour her lemonade into the cup, over the coins. I can only imagine the taste created by the acid of the lemonade and whatever crust and germs on those coins. She drinks the whole thing (coins still jingling), and leaves the tip cup of coins on the table when she leaves, never commenting on the change.

She came back in a week later, right on schedule. I hid my tip jar.

Amy Blakeney:

I worked in this trendy restaurant or "lounge/restaurant" as they called it. This place also had a massive outside patio and another side patio. This one day was midsummer, and being so, it place was packed out. Every single table inside and out, packed, and a wait list a mile long. I was bussing and foodrunning that day, so I was busy trying to clear tables as quickly as possible. I had crammed about 3-5 tables worth of glassware from outside all onto one tray in the hopes of expediting the process, and made the ascent up the stairs into the restaurant.

Now keep in mind this is summer, too, so moving quickly outside to inside was extremely strenuous and painful on the eyes. The managers insisted the inside light always be at the lowest setting possible for some reason โ€” I've seen many people fall asleep inside that place. This is due in part to the lighting but also because the decor was couches, low tables, huge leather arm chairs, and plush ottomans.

Anyway, I'm walking through to the bar to drop the tray off while carefully careening through a crowd of people. There was a large group at a normally 5-8 person table, now there were at least 15 of them, and they were spilling into the "walkway" to the bar. As I'm stealth moving through this place, I notice another server picking up an entire tray of full drinks, and she is walking right towards me. As I'm one to avoid a catastrophe, I make direct eye contact with her and make sure no drunk idiots elbows are flying, as I refuse to have a collision of full and empty drinks. As I'm doing so, however, my left leg bashes something with full force. I'm immediately thinking "don't drop the tray, don't drop the tray!" I steady it because I'm a pro, and then think, wait what did I just trip on? I assumed it was one of the giant ottomans because they were about knee height and the weight seems about right, but to my horror as I look down, there is a small child, probably under 1, like just learned to walk age, crying and flailing on the ground. I PUNTED A BABY. Like I'm pretty sure this thing got air, since I kicked it so hard I mistook it for a clunky heavy piece of furniture.

I'm immediately mortified/trying to fight back laughter because I'm evil. I look at the family, they look at me, all of us full "O" face. I drop the tray off finally and try to compose myself, genuinely flabbergasted at how to deal with this situation...but before I can do so I am face to face with the father and mother. I expect they're about to scream at me for basically destroying their kid, but to my surprise they come up and apologize to me. They apologized again on the way out, too. It might have been a good thing for them, even, because after this the kid was knocked out cold โ€” post-fit screaming exhausted, not because I murdered it โ€” and the young couple were able to enjoy their meal and even have a glass of wine or two afterwards.

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Do you have a crazy restaurant story you'd like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with "Behind Closed Ovens" in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!

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