Fast-food restaurants are hardly fine dining establishments, but that doesn’t mean all chains are created equal. Sure, your standards might be lowered when you walk into a Burger King compared with your favorite local bistro‒but you should still be able to expect baseline cleanliness, consistency, and customer service. Heck, maybe even a few healthy items on the menu.
But how do you know when you’ve walked into a place that’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel, absent an actual cockroach ringing up your order at the register? Chefs, line cooks, and front of house staff are congregating in online forums to share exactly what they look out for when they walk into a fast-food restaurant, from fake grill marks to moldy soda machines—all of which indicate much bigger problems. We’ve rounded up the most blatant warning signs so that you, too, can leave a fast food joint in confidence knowing full well that’s it’s better you didn’t bite into that burger.
In a Reddit comment upvoted over 1,700 times, u/DopeMaster300 points out that if your food is the wrong temperature, you should probably head for the hills. Fast food chains are basically factories, so any divergence from the norm means that something’s not working the way it should. Inconsistent food temperatures should be a dead giveaway that something is not only amiss, but it is also potentially dangerous. It could mean that something’s been sitting out, likely after some other customer changed their mind about an order.
According to a whole host of users on Reddit, the absolute best way to determine the cleanliness of a fast food restaurant is to check the ice chute and spouts in the soda machine. According to u/earthDF, who self-reportedly worked as a server and line cook for several years, the “Number 1 red flag is the spouts on the soda fountain. Those things are one of the easiest things to clean in the entire place, so if they’re mildewy that kills my interest in eating there. I’m fine with a bit of mess elsewhere, especially in a high volume place since it will get messy over the course of the day. But those spouts take multiple days of no washing to get to a point where they are [noticeably] disgusting.” Other users in the industry echoed that these ice chutes and soda spouts are very easy to clean, so if they’re moldy, it’s likely indicative of a general lack of hygiene.
If the fast food restaurant you just walked into doesn’t smell like burgers and fries, but of something foul, it’s a big red flag you should head for the door. In a Reddit thread about restaurant red flags, one food runner shared, “I will not tolerate bad smells. If the restaurant smells bad, I bail. There is probably more [stuff] that is unacceptable, but that’s the first thing that always comes to mind.” The reasons for the stinky smells could range from the staff being lazy about taking the trash out to something more serious, like a sewer problem that hasn’t been taken care of.
Obviously foul smells are a dead giveaway that you’re in a less-than-pristine food establishment, but in particular, you should pay attention to any unpleasant smells you may notice after a staff member has wiped down a table, menu, or tray. As Reddit user u/rW0HgFyxoJhYka says, “We all know the smell, it’s that smell when you take a dirty rag and dirty dishwashing soap you just used earlier to clean the dining room table instead of using clean water and fresh soap and rinsing it twice.” Other commenters were also quick to point out that a heavy smell of chlorine or bleach is just as bad and might indicate an overuse of chemicals on equipment—which translates into high odds that they’ve come into contact with your food. Talk about some of the grossest things you’ve found in your food.
On the one hand, sky-high calorie counts are a surefire sign that you should skip the drive-thru. On the other hand, better the devil you know: if the nutrition information is listed, at least you can make an informed decision. As part of the Affordable Care Act, fast food chains are generally required to post their caloric values on their menus, with additional information on fat and sodium available onsite. But this rule only applies to chains with 20 or more locations, which leaves many chains free to make their most gut-busting recipes without anything to deter the customer. If you’ve stumbled into one of these smaller fast food chains, you’re leaving your order up to nutritional guesswork.
If your elbows stick to the table‒or if lifting a tray from a pile gives you the sensation of pulling apart velcro‒you don’t exactly need a professional to tell you that you’re not in the finest dining establishment. But sticky tables and trays reveal how down and out a restaurant is precisely because they’re so obvious to even the untrained eye. If the staff can’t even pull it together enough to wipe down a ketchup-covered fourtop (a red flag that’s basically on par with a ceiling leak dripping menacingly into a bucket behind the register) then there’s no telling how egregiously unclean the kitchen is, away from the public eye.
According to a study by the CDC, restaurant staff engage in roughly nine activities per hour that should have involved hand washing or switching gloves. Only 23 percent of workers practiced proper hygiene after handling dirty equipment like a cash register and money, leading to the spread of foodborne illnesses. That means that if you walk into a low-staffed Subway, for example, and they ring up your sandwich with the same gloves they made it with, chances are you’re running a high risk of contamination. “Chefs not using gloves provides many opportunities for contamination to take place in the food,” agrees restaurateur Nick Kamboj. “There is a high risk of cross-contamination of allergens by not using or changing gloves.”
Most fast food restaurants peddle meals that are high in calories, sodium, and saturated fat, but some chains are truly the stuff of nutritionists’ nightmares. If you notice that a single “appetizer” will run you somewhere in the ballpark of 1,000 calories, you’re not doing yourself any favors by sticking around.
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As Reddit user u/mostlyamess said, “If you can hear the chefs yelling in the kitchen, get out. If they’re fighting, they’re messing up the food.” Beyond the fact that you may want to eat a burger in peace and quiet, this rings true: staff squabbles that go unchecked in front of customers typically indicate poor management, organization, and work culture, all of which trickles down to affect things like the quality of food and atmosphere.
If you notice that a chain is often out of a fairly standard item, it usually means one of two things: either they’re cutting corners to save money, or they lack the proper management to buy the right things from their suppliers. In one Reddit thread for fast-food workers to dish secrets about their employers, one Subway worker, u/counterfe1t shared that his franchise had no manager, so everything was on auto order‒even basic supplies and ingredients were unavailable to the staff, much to the dismay of many customers.
Besides the fact that single-use take out packaging is an epidemic on our environment, fast food parking lots full of trash should be troubling for another reason: they usually indicate a lack of overall cleanliness. Just as in the case of filthy bathrooms and sticky tabletops, trash littered about the exterior (or piled high in bags) indicates a lack of managerial oversight, and minimal staff investment in hygiene. As one customer, @kuefler, tweeted alongside two pictures of trash strewn outside a Mickey D’s, “Hey @McDonald’s! Are you ever planning to clean this up or are you opening up a landfill next door?”
According to restaurateur Nick Kamboj, anytime you’re unsure of a restaurant’s cleanliness, you should always check to see if the bathrooms have hot water. “If you go to the bathroom and find that there is no hot water, then you should seriously consider leaving,” he explains. “In many municipalities, it is mandated by the Health Department to have a restaurant to have hot water. The reason for this is that hot water is necessary to thoroughly clean dishes, pots and pan and to ensure that they are hygienic for chefs and customers. If there is no hot water for you in the bathroom, the probability of their being hot water for the kitchen staff is also low.”
There are few reasons to justify eating fast food if you take away its convenience. Reddit user u/TheDevilsAdvokaat relayed a story about waiting ages for his food at McDonald’s, explaining that the problem started when he ordered meals for his family of four. “They would partially fill the bag with my stuff, and be waiting on the rest,” he explained, “then an order would come in on the drive thru or something and i would see them look in my bag, say something to the other server, take a burger or something out, and give it to someone else. Those people would go off happy, meanwhile my order was delayed.” This happened four times before the commenter complained, but he could’ve saved himself the trouble by heeding this sign‒or any of these 16 others‒to walk out!
Go ahead, look beyond your cashier to the cook’s station, and set your gaze on the burger patties just placed on the griddle. Are those grill marks you’re seeing on your raw burger meat? And how have you never questioned this until now? A piece in The New Food Economy details a popular practice of “tumble marinating” meat‒that is, tossing it together “with a hearty brew of salt, oil, sugar, chemicals, and fat” before shuttling it onto a conveyor belt for a blast of convection oven cooking. These are then rolled with a faux-branding tool that gives the impression of having been charred on an open-flame grill. If you notice this particular red flag, chances are you can chalk up any other signals of “authenticity” to a conspiracy-level marketing strategy—one that you may start noticing everywhere you go.
One sure-fire way to be unpleasantly surprised by the food you’re served? Eat in a fast food joint that uses stock images on their menu. If you notice inconsistencies in the style or quality of menu pictures, chances are the chain has pulled photos from the internet‒and they have little relation to the food you’re about to eat. Then again, this behind the scenes look at a McDonald’s photo shoot demonstrates the painstaking, hours-long process of styling and shooting a single cheeseburger, so even the “real” images are a far cry from the quarter pounder you take home.
Fast food restaurants are some of the most popular restaurants in the country. But if you come across a location that’s a ghost town, it might not be worth stopping by. “A big one is definitely an empty parking lot during Lunch and Dinner,” shares Reddit user u/Timpano_Drops. “If the entire town is skipping out, you should too.”
You can’t always sneak a peek into the kitchen of a restaurant, but you can sure tell a lot about the place from the state of its bathroom. As the late Anthony Bourdain famously shared in Kitchen Confidential, I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn’t a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and workspaces look like.” Speaking of scary things you don’t want to find at fast-food restaurants, have you seen these 25 Scariest Fast Food Dishes of All Time?