(Courtesy of Vocal Media) Bennigan’s arrived in Jake’s hometown with tremendous fanfare during his senior year in high school. For a lower-middle-class family like his, it was a place of wonder. His family rarely went out for dinner; if they did, it was to Roy Roger’s for burgers. (His father was a huge fan of the “Fixin’s Bar” and its endless supply of tomatoes and onions.) On special occasions, they went to Tahiti East, an elaborately cheesy Chinese restaurant that was decorated to make you feel as if you had been transported to a Tahitian Island, vis-a-vis Morris County, New Jersey.
But Bennigan’s was a different animal. There were lines upwards of two hours long every night of the week to get into the new establishment which was unlike anything anyone had experienced. Despite Jake’s father’s protestations to the contrary, his mother insisted on braving the lines and getting a table.
Inside she wandered around with childlike glee pointing out all of the kitschy items meant to provoke conversations about their irreverence. She was their target audience and like Charles Darwin cataloging the Galapagos, she didn’t miss a thing.
“A mannequin wearing a 1920’s swimsuit?”
“An upside-down rowing shell with skeletons in the seats?”
“A rabbit with antlers?”
Jake’s father grumbled his acknowledgment of her numerous observations while he did his best to decipher a menu that was foreign to him.
“What the hell are mozzarella sticks?”
“Potato skins? I want a damned baked potato, not the skin.”
“Who puts sugar and jelly on a Monte Cristo sandwich?”
Jake ignored both of them and focused on the scene at the bar. It was packed three people deep. The bartenders were making a ridiculous amount of money from what he could tell AND they were meeting a ton of women. (Whether or not they were of legal drinking age didn’t seem to matter.)
Jake’s mother insisted on dessert at the end of the meal. Bennigan’s signature dish was Death By Chocolate. It was a wedge of chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream the size of a football, covered in a hard dark chocolate shell, drenched in hot fudge. Surely created by a cardiologist who was an early investor in Bennigan’s. It was as decadent and over the top as Bennigan’s aimed to be.
To Jake’s mom, Bennigan’s was everything she had expected and more. A culinary Disney Land. After scrutinizing the bill like an IRS auditor, Jake’s father read his mind and suggested he should try to get a job there. With a final glance towards the festive bar and the women drinking Long Island Ice Teas- in New Jersey no less- Jake knew his dad was on to something.
Despite not being eighteen and legally old enough to serve alcohol, Jake got a job as a waiter. Personality trumped age requirements. He was welcomed into the Bennigan’s family which entitled him to any meal before or after his shift, plus an endless supply of French fries and soda during the shift.
For a high school senior the money was excellent. He met his senior prom date through Bennigan’s because he didn’t card her or her friends when they ordered drinks. Perhaps the greatest perk of all was finding where the supply of Death By Chocolates was hidden in the walk-in freezer.
They sat on industrial metal racking when they really deserved to be on a pedestal under a spotlight. Pre-portioned and just waiting for the healthy dose of artery-clogging hot fudge to warm them to life.
During his first few weeks, he availed himself of more than his fair share of French fries, soda, and the occasional “errant order” that died in the heat lamps in the kitchen window. Anything to stay fueled during the busy shifts. It wasn’t long before he recognized how wired a Death By Chocolate sugar bomb could make him.
On its own, a Death By Chocolate WELL exceeded the daily recommended calorie intake. At seventeen, working an eight-hour shift, Jake burned it off without having to try. Not having been indoctrinated into the world of coffee drinkers, Death By Chocolate was a key to survival during harried shifts.
It started innocently enough. A piece that was “too damaged” to be served, would have to be disposed of, and Jake agreed to take one for the team. It became addictive. Every shift he snuck into the walk-in freezer and nibbled away like some giant polo shirt and khaki shorts clad rat.
During a staff meeting a month later, the general manager reiterated the rules on staff eating. If things continued to disappear, they would no longer be lenient and would charge for everything. He never specifically called out the missing Death By Chocolate desserts, so Jake believed he was in the clear and eased up over the next few shifts.
The siren song was too strong and on the first weekend shift, Jake snuck back into the walk-in freezer. Mid bite, the door opened. Jake pretended to busy himself with some menial task.
“You? You’re the one?” came the incredulous voice of the manager.
“Me? What?” Jake stammered.
“You’ve got chocolate all over your face!”
Rather than fire him, the manager deducted one Death By Chocolate from every shift’s pay that Jake remained at Bennigan’s. He was also forbidden from eating one again, with the exception being the week of his birthday when the staff serenaded him with Bennigan’s own version of “Happy Birthday.”
It was the last time he ever had a Death By Chocolate. But based on his math and his current cholesterol levels (acceptable) he had beaten Death in the long run.