All consultants have a “Wonderbread” story. To my fellow consultant refugees, I dedicate my Wonderbread story to you.
During what became my final project at “a top-tier consulting company,” I was staffed on an internal study in Stamford, CT. Formerly a run-down, crime-ridden city, Stamford has tried to revitalize itself by attracting companies to its downtown. However, the city still has remnants of its old past; I once witnessed an armed robbery across the street while I was picking up lunch.
It was Friday afternoon when I received a call from my new case leader, asking me to be in Stamford on Monday for an 8 a.m. project kick-off meeting. On Sunday he called again, asking me to prepare for the meeting by reading a set of documents he had just emailed. At 2:30 a.m. that evening, after reading through the documents, I tried unsuccessfully sleeping for two hours before arising at 4:30 a.m. to catch my flight.
With the help of caffeine I made it through the day. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately, as you will see), we finished the day early at 7 pm and I quickly left the office to find my hotel for the week.
Because the project was internal, and the firm wanted to keep a tight lid on expenses, the travel department placed me in a local hotel in an out-of-the-way area of Stamford. Nothing makes you feel more welcome than stained carpet. Nevertheless, I decided to sleep, putting in for a wakeup call in an hour and a half.
I woke up at 11 p.m. when my girlfriend called to say hello. The hotel hadn’t given me my wakeup call; apparently the hotel’s service mirrored its poor physical condition. After getting off the phone around 11:30 p.m., I called down to the front desk for room service.
Front Desk: “Sir, our hotel doesn’t have a kitchen. We don’t have room service.”
Me: “Can you suggest any good restaurants or someplace with take-out?”
Front Desk: “This is Stamford, not New York City. The downtown and all restaurants are shut down.”
Me: “Surely something must be open? Taco Bell?”
Front Desk: “Nothing is open right now. There is no food.”
I tried calling around the city to make sure my surly friend was correct. He was. The city was completely shut down. I couldn’t even get a pizza delivered. So at midnight, I resigned myself to going to bed without dinner.
At 3:30 a.m., I awoke in pain. I was completely famished, and my stomach was so convulsed that I could not return to sleep – even though I had emerged from yesterday’s all-nighter. I got dressed and marched down to the front desk.
Front Desk: “Sir, is there a problem?”
Me: “Yes! I am starving and I need some food. There has to be some food here.”
Front Desk: “Sir, there is no food in the hotel.”
Me: “There has to be something! A vending machine? Skittles? Anything!”
Front Desk: “Sir, I can assure you that there is no food in the hotel. However, about a mile down the highway is a gas station with a convenience store. There are no taxis at this time of night, so you will have to walk there. But if you are desperate, that is an option.”
Beyond desperation, I began my journey to the gas station. It was a cold February night, so I was bundled up in my warm jacket. The gas station was a mile away in a bad area of Stamford. I walked for about 15 minutes along the highway (Interstate 95) until I reached the deserted gas station. Alas, the light was on and it was open for business!
As I approached the gas station, I noticed an attendant sitting behind bullet proof glass. Below the glass shield was a metal box for exchanging money and other items securely through the glass shield. I reached for the door and it was locked. The attendant saw me pulling at the door and became agitated.
Attendant: “What are you doing? We are closed. You can not enter.”
I figured he typically doesn’t have many customers at his gas station at this time of morning, especially one without a car. His English skills were quite limited, so I struggled to explain why I was there. Looking through the glass shield, into the store behind him, all I could see was a collection of bread.
Me: “Wonder Bread! I want the Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread!”
After enough repeating and pointing, he finally understood me. I slide my money into the metal box. He then squished my loaf of bread through the shield. At long last, I had my dinner in hand! I thought the worst was behind me.
As I walked back along the highway, I passed a house with a collapsed metal fence. In the yard were three very large barking black dogs, who suddenly jumped over the broken fence and began to follow me down the highway. As I continued walking, the dogs followed at a distance but were slowly gaining ground and getting closer to me. They were howling, barking and growling as they chased me down the highway. This was not in the on-campus presentation.
Using my consulting training, I ran through the options in my head:
Option A: Make a run for it. Perhaps the dogs would give up if I give them a chase? If the dogs also began to run, perhaps I could use my gymnastics skills to climb a light pole until the dogs went away?
Option B: Approach the dogs and give them my dinner as a peace offering. My dog always liked bread. If the dogs attacked, I could try to beat them away with the bread and then switch to Option A.
Option C: Continue with a slow, steady pace, and hope I get to the hotel before the dogs finally decide to attack me.
Option A seemed too risky considering the dogs were big and would probably out-run me. Option B was unappealing because I would lose my hard earned dinner. I stuck with Option C.
About half way to the hotel, the dogs turned around and headed home. Somehow, some way, I arrived back at my hotel frazzled, but unscathed.
So there I was, at 4 a.m. in the morning, sitting on my less-than-luxurious hotel bed eating my pitiful bag of Wonder Bread, and drinking a glass of warm tap water from the bathroom sink.
As I regained my breath and began to relax, I contemplated my career as a “top-tier consultant”. On top of all the other indignations I put up with – the hollow promises that the job was worth all the personal sacrifices and would ultimately get better – here I was, sitting alone in a hotel room at 4 in the morning eating Wonder Bread, after a 24-hour period that included an all-nighter and a pack of highway dogs hungry for my jugular. This was my life. And for me, this was the breaking point.