From the Hut to the House: My journey from Pizza Hut to The White House
My 15-year journey from making pizzas to making policy.
I recently wrote a story about my “Life of Service” and it garnered a decent amount of attention — so I decided to write another silly story about the beginning of my “career” and also my current position at the White House.
Part 1: Pizza Hut — My First Job
I remember putting on my dark blue striped shirt and black pleated pants, both obtained from Goodwill. This was the biggest moment of my life. An in-person interview for a job. My first real job. I had never been so nervous in all my life.
The site: Pizza Hut. Why? I have no idea: perhaps because it was one of the closest restaurants to my house. Perhaps the name recognition (it’s where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ate). Perhaps the amazing memories I had as a chubby kid when my mom would bring me to Pizza Hut to get my free personal-pan pizza which I would receive after reading 8 or so books — this was called the Book-it program — and apparently it still exists: http://www.bookitprogram.com/.
Anyway, I showed up with clammy hands, my awkward clothes, and an ignorance of how to interview for a job. I did, though, have a trait I still carry with me to this day: honesty. I’ve never been one to suck up or brown nose — quite the opposite. I am always the one to be brutally honest, and sometimes unintentionally hurtful. I am Jim Carrey in the movie “Liar Liar” (after he loses his ability to lie…). Anyway — they must’ve appreciated my candor (or they were desperate) because I got the job! Yay — 1/1 lifetime in applying for jobs and getting them. (Though, I was soon after turned down for my dream job — a Blockbuster Video clerk).
So, there I was. A 15 year old pizza cook. Did I mention I was vegan at the time and didn’t eat bread? So, 100% of the job perks, beyond the $5.15 pay, were out the window for me. “Dude, how come you never eat the toppings?” one coworker asked me as his stuck his fist deep into the unthawed sausage pieces.
I was really bad at making pizzas. Prior to this job, the only thing I had ever made was probably a microwaved-cheese (I couldn’t even do grilled) sandwich. I tried to do the throwy thing with the pizza once and the dough landed on my head. Tried a second time and it stuck to the ceiling. I didn’t try a third time.
We were only supposed to use one ladle of tomato sauce to spread amongst the entire crust. One ladle?!? That’s it? But I love tomato sauce — it’s the best part of pizza! Well, I couldn’t do it — I could only make one ladle cover about 1/3rd of the pizza. So…I cheated. I’m sorry Pizza Hut. I needed at least three ladles worth of sauce to cover the pizza no matter how hard I tried. I probably cost the company hundreds of cents due to my ineptitude — but I didn’t want customers to get a splotchy pizza.
Once, when we were understaffed, which was always, they asked me to go wait on a table. I had never been trained to wait on a table, nor did I have any tact nor customer service abilities. Remember my inability to lie? Serving tables involves a lot of lying. You have to lie to yourself about how much you enjoy being belittled or treated poorly, and you have to lie about how great of a mood you’re in, and you have to pretend the customer is always right. I can’t do any of those things. “Please, for the love of God, never go out there again” was the response I received after my first, and last, attempt to wait on a table lifetime. I have all the respect in the world for servers and service workers — they are better than I and have amazing patience. Kudos.
So, I was basically a worthless employee — but my boss liked me as a person. We had great conversation and I knew he could tell I cared and meant well. When he asked me why I wanted the job despite not liking pizza or being good at any of the tasks, I replied, “because I’m 15, and I’m supposed to want a car soon”. My mom made a deal with me that if I got a job, she would help me buy a car. She didn’t stipulate that I had to be good at my job, or that I had to work full-time — just said “a job”.
So, my manager decided to be the coolest guy ever and said, “how about you come in once or twice a week, make a few pizzas and we talk, and then you leave?”. It was a win-win for everyone. I “had a job”, he didn’t have to put up with me being socially inappropriate with customers or throwing pizza crust on my head, and the customers received pizzas that were actually made properly and were edible. And I was already making good money at my other business I started. It was called, “Get Paid $15 To Mow The Lawn And Then Pay My Friend Danny To Come Over And Mow It For $5”. I usually chose to sit in a lawn chair and sip lemonade while I oversaw my business in action. That was my first management position, and I think I displayed some amazing delegation skills.
It’s humbling to look back to that first job. It dominated me — I was in way over my head. The day-to-day tasks, the social aspect, the interview. I just wasn’t good at any of it — but I never felt awkward and my bosses never made me feel less-than. We just acknowledged mutually that it wasn’t a good fit and I eventually moved on. I wish it always felt so simple and I think as we get older we put so much pressure on ourselves because our livelihood is at stake. It’s not about maybe getting your first beater car — it’s about providing for your family, or saving for retirement. But because we put that pressure on ourselves — we overthink, we stress out, we forget to live life. I try to never let myself get to that point in a position or job — but that’s easier said than done.
At one point not too long ago, my hands were sweating as I wore ill-fitting second-hand clothes to a minimum wage job interview where my one, and only, responsibility was to make borderline-sauceless pizzas. I now work in the White House. The most prestigious office in the history of the entire world.
It’s unfathomable to me. I grew up raised by a single mother — she raised my 9-year-older half-sister on a couple hundred bucks a month. They were dirt poor. Luckily when I popped out, my mom had saved up a few dollars and we were able to live a decently comfortable life. But, nobody in my family had a degree. Nobody expected my friends and I to accomplish anything. Don’t get arrested or become an alcoholic — that was considered success…I’m grateful for every opportunity I have been granted and every little bit of luck I receive — I hope it continues.
My life mantra:
Life is about creating stories and experiencing the uniqueness of being human. Put yourself in positions to be successful. The more positions you put yourself in, the more success you will have. If you constantly put yourself out there — it won’t matter if you come from nothing — you’ll be something, and you’ll do great things.
And that is a little taste about how I went from “The Hut” to “The House”.
Part 2: The White House
I am just wrapping up my time in the White House which all began in the beginning of September. It started with a grueling application and interview process and page after page of FBI questionnaires. I still remember the day I got the call to set up an interview. I called my entire family and told them. “I got an interview to intern at The White House!”
My mom cried. My grandma lost her mind. Not to sound conceited, but I was so proud of myself. I knew I wasn’t going to get the position, because, who works at the White House?!? Only super important people, relatives of important people, and people who went to ivy league schools. I was none of those things.
“Can I just put that I got an interview at the White House on my résumé?”
At the time, it was probably my most impressive accomplishment.
Then the interview happened. I was on the biggest stage on Earth and I’d never felt more confident. Not a bad time for that to occur! I’d never finished an interview and felt more certain that I’d gotten the job — not even the time I interviewed to call people out of the phonebook for the circus in my hometown at age 15. (yes, that really happened)
Months went by, I graduated from my Master’s program, and received another prestigious fellowship in the Portland, Oregon metro area — one preparing me to become a City Manager to govern a city (a dream job). Well, two months into my job, after moving to Portland and starting my new life — I got the email.
“We are pleased to inform you that you have been conditionally accepted to participate in the Fall 2016 White House Internship Program. You have been selected to intern in the Domestic Policy Council.”
WHAT?!?! Me? Little Craig “Booper” Wiroll from Sheboygan, WI? The same guy that got a pussywillow catkin stuck up his nose? The same guy that got his arm stuck in the cupholder at the movie theatre when he went to see 101 Dalmations with his grandma (they eventually used butter from the popcorn machine to lube up my arm and pull it out — yes that really happened too).
Anyway…yes. THAT Craig Wiroll. Would they actually let me in when I showed up, or was this some kind of mistake? I know they talk about imposter syndrome, but I think it’s justified when thinking about going to work at the most prestigious workplace in the world — and having to get past Secret Service the first time *gulp* is quite an intimidating experience.
Anyway, after about 5 minutes of contemplation, I decided to leave my local government management fellowship. It was an amazing fellowship that I was lucky to have gotten, with an amazing career trajectory, but honestly — who says “no thanks” when the White House comes calling? I knew I would forever regret not taking the opportunity to tell my children about the time I played basketball on the White House basketball court, met President Obama, hugged First Lady Michelle Obama, and staffed South By South Lawn with Leonardo DiCaprio.
So, with only a couple weeks notice, I had to up and move my life (which I had just up and moved) from Portland, Oregon to Washington D.C. Good thing I have so many connections in Washington due to my elite upbringing and business ventures. Oh, wait, zero? I didn’t know anyone. But that’s not a new sacrifice for me — I’ve been on the move for the last 7 years nonstop — living all around the country and the world.
So…what do I even do? I am part of the Domestic Policy Council. Specifically, I am part of the White House Rural Council, created in 2011 as part of an executive order (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/06/09/executive-order-13575-establishment-white-house-rural-council). We are a small team who does big things — from working to make sure impoverished youth in rural areas are given equal opportunity, helping to eliminate opioid addiction, making federal grant programs equitable and competitive for rural communities compared to urban areas, and increasing healthy and sustainable food access to small towns and tribal America. We partner with over a dozen federal agencies such as the USDA, CNCS, EPA, and HHS, to help shine an equitable light on the problems in rural, tribal, and small town America.
And the fun stuff? I’ve been privileged to meet the President, Vice President, First Lady, First Dogs, Chief of Staff, dozens of Assistants to the President, the Secretary of Agriculture, the CEO of Kickstarter, the creator of StoryCorps, and attend a discussion about climate change between Leonardo DiCaprio and the president.
I got to play basketball on the south lawn, watch the president’s helicopter Marine 1 land next to me, attend a White House press briefing, and receive speechwriting lessons from the president’s speechwriters. Is this real life?
But, in a couple weeks, it’s back to reality. So what’s next? Really, I do feel some pressure for my next employer to be somewhat comparable in excitement and prestige — but let’s be honest with ourselves, that’s not really possible. So really really, I want to go back to Wisconsin for the first time in years and be a full-time uncle. I have a 6-year-old niece and a 4-year-old nephew who are waiting for Uncle Craig to stop being so dang busy. Speaking of regretting decisions — I will regret not spending more time with them way more than I’ll regret not having more prestige, or a bigger retirement plan, or nice apartment.
“But Craig, what’s really next?!?” I don’t really care right now — I have little people to play with. Life will figure itself out — it always does. But, I’ve learned one very important thing from this experience — I want to be immersed in the community I’m helping. Whatever I do next, it needs to be somewhere I care about and want to get invested in. And after 7 years of nonstop moving, I want nothing more than to get deeply invested in a great community of people.
My colleagues and I were able to meet with the President on November 8, 2016 — Election Day. I will never forget his advice, which was delivered on one of the most historic and divisive days in the history of our country:
Be kind. Be useful. Be fearless.
The reason I do what I do, and pursue these tremendous opportunities…it isn’t for the prestige. It CLEARLY isn’t for the money. It’s my personal pursuit of happiness. The ability to pursue, and attain, happiness for all is what I want to fight for for the rest of my life.
Not bad for a guy who is incapable of spreading a ladle full of pizza sauce, eh?
Craig Wiroll has been on reality television, an Asian elephant rehabilitator, a waterfall repairman, a two-time garlic eating champion, and also worked at Pizza Hut and The White House.
He was allowed to attend college where they eventually gave him a Master of Public Administration degree from Oregon and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from UW-Milwaukee. He lives alone with nobody — oftentimes out of the back of his Subaru.