We might like to think we can make healthy food choices when eating out but I admit to being a little shocked at a discussion thread I saw about an odd thing called a “restaurant card.” Weight loss surgery patients get “cards” from their surgeon to say that they had surgery and can eat only very small quantities of food. They present the cards at restaurants to request reduced costs, particularly at buffets. I’m bothered enough by the idea of volunteering your personal medical history to waitstaff in an effort to save a few bucks but what really concerned me was that apparently folks want these cards so they can go to buffet restaurants like Old Country Buffet, Ryan’s, CiCi’s Pizza, and Golden Corral. People posted various reasons why they wanted to use the cards, “I dislike leftovers” and “I don’t eat re-heated food” were a couple that seemed like restaurants had absolutely no obligation to care. But generally, lots of people try to make special requests in an effort to get money off at restaurants all the time. Google “server stories” and you’ll find numerous websites where waitstaff post horror stories of rude and unreasonable restaurant customers. A lot of the stories will be about whining over menu prices.
Restaurants sell two things: Food and an experience. Chain restaurants put a great deal of research into figuring out how to make you spend a lot of money. Unlike a grocery store where you’re free to browse and choose from competing products, once you’re in a restaurant, you’re a captive audience to a controlled selection of opportunities to spend money. From the wording of the menu to the mouthfeel of your entrée, every detail of what you are exposed to at a chain restaurant will have been determined by extensive research. And you should never be too sure that the “healthy food choices” on the menu are really all that healthy. It’s all part of a carefully-crafted sales pitch. In many ways, eating at a chain restaurant can be like eating the worst types of processed food. Realize that chain restaurants have to ensure that the food items you order in Maine taste exactly the same as when you order them in California. Managing high volume service with speed is an integral part of hitting critical profit margins so chain restaurant food will be produced largely by assembling pre-made, packaged ingredients. And the food itself will be engineered to improve the likelihood that you will order an appetizer and dessert along with your entree plus any upsells that hit the highest margins for the chain.
How about buffets? Their primary goal is to make you feel you’re eating indulgently for a value price. They get people in the door by advertising that you can eat all you want. In many parts of the country, Golden Corral is just $10 per person. At that price, do you really think the vast array of food is going to be even moderately decent quality? The stock in trade of a buffet are the homestyle classics everybody loves and nobody but your grandma makes anymore. Meatloaf, pot roast, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, potato salad, french fries, wedge fries, fluffy yeast rolls. Oh but let’s eat healthy! Is there seafood on the buffet? Yes! Seafood salad, tuna salad (nearly 200 calories in just a half cup), and clam chowder. Are there vegetables? Corn. Lots of corn. And peas and carrots and other plant-like items that have been either creamed or battered and fried. Don’t forget dessert! You can go back for all the cookies, brownies, cake, and pudding as you want PLUS there’s a chocolate fountain! Really, a multi-tiered fountain flowing with chocolate.
Skewer a chunk of pineapple or a Rice Krispy treat and drench it in chocolate sauce. As much as you want.
Buffets are arranged to steer you toward the higher profit margin choices and they will make mediocre-quality food taste better by preparing it with what hits your bliss point—fat, sugar, and salt. Research has shown also that variety makes us want to eat more. The more choices we have, the more we want to try everything. And the flat rate price of buffets can make some people want to feel they’re not just getting their money’s worth, they want to get more than they think they paid for. NO ONE should eat at these places. I have to admit I’m a bit shocked that anyone who’s had weight loss surgery would want to set foot in a chain buffet restaurant, much less work at making special arrangements to go. Whether you’re trying to make healthy food choices when eating out or you just care about your health, there’s really no excuse for trying to find a reason to go to a buffet restaurant at any price.