Posts Tagged ‘dining’

Revisited: Saturday musings

August 22, 2009

Today being Saturday, I’m going to write about one of my favorite things: food. Or more specifically, the way food is served in restaurants.

 Unlike most family men in their fifties, there are many evenings when I prefer to go out to eat rather than dine at home. Because of my perverse work schedule, which prompts me to have breakfast at 5, lunch at 10:30, and then be ready for dinner around 4, I’ve made it difficult for my wife to cook. She’s an excellent chef, but with her own work schedule is often unable to sympathize in a constructive manner with my mid-afternoon hunger.

So I’ve become something of a regular at restaurants and a student of the way they serve their food. And I have a few suggestions:

  • If you bill yourself as a fast-food establishment, the food should be served fast. Forget any pretense of quality; the faster the better. Cook it if you must, but c’mon — let’s go, let’s go! Obviously, the drive-through is the best way to deliver this speed, and I’m glad to see these places putting more emphasis on the speaker-and-window than on the counter, which is typically staffed by poorly groomed statues. But it can still take as much as three or four minutes to get your meal this way, and that’s just not acceptable in the fast-paced twenty-first century. I consider a successful stop at the Wendy’s or McDonald’s to be one where I can pick up my order without having the wheels of my car come to a complete stop. But we could aspire to even more: how about a system where you beam your order and payment wirelessly from about a half-mile up the street, roll down your windows, then have the employees throw your food in as you drive by? They might have to super-size at their own expense to be sure you get a minimum quantity of nuggets (throw eight to make sure five get in, for example) and I can imagine there might be some health and safety concerns with the sun-baked asphalt of the delivery area. But I’d pay a little more for the convenience. And it’s not like there aren’t already bags of discarded food all around these establishments.
  • And speaking of trash, don’t make your garbage cans look so much like the speaker boxes. I’ve been embarrassed too many times already asking a swirl of flies for a Southwestern Salad with no bacon bits but extra cheese.
  • Counter service needs to be much more organized. You walk into these places and see people milling about. You can’t tell who’s in line to order, who’s just waiting for their order, and who’s returning inedible orders from the drive-through. When you do find the end of the correct line, you typically end up behind a gape-mouthed family staring blankly at the overhead menu, unable to understand the concept that having the turkey panini listed on the same line as the number “5.99” means that’s how much it costs. Then a cashier at an adjacent register asks if they can take the next order, and one of these morons breaks off from their group and ties up another line. There needs to be two clearly labeled lines: one marked “People who know what they want” and the other marked “Hello? Hello? You think you might want something to eat?”
  • Stepping up only slightly in class, I’d like to see a buffet restaurant where I feel cheated if I don’t eat like a stoned thoroughbred. I can’t enjoy the meal while trying to keep track of what my neighbors are managing to slam into their maws. (I can’t enjoy the meal anyway because it’s been moldering under a heat lamp since the Ford administration, but that’s another story). I had an uncle once who would show up for these things at the end of the lunch rush, eat his fill, read the Sunday paper, they chow down again at dinner time. That’s just not fair. I propose buffet restaurants have a weigh-in as customers arrive and as they depart, and charge them for the difference by the pound. I know figures could be skewed if someone uses the bathroom, though factoring that in is just too disgusting to manage.
  • If you’re eating at one of those so-called casual chains like “Applebee’s” or “Olive Garden” or “Thank God This Market Segment is Almost Bankrupt”, you don’t want to deal with a too-friendly wait staff. Please take my order without sitting down at my table, kneeling at my side, telling me your name or “taking care of me this evening”. A little more distance and a little less care, please. A chain in the South named “Fatz” – like I have to specify this is in the South – has installed a system that allows you to electronically buzz your waiter’s wrist bracelet when you want to request more tea. I think it’s a humane zap with no more than minimal voltage, but it seems to work. And when the main course is ready to be served, don’t have it delivered by another waiter, then show up a minute or two later like you’ve received a battlefield promotion to head of the franchise and want to know how the food is. I haven’t had a chance to taste it yet; that’s how it is.

With Americans continuing to migrate more and more to outside-the-home dining, I think these are entirely reasonable suggestions. Someone kindly get on it right away. Thank you and come again.

Life in the fast (food) lane

May 18, 2009

I do most of my blogging away from my home. Not only can I escape the lure of attractive nuisances like breaking up cat fights, but I can also watch the comings and goings of the general public while drawing inspiration from their activity. Just as J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series in an Edinburgh coffeehouse and Mark Twain penned his masterpiece Mark Twain from the Super Bi-Lo near his Missouri birthplace, I’m currently visiting a nearby commercial establishment.

Today’s location is different from my usual hangout because of the topic I’ve chosen. I can normally be found writing in the local Panera – where they’ve mysteriously stopped the free samples since I wrote about how generous they were – or in the Earth Fare organic grocery store, watching Rock Hill’s alternative community (all three of them) buying their whole-grain biomass. Instead, this afternoon I’ve got my laptop sitting precipitously on a greasy plastic tabletop in the local Burger King.

I’ve chosen this spot to do on-site research for today’s topic, the purchase of fast food. To witness the experience up close, I should actually be typing away out in the parking lot near the drive-through, because that’s the part of the transaction I find most fascinating. But the smell of run-over Whopper Juniors baked flat in the mid-May sun is a little more inspiration than I wanted.

Drive-through restaurants in America date back to the 1948 opening in California of the first In-n-Out Burger. McDonald’s surprisingly didn’t open its first drive-through until 1975, and all the other fast-food restaurants quickly followed in line behind them. Today, more food is sold at these outlets through the window than is sold over the counter inside.

The typical experience for most diners begins several blocks away when they find themselves stuck behind a slow car with only three hubcaps and half a dozen of what we politely call “country folk.” Inevitably, you can’t pass these bumpkins until you’re at the entrance to the drive-through, and then they pull in ahead of you and up to the menu board. You’re now fully engaged in the fast-food experience, also known as “waiting.”

When you’re finally at the speaker box, you’re likely to be faced with one of two possibilities: you’re given no time to consider the options before someone asks for your order, or you’re met with an eerie silence. If it’s the latter, you should lean in as close to the mike as possible and shout “IS ANYBODY IN THERE?” If it’s the former, you begin considering a perplexing array of three or four different foods prepared in a huge variety of styles and combinations. It doesn’t help when the pre-recorded professional announcer asks “would you like to try our new Badger Bits?”, and you’re regretting how sad is it that Ed McMahon has been reduced to working at a burger joint to pay for his mortgage and neck brace.

Soon enough, the announcer is followed by the actual employee, who sounds like one of those throat cancer victims with the artificial larynx, only with more static and less gusto. Even if you know the item you want, you still have to negotiate whether or not it should be part of a combo, and how many of the items in question you want.

I recently was at the drive-through of the disturbingly named Jack-In-The-Box and for some reason found myself wanting to order hash browns. The following is the actual exchange that took place:

“I’d like to order the hash browns, please.”

“How many do you want?”

“How many do you have?” I responded.

I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic nor was I trying to take inventory of their entire supply room. I wanted to know how many items came in the $1.29 order shown on the menu.

“What I mean is, how many in an order?”

“Three,” I was told.

“OK, then I want three,” I said.

“Three orders?”

“No, three individual, separate and distinct browns. One order, three hash browns.”

“OK, that’s one order plus three hash browns,” came the response. I had to admire the attempt to upsell, then thought of abandoning the entire hash brown experience in favor of French fries. Surely they wouldn’t ask you how many fries you want.

Once your order is complete, you’re told to pull ahead to the window even though you’re impossibly grid-locked in your current position by cars to the front and cars to the back. Those folks just ahead of you are now randomly passing cash and food bags amongst themselves, while an indecipherable conversation takes place between the driver and the clerk. As the pitch and tempo of the talk rises, you sense things are not going well. When food is no longer being passed from window to car and instead the flow has reversed, you can be certain you’re in for a long wait. Finally, the brake lights go off and the car creeps away. Now it’s your turn.

First, a word of warning. Do not, under any circumstances, pay an amount different from the figure shown on the display screen. If you are asked to pay a different amount, call the corporate headquarters immediately. This sign first appeared a few years ago as a way of letting customers know how much the restaurateur trusts that its employees won’t be skimming dimes and quarters from the take. It doesn’t do a whole lot for your confidence that the people who hired these workers have so little faith in their integrity. Just to be on the safe side, I check not only the price on the screen, but also for signs of spittle on my grilled chicken sandwich.

On the window are a number of stickers advising me of the restaurant hours, the credit cards accepted and other information that barely allows you to see inside the facility (I guess that’s the idea.) One of these signs warns that pedestrians are not allowed at the drive-through. I checked this out on Wikipedia and sure enough, under a heading that read “Non-car Usage,” it says “pedestrians sometimes attempt to walk through the drive-through to order food.” Is this really something that sober people do?

Finally, the order is ready and it’s time to pay. You begin a tentative exchange of cash for food – first you hand over the coins, then she gives you the drink, then you give her the bills, then she gives you the bag. You half expect her to continue clutching the grease-soaked sack until all the money is accounted for. The surrender of a quantity of ketchups is agreed upon, and the transaction is officially complete.

Watching all this transpire from my position inside the Burger King gives me a very different perspective. Employees scurry about in their headsets like so many flight controllers, hard-working and honest. There’s little traffic at the indoor counter, with all the focus on getting cars through the queue outside. The yahoos on the other side of speaker system sound almost comical as they stagger through their list of demands, sounding about as organized as the Republican Party.

“Uhhhh… I’ll have the Sarah Palin … no, wait … make that the Rush Limbaugh … what? Wait a minute … uhhh … Are you still serving breakfast? Then I’ll have a pizza … what, no pizza at Chick-fil-A? Uhhh…”

So now I have some sympathy for both the workers who toil at these establishments as well as their customers. And yes, I would like fries with that.

Case of the awful waffle

May 16, 2009

Once again, I am able to be proud of my home state of South Carolina and its many fine dining establishments.

Yakeisha Ward, a 29-year-old waitress at a Manning, S.C., Waffle House, has been charged with assault and battery with intent to kill after turning a gun on customer Crystal Samuel, who ordered an all-star breakfast but wasn’t treated like an all-star.

Clarendon County sheriff’s deputies said Ward was involved in a fight about 4:30 a.m. Sunday. Lt. Tommy Burgess says the fight started when Samuel complained about the quality of service in the crowded restaurant.

Samuel’s friends got served first and started eating from carryout trays – a Waffle House no-no – and that’s when the trouble started.

Burgess says Ward went to her van to get a gun.

“I said ‘what is your fuss about?’,” Samuel told a local TV station. “I said we haven’t paid for our food. She (Ward) said ‘well, y’all got to leave’. How you want us to leave and we ain’t paid for the food yet?”

Samuel admits to throwing a waffle, but it “didn’t hit her,” and that’s when the waitress jumped across the counter and fired at the diner.

A bullet fragment was lodged in Samuel’s arm. Ward was unharmed by the thrown waffle.