Friday, September 18, 2009

The Failed Promise of Fast Food

It's neither fast, nor is it food. And it ain't cheap, despite what you may think.

I stopped going to fast food restaurants several years ago. Actually, I eat out a lot less than I used to. You should too.

Most Americans use restaurants as their kitchens. "Too Busy" with the activities of daily life (including watching Television) they claim to be "too tired" to cook or shop for food, so they go to a restaurant to eat.

Not only is this horribly expensive, it is also horribly bad for you.  Most restaurant food tastes "better" than what you make at home, simply because it is filled with fat and salt, and even sugar.  Many of my acquaintances eat this way, often evaluating a restaurant not on the quality of the food served or the ambiance, but on the portion size and the price.   In short, they view a restaurant as they would view a gas station - as a place to refuel.

And of course, they take home a clam-shell of uneaten food for later consumption as lunch the next day.  In this manner, they view the restaurant as a "bargain" as they are getting a perceived "large portion" for a low price, and a second meal to boot.

No matter how you slice it, though, a dollar spent at a restaurant goes a lot further at the local grocery store.  Moreover, the food you can prepare yourself is much better for you.

Nowhere is this more true than with fast food.

Many folks argue that fast food is a bargain, and thus not a bad economic proposition.   I beg to differ.

A typical meal at a McDonald's, for example, can run anywhere from $5 to $10. This is not cheap. Yes, they offer packaged meals at attractive prices and the "dollar menu" items to get you in. But once inside, most consumers opt to "super-size" their meals, or order multiple "dollar menu" items (two cheeseburgers, a fries, and a coke) and the price of the meal escalates into territory equal to or more than the cost of an entree at a real restaurant.

Yes, for $5 to $10, you can sit down at a diner or lunch place and relax and take your time and have a real plate of food and eat using metal utensils. And chances are, you'll meet the owner of the establishment, not some teen-aged kid working for minimum wage who spits in the food like in the fast-food place.

Or you could have made your lunch at home from food inexpensively bought at the grocery store. Either way, it's cheaper and healthier than "fast food."

"But," you say, "I'm in a hurry! My busy go-go lifestyle doesn't allow me time for a real restaurant meal - or time to prepare a meal at home!"

Wrong again. Have you ever noticed how SLOW fast food has become? In some fast food restaurants, you can end up waiting 10 to 15 minutes for your food. Lines at drive-through windows snake around the parking lot.  And in many, there is a "whoops! we screwed up your order!" parking area, where you are directed to "park it" and wait 10 minutes for your fries.

In the old days, you ordered a burger and fries at McDonald's and in less than a minute, your order was filled. Today, in some of these restaurants, it seems the staff has trouble with the simplest things. No one seems to be able to run the register, or make change properly. The food is made at these weird workstations, where workers put things into and take them out of little drawers and "assemble" the sandwiches.

The fryer is so hot and splatters, so no one ever wants to make the fries. As a result, your order is delayed until the game of passive-aggression amongst the staff is played out and someone finally breaks down and drops a basket of fries into the oil.  And since they take it out early to serve the increasing number of unhappy waiting customers, you'll end up with those horrible, undercooked fries.

Certain fast-food locations and layouts seem to lend themselves to what we call the "Dis-Feng-Shui" Micky-D's.  The smaller locations in particular seem to struggle to get even the simplest things done.  Despite a staff of 15, they cannot fill an order in under 15 minutes, and when it is filled, the food is awful - the aforementioned raw fries and sandwich that is sloppily assembled.  People wait 15 minutes, pay $8.95 and get dreck.  Why on earth do this?

So the idea that you are "saving time" at a fast-food place is no longer valid. It takes longer in many instances to get fast food than it takes to get served at a diner. And if you make your lunch yourself, well, it takes no time at all.

And this brings up a good point. Rushing through meals is never a good idea. As I noted in my "Past, Present, and Future" article, you have to slow down and live for the moment. A meal should be contemplated and enjoyed, not rushed through as yet another task to be checked off in the race toward the grave. Sitting down at a nice restaurant and having a leisurely lunch is better than wolfing down fast food in your car. Sitting under a tree in a park and eating a bag lunch while reading is even better. Slow down and enjoy life.

Too often, I find myself eating while working or while doing something else. Hours later I think to myself, "Gee, I should have some lunch" only to realize that I had it already, and since I didn't take the time to enjoy it, have no recollection of it.

The end of the line for me with fast food was the quality of the product. While traveling by RV, it was comforting sometimes to stop at McDonald's and get a cup of coffee and one of those bagel egg sandwiches. I mean, how bad can that be?

One time, in the Carolinas, I was disgusted to find that some sort of yellow sauce had been slathered all over the sandwich. I nearly barfed. It turned out that they use some sort of yellow butter sauce on the bagels, and that in the past I had never noticed it as they usually only used a small amount. But for some reason, the teenager making the sandwich had erred and slathered the thing in this yellow goo.

It was disgusting, and moreover I realized that it was merely an extreme example of what I had been eating. I paid several dollars for that "meal" only to end up throwing it away. And in the past, similar disappointments had occurred. The fries or hash browns, as noted earlier, would end up either undercooked white blobby masses of potato, or be crusted cold chunks with congealed grease on them. Ray Kroc's early methods to insure reliability and consistency of the product have apparently been sabotaged by the underpaid hourly worker.

I just stopped going, period. It took too long, it cost too much, and the product stank (quite literally). And of course, like most restaurant food, it was not healthy, either.

Of course, this is not to say I never eat out. To me, eating at a restaurant is a social occasion, and sharing food is one of the primary elements of human social interaction. But I do not use restaurants as a substitute for a kitchen. The whole "I'm too tired to cook, let's go out to eat" deal is a non-starter with me.

And of course, when you travel, you have to eat out sometimes. And it is hard to find good food on the road (we travel by RV, so we can make most of what we eat). But when confronted with a choice, I try to pick a real local restaurant over some fast-food place or chain.

Maybe some entrepreneur will rescue fast food from itself and offer healthy food, prepared and served quickly and a reasonable price. But I doubt it. The entire premise of fast food is to appeal to the lowest common denominator and to your basest instincts. They serve salty, fatty, starchy food because it is "yummy" and when you are hungry and you smell those fries, your brain says "Screw the McSalad - get the fries! That's a vegetable!"

Fast Food is like television (and guess who advertises a lot on television? Fast food!). It is hard to control a television watching habit. The average Americans watches 4.8 hours a day. Controlling watching is like controlling a crack habit. It can't be done. Similarly, once you fall into the habit of fast food, it is hard to break. The typical worker in America falls into the habit of "getting a bite to eat" at a fast food chain for lunch, not realizing what a financial and medical problem they are creating for themselves.

The only way is to walk away. I've been Big-Mac-Free for over 5 years now. The gross bagel sandwich made it easy to walk away. And after a year or two, the idea of going back is repulsive. Again, the same is true of television. Once you turn it off, the idea of watching it becomes alien and the desire to do so drops off.

If you need any further convincing, rent the movie "Fast Food Nation". It is a comedy, not a documentary, but kind of insightful, and most of the incidents in the movie are based on real life events.

And if that doesn't convince you, log on to YouTube and look at all the videos of teenagers at fast food restaurants spitting (or worse) in the food. Yes it happens. Letting teenaged kids act as your chef is an idea fraught with peril.