The Buffet Society

The other evening my family and I spontaneously headed for one of those all-you-can eat buffets that serve up rather basic, prefab food for about $10.95 per head. These establishments really succeed where suburbia meets rural. They have an obviously loyal clientele that knows how to belly up. I noticed a contingent of full-sized SUV’s and large luxury sedans in the lot. It had been a while for me. I recall trips during college from campus to buffet where eight or nine frat boys would convoy to Ryan’s or Ponderosa, where one can consume a steak dinner plus buffet. I was skeptical from the moment my wife suggested it. Did I still have what it takes? Had I learned too much about sodium and cholesterol to think twice about this? By the time we waddled out, I realized the entire corporate buffet experience is a metaphor for what’s wrong in America.

The first is competition. Competition is what makes America great, but at times we can take it too far. In smorgasbord parlance, the male class tries to ‘defeat’ the buffet. From entry through forcing down the final miserable morsel, men seek to beat the corporate master at his own game. The company’s Web site declares the buffet is “Value for the Money.” Yet it’s clear that this grand food “giveaway” is profitable. During the college days’ outings, we thought we put a hit on the buffet, but those managers saw us coming. Much like casinos in the gambling industry, the house deceives the customer into foreseeing a victory but the house wins every time.

The second, entrapment, begins upon entry. We had second thoughts as we were put on a wait. At this buffet, customers are literally corralled from door to buffet like livestock ultimately headed for slaughter, a mindless lot of food zombies. The predetermined path from front door to gluttony is bounded by sturdy rails that herd customers past the cash register to unlimited grazing, unlike sit-down restaurants where scattered customers on a Saturday-night-wait can more easily escape. Also, the bounty of unlimited meat and dessert is in full view and in full smell to encourage one’s stay and progress toward the trough.

Third is overconsumption. Obesity has become a serious national concern. Citizens from the First Lady on down have shined light on the cause. Any sample taken at this lab which promotes “Variety and Abundance” would elevate national concern to national crisis. There were over 20 desserts to choose from. We over consume at the table and elsewhere in town. The mindset at the buffet parallels the mindset that brought the housing bubble. We bite off more than we can chew. Yet this is the very model for the buffet where an obese clientele wallow in cheap, heavily preserved foods stocked with sodium, sugar, and chemicals.

Fourth, if you take too much, just discard. We have become a throw-away-society demonstrated by the disregard for the value of food by both the house and the customer. I noticed food particles flying, bouncing, and dropping. Workers assigned to sweep the floor in front of the buffet looked like ducks in a shooting gallery. The food shovelers gladly cut large portions of meat to customers’ smiles, knowing many of these would never be eaten. The waiter-busser that helped at our table came frequently and offered to take uneaten food more than once when we hadn’t yet finished. Clearly many customers don’t finish what they take, nor did I. Why should I finish a so-so sirloin when I can go right back for as many fried shrimp, fried potatoes, and fried bread?

I’m not suggesting anything ought to be done about these restaurants. This is not a “Super Size Me” expose’. But the nasty feeling on the ride home made me realize why I haven’t been to the trough in so long, and the time has come to fully retire the feed bag.

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