By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
It’s taken over fifty years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the punishment/reward scales have tipped and I am losing my appetite for dining in restaurants. Mostly this is due to what the industry has needed to stay competitive, so I am not here to bash business owners for trying to make a living, it is simply that it is no longer in the interest of my health, budget, and growing intolerance of settling for less.
I wish the industry could do better, but I do not see this ending well.
Having had recently to travel out of town on extended business and family related maters over the past few months put me into restaurants daily. Surely much of it was convenience but then again it isn’t exactly easy to prepare something of any quality without the means to do so. The problem being is that I do not like processed foods that one can buy at a grocery store and simply heat up in a microwave oven. So if I make something, it is always from scratch. At home I only eat organic food, most of which is grown at a CSA I buy shares in. The food is better tasting, it is of healthier quality, and it COSTS LESS! The problem though is I have, for lack of better words, detoxified myself over the past five years from the sterile soil grown commercial farm GMO food that is bathed in chemicals several times a year. Maybe I am a snob when it comes to the food I prefer to eat but it’s my body so I can choose what I put into it.
Yet when being out and dining out, it is a setup for at least one disappointment. I will say that it is not always the case. There are a few family owned restaurants that actually try to be better but the industry suffers some serious flaws:
One spillover cost of politicians giving the highest minimum wage benefit in the United States in the vicinity of where I reside is that the cost of eating out is ridiculously high at nearly all markets, save maybe the dollar menu at chain fastfood joints (A cardiologist’s dream). If two of us dine at any run-of-the-mill restaurant it costs forty bucks for one dinner.
A few restaurants around here are becoming insidious in crafting novel methods to extract money out of their customers. The most underhanded I saw was one place where in the smallest font presented on the menu, in a corner of the menu that most customers did not bother to read, they indicated that on top of the price of the food, there was a mandatory 20% surcharge proffered to cover employee health and 401k benefits. Of course there was no offer to reduce the socially obligatory tip of 18% to offset this surprise. And, thesurcharge is subject to a 9% sales tax. A relative of mine actually confronted one of the employees at this establishment and asked them about the 401k. The waitress stated they do have a 401k, but the company pays no matching contributions of those made by the employee. In other words, the restaurant extracts money from customers to pay for this 401k but is so cheap it grants nothing on behalf of the employees.
My average home meal expense calculated and averaged over the past twelve months is $3.86 per person. Yes, that is a low cost, but when you do not eat Hot Pockets and microwavable frozen lasagna you can eat frugally. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Humanity made its own food for tens of thousands of years before the creation of a radio frequency, molecule exciting means of heating food. And it was all organic.
It is nearly impossible to find a menu item having more than three ingredients that is not laden with unnecessary amounts of salt. It is a cheap, bang for the buck ingredient that not only covers adequately for otherwise flavor lacking food but it makes the customer order drinks just to address the ensuing dry mouth. But then again most consumers like salted foods. I unfortunately am not one of them. For me it ruins my sleep and I rapidly gain weight just from one over-salted meal and after a week of this during travels I come home physically exhausted. Excessive salt is more consequently unhealthy.
It does require some creativity and care to craft menu items that have no added salt. I think with most people who formerly consumed high amounts of sodium in their diets, if they abstained completely from it in time their ability to taste food would return and they would discover a preference for salt free dining and have a better ability to taste what is there.
While there are certainly outliers abound, overall the quality of restaurant food has declined over the years. There is a significant trend toward precooked and processed food that gives restaurants the advantage of lower labor costs and quicker order turnaround. And for the most part it works well for a customer that wants to be served in two minutes as cheaply as possible. The trade off for that is quality and healthiness.
A few years ago a major “Italian” chain restaurant finally admitted that most of its menu items were made outside of the local restaurant. In other words it was made in a factory, delivered to the restaurant, and then boiled or otherwise heated. The pasta was boiled and mixed in with the sauce that was basically out of a bag. They attempted to minimize this embarrassing yet true fact by showing an employee in the kitchen dumping a large bag of pasta into a boiling cauldron of water, claiming it was still inspired by great chefs of Tuscany, or was it Tucson–who knows these days.
A good way to measure the quality of a particular restaurant is to try the underlying meat or fish without the smathering of sauces and cheeses. If it is bland you are being cheated. In all probability you are getting either low quality or you are being fed a T.V. dinner on a plate with a garnish, and charged accordingly. I also saw a Canadian news expose where investigators took DNA samples of what was proffered to be chicken in the chicken breast sandwich of a major chain sandwich shop. A significant portion of this was not chicken but instead soy. Fowl deceivers!
Back in 1997 or thereabouts a friend of mine and I traveled to Turkey. We ate in restaurants where everything they made was from scratch–it was during the spice harvest–and it was astoundingly cheap. Nearly every dinner we had was delicious, bountiful in flavors of which you could often discern nearly each spice individually. Upon our return, he called me about a week later and asked me “Have you noticed the food (in the US) seemed bland after we came home?” I noticed the same disappointment. The food here DID seem bland after three weeks in Turkey and Greece. And then I realized why this happened.
Over the course of our lifetimes the quality of food here declined. While we had different spices and nuances than the Turks did with their cuisine it was apparent that slowly the taste of food diminished. He and I went from our parents having our own gardens to moving toward more industrial farms where the soil became depleted through monocrops and over-reliance of fertilizer and pesticides. It wasn’t until I started eating better quality food that the flavor of my youth began to resurrect itself in my memory of taste. I was lucky to extricate myself from the bland, but it seems, unfortunately, that restaurants did not.
No, I’m not talking about the cheddar. It’s the over-the-top cross promotion and advertising manifest in chains.
I do not plan to dine with buffoonery such as The Grinch who IHOP managed to finagle into a menu item, or the Addams Family with purple milkshakes or a Registered Trade Mark after a third of the item names at others. I just want a say steamed salmon and mixed vegetables, not a Deadliest Catch(R) King-Kong(R) Krab Salad with Jack Daniels(TM) inspired BBQ Shrimp Munchies (TM).
I might recommend going to an antiques store or if not readily available finding on e-Bay a copy of a restaurant menu from the 1930s. Look at what people ate: Eggs, Pancakes, Tuna Sandwich, Coffee, etc. It was simply normal, ordinary food without the pretentiousness, hype or advertising. Plus, it probably was a menu from small home-town restaurant owned by a guy named Tom and his wife Gwen who “looked the part”. Not some gaudy throwback to a 50’s style diner that was more 1950s than it was in the 1950s and is owned by a Japanese hedge fund.
The sum of all these irritants, I finally had enough. As I said in a previous article, perhaps it is more honest of a living to make one’s own meals like a regular guy. It’s better in all respects to pay less for better living and in this case eating at home (which is tax free) as opposed to paying 9.1% tax on 20% service fees to benefit government bureaucracies. I still enjoy though a good cup of coffee, so I might indulge myself with that and an occasional croissant that was accidentally labeled as a quiche lorraine.
By Darren Smith
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