Captions: Scenes from the chain buffet last night.
Sometime in the early 1990s Ryan's came to town (and like most every other chain that tries to sink roots into my hometown they’ve since pulled up stakes – or in their case, steaks – and left). They arrived with much fanfare. To our hometown still nursing a hangover from too many shuttered factories and bolting businesses, the buffet-on-steroids concept was just what our city’s populace needed for a collective balm. I remember my grandma exclaiming
with child-like excitement: “you don’t need to order off the menu, you can just eat your whole meal from the salad bar, they even have chicken drumsticks!” It was as if somehow you were getting a deal, maybe gaming the system a little, by just eating off the salad bar. Of course the reality was that is precisely what the restaurant wanted. The $10 price tag (disclaimer: my wife gets on me for throwing around numbers like that without verifying so, no, I don’t know the exact price, but it was something like that...adjusted for inflation) wasn’t designed for them to lose money.
Buffets have boomed in recent years. There are pizza buffets, ethnic buffets (my favorite), casino buffets, and just general chain-restaurant trough buffets. The food is generally bland to appeal to the widest panorama of palates possible. But what used to be pure bliss for me is now tempered by my increasing germ paranoia. I now eye the sneeze guards warily. And did that guy just touch the bread end of the tongs with his hands? How long has that broccoli been sitting there steaming?
I miss the cafeteria concept. I remember my grandparents taking us to The Hot Shoppe (owned by the Marriott Corp) or the cafeteria chain, The Cambridge Inn, frequently. We’d dutifully push a tray down a line and choose our food from behind glass cases that a worker would dutifully and sometimes even happily plop onto our plate. But you have to pay workers to do that so restaurant economics gradually shifted to buffets. But I have an increasingly uncomfortable love-hate relationship with them. I love the idea of unlimited, copious quantities of all-I-can-eat food. I don’t like the idea of some guy messing with my bread tongs.
Of course, buffets aren’t the only cesspool of potential food contamination. I remember driving to visit Lovina once in Michigan with my friend Mark. We stopped at a chain gas station convenience store somewhere near Lima, Ohio with the usual array of soda machines and sandwiches. By the Slushee machine was a rotisserie slowly turning wieners for hungry customers, a staple of interstate highway food fare. An employee carried some wieners to the rotisserie in his arms from the back storage room only to clumsily drop them to the tile floor. In a flash, glancing furtively in each direction, he scooped them up off the floor and put them on the rotisserie. 5 second rule, I guess?
Which brings me back to yesterday. Every few years Rachel and I will get invited to the local chain buffet restaurant (there used to be at least three in my town, one still survives) for a family birthday or celebration. And every time I get a little more germophobic about it. What’s happened to me? I used to cruise through the line at Ryan’s in a state of carefree bliss. But yesterday I skipped the salad. There were dressing drippings, blue cheese mingling with Ranch…shredded cheese strewn about the bar like confetti. So I opted for some pasta salad instead, which looked okay to my eye but tasted like it was past its prime. My Dad’s roast beef was so rare that a vampire would have happily joined him for dinner. Yet, still I come back, lured by the irresistible temptation of endless plate piling.
By the way, I can tie this topic to the Amish. One of my favorite buffets in the whole world is Mrs. Yoder’s Restaurant in Mount Hope, Ohio. The buffet is clean and stocked with some more unusual offerings. The lettuce seems crisp and fresh and there is no blue cheese swimming with the Ranch. And the buffet is tended to under the watchful eye of Mrs. Yoder herself. I think when the owner herself is there, instead of some kid working for a distant corporate chain, that makes all the difference.
Despite my fear that I’m eating salmonella salad or e-coli casserole, I’m sure I’ll find myself back at the chain buffet again sometime. But I’ll stay away from the convenience store rotisserie in Lima.
Kevin, I will bet you are going to receive a lot of responses from folks that share your germaphobe with the buffets. following someone in line that must have been raised by wolves is such an appetite control. And I must say they do not always look the part which always amazes me. how can anyone take their personal grooming to such a degree and not think about who would want that thing they just tasted going back into the bowl of food.????????????????????????//
Jason A. Ciastko
Kevin, you are not the only one... I avoid buffets at all costs... Even when I've been invited to dinners at them I usually only drink coffee... Between "who's touched this", to "I just say that person come out of the bathroom and wasn't drying his hands", to i"s this food even at a safe temperature", I can't eat... That's not even counting the bland food and the wonder if the this is yesterdays food...
And we were only about a half hours drive away just last November - if only I'd known. Of course, we were already stuffed from eating at the brat buffet at Schmidt's in Columbus...
I must say that your post gave me a chuckle or two. Not to say it doesn't have legitimate concerns, my chuckle was the way you described things and my quirky sense of humor. I haven't been a big fan of buffets since learning over the years to not over eat every time there is a meal. I think buffets with all you can eat, are not our friend, let alone the concerns you brought up. After reading your comments, I will now be thinking about them from your point of view. They don't sound too appealing.
Kentucky Lady 717
LOL....I hope you reported the dropped hotdogs to the manager !!!!! This is nasty and uncalled for.....I will forever think of this
when I go in where they have these hotdogs.....I will stay away from them also..... what they need in ALL the fast food places ,buffets , etc is a sink outside the bathroom door, so you can see who washes their hands.....before I eat in any restaurant , after I handle the filthy menu's I take out my hand gel sanitizer and wash my hands.....and soon as I get back in
the car from being in any store, first thing I do is wash my hands....I keep a bottle of gel hand sanitizer in the car drink holder at all times.....12 mos. a yrs. 24/7......hate germs.......I am sure not a fan of buffets either......don't get me started on this subject , I
don't know when to stop :)...
Keven, ditto with regards to buffets. Another thing I do not like are open containers at supermarkets that people dip into with the handy dipper " at least most people do it that way " I have witnessed children with very snotty noses plunge their dirty little hands into the candy and such . On one occasion I witnessed this little guy around five or six, swishing his hands around in the rice,that was not exciting enough, he dropped his face in it came up and realizing a lot of it stayed in his mouth so he spit it back into the container. Mom was busy shopping and did not even look around to see where he was. I reported it to the customer service desk hopefully they did something about it. I wonder why the health department allows those dirty unprotected things. They are soo unsafe.