06 April, 2009

If I wanted meat, I'd ask for it

What is it about trying to order a non-meat item from a fast-food outlet that throws people for a loop?

Firstly a disclosure: I am not a vegetarian. Not yet. I'm working on it, but I'm not all the way there yet.
And before anyone, on either side of the fence, tries to call me a hypocrite, just shut up. I am well aware of the contradictions in my choices – I don't need anyone to point them out for me. I bet if we talked for half an hour, I could probably point out five fundamental contradictions in your personal moral code too, but I wouldn't hound you over it, so don't bother trying to tell me that it's impossible to live life without harming other creatures.

Another thing about vegetarianism is that it always seems to turn people into fundamentalists after a lifetime of moral relativism. Most people accept that you shouldn't drink too much, but sometimes they do anyway, and that you shouldn't eat fatty, salty food, but sometimes they do anyway, and that you shouldn't break the speed limit, but sometimes they're in a hurry, and that you shouldn't steal music off the internet, but sometimes they have a good reason. But mention that you're vegetarian – or even an aspiring vegetarian as I am – and they'll immediately try to hit you with reductio ad absurdum. “Don't plants feel pain too? How about flies? Do you kill insects? How about all the ants you step on? How about bacteria?”

How about you shut up?

For anyone who must know, I do avoid killing flies whenever possible – my colleague has chided me on occasion for my catch-and-release policy. I'm sure I step on lots of ants and other insects, but the point is that I try not to. In fact, that's the real put-down to anyone who suddenly turns into a moral absolutist at the mention of vegetarianism: just because you can't do everything, doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything.

As for bacteria, show me a bacterium that is self-aware and can cry in pain, then we'll talk. Although speaking of bacteria, it's funny how you never hear of anyone getting salmonella poisoning from a salad roll. It's always delicatessens and kebab shops. Go figure!

So just to be clear on the issue, yes, I can see the log in my eye and it's not better or worse than yours.

Now that we've defined our moral ground (to misquote the classics), I'll get to the main point of this essay which actually has nothing to do with vegetarianism at all.

So, I was asking why people have such a hard time understanding that you do not want meat with your order.

Last week, I was getting a late lunch at a Mexican place in the food court of one of those awful mega-malls. The menu said that the tacos were filled with “ground beef (or bean)” so I ordered a bean taco. The assistant followed up by asking me if I wanted beef in it.

I repeated, “No, bean.”

- So you don't want beef in it?

“No, the menu says, 'beef or bean,'”

- So no beef.

At this point, I played her game and said, “No beef.”

I'm aware that I could be accused of being a difficult customer, when I could have just gone along with her from the start and spelt out, “No beef.” But you see, I resent having to do other people's thinking for them. I don't mind it if I'm being paid for it, but I shouldn't have to do it when they're the ones being paid to serve me. I don't blame her checking once, but how clear to I have to be while ordering something that is a clear menu option?

It wasn't even the first time it had happened that week. I am partial to McDonalds' breakfast menu. (Again, don't lay into me about McDonald's being the evil empire and being responsible for so much meat consumption. They're not going out of business any time soon and people will never do the right thing if you don't give them the opportunity to. In fact, as fast food chains go, McDonald's is a leader in being more nutritionally responsible) I like to get an egg muffin without the meat. When I first started asking for just an egg muffin, I would often be asked if I still wanted the cheese with it. That's fair enough. So now I always ask for an egg and cheese muffin, no meat. Three quarters of staff members will take this in their stride but every so often, I'll strike one who needs to have it made plain to them.

“So you want a Bacon and Egg McMuffin without the bacon?”

If they try this on me, I will have no qualms about messing with their head and say,
“Well, you can make is a sausage and egg muffin without the sausage if you like, I don't care.”
And nine times out of ten, they will do exactly that, missing the joke entirely.

Now I know I could just play their game and ask for a bacon and egg muffin without the bacon, but why should I? If I want a short black coffee, I don't ask for a latte without the milk, I ask for a short black. What I want is a muffin with an egg and some cheese inside. Since there's no price difference between bacon & egg and sausage & egg, how you choose to put it through the system is none of my concern. You can call it a Big Mac for all I care. Use your initiative!

It makes me wonder if franchise culture is destroying independent thought and initiative in its staff right at the time when they should be encouraging it. I mean, these kids can instantly figure out that I'll save a dollar if I bundle the three items I've asked for as a 'meal' (and I deserve to since I'm saving them a major ingredient), but if I ask for a muffin with neither sausage nor bacon, then I have to tell some of them which button to press as well? There's something not right about that.

I had another example of this corporate drone mentality at Subway a while ago. I was refused a breakfast order because it was literally thirty seconds after they stopped serving breakfast menu items. (Never mind that it was before time when I entered the store). I told the kid, “I won't tell anyone if you don't,” and he sheepishly muttered that they got into trouble if they sold anything off the breakfast menu after 11am. This immediately tells us that staff are trained to please management over pleasing the customer, even though they ought to be one and the same. It's not as if Subway has to change things around between the breakfast and regular menus the way McDonald's do. I see no reason why Subway can't serve things off the breakfast menu at any time. I wonder if he got into trouble for losing a sale, because that's what happened.


  1. Hear hear! I once tried to order an egg McMuffin (yes, I am partial to their breakfasts too) and had to ask for a Bacon & Egg McMuffin with no bacon. After much haggling and careful enunciation, they gave me an English muffin. No bacon, which is what I asked, but nothing else either. Just the muffin. At least they wrapped it up and put in a bag for me.

  2. Good blog and an enjoyable read!

    McD's used to sell the Egg McMuffin in the UK (it was about 30p cheaper than the meat options), but they removed it from the menu so now you have to order the Sausage or Bacon McMuffin without the meat and, as a point of principle, I won't - because you're still paying for the meat and creating the demand, as false as it is.

    As for the breakfast menu thing - it brings to mind one of my favourite movies, "Falling Down". Perhaps the server at Subway ought to watch it and see where exactly he could drive people... ;)

  3. If the shop has an automated inventory system then which button to use has consequences. Every time they indicate sausage when none is actually consumed it leaves the shop with an unexplained surplus. The clerk might not have the option to indicate something off-menu. This isn't your concern as a customer but it could explain why the clerk isn't behaving as you'd like.

  4. You're absolutely right about the inventory. I bet a place like McDonald's, the can account for every last french fry. But as you say, it's not my problem. They can put it through the system any way they like, or whichever way their supervisors allow.