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Earlier this evening, my family spent our Friday night with a quick meal at an area big name fast food hamburger restaurant followed by a movie and as usually happens, when we arrived at the counter to order our food, the great cheese debate began.

I’m not sure when society woke up one day and decided that it was preordained that a burger must have cheese on it or that French fries were essential to a well-balanced meal but that seems to be the norm in fast food restaurants that we partake of now and then. It’s pretty much the same story in most of them….you pull up to the speaker, order a number meal (because if you order the meal by name, the system will break down because this requires the cashier to have to look for the button labeled with that item) and then try to order that number meal item without cheese on it or without fries and watch what happens. “I’d like a number 3 hamburger; plain with catsup/ketchup only” you begin and before you can finish your sentence, the cashier will interrupt you and say “you want cheese with that?” It wasn’t enough that you said “hamburger”, “plain” or that you said you wanted “catsup only”….they have to HEAR you say that you don’t want cheese before they will punch that order in. You see, cheese is the greatest tool that a restaurant has to increase profit because a piece of cheese that costs the restaurant maybe $0.10 per slice allows them to tack an extra $0.40 on your bill. Think about this….they make up to 400% profit on every slice of cheese they are able to peddle. This is what I think happened….

They met in a dark warehouse deep in the suburbs of Wisconsin. The heads of the five families were all represented….Burger King, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s….and they sat anxiously around a bright red, yellow and blue booth and waited for the arrival of the Big Cheese himself. When he entered the room, they all stood respectfully in the presence of Don LuCheesy, head of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. He was closely followed by his Consigliere, Tony Sargento and his bodygyard, Krafty MacInCheese. He looked them in the eye squarely and told them how things were going to be from now. “You’re gonna put cheese on everything” he said. “How are we going to get away with that?” one of them asked nervously. “We’re gonna make em a burger they can’t refuse” he answered. “You put it together with a large fry and a coke and we charge a set price. We’re all gonna get rich”….

Now don’t get me wrong…I have nothing in the world against cheese-in fact I have always loved cheese sandwiches, cheese on crackers, mac and cheese, etc…..just not on my hamburger. I like hamburgers because I like beef and that is what I want to taste when I bite into a burger-beef and a little bit of catsup. I don’t want any cheese messing up my burger, period. Be that as it may, if you go to a fast food restaurant and try to order something on the menu without it, there are bound to be problems.  Here are a few fast food facts about fast food”

Fact: Most restaurants will have entrees preprogrammed into the system with cheese. If you order something without the cheese on it, this is a “special order” and they have to take the cheese out of the equation by entering a random series of programming instructions to the cash register to take it off. Sometimes this will necessitate having to call in a manager with a key to come and override something in the register while a line of angry cheese lovers builds up behind you like plaque in your arteries. Good Thing: You will usually get a hot entrée freshly cooked because they didn’t draw from the pile of burgers already made and sitting under a heat lamp with their cheese turning brown. Bad Thing: You may catch them trying to pull the cheese off of an existing burger.

Fact: If you go into two of the three big hamburger restaurant chains, the menu will not even have a hamburger on it; rather, it will name the burger and usually say, in small letters, “with cheese” right next to it. The “Have it Your Way” restaurant hasn’t caught up yet but they are generally going to bring cheese up in the conversation over the speaker box at some point. I can imagine those big corporate training meetings with the regional managers, thousands of them in an auditorium, with the words “Push Cheese” up on the big screen while some psychiatrist lectures them on how to influence customers to add this to their burger.  If you want to use reverse psychology on them, the next time they ask you “do you want cheese on that?” ask them “do you expect money for the cheese?” They usually will head for cover on that one. If you really want to mess with their head, bring a slice yourself and ask them to put it on the burger for you.

Fact: If you go into the typical fast food restaurant and are not very hungry and all you want is a burger and a soft drink, they will try very hard to push the “meal plan” on you….you know, the one that adds the fries and an extra dollar to the overall price. Or let’s say you and your wife want the same sandwich but you want an order of fries and she doesn’t….then you try to work the system by ordering one “meal”, an extra sandwich and two drinks, which in an normal world would get you one order of French fries…but this isn’t normal world, is it? Try doing this and 9 times out of 10, they will try to punch in two meals because it is easier to do that. If you call them on it, a manager has to be summoned, reprogram the register, void the transaction and start over. If you decide to just let it go, then you end up with an extra order of fries that ends up in the garbage can while your dollar ends up in their coffers. Fast food restaurants today promote waste at the expense of a few more button strokes.

Fact: Things used to be easier. We had small, medium and large size everything. Sometime in the 1980’s, extra-large was added to the mix and subsequently, things got more confusing. Then small went away, leaving medium (the new small), large (the new medium) and extra-large (the new large). Then they added super-size, which meant that everything increased in size along the way. One of the big three decided to get cute and change the name of large to “biggie” which isn’t even a proper word. By doing this, they expect us not only to be ignorant of what we really want to order but they want us to sound like idiots when we do it. I steadfastly refused to ever give in to this misuse of language and never ordered the “biggie” or “extra-biggie”. Small medium and large work fine for me….and whatever you do, do not order water instead of a soft drink because you just killed nearly all their profit in one fell swoop. If you do order water, it doesn’t matter what size you ask for because they are going to give you the “free” cup, which is about the same size as the drink that comes with a kid’s meal. I didn’t work in the restaurant business very long but I do know where the profit centers are and soft drinks are it. Fortunately, we have never offered cheese on a barbecue sandwich. Your choice was sauce or no sauce and the price was the same.

I don’t see the situation ever getting better but there is one shining light of hope in the fast food restaurant business. Our very own, Atlanta-based chicken sandwich restaurant chain figured out a long time ago that the customer is always number one and they work tirelessly to keep their customers happy. They may have meal plans and they have different sized drinks but whatever YOU want is what you are going to get-no questions asked….and they manage to run it that way as efficiently as a Swiss watch keeps time. Any one of the big three burger chains could take lessons from this organization and if one of them ever does, they will dominate the industry. Until then, I’ll have a plain burger, hold the cheese.

09/24/10

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