Monday, June 6, 2011

Even the Best Buffets Breed Bad Bacteria

Buffets are bad for you. I know you may not want to admit it, but there’s something inherently wrong with a line of food that everyone eats and everyone interacts with. It wouldn’t be so bad if we were all neat freak germaphobe hand sanitizer junkies wearing surgical masks, but we’re not—in fact, most of us are actually pretty gross.

Nonetheless, there’s an interesting and unique culture that surrounds buffet buffs, and I’m sure there’s a lot more that I don’t understand. However, I’ve got a pretty good grasp on what’s going on here.

First of all, buffets exist for the purpose of convenience and frugality. It’s a win-win situation for everyone that doesn’t get sick, a symbiotic relationship between business and consumer. Create a relatively limited menu that everyone chooses from; now, rather than deal with the headache of taking orders, figuring out what everyone had, and billing, charge up front for the buffet and set them loose, allowing them to get whatever they want in any quantity.

There are two kinds of consumers that this largely appeals to: The thrifty, and those who like to eat a lot. Thrifty individuals flock to the ideas of a place where they can spend a set amount of food on each person in their family, and if they don’t like something, they can always try anything else at no extra charge. This works especially well in sushi buffets and other types of food where you may not understand what you’re ordering.

For people who like to eat a lot, the all-you-can-eat buffet is like heaven. Try everything. Get as much as you want of everything. Keep getting food until you can’t get any more food. Food food food food. That’s the theme. Some people see “All You Can Eat” as a challenge: Let’s see how much I can eat!

Then you’ve got people who fit into both categories, and this is where things start to get gross. Since there’s no time limit to most buffets, people will camp out all day. They’ve got a system worked out: Pay $9.99, eat as much as possible, then sit around reading for a little while; now go take a massive dump. Ready for round two? Repeat.

Indeed, whenever I’m in a buffet restaurant, there’s someone crapping in the bathroom at all times. Sometimes side-by-side dumping, even. Most disturbing is that it’s only the employees who are required by law to wash their hands after using the bathroom—and these people go back to interacting with your future food right afterward!

The problem with buffet is not that the food is low quality, although that’s sometimes the case. The problem is that there’s too many people handling your food.

Employees handling your food is rarely the problem. They usually do wash their hands as often as recommended, and much of the time they’re taking extra precautions: Gloves, hairnets, not working the line while sick, etc.

But let’s assume that there’s 100 people that go through the line before everything is replaced, and one of those people has E. coli on their hands. There are 24 items in the line, and the infected individual interacted with 8 of them.  Now 1/3 of the line is potentially contaminated for the dozens of people that goes behind that person.

Was it one of the professional buffet enthusiasts, straight from a bathroom break and ready for another round of still-free food? Was it a little kid with undeveloped hygiene skills? Was it one of the many people who might have sneezed into their own hand, scratched their nuts, or even just touched their unwashed hair?

Next thing you know, you’ve got food poisoning, as happened to my wife and I this weekend after a stop at a salad buffet in Kennesaw, Georgia. There were only four things we both ate: Iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, shredded cheese, and french onion soup. If it was the lettuce, then a whole lot of people got food poisoning this weekend. Unsurprisingly, lettuce is the first thing in line, and one of those things that everyone interacts with.

We got off easy; even though my wife’s pregnant, we didn’t end up in the emergency room like the poor saps that hit up the Golden Corral across the street in 2006. The salmonella outbreak that year sickened at least 22 people and was traced back to a drain in the kitchen floor. In this case, it was the restaurant’s fault, but the buffet serving style only exacerbated the risk. The infection was so potent that someone actually died from eating there.

By the way, if your food kills someone, it’s time to rethink your business model. The Golden Corral incident was not necessarily representative of the problem with buffets in general, but of course it’s a concern. It’s not usually the employees’ fault; if it was, I’d get food poisoning all the time. It’s not necessarily that the food quality is low, either. The problem is that lots of people with poor hygiene touch my food before I do.

The business model’s gotta change. Keep the all-you-can-eat; keep the long line protected by sneeze guards. Just have the employees put my food on my plate for me, and we’ll be better off.

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