While negotiating a catering deal for a big event yesterday, I heard the customer say something that made me want to get up and hug her! No, it was nothing about my utter handsomeness (?!), something much more sensible than that. She said our sandwiches are waaaay big for one person and we should be serving only half sandwiches at the event! Despite our collective derriers expanding at an alarming rate, we all continue to chomp down ever-increasing quantities of food – healthy or not! The junk foods, sedentary lifestyles etc are all-time favorite whipping boys, but what about the sheer quantity that we eat?! And nobody tells that to us, including our nagging mothers. Bah!! At our home, the conversation about the quantity of food I ate usually went as follows:
“Whoa, whoa, mom, go easy on the chappatis, please remove this latest hill of chappatis from my plate! I am full!”
“What? You hardly ever ate anything… a growing boy like you needs to eat more. A few chappatis are nothing!”
“Mom, I already ate 7-8 of them”
“Shhhhhsh! How many times have I told you not to count them? That reduces appetite!”
And you know what? Mom was right. Our appetite seems to be ever-increasing as nobody’s counting how much we eat! But WHY do we over-eat? In a table-breaking, plate-busting, goblet-shattering article on the issues around Serving Up Smaller Restaurant Portions, the researchers found it’s inconclusive whether it might work! Awww… that’s very very dish-appointing you poo-ul leash-ul-shulsh! We ekshpekt kwik kan-kloo-shunsh! But the leashulsh.. I mean research infers seven important points:
- People are swayed by visual clues: if something looks like a single portion, they think it IS a single portion and try to eat it all by themselves! The researcher puts it as: people will eat everything you present unless they know that plates, forks, napkins, tables, salt-shakers, waiters and other guests are not edible. Thankfully most people do!
- People are programmed NOT to waste food, so bigger portions get eaten up even beyond their gastric capacity. Apparently even at middle ages, people imagine mom’s kunckle-bonk on the head if they wasted food in a plate, even though no mom is around, theirs or anyone else’s for that matter!
- Large variety makes people eat more. Young people are more prone to this. For example, when I graduated from a boys-only highschool and went to a co-ed college, the large variety of beautiful girls obviously made me extremely hungry as evinced by my stomach churning up into big knots. I don’t really know why this is an apt analogy, if anyone finds it apt, please let me know, you’d be my hero of weirdness.
- People think of ‘Healthy Food’ as a monstrously oxymoronic absurdity. Whenever any restaurant says this, they magically hear it as ‘Healthy Cardboard’ or ‘Healthy Dog Food’ or something. They then clear away from it in search of ‘Sinful Food’
- People often trust their environment more than their intelligence, often thinking a Maid in Manhattan would be more gorgeous than a Dame from Dharavi (a big Indian slum). The article makes the same point in a much less colorful way: people estimate even margarine-dipped blob of cheese in a Subway to be healthier than a shrivel of lettuce at a McDonalds!
- Restaurants hate smaller portions because that means less revenue (really?!). Waiters hate smaller portions cause that means proportionately less tip.
- People rationalize splurging on desserts or over-stuffing themselves as a way to compensate an otherwise healthy meal. This is equivalent to ‘hanging out with the guys’ every weeknight to compensate for a weekend with wife, which is a problem. You do that two weeks in a row and the wife is sure to hang you out the third!
So it seems like a gerbil’s spiral: people are offered bigger and broader selections which makes people order more and finish it all and demand more which results into more supersizing of offerings which people gulp down with even more gustatory gusto and so they are offered more….
“But Pray Why”, you’re sure to ask, “would people be offered such wider and bigger selections in the first place?”.
And to that, my first reaction is: Good God, you seem like a fairly nosey, sherlock holmesy character, to be asking questions in such archaic english!
And my second reaction is this: People are offered such big portions because it’s much more profitable for the restaurants! Anyone with a basic highschool education can understand that if you sell something profitably, then you sell more of it even more profitably! And especially if you sell all that more stuff to the same guy, he soon becomes a golden-egg-laying-goose! The only exception to this basic understanding is those that graduated from my highschool, where the official motto read ‘Walk the Talk’ and the unofficially practiced version said “We’ll break your leg if you talked in class”.
As with many obnoxious things in the food industry, the ‘supersizing’ trend seems to have started with the fast-food restaurant industry. In his category-creating retail discipline, Paco Underhill mentions research in his phenomenal book “Why we buy” that when prompted with a seemingly friendly question such as “do you want to supersize that?” at a fast-food counter, almost 50% of the people blurt out a salivating ‘yes’ like headless chicken they’re about to consume! Imagine that! 50%! That means if the guy in front of you at a fast-food restaurant refused the supersizing offer, you MUST take it! That’s what statistics forces you to do. No, of course I am kidding. But the point is that a big number of people, who had NOT asked for supersized food at the counter, suddenly change their mind and willingly pay more (both in monetary and health terms), just because an acne-scarred youth at the counter asked them to! How bizarre can that be? And what about that ubiquitous quest of all fast-food patrons: the Combo Meal? Combo Meals are insanely profitable for the restaurants for two reasons. The first is simply that you sell more and that ‘more’ is the lowest cost things: sodas, fries etc. The second reason is also economic and the real reason behind the emergence of Combo Meals in the first place: Counter Efficiency! Fast food restaurants became very popular but soon realized that long lines started forming at the counters because people would crawl up to the counter and then just keep staring at the menu board, trying to make up their mind, wasting eons of time:
“May I help you?”
“Ahh.. yes.. lemme see… am gonna haave… a whopper… no, make it a quarter pounder…. no wait… Honey, what did I eat last time?”
“You ate 4 quarter pounders and slept snoring like a slug, driving me so mad that I felt like grilling you… you were reeking of beef patties anyways… Johnny, do NOT shove those french fries up your nose…”
“Sir, may I help you?”
“Ahh… lemme see…………………”
To avoid such nincompoops from jamming the counters, the fast-food restaurants devised a clever solution: the Combo Meal! Now you could just sleepwalk into the restaurant, choose a numbered-meal, step aside, get poked in the groin by some little devil of a kid playing with his action-hero toy that came with his kiddie burger, get a tray full of your meal pushed into your hand in the name of ‘service’, overstuff yourself, and sleepwalk back to your car, which could have now run entirely on biogas after that mean meal you ate! And it was even more important at drive-thru lines, as evidenced by McDonald’s first commercial in 1985 when they introduced the Combo Meal:
And soon, everyone else followed suit and we started punishing those restaurants who didn’t supersize or offer combos and before you knew it, the whole thing just went out of hand… and pants… and blouses… and… It became such a pervasive problem that calling people ‘fat’ failed to describe their humongous ultra-lobular fleshiness and that’s how the word ‘Obese’ became popular! In a perverse sense, the more benign ‘fat’ has become politically incorrect and the more insidious ‘Obese’ has gained political currency! Nobody cares about political correctness if it screws up the happiness of only a handful people. Like all things political, even correctness needs a critical voting mass! And the voting mass is now so obese that it lives up to the word ‘mass’.
But what should the restaurants do if people are hooked on to big portions and why? The ‘why’ is easy to address: Restaurants are some of the biggest links in the food chain. Americans spend almost 50% of their food expenses at restaurants, way more than the entire GDP of Switzerland! And if you thought it’s a uniquely American problem, think again! Average urban Indians in the metros take almost 8 meals a month in restaurants! We’re not the homeboys anymore eating mostly wholesome home-cooked food as we like to claim, are we?!
But the ‘what’ (as in what should restaurants do to help tackle obesity) is a hard problem! Should we start admonishing people for devouring more? (“Good God Mr. Paranjape, you’re eating with the grace of a hungry hyena! Have some mercy on the food, or at least the bowl!”) Should we price them high so people would eat less? Should we serve smaller portions and give people an option?
At Grubshup, we have been sensitive to this issue since our inception. Not just driven by obesity but also by the environmental impact of food production and wastage. Americans waste enough food that the energy wasted in producing it (almost 350M barrels of oil!) is more than the total annual energy needs of Switzerland. I have no idea why all researchers use Switzerland for all such comparisons where Switzerland is often portrayed as ‘puny’. The Swiss must be feeling pretty inconsequential by now! We have been obsessive about preventing food wastage, sometimes at the cost of delay in cooking (means irate customers!). On the portion size, all our a la carte servings have been about 100gm each and priced accordingly. That’s generally sufficient for an average one-time hunger, especially coupled with a couple of parathas or rotis etc and costs about Rs. 100 including the breads. We serve them in an appropriately sized bowl but the first-timers often complain, just based on visual cues, that it’s insufficient. We politely ask them to finish it and see if they are satiated and most people are. That way, they also get to taste more variety. You can always order more, can’t you? And on a unit weight basis, we’re cheaper compared to most other restaurants in our category. When we gave people the option to order ‘Half’ of a sandwich, we got tremendous response. Today, almost 50% of our sandwich orders are for half portions! Our smaller portions also waste very little food. In giving people more control over the portion sizes, we have definitely observed that people eat what they need and waste little. It means less revenue for us but hey, in this fight against obesity, threats to energy and food security, every bit of food saved is a weapon, as they used to preach during the world war. We’re proud of our ways and the fact that our customers support us. And that’s one delight we will happily offer to ‘Supersize’!