Years ago I remember my marketing professor introducing us to this chap who, he told us, took some time to look closely at people and their buying habits. This was before they became known as consumers and before anyone had worked out why they consume. Abraham Maslow was his name and he came up with this Hierarchy of Needs concept, suggesting that as one need is satisfied, the next need then needs sorting out. Seems a reasonable sort of assumption, once you’ve got the basics taken care of, you’ll be wanting to top it off with something else, a little luxury maybe. But back in Abe’s time, no one had come up with the idea of the Chinese Buffet.
My children, their friends and everyone else, judging by how busy and how many of these places there are, can’t get enough of them. Here’s why. You pay to enter then proceed to eat and drink as much as you wish. We don’t go too often, weekends when we do, as they don’t open till 8.30 which puts us way past the children’s school day bedtimes. So if they’ve behaved well all week, they earn a late pass and can choose between a late night movie or a family binge out at the Buffet. After accidentally letting them watch ‘Saw V’ for a few minutes my 11 year old now has a comfort blanket and sleeps with the light on, so movie night has no appeal whatsoever anymore meaning the buffet option is the predictable winner.
Now not to come over all Ebenezer Scrooge like, I see this family event as a bit of a challenge, rather like at the BBQ’s the school throws during the summer months where my sole aim is to consume and drink the equivalent of that terms school fees, at the Chinese Buffet, it’s the families obligation to aim to eat the cost of entry. So if the entry is 20 Euros per person, a chicken and chips supper cooked at home would come to say 4 Euros meaning we’d need to eat 5 of them each and, to then get the value I’m expecting, we’d need to each eat one more. Obviously 5 chicken and chip suppers is a bit silly, where’s the variety, but you get the gist. Our Buffet of choice has a wide choice, from most things that live in the oceans, most edible land animals and every food group known to man. There’s a chef who’ll fry it, grill it, boil it or bake it any way you like. You can go Asian, Mediterranean, British and all styles and flavours in between. For refreshment you have beer on tap, with and without alcohol, the entire Coca Cola portfolio, a choice of hot drinks and of course water. For dessert you can go mad with all manner of cakes, buns, ice-cream and sprinkles, yoghurts, fruits and my favourite, spray on whipped cream!!
With dates known a few days in advance, if all goes well and my little ones don’t end up on the naughty step, we have time to starve ourselves in preparation to ensure the objective of eating as much as we possibly can is achieved. I can offer some timely advice at this point to those keen to follow, advice which if learnt the hard way, like me, only ends in disappointment. Do not start your fasting too early as you will end up taking a snack, that snack will be something like a few bars of chocolate with a tasty caramel filling, more than a few generous handfuls of peanuts and a family sized bag of cheese and onion crisps. Nope, peak too early and you will not be able to eat anything like your 5 chicken and chip suppers. The trick is to begin fasting just a couple of days before and ask your good lady to hide or lock away sweets, chocolates and snacks leaving just some fruit and vegetables to nibble on.
The Buffet owners are well aware that people of my type are numerous and their business model is designed to ensure me and a boatload of capable eaters do not strip their margins. One way they achieve this is to set up shop in the equivalent of a warehouse, fill it with more seating than a football stadium and decorate it in the cheapest ways possible. Ambiance is not a word that pops up in their business plan, dining and experience are also absent. But those words aren’t in my head at all either, “I could eat a horse” and “let me in, I am starving” are though.
We take our table and draw straws to see who gets to mind the coats and bags (oddly always me), then everyone makes a bee-line for their starter of choice. My daughter comes back with a bucket full of muscles, my son comes back with one plate of fries, a plate piled high with noodles, 5 spring roles a side of stacked gherkins and a pile of king prawns. I wipe away a tear I am that proud. My better half, never sticking to the programme and refusing to join in what she calls ‘silly’ returns with a bowl of salad. If the truth be known, she doesn’t really like this type of place, her argument being that any establishment that takes away your plate but leaves your knife and fork is just not right. She comes along to keep us in line and acts as the designated driver.
Round 1 very much goes in our favour I think. A total entry cost of 53 Euros and, by my rough calculations, we’ve munched our way through 21 Euros worth so far. My daughter goes freestyle for her next round mixing a selection of coated fruit slices from the chocolate fountain, a plate of king prawns, sliced ham and some fries. My son puts a lump to the back of my throat, returning with a few large steaks, chunks of garlic bread, more prawns, more fries, a burger and some hot chillies. The good lady opts for some salmon, grilled with lemon and some rice. But not to worry, even without her active participation we have all but covered our costs by the end of our 4th collective visit to the food counters. Drink has been a major contributor to our success as I believe I am on my tenth large beer by now and my selfies are starting to attract stares and ‘tuts’ from fellow diners.
Fellow diners, that’s a odd term. Males usually, carrying multiple plates stacked to overflowing with food. I once saw one who must have had an entire ribcage on his plate, a whole lobster on another plate balanced on top and above that a medley of octopus leg looking things, in his other hand he held two plates of stacked fries with a cheese burger perched on each. If I had a pen and if he had had a free hand, I would have shook it and got an autograph. It’s the males again who seem to be constantly pouring beer from the tap whilst the women tend to gravitate towards the water cooler and the lighter, healthier choices. I have seen some monstrous eating from some women for sure, but on the whole, it is the men who do the heavy lifting.
By the end of the evening, the end being decided by a now fed up and embarrassed wife who’s been kindly stacking our plates and cups (seriously, they don’t have glasses, just wax paper cups) really gives us a feel for our accomplishments that evening. “Dad,” says my son, “I don’t think that pile of plates would fit in our dishwasher’. I agree, there is at least two machine full loads there, not even counting the plates they had to take away to give us room.
In three short hours we have consumed our entire entry fee and then some. I am happy, the bargain hunter in me has succeeded. But the rise and rise of these places worries me. Not only will they overtake the Burger King’s of the world as a way of instantly feeding the children, they’ll add to our obesity crisis, the fishing grounds will be all but wiped out, more forests will fall to make way for more grazing land and my beer belly will cast a wider shadow until seeing my feet becomes a memory. We are no longer just satisfying a need then moving to the next, Maslow was wrong. We are exploiting our needs, they can never be satisfied, we don’t know when to stop. A sad thought that haunted me as I was helped into a standing position by some guests who knew the score all too well. Sure we had beaten the buffet, but the cost was high physically. I had eaten my body weight, had drunk a barrel, maybe more, standing was a struggle, moving near, impossible.
However there is a positive. With no need to eat at all for the next few days, we have saved a small fortune. There’s no reason for the weekly shop which means no need to fire up our dishwasher for a bit. Now, where did she hide the snacks..?