Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How to Keep Americans From Overeating at Buffets

My dad loved a buffet.  There is a restaurant called The Oak near my hometown which serves a Sunday lunch buffet that my dad loved to frequent.  And while he loved to make fun of the people he saw gorging themselves at Golden Corral, you could often find him in line there, too.

But Brazil has figured out how to offer a buffet that discourages patrons from gluttonous indulgence. You have to pay by weight.  It's similar to the salad bars at Whole Foods, but the entire restaurant is based on this concept.

We recently went to one of these places in Natal, Brazil, called Mangai - pronounced Mon-guy.
When you enter the restaurant, an employee greets you at the door and hands each person in your group a blue card.  You find a table and sit down.  Then another employee comes over to take your drink orders.
(Actually, it wasn't quite that fast.  We had to wait for ten minutes for someone to come over and acknowledge us after we'd sat down.  I'm not sure why it took so long, but here's what I imagine must have happened.  The employee assigned to our table overhears our group speaking English while we are deciding where to sit.  This guy doesn't have enough confidence in his English skills to serve us, so he runs to the back to tell his colleagues about the gringos who just waltzed in the front door.  A brief argument about whose turn it is to deal with non-Portuguese speakers ensues, followed by drawing straws since even the guy with the best English doesn't want to try to decode our American attempts at ordering in Portuguese .  Once the lots are cast, the poor guy who drew the short straw shyly approaches us.  Well, at least that's what I imagine happened in the ten minutes it took for someone to come over to us.  But I digress.)
As we order our drinks, the short-straw-drawing server enters them into a hand-held device and then uses the device to swipe a white card.  He keeps my blue card and hands me the white one with our drink charges loaded on it.  (Knox is holding that one in the picture above.)
Then it's off to the buffet.  Everyone takes their card (blue for everyone but me) with them, grabs a plate, and starts looking at the options. Of course, since it's Brazil, the options are far different from Golden Corral. There tends to be far more seafood than on American buffets, and there are side dish options that we don't have as well.  Starches such as manioc and cassava sit beside the ubiquitous rice and beans.

Another difference here is that you find yourself being much more choosy since you know you have to pay for it all by the kilogram.  Rather than taking a full piece of Chicken in Mystery Sauce, you use the serving spoon to cut off just a small piece.  You think, "Do I really need French fries?" or "Do I really want to pay for the weight of cantaloupe (no) or fresh Brazilian pineapple (always, always yes)?"  Or, in the case of the picture below of "Goat Guts, Liver, and Blood," you decide to just pass altogether.  I'm so glad there were English descriptions below the Portuguese ones!

Once you've made your selections, you take your plate over to the guy beside the scales.  They have an empty plate just like the ones used at the beginning of the buffet.  They weight the empty plate (largely, I think, to show you that you're not being cheated), and then calibrate the scale based on that measurement.  Then they weigh your plate with the food on it.  Once the computer has calculated the charge, you hand over your card to be swiped.

This is not the payment step; the card simply records and holds the amount that you owe so that you can swipe it again later for seconds or dessert.

This guy clearly thinks I'm a nut case for taking pictures of the process.  You can see that my plate full of food was nearly half a kilo.

After your group has finished eating and no one wants to go back for more, you collect the cards from the group and go to the cashier in a separate room.  The cashier swipes all of the cards and totals up the charges.  When you have paid, each person in your group is given yet another card.  This one is to prove that you paid.  As you exit the restaurant, you give your new card to the doorman so that he knows you've visited the cashier and aren't trying to skip out without forking over your Reals (Brazilian currency, pronounced hay-eyes).

While the concept of paying for food by weight certainly helped me to be more mindful of what I took, this still isn't the type of place we could afford to eat often on our mission budget.  It did make for a nice treat a few times during our project, though, and our readers must feel the same way since we almost always saw someone we knew having lunch there.  

But what would it be like to start one of these places in the US?  Can you imagine the fit your average American buffet customer would throw about paying by weight?  I'm not talking about Whole Foods type people.  I mean Golden Corral people.  The ones whose kids put their fingers in the chocolate fountain.  They would not be fans, I think.

But for those of you who need a little economic incentive to tame your inner buffet beast, this may be the way to go!

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