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Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
The Iced Coffee-less Luncheon Buffet And Other Rules
ice coffee buffet

Depending on the rules, free coffee and free ice does not mean iced coffees are free


In the 1970 movie, Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson's character enters a diner and asks for wheat toast, which isn't on the menu.   So Nicholson proceeds to order a chicken salad sandwich, without the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and the chicken.   

A similar, though not quite so dramatic, incident happened to me a couple of months ago. My wife, I, and a friend were enjoying an upscale riverside luncheon buffet in Bangkok at an international brand name hotel, far from Nicholson's Denny's off Interstate 5 in Eugene, Oregon. The buffet included unlimited coffee, but when I asked for an iced coffee, I was informed iced coffees weren't included. Nicholson's waitress tried to kick him out of the restaurant for being smart and sarcastic.  I didn't get imperious.  I asked a different server for a hot coffee and a glass of ice, and when he was out of eyeshot, mixed them together myself.  

There are other tales of the same stripe.   A colleague of my wife's was in Singapore and visited a juice stand.    All the various types of fruits are on display, you select the varieties you want, and the attendant inserts them into a juicer.    Her colleague didn't want juice though. He wanted a fruit salad. The way it normally works, the more an item is processed, the more value is added and the higher its price. A fruit salad is costlier than the individual pieces of fruit, and a juice is costlier than a fruit salad. The colleague offered to pay the higher cost of a juice but receive a fruit salad instead. He was refused. The juice stand employee said his booth was only licensed to sell juices. 

I'd like to believe that if most of us were working at the Denny's Nicholson stopped at in 1970, and we were already serving toasted sandwiches, we would come to some arrangement with the customer and estimate what the markup on two pieces of bread would be and provide the customer with what he asked for.  If we were the server in the high end hotel, already serving free hot coffees and free ice, we wouldn't think twice about giving the patron an iced coffee. If we worked in the juice booth in Singapore, despite the nation's strict licensing laws, we'd probably honor the patron's request for a fruit salad since such requests would be so rare as not jeopardize the stand's status as a legally licensed juice stall. 

So if we'd like to think that most of us are accommodating, why didn't Nicholson get his toast for the cost of a chicken salad sandwich, my wife's colleague his fruit salad for the higher cost of a juice, and I my iced coffee with the ice pre-immersed?

The simple answer is rules. Dumb rules, but rules all the same. 

Nicholson's waitress pointed out a notation on the menu which read "no substitutions allowed." This is usually enforced strictly when the restaurant offers a special. Substituting something else could alter the restaurant's cost by a higher percentage than the restaurant wishes to bear.    Substitution prohibition is also employed to keep things simple.    When a restaurant produces an extremely popular item, say, an omelette with hash browns and strips of crispy bacon,  the turnaround is faster with less room for error when every plate has to be served the same way. 

Nicholson did ask for a substitution. He wanted tomatoes instead of potatoes on the side. If the cost of tomatoes in Oregon in 1970 were much higher than potatoes, you can understand the restaurant's position --    maybe.   The actual difference in cost between a diner portion of potatoes and tomatoes in 1970 was marginal, no more than 7 or 8 cents in 1970 money, but if you open the door to one substitution, where do you stop, right? Nicholson's request for toast, however, was not a substitution.    Toasted bread is a constituent ingredient in a chicken salad sandwich. He was still ordering the chicken salad sandwich and willing to pay its full cost, but telling them to omit everything but the bread. If you were a restaurateur with patrons offering to pay full price to receive just a fraction of a dish's ingredients prepared in a fraction the time, who are you to argue with higher profit margins?

After I finagled my own iced coffee by ordering the coffee and ice separately, I asked my companions why they thought iced coffees weren't 'allowed' at the luncheon buffet. My friend suggested the open door theory I cited above, that if you permitted one type of iced coffee beverage, where did it end? People could then ask for caramel macchiatos and frappes and other such exotic beverages that take more time and cost more to prepare.    His explanation sounded reasonable at first but just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. I've been to other buffets which did serve iced coffees and also lemonades and iced teas.    This had not opened the door for customers to demand more complicated selections. You got your iced beverage, simply prepared, with a side order of simple syrup to sweeten as you liked.   Easy.    Customer satisfied.

No. It was rules again, and no one wants to be on the hook for breaking them.    Nicholson gave his waitress an out. "Give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich," he barks, "And you haven't broken any rules."  I find it difficult to believe any international five-star hotel would go out of its way to forbid iced coffees at a buffet.   At my buffet, hot coffee and tea were included. The server just could not discern that the iced versions are essentially the same core offering with ice cubes dropped in. Seems difficult to believe when on coffee shop menus everywhere, a coffee variation is listed as a single item but with a column of prices that differentiate by size and whether the coffee is served hot or iced.   

In a police state like Singapore, where not flushing a public toilet can result in a public caning and selling non-medicated chewing gum is against the law, it should not be a real shock that a follow-the-rules-at-all-cost juice stall worker wouldn't dare sell a patron raw fruit for the higher price. But are most of us really all that different?   There's an old tale about how a new bride models her mother's behavior when it comes to cooking a roast by always cutting off the ends before putting the meat in the oven. Her husband asks her why she does that when the ends are the best part. When the mother is queried, she points to her own mother.    Finally, the grandmother is interrogated – and her answer? "Because, otherwise, the roast wouldn't fit in the small ovens we had back then!" 

We do things the way we do them because this is the way we are shown. Few of us ever question if this way is the optimal one.    The way we were taught, we reason, is the right way because someone with supposedly more authority or experience showed us how to do it.    Or pronounced a rule into a law that we in the collective accept as legitimate.     You need only go to a site like DumbLaws.com to read about some of the most idiotic rules governments have made legally enforceable.    Some of the laws may have made some sense at the time they were promulgated and now no longer do; others never made sense to begin with but were accepted nonetheless because authorities are expected to know better.   

Back when I was in college and attended lectures, I noticed that nearly all the students dutifully wrote down every single word the professor said or etched onto the blackboard. After a couple of classes, I got a feel for how much of the professor's content was borrowed from our required text book reading. Usually, this figure was over 95%, so I couldn't figure out why everyone bothered to frantically write everything down.    I know now.    People wrote it all down because they were told to, not specifically by the professor, but by their parents and all the teachers they'd had in the more than decade of schooling up to that point.    Few people ever ask WHY you write it down.    Today, there is research to suggest that writing things down aids in the learning process and that writing by hand is superior to typing your lecture notes directly into a laptop or tablet.   I doubt many of my college peers knew that back then, and if they did, why it was such a necessity to hectically copy the professor's words into their notebooks on the spot rather than doing so directly from the textbook in the comfort of the library or their dormitory rooms. 

If you can spot the rationale behind a rule then that obviates the need to print a list of things which can and cannot be done or provided.    At my luncheon buffet, the general rule could have been "Cold beverages are not included in the buffet." As iced coffees fall under that banner, they would not be offered.    But that presumes rules must have some rationale, which is probably presuming way too much.   A New York State couple, for instance, cannot end their marriage for irreconcilable differences unless they both agree to it.  Recently, I purchased some 5-gallon water jug vouchers from a water delivery company. A coupon book of twelve amounts to $2.23/bottle.    If you decide to buy less coupons up front, just 10, you pay slightly less -- $2.17/bottle.   Buy less, pay less per unit. An interesting concept which completely destroys the concept of wholesale. 

The U.S. Federal Tax Code is a huge collection of rules not filled with a commensurate amount of rationale.    You would think – and incorrectly – that any tax code would be brief and simple, that anyone with a sixth grade education could make sense of it. Wishing does not make it so. The U.S. code grew from 16,500 pages in 1969, itself a formidable amount, to almost 74,000 pages in 2013.

The tax code is intentionally not simple, though it is sensible in a way that Nicholson's diner and my 5-star luncheon buffet were not.   The tax code expands faster than a sumo wrestler's waist line in order to accommodate esoteric loopholes which may only apply to a dozen people in the entire nation. These additional pages are added by legislators lobbied by people working directly for the elite few for whom that loophole applies. 

There is a well known adage that rules are made for the many, not for the few. That almost certainly wouldn't apply to the U.S. tax code.    And yet if it is true most of the time, why is that the rules don't seem to be logical for the many for whom these rules apply?   

Likely because we're a rule abiding society at heart. The many like having their boundaries drawn for them, even if those boundaries don't always make sense.    A rule is considered some sacred stamp we attribute sensibility to merely because it's official.   We're conditioned to believe that the rule is there for our benefit, even if we don't know why.   On the other hand, if the majority of us were skeptical of authority, the only rules we'd be willing to accept are the ones that ALWAYS made sense. 

Ever since I've lived in Thailand, I stopped incessantly dissecting the why's of different rules because there were just too many that would never make any sense to me.    Before I got married, my (future) wife and I had to pay to have affidavits from our embassies and other documents translated into Thai. That made perfect sense.   Thai is the official language of Thailand and all government offices require documentation in Thai.   Later, when I took my Thai marriage license to a Thai Embassy in Korea for the purpose of securing a long term resident visa, I had to have this marriage license translated into English!   There are rules like not being able to go out in public without underwear or drive a car without a shirt on, but given the hot and humid weather here, maybe this is sound advice.   

Henry David Thoreau, the American poet and philosopher, said that "any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it," and he's right. It's in our DNA to try to shape circumstances the way we see fit and encode them in a rulebook others must follow. Does this mean most rules are stupid or that stupid people just make up most of the rules?   I won't waste my energy thinking about it as long as I'm served a free iced coffee with my lunch. 

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