Have it your way

This morning I was asked what take-out restaurant I would prefer to order from for a lunch meeting today.  One of the choices was a well-known franchise that a few years back created one of my all-time favorite salads.  But the last time I went there with a friend for lunch, they had revamped the menu.  My favorite salad had been cut from the lineup–and as luck would have it, so had my favorite appetizer.  The server apologized, telling me it was a decision handed down by corporate.  She had no idea why.

For a few weeks after that, in casual conversation, I’d occasionally air my grievance.  People would respond with polite sympathy, or even, “No, really?  I love that salad!”   Not exactly a full protest movement, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to be annoyed all by myself.

I had forgotten about it until this morning.  And now that I remember my annoyance, I realize there’s something I need to tell myself:

Dude, get a life.

I am a middle-class American, born and bred, trained to expect endless consumer choice as something closer to an inalienable right than a privilege.  For example, I wouldn’t shop at a store that sold only one brand of toothpaste, even if it was one that I would use.  Not only would I avoid shopping there, I’d wonder what planet they were from.

Restaurants are ubiquitous symbols of a life of choosing between options, indeed, of choice as a good in its own right.  True, some eateries offer only a limited but almost iconic selection: Cinnabon, for example, doesn’t need to sell much else to survive.  But most restaurants thrive on giving customers a more varied menu.  To not do so would be fatal.

I’ve had a waiter hand me a menu and respectfully keep his distance while I decided between the many offerings.  When he returned, I placed my order, with the hope of discovering a new favorite.  Here’s my memory of the conversation that followed:

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have that tonight.”

“Well, okay, then,” I said, surprised and disappointed.  I looked at the menu again and pointed.  “I guess I’ll have this instead.”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have that either.”

I could see where this was going.  “All right, then,” I said with a sigh, “what do you have?”

It was his turn to lean over the menu and point.  “We have this,” he said, then added proudly, “and this.”

I don’t remember what I ordered.  But I do remember that the restaurant went out of business not long after.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought the menu should have more than two choices.

But the truth is I don’t just want many choices, nor choice for its own sake–I want particular choices.  Going back to my original lunch dilemma, I wasn’t peeved because a restaurant cut some salads from its menu.  That’s their business.  I was peeved because they cut my salad.  Mine.  It feels like the breach of an unwritten contract.  You entice me to try your restaurant.  If I find I like something, I’ll continue to eat at your establishment.  But I’m not just paying for nourishment–I’m paying for repeatable experience.  Even if I don’t always order the same thing, I want to know that I can.  And if I do order the same thing, from you or from a sister franchise in another city, I expect it to taste the same.

In that way, restaurants offer us something we want more of in other arenas as well: predictability, a sense of control.  If I’m invited for the very first time to Aunt Minnie’s house for a spaghetti dinner, I don’t necessarily expect hers to taste like the one at my favorite Italian restaurant.  But even if Aunt Minnie is the nicest person in the world, what if she’s one of the few people who have the raw culinary talent to mess up spaghetti?  And if she is, chances are I’ll be back in that Italian restaurant within the week, just to remind myself of what spaghetti’s supposed to taste like.

Here’s the point.  I am thoroughly steeped in the values of consumer culture, of a life filled with variety, choice, and the predictability of repeatable experience.  It makes me wonder how much I take for granted the privilege of even having choices, when people of fewer resources often have their choices thrust upon them.  And if I expect more and more of life to be as I choose, will I be less and less able to receive life as it comes?

Put differently: God’s people are to be a grateful people.  But it’s hard to be grateful when you’re expecting a better menu.