You know how some restaurant meals are more about the experience than the food? This was kind of like that.
Yesterday was 8/8, so between 8am and 8pm, Burger King restaurants in Southern California were offering their flagship Whopper sandwiches for 88 cents each. If I had eaten a Whopper since that college road trip to upstate New York, I didn’t remember it, and a regular priced Whopper ($3.29) seems steep for fast food. But at 88 cents, well, that’s a bargain, isn’t it?
That depends. For one thing, actually getting that 88 cent Whopper turned out to be a commitment. When I arrived at the Santa Monica Burger King at 5:03pm, there were about 15 people lined up on the sidewalk waiting to get in and probably another 15 inside waiting to order (they had wisely closed the drive-through). “This is bullsh*t!” complained a pregnant woman with stringy blond hair, a strung out look and a pink tank top, as she joined the line anyway. I guess some folks calculated that their time would be better spent saving $2.41 on a burger than, say, working. For me it was work. Proof: you’re reading this.
At 5:20pm, I reached the counter and ordered one Whopper for myself and another for the lady out front who had asked me for 60 cents (the smallest thing in my wallet was a $10 bill).
If the line to order had been long, the line to be served was even longer. I received receipt number 4, and number 54 had just been called. As I said: a commitment.
But waiting allowed time to observe a place I don’t normally get to see. According to Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation and widely repeated elsewhere, every day about one quarter of the US population eats fast food. At Burger King was a cross-section of LA: kids, grownups, every imaginable skin tone and hair type, dress shirts, t-shirts, board shorts, short shorts, flip-flops, work boots, loafers, sneakers, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and many who looked like they didn’t need any more Whoppers.
Which points to another downside of the low price: calories. California now requires chain restaurants to post them, and one Whopper packs 670. That sounds bad until you compare it to other sandwiches’ calorie counts. A Double Whopper has 900 calories, and the Tripple Whopper with cheese 1,230 calories. That’s over half the USDA’s recommended daily calorie intake for a moderately active 31-50 year old male; over two-thirds for the eqivalent female. An order of 8 BK Mini beef burgers contains 850 calories; 8 mini chicken burgers: a frightening 1,630.
Watching the burgers being assembled four to a batch through a small opening behind the counter, I found myself mesmerized like a second-grader on a school field trip. The burger slinger lay sheets of paper onto a stainless steel counter and set toasted bun halves on each. Mayonnaise was squeezed from a bottle onto the upper bun, and lettuce leaves and tomato slices were layered on top of that. Onto the bottom half of the bun he squeezed a neat circle of ketchup and topped it with four slices of pickle and a smattering of raw onion. Beef patties, steaming from a stainless steel box, were laid on top of the pickles. The tomato slices held back the lettuce as the upper bun was inverted onto the patty, and the whole thing was wrapped with assurance.
Despite the long wait, most everyone was cheerful (apart from the pregnant woman, who glowered at anyone looking in her general direction). Many were even sweet. People made friends in line, chatting as folks do at the DMV or the post office, with the shared satisfaction that they were getting a good deal. Two former strangers hugged goodbye as the first was served. Staff thanked each customer for waiting, and meant it.
At 5:53, 50 minutes after my arrival, I received my Whoppers. Sadly, the 60-cent lady was gone.
The Whopper tasted of distant memory. The airy bun was without heft, although the sesame seeds on top were a nice choice and I heartily endorse the toasty char. The mayonnaise: creamy and comforting and the ketchup took me back to childhood. The pickles, onion, lettuce and tomato: like I recently saw at a salad bar in suburban Chicago. The patty: nicely smoky because it’s supposedly flame broiled. In short, it tasted like America: hearty and familiar.
As fast food goes, I’m glad I tried it (and probably don’t need to again anytime soon). As sociology: sterling.