Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Economics of the Worst Meal I Ever Ate

(I'll be the first to tell you that this article is based on my very limited, subjective experience eating once at a single restaurant, and my theories on the economic and political implications of this one meal are total generalizations based on extremely limited evidence; evidence based on a sample size of 1. Nonetheless, there might be something to my theory. Read on.)
When I ordered the very worst meal I ever ate, I was on a lunch break from jury service. I had left the downtown LA courthouse and walked a couple of blocks in a random direction looking for a restaurant. I  walked into what turned out to be a grubby, nasty place and ordered a hot dog and what they called "homemade mac and cheese", basically a pile of inedible, greasy, flavorless, stringy slop. I try not to waste food, but I couldn't make it through this. It was definitely the most disgusting, seemingly half-assed meal I have ever seen prepared.
   Disregarding the possibility that I came into the restaurant on a very very bad day, how would such a substandard restaurant stay in business? I'll theorize with two words: Jury Duty. Think about it, every weekday, thousands of people coerced by the legal duty to perform jury service converge upon the courthouse, and they all need to eat. Like me, many of them will just walk down a block in a random direction, stop at the first restaurant they see, eat there, and possibly prop up the fortunes of a restaurant that would otherwise fail. But this is not simply a matter of an increased volume of foot traffic outside. If that were the case, restaurants next to all highly visited areas would have lesser quality food, but that is clearly not true. A restaurant next to, for example a large office building that the same workers go to every day, needs to maintain high standards to keep those same people coming back. But this restaurant next to the courthouse would get a different set of suckers almost every single day. So where is their incentive to improve? Nowhere. Each day the restaurant could survive by pumping out disgusting slop for a new set of unsuspecting people called in for jury duty; people who will probably not set foot on that same block unless one day they get called back for jury service at the same courthouse. Also, word-of-mouth is inhibited. What's the use of telling your friends and neighbors about a bad dining experience in a completely different neighborhood than they live in? And while bad restaurants near the courthouse would gain benefits from this lack of word-of-mouth, the good restaurants would be harmed by this.
   So, because of the (perhaps absolutely necessary and unavoidable) government coercion of people to come to courthouses, I am putting forth the theory, (arrogantly generalizing based on my own reasoning and the evidence of one bad experience) that many bad restaurants near courthouses in large urban areas probably get the benefit of a distortion of the market. The jurors are a captive audience, and have little power to move that "invisible hand" away from such nasty, disgusting restaurants.
   Or do they? Perhaps the internet will come to the rescue. On websites such as Yelp, that an increasing number of jurors will have access to on their smartphones, website users can blow the lid off of the nastiness of bad restaurants such as this one, and promote the good ones. This however, depends on how widespread smartphone based restaurant reviewing becomes. It all depends on whether or not more Americans become mobile-device-addicted, whining foodies (like me). And on a completely different topic: would that be such a good thing?
   Anyone else out there had any interesting juty duty lunchtime experiences, good or bad? I've got to get more evidence.


  1. Geography and urban planning seem to be paramount here. I've only had one jury duty experience in Brooklyn many years ago, and I cannot recall what I had for lunch there. However, the Kings County Courthouse is in Downtown Brooklyn, and a year or two before that, I'd worked in neighborhood and was familiar with it to know where to go to get a nosh during the break.

    The five boroughs of New York City are laid out in such a manner that everything is geographically self-contained, and this is even more so within Manhattan. This means that—with notable exceptions—you can take a walk into another neighborhood where there are cheaper/better things to eat, especially if you're familiar with the territory. Almost everything you need to live is concentrated within a small geographic area in most neighborhoods, so that within ten blocks in Manhattan, there is typically an upscale joint at which you can blow $100 on yourself for lunch, or a deli or bodega where you can grab a sandwich/slice/something and a soda for less than $10. As for the cheap places, the busiest place is the place where you'd rather go, esp. if you can determine if the "locals" are eating there.

    However, there are neighborhoods where this doesn't happen, where substandard places capitalize on geography and neighborhood ignorance. One of them is Midtown Manhattan and its adjacent neighborhoods, from about 34th all the way up to the Park. The whole area is a giant tourist attraction, with Times Square among the many sights. It's the one area that's difficult to leave within a reasonable amount of time on foot for another neighborhood, for you need to go at least ten blocks in either direction to reach another neighborhood, which isn't easy on a lunch break. I've had the misfortune of working in Rockefeller Center, at 50th St., where there is a cavernous, dystopian, underground mall with a number of places to eat, and where you can spend the entire day without seeing the sun. I can tell you that a cheap lunch either above or below ground is at least $15, and it won't be the nicest cheap lunch you've ever had. In fact, I've had some pretty nasty things at the salad bars in the bodegas around RC. Why? They take advantage of the fact that the entire neighborhood is swarming with tourists who don't know where else to go, who are tired from getting up to show their sign outside the Today Show, whose feet are sore from walking around Manhattan. The tourists don't necessarily know or care at that point of fatigue and hunger that they can hop on the train downtown to get a cheaper meal elsewhere. And these poor establishments assume that if you work in the neighborhood, that you must have the money to eat out and know where the better places to go are.

    After a month, I started bringing my lunch to work.

    Further to this, most of the newer cities in the western U.S. weren't planned with geographic economy in mind, resulting in massive urban sprawl. Getting to another neighborhood isn't easy at all, so you are stuck with what they give you if you're on foot and on a schedule.

    Good luck with your jury duty.

  2. Thanks for the input. This has helped confirm that I need to revise my theory to include touristy spots as well. Any place with a massive influx of people unfamiliar with the neighborhood would probably lead to the same problem.