The Pizza Choice Game


Copyright 2003 by Sarah H. Leslie

It is 7 o’clock in the evening and your stomach is rumbling. You walk into the neighborhood pizzeria with your wife and a group of friends, hungrily anticipating a hot cheesy crust slathered in tomato sauce and your favorite toppings. As you sit down to order, wonderful smells drift out of the kitchen to your nose. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice a few irregular things about the restaurant, but you ignore them for the moment.

As you are seated the waiter comes by to offer you drinks. “I’ll have a cola,” says one friend. “I’ll have a lemon-lime,” says another. The waiter gives everyone at the table a funny little smile and says very precisely, “We only have water.”

“Oh,” says your friend at the head of the table, with a perplexed look. The waiter leaves abruptly and there is no chance to ask him why. Now you look around the restaurant and notice that on every table there is only water. Then you glance down at the menu with its enticing descriptions, and your stomach starts growling again.

When the waiter comes back with the water, he very carefully sets each glass on the table specifically aligned with each customer’s right shoulder. One of your friends attempts to move the water glass over to his left side, since he is left-handed. The waiter quickly reaches across the table, and moves the glass back, with a condescending expression on his face as if he were tolerating a small child’s antics.

The waiter then asks for each person’s order. He doesn’t pull out a notebook, so you hope that he has a good memory. Fred, on the right, asks for a dish of cavatelli smothered in sausage and onions. Shari, next to him, orders a small deep dish cheese pizza for one. Barbara and her husband Tim order a medium vegetarian pizza on a chewy crust. Smith orders a pepperoni calzone and his wife Susan orders a salad with cheese, ham and olives. You and your wife agree to share a deluxe medium pizza with everything but anchovies. You are hungry!

While you are waiting for your order, you overhear some animated conversation and commotion from other tables in the room. It appears that several waiters are conducting some sort of group activity at other tables, and at first you think somebody has a birthday. But then you notice that one woman is actually crying. The others at her table are pressuring her to be quiet and stop crying. But she abruptly stands up and begins to march out of the restaurant. The hostess rushes over to insert herself in front of the door and begins to plead with the lady. “You cannot leave here. It would hurt our rating. Every customer must be satisfied. Every customer must be happy. Please go back and eat your meal.”

Just then your attention shifts to another table where a man stands up and begins to shake a finger at one of his children sitting at the table. “You will eat what I say!” he commands loudly. The waiter grabs his arm and gently forces him to sit down. “We can work this out peacefully,” he says in a quiet, pleasant voice, smiling playfully at the three children. The preteen girl fakes a retching noise by sticking her finger down her throat and the preschooler is scowling. The waiter then walks around the table, coaching each child over and over again until they eek out a half-grimace, half-smile.

Your dinner companions seem oblivious to this activity as they are engaged in a vigorous discussion about the recent federal restaurant law. Fred is convinced that food quality will improve with added accountability measures. “Look how many people have died of listeria!” he exclaims. His wife Shari nods in agreement, “And look how many cockroaches they have found in the back rooms! I for one am glad they now have stricter sanitation standards.”

Tim proudly announces that Barb’s uncle sits on the new national accreditation board. “Her uncle says they have oversight over every single facet of restaurant operation, including waiter and waitress training, food service criteria, customer satisfaction, quality control, and supply and demand,” he brags. “Now we can be assured of a consistent, high quality product throughout our food service industry.”

Smith’s wife Susan jumps into the conversation to relate a recent editorial in the newspaper which decried the lack of responsibility people have shown nowadays towards eating wholesome foods. The impact on the insurance industry will be severe unless steps towards implementing a healthy diet are put into effect immediately. Smith pats his belly and chortles, “I’m just glad I can contribute to healthy outcomes tonight.”

Just then the waiter arrives, balancing a large tray on one hand. You note that a waitress comes with him, acting as if she is making minute observations of his behavior and recording them in a little hand-held computer. She stands by to observe your waiter’s performance as he flawlessly executes a rapid placement of orders. With a sheepish grin, your waiter mumbles, “Don’t mind her, I am undergoing retraining.”

Smith blurts out, “Well, then you’d better start by taking this tray back to the kitchen, because you got everyone’s order wrong!”

The waiter looks perplexed for a moment, glancing nervously at the waitress evaluating his performance. “This is your order,” he says with a saccharine smile. “Everybody ordered what they wanted.” He pauses briefly for effect, and then continues, “Everybody receives what is best for the community. Tonight it was determined that the best value is a small anchovy and sausage pizza.”

Fred begins to protest. “But I ordered cavatelli,” he sputters. “Of course you did,” says our waiter with great positive inflection, glancing furtively to his right where the waitress is punching buttons on the palm pilot. He holds his hands together and begins to recite in a lilting voice, “We all want good choices. Why, I even want better choices. Tonight everyone will get the best choice, the optimal choice for their group. That is why this was your choice tonight. Everyone must exhibit happiness with this choice….” His voice trails off. His eyes twitch over to his right again and he resumes his charge. “My choice for you is for your best. My best depends upon your best. You really must agree to accept this very best choice for your meal tonight. Then I will be happy, the restaurant will be happy and we will meet our outcomes.”

At this point, the waiter throws out his arms as if to embrace the whole group, taking a deep breath. It is obvious that this little speech has been very taxing. The waitress continues to punch buttons. But you notice that she is also looking around the table, carefully analyzing each person. Barb tentatively begins to speak, “I don’t think you fully understand. My husband and I are vegetarians. We cannot eat meat because it would violate our beliefs.”

The waiter gets excited. “Yes!” he exclaims. “That is exactly what many people believe. And, of course, we all know that they have a right to believe anything they want to believe. But, it is not in the best interests of the common good for each person to practice their individual beliefs. It might cause disharmony and disunity.” The waiter pauses to inhale deeply again, obviously invigorated by the challenge. “Therefore, your table will have to agree that it is in the best interests of your team to eat anchovy pizzas tonight. Another night -- why, the choice might be vegetarian pizza. Then you can come back and all enjoy vegetarian pizzas together.” He glances off to his right with a big, genuine smile on his face. He knows he is performing well.

In the meantime, however, you notice that the waitress is furiously punching buttons while Fred and Barb are talking. Reluctantly, you speak up, “Just what are you recording?” you ask the waitress in your most forced, pleasant voice.

“I am evaluating each customer’s performance according to the set criteria,” she says matter-of-factly. Then, as if reciting something by rote, she drones, “Each customer shall exhibit happiness with their order. Each customer will exhibit positive food satisfaction. Each customer shall express full and complete dietary compliance with the established mandate.” She pauses and glances knowingly at the waiter, then back to you. “As you may know, your individual and group rating will affect your waiter’s rating, which will affect this restaurant’s rating. As group trainer, I am here to ensure positive performance reviews for all. So far, none from this group has correctly responded to the menu assessment.”

“What?!” you ask, incredulously.

“There is only one acceptable response to the menu,” she answers, in a patronizing tone of voice. “You are evaluated according to the established menu selection standards.”

By this time Barb is cowering in her chair, and her husband Tim’s arm is around her. “We simply can’t eat anchovies and sausage,” she begs. Tim nods in agreement.

The waiter uses this opportunity to begin coaching the rest of the group. “You can see the importance of this,” he said to Fred and Shari. “And you two,” he looked at Smith and Susan, “don’t want any negative markings on your records, now do you?”

Susan gets a look of dismay on her face. “I am allergic to wheat,” she says blandly. I can’t eat this,” pointing to the anchovy and sausage pizza in front of her.

“Yes, we know,” interjects the waitress.

Susan’s eyes suddenly get wide. “How do you know?”

“Oh, it is all on your record.” states the waitress in that matter-of-fact tone again.

“Of course,” agrees the waiter in a velvet voice. “This all goes on your records. It is best if you can exhibit the most positive outcomes for this assessment, but in the event that there is trouble, of course we’ll have to make a notation” He darts a knowing glance towards the waitress with the computer.

Susan then explodes, “Well, I can’t eat this or I’ll get violently ill.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” says the waiter patiently. “But for the common good, for your team….”

Fred interrupts. “Well, I for one, am not going to have a reduction in food quality because of YOU, Barb! Or YOU, Tim! Or YOU, Susan! You three had just better join with the flow here and eat what is set in front of you.” He grabs a fork and jabs furiously at his anchovies.

The waiter is obviously very pleased. “Of course, of course,” he smiles. He is standing behind Susan and pats her patronizingly on the shoulders. “You wouldn’t want to cause any divisions, now, would you? We just can’t tolerate extremists. This just isn’t acceptable.”

Across the table Barb stands up, and then Tim. “I guess we just won’t eat tonight then,” she says sadly. Susan remains seated, with her eyes downcast and her hands folded in her lap.

“Wait!” exclaims the waiter, rather alarmed. He rushes over to force them back into their chairs. “You can’t choose that option! That isn’t one of the choices! You have to eat what is set in front of you.” He then leans down close to the table and begins to whisper, “I don’t like anchovy pizza either!” With that admission, he begins looking anxiously from face to face. “Now I can make a few allowances, and go back to the kitchen to get a blue plate for your pizza and substitute it for the white plate. Or, I could put a parsley garnish on the side.” There is another pause for dramatic effect. “I could even let you order extra cheese if you would like. But, of course, everyone would have to have that, too, and it does cost extra.”

“You don’t get it,” Tim sighs deeply. “Barb and I cannot violate our consciences by eating meat.”

“Well, then, pick it off!” said Shari in a disgusted tone of voice, for the first time entering the conversation. She has already eaten half of her pizza.

“We have philosophical objections to eating anything even contaminated with meat,” explains Tim with a very pained expression.

The waiter acts as if he is internally debating something. He turns and whispers something to the waitress doing the evaluations. The only part of the conversation you overhear is his whispered exclamation, “I have no idea what this philosophical ‘conscience’ stuff is all about! Phooey! I wasn’t taught that!” The waitress shrugs her shoulders, trying to act somewhat aloof, indicating she doesn’t know either.

“Listen,” the waiter turns back to our table, beginning to sound weepy, “You don’t understand. This is my job! I need my job!”

At this point, the waitress rushes over to the table, acting very alarmed. She sets down the palm pilot, with her hand resting on the screen so no one can get a peek. “It’s you guys who just don’t get it! There shall be no leftovers,” she hisses emphatically, again as if reciting something from memory. “Everyone must eat every morsel. No sharing, No exchanges. No leftovers.” Her eyes get a glazed-over appearance, “We must ameliorate extremes. Fanatics must not be tolerated This is for the common good. This promotes civic values…. ” She stops in midstream, changing her expression to a business-like manner. “But seriously, folks, this is going on your record. I really don’t think you will want to face the consequences of any adverse decisions tonight. This kind of situation doesn’t get erased, you know!” Her eyes glance knowingly at the little computer and then back to us.

The waiter has a terrible, panicked look on his face. “Now let’s be reasonable, folks,” he pleads, as if talking to little children. “Tonight we’ve had a considerable discussion about rights and responsibilities. Tonight we have learned that everyone has a right to eat what they choose, and they also have a responsibility to eat what is chosen for them. It is all very simple: I give you pizzas, and you eat them. We all go away with a positive rating, even despite this little ‘incident.’” He is nodding his head, as if the act of agreeing with himself will help the others agree. Then he glances from face to face, triumphantly beaming, as if everything is now fine and good.

But everything is not fine and good. At this very moment a tall man with a restaurant manager nameplate on his right pocket is approaching the table. He has a very severe expression on his face and holds yellow papers in his hand. He begins reading from them, “There shall be no food left behind,” he states slowly in a commanding voice. “Everyone shall eat their pizza. We expect full compliance. There are no exceptions. I am not going to have a poor rating on my food! Nor my personnel! And I surely am not going to put up with penalties that would shut my restaurant down!”

Your wife jabs you in the ribs with her elbow. “Let go to the fast-food place across the street! They’ll have a decent menu selection, and besides it’s cheaper” she whispers loudly so that everyone can hear. She looks around the table to see who agrees.

Before anyone has a chance to answer, the manager steps in, places his free hand on her shoulder and points out the window, “Yes, you have a right to eat over there if I’ve failed over here. But you’ll take your chances with that competition. I’ll warn you: they don’t have to comply with health and sanitary regulations, they have waivers for food safety, storage temperatures, preparation, and shelf life. Why, food inspectors don’t even have to set foot in that place!”

The manager leans over and shakes his papers menacingly in front of your nose, “Go ahead! Just try going to any other restaurant in town! But you’ll find out. You’ll learn. Everyone has anchovy and sausage pizza on the menu tonight. Everyone pays the same price eventually -- before they eat, or afterwards. And everyone shall be happy about it!”

“Then I think we’ll just eat at home!” your wife exclaims, backing her chair away from the table.

At this, the manager suddenly becomes very subdued and quiet. “Oh, lady,” he sighs, “you’ve got a lot to learn. You won’t be cooking meals at home anymore. Nope. Everything is going to be carry-out in a few years. Even my restaurant kitchen won’t be cooking.” His voice cracks as he unexpectedly adds, “I like to cook.” Then he glances down at his papers and reads slowly and sullenly, “Every customer shall eat the daily, nutritionally complete menu item selection. What every customer should chew and be able to swallow….”

“What, the crazy!... Here, let me see those papers,” you say, grabbing them out of the manager’s hands.

Suddenly it dawns on you. “Oh my!” you exclaim. “Oh my!”

In your hands you are holding a summary of the regulations from the No Food Left Behind Act* recently passed by Congress.

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 The Pizza Choice Game

  The Choice Charade