Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Looking at the Economies of Eating Out

Remember when you called it "eating out?"  It was something you did on a semi-special occasion.  After about 8:00pm or so, there were only a few businesses open, and restaurants.  Of course, by 9:00pm most of the restaurants were starting to close, too.

That's not the case anymore.  McDonald's - which barely counts as "eating out," it's the lowest common denominator of food purveyors - is open 'round the clock, at least at the drive-through window.  Several of the old fast food eateries are open into the wee hours anymore, supplying our need for cheap, easy food at any time.  And it's not special, it's just what you do.

But how easy is it?  How cheap?

Let's take a quick peek at the "easy" bit.  First of all, unless you actually live in a McDonald's (for simplicity of example, I'm sticking with that one, but there are any number of other options to choose from) then you're going to have to get from wherever you are to the nearest McDonald's location.  Unless it's ten blocks or less - a quarter mile or less - most people will drive.

So now you've fired up the car, burning fuel.  You're putting yourself and others at risk for a traffic accident - don't say it isn't true, if it wasn't then you wouldn't be required to carry insurance at all times.  Find parking, place your order, head back to wherever.  Fuel, risk, time, attention.  The only easy thing in this was the food itself, you didn't have to prepare any of it.

No guarantees that the food has been prepared properly.  There are guarantees of course but they aren't functional guarantees., They don't help you when you're white-knuckled over the toilet bowl in the middle of the night, wondering what in God's name could you have possibly eaten that wanted back out so badly.  Incidents like that are uncommon, but that doesn't mean impossible.  They happen.

Still looking at McDonald's for an easy example, how good is the food?  We know it's tasty - if it wasn't McD's wouldn't be the going concern that it is.  Is it any good once you've moved past the taste?  The fat content of the fries is stunning.  If you wanted, you could light a French fry on fire and it would burn for a couple of minutes.  The sandwiches aren't a bastion of nutrition, either.  There's a lot of salt, fat, assorted additives you can do without.

Time for a little math.  My example is not too far out of line.  My closest McDonald's is about three miles from my front door; let's call it about five minutes to drive there.  Five minutes back.  Five minutes on-site placing and receiving the order.

Sweetie likes to cook.  I like to cook but I'm not very good at it, so I do the mise en place stuff, getting her supplies under her hands just as she needs them, taking away those things that she's finished with so her workspace is still clear.  She can whip out two omelets in fifteen minutes while I make toast, set the table, pour milk or coffee.  Her omelets have two eggs, a dab of butter for the pan, some sausage or ham, cheese.  Sour cream if I haven't forgotten to add it to the grocery list.  For the sake of this experiment, I'm going to compare the Sausage McMuffin with Egg to Sweetie's omelet, and we'll see how they stack up.

Total Calories: 450
from fat: 250
Sodium: 920mg

Sweetie's omelet
Total calories: 399
from fat: 225

There's a slight fudge factor here: I'm not including the toast with the omelet, but the English muffin is part of the McD's sandwich.  Sweetie also sometimes makes up a mess of hash brown potatoes, but I always get the hash brown fried potato thing at McDonald's.  Two, sometimes.  Taken together, the combined caloric values of these breakfasts are pretty close.  But as much as I really enjoy the McMuffin sandwich, sometimes it comes back on me.  I think there's too much grease or something going on in there.  Sweetie's omelets have never given me a moment's trouble - and when she drains grease off sausage, what's left is pretty well strained.  You don't know how fatty your food is until you've spent some time working out ways to get the fat off of it.  Sweetie is pretty skilled in this regard.

What does it cost?

Sausage McMuffin with Egg, hash browns, coffee: $2.89 - plus fuel for going after it, insurance, associated prorated maintenance costs of operating the vehicle.  25mpg, 6 miles, call it a quarter-gallon of fuel.  At $3.60 per gallon, 90 cents.  We'll neglect the other stuff for the sake of brevity, and call it $3.80 for McBreakfast.

Sweetie's breakfast.  Eggs at $1.50 per 18 = ~17 cents for two
Slice of Muenster cheese, $1.89 pack of 10 slices, 19 cents
Sausage, $2.89 per pound for the lean stuff, about 4 oz if I beg for it, so 72 cents
Onion at $2.99 per 5lb bag, about 4oz in my omelet (by request!), 15 cents
Butter at $2.50 per pound (watch the sales!), about 1/2 ounce, about 8 cents
I haven't used sour cream in a while so I'm going to skip that one.  It's not like they put sour cream on a McMuffin anyway, so it wouldn't be a fair fight if I did.

Sweetie's omelet tips the scales at $1.31.  If I add in what I'm paying for coffee and toast and hash browns, it still won't break two bucks.  So even leaving off the cost of operating the car, I'm ahead of the curve.  And staying home I'm not likely to get in a traffic accident just for the sake of breakfast.   The potatoes at home are almost cheating; when you can buy a 50lb bag of potatoes for $10 and McDonald's charges $2 for its largest order of fries (which doesn't even weigh an entire pound), the economies rapidly tilt further and further in favor of staying at the house.

What about the time it takes?  Well, like I said Sweetie can do two omelets in fifteen minutes.  In that time she saves the equivalent of about two bucks, not going out.  Never mind the other money we save, right there you're looking at saving $8 per hour.  That's not a bad pay day.

This is just comparing to McDonald's, arguably one of the cheapest places you can eat breakfast.  Go elsewhere where the prices are higher, and the disparity gets even bigger.  Look at lunch and dinner and the disparities get bigger yet.  But as consumers and Americans we have somehow trained ourselves to prefer having others do for us, than doing for ourselves.  We've been trained to love our money and guard it jealously, to invest no more effort than whatever it takes to get the creative part of whatever we want done, done by someone else.

Stay home, roll your own, save some money.  It takes about the same amount of time.  It's better for you, it stretches your brain a little.

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