Thank you, come again!


Chok, AB and I were placing our order at Taco Bell. Our systems were whacked out from jetlag – we were sleeping twice every 24 hours and having breakfast, lunch and dinner after waking up each time. Chok and I had been in the US for only 3 days but if not for AB’s generosity it would already be hard to keep up with our appetites. After treating us to sit-down meals AB wanted to spice it up with some fast food. Or maybe he realized that for some quantity trumps nutrition. He broke the menu down for us at every new place we went to. It was simple: a taco is a folded papad with lettuce and cheese while a burrito is like roti with rajma-chawal, a wholesome meal. After convincing Chok to venture past chicken and fish we got a platter with some burritos and a quesadilla, and a drink each.

AB handed us the empty drink cups and pointed towards the soda machine. I had been watching people while in line and I knew that dropping crushed ice in the cup would be a rookie mistake. Isn’t that how the ganna juice wallahs con us back home? I let the Fanta flow in directly. They must have changed the carbonators because the foam filled up quickly. Too quickly. I waited some and pushed the button again but the foam kept winning the race to the top. As I unsuccessfully tried getting past 7/8th full cup, AB said with a knowing smile – you can get unlimited refills. The foaming bubbles seemed to burst against my chin like a thousand little water balloons. Unlimited refills? I gulped down the sweet liquid like a sub-Saharan village soaks rainwater. That day I had 4 full cups of soda before leaving and a 5th refill to-go :).

This was about ten years back when I was fresh off the boat and almost everyone around me had numerous such experiences. But for someone who had a modest upbringing, the privileges and excesses of American society were a stark contrast, especially the food and service industries. The ketchup is not diluted with water, having access to a clean toilet at every eatery is a given and asking the waiter for a to-go box for leftover food is ubiquitous. In extreme cases one can send the food back or expect a discounted check for delayed service. Heck, even the South Indian restaurants here will give you extra chutney without grumbling.

It is easy to see how some established practices here would be hard to translate for markets back home. Take frozen yogurt for example which is sort of like flavoured yogurt, not as thick as ice cream and a little tart but every bit as delicious. Most frozen yogurt places are self-serve where you operate the dispensers to fill your bowl with whatever combination of flavours you want and then sprinkle toppings like M&Ms, fresh fruit or sauces like caramel, white chocolate etc. The final price is by weight…of the cup, not of the customer – even though that would make sense to fight obesity :). They give you small sampler cups in case you want to try out some flavours before committing to them. I think this system would be hard to operate in India – the massively more number of customers would make it hard to prevent abuse such as consuming before paying, keeping the machines working as intended, keeping the add-ons well stocked etc.

Also it would be much cheaper to employ someone to run the operation. Similar problems exist in the US but are more manageable due to the reasonable number of patrons, even in near busy college campuses. But even here I have seen young store attendants bang on bathroom doors after someone refused to come out for hours or homeless people walk in with their own drinking cups from some previous visit, or a lot of paper napkins and condiments wasted or wantonly taken home. But overall the system appears to be able to absorb these indiscretions.

As the challenge of redistributing resources and increasing human population unfolds globally, I wonder if and how businesses will need to adapt. Policies are being changed already – water is not served unless you ask for it, complimentary bread at Italian restaurants is brought out only on request and McDonalds now keeps ketchup packets behind their cash counters. In the meantime, I hope they don’t do away with unlimited free refills because it will be tough to portion out a single cup of Fanta for an entire meal!