Tonawanda News

May 15, 2013

DUVALL: Passing on 'pass the salt'

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In the realm of taste, I’ve always preferred salty to sweet. Asked a preferred not-so-good-for-you indulgence, give me a pile of French fries over a slice of chocolate cake any day.

But oddly enough, I hardly ever add extra salt to things (except, oddly enough considering this example, French fries). 

Despite my off-and-on relationship with salt, I couldn’t help but notice its absence on a restaurant table the other day.

It wasn’t the kind of fancy pants place where the chef presumes to have seasoned every morsel to perfection, precluding the need for additional table-side seasoning.

No, I was at the homestyle-food-on-the-go purveyor Boston Market. There was a metal condiment caddy in the center of the table with a brown pepper shaker and a cardboard cutout of a salt shaker with the words “Where’s the salt?” in large letters. In the fine print the restaurant confessed that, in order to help lower customers’ sodium, salt shakers had been removed from the restaurant’s tables. It was still available back at the drink and condiment counter if you really felt strongly enough to traipse back over there but the implication was clear: You don’t really need it, do you?

Before we move on permit a small detour of a personal nature.

I happen to hold Boston Market in somewhat nostalgic esteem. Their Maple Road location in Amherst is a short walk from where I grew up. I wandered in there one spring afternoon in my junior year of high school looking for my first “real” job — and found it, making a whopping $5.25 an hour.

My tasks? To trim, marinate and spit the raw chicken (about 20 spits of four birds each every day), then wash — by hand — all the metal chaffing dishes and anything else that needed washing. 

In hindsight the job was a nightmare and I lasted less than a year. 

Despite the memory of working in sweltering heat and walking home reeking of vinegar-based chicken marinade and industrial strength degreaser, I did like the food. The place was clean and well run — much better than the competing teen-staffed fast food restaurants. I still find that to be the case today.

So it was on my most recent visit last week I noticed this salt shaker business. I’ll confess, at first blush I was perturbed. Michael Bloomberg would be proud.

Though I agree obesity is a serious problem in America, I share most Americans’ indignation when a politician thinks its his job to tell me what to eat and drink. I buy a Super Big Gulp every once in a while (they’re a great hangover cure) and though I usually convince myself to go with the Diet Coke, sometimes I’m in the mood for Dr. Pepper. And you know what, Mike? Screw you, I’m getting the pop I want. I’m an adult. Once in a while if I want to ingest enough sugar to kill someone with a lesser pancreas that’s my decision, not yours.

And so I reacted to the Boston Market hidden salt trick with similar annoyance. If I want salt on my mashed potatoes what does Boston Market care?

Then the more I thought about it, I drew not just the distinction but the link between Bloomberg’s public health crusade and the missing salt shakers.

In Bloomberg’s case, he doesn’t care about public perception nearly as much as the result — fewer people ingesting mass amounts of things like sugary drinks, transfats and sodium. In Boston Market’s case, they’ll benefit far more from the perception they’re a health-conscious restaurant than from customers annoyed they have to get up and go find the salt.

I’m sure Boston Market cares about its customers’ sodium intake. I’m sure they care more about selling chicken. Increasingly, fast food restaurants are downplaying the over-the-top, 5,000 calorie meals that pile bacon, mayonaise, cheese, barbecue sauce and who knows what else on top of three beef patties of questionable origin. 

To say Boston Market is healthier because they don’t put salt on the table is laughable. But who cares if it isn’t actually any healthier? In this case, it’s perception that counts.

Like him or not, Bloomberg has done more than any public figure to raise awareness for what is a true public health crisis. Without all the conversations about his overbearing nanny-state rules the subtle shift in public consciousness away from overindulgence toward the notion healthier is better might never have taken root.

In Mike Bloomberg’s case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In Boston Market’s case, what’s a dash of salt compared to the cash potential of rebranding as the healthier option?

Cut through all of the posturing, it’s still up to us to weigh pounds versus price.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.