There are two universal truths to lunchtime in the Big Apple: there is no shortage of places to eat, and you can probably find every conceivable cuisine within a three-block radius of your office. You can literally have whatever you want, as long as you can pull yourself away from your desk long enough to grab it.
The problem with having so many choices is that one can almost become paralyzed with indecision. Which is my current rationalization for eating lunch at Hale & Hearty...every...day. Like Rain Man, with the toothpicks and the cheeseballs, I show up at the 43rd St. location at 1:00 sharp Monday thru Friday. After three months, the counter girls know me by name, screaming “Sally!” when I walk in the door, not unlike the patrons of “Cheers” when Norm would enter the bar.
Regardless of my best intentions to escape the Hale & Hearty vortex, if I try a new place I’ll inevitably find myself back the next day, like a smoker whose cold-turkey attempt at quitting lasts only 24 hours. I can’t help it – they’ve got good eats.
Prominently featured is H&H’s lengthy and ever rotating assortment of soups. Anything you can imagine being pureed into a tasty potage, they have it. From the simple homestyle goodness of chicken noodle soup up the ladder to the chicken mole (a favorite among noontime hour gourmands), goddammit these are some of the best soups I’ve ever had the pleasure of slurping loudly in my cubicle. And all are conveniently available as a combo and served without the attitude of the Soup Nazi.
Another of their specialties is the custom salad, one of the more popular lunchtime crazes in the city. It works like this: you grab a little plastic bowl of lettuce and queue up at the salad counter. When it’s your turn, you hand the lettuce to the salad sous-chef and indicate which ingredients you want added. They then toss the salad in a stainless steel bowl and return it to the original plastic container, mixed up all nice for you.
If I were to hazard a guess, pre-mixedness is the custom salad’s chief selling point, and Hale & Hearty’s competitive advantage over the old-school salad bars typical of your neighborhood deli or Korean. Let’s face it – how many of us have attempted to toss a deli salad at our desk and wound up with half the ingredients in our computer keyboard? Pre-mixedness is a convenience for which people are willing to pay.
And pay they do. According to one of my sources, “You can’t walk out of there without spending $10”. Gone are the days of the pay-per-pound salad bar. The Hale & Hearties of the world now have you pay by ingredient. It’s an incredible business model, if you ask me, but ever so slightly sinister, for I can’t help thinking that the trade-off for no longer running over stray avocado with my mouse, I now get to pay for the privilege of having my salad being made for me by The Man.
It works like this: the salad ingredients are categorized into three tiers and coded by letter, ABC. There are three gimmes: carrots, onions and croutons. The others break down as such:
- A’s are things that are the least expensive, like tomatoes and corn
- B’s are more expensive than As, like goat cheese and kalamata olives (read: the good stuff)
- C’s are meats, and the most expensive of the three categories
The salad sous chef dumps your lettuce into a bowl and begins to build your creation, asking a series of “What else? What else? What else?” the rapid-fire nature of which compels one to continue pointing and choosing. Yes, I’ll take corn, even though I’m not intending on making a Cobb salad. Sure, throw in some cactus. What the hell? If you’re not careful you could very easily wind up spending $49.50 on an eighteen-pound salad.
Even when I want to mix it up and change from chicken to turkey, or feta to cheddar, I still end up paying the same. To Hale & Hearty, I’m a BACA. Maybe it says something about me that every time I order a salad, no matter how much I try to change out the ingredients, I walk off with the same combination of letters. Perhaps this is a more telling personality assessment than a Myers-Briggs test.
The final blow to one’s wallet occurs while waiting in line to pay in a queue that conveniently passes by the drink selections, two of which are freshly brewed iced tea and lemonade. They might as well have enchanted Alice in Wonderland-style labels on them which read “Drink Me”, for it is virtually impossible for anyone to stand in front of the selections for more than 10 seconds without succumbing to them.
As long as the check-out line can be, it moves fast due to a phenomenally-trained team of managers whose sole purpose in life is to tell the next person in line to “Step down”. And before you know it, you’re released into the world complete, with a unique salad to call your own, and no money left in your wallet.
NB: You’ll know where to find me tomorrow afternoon for lunch.