Every other Sunday, a reader in southern California heads to Hometown Buffet restaurant, the local franchise in a national chain that serves more than 160 million people a year at its buffet-style restaurants. He goes there to leisurely read his Sunday newspaper as he dines.
"I love the food and the atmosphere," he tells me.
Lately, however, he's been wondering whether his approach to dining there passes muster ethically.
"I time my arrival to occur just a few minutes before they stop serving breakfast and begin serving dinner," he writes. "I admit that I have no intention of eating breakfast."
He's there for roast beef, turkey, prime rib and other dinner items on the restaurant's all-you-can-eat buffet menu. By arriving in time to pay for breakfast and not dinner, however, my reader saves $4.
"I sit at my table and read for a few minutes before dinner is placed on the buffet tables," he writes. "That's when I get my food."
The only drawback to his well-wrought meal plan is that he has to wait a little while after arriving before he can enjoy his dinner.
"Customers who came later will be eating the same food as me," he says, "but paying a bit more."
My reader stresses that Hometown Buffet does not have any rule prohibiting what he's doing.
"Basically you pay and then sit down," he says, "and eat all you want from the buffet tables while you are there."
He wants to know if there's anything wrong with his dining strategy.
According to Hometown Buffets spokeswoman Diana Postemsky, my reader is right in thinking that the company leaves such judgments to the discretion of its diners.
"The vast majority of our guests come to our restaurants for a great meal and go home satisfied, looking forward to the next time that they visit," she tells me. "For over 25 years our guests have been the best judge of what is fair and appropriate, a system that has worked exceedingly well for us."
This question evokes another from several months ago, when I wrote in a column that I saw no ethical lapse in couples who share a refillable drink at a restaurant rather than buy individual beverages. Some readers took issue with my assessment that there is nothing wrong with such a practice unless the restaurant clearly indicates a one-refillable-drink-per-person policy.
I stand by my assessment, though, and apply the same thinking here, fully aware that a new flood of readers' wrath may soon pour down upon me.
In my opinion my buffet-loving reader is on even safer ethical ground than the drink-sharers. He is not sharing his meal or sneaking sides of roast beef out of the joint. He is merely timing his visit, much the way a senior crowd might flock to the early-bird specials at a restaurant, to take the fullest advantage of Hometown Buffet's offerings. If he can save four bucks in the process, more power to him.
The restaurant places no limits on how much a patron can eat nor on how long a visit can last, and it doesn't clear its dining rooms between meals. Unless it changes these policies, my reader need have no qualms about enjoying his fortnightly Sunday meal. And the right thing for Hometown Buffets to do is to continue to rely on its system of letting its customers determine what's "fair and appropriate," so long as it "works exceedingly well" for all concerned.c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)