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Matthew:

What's the deal with fast-food combos and pricing? You're looking at, say, one of the breakfast combos at Carl's Jr. and decide you don't want their shitty coffee. So you say, "I'll have the radioactive egg sandwich and one of those potato pucks." They always say, "You want the combo?" I reply in the negative and then get duly charged *more* than if I took their damn wimpy brown water. My question: Why don't they just punch it up as a combo and then keep the effing cup? Is it some red-tape inventory thing? Are they trying to bribe me into drinking that swill? *What?!*

-- Mark Brawner, the net

My question: Why don't you order the combo then throw away the effing coffee? You won't drink the coffee anyway, so who cares where it is when you don't drink it? Yeah, I know, that would be wasteful and a cave-in to the corporate goons. Who's Carl to tell you what you want for breakfast, anyway? We ran this one past one of Carl's Juniorettes up in Anaheim, who admitted the question had never come up before. She was amazed that you didn't recognize a good deal when you saw one -- two soul-satisfying salt- and fat-laden foods and one caffeine-buzz beverage for less than the price of two. But she dutifully scoured the bowels of Carl Karcher's empire until she found someone willing to take you seriously.

It's sort of an inventory thing, but mostly a marketing thing, natch. (But it's not just a Carl's Jr. thing. You get the same aggravation at any fast-food chain.) First of all, you didn't order a combo, so according to the order-takers loyalty oath, they can't ring it up as a combo. And they offer combos, not so you'll drink their swill, but so you'll buy their swill. They really don't care what you do with the swill once it's out of their store. The big industrial secret to any kind of combo deal is that it sells more food. Any slight loss of profit per item apparently is more than made up for in volume. If we have a hankering for a juicy ground-cow disk with corporate sauce and dead lettuce, we'll probably need a drink to wash it down. And when we see that they'll throw in a side of fries and discount the package, then we'll take the deal, even if we weren't longing for floppy potato wands. If we had to pay for each item individually, we might weigh the cost of the fries against the enjoyment gained from the fries and decide to pass and save the money.

The way fast food has been marketed, by now it's almost un-American to pull up to the drive-thru and order something à la carte. When we think of fast food, we think a main-dish thing, a side-dish thing, and a drink thing. Free spirits pay a price for their attitudes.

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