Michael Robinson hates fast food. But when he travels, his disdain for hamburgers and French fries seems to melt away like a slice of cheese on a Big Mac.
“I have a very difficult time with fast food in general,” says the Washington media consultant.
“I’m very aware of the environmental impact that packaging has, from the inks to the paper. But when I’m overseas and I don’t speak the language and I can’t read a menu, I eat a lot of fast food. It’s cheap, I know what I’m getting and it’s fast.”
He’s got company: American travelers spend an average of $720 a year on fast food, up 43 percent from last year, according to a recent survey by American Express.
Dar Williams, co-author of The Tofu Tollbooth, a guide to finding healthy food while traveling, says people seem to want to eat better these days. “Except when they travel.”
Williams says travelers often think if they go vegetarian, – that’s to say, eat veggie burgers and baked potatoes instead of hamburgers and fries – they’ll be OK. Wrong. As a general rule, these tempting alternatives are “very unhealthy,” she says.
Help is coming from the most unlikely of places. Some popular travel destinations are keeping out fast-food restaurants. Last month in Bermuda, a court upheld a ban on fast-food restaurants after a group of investors led by the former prime minister tried to open a McDonald’s franchise.
“We don’t want to look like any other place in the United States,” Bermuda government spokesman Gavin Shorto told me. “People come here because it’s different. There are a lot of people who are opposed to fast food on principle.”
(Interestingly, the island seems to have granted a waiver to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which “got in under the wire 20 years ago,” Shorto admitted. Guess they don’t call Harland Sanders the Colonel for nothing.)
The upstate New York village of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, has no room for fast food franchises. It has a law on the books limiting signs to no more than 12 square feet (too small for the Golden Arches) and a decade ago rejected Pizza Hut’s application to open a franchise downtown.
“We have nothing against McDonald’s or Pizza Hut or any other fast-food chain,” says Wendell Tripp, Cooperstown’s mayor. “But we just don’t have any room for them.”
Ditto for built-up Sanibel Island, Fla., which is fighting to preserve the last of its unpaved wetlands. It’s got one McDonald’s, but signage laws prevent the restaurant from drawing too many visitors. You almost have to be a native to know where to find the restaurant – which is exactly the way the natives seem to want it.
Not that any of this is stopping travelers from flocking to the nearest Wendy’s or Burger King while they’re on the road.
“When I’m traveling for work and I’m stressed out and in a hurry, I hit the fast food chains,” says Wit Tuttel, who works for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In fact, I’ve eaten at McDonald’s in about six different countries and on three continents. It really settles my stomach and my mind. It’s amazing, comforting and a little scary that it tastes exactly the same no matter how far away you are.”
Some travelers, in fact, would change their travel plans if they knew they couldn’t get a hit of fast food.
Michael Silberstein, who owns a hotel development company in New York, says “Bermuda is out.”
How come? “My wife, Diane, and I, like many baby boomers with young children, plan our lives around fast food establishments,” he says. “It is through our kids that we truly have learned to appreciate the greatness of those fast food establishments. We get to sample them on the road and then continue to patronize them when we return home to New York City.”
Peter LoCascio, a traveler from Manning, Ore., agrees: “No question about it, when we’re on the road with the kids, it’s fast food all the way. They are happy. When they’re happy, Mom and Dad are happy.”
I can’t disagree that fast food makes kids happy. The problem is that it continues to make kids happy after they become adults. Then, as grown-ups, they turn to the familiar when they’re traveling, which in this case is artery-clogging, deep-fried food that usually has nothing to do with the cuisine or culture of the place they’re visiting.
Bermuda and other destinations should be applauded for trying to curb our collective appetite for junk food. But it’s not going to end our craving for a fattening sandwich or a deep-dish pizza on the road.