When it comes to free food, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Vegans devouring hamburgers with great enthusiasm; devout Catholics bailing on Lent when presented with gratis items they promised never to eat. Those moments have been lost in time, attributed to temporary lapses in judgment caused by the appearance of food that costs nothing. Indeed, free food motivates people to abandon their ideals and capitulate to their own worst impulses. How do I know this? Well, my friends, because I have discovered the holy grail of free food—a technique so ridiculous and easy that anyone can do it.
Earlier this month, I received an email from Olive Garden telling me that I’d be entitled to a free dessert on the week of my birthday. How I got signed up for this, I have no idea—I haven’t eaten at Olive Garden in literally 20 years (and that was before I even had an email address). But that email planted a seed in me, something that quickly grew to be sinister and out of control. At first, I thought, “Oh man, wouldn’t it be so funny to go eat at Olive Garden just to get a free dessert?” The idea didn’t seem extreme enough, and I figured no food magazine would be interested in an article called “I Ate at Olive Garden.” Additionally, a single free dessert was simply not enough to make me want to eat at Olive Garden, and especially not in any proximity to my birthday, a time when I try to eat at restaurants I love. Nevertheless, images of free desserts danced in my brain.
I came to wonder whether I could do better than a free dessert at Olive Garden. Was there a restaurant that would give me a free appetizer? An entire free meal? Something beyond a free meal? After doing some research, I found that not only were there many restaurants that would give me substantial free items for my birthday, but that many of them 1) would do it in exchange for any email address I provided, and 2) would not verify my birthdate or even that I’m a human being. Immediately, a feeling of power I’d not known in my lifetime washed over me. If I planned this out, I could probably eat for free multiple times a week until either society crumbles or I die. Sadly, I didn’t embark on that adventure, but I do believe that it’s possible. Instead, I settled for treating a friend to a big, pro bono feast.
It’s hard to have discipline when you’ve got a vast horizon of opportunities to eat free bad food, so I had to be smart about it—one lapse in control here could have led me to visit IHOP, Denny’s, and Cinnabon within a span of 60 minutes, an excursion that would have meant weeks of Pilates classes to reverse. First, I signed up for a shitload of chain restaurants’ birthday programs. Dunkin Donuts, Dairy Queen, Hooters, Einstein’s, Noodles & Co... The list went on. Most of them sent confirmation emails that either requested my birthday in some capacity or reminded me to keep a lookout for a special birthday gift that would be arriving soon. I was on the right track.
As my birthday approached, the gifts started rolling in. A free dessert here, a free appetizer there. Burritos, coffees, full breakfasts. My next step was to come up with a geographic grid, one that would keep me within a reasonable distance of my apartment. I wasn’t willing to spend hours driving around to pick up food, no matter how free it was—my time is valuable, after all. I made a spreadsheet with restaurants and locations, and mapped out the most economic route. I also took into consideration the fact that I’d want a well-rounded lunch with regards to appetizers, mains, desserts, and beverages. All things considered, my prix fixe menu would include P.F. Chang’s, Red Robin, Steak ‘n Shake, Jersey Mike’s, and Jack in the Box.
I headed home having spent a grand total of $1.08 on a feast that comprised an order of ma po tofu and some vegetarian lettuce wraps from P.F. Chang’s, a veggie burger and fries from Red Robin, a veggie sandwich and a Diet Pepsi from Jersey Mike’s, a vanilla milkshake from Steak ‘n Shake, and two tacos, some churros, and a piece of chocolate cake from Jack in the Box.
Deciding what to get was a little tricky. Red Robin offered a no-strings-attached burger of my choice and Jersey Mike’s put up a full sub and soda, but Jack in the Box’s two free tacos were only available with an additional purchase, as was P.F. Chang’s free appetizer. Since my goal was to spend zero dollars, these were impediments that I’d have to work around. In the case of P.F. Chang’s, I actually had a gift certificate that I’d been given for a previous holiday and never used, so that problem was solved. With Jack in the Box, I just figured I’d use some finesse and see what kind of damage I could do.
P.F. Chang’s and Red Robin went off without a hitch, but when I got to Steak ‘n Shake, disaster struck: I was informed that my coupon for a free steakburger and fries had expired, and my coupon for a free birthday milkshake required an additional purchase. I asked an indifferent cashier what the cheapest thing on the menu was; he said he didn’t know, and I believed him. I deduced that a side of applesauce for $.99 was the best I could do. But the cashier could not figure out how to use my coupon, so he called for backup. The woman who stepped in also didn’t know how to seal the deal. The manager was called, and he asked what kind of milkshake I wanted. I said vanilla. He pressed some buttons and then went and got me a vanilla milkshake, apparently forgetting about the applesauce I’d ordered, which was totally fine with me. I left the restaurant quickly, before he realized his oversight.
Now I had to eat this tepid food for lunch and probably numerous meals going forward? Was this what I really wanted out of my life? For god’s sake, I ate at Alinea two weeks ago, and now this?
My luck wasn’t so good at Jack in the Box. When I pulled up to the ordering station, I was told that I had to make an additional purchase in order to get two free tacos. I acted like I had no idea what they were talking about, but they would not let me off the hook. I asked about the cheapest thing on the menu and was told that a side of churros was my best bet, so I ordered them. When I pulled up to the window, the very sympathetic casher wished me a happy birthday and asked whether I preferred chocolate or cheesecake. I said chocolate. A true hero of our time, she smiled and snuck a piece of chocolate cake into my bag. Since Jack in the Box was my final stop, I headed home from there, having spent a grand total of $1.08 on a feast that comprised an order of ma po tofu and some vegetarian lettuce wraps from P.F. Chang’s, a veggie burger and fries from Red Robin, a veggie sandwich and a Diet Pepsi from Jersey Mike’s, a vanilla milkshake from Steak ‘n Shake, and two tacos, some churros, and a piece of chocolate cake from Jack in the Box.
As soon as I got all the food onto my kitchen table, I realized that what came next was going to be deeply unpleasant. Yeah, it was a bunch of free food, but at what cost? Now I had to eat this tepid food for lunch and probably numerous meals going forward? Was this what I really wanted out of my life? For god’s sake, I ate at Alinea two weeks ago, and now this?
My friend Kristen came to join me for the meal, and she was also almost immediately distressed by the situation. We decided to only eat what actually tasted good. Neither of us were into the Red Robin burger or fries, and the tacos were soggy and oily by this point, so we didn’t do anything with those. The ma po tofu was mediocre—dry and unspicy, a horrible bastardization of a Szechuan dish I love.
In the end, we both enjoyed our half of the veggie sub from Jersey Mike’s, as well as the vegetarian lettuce wraps. Everything else is currently rotting in my fridge or trash can. Did I fly too close to the sun on wings made of Steak ‘n Shake coupons? How many boutique fitness classes and therapy sessions will it take me to work off the shame of conceiving of and executing this article? Probably many, and it’ll cost more than I’m getting paid to do this.
In fact, it’s 6:30 AM as I finish writing this, and I’m about to embody the true contradiction my life has become by having a couple bites of leftover ma po tofu and a cup of coffee and then hitting the gym before going to the office. It’s true that corporations are willing to purchase your email address with free food, but I only recommend engaging if you’re also willing to part with your humanity.