I was in a fast food restaurant the other day with a friend when I realized there is a specific reason for creating combination orders.  I had always thought the reason for “order by the number” was for speed, but now I have a different notion.

I came to my new understanding by watching three people in a row order their food, not by name, but by number.  The first person was Deaf.  He held up two fingers to order the “Number 2” combo.  The second person in line was Russian.  She spoke, in a methodical, but broken, English, “Three” indicating the third combo choice.  The last person was from Mexico and he ordered by saying, “Cinco” to order combo meal number five.

Sure, ordering by number is a quick way to move a line — the fast food restaurant chain basically mandates what people want when they bundle combination meals — but there’s something else at work here, and that thing is that numbers are a universal language and ordering by number, instead of name, is a cultural facilitation that fascinates.

It is much easier to look at a picture of food and hold up two fingers to order the “Number Two Combo Meal with a Big Mac, French Fries and a Soda” than it is to try to say all that if your first language isn’t English.  You don’t have to worry about how to pronounce the wacky names of the foodstuffs, you can just hold up a few fingers, or speak one word or two, and get your entire ordering point across.

By bundling food into predetermined combinations, the fast food companies also have a sly way to sell what they want sold and not necessarily what the consumer wants to purchase.  For customers with language issues or speech barriers the “order by number” is a clever business scheme that moves certain product without catering to the real wants and hungers of every customer.

A much better method of communication in food ordering would be to allow consumers to order anything they wanted by using a touch screen with images of all available items.  That way, customers would not have to be bound into a “combination only” ordering system that actually preys upon a language deficit — while pretending to — fuel a variety of appetites.

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