Out to Lunch

A group of Beltsville workers met the self-imposed challange of eating at 200 different places_and lived to brag about it, if not to explain exactly why

March 15, 2007|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,Sun Reporter

Like the ingredients in hot dogs, what stirs the human heart sometimes defies easy description.

Luncheon explorer Brian Pienta sat inside the Greene Turtle restaurant in Laurel and offered this rationale for his bold attempt to push the eating envelope.

"Basically, it started because ... just because," he stammered.

Sound familiar? When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked back in the 1920s why anyone would dare climb Mount Everest, he famously replied, "Because it's there" - then promptly died trying.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption that accompanied an article Thursday about a group of co-workers whose quest was to eat in 200 different lunch spots incorrectly identified a participant. Her name is Jamie Schooley.

Fortunately, Pienta had luck and lower altitude on his side.

A 31-year-old mechanical engineer for Eaton Aerospace, a Beltsville company that makes aircraft parts, he led a group of co-workers on an impossible-dream quest: to eat lunch at 200 different locations. All in a continuous, uninterrupted string.

Only two guidelines applied. First, Pienta had to be in attendance. A constantly churning support crew of a half-dozen regulars and about 15 occasional curiosity seekers tagged along, but he was Da Lunch Man.

In truth, nobody else could really stomach the thought of so much inevitably borderline food. Your idea; your indigestion.

Secondly, no repetition allowed, no matter how powerful the urge to revisit Marathon Deli in College Park for another gyro combination platter.

Against seemingly all eating odds, the brave souls of Eaton Aerospace reached their mountaintop.

Beginning Dec. 7, 2005, at Hunan Hamlet in Beltsville, they munched on till Jan. 5, 2007, at Jasper's in Greenbelt, making all those requisite pit stops in between. Pasta Nostra ... Cluck-U Chicken ... Samurai Sam's ... Generous Joe's ... Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries ... Tiny Rhino Diner.

On and on they chewed. Panda West ... Pepper Pot Cafe ... Ratsies ... and The Jerk Pit, which we're guessing has a limited wine list.

Ten members of the "What's For Lunch?" expedition, as it came to be known, gathered last week for a minireunion at the Greene Turtle, stop No. 44 (March 17, 2006). They convened, appropriately, at high noon, with Pienta diving into a bleu burger and side order of chips.

Between bites, a table of bright, young engineering minds pondered the significance of their streak. What, exactly, does "What's For Lunch?" mean in the long run? Conclusion: Nothing. Well, maybe a little something.

"The good news is you try out some places you never knew," said Mark Giron (bleu burger and fries). "The bad news is ... you try out some places you never knew."

Hmm. A veiled slap at The Jerk Pit? At Kabob Bazar?

"It makes you look forward to lunch," added Jon Cohen (Buffalo chicken sandwich, grilled). "You have to take a one-hour vacation sometimes."

Those who doubt the rejuvenating potential of Bobby's Beltsville Eatery probably aren't lunch streak material. Never will be. You need to be simpatico with the likes of Andy Palich, an Eaton engineer who has since migrated to another company but retained his interest in food.

"I'm the kind of person, I go out to lunch every day," says Palich, reached by phone at home just before dinner (chicken with Parmesan sauce, string beans, sourdough bread). "For some reason, I can't see myself packing a lunch. If I do, I eat it, and I'm hungry again, and I go out to lunch."

Palich decorated his Eaton office cubicle with photos of his wife, children - and beloved home-cooked meals. He got so caught up in the spirit of making history that every workday morning he'd corner Pienta and ask, "What's for lunch?" A motto was born.

Yet even Palich concedes not everybody feels the streak magic: "People on the outside think it's a bit odd. My wife thinks it's kind of stupid."

He still loves her.

How it began

Actually, there have been two streaks. In March 2004 Pienta and a few work pals were lunching off campus, as usual. Suddenly, he realized it had been several weeks since they'd gone anywhere a second time. Everything was literally nouvelle cuisine.

"It kind of took off and gained steam," he says. "I started tracking it."

Someone suggested trying to reach 100 lunches without doubling back. Piece of cake. They blew through that barrier by mid-August.

A little more than a year later, Pienta had digested that achievement and was ready to tackle a double century. In style.

"I'm a stickler for documentation," he admits.

Remember, these guys are mechanical engineers: right brainers. This time around Pienta took detailed notes, which eventually became a 58-page "What's For Lunch?" commemorative booklet. Why? Because. No surprise, it's got statistics: His average cost per meal: $7.08; best turnout: 19 hungry engineers descending upon Famous Dave's in Laurel.

The booklet has maps showing every lunch destination: Time constraints limited their search to about a 15-minute drive from Beltsville. It's got a qualitative analysis of all 200 venues, which included 27 deli-sandwich shops, 19 Chinese restaurants, seven diners and one department store.

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