The Brilliant, Devious, and Scientific Concept of Food Value

Think you live by dirtbag principles? Prove it at the salad bar.

Alpine climber Blake Herrington has put up a number of bold new routes in Patagonia, Alaska, and the North Cascades at the relatively young age of 25. But as I sit across from him at 10 p.m. at Roberto’s, the 24-hour dive Las Vegas Mexican joint, I am not interested in his climbing stories from those wild places. Rather, he is fired up about the $2.50 tostada, buried under a pile of free accoutrements from the salsa bar, that he’s working on, and he is excited about how much free stuff Roberto’s makes available for its patrons.

“Have you heard of Food Value?” he asks. I say, “I think so,” and he says, “No, you haven’t.

“Food Value is a complex, algorithmically derived formula, principally accounting for one’s satiety, nutritional benefits, and money spent in order to ascertain said food items.”

In other words, Food Value is how much you can get, both calorie-wise and nutritionally, for as little money as possible. Or no money, if possible. One on end of the spectrum is expensive French pastries that are all sugar and fat, and on the other end is, say, a Chinese buffet that you got a 2-for-1 coupon for. Or a free trip to the Whole Foods salad and prepared food bar. (Refer to Blake’s graph.)

Food value is the science – and I know it’s doing science when people say words like “algorithm” – of how dirtbag climbers eat, or aspire to eat at all times. Swiping abandoned half-eaten pizza off cafeteria plates, Yvon Chouinard and friends eating cans of dented cat food for a summer in the Valley, honing your radar for finding free food, all of that. And Blake is possibly one of the leading field researchers of Food Value.

He collects receipts at Wendy’s restaurants to take surveys to get coupon codes for free $3.50 cheeseburgers, then goes into Wendy’s and convinces the employees to let him order $3.50 worth of other menu items.

And his method of ordering a Chipotle burrito is deviously genius and so nuanced that I had to ask him to re-tell the details via e-mail:

A little-known fact is that when one’s Chipotle burrito exceeds the boundaries of its earthly wrapper (a.k.a. tortilla #1), they will supplement its torn casing with a secondary tortilla. Based upon this premise, I’ve had great success being up-front and letting the folks at Chipotle know that usually my chosen burrito tears, and so they ought to simply place two overlapping tortillas as the initial canvas upon which to craft their/my masterpiece. With two tortillas, and the implicit obligation to fill them, one ends up with nearly a double burrito. It’s also key to skip over the low-calorie “filler” item (i.e., white rice, or at a Subway, iceberg lettuce) and go straight to the better alternatives like meat or spinach. Order every component as though this will be THE final item, prompting the employee to include more of it than normal. For example, say to them, “… and then, just a bunch of the Fajita-style chicken.” (a free upgrade that includes peppers and onions). Once they add a greater-than-normal amount of said ingredient, repeat again and again. Practice your tone and inflection before going into the restaurant.

Food value, of course, applies to food you prepare yourself as well as craftily maximizing your dollar at restaurants.

“Since Food Value partly relies upon the cost of something, things that are healthy, filling, tasty, AND FREE basically achieve the maximum possible food value.” Blake says. “Since these things are rare, more generally-accessible items with high food value are the dirtbag diner’s staples such as pasta, brown rice, peanut butter, quinoa, etc. As far as restaurants, some Mexican places have salsa bars that include things like fresh pico de gallo, veggies, sour cream, and even shredded cheese. In these cases, one maximizes food value by ordering a basic dish (side of tortillas, chips) and crafting a taco salad with an astronomical food value.”

I was slightly ashamed at Roberto’s when I gave up on my $6 order of huevos rancheros, and Blake took my leftover tortillas, ran to the salsa bar, and proceeded to build a second meal on his way out the door of the restaurant. And then crushed some 5.12 trad route at Red Rock a day later.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 12 comments
  • Greg

    Great article… I definitely know how this goes. My friend and I spent a couple of months on the road climbing around the country a few years ago and “Food Value” was something that was always on our mind. I also wanted to share my own Chipotle Super Burrito Trick. A burrito bowl holds much more than your typical burrito. If you start out by ordering the burrito bowl and then right at the end “change your mind” and have them put it into a tortilla you end up with significantly more filling. This is a fairly easy game and really shouldn’t require any pre-practicing.


  • Marcus

    Now I understand why Chipotle has had to raise their prices, and my own Chipotle Food Value has steadily been going down. There’s only so much you can get in one (or a double) tortilla. Just get a bowl (more filling, same cost) and ask for two tortillas. Stop holding up the line, pigs!

  • Justin Roth

    my friend used to eat snickers instead of power bars or other overpriced “energy” bars. he also used to eat dry ramen noodles like crackers. he said his focus was on maximizing the calorie-to-dollar ratio, and that all that talk of “nutritional” value was mumbo jumbo. he took multivitamins to make sure he didn’t get scurvy. personally, i’d rather go fred nicole-style and bring a baguette and a wheel of brie to the crag. when it comes to food, i think we could all stand to focus less on pure value (“the american way”) and more on the pleasures of real, fresh foods, as they are apt to do in europe.

  • Lydia

    This is funny – and all too familiar. Like the above commenters I realized that the bowl at any burrito/pita restaurant was the far more filling (with less “filler”) option, and on the road I constantly hunt for pairing of well-reviewed restaurants on yelp with coupons or groupons. Neither my guy nor I have any problems with taking leftovers off of left-behind plates at cafes and look at it as a way of preventing waste but also saving money. There are of course places this is more okay than others and we act accordingly. Any witnesses tend to think this means you’ll steal the silverware and salt and pepper shakers, too, but screw ’em. Dumpster diving at Trader Joe’s (where they don’t trash-compact) as you cross-country is yet another great way to lessen your impact while saving dough and eating well. I know a guy whose entire diet consisted off of dumpster food while he lived several seasons climbing in Vegas, and he ate better than everyone else. We’re talking unexpired pork loin, eggs, fruit and veggies of all kinds, hummus and guacomole, chips, grains, on and on.

  • kreg

    When I was a snowboard instructor at Big Sky, it was common practice to fill your salad bar plate with light items like veggies and fill a bowl with heavier stuff like chicken and tuna. We would then add a small layer of ranch dressing over the said meats. Salad dressing was free, so the cashier never charged for the bowl of protien cleverly disguised as a giant bowl of dressing.

  • Marcus


  • Malcolm Daly

    In the late ’70s or early ’80s I was in the Valley with my GF, Jim Zook, Mark Wilford, Skip Guerin and another girl friend from Ft Collins. We sat at a table in the dining room with a small crowd from Boulder that Skip knew and started drinking some beers and telling stories. Jim and I had just climbed the Nabisco Wall and proudly told that story, My GF and her friend had sent the Nutcracker and on of the Open Books abobe C4 and Mark and Skip had “worked” on Bad Ass Momma, some overhanging off-width boulder problem that they thought was 5.12. Of course, all the questions were about Bad Ass Momma, eliciting a classic comment from my GF, “Shit, I can’t wait ’til I can climb 5.12 so I only have to climb 30′ a day!”

    But I digress…. As the waitress went around the table taking orders, the Boulder crew, joined by my GF, ordered salads with a wedge of lemon or grilled chicken (White meat without the skin, please.). Everyone was commenting on what the others were ordering, each trying to out health-food the other, and dumbass me (the yokel from Ft. Collins) ordered a burger and fries to a round of stinkeye from the Boulder crew. When the waitress came to Wilford, who was wearing a GPIW t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and drinking a long-neck Bud, he ordered a simple baked potato to the oohs and ahhs for the health food crowd. One of the adoring women jumped in with, “Oh, what a great food selection! Baked potatoes are full of vitamins, are low in fat and and are a complet source of minerals. That’s why you ordered it, right?”. “Nope, said Wilford, I ordered it because it is only 75 cents and I can load it up with all the butter, sour cream, cheese and chili that I can eat!” Somewhat crestfallen, she dug the hole deeper. “Well, what else have you eaten today?” It took Mark a minute to answer that he’d eaten a bag of chips. And for the last nail in the coffin, again, “Is that all?” Mark reflected for a few seconds and told her that he’d had the other 5 beers from the six-pack.

    Those were the days.

  • Sinuhe Xavier

    Bridger Bowl

    Deer Park Chalet


    Saltines and honey. every day 2pm snack.

  • Robi Pochapin

    Thank you A-J for keeping it real. I may fall somewhere between the following two extremes, but I appreciate the dirt bag press. Outside magazine wants me to buy a $5000 watch, you want me to fuel on the cheap. Bravo.

    • steve casimiro

      @Robi, you’re welcome. For the record, we don’t want you to do anything but stay stoked on adventure. If that leads you to buying a $5,000 watch, more power to you. If it leads to dumpster diving, all the better. After working in magazines for my whole career, I’m frankly tired of publications telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. Adventure Journal is about sharing the experience, not selling it.

    • Graeme Shepherd

      Robi, I think you may have introduced me to making my porridge more interesting in Joshua Tree in 1998. You were down with a mob from Moab and had just road-tripped to LV for a wedding. I’ve got photos of you after your fall, stripping gear out of a shallow crack- Biggest smile ever!
      I’ve sent you a message on your FB page but it’ll be in your ‘other’ folder.
      Graeme (Scottish chap)

  • Steven M

    Stevens Pass upper cafeteria in the mid-90’s… I walked in after a long and wet day of skiing to see a few 14/15 year olds mixing free packets of ketchup and mustard on a paper plate and scraping it up with some minimal saltines. Dirtbags gotta start somewhere.

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