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    All you can eat ... and eat

      A diner's huge appetite tests limits and tempers at a buffet restaurant.

    By MATTHEW WAITE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
    Bob Middleton, 40, says he lost track of the number of times he visited the buffet at China Dragon in Holiday.
    HOLIDAY -- The hostess at the China Dragon restaurant seated Bob Middleton at the table closest to the buffet.

    It worked out well for Middleton, less so for the restaurant.

    Middleton, 5 feet 11 and a self-claimed 265 pounds, was just getting his appetite back a few days after being hospitalized for strep throat. He and his family were at the restaurant Thursday to try out the promise of $9.59 all-you-can-eat snow crab and pans of Chinese cuisine.

    "I didn't get this gut by being a vegetarian," said Middleton, hands on his stomach. "I like to eat."

    And eat he did. Rice, chicken, sweet-and-sour this and that, "everything from ice cream to egg rolls." And then there were the crab legs. Plates of crab legs.

    Middleton, 40, said he lost track of the number of times he visited the buffet. His guess: five trips, with multiple plates each time.

    He even caught the attention of other customers at China Dragon, 3312 U.S. 19.

    As they sat down, two rows over, Toni Bond half-whispered to her husband, Bill: "Look at all the plates on his table."

    Customers complained because every time an employee brought out a pan of snow crab legs, there was Middleton, plates in hand, said manager Andy Kwok.

    "It's a buffet," Middleton explained later, shrugging.

    "It's a buffet, but you can't take everything so the other customers can't take anything," Kwok said. It takes his chefs 15 minutes to get frozen crab legs ready for the buffet, and they couldn't keep up.

    After several trips to the buffet, Middleton said, the waitress dropped the check on his table. For him, his wife and his 5-year-old daughter, the bill came to $22.55.

    "It was a hint," Middleton said about the early arrival of the check. But he went back for another trip.

    Over a bowl of ice cream, Middleton watched as China Dragon employees gathered in a huddle, whispering and pointing at him.

    Moments later, the waitress picked up the check and returned it just as fast.

    On the check, under the first total, was "$10.00," circled. Next to the dollar amount were the words "Snow Crab."

    Middleton walked up to the counter, $25 in cash in hand, ready to pay the original bill.

    Middleton said the man ringing up his bill leaned over the counter, pointed to the $10 note and said, "You ate too much."

    Stories vary, but Middleton and restaurant staff got into a disagreement about the bill. Middleton, a part-time security guard, demanded that the Pasco County Sheriff's Office be called. Other employees started coming out. Customers started noticing.

    Middleton started calling out to customers over booth walls for a cell phone so he could call deputies.

    Kwok said he didn't care about getting his $10 anymore, he just wanted Middleton out.

    "They didn't care about the other customers," Kwok said about Middleton's party.

    Deputy Ken Petrillo eventually arrived, and after hearing both sides of the story, told Kwok he couldn't charge Middleton extra for his eating habits.

    Middleton left a little angry, and a little embarrassed.

    On Monday, he was laughing about the ordeal, so much so that he came to the St. Petersburg Times news bureau in Port Richey to tell what happens when a big appetite meets the limit of "all you can eat."

    For both Middleton and Kwok, it was a first.

    Kwok, who said the restaurant has been open a month, said he never had a customer like Middleton.

    And Middleton, who professes a fondness for buffets, said he has never had a problem with his appetite.

    "That isn't the first buffet I've been to," Middleton said, again patting his belly.

    "But this has never happened to me.

    "It was bizarre."

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