Star@ucked

“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
– Stephen Stills

Ever think about some of the food you loved as a kid, or even more recently? Ever wonder why you can’t get it anymore? Me too.

Change is good–sometimes. But sometimes I don’t get what people are thinking. I was just reminiscing about some of the fast food giants in America and the products they offered that made them what they were.

A few years ago (probably close to 20 now that I think about it) there was a a little fast-food restaurant named Frank-R-Furters that had a slogan, “What America needs is a good 19-cent hamburger.” They had hamburgers for 19 cents, and cheeseburgers were something like a quarter. I stopped in and got a couple one day…and after consuming them with all the gusto of a hound dog I said to myself, “You know…what America needs is a GOOD 19-cent hamburger.”

Frank-R-Furters didn’t last.And there was another group that tried to cash in on the obvious success of the fast-food genre by offering a low-cost burger that was delivered via drive-thru with lightning speed. Can’t remember their name, but I drove through one day and ordered a plain cheeseburger. I don’t do vegetables or condiments (I know…weird), and when I say plain I mean PLAIN. A patty, slice of cheese, and two pieces of bread. That’s all I’m looking for. So the voice on the other end of the speaker box say, “All of our burgers come with ketchup, mustard, and a pickle. We can’t make them any other way. Would you like one of ours?”

No.

Seriously. Is it a surprise they didn’t make it to Christmas that year?

Just last night I had the experience of a lifetime. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

I don’t drink coffee like I used to, and frankly since the first Starbucks opened in my town in 1996 or so I was sucked in and seldom open my mind to anything else. I have often defended them to the opposition by stating that if anyone else was able to produce such a high quality product with such consistency they would be as successful as Starbucks too. I even worked for the caffeine magnate for a short time.

Through a series of events in early 2000 I cut out the regular stuff and only drink decaf now, and I stopped by an oft visited branch last night for a cup. After some confusion the cute little barista girl looked at me and I thought she was about to ask what I wanted. It was kind of weird because she took my friend’s order and then went back to doing her cleaning tasks, having never said a word to me. She thought that I had already been helped, though it never occurred to her that I had walked in with the guy whose order she had just taken, and that she was the only one taking orders. How could she have…oh, nevermind.

Another barista walked up and I ordered a small decaf coffee. He rang me up, took my money, and then walked off. After a couple of minutes he came back and it occurred to him that no one was making my order. Must have been the perplexed expression on my face. So he says, “Oh, I thought she had already made your order, plus we don’t make decaf after 12-noon. I can make you an Americano (espresso and hot water) or something else.”

So when you took my money for the small decaf, what did you mean by that exactly?

“Can you make me an Americano for the same price as the regular cup of coffee?”

“I guess so.”

“Because I would expect that”

“Well”, he responded snottily, “It’s not our policy, but I’ll do it this time.”

OK, let’s review this deal here… You’re Starbucks. You make and sell coffee. IT’S ALL YOU DO!

You make two kinds…regular and decaf. There is nothing else. Okay, yeah sure, there are some with milk, some with froth, some with chocolate, some with flavored syrups, some cold or even frozen…but essentially you make regular and decaffeinated COFFEE.

JUST DO THAT!

When did you decide that after 12 o’clock in the afternoon you would cut your product line in half, thereby forcing your loyal customers who drive out of their way to get to you, and don’t want to drink a mug full of speed at bedtime, to pay more for being your customer? Why do you think that this is acceptable?

This is where it starts.

When I was younger Wendy’s slogan was “Hot and Juicy”. They had an ad campaign that implied that you had to have a huge stack of napkins to eat one of their burgers. California’s Carl’s Jr. revived this long deceased campaign with, “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face.” Of course, then they put Paris Hilton out there as one of the spokespeople for this concept…’nuff said.

When’s the last time you ate at Wendy’s? Was it either hot or juicy? Not mine. Why did they discontinue this line of marketing? Was it because they changed their products and they could no longer back up the claims? Or was it because our culture sickened to the point that the Hot & Juicy slogan began to be associated with little Wendy and not her daddy’s delicious burgers?

They had a chicken sandwich that was incredible. Chicken Cordon Bleu. Nice, tender, moist, fried chicken breast with high quality thin-sliced ham, Swiss cheese (that melted onto the chicken), and a sauce made from Grey Poupon mustard. Man was that thing tasty. Can’t get it anymore. Why?

They had a burger too that they threw on as a special from time to time. Couple patties on a soft cornmeal-dusted bun with grilled onions and cheddar cheese sauce. Might have had some bacon involved as well. Now that was a good burger, and it brought back the need for mucho napkins! Can’t have that one today either. But then again, today no amount of bubbling liquid cheese would effectively counteract the powder dry squares of lukewarm ground meat on little Wendy’s sagging buns.

When I was a kid I looked forward to getting a Yumbo from Burger King, and an Ice Br-Gr (burger). The Yumbo was simply a hot ham and cheese sandwich on a sesame seed bun. The ham was piled high and tender, and the cheese may have been that white American stuff, or maybe not, but it was a damned good sandwich for when you’re just tired of burgers. The Ice Br-Gr was a little frozen juice dessert, kind of like a popsicle without a stick. I know they had grape and I don’t remember what else, but it was yummy. All that was back when Burger King “flame broiled” everything. Today about the only time you see a flame at a Burger King is if you accidentally catch the cooks smoking crack out by the dumpster.

Church’s Chicken used to have chicken legs the size of my arm. Oversized pieces of chicken were their trademark. Not anymore. Today Hooter’s wings are bigger than Churches legs (though Church’s breasts are real), and you have to ask for the jalapeno that they used to throw in whether you wanted it or not.

And there was a Holly Farms chicken place that invented those soft, spicy batter-dipped potato wedges that you can only get at low-end grocers and truck stops now. Damn those things were good.

Little Caesar’s always had crappy pizza, but they used to have this sandwich called the Big Deal Veal. One of those little fried mystery-meat breaded veal patties was enrobed in pretty decent marinara and a slice of provolone, and then stuffed into a half of a pita pocket. I could down those suckers by the six pack on a Friday night during my high school daze. I still crave them today and I’m coming up on my 25th high school reunion.

When I lived in California the first time Carl’s Jr. won me over with a Western Steak Sandwich that featured a grilled, chunked-and-formed (though you’d never know it) steak on a soft sub roll with bacon, barbecue sauce, cheese, and onion rings. I’d eat those things twice a day. And on the off days I’d get the Spicy Western Chicken Sandwich that combined a fried breast with Pepper Jack cheese and chunky bacon ranch sauce. Damn! Both delectables were gone when I returned 5 years later. Too bad Carl. Guess it’s just In-N-Out for me now.

Now there’s a burger place. Never been to In-N-Out? Don’t know what to tell you. They have burgers, fries, milkshakes, and sodas. Nothing fancy. But for some reason they do it better than anyone else in the biz, though you have to head west to find out for yourself.

Dairy Queen used to have the best burgers–and ice cream too. Not anymore. I still crave the footlong cheese dogs that dad used to take me to get at Wiener King (long deceased). Cadbury Creme Eggs and Reese’s Cups seem to get smaller every year, and I’d swear that Hershey’s Kisses are made from different chocolate and that M&M’s changed something in the flavoring of the candy shells.

I know it’s tough. Being a chef and a 25 year veteran of the food business I am fully aware that customers are like fish. They troll around mindlessly until the next shiny thing passes catches their eye and they’re gone. Human nature stuff. And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the rules change

You know who hasn’t changed? Two places… McDonalds and a handful of Greek owned neighborhood grills and “greasy spoons” in town. Two in particular in my town, Zack’s and Mr. K’s, have been going since before I was born, and they have the same size of the same burger that they’ve been making since their inception. That’s why I keep going back. The original owners of both are still alive, but their kids run the businesses. I’m on a first name basis with them, and it saddens me to see some new concepts coming in and stealing their customers.

Every town has at least one. My all-time favorite is actually inSpartanburg, SC–The Beacon Drive-In. I’ve written about them before. They ain’t changed nothin’ in 60 years!

And Mickey D’s? The same old phrase, “It ain’t great, but it’s always the same. You know what you’re gonna get”. That’s why they’re the most successful business in the history of food. Always will be.

Why can’t everyone else just get that?