Slick, sleek & slimy

I have fond mem­o­ries, though my cho­les­terol lev­el does not, of eat­ing at D’Best Sand­wich Shop in Boca Raton. It’s been a few years, but as I  recent­ly munched on a Mia­mi Cuban-style cheeses­teak1 my mind start­ed wan­der­ing and I got to won­der­ing if D’Best still exist­ed. As I went look­ing for their web­site, I recalled a few of their region­al twists on the cheeses­teak, like the New York style, a New Jer­sey style… not to men­tion their incred­i­ble non-steak explo­sion of an entire Thanks­giv­ing meal direct­ly onto a bun (D’Pil­grim).

D’Best still exists, alright… but I was tru­ly unpre­pared for what I found.

You see, back when I’d vis­it, D’Best-the-subshop was a place you’d leave coat­ed with a thin lay­er of grill grease. Had to wait in line? You’re wash­ing your hair tonight. The place was by no means messy, but it had a cer­tain unfin­ished qual­i­ty to it… def­i­nite­ly the kind of place where the food mat­ters more than the brand­ing. I’d describe it as feel­ing some­how hon­est… com­plete­ly lack­ing in pre­tense. Kind of blue col­lar? Yeah, I guess.

You can prob­a­bly tell why I was expect­ing the web­site to be endear­ing­ly ter­ri­ble. I was ready for a lit­tle Com­ic Sans, an “under con­struc­tion” GIF, and a scanned paper menu — as a multi-megabyte bitmap, of course. That would seem nor­mal. Kind of quaint.

D’Best-the-website, how­ev­er, looks very pro­fes­sion­al. It’s fast, designed to mod­ern stan­dards, has eye-pleasing amounts of white­space — oh, for fuck­’s sake, it’s respon­sive — and is even served over HTTPS. Oh, and did I men­tion that it’s com­plete­ly lack­ing in char­ac­ter? It feels like it should belong to… I don’t know, L’Best Artisi­nal Pani­ni Bistro.2

And it very well could.

But what real­ly raised an eye­brow was this line:

We have an unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor. Con­nect with us and let us know how we are doing.

And also, this one:

We nev­er stop short of a culi­nary expe­ri­ence you’re sure to enjoy.

D’Best’s fla­vor may not waver, but you’d nev­er hear that out of their mouths. Their sand­wich­es may be deli­cious, but a “culi­nary expe­ri­ence” they are not. This is a place where the meat gets grilled by guys in foot­ball jer­seys, back­wards base­ball caps and maybe a tat­too or two.

Some­thing was rot­ten in the state of Boca, so I plugged the above phras­es into a search engine. And then I did one of these. It turns out there are at least 80,000 restau­rants whose web­sites promise the same “unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor,” and look more-or-less exact­ly the same as D’Best’s.

All of these, includ­ing D’Best and Hick­o­ry Hut St. Paul, say the’re “Pow­ered by Eat­Street,” a website-in-a-box ser­vice for restau­rants. Eat­Street seems to host these sites, and pro­vides them with a gener­ic design tem­plate as well. All of these dif­fer­ent restau­rants, from all over the coun­try, basi­cal­ly end up with the exact same web­site, with the exact same mes­sag­ing, except for a few small tweaks.

This feels a lit­tle slimy on the sur­face, but is there any­thing wrong with it? After all, restau­rants’ web­sites are of tru­ly hyper­local inter­est. I mean, nobody in DeKalb, Illi­nois is look­ing for D’Best. They’re more inter­est­ed in The Hud­dle Amer­i­can Food… which has the exact same web­site as D’Best. Sigh.

In the inter­est of being hon­est with myself, I tried to explore just which part of me was so offend­ed by this. Was I offend­ed as a food per­son? As a past D’Best devo­tee? Or as a copy­writer who can’t help but see this as a busi­ness get­ting by with­out need­ing the ser­vices of myself or some­one like me?

To reach the answer, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the own­er of D’Best, and I real­ized that, you know, it must have been a whole lot nicer to run not just restau­rants, but most kinds of local busi­ness­es before the Inter­net. Some per­son who real­ly needs to be wor­ry­ing about keep­ing rats out of the kitchen does­n’t want to think about about build­ing and secur­ing a web­site, plus deal­ing with all the Inter­net necessary-evils (Yelp, Google, Face­book, OpenTable, Square, Foursquare, etc.) that sup­pos­ed­ly exist to bring them cus­tomers, but instead use their stature to inter­me­di­ate the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship, and extract a recur­ring fee for doing so for the rest of for­ev­er. (Actu­al­ly, a few of those com­pa­nies would love it if D’Best decid­ed to give up on run­ning a stand­alone website.)

If Eat­Street can keep a sim­ple site up and run­ning smooth­ly, plus keep it more secure than the prover­bial site-by-nephew, is that real­ly such a bad thing? After all, a few decades in, the Inter­net is still not made for nor­mal peo­ple; there’s just too much that can go wrong if one does­n’t have the spe­cial­ized knowl­edge to do tech­ni­cal stuff prop­er­ly. There’s def­i­nite­ly val­ue in sim­pli­fy­ing things for a nor­mal per­son who just want to run their damn busi­ness­es. So even if Eat­Street is yet anoth­er friend­ly inter­me­di­ary, thanks to them one can order a D’Best Philly style online — con­sid­er my mind blown. Could that func­tion­al­i­ty exist with­out some cen­tral­ized ser­vice keep­ing the Inter­net gears run­ning smooth­ly in the back­ground, han­dling the cred­it cards and tak­ing a cut?

For all the upside they deliv­er in func­tion­al­i­ty and secu­ri­ty, how­ev­er, Eat­Sreet sure has their ten­drils into D’Best in an inadvisably-deep man­ner — a quick whois check shows that Eat­Street actu­al­ly owns D’Best’s domain name. Or should I say their new domain name. I found this oth­er domain that still con­tains an old­er D’Best web­site. While this site is still slick­er than it should be — remem­ber, my cheeses­teak place’s site should look a lit­tle like their paper menus, minus the grease stains — this site’s a lot clos­er to what I would expect. There are some typos. It’s got a page where you can meet the team. It has a freakin’ FAQ page where they tell you how to reheat a cheeses­teak (which, by the way, they say you should­n’t do).

This Inter­net archae­o­log­i­cal find is a sign that some­one once cared about and hand-crafted D’Best’s web pres­ence… but at some point said “fuck it, this Eat­Street thing does­n’t make me think.” Thanks to their scale, Eat­Street can cen­tral­ize best prac­tices for all of their cus­tomers, but they can’t cen­tral­ize the déclassé char­ac­ter, the local fla­vor, the unique greasy fin­ger­prints that inevitably end up on the web­site when it’s made by the own­er’s prover­bial teenage nephew.3

While those at the helm of D’Best can do what they think works for them, it just sucks to see a place with so much fla­vor take the path lack­ing in taste. But they have cheeses­teaks to make, and as long as peo­ple keep com­ing through the door to order these greasy won­ders on bread, they don’t have any­thing to wor­ry about.

Ulti­mate­ly, I guess I’m just writ­ing about myself and my pref­er­ences. While you could­n’t stop me from grab­bing a cheeses­teak if I hap­pened to be in the neigh­bor­hood, from where I’m stand­ing I can’t help but see big, lazy cen­tral­iza­tion as the sworn ene­my of good­ness. May I nev­er get too big to have taste.

  1. For the curi­ous: a sin­gle slab of steak topped with swiss cheese, mayo and pota­to sticks — a rather unhealthy twist on the ubiq­ui­tous pan con bis­tec, and also not a cheeses­teak.
  2. A hypo­thet­i­cal restau­rant I’d also total­ly eat at, by the way.
  3. Just kid­ding! Kids these days don’t actu­al­ly know how to use com­put­ers. They’d just set up a Face­book page.

The Premium McWrap packaging is very nicely designed

McDonald's Premium McWrap 1I’m clear­ly no stranger to mar­ket­ing, but my career has­n’t yet brought me in touch with prod­uct pack­ag­ing. I like pack­ag­ing, and I’ve actu­al­ly bought things over the years because they were nice­ly pack­aged — stuff like can­dy,1 Altoids Sours, some ran­dom bike part… and yes, I’ve even bought myself a few low-balance gift cards2 to keep in my this is so awe­some file.

I recent­ly found myself impressed with the card­board pack­ag­ing around the McDon­ald’s Pre­mi­um McWrap — I should prob­a­bly go ask for a clean one while they’re still avail­able. I guess I did­n’t notice when they added this item to the menu, because I ordered my first one by mis­take. My annoy­ance at pay­ing about dou­ble what I expect­ed turned to intrigue about as soon as I peeked into my drive-through bag.

Some of that price cer­tain­ly went into the pack­ag­ing design. What I found was­n’t a cheap paper-clad item like stan­dard McDon­ald’s wraps, but some­thing that actu­al­ly looks like a “pre­mi­um” product.

  • The box is rather thought­ful­ly designed, con­tain­ing the food very nice­ly with­in — you know, what you want from a container.
  • It has a pull-and-tear strip for open­ing the pack­age… and nat­u­ral­ly, the strip runs right past the Xbox ad unit on the front.
  • There’s a lit­tle tab sys­tem on the side of the box that’s there pri­mar­i­ly to indi­cate which wrap you ordered, but also to pas­sive­ly edu­cate you on the rest of the line­up. (“Oh look, they also have sweet chili flavor!”)
  • It does­n’t look like this should work, but once you’ve opened the pack­age, the box eas­i­ly stands upright, even with the wrap inside.
McDonald's Premium McWrap 2 McDonald's Premium McWrap 3

Wait, was what tasty?

  1. Still pissed that my par­ents would­n’t buy me Bub­ble Tape.
  2. Con­fuse your local cashier today — ask for a $1 gift card!

No Ovaltine please — we’re cool

As a kid, I did­n’t know any­thing about Oval­tine aside from their com­mer­cials, so I had­n’t seen it as a spon­sor of clas­sic radio and tele­vi­sion, as a joke on Sein­feld, or as a big fat liar in A Christ­mas Sto­ry. I can’t remem­ber any of my friends hav­ing any­thing to say about it, either.

I was total­ly unbiased.

But from the com­pa­ny’s mar­ket­ing alone, I could tell that rich choco­late Oval­tine was uncool. I had nev­er drunk any — and decades lat­er, I still haven’t — but if I ever had, I cer­tain­ly would­n’t have told any­one about it.

I’m not exact­ly sure why the stuff made my lame-sense tin­gle as a kid. Maybe because Oval­tine was named after a shape (and shapes are for lit­tle kids), or that its mar­ket­ing proud­ly pro­claimed that it was full of vit­a­mins (like every­thing par­ents love, and kids don’t), but what I sus­pect it was… was a lit­tle more basic than that.

Watched the ad above? Note the end­ing. “More Oval­tine, please!” closed all Oval­tine ads of my child­hood. My present-day cyn­i­cal, works-in-marketing self can imag­ine some agency sell­ing this con­cept to the Oval­tine com­pa­ny with “Look, these kids not only love this vitamin-filled drink, but they love it so much they’ll devel­op man­ners and ask for it polite­ly! Par­ents will eat this up!”

But my kid self saw things a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. “Wow, these kids are super-polite. That’s total­ly uncool.1 I don’t want this. Where’s the Nestlé Quik? That rab­bit is cool.”

There’s a mar­ket­ing mes­sage here, and it prob­a­bly goes a lit­tle some­thing like this:

If you have dif­fer­ent tar­gets, your mes­sag­ing needs to speak dif­fer­ent­ly (use “code-switching”) when speak­ing to dif­fer­ent tar­gets — there’s per­il to face when one tar­get receives a mes­sage tai­lored to anoth­er. It may fall on deaf ears, or maybe turn them off, entire­ly. Tell my mom about the vit­a­mins — tell me about the chocolate.

And so on. But there’s also a human mes­sage here:

Look, as you grow you’re encour­aged to “act your age” and as part of that, cast aside things and behav­iors asso­ci­at­ed with peo­ple younger than you, and instead do things that are more becom­ing for some­one as grown as you are. Soci­ety beats the kid out of you.

To be able to act your age is won­der­ful and arguably nec­es­sary… as long as you can still, as they say, “walk a mile” in small­er shoes when the sit­u­a­tion calls for it. And, of course, rec­og­nize why a kid — this kid, kind of grown up now — may not be inter­est­ed in your vit­a­min drink, how­ev­er how rich and choco­latey it might be.

 

  1. Full dis­clo­sure: I was kind of a polite kid, and I def­i­nite­ly thought I was uncool. Shoe fits.

There was bread in the air

It was dark and the car was point­ed east — some express­way was behind it and some more was ahead, with the exact pro­por­tions rapid­ly chang­ing. Its win­dows were down and its sun­roof was too. Around here, la madre nat­u­raleza usu­al­ly cra­dles us close to her sticky and often gross bosom, but she had tak­en the night off.

In Mia­mi, mid-60s is fair­ly cool for any time of year. I take what I can get.

I could­n’t hear what was play­ing because the engine and the wind were too loud, and I was deter­mined not to be that guy. I prob­a­bly had some­thing on my mind too, but who can remem­ber? For a stretch of road per­haps a half-mile long, how­ev­er, the air and my thoughts were sud­den­ly full of the unmis­tak­able scent of freshly-baked… sour­dough. I think it was sourdough.

This was pleas­ing to me. Then it went away. I kept driving.

Deliciously clever dessert marketing

dessert

I went to a restau­rant recent­ly, one that could be placed com­fort­ably in the same genre as Cheese­cake Fac­to­ry. Nice atmos­phere, food’s great. But what stood out most to me was the way they mar­ket­ed desserts.

What would you think the top rea­son is that peo­ple don’t order dessert? I’d guess that the first or sec­ond (the oth­er being health/weight con­cerns) is that their entrée leaves them too full to eat more. How do you sell a dessert to some­one who’s too stuffed to eat one? Get them to order it before they’re stuffed.

Our serv­er ini­tial­ly men­tioned, then remind­ed us on almost every appear­ance she made at our table, that all of their desserts are deli­cious, made-to-order and take up to 30 min­utes to pre­pare, so my din­ing com­pan­ion and I should get our dessert order in ear­ly if we don’t want to wait.

This might not give a non-critical thinker pause, but — you know — I tend to notice when some­one’s reach­ing for my wal­let. I also under­stand that restau­rants tend to run at pret­ty slim prof­it mar­gins, and how impor­tant attach rates of desserts, drinks and appe­tiz­ers are to their business.

They real­ly want you to have that slice of cheese­cake, even if they’re prob­a­bly going to be box­ing it up to-go. Clever, huh?

New Orleans, in food

To say that my sis­ter and I enjoyed the food dur­ing our trip to New Orleans would be an under­state­ment. Antic­i­pat­ing a blog post like this (and for pos­ter­i­ty), I took pho­tos of near­ly every­thing we ate, and checked in at each restau­rant using Foursquare.

Foursquare nor­mal­ly annoys me, but in this case, was very help­ful in log­ging all the places we went, on which days we went, and so on.

(Unless oth­er­wise not­ed, my meal is in the foreground.)



Tues­day, March 9




Dinner: Parasol’s Restaurant & Bar

Me: Hot Sausage Po Boy. Despite being a life­long dis­lik­er of pick­les, I decid­ed to try my sand­wich with them any­way, hav­ing order­ing it “dressed.” While I’m not sure they added much, it was not bad with pick­les. Mine was also a lit­tle light on meat, at least com­pared to Allison’s.

Alli­son: Roast Beef Po Boy.


Wednes­day, March 10




Lunch: Gumbo Shop

Me: Red Beans & Rice with Smoked Sausage Gum­bo. Gum­bo was yumbo.

Alli­son: Chick­en Andouille Gumbo.





Dinner: Port of Call

Both: Burg­ers (mine with cheese, hers with mush­rooms) with baked pota­to. While I was a lit­tle sur­prised at the lack of fries as an option, I did­n’t mind at all. The baked pota­to was amaz­ing. Also, I was­n’t going to break out the flash, but yeah, the light­ing was a lit­tle on the low side.


Thurs­day, March 11




Brunch: Slim Goodies Diner

Me: Robert John­son Burger

Alli­son: Havana Omelet. Came with tortillas!





Snack: Creole Creamery

Me: Black & Gold Crunch Ice Cream

Alli­son: Oat­meal Cook­ie Ice Cream


Dinner: Verti Marte

Ver­ti Marte, a con­ve­nience store with sand­wich counter in the back, had no seat­ing, so we ate this meal in the car. Sor­ry, no pho­to; we were hungry.

Me: Muf­falet­ta, some­thing I had nev­er tried. My reac­tion was along the lines of: “I’m pret­ty sure I’d list half of the ingre­di­ents on my do-not-like list, but boy are they good togeth­er!” Quite pos­si­bly my food high­light of the trip.

Alli­son: BBQ Po Boy


Fri­day, March 12




Lunch: Willie Mae’s Scotch House

Me: Chick­en Fried Pork Chop. Mine was good, but I was jeal­ous of her chicken.

Alli­son: Fried chick­en. Quite pos­si­bly the best I’ve ever tried.





Dinner: Slice

Alli­son: (From left) Bacon, Basil, and Gar­lic; Pineap­ple; Fresh




Me: (From left) Jalapeño and Andouille Sausage; Greek; Fresh




New Orleans: A++++ Would nom again~~~