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!

Winamp — “feel the love”

Winamp 2.95I prob­a­bly haven’t used Winamp in a decade, but learn­ing that it’s final­ly going away for good brought it back to the top of my mind this week.

Winamp was­n’t just my pri­ma­ry digital-music-playing-thing1 — like many peo­ple, it was the first thing I ever used to play MP3s.

Yes Junior, back then Win­dows Media Play­er was for CDs and WAV files, and iTunes did­n’t exist yet.2

What made Winamp so awe­some? I could devote a whole post3  to the genius of Winamp skins, and things I’ve been read­ing (1, 2, 3) over­whelm­ing­ly ref­er­ence the clas­sic “whip the lla­ma’s ass” sound clip — which, in addi­tion to being a neat lit­tle brand­ing thing, was per­ma­nent­ly imprint­ed on every­one’s mem­o­ry by being the first thing that would play after installation.

Those were cool, but my favorite Winamp mem­o­ry is some­thing a lit­tle less… super­fi­cial, per­haps? It’s a short piece of writ­ing that long ago was fea­tured on the “About” page of winamp.com:

What is Winamp? A play­er you say? No, no baby. Winamp is much more than that.

Winamp is a lifestyle. It is freestyle. Give me a word. Ver­sa­til­i­ty? Yeah. Vision­ary? Of course. Com­mu­ni­ty? Now you’re talking.

Winamp lives because it’s users have a life.

Winamp is in the cof­fee house. On the lap­top. Of the guy. Who is writ­ing the screen­play. That you will be watch­ing next year.

Winamp is on the screen. In the club. Where the DJ plays the tracks. That get you through the night.

Winamp is with you. When you take your playlist. Push it to the ether. And share the music that you love. With all of humanity.

Winamp lets you put togeth­er the sound­track. That runs in the back­ground of your mind. And allows you to define your life.

Winamp is your skin. Allow­ing you to look and feel the way you want.

Winamp is what it is and noth­ing more. But you are the one who makes it. Winamp is there for you. It is yours. What hap­pens next? You tell me. Down­load Winamp.

-jonathan “feel the love” ward

Read­ing it back then left me a bit misty, filled with this strange­ly inspired feel­ing. The piece comes to mind every once in a while, at which point I seek out a copy to re-read it. Look, I can’t point to any­thing in par­tic­u­lar that I wrote or cre­at­ed thanks to this inspi­ra­tion. But in some way, it made me think dif­fer­ent­ly not just about the pow­er of music, but the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of what would oth­er­wise seem like triv­ial soft­ware. Read­ing this made me feel like Winamp did more than just “play music.”

But in real­i­ty, that’s all it did. Or was there more?

Give me a word. Hyper­bole? Maybe. Awe­some? Undeniable.

  1. Until iTunes for Win­dows showed me the val­ue in hav­ing a library of files. Yeah, I know Winamp has a library fea­ture, but I nev­er used it.
  2. Oh, and by the way, MP3s were these things peo­ple used to lis­ten to before there was YouTube.
  3. And, shit, I may — Winamp was doing skeu­mor­phics before Apple did skeu­mor­phics before Apple stopped doing skeu­mor­phics.

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.

Can we just drop this?

If you’re not a rap­per pro­mot­ing your new album — and espe­cial­ly if you’re a non-rapper who works in mar­ket­ing — can you do us a favor and not use “drop” to mean “the date on which [my thing] is set to be released”?

I’m sor­ry you’ve cho­sen e‑mail spam or what­ev­er the fuck you do for a liv­ing, but talk­ing about the day your new cam­paign or what­ev­er “drops” does­n’t make you sound hip or hard or whatever.

There is one accept­able use out­side the rap game: are you a preg­nant woman dis­cussing the date your kid is due to be born? Then that’s… actu­al­ly total­ly cool.

Lil’ shorty drops Novem­ber 7th. Yeah.”
–Expec­tant mother

Movie Mom Advice from Netflix

Net­flix has me trained pret­ty well — I know nev­er to read the red envelopes that show up at my place. These days, the flip side is always a pro­mo for some exclu­sive orig­i­nal series I don’t care about. House of Cards is amaz­ing? That’s won­der­ful; let me know when I can actu­al­ly stream some god­damn movies, okay?

That’s why I was sur­prised when tonight’s Net­flix envelopes actu­al­ly man­aged to catch my eye. On my way back from the mail­box I found both clev­er­ly embla­zoned with dif­fer­ent life tips from movie moms. Tonight’s haul came wrapped in choice bits of For­rest Gump and Brave — time­ly for Moth­er’s Day and all that.

 

I won­der how many designs there actu­al­ly are in the series — I’m guess­ing far few­er than the hun­dreds the num­ber­ing sys­tem seems to sug­gest. I’ll be look­ing for more in a few days.

That’s actu­al­ly pret­ty sweet of them. I’ll… be sure to let mom know.