I ate at Chipotle for the very first time after seeing this video:
OK, so I like Willie Nelson. You go to Chipotle’s, you can feel good knowing the animals you eat have been treated properly. You know the food is fresh, you know the food is good for you.
Dinner for two was $20. No tip, so that’s out the door for three crispy steak tacos, one burrito bowl, and two small soft drinks.
Now, $20 is less than we pay when we go to Juan’s Place, so I can’t exactly say that Chipotle is overpriced. At Juan’s, we’re at home (if you don’t believe me, look at my picture on the wall), we’ve gone there for a few decades, everybody knows everybody, they’re always throwing in something special for free. It’s the kind of place, the kind of atmosphere, the kind of people where you are glad to leave a big fat tip, so even if the food itself wasn’t more expensive than Chipotle’s, the tip pushes it over the top. Still, Juan’s isn’t that expensive … maybe $35 tops for two big plates of food with plenty of leftovers to take home for later, bottomless drinks, great atmosphere and service.
If we go to Taco Bell, we spend $15 at the most for enough food to more than fill two stomachs. There is no service to speak of, the food is only marginally “Mexican”, and god only knows what went into the food before it appeared on our plate. If you can bring yourself down from your high horse, you’ll find that the food tastes good … that’s the evil secret of fast food, they know how to make it taste good so you want to come back for more, whether by adding sugar or salt or fat or whatever.
So, the question is, what was I paying for when I spent $20 at Chipotle? The food was healthier than the food at Taco Bell, although I don’t know if it’s healthier than Juan’s. Some would argue that the smaller portions at Chipotle are a good thing, since Americans eat too much, but that kinda goes out the window when you’re hungry two hours later and have to eat again. The service is no better or worse than the service at Taco Bell, which is to say there is no service beyond taking your order and handing you the food.
You are spending $5 extra over Taco Bell to feel better about yourself because they were nice to the pigs before they killed them. I can see why that’s worth it; I try to buy organic (not natural) meat, myself, even though it costs more. What surprised me on my first visit to Chipotle, though, was that the entire experience was far closer to Taco Bell than it was to Juan’s. If I’m going to spend more than a Taco Bell’s worth of money, I’d just as soon go visit my friends at Juan’s, where the food is good and the people are better. I’m sure the people at Chipotle are nice. I’m just as sure that they won’t still be working there 30 years from now, greeting old friends.
I suppose I should say a few words about Larry Blake’s, now that the place has closed down. As is often the case when your blog has been around for nine years, I’ve probably told all of these anecdotes before.
To get the basics out of the way, I’ll quote the Chronicle article:
Blake opened the restaurant in 1940 with a $700 investment. The restaurant's initial selling point was that it was the first establishment within a mile of campus to gain an alcohol license. Before this breakthrough, thirsty Cal students had to travel to Oakland, Albany or San Pablo Avenue to imbibe.
Larry Blake's second claim to fame was the salad dressing, a closely guarded recipe Blake reportedly devised while working as a cook in the military during World War II.
That salad dressing was delicious, by the way … I got a salad almost every time I ate there, just for the dressing. It was some kind of vinaigrette … might have used balsamic vinegar, I’m not sure.
What follows is a blend of fact, memory, and third-hand tale-telling. Before opening Larry Blake’s on Telegraph, Blake ran a place around the corner on Bancroft called Woody’s. (One last time: I’m not vouching for the accuracy of anything in this post.) I don’t know if the above-mentioned restaurant that opened in 1940 was Woody’s, or if that marks the time when Woody’s on Bancroft became Larry Blake’s on Telegraph. Based on what I know, I’m guessing Woody’s opened in 1940, and the move to Telegraph came later.
My mother grew up in Berkeley. She was 12 years old in 1940, and yes, her age makes some of this story sound a bit … well, you’ll see. In that year, or close enough to count, her father, George Harrison (no, not the Beatle), the chief engineer for an oil burner company (I have no idea what that is, I’m taking this from his obit in the Oakland Tribune), moved out of the house and into the Durant Hotel. I’ve heard various explanations for this, but the most believable seems to be that my grandmother kicked him out. As it was told to me, my mom and her family did OK during the Depression … her dad always had his engineering job. Once he left, though, the money left with him. He died in June of the following year … he was only 41, and I’ve been told he drank himself to death, and that he was a brilliant but troubled man.
Now, I know that part of the story is that my mom got a job waitressing. The age thing has me confused, but maybe it was different back then, and maybe 12 or 13-year-old girls waited tables. In any event, she waited tables, and the place where she worked was Woody’s. I believe her mom might have worked there, too … more about her and Larry Blake in a bit.
Sometime in the early 40s, my dad graduated from Antioch High School and started college at Cal. My sister knows more of this than I do, and hopefully she’ll correct me in the comments. He only lasted one semester before he joined the Army, and I think he was in the service during 1944-5. So maybe it was the fall of 1943 when he was at Cal … he would have been 19 at the time. Maybe this was a year earlier, 1942 when he was 18. Anyway, Woody’s was across the street from campus, and one day, my dad went there and my mom was working there, and that’s when they met.
Back to the age thing. If I place this in the fall of 1943, it doesn’t sound so bad … my dad a 19-year-old college freshman, my mom a 15-year-old high-schooler. If it was 1942, well, let’s don’t go there. However it began, in July of 1945, they were married.
Now there’s the gossip part of the story … my sister told me this one, I think. Someone, maybe a sister of my grandmother, once said that after my grandfather died, there was only one person who my grandmother seriously thought of marrying: Larry Blake.
Well, the rest of the story is barely worth telling, mostly a post-script. Robin and I ate at Blake’s a lot when we were first married and lived on Telegraph, and during my 14-year association with Cal, I would often suggest Blake’s when someone wanted to go to lunch. The salad dressing was always good. At some point, I ended up with a photo of the place when it was Woody’s on Bancroft … I brought it with me to Blake’s one time and told our server that my parents had met there back in the 40s. I haven’t been there for several years, though, and now I guess I’ll never get back.
On the old original Japanese version of Iron Chef, it often seemed as if whatever the ingredient of the day was, at least one of the chefs would find a way to turn it into ice cream.
Tuesday night, Robin and I had dinner at eVe, a new restaurant in Berkeley. The dishes were unique, almost as if the chef made them up on the spot. I had a chestnut soup with chocolate and cayenne and mango and apple and other stuff. My steak was perfect, and surrounded by curds and whey, mustard greens, chanterelles, and who knows what else. Robin, meanwhile, had “Farm Egg” for an appetizer (it had grits, among other things) and monkfish for the main course.
Dessert is what reminded me of Iron Chef. We both opted for the flourless chocolate cake, which was more like fudge. It came with a pear, and a small scoop of ice cream that tasted a bit like maple. The waitress informed us that this was Candy Cap Ice Cream, made from candy cap mushrooms found in the Berkeley Hills. Mushroom ice cream … v.Iron Chef.
I have no idea what the “answer” to this is, but it occurred to me as we were eating breakfast. We go to the Homemade Café on most Saturdays, and occasionally on other days of the week. We’ve been going there for close to 30 years, and since it’s only been open for 31, I guess that makes us long-term customers. We go often enough that I am, as of this typing, the Foursquare Mayor of the Homemade Café. They know what our usual orders are, they treat us well … I’m not saying it’s better than whatever café you might frequent, I’m just noting that this is “our” café.
What I was wondering today was simply, how does a small business become a success? By “success,” I mean a place like the Homemade Café … I don’t know the finances of the place, but it’s been open for 31 years, and at some point in those three decades I think we have to accept that it’s a successful operation. But we all know that most small businesses fail, and we all know that restaurants come and go with some frequency. How do the successes pull it off?
Thinking about the specifics of the Homemade Café, I’d say the food is maybe half of the equation, or a little more. Perhaps 50% of their success lies in not sucking … they don’t often give you a reason to stay away, if that makes sense. But the quality of the food above the level of “doesn’t suck” likely adds only an incremental increase to their success. They have no real signature dishes … maybe the home fries, I don’t know … it’s pretty standard fare, eggs, potatoes, coffee, with the touches of Berkeley necessary to make a go of it here. The location is both good and bad … good because it’s a corner location that gets a lot of car traffic, so people are aware of it, bad because it’s not in the best neighborhood, although I’m not sure non-residents know that.
I think the staff is crucial. If you read Yelp etc. you’ll find people complaining about the rude service, but outside of the hurried nature of things when it’s packed, I haven’t seen this. Of course, they know us, so we’re going to get treated as a regular, but really, they don’t strike me as rude.
More important, though, is that there is very low turnover amongst the staff. I forget how much we know, but I’m pretty sure the pay is decent and includes benefits, and there’s a fairly egalitarian feel to the workforce. Whatever it is, I don’t suppose we see more than one new server a year, if that, and there are people who have been there a really long time. There’s something to be said for a place where you know the same people will be there when you show up.
Honestly, though, I still have no idea why this particular café is successful when others are not. I’m tempted to ascribe it all to luck, with the knowledge that we often make our own good luck. There are better cafes that have failed, and who knows why?
I don’t always drink, but when I do, I prefer …
Well, I prefer non-alcoholic beverages, let’s be honest. Ice-cold water, Fanta limon, limeade. If I have alcohol, my choice for a few decades now has been beer. I can’t remember the last time I had hard likker … and it’s been even longer since I had a mixed drink. It’s not a moral stance, I just don’t like being drunk, and I don’t always know when to stop, although I’ll have wine with dinner once in awhile and never feel the need to drink too much. Maybe I do know how to stop, now … I am a grownup, after all.
So this is more a nostalgic post than a current affairs post. I did most of my drinking in my 20s, when I worked in the factory. That was the only time in my life I went to bars with any regularity, and “regular” is stretching the truth a bit. But I would go to bars on occasion, I would often get drunk when I did go, and I’ve puked in a few interesting places in my day.
But that’s not what interests me here. I’m remembering how my choice of alcohol was always a conscious one, and how my choice was not always, or even usually, about what I liked to drink.
It took me awhile to like beer, which seemed like an acquired taste at first. But I would choose beer whenever I wanted to emphasize my blue-collar status. We’d be out with … well, with the kind of person I turned into, let’s be honest … and I’d get all aggressively working-class, and that meant beer!
What I really liked was sour drinks. Margaritas were always acceptable, and I’d order them whenever I didn’t feel the need to trumpet the fact that my clothes got dirty where I worked. Even better were whiskey sours. It seems like a billion years ago, but there was indeed a time when I’d go to bars and order whiskey sours. I haven’t had one of those in decades, can barely recall what they tasted like. But it was the closest I came to an adult’s drink. Beer, well, even teenagers drink beer. Margaritas were like Slurpees. But whiskey sours? Made with real likker, served in real glasses, “on the rocks.” When I drank a whiskey sour, I was pretending to be a grownup.
And that gets to the point, I suspect. I can talk about the class-based reasons for choosing what I drank, but more important was how much I did or didn’t want to feel like an adult. Mixed drinks were something my parents enjoyed, not my generation. We did drugs.
And I’ve never gotten over that feeling. I am 57 years old, and to this day, if I go to a contemporary’s home and they have a liquor cabinet, or even just a bottle of nice Scotch in the cupboard, I am surprised … look at these people, it’s like they think they are grownups!
Honestly, the alcohol-related item I would most like to see on my table these days is grasshopper pie. Anyone out there make it?
Cameron Scott on “progressive aesthetics”:
Nobody would claim that Safeway is green. But Trader Joe's isn't either. I've written before about the excess packaging at the store. And TJ's is also under pressure by Greenpeace to agree to buy sustainable seafood. (Sign the petition here.)
This housemate is certainly not alone in averting her gaze from our buddy Joe's flaws. What's the deal? I have two theories. First, a low price will buy you a lot of good will. And, second, TJ's appeals to a progressive aesthetic by carrying fewer processed foods, fewer chemical cleaners, and more alcohol (whose supply chain is hardly green). Put all that in a less industrial setting and, voila, you have customer loyalty that has absolutely nothing to do with your purchasing practices, and may even believe they are what they're not.
There may be one other factor: Unlike either Safeway or Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's is privately held. That makes it harder to dig up dirt on the company and to do anything about what you find.
We celebrated the 4th of July with our daughter Sara, at her urban farm in Rancho Cordova, just outside of Sacramento. Earlier in the year for her birthday, we had bought Sara a pig, which she named Chili, in part to remind her what the animal’s ultimate fate would be. Here’s what Chili looked like awhile back:
Yesterday morning, a large crew from the farm, along with some much-welcomed guidance from a few friends (notably Mundo, who provided just the right amount of mentoring), slaughtered Chili and quickly processed the remains:
When Robin and I arrived in the early afternoon, most of the work had been done … Mundo and his son Ray were cutting the last parts into pieces for carnitas. Mundo brought a carnitas pot his mother had given him 25 years ago, and folks proceeded to cook up what became a delicious batch of one of my favorite dishes:
There were also chicharrones, loins … well, basically, everything. We were lucky to take home some leftover carnitas and a frozen loin.
Meanwhile, there was other fun going on. Sara’s farm is by a river:
A farmer’s work is never done, and so the sheep had to be corralled into their pen:
The deer get to play wherever they want:
Before the eating began, everyone formed a circle and Sara said a few words about her pig and all that had happened that day, thanking everyone who had helped with Chili over the months she was on the farm. Later, I talked to some of the farm folks who had been closely associated with Chili, and they marveled not only at how good the food was, but also at how amazing the process was, from morning kill to evening meal. They had great respect for Mundo’s expertise, felt they had learned something important, and also knew that what they had done was … well, Sara used the word “humane,” and I can’t think of a better word … what’s the animal equivalent of “humane”? I thought about how meat is usually processed in this country … the thing that really hit home for me is that as I stood where the food was being served, I could see where Chili had lived, maybe a hundred yards away. No wrapping it up, freezing it, transporting it across the country … it was ecological the way meat rarely is.
Honestly, I’m not one to get too emotional about my meat … Chili tasted good, that’s mostly what mattered to me. But it was also good to see what an impact she had on Sara and her friends and workmates. Even if I didn’t make a spiritual connection, I appreciated that connection existed for many, and I was glad to be there.
There was a carnival right next to the farm, and so just before 10:00 we got to watch some fireworks, which capped off a memorable 4th of July, especially since Sara and I have shared many fireworks nights at Giants games over the years:
On this date, 25 years ago, in the middle of our first-ever trip to Europe, I had my birthday dinner at a small town in France.
We spent most of the day driving north through France. I can remember stopping at one place for a beverage and a dinner roll, and thinking "is this going to be the highlight of my birthday?" I tried not to say anything, but it was kinda depressing.
Then we stopped for the night, and went to a restaurant that was next to a creek and had outdoor seating. The seating was a bit haphazard ... folding chairs and tables ... and the proximity of the creek meant the ground was damp. At one point, as I was making some brilliant comment about some very important item, I started to sink. The damp ground was swallowing up my chair, and slowly but surely I dropped down while everyone else laughed. OK, I laughed, too ... face it, by that point we were all drunk.
We weren't the only drunk ones, but more about that in a second. First, the food. I ordered a plate of various meats. What arrived was a huge basket full of salamis and hams and sausages, along with a knife. I was told to cut off whatever I wanted. This was, as you can imagine, my idea of heaven.
About that other drunk person. When the first bottle of wine arrived, my soon-to-be brother-in-law who later became my ex-brother-in-law but who was important to this story because he was the only one of us who spoke French, this fine fellow invited the waiter to join us in a glass. Which he did. After that, every time we refilled, the waiter refilled as well. On through the night we went, until I couldn't take it anymore and I wandered off to take a leak (my bladder worked better in those younger days). I get to the bathroom, but someone is there, leaning against the wall and pissing, so I wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, the guy emerges ... and yes, it was our waiter. Seems I wasn't the only one with too much liquid in my system.
By the time this post appears, I'll be spending my birthday in Spain, alongside John and Katie, whose anniversary falls on June 20, as well, and who will be with us for the Nerja leg of our vacation. Hopefully, I'll have something lovely to report then.
We're at Day on the Farm, and right now my daughter is giving a cooking demonstration. It's especially amazing because when she was little, she would pretend to be Julia Child, and now she IS Julia Child.