Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wheels Up

Place: Which Wich?
Lunch: Italian grinder, house chips, ice water

Dumb name, right?  The whole experience is weird to boot.  You order by finding a (sand)Wich on a menu board, then finding a corresponding bag number.  Then you take a red Sharpie (or green if it's to go) and fill out little ovals on the bag like you were taking one of those SRA tests in school.  You enter which (sand)Wich you want, you enter how you want it made and with what ingredients, and you write your name in a box at the bottom.  Then you hand the bag to Frowning Counter Guy, tell him if you want other things like chips and a drink, and pay.  Then Smiling (Sand)Wich Maker makes your (sand)Wich and hands it to you in said bag.

In any case, the resulting (sand)Wich is awesome.  Pepperoni, salami, and capicola on a toasted white bun with mozzarella, pickles, black olives, mushrooms, red onions, and spicy mayo.

SO good.

I spent yesterday at AirVenture 2011, an absurdly huge air show/expo held annually in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  The show has been going on for years and just has to be the biggest show of its kind.  Hundreds of planes (edit: "over 10,000 planes" according to an article I read) from every era of flying are on display.  Hundreds of vendors relating to anything involving flying are hocking their wares.  Major aircraft manufacturers such as Cessna and Beechcraft were there.  Rolls Royce, who manufacturers jet engines, was there.  Even Zeppelin was there.  I was surprised to see both Bose and Sennheiser, who apparently make pilot headset/microphone sets, among the vendors.  It was THAT extensive.  The show is so significant that Boeing flew their forthcoming 787 Dreamliner in on Friday and gave the first ever public tours of it.  Historically, they've even had visits from a British Airways Concorde when it was still flying.

I first heard of this show last year and thought it would be neat to see, and I considered making plans to go this year, but ultimately decided against it.  Until, that is, a contest came up I was reasonably sure I could win.

And I did.

The winners got seats on Southwest's employee 'ferry flight' to the show.  Southwest was scheduled to put a 737 on display at the show Saturday with tours of the aircraft.  This is a marquee highlight of the show...most planes are hands-off.

The 110 passengers on the plane were largely Southwest employees who had volunteered to take shifts working at the event.  This included manning the plane for tours, manning Southwest's public lounge, and manning Southwest's 'private party' employee/VIP tent.

We made the 29 minute flight from Chicago's Midway airport (which is now an all new terminal, new parking garage, new concourse...very nice), arriving just before 8am.  People were sitting on the grass parallel to the length of the runway, stationed to have prime viewing of the flying shows.  It's really neat to have lines of people waving at you as you taxi in.

We got off the plane outside on jet stairs as people watched.  Southwest made it as big a spectacle as possible by dressing us all in special event shirts and caps with the intention of creating an impressive visual.  This had an unintended side effect that happened throughout the show...Since I looked like a Southwest employee, people assumed I was an employee of the whole show and regularly asked me all sorts of questions about "where is this" and "how do I find that".  Somebody asked me if the Southwest jet was "the Dreamliner".

(No...that was only here Friday.)

Anyway, I saw lots and lots of planes, got really really hot (89 and humid, you know...I look like a boiled lobster today), and had a bratwurst for lunch, being in Wisconsin and all.

The air show was awesome.  They had flyovers of several aircraft and a faux air battle between fighters that included ground pyro.  Very impressive.

But probably the most impressive part of the day for me was experiencing the Southwest employee culture up close.  These people love their company and it's very apparent the company loves them.  Pulling this off was significantly more difficult than it looks on paper and required a lot of logistical planning, and like anything of this magnitude, not everything went right.  But there was no shortage of employees willing to take the lead in solving a crisis, and no shortage of employees willing to assist.

There's a reason Southwest is better at what they do than any other airline.  And I enjoyed experiencing it up close for a day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Place: Shakey's Pizza
Lunch: Lunch buffet, Shakey's draft root beer

If you told me ten years ago that the Shakey's name would still exist, let alone that I'd be eating in a brand new one, I wouldn't have believed it.

But here we are.  It's in a strip mall.  It's a dedicated buffet format, though you can order take-out.  There's a game room too.  The buffet has three pre-made salads (a Caesar and two mystery salads...all three are pretty good), a few pastas, Mojo potatoes, a couple of soups, and pizzas.  Think Cici's, but a little nicer, and a little pricier.  And it's Shakey's pizza, which is a good thing.  There are optional sides you can order, but they cost extra.  Table servers introduce themselves and deliver the appetizer orders.  They don't seem to do drink refills.  I've been getting my own.  I think they want tips anyway.  Maybe.  I doubt they're getting any tips, which might explain why they look so frustrated.

The decor focuses on retro.  The old Shakey's logo is painted on a brick wall.  Old ads are framed on the walls everywhere.  The place just screams "Look who we used to be!". 

But, as a friend of mine pointed out, "it's not what it used to be.  It's a buffet."  And while Shakey's has done the buffet format in various forms since the late 1980's, he has a point.

While a nearly dead old brand experiences a resurgence, yet another big box retailer is going away.  Borders is going to liquidate.  I can't begin to describe how little this will affect my life.

Some of you may think of Borders as the big book store that was nearly identical to Barnes & Noble.  But Borders has also been the parent company of Waldenbooks, the mall book store chain you've known far longer, since 1994 when then-owner K-Mart merged the two chains.

Waldenbooks is the brand name I'll keep memories of.  The book store in a mall slot that had a seemingly magical ability to cram tons of titles into a relatively small space.  And they'd order stuff for you they didn't have.  The local mom-and-pop bookstore of my childhood, a monopoly that charged 5 percent above retail on everything just because they could, really hated to be bothered with such things.  Usually, they'd just lie to you and say the title was out of print.

Waldenbooks had a store design that could be installed in an empty mall space in nine days.  Waldenbooks also had the far cooler name.  It just rolls off the tongue. Wal-den-books.  Hard to believe somebody could screw that up.

I suppose nobody really did screw it up so much as the business model is obsolete.  The big Borders stores were designed for book lovers who liked to browse, sample, feel the paper.  But in the age of the iPad, Kindle, and Nook, who needs cumbersome paper books, magazines, and newspapers?  Besides...the people who have a love affair with paper books tend to be snobby people who shun chains in favor of independent stores.  The music and movie sections were almost completely pointless.  Prices were ridiculous.

When our local Borders opened (well, relocated into the modern format...we had an older, much smaller Borders for years before that), I shopped them for their extensive selection of magazines and Sunday newspapers from around the country.  Both of those became less important as the internet evolved, and I ultimately had little use for Borders besides Christmas gift shopping (I'm not much of a book reader).  The last time I shopped there was about a year ago when I discovered online that the local store had an out-of-print movie in stock that I really wanted.  I had to pay full price for it...but I got it.

When the local store closed, more people were excited than sad because rumors that Whole Foods Market were going to take its place immediately spread.  This proved to be inaccurate, but Whole Foods IS another part of the same shopping center.  Apparently, the Best Buy in the center is downsizing and Whole Foods will take part of their space, plus some neighboring space.

Best Buy downsizing?