Tuesday, May 28, 2013

National Hamburger Day

Place: smashburger
Lunch: Samburger (a CYO 1/3 patty with cheddar, fried egg, pickles, onions, mayo, and mustard on an egg bun), haystack onions (w/zesty sauce), Coke

smashburger (their logo is all lower-case) has a "Create Your Own" option where you can define your own burger your way.  So I had them whip up my signature Samburger for National Hamburger Day because I'm too lazy to make my own at home, and making burgers at home isn't all that practical anyway unless I want to eat Samburgers all week or just waste a lot of food.  I'm just not going to use a whole pack of buns or a whole onion worth of chopped onions before they go bad.  And it's not like we're exactly short on burger joints anywhere in the good old USA.

I've had hamburgers on the brain all morning since National Hamburger Day was brought to my attention.  While there's much debate over the origin of the hamburger, the first prominent chain was Wichita-based White Castle, who started out in 1921 and is largely credited for creating the strict standardization that assured you got the same quality product regardless of store or market.  They set the benchmark for everyone who followed.

White Castle no longer has any existence in Wichita whatsoever (corporate is now and has been in Columbus, Ohio for decades) and no longer makes their burgers the same way they did originally, but they're still a cult hit.

White Castle's departure didn't stop Wichita from being a burger-crazed community.  Local chains Spangles, Bionic Burger, and Nu-Way (who have loose meat sandwiches sort of like Maid-Rite) still crank out burgers today.  But a recent newcomer, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, has taken the industry by storm.  Originally planned as a one-off by three brothers, Freddy's has exploded into a 90-plus store chain with locations in sixteen states and counting in its eleven-year existence.

Burgers aren't just a Wichita phenomenon, of course.  We're a burger-crazed nation.  And the burgers are getting bigger and better.  We just don't settle for that 1.6-ounce McDonald's single patty anymore.  Industry growth in recent years has been through gourmet burger chains like Five Guys and Fatburger, two brands that have been regional hits for years but just recently went national.  They've spawned copycats who are also growing.  And there always tends to be something new to try.  I recently had lunch at the new Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar's.  They had these little sliders with a nice thick beef patty, cheddar, and a garlic aioli.  I don't know what they seasoned that meat with but they were just amazing.  I could go back just to eat those all day.  Or for the two-hour limit they allow you to stay and eat there.  You can spend that much time just waiting in line to get in.

One new trend I am NOT happy with is the tendency to take hamburgers off the menu completely in favor of cheeseburgers only.  So now you have to actually request "no cheese" and I'm betting what used to be an up-charge for cheese doesn't get any sort of discount for doing so.  It's a sneaky way to make more money.  Most of the major chains are doing this now.

My favorite burgers tend to depend on my mood, but why not come up with a top five list?  So here's my top five all-time favorite burgers.  No, In-N-Out isn't on it.  Neither are Five Guys.  Settle down, fanboys.

1. Wisconsin Buttery (Steak n Shake) - Steak n Shake is my favorite restaurant, period.  The Wisconsin Buttery is my current favorite burger anywhere.  It's a double-patty with American cheese, grilled onions, and a butter sauce that makes the whole thing.  The butter sauce soaks into the bun.  It really does taste buttery in a really wonderful way.

2. Freddy's Original Double (Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers) - "Freddy" is Fred Simon, the father of the brothers who founded the chain.  It's said this burger was inspired by Freddy's backyard barbecues back in the day.  Two thin patties topped with mustard, pickle, and onion on a plain white bun.  (You can add other toppings.  I always add mayo.)  The patties are seasoned with a proprietary mix that's also used on the shoestring fries.  Deceptively simple, and completely amazing.  And at six bucks and change for the combo (INCLUDING sales tax), priced right.  Every Freddy's I've been to from California to Missouri has been an overnight sensation doing In-N-Out level business, even in markets where they're competing directly with In-N-Out.

3. Tillamook Cheeseburger (Burgerville) - The hometown pick.  A freshly cooked burger topped with Tillamook medium cheddar.  No lettuce or tomato on mine, and add onions.  Because Burgerville doesn't put onions on their burgers by default for some dumb reason.  Fairly easy to replicate at home, as there's no special sauces...just ketchup and mayo. They use leaf lettuce instead of iceberg.  There's also pickles.  Everything but the cheese goes on the bottom bun.  There...go make your own.

(SIDE FACT: I sometimes take slices of Tillamook cheddar with me to restaurants and order hamburgers, then add the cheddar myself.)

4. Whataburger (Whataburger) - I say the same thing every time I walk in..."Whataburger combo with onion rings, no lettuce, no tomato".  The burger looks bigger than its seasoned 1/4-pound patty being on a 5-inch plain bun (toasted and buttered the way God intended).  The toppings are mustard, diced onion, and a generous amount of pickles.  (And lettuce and tomato if you're not me.)  I think it's the seasoning that makes this burger, but all I know is it never disappoints.  It's the perfect Texas burger in that everything in Texas must be big, and true Texans would never soil a burger with any condiment that isn't mustard, even if Whataburger claims there are 36,864 ways to order one.

5. White Castle Sliders (White Castle) - The little five-hole steamed patties on a bed of onions with a pickle served on a dinner roll.  Crude, simple, and deceptively tasty.  Especially if you discard the top buns and fold two together to make a double.  Almost guaranteed to leave you belching up that taste all day.

If I went ahead with a top ten, this smashburger would probably be number six.  They make some wonderful, if not overpriced, burgers.

But I have to stop somewhere.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Savvy Marketing

Place: McDonald's
Lunch: Big Mac, fries, Coke

Me: "Number one combo."

Frowning Counter Girl: "Noomba wun?"

Me: "Correct."

She enters a Big Mac, no fries, no pop.

Me: "You just entered the sandwich.  I wanted the combo."

Frowning Counter Girl leans over register.  "What?"

I repeat myself.

Frowning Counter Girl stares at the register, then back at me.  "No stuff?"

Me: "What?"

Frowning Counter Girl: "You want no stuff?"

Me:  "I wanted the combo meal.  With fries and a drink."

Frowning Counter Girl wanders off, then returns with a manager, who looks terribly annoyed that I'm bothering him, even though technically SHE bothered him.

Manager, annoyed, to me: "Yes?"

Me:  "I wanted the combo.  She entered a sandwich and has no idea what I'm talking about."

Manager: "Oh."  Turns to Frowning Counter Girl.  "He wants a MEAL.  Push the MEAL button."

Frowning Counter Girl, who is now actually laughing, "Oh!"

Manager walks off without saying another word.

Frowning Counter Girl does not give me a total.  She just stares at me and expects me to hand her money.  I do.  This includes a penny because the change amount is 26 cents.  She takes everything but the penny, opens the register, then starts trying to figure out what to give me.  It becomes immediately clear that the only thing she understands less than the English language is US currency.  She grabs someone else to assist.

Frowning Counter Girl: "Is this right?"

Her Girl Friday: "You still need three quarters."

Frowning Counter Girl grabs a quarter and stares at her.

Her Girl Friday: "Now another one."

Frowning Counter Girl grabs a second quarter.

Her Girl Friday: "Now one more."

Frowning Counter Girl doesn't get one more, at least not without further egging.  Then she does.

So I finally have my change and the tray is set aside for the eventual delivery of what will ultimately be stale food.  Frowning Counter Girl is staring at me as if she's wondering why I'm standing there.

Her Girl Friday: "You should give him his drink cup so he can go get that while we're making the food."

Frowning Counter Girl: "Oh!  Okay."

I eventually get a drink cup...but from Her Girl Friday, because Frowning Counter Girl obviously has no idea what Her Girl Friday's actually talking about.

Seriously.  That was just mind-numbing.

You've probably been included on a share or two linking to K-Mart's latest viral ad for "Big Gas Savings".  It's a professional ad using a play on words in a way that would never ever actually air on television, much like their equally clever "Ship My Pants".

This seems to be the new trend.  Produce a brilliant ad that gets people talking and see if you can make it go viral.  Millions not only see it, but are talking about it, and yet K-Mart doesn't have to spend a single penny on actual television time.

Especially impressive is the fact this was done by an also-ran company that probably has no right to even be in business anymore.  Honestly...does ANYBODY shop at K-Mart?  HAS anybody so much as set foot into a K-Mart in the last twenty years?

My favorite viral ad is Audi's use of Leonard "Classic Mr. Spock" Nimoy and Zachary "Current Mr. Spock" Quinto in a...um...trek to the country club.  Audi not only got everybody talking for nothing more than the price of producing a spot, they actually stole Mazda's thunder.  How?  Mazda is the official automotive partner of "Star Trek: Into Darkness".  Not Audi.

Have you seen Mazda's Star Trek ad?

If I have, I don't remember it.

And you don't either.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

One-Stop Shopping

Place: Burger King
Lunch: Bacon cheddar stuffed burger, onion rings (w/Zesty sauce), Coke

The patty is stuffed with bits of cheddar and bacon.  It's a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  And not all that tasty.  If I were to describe the taste, the word that comes to mind is "phony".  It just doesn't work.

So yesterday at the office, a co-worker was trying to fix a jam in the copier, which actually turned out to be multiple jams.  This was a doozy.  There was paper jammed seemingly everywhere in the thing.  I stood there watching him, offering no help whatsoever, for a good five minutes.

Eventually, he gave up and sent everyone an e-mail advisory to not use the thing until it was serviced.  He titled this e-mail "Finance Ricoh" (because it's a Ricoh copier in the Finance area).

I replied back "Nothing to do with anything, but your e-mail title has inspired me to start a paycheck loan business called Rico's Finance".

Co-worker: "Sounds like a reputable establishment.  Maybe it can have tanning booths too, or be a tobacco outlet."

Me: "And an oxygen bar.  That's all the rage now.  And of course, an authorized (our company) reseller."  (We're a cell phone company with a popular prepaid service.)

Co-worker: "I know a buddy who has an old school bus.  There's an empty lot down on the southeast side."

Me: "Old school bus?  It could be a food truck too!  And we could have shirtless tattooed guys fixing rock chips in the parking lot!  And a bikini car wash!  And once you've experienced all our services, we'll give you a paycheck loan to pay for it all!"

Co-worker: "You are a visionary.  I am speechless."

I don't think we can just call it "Rico's Finance" anymore though.  The concept is obviously far too evolved.  I'm thinking more like "Rico's Carnival of Souls" now.

Imagine the franchising opportunities.

Yep.  We're gonna be rich.