Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Helpful Smiles

Place: Burger King
Lunch: Whopper combo with onion rings (no tomato, no lettuce), zesty sauce, four chicken nuggets, Coke

My little bedroom community became seemingly less little yesterday when Hy-Vee, a Midwestern supermarket chain, opened their new 92,000 square-foot behemoth of a store a half mile from the Townhouse of Solitude.

Yay, I guess.

I'm not a big Hy-Vee fan.  It was twenty-some years ago when I first moved into Hy-Vee territory.  Their stores were like real traditional supermarkets, something that had been lost in favor of warehouse formats where I'd moved from.  They had big red block signage that spanned the length of the store front that said "HY-VEE FOOD STORE", as if they felt the need to point out they sold food.  They had a great funky logo that had "Hy-Vee" in the silhouette of a shopping cart.  Their jingle tag line was a fifties-campy "where there's a helpful smile in every aisle".  Prices were reasonable, staff was courteous, and their store brand mac and cheese was awesome and often found on sale for a quarter a box.  Very cool when you're in radio and barely making $13,000 a year.  You could get in, get your stuff, and get out easily.  And they had a small corner "deli" that served a 99 cent breakfast (2 slices of bacon, 2 eggs, and toast) that was always popular.

Things started changing quickly after I discovered them, though.  New management was taking over on the executive level.  Store size increased through the 1990's, as did the number of departments.  Interior decor packages became less and less interesting.  The shopping cart logo and kitschy "HY-VEE FOOD STORE" signage gave way to a not so impressive new font designed specifically for them.  Bigger and blander seemed to be the theme.  The little deli evolved into a food court situation with Italian and Chinese food stations.  The store opened yesterday is the second in the chain to have a full-service sit-down restaurant and bar, not to mention wood-fired pizza, sushi, and gelato.  And prices?  Not so reasonable anymore.  Through the roof, actually.

The Hy-Vee brand isn't just limited to supermarkets.  They have Hy-Vee Gas, which is your typical convenience store, usually but not exclusively located in front of Hy-Vee supermarkets.  Ours opened months before the big store even started construction.  I DO like these.  They have cheap fountain sodas and Eisenberg hot dogs.  There's also Hy-Vee Drugstores (formerly known as Drug Town).  And now there's Hy-Vee Mainstreet, a smaller format neighborhood grocery they seem to still be working the kinks out of.

(By the way, why do Hy-Vee's convenience stores only operate from 5am-11pm, even when the stores they're on the frontage of are open 24 hours?)

Anyway, I checked out the new store last night.  I'd say every one of their six hundred employees (NOT an exaggeration) were there, as well as roughly half the population of the western suburbs.  The new employees all had on the helpful smiles and were roaming every aisle like you'd expect at any well run grand opening.  In a week or two, I"m sure they'll be back to the normal mediocre service.

The store is nice and big and has lots of stuff.  Especially pre-made stuff.  This part of the store is just massive.  Pizza.  Chinese.  Every comfort food you can possibly imagine.  Deli meats.  Sandwiches.  Fried chicken.  Meatballs. Available hot or pre-packaged cold to re-heat at home.  Yes, we have become a society that goes to the market to buy LEFTOVERS.

The Seafood counter is amazing.  They had the usual fishy suspects plus more exotic stuff like fresh red snapper...including a WHOLE the display case.  They had a seafood party platter built on the body of a FISH.  Between the head and tail.  THIS is presentation, people.

The rest of the store was...well...Hy-Vee.  The prices on stuff I buy ran around 20-50 percent higher than comparable prices at Walmart, Target, or Fareway.  I even found something in the organic section 20 percent higher than the same item at Whole Foods.  WHOLE FOODS, PEOPLE.  And they have the smallest selection of ramen and cup-o-noodles type stuff I've ever seen.

Still, they might get some of my business out of convenience.  They are open 24 hours, so I can run over to get that one little ingredient I'm missing to make cookies at four in the morning.  They're only one of two grocery stores along my evening commute, and Hy-Vee doesn't involve any left turns in or out, whereas the other one does.  And that seafood counter is too awesome to not shop at.

So what did I buy last night?  Fried chicken?  A wood-fired pizza?  A nice halibut fillet?  Some deep sea scallops?

A box of Hy-Vee mac and cheese.

Sixty-eight cents.

It's still pretty good.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Soda Summer

Place: Bamboo Buffet & Grill
Lunch: Buffet, Coke

I share my fortune cookie fortunes with my Twitter followers.  The last couple from here have been doozies.

You are about to become $8.95 poorer.  ($6.95 if you had the buffet.)


Here we go. Low fat, whole wheat green tea.

Not so much today, though.  Happiness isn't an outside job, it's an inside job.

Oh well.

Made a trip to Breese, IL this weekend to visit Excel Bottling Company.  It's a small antique bottling plant going since the 1930's as a Ski distributor. (Ski is a Fresca-Squirt kind of citrus soda.)  They also have a bunch of their own signature sodas, all bottled in glass using cane sugar.  They've also started bottling their own line of microbrews to hopefully boost business as the world decreases the amount of soda they drink.  They're also bottling the new Dublin Bottling Works sodas.  Dublin (the old Dr Pepper bottler in Dublin, TX) doesn't have any way to bottle their new sodas in non-returnable glass or in the volume needed.  Their antique machine only does returnable bottles, and in low volume.

Anyway, Excel is a treasure more people in the St Louis area (and the region) need to know about.  Breese is about 40 miles east of the metro.  While some area convenience stores and supermarkets carry Excel products, you can go straight to the plant and get soda too.  CHEAP.

There's two options...Returnable glass bottles, or non-returnable glass bottles.  Returnables are $8 per case of 24 with a $10 deposit on each case.  Meaning you can pay the one-time deposit and as long as you keep returning the bottles $8 will buy you a case of any of their sodas.  Non-returnables?  $13 per case.

The returnable glass bottles are becoming increasingly rare.  Apparently nobody makes them anymore or they're cost-prohibitive to get or something.  So Excel has collected a bunch from defunct bottlers over the years.  That means the soda on the label may not be the soda in the bottle.  Don't worry...they'll set you straight on the sale.  You just might get confused at home.  Maybe.

I picked up a case of Blueberry Breese, which is so good Dublin even sells it.  It's like a Sprite or Sierra Mist, but with a blueberry kick, in a beautiful blue hue.  I think the color contributes to the feeling of refreshment you get drinking it.

I also picked up a 'mix and match' case, where I sampled other Excel sodas.  That included the original Ski, which I'll probably maintain a small supply of.  The other I've tried so far is Million Dollar Strawberry, which I didn't care for.  There's something muted about the flavor.  But I have more stuff to try.  Two more Million Dollar flavors, Cherry Breese, Excel Black Cherry...

The new Dublin sodas (which, unfortunately, you can't buy at Excel) are universally good.  They've sort of put Texas Root Beer up as the flagship, but the real Dublin fans are huge into my new favorite soda, Dublin Black Cherry.  Let's just say that has a strangely familiar flavor profile.  Yet it's been improved upon.  Drink a Dublin Black Cherry, then follow it up with a cane sugar 8oz bottle of Dr Pepper.  The Dr Pepper will taste like soda water. Its flavor profile is COMPLETELY LOST.  It's as if Dublin came up with a Dr Pepper antidote.

I've tried all of the Dublins except the just-launched Texas Peach and the only one I'm not really a fan of is Cherry Limeade.  I even like their Orange Cream, and I'm not a fan of orange creams.  These are soda flavors the way you remember them as kids.  Kids of the 50's-70's, anyway.

The Dublin sodas are quite a bit pricier at their store ($24-26 if I'm remembering right), but then they have to ship the cases down from Illinois.  At Excel, you're standing like ten feet from the bottling machine when you pay the guy.  So that's probably the difference.

Anyway, it's been a great summer for soda.  Get out your vintage muscle cars and road trip on down to these bottlers.

The little guys are doing it right.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Money Matters

Place: Quizno's
Lunch: Mesquite chicken with bacon, Lays Kettle Cooked Applewood Smoked BBQ chips (40% less fat! Woo hoo!), Pepsi

Ever wake yourself up in the middle of the night by biting your own tongue?  Yeah, that happened last night.

July was a month of financial lessons.  Specifically, about how everyone is out to get me.

It started off literally on July 1 while having lunch.  I got a call from my credit card provider alerting me to possible fraud on my account.  Sure enough, somebody (or something) had attempted two $500 charges to some German-based business whose very name sounded like a service that exists for no other reason than to charge cash withdrawals from stolen credit cards.  One was processed, the second declined.  Naturally, this happened two days before I was going on a trip and needed the card.  Still, the card company had the card shut off within an hour of the incidents and had me a new card literally hours before departure.

But the rep who handled this apparently didn't put the original $500 into dispute, and I had to do that myself.  A month later, it's still being processed.  You'd think the whole thing would be straightforward, wouldn't you.  They contacted me first for crying out loud.

Then my checking bank, who I've done business with for twenty-plus years, decided to steal from me.

I was at an ATM on the way home late one night trying to withdraw cash from my checking account.  The machine went to dispense the cash, and failed.  The cash door opened, there was machine noise, then it closed.  Then it opened and closed several more times.  Then an error popped up on the screen indicating the machine could not dispense cash.

(Side note...the machine's night lighting, a bright blinding LED that stares you in the face, is completely absurd and is actually more hampering than helpful.)

So I got home, checked my e-mail, and there in my Inbox was an ATM receipt indicating I DID withdraw $100.

I raised the issue with the bank immediately.  They assigned a case number.  And two and a half weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from the "Operations Manager of ATM Operations" that said...

"We have completed our research of your inquiry about the ATM card transaction shown below, and found that these transactions were correctly charged to your account.  As a result, we're not able to reimburse you."

Yes, they said "multiple transactions".  They listed two...the one in question, and another the day after when I got the money I was trying to get the night before.  Which was a normal transaction I didn't question at all.  Which is proof they paid no attention to my issue whatsoever and just let it sit for two weeks before blowing it off.

There recently was a local news story about a big bag of cash that had fallen off an armored truck leaving a bank.  Some young couple found it lying around on the ground and went on a spending spree.  They're in jail now for stealing the money.

You take money lying around that a bank lost by its own accord, that's robbery.  But a bank stealing money from you?  Perfectly legal.

Can you imagine if that happened to somebody who was in a desperate financial situation and this was their grocery money for the week, or even month?  The fact this even took two weeks for the bank to blow off is appalling.  They SERIOUSLY do not care that they're hurting people.  They SERIOUSLY believe they're that much better than the rest of the human race.

Smug bastards.

So I'm shopping for a new bank.  I hope my bank's sick perversion was worth it for them.

I know, I know.  It won't matter.  They couldn't possibly care less.  And based on the online reviews I'm reading, that's true about all banks..

I will never understand how these people live with themselves.