Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Service with the Speed of App

Place: Sonic Drive-In
Lunch: Quarter pound double cheeseburger, chili cheese coney (add mustard), Philly cheesesteak (add pickles), Rte 44 strawberry slush

Sonic has a sordid history here.  They built one and had to hire off-duty cops to handle the massive amount of traffic it drew.  The franchisee quickly put up five more (because it takes like 20 minutes to assemble one out of a kit you order from Sears) around the metro.  A couple of years later, we were down to two of the six and a different franchisee out of Missouri was running those.  It's been like that for at least ten years now.  That first store was demolished and replaced by a Hardee's.

The last time I had lunch at one, it took way longer to order than it should have because the girl on the other end doesn't listen and puts in the wrong food (this happens all the freaking time) and it was close to half an hour before the food finally arrived.  Since it takes fifteen minutes to drive here from the office, that makes work lunch impossible.  Sonic's original slogan was "Service at the Speed of Sound."  But this store has always been Service at the Speed of Slug.  Until now.  Now, you can order through Sonic's app and the food should (in theory) be ready when you get there.

Folks, I can't even begin to describe how the idea that I never have to talk to a Sonic order taker ever again excites me.

The app menu is straightforward and logical.  You can customize stuff to a degree.  Sonic has a reputation of being willing to make literally anything you can dream up with the available ingredients on hand, but this app isn't that flexible.  I can add pickles to my cheesesteak and mustard to my chili dog, but I can't make the item I used to have them make every time I stopped for breakfast back when there was a Sonic on my work route...the amazing and wonderful chili breakfast toaster.  Chili, egg, and cheese on Texas toast.  This is never a bad idea.

I build my order and set the arrival time for 11:15am.  Then it comes to paying.  Here's where it all goes wrong.  You can't just pay with your credit card or with Apple Pay, you have to purchase a virtual gift card in specific increments.  So I'm going to have to pay $15 for my $10.50 order.  Yes, you'll still have that $4.50 for a future order, but you know you're eventually going to die with a languishing amount on the card.  That's just stupid.  If you can buy the gift card through the app, you should be able to just pay for your food through the app.  There's no excuse for this.

You also can't set a tip for the carhop.  So you're either stiffing the carhop, or you'll need to keep a couple singles in your wallet anyway.

Once I buy the gift card and reorder the food (because the shopping cart expired in the time it took to buy the gift card), I head to Sonic.  I arrive and check in at 11:10.  Check-in requires you pull in a stall and enter the stall number in the app to let them know where you are (the number is on the driver-'s side pole that holds the menu screen.  It's also displayed in the left corner of the screen itself.)  There's no option to use the drive-thru.

A black bar shows up on the bottom of the screen with my name on it.  It's showing the order process.  Eventually, the screen says "JUSTIN is about to arrive with your food!"  Which he does.  Food arrives at 11:22.  It's late, but still plenty of time to eat.  Everything is hot and delicious.

So will the app make me want to Sonic more often?  Yes.  It absolutely will.

But it would help if they built one closer to the office.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Obstacle Course

Place: Burger King (at the office)
Lunch: Whopper (no lettuce, no tomato), Chicken Fries, water

Today has been nothing short of a living obstacle course.

First, I get to work and my laptop won't open a program.  Turns out it's gone missing.  IT Guy takes a look and is baffled.  "The program folder is just...empty."  A half hour later and it's sort of reinstalled and I can sort of launch it if I do this one juryrig.  "Is that okay?" IT Guy asks.  "Yeah."

Then I go to lunch.  Or try to.  There's a semi with a "WIDE LOAD" sign blocking the entrance.  I drive down the complex to an alternate entrance.  Some woman is blocking that entrance in her car.  She's just sitting there, doing nothing but blocking my way out.  I honk the horn.  She looks at me.  I make "get out of the way you worthless idiot" hand gestures.  She finally does.

I go to the Burger King drive-thru.  "Whopper, no lettuce, no tomato, and chicken fries with ranch."

Speaker Girl:  "Do you want any sauce for the chicken fries?"

I hit the bank ATM.  Somebody is already there doing so many transactions that they've put their van in park and shut off the motor.  Good grief.

After finally getting access to the ATM, I head back to the office.  I pull lunch out of the bag.  Guess what?  No ranch.

My shiny blingy new phone arrives.  I go to set it up.  This turns into a ridiculously long process, the highlight of which is when I plug it into my computer to resture the backup of my old phone and the machine pops up an error that reads "This phone is not authorized to be used on this computer."

WHAT???

Some online research suggests I install the latest OS update to my computer.  Twenty minutes of downloading later, it starts to update.  Then it reboots.  Then it updates some more.  Then it reboots.  Then it updates some more.  Then it makes this really long beep noise and goes dead.  And I just stare.

Then it revives.

Then it says "Computing the installation.  About 43 minutes remaining."

ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME.

So basically I'm writing this post on my work computer as a way to kill time (and vent) while the damn thing finishes updating.

About 14 minutes remaining.

I can't wait to see how long the restoral takes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Poor Planning

Place: Taco John's
Lunch: 3 hard shells, Potato Ole's, Pepsi

I walked out of the office and a big single drop of rain splatted on my sorry bald head.  I got out of the car at Taco John's and three drops of rain hit me.  By the time I finished ordering, there was a freaking monsoon going on outside.  Jeepers.

Who's bright idea was it to schedule National Cheeseburger Day on Taco Tuesday?  Jerk.  I hope you get fired.

Maybe I'll make a cheeseburger for dinner.  A cheeseburger and potato salad would be nice.  I have become so fond of the creamy dill and bacon potato salad at Slim Chickens that I sought out a recipe for such a beast online and made it over the weekend.  And it's fabulous.  But I still have a few bowls worth to eat before it spoils because it yielded at least a half dozen servings despite the fact I halved the recipe.

I did have a notable cheeseburger recently.  We got a Wahlburgers locally, and their "Our Burger" was surprisingly impressive.  The patty, "a proprietary blend of brisket, short rib, & chuck" according to the menu, was perfectly seasoned and had a texture more similar to steak than ground beef.  All of the flavors between the buns popped, especially the pickles.  To have a standout cheeseburger in a world saturated with cheeseburgers is really something, and this one totally did it for me.

Their "thick & crispy onion rings" were also impressive.  Their chili and lemonade, not so much.  Chili tastes very homemade, but just isn't a standout.  Lemonade was too tart for me.

I need to check out the O.F.D. burger next time.  It's a bacon mushroom Swiss.

Maybe I'll do that for dinner.

Nah.  Still have that potato salad to get through.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

ScreenX

Place: Slim Chickens
Lunch: Buffalo wings (w/ranch dipping sauce), potato salad, toast, lemonade

Slim Chickens is by far my favorite of the chicken finger chains (places like Raising Cane's and Zaxby's).  It has nothing to do with the fact they have the coolest name in all of fast food, nor that they have the creepiest logo...

Eat me, bitches
It also has nothing to do with the chicken fingers, which between the finger chains are nearly indistinguishable.  Even Slim Chickens' "Slim Sauce" is a copycat of Cane's signature sauce.

The reason I love Slim's is their wings.  There's 11 sauce options to have them cooked in and they're all great (my favorite is Korean BBQ) and 17 dipping sauce options to go with them.  You can even have your tenders tossed in the wing sauces for more flavor, though they’ll be wet.  I’m not a big tenders fan, but I’ll do the sauced tenders here anytime.  At least when I'm not in the mood for wings.  (HINT: I am never not in the mood for wings.)

The second reason is their abundance of sides, including a macaroni and cheese that's actually edible and a potato salad that tastes of dill and bacon.  It is one of my all-time favorite potato salads.

Then there's the dessert jars.  Real glass Mason jars full of yummy.  The year-round one has a mix of brownie, pudding, whipped cream, and Heath bar pieces.  It's just incredible.  The seasonal Strawberry Cheesecake one is also amazing.  Plus you get to keep the jar.

And don’t pass up the lemonade.  Not too tart or too sweet.  Pretty smooth lemonade.

They have a chicken sandwich on the menu too, but it's not your mom's beloved Chick-Fil-A.  It has a cayenne seasoning and is dressed with cayenne ranch sauce, plus pickles, lettuce, and onion strings.  It's nasty in the best possible way.

There's also wraps and optional grilled strips.  Plan on about a half dozen lunches there to really wrap your brain around the whole thing.  And even then you won't have gotten through all the options, but you'll be hooked so it won't matter.

The Slim's I'm having lunch at is in a new shopping development I now stay at a lot, right next door to my hotel.  Also within walking distance is a shiny new multiplex with a large format auditorium called "ScreenX".  And last night, I watched my first ScreenX feature, The Meg.

A ScreenX auditorium looks pretty normal when you walk in and get seated in your luxury leather recliner with butt warmer.  It looks pretty normal when the movie starts.  The technology isn't used throughout the feature...it's scene-specific.  But when it kicks on the first time, there's a 'wow' factor.

What happens is suddenly the image widens down the auditorium side walls.  The ENTIRE SIDE WALLS all the way to the back of the auditorium.  The trick is achieved using a network of projectors corner mounted at the top of the wall.  They're not stretching, it's expanded footage.  It was used a lot for the underwater action scenes in The Meg.  Trippy, man.  I tend to sit close to the screen...third or fourth row...but in this situation, sitting further back might be more rewarding.

I think it's kind of gimmicky, and it's far from perfect.  There are  black lines down the corners of the front of the room.  The surround speakers poke out of the image like aircraft windows.  And the side wall image quality isn't always up to snuff with the main front image.  Plus those side images aren't meant to be seen by the human eye jutting around a corner.

So...interesting, but not really revolutionary.  Maybe one day we'll have globe-shaped auditoriums where the image can be all the way around and above us, so you really feel like you're looking around at a universe.

There are few ScreenX auditoriums in the US currently and few movies that support the technology.  But if the opportunity arises, check it out.  You're not going to want to pay the premium ticket price for every movie this way, but for the occasional big dumb blockbuster, maybe give it a whirl.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Mac 50

Place: McDonald's
Lunch: Big Mac, fries, Hawaiian Punch

Shiny.

There's a 50th birthday celebration happening starting today.  No, not mine.  That was a couple of years ago.  Thanks for not showing up to the party nobody threw.  McDonald's is celebrating 50 years of the Big Mac.  Starting today, they're giving out Mac Coins with Big Macs that are redeemable for a future Big Mac.  Or you could just collect them, like I'm going to do. 

The Big Mac was created by Pittsburgh-area McDonald's franchisee Jim Delligatti (today would have been his 100th birthday and he almost made it, living to 98) and was on the menu of every McDonald's by 1968.  It originally sold for 45 cents.  Locations in my area get $4.29 for it today, which just seems insane for what it is.

As the jingle used to remind us, the double decker features "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame bun."  It was far from the first double decker (a brief history here), but it's still their best seller.  USA Today claims McDonald's sold 1.3 billion of them last year.

I still eat quite a few Big Macs, probably 30-40 a year.  It really is a unique taste.  A balance of flavors that just works.  Don't hold the lettuce.  Don't pay for extra sauce.  Just order it as is.  It's as successful as it is because they got it right the first time.  It has aged very well.

Still, there have been limited time variations offered over the years.  The Mega Mac came in two styles...one with four of the standard patties, and one with Quarter Pounder patties.  There was the original Mac Jr, which was just the regular hamburger dressed like a Big Mac that occasionally showed up on the old dollar menu.  More recently we've seen the bigger in every dimension Grand Mac and the new Mac Jr, which was based on the larger Grand Mac patty and bun.

Imagine not having access to Big Macs.  I spent my ten teenage years on a remote island hundreds of miles from the nearest McDonald's.  When I would be on vacation trips back home or on school band trips to a McDonald's market, that's all I'd eat whenever I could manage.  The group would go to one place, and I'd walk to the nearest McDonald's.  One year in high school, one of the basketball players while traveling to a city that had one (our team had to fly to games), bought a duffel bag and filled it with as many Big Macs as would fit.  Back in school the next day, he sold every one of them for $10 each.  Day old Big Macs that at the time retailed for well under $2 out of a duffel bag.

So happy birthday to Jim and to the sandwich you created.  You probably didn't set out to create  a true American icon, but that's exactly what you did.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Last Sears

Place: Taco John's
Lunch: Two hard shells, chicken quesadilla, Pepsi

I've been on a chicken quesadilla kick lately.  No idea why.  This one may cure me of it.  It's not very good.  The chicken kind of sucks and they put peppers in it.  The one I had at Taco Bueno on Sunday was waaay better.

We've been watching the co-owned Sears and Kmart go downhill for years now.  We had two Kmarts and a mainline Sears store in town at the beginning of the year, but now both Kmarts have closed and the last Sears in the area...and the second-to-last one in the state...is going too.  (This doesn't count the small Sears Hometown stores, which aren't really part of Sears anymore.)

The mall owner said it best when referring to the closure of the nearly 60 year-old property in the (also rapidly failing) local paper..."This was the slowest iceberg hit."  They've been expecting this for years.  Sears, as usual, claimed the closure is "part of the company's “ongoing efforts to streamline the company's operations and focus on our best stores.”

Thing is, there aren't that many "best stores" left.  500 or so.  There were 3,500 in 2010, or so says Wikipedia.  Jeepers.

Sears is doomed to die, and soon.  I've been wondering aloud why they (and Kmart) even bother anymore for the last 15 years or so.  The professional financial analysts haven't been much kinder.

Growing up in a small town on an island you couldn't drive off of that didn't even have access to a McDonald's until like 1985, the Sears catalog store was the place to order anything and everything.  You could order HOMES from them in the early 1900's.  Who didn't go through grade school in at least a pair of Toughskins, the nearly indestructible and colorful pants that had no style whatsoever.  Some Sears brands were highly regarded.  DieHard batteries were the best.  Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances weren't exactly considered crap. 

We got our first Atari VCS (actually the Sears branded version) and all the games for it from Sears.  While I got my Atari 5200 elsewhere, Sears allowed me to purchase nearly every game made for it.  My first portable music device...a handheld cassette player...was ordered from Sears.  Browsing their catalog for stuff to buy was a childhood pastime, not unlike browsing online stores today.  In a way, they were the Amazon of their day, aside from media (they didn't sell books or music).  It's ironic when you think about it...they had for decades the infrastructure and experience to be what Amazon is today, and they just pissed it all away over the years.

I wouldn't say the internet killed them.  They've been going downhill far longer than the internet has been around.  I remember purchasing my first microwave from a mainline store in the late 80's and the sales woman, a middle-aged woman who did NOT come off as the seller type, pushing me to buy the extended warranty.  The one that had been all over the news as being horrible.  I pointed this out and she sounded like she was reading from a card.  "Those problems have been resolved."  Sure, I'll take your word for it.  (No, not really.)  The point being, people started avoiding Sears specifically because of "customer service".  That hasn't really changed.

Product quality dropped too as Sears allegedly found cheaper vendors to make some of their own branded products.

It's probably been close to 20 years since I've walked into a Sears out of necessity, needing a Torx wrench and knowing they'd have it.  I did a recent walk-through of the Sears at Mall of America partly out of morbid curiosity and partly because I happened to park in their wing of the parking garage.  It seemed well kept, nothing like some of the horror stories you can find online about other locations, but unremarkable too.

Our last Sears is really a forgotten relic, but eventually it'll just be forgotten.  They'll bulldoze the existing building and re-purpose the space, probably with strip malls.

A once grand store replaced by nail salons and cell phone stores.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Goin' Hard

Place: Hardee's
Lunch: Memphis BBQ Thickburger, chicken tenders (w/ranch), Coke

I notice on the door that the payment options now include Apple Pay, just as it should be at every business in the world.  So I order and hold my phone near the card reader.  Apple Pay does NOT ensue.  Nothing ensues.

Me:  "What's the deal?"

Smiling Counter Girl: "I'm not sure!"

She runs to a manager.  Manager mumbles something.  Smiling Counter Girl returns.  "You have to hit the Credit button first, and then hold your phone."

Nothing indicates a credit card button, as the display has gone to Happy Star screen saver mode.  "Oh dear!  Hang on..."  She enters something in the register, leans over, and taps a button.  Nothing happens on the screen, but suddenly my phone accepts the transaction.

"Yay!" she exclaims.

Raising Cane's opened their first local location last week, and everybody's raising cane about it.  Lines not seen around here since the first Chick-Fil-A opened in town.  I don't get the appeal.  They sell chicken tenders.  Chicken tenders, toast, and fries.  That's it.  And none of it is anything special.  Their chicken tenders are fine, a little bland to my taste, but for some reason people go nuts over them.

I like Hardee's tenders better.  I like a lot of places tenders better.

I guess as long as it keeps the masses out of my way, it's fine.

Hardee's is going through an identity crisis.  The chain was acquired by Carl's Jr parent CKE restaurants back in 1997 from a Canadian tobacco giant who had basically run the chain into the ground.  CKE had intended on converting all the Hardee's stores into Carl's Jr stores (much like Hardee's did to chains like Sandy's and Burger Chef over the years) with the Carl's Jr lunch/dinner menu and the Hardee's breakfast biscuit menu, the one successful thing Hardee's had going for it at the time.  What actually ensued was a complete disaster that lasted for nearly a decade that included different logos, different menus, and even different cooking styles (fried burgers vs charbroiled) at restaurants across the system at the same time.  Roughly half the system's locations closed.  It was fascinating to watch as a bystander, and I was obsessed.

It was the Thickburger menu that finally stuck and brought Hardee's back from the abyss.  It succeeded to the point that Hardee's location count actually started growing again.

In recent years, Hardee's and Carl's Jr have been more closely aligned, sharing the same logo, restaurant designs, and some (but not all) common menu items.  A number of limited time burgers in recent years have been advertised as being "at Hardee's and Carl's Jr" in national ads.

Apparently, that's changing.  Hardee's television advertising recently has gone back to the pre-CKE Sunrise logo.  Nothing in the restaurants or on the Hardee's website are supporting this.  It's just the TV ads.

Huh?

There's talk in the media that more changes will come, including Hardee's having more unique, non-shared menu items, and a new look at the restaurants.  To have more of its own identity.

I don't get it, unless CKE's ultimate plan is to sell off Hardee's completely, and therefore is differentiating the two.

There are some who speculate this is a way of separating Hardee's further from Carl's Jr's sexy advertising (a practice they stopped with the terrible "Carl Hardee Sr" campaign), which they perceive as not playing well in the Midwest (to which I say, you really don't know the Midwest).  If that's the case, who approved the "Goin' Hard at the Hardee's" advertising slogan?  "Goin' Hard" is something you do in the back room of the adult book store.  I don't want to see anyone doing that in the dining room.

The one thing I ever wanted out of all of this was to be able to buy charbroiled Famous Stars locally.  And that never happened.  (Well, it did, for about two weeks.  Then all of a sudden, here came the Thickburgers.)

I actually have a radical idea for Hardee's.

But nobody listens to me.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Pieology

Place: Pieology
Lunch: Create your own pizza with the house crust, herb & garlic butter, red sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, black olives, pepperoni, sausage, spicy Italian sausage, and meatballs, Coke (to drink, not on the pizza, weirdo)

Everyone was super excited about Pieology coming to town because having a bakery that specialized in pies sounded really cool.  Visions of flaky handmade pastry crusts and creative fruit fillings filled the air.  Imagine the horrible disappointment when it turned out to be a pizza place.  Even if the consolation prize is it neighbors a bakery that specializes in bundt cakes (literally called Nothing Bundt Cakes).

Anyway, it's another Pie Five style place, a near mirror of Blaze, but a little better.  Still not Pie Five.  You follow your pizza down the line, you tell them what to put on it, it goes in the oven.  They deliver it to your table about...oh...20 minutes after you first walked in the door?  30 if it's busy.  The place is six minutes from the office and I barely get back within an hour.  Blaze is over twice the distance and they're never a problem.

Yes, I have two sausages put on it.  The spicy Italian sausage is actually large slices from a link.  I tell them to put those on last so they sit on top of everything else, then I can just pick them off and eat them like an appetizer.  It works better than eating on the...pie.

I'd really like a good strawberry pie about now.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Twitterrant

Place: Arby's
Lunch: Double Beef n Cheddar, Steakhouse onion rings, Orange Cream milkshake

Somebody on a fast food history group I follow recently brought up Arby's onion rings, which are her favorite.  And everybody was like "What?  Arby's has onion rings?"  And sure enough, their website says they do.  "Steakhouse Onion Rings" to be exact.  They're right there on the menu board with the other sides (which are now under the header "FRIENDS OF MEAT").  Now that I think about it, I have a vague memory of these showing up a couple years ago when they had those steakhouse sandwiches or Angus sandwiches or whatever they were.

The website also said "Oh hey we have orange cream shakes right now for a limited time" and that sealed the deal for lunch.

The onion rings are thick and hearty.  So thick and hearty that you get exactly five of them.  They come off as being really premium as onion rings go.  Do I have a new favorite?  No.  Burger King's still reign supreme with me.  Followed by Whataburger.  Followed by Long John Silver's...the ones where they use the fish batter, not the A&W style ones.

The social media platform known as Twitter got everybody in an uproar recently with announced changes designed to hurt third-party Twitter apps.  Specifically, limiting or eliminating access to parts of the platform.  Stuff like notifications.  The world is upset.

The design here is to force people to rely on Twitter's native app.  Why is that such a bad thing?

Twitter was born as a really neat platform.  You followed accounts and got to see their posts in your timeline in the order they were posted.  It was simple and wonderful.  The platform tended to be used more intelligently than Facebook.

Then Twitter started ruining everything.  They started posting tweets out of order ("Show the Best Tweets First"...because somehow they know what's best.  You can turn that "feature" off.)  They they started showing "promoted" tweets (not that bad, they have to make money.)  They added idiotic features like "In case you  missed it", where they force you to review tweets you've either already seen or didn't see because Twitter never showed them to you in the first place.  (You can choose to "See less often" but you can't just shut it off.)  And then there's the most recent feed pollution, "So-and-so liked...", where someone you follow "likes" a post by some rando and Twitter decides you need to see it too.  They do this a LOT.  Like one day I counted four of these in ten posts.

The worst part about that feature is when one of your friends "likes" a post that's lewd but on an unlocked account.  Suddenly, you're looking at boobies or a dick pic or worse.  That can be awkward if you're reading Twitter on your phone in a public place like work or church or in Arby's while eating Julia's favorite onion rings.  Never mind that there are people who are triggered by such photos suddenly seeing this unwelcome intrusion in their feed.

As a result of this nonsense, I use a third-party Twitter app called Tweetbot.  Tweetbot not only gives me my timeline in order, it does so without any "So-and-so liked..." or "In case you missed it..." type nonsense.  No ads either.  It's just my feed again.  Like the old days.  It also doesn't make me hit "Show More Tweets" like 30 times to actually load all the tweets, and it doesn't auto-scroll to the top of the feed if I so much as breathe towards the top of my tablet.

I still have to go back to the native Twitter app for some things not supported though, like if I want to participate in a poll.  Or, you know, I could just not participate in polls.  But overall, waaay better experience.

I wish I didn't have to think the real solution is somebody is going to have to come up with a new social media platform to replace Twitter, but it's starting to look that way.  They're really going out of their way to become the lost cause Facebook is.

You're the ones driving us to third-party apps, Twitter.

Keep this up, and you'll just drive us away completely.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Utopia

Place: Leeann Chin
Lunch: Sesame chicken, fried rice, Pepsi

Leeann Chin is a homegrown Twin Cities version of Panda Express that Chin (1933-2010) founded in 1980.  You order at the counter, the counter help completely ignores what you say and gives you whatever the hell they feel like giving you, you pay, you get your drink, sit down, stare at the food you didn't order, sigh, and eat it.  Don't argue with tradition.  The sesame chicken is spicier than you're expecting.  They have some decent and unusual appetizer items like Oyster Wings.  I don't like their egg rolls at all.

I saw a concert last night I didn't think I'd ever see in my lifetime.  Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton,  Willie Wilcox, and a new keyboardist got together and put on a Utopia reunion tour.  There was no way I wasn't going.  I posted a pic on Facebook and nobody cared because they were all busy posting corny Mother's Day meme's, so I'm punishing you by talking about it here.

It was an amazing 2 1/2 hour show broken up into two acts with an intermission, the first covering mostly the band's progressive era, the second the poppier 80's style.  Even with that amount of time, they didn't cover everything I would have expected.  "Cry Baby" never made an appearance.  Honestly, they could have gone another half hour without scraping the barrel.  The sing-along of the night was their original "Love is the Answer", the same song England Dan and John Ford Coley later covered and made a big hit.  The crowd went nuts for that.  It was the talk of women in the lobby post-show, just raving about it.  They also threw in their version of "Do Ya", Jeff Lynne's song originally released by The Move in 1972 and later recorded by ELO in 1976.  (Utopia recorded it in 1975.)  This confused a guy sitting near me who asked "Did that just come out of nowhere or something?" unsure if Utopia recorded it at all and if so, who recorded it first.

Overall, it was a top notch show.  They just killed it.  To quote the angry old fat guy in the aisle towards the end shouting at whoever, "DO YOU F@%KING SEE THAT?  WELL DO YOU???  THAT'S HOW IT'S F@%KING DONE!"

I hope it gets a video release.

Utopia will be doing dates through early June, so show up already.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Bon-Ton

Place: Which Wich
Lunch: Meatball Grinder, ice water

We got a Which Wich right about halfway between the office and the Townhouse of Solitude and I am totally fine with this.  Really.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be okay.  Even if they did blow up the CO2 tank.

Fizz breaking bastards

Another retailer bites the dust.  Bon-Ton is liquidating.  They’re a traditional mall anchor department store chain in mostly mid-tier markets that has accumulated other classic department store brands over the years including Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's, and Younkers.  Once great department store brands that long ago offered top-of-the-line products and personal service in multiple story downtown buildings with fancy tea rooms that made you feel special just by shopping there.  Tailor-fit clothes.  Fancy kitchen accessories.  The high-end electronics department.  The premium candy store in the basement.  Going was an event in itself.

All of that deteriorated with time, of course, as they expanded to suburban malls and eliminated frills until they were basically over glorified women’s clothing stores with some home goods as an afterthought.  Slightly fancier than Kohl’s.  Maybe.

My last purchase at a Bon-Ton brand was pillows about ten years ago.  Still using them.  Good pillows.

Much like the newspaper industry, executives have no real clue what happened and simply point the blame at the internet.  IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT, INTERNET.

It’s not, though.  It’s the store’s fault for pushing us all to the internet.

How?

For example, the last time I went shopping for pants.  I go pants shopping around once every ten years.  I go to a store, I try a few different styles, I buy a pair, and then I go online and buy like ten more pair in different colors.

Why didn’t I just do that at the store?  Because the store only had one color in my size, and I had to spend ten minutes digging through their selection to find that one pair.

So how do we fix that?

What if stores had QR codes posted with the item price tags you could scan with the store’s app on your phone that popped up the item and let you quickly place an order through it to be shipped to you?

I think that would help.

“Oh, but the cost of putting the infrastructure into place!”  Sure, okay.  Just rest on your laurels.  That’s gotten you SO far already.

Apps can be very helpful to in-store shoppers.  If you’re in Kroger, for example, and you need to find an item, you can search it in the app and it will tell you what aisle it’s in.  I have used that, and I love it.

Competitive pricing would be helpful too.  Department store anchors tend to think they’re something special worth premium pricing when they’re really not anymore.

Eh.  What do I know.

It’s mid-April and it snowed yesterday.  Winter just won’t let go.  The weather jerks promise we’ve finally cleared that hurdle.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Auto Show 2018

Place: Shake Shack
Lunch: Chick'n Shack (no lettuce), cheese fries (w/mayo), Coke

Word of advice....avoid Mall of America on Saturdays.  That is all.  Wait, that's not all...probably avoid this chicken sandwich while you're at it.  It's fine, but it's no Chick-Fil-A, and it's certainly not worth the $6.79 they're charging for it.

The convention center is full of that new car smell.  And people.  Let's dance, Bridget.

The show felt kind of flat this year.  It seems like so many cars, especially from an interior standpoint, are just variations on the same theme anymore.  They're just not very different.  Nothing really popped this year.

Alfa Romeo

Stelvio -  Alfa Romeo's first ever SUV.  Because you can't compete in the US without one.  It has a 280hp 2.0 four cylinder (?) or a 505hp V6 in the Quadrifoglio version.  Starts around $43k, but the V6 Quadrifoglio version can set you back nearly $100k.

Audi

A6 - The 2019 model gets a new look and all the advanced Audi tech A6 fans have been clamoring for, including Adaptive Driving Assistant, an advanced cruise control that keeps you from rear-ending slowpokes and keeps you from drifting into neighboring lanes.

Q5 - Audi's mini-ute (and best seller) enters a new generation with new everything, yet not looking all that new, really.  I can't remember what the old one looked like.  Probably like this.  No V6 this time, but the new 4-cylinder is said to be pretty peppy.

Buick

Envision - Buick's Equinox-size SUV gets a style refresh just a year into its US debut because it had already been on sale in China for years and was due there.  I think it's the best looking of the GM small SUV segment, but it seems pricey for what you get.

Regal Sportback GS - A more sporty Regal Sportback.  Or something.

Chevrolet

Equinox - Oh hey look, there's now a diesel version that'll get you lots of low-end torque and about 39mpg on the highway.  Leave it to Chevy to suddenly embrace a technology everyone else is abandoning.

Silverado -  Pickup trucks are the true profit center of American manufacturers, and Chevy's newest Silverado will be ready to be picked up (see what I did there?) this Fall at your local Chevy dealership.  It's...a pickup truck.  Bigger, badder, and tougher than the last one somehow.  Doesn't look all that different to me.  More rounded, maybe?  They apparently didn't save weight with a bunch of aluminumy body work like Ford did with the F150, so those commercials where they make fun of Ford still work.

Ford

EcoSport - Ford announced quite awhile ago they were bringing in an existing vehicle from India to plug their subcompact SUV hole.  Said vehicle has JUST started showing up at US dealerships.  The thing is already kind of ugly and dated and it sure seems underpowered, which pretty much describes everything sold in India.  A lot of cars sold there today couldn't pass US crash test standards from decades ago.

Ranger - Hey, remember Ford's small/pickup?  It's back.  Why?  Because Chevy's revival of the segment with the Colorado has been a success, so Ford was all like "Me too!"  No, not like the #metoo hashtag.  That's a whole different thing.

Genesis

G70 - This is Genesis's all-new smaller sedan, something along the size of Infiniti's Q50 (and by my eye stealing more than some of its styling cues).  This is typically the volume seller for luxury/sport brands, so it should be a key product for Hyundai's new luxury line.

GMC

The GMC stand was full of custom full-size vans that would make Uncle Rico proud.  There were probably some new lineup changes to their vehicles but it was hard to tell with all that van bling.

Hyundai

Elantra GT - Hyundai's hatch version of it's compact sedan looks REALLY weird now.  Almost SUV-ish.  Which it isn't.

Kona - A new four-banger CUV with bratty styling aimed at young trendy urban overgrown kids.  Looks kinda like a tricked out Subaru Crosstrek.  The round shifter was cool.  Felt like a manual.

Infiniti

Q50 - The American version of the Nissan Skyline and Infinti's "volume" seller gets a style refresh and apparently improved tech.  It just got new engines a year or two ago.

QX50 - The all-new 2019 model, the "Car of the Show" winner this year, started arriving at dealerships last week.  Redesigned to be an Audi Q5 competitor, it shares little-to-nothing in common with the old model.  It's taller and wider than the outgoing model and rides on a front wheel drive platform with a CVT transmission.  It's Infiniti's first model to feature their new 2.0 VC-Turbo motor, the first of its kind that can adjust compression on the fly to deliver optimal power when needed and efficiency when not, resulting in high performance off the line while returning Nissan Rogue-like gas mileage numbers.  There's no V6 option at all despite being able to option this thing up to over $57,000.  It seems to have the same messy infotainment system as the Q50 and Q60 (with no Apple Car Play or Android Auto support because why would they) but also is the first Infiniti to have Nissan's ProPilot driver assist. The shifter is a knobby electric thingy.  The cupholders look awful.

QX70 - The legendary FX, as it was properly known before the idiotic Jollibee combo menu name change scandal, is done.  Over.  Bye fans of the rear wheel drive-based V6 sport SUV beast.  Who needs you.  Infiniti really hopes you'll buy a new QX50, because they're really that clueless.  What we really wanted was basically the existing QX70 with updated tech and that 400hp twin turbo.  And the FX badge back.  It deserved a far better death than this.  The new QX50 has absolutely none of the sex appeal the FX had.

Jeep

Grand Cherokee Trackhawk - It's a Grand Cherokee with Fiat-Chrysler's 707hp Hellcat V8.  Doesn't look much more badass, but it is way more totally badass.

Kia

Forte - Forte gets a new sportier look and smarter driving aids.  Still packs a four-banger under the hood similar to last year's.  For when you want to look good and don't care about performance, I guess.

Niro - Kia's Stinky Prius fighter gets a plug-in hybrid option.  It's basically the same setup as the regular Niro hybrid, but with a bigger battery and better electric motor, allowing for more time running electric.

Stinger - Kia sorely needed a 365hp twin turbo V6 fastback in its lineup, and now it has it.  Also, I'm kidding.  How in the H-E-DOUBLE HOCKEY STICKS does this make any sense in the Kia lineup?  I don't even think it's a very good looking car.  Stinger Pedestal Announcer: "This is the car many of you came to the auto show to see."  NOBODY came to see this, buddy.  NO ONE.

Lexus

UX - A new subcompact SUV that shares a platform with the Toyota Stinky Prius?  Weird, man.  So it sits lower and handles better than competitors in the segment.  Looks nice in photographs, but in person it's like the goth chick who dresses all scary to be intimidating but in reality when you see her in person and she's under five feet tall, it's just silly.  If they make an F-series, will it be called FUX?

Mitsubishi

Despite the fact Mitsubishi sells like four models in the US and probably sells like a half dozen of each tops, they still show up in a big way to this show.  There were a dozen cars on the floor to heck out and a great big driveable obstacle course ON THE SHOW FLOOR for anyone who wanted to see how the cars handled.  You want to impress me, Mitsubishi?  Let me drive one on the Jeep obstacle course.

Eclipse Cross - This abomination of the use of the Eclipse brand on a subcompact SUV is just wrong, especially on such an ordinary looking vehicle.  Wake me up when the Nissan influence starts to show up on new models.

Nissan

Kicks - An existing compact SUV in other countries making its North American debut, supposedly at the expense of the Juke.  More normal looking, I guess.  Certainly more boring.

Leaf - The all-new second generation pure electric has arrived and has far more conventional styling.  Maybe TOO conventional, especially the interior.  Range has improved too, but supposedly will have an even longer option next year.  Sucks to be you, first year adopters.  It also gets ProPilot.

Rogue - As sedan sales have collapsed, it was expected Nissan's Rogue would become the brand's top seller sometime in 2017.  Not only was that goal achieved, Rogue became the top selling non-pickup of ANY brand for awhile in the Spring.  Jeepers.  For 2018, Rogue's high-end model gets Nissan's semi-autonomous ProPilot Assist system, which keeps you in your lane and auto adjusts speed to traffic. You still can't set it and take a nap, the car will yell at you if you let go of the steering wheel.  All trims get front emergency auto-braking and...FINALLY...Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.  That should keep it up with the competition.

Ram

1500 - It's a bit lighter, more aerodynamic, and has a start/stop/torque assist sort of maybe hybrid power system thingy attached to the V6 or optionally on the Hemi.  Seems too technical for a pickup.  Danged trucks are just computers on wheels anymore.  Can't fix a danged thing yourself and...oh, sorry.  I was channeling the local NAPA parts manager there for a sec.

Toyota

Avalon - Supposedly nobody's buying sedans anymore, but Toyota built an all-new Avalon anyway.  Jerks.  There's a four-cylinder hybrid and a pure V6.  It's bigger with a freaky huge grille that looks like a dentist office visit gone horribly wrong.

CH-R - Not sure I've seen one in person before, unless i confused it for an old Matrix.  And what's up with that two-tone paint?  That just looks terrible.

Volkswagen

VW's push forward into pure electric vehicles reportedly has been moved up and will include a sedan on European roads by 2020.  The ID Buzz, that thing that looks like a VW Bus, has been approved for production.  And there's talk that IF there's a next-gen Beetle, it will also be pure electric.  I want to see that happen.

Arteon - This sedan replaces the CC, which was supposed to be a sedan with a coupe-like profile.  Someting more sporty than the Passat.  Or just get a Passat GT (see below), which comes with a VR6 instead of the turbo four in this thing.  Coming this fall as a 2019 model.

Jetta - The all-new 2019 arrives in dealerships later this year and is way easier on the eyes than the dreadful cheapened outgoing sixth generation model VW has been selling the past few years.  It's been VW's best seller in the US since it went on sale in 1980 as basically a Golf (Rabbit) with a trunk..  I suspect that's a distinction that will eventually be taken over by the Atlas SUV, but it's going down fighting.  The second generation Jetta (1985-1992) is still one of my all-time favorite car designs.

Passat GT - It's a souped-up Passat with a 280 hp VR6 and a more sporty look largely applied out of the existing VW parts bin.  It comes in four colors, none of which are Toronado Red, which is a shame.

Scirocco - That European-only Scirocco that's been around for close to a decade has been killed, allegedly a victim of Dieselgate.  What???

Volvo

XC60 - Volvo's most important smaller but not too small crossover enters its next generation with a very posh interior and some four-cylinder options under the hood ranging from around 250 to 300hp.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Szechuan

Place: McDonald's
Lunch: 10 Chicken McNuggets (w/Szechuan sauce), Mac Jr, ice water

McDonald's has been hyping the return of their legendary Szechuan dipping sauce on social media all week.  The sauce originated back in 1998 as a cross promotion with Disney's feature "Mulan", and has had rabid fans demanding its comeback ever since.  People were selling years-old packets on eBay for $800.

McDonald's brought it back in a really poorly conceived one-day promotion last year that had fans banging their heads against the golden arches, so now they've brought it back for real, with 20,000,000 of the little dipping tubs available systemwide in the US.

I never tried it the first time, so why not now.

In order to check availability, I checked sauce options in McDonald's sad and terrible app (which I've actually used a couple of times now, and it just made it sadder.)  Szechuan sauce was NOT listed among the dipping options available for McNuggets as of Monday.  After running a lunch errand today, I went to check the app again, but realized I'd left my phone at the office.  Jeepers, why didn't I just leave my pants while I was at it.  So I dropped in to the closest McDonald's.  There's no indication of availability anywhere in the open, but they have signs-o-plenty announcing that "HOT MUSTARD IS BACK!"  Seriously, who's behind McDonald's marketing coordination, and how are they still employed?

Frowning Counter Girl: "Do we have WHAT?"

Me: "Szechuan sauce."

"WHAT?"

"SZECHUAN sauce."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"SESH-WAN sauce.  For the McNuggets."

She stares for a moment, walks down to the drive through, stares at a bin, returns, holds out a packet of Szechuan sauce, and asks "THIS?"

"Yes.  That."

She walks back to the bin, drops the sauce packet, and returns to the register.  I order.  She shouts down to a random employee handling orders "HE WANTS THE SZECHUAN!" as if she knew what I was asking all along and was just messing with me.

I get my drink and wait for my food at the counter.  Because even though they have the plastic numbers for table service, they're not giving anybody those or delivering food to tables.

Next customer has ordered through the app.  He holds out his phone in front of Frowning Counter Girl, displaying his mobile order code.

Frowning Counter Girl:  "I don't know what that is.  Technology and I don't get along too well.  I like the old days better."

She then stares at him, She's not going to ask anyone for assistance.  The guy ends up moving down the counter and asking others for help.

The Szechuan sauce is pretty good.  Wouldn't be my favorite by any means, but I see why people would love it.  My all-time favorite McNugget dipping sauce was Sweet Chili sauce.  I'd like to have that back.

I've talked about how McDonald's has too many items on the menu and what they could do to slim down and be more efficient, but I really think the opposite of McNugget sauces.  Those are something simple and cheap with a long shelf life they could really capitalize on.  Offer ten different options.  Twenty.  Fifty.  Offer a world tour of sauces similar to Old Chicago's world tour of beers.  Make it a fun online social club thing.  People of all ages would have a BLAST with that.  And they'd sell more McNuggets, which have to be one of their higher margin items.

Think about it, McDonald's.  Give me back my Sweet Chili Sauce.  Keep Szechuan and Hot Mustard for good.  Add a Spicy Ranch.  A Hoisin.  A Ghost Pepper.  Banana Ketchup.  Offer a mystery flavor guessing contest like Oreo did last year.

Just go McNuts.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Mini-Serve

Place: KFC
Lunch: Two original thighs, one extra crispy thigh, Pepsi (no ice, because there wasn't any)

Confused Counter Girl: "Sooo you want...two...original thighs and one extra crispy?"

Me: "Correct."

Confused Counter Girl: *pauses, enters things* "Sooo...two original thighs, one extra crispy, and a drink?"

Me: "Yes."

Apple Pay ensues.  My food is ready before I ever leave the order position.  I leave it there while I get my iceless drink and find Confused Counter Girl standing in front of my food.

"She put a biscuit on your plate.  I know you didn't want one.  I didn't charge you for it."

"Pretty sure they're supposed to put a biscuit on the plate anyway."

Her brain locks up, reboots, then she says "It's okay."

I really only eat about two pieces worth of chicken, then save the scraps for cat snacks.  They love chicken, though it tends to make them all uppity.

Most of you have no recollection of pulling up to a gas pump, having a guy come to your window, saying to him "Fill 'er up", and having them pump your gas for you.  They'd even clean your windows and check your oil.  This practice died out in favor of self-serve by the eighties.  For awhile you could do either/or, but you paid extra for the full service.

Not so in my home state of Oregon, one of two states that has laws making pumping your own gas illegal.

"What?  Seriously?"

Yes.  Seriously.

So every gas station has what's called "Mini-Serve" where a team of people man the pumps and pump the gas.  You may have to enter your own credit card at the pump depending on the station, and they're not going to do your windows or check your oil, but they'll pump your gas.  You aren't allowed, amateur.

This is, of course, ridiculous.  It annoys me so much that I'll drive my rental car over the Washington border into Vancouver to gas up when I'm visiting Portland.  I can pump my own gas, thank you very much.

But attempts to change the law over the years have failed at the hands of the voters who don't want to pump their own gas.  "I don't even know how to."  "It seems dangerous."  "But I'll smell like gas the rest of the day."  One has to wonder what magical power the rest of the country has that Oregon doesn't know about.  How are we all not passing out from gas fumes?  How are QuikTrips not exploding on a daily basis because of the dangers of amateurs pumping gas?  I couldn't get a real job in Oregon due to my lack of college degree to save my life and had to go to the Midwest to make a living, yet these arrogant, rude, "we're better than everybody" elitists are afraid of a gas pump?

Somehow, the state government recently managed to pass legislation that starts to dismantle this.  Effective with the new year,  self-serve is now legal in counties with populations smaller than 40,000 people.

It's not a COMPLETE elimination of mini-serve.  Stations with convenience stores are still required to staff at least some of the pumps, but can also offer self-serve.

But as far as Oregonians are concerned, the world is ending.

Medford CBS affiliate KTVL ran a Facebook poll asking viewers if they were in favor of self-serve or not, and the comments were hilarious.  Endless reasons from locals why this was a bad idea like "I don't want to get out of my car in the cold weather".  Horror stories of traveling Oregonians faced with pumping their own gas in other states for the first time in their lives.

It just got better as the post went viral and the rest of the world started laughing.

And laughing.

And laughing.

There was universal disbelief that this is even an issue.  People were offering to come to Oregon to offer lessons in pumping gas and how to tie shoes.  A guy said he was moving to Oregon FOR Mini- Serve because he was tired of pouring gas all over himself whenever he filled up.  The mocking was endless.

The phase-in going forward should, of course, be that Mini-Serve becomes a premium option.  Professional Oregon gas pumpers should take notice.  Accept nothing less than $90,000 per year to be a pump attendant.  Hazard pay, you know, since this is such a dangerous skill.

You deserved this, Oregon.

You SO deserved this.