Decades to Decadence

Waiting in line for the bank teller, as I did last Monday, is decidedly old-school. It’s a face-to-face experience so much more inefficient than the drive-thru lane or smartphone options. But sometimes we still go brick-and-mortar, don’t we?  Stopping into the bank is either convenient in the moment or perhaps the transaction demands a real, live person. And so we wait.  But at least cashing a check doesn’t take thirty years.  It just seems that long sometimes.

Every now and then you see a headline and say, “Wait a minute… WHAT?”  And then, even with no interest whatsoever you still read the article.  Such was the case this week with a story about Kobe beef.  I’ve never eaten Kobe beef.  I’m too cheap to even give it a try.  I’ll concede the price is justified by the high quality, high demand, and low supply.  But what if you had to wait until Thanksgiving of 2052 to be able to enjoy it?

Here’s the gist of the story.  A small, family-run butcher shop in Japan makes a beef croquette so popular it’ll take you thirty years to get one.  Asahiya, about to celebrate a century in the meat business, began producing its croquettes shortly after World War II.  The deep-fried meat-and-potato dumplings were designed as a tease; a mere taste to draw customers to its larger, more expensive products.  The strategy didn’t pan out so well but the croquettes themselves became an Internet sensation, and the inevitable hype that followed created a line of customers thirty years long.

[Note: If a Kobe beef croquette sounds “decadent” you’re probably right, but you’re using the wrong word to describe it.  Decadent actually means “excessively self-indulgent”.  Instead of the food itself perhaps you’re talking about a customer willing to wait thirty years.]

I hear what you’re saying.  I wouldn’t pay big bucks for something like this Dave, let alone wait thirty years for it.  But go figure; an Asahiya beef croquette costs only $3.40 USD.  You could buy a box of ten for less than you probably paid for your Thanksgiving turkey.  You just need a very comfortable chair as well.  Asahiya makes only two hundred croquettes a day (or twenty customers’ worth) so it’s no wonder you have to wait so long.

Technology being what it is today, we’re not patient waiters anymore.  Amazon and others are getting close to same-day delivery on the items we consume regularly.  Many amusement parks and tourist attractions have adopted Disney’s approach, where you can pay more to “jump the line”.  Want tickets to the next Taylor Swift concert?  Pay a “line-stander” to buy them for you.  Want season tickets to the Green Bay Packers?  Okay, sorry, there’s no way around that one.  The seats at sold-out Lambeau Field simply pass down the line from generation to generation.  But you can still join the list for this impossible get, just to say you’re on it.

This week’s visit to the bank felt like an impossible get.  I made it to within one customer of the front of the line before things came to a grinding halt.  Only two tellers were open out of the four.  One was preoccupied by a woman who wanted cash and a money order, with terms so specific you knew she was going to be awhile.  The other was completely preoccupied by an older gent, carrying on a personal conversation while constantly losing track of whatever he was asking for in the first place.  Meanwhile, the back window drive-thru teller was cranking out transaction after transaction after transaction.  Shoulda, coulda… I know, I know.

I thought the beef croquette story was timely, not because I went to the bank but because next Thursday is Thanksgiving, when Americans wait all day long.  We wake up early, get the oven going, prep the bird, and spend a long time putting the rest of the meal together.  We eat earlier than most dinners (does that make it “supper”?) but it’s still a waiting game.  Hours and hours of anticipation before the food is finally brought to the table.

If there’s any good news about Asahiya’s Kobe products, it’s that they have options besides the “Extreme” beef croquettes.  There’s a more accessible variety called the “Premiere”.  You only have to wait four years for those.  When you consider how fast we’re going through U.S. Presidents lately, four years doesn’t seem like a long time at all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “These Japanese beef croquettes are so popular there’s a 30-year waiting list”.

Mechanical Wonders

A Wall Street Journal headline stopped me in my tracks today.  In Guangzhou, China, you can now buy a car from a vending machine.  Starting with a smartphone app, you book a test drive before you arrive.  Once at the “dealership”, facial recognition software kicks the machine into gear, delivering your car-of-choice from an eight-story automated garage.  If you’re happy with the test drive, you negotiate the purchase through the app – no haggling salesperson to be seen – and off you drive with a new car.  I’d fly to China and take a test drive just to see the automated garage vend a car.  That’s some cool technology.

Photo by Aleksandar Plavecski

Vending is more sophisticated these days than the plain-Jane cigarette and candy machines of old, of course.  Airports dispense cell phones and other pricey electronics to travelers from vending machines.  Food-truck-like boxes dispense made-to-order pizzas.  A mall in Beverly Hills vends Beluga caviar from self-serve refrigerators ($500 a pop).  Las Vegas’s “The Lobster Zone” is like one of those machines where you joystick the claw to your toy of choice, only here you’re plucking live lobsters from a tank.  Finally, the cupcake company Sprinkles makes serious bank with its street-side “cupcake ATM’s”.

           

Speaking of bank, I used to collect mechanical banks when I was a kid. That sounds like a strange (nerdy?) admission – collecting toy banks – but that’s what kids did in the 1970’s. They collected things. Mechanical banks wouldn’t appeal to today’s youth for a couple of reasons. One, they’re battery-operated or “wind-up”, so you can’t control them with a phone or an app. Two, they work on the assumption you’re saving up nickels, dimes, and quarters for future purchases. Today’s kids seem less likely to save that way (if at all), and their purchases are with bills or electronic cash.  Mechanical banks prefer coins.

My collection of banks – which disappeared years ago – is a good example of the limitations of what and how a kid could purchase back then.  Almost all my banks came from the Johnson Smith Company, a manufacturer out of Chicago (“Since 1914!”)  Johnson Smith sold endless novelty and gag gift items: x-ray goggles, whoopee cushions, joy buzzers, and those really annoying “chattering teeth”.  They also sold mechanical banks; not the beautiful collector’s editions of old, but plastic, battery-operated cheapies, probably manufactured in China.  Johnson Smith was the closest thing a kid in my day had to Amazon.

Because I lived in Los Angeles and Johnson Smith sold their mechanical banks in Chicago, the U.S. Postal Service was a lifeline; the critical link between my quiet suburban neighborhood and the Midwest’s biggest city.  When I saved enough money, I’d stuff my bills and coins into an envelope, hand-address it, add several postage stamps (Mom helped with the calculation), and walk it out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway.  Four to six weeks later, a small brown box would arrive from Chicago, addressed to me and containing my latest mechanical wonder.

Think about that for a second.  Not only was I putting cash into a flimsy white envelope to be processed through the endless shipping and handling of USPS, but I was also leaving my hard-earned money out by the street, alerting the world to its presence with the little red mailbox flag.  That same transaction today – with “1-click ordering” – takes a single keystroke or voice command and shows up on my doorstep in two days or less.

The irony of collecting mechanical banks is that you’re spending your hard-earned pennies on the very thing designed to keep you from spending them.  Truth be told, my banks weren’t about saving money at all.  Instead, they were entertainment in the form of plastic-and-battery-operated mechanics, watching coins go here-and-there before finally disappearing from sight.

I never lost my fascination for mechanics.  I remember grade-school field trips to commercial bakeries, going behind-the-scenes to see how big vats of dough methodically evolved into sliced, packaged loaves of bread.  My kids and I used to watch the Food Network’s “Unwrapped”, a half-hour tour through the sophisticated mechanics behind a product’s evolution, from individual ingredients, through various stages of assembly (and several conveyor belts), finally to the finish line: a brightly-wrapped ready-to-eat consumable.

Mechanical banks may be long gone, but even in today’s age of electronics I say we’re still fascinated by mechanics itself.  It’s the reason we buy cars from vending machines or cupcakes from ATM’s.  And it’s the reason I still haul my pocket change down to the bank, just to see the teller dump the lot into the coin-counting machine; the noisy, mechanical wonder that sorts, counts, and spits out a receipt just before gobbling up every last penny.