Comfort Food For Thought

If you read my post last week, you know I was a little distressed over the recent shootings in my country.  Blogging was intended to bring me a comfort in troubled times.  In hindsight, maybe I was overthinking the situation.  Maybe all I needed was comfort food.  Enter Chick-fil-A.  The popular fast-food chicken restaurant may never be forgiven for removing their awesome coleslaw from the “Sides” menu a few years back, but just this week they brought a new guest to the party.  Hello, macaroni and cheese.

Amanda Norris is Chick-fil-A’s executive director of menu and packaging.  She’s now my new best friend.  A chicken sandwich and waffle fries, with a second side of mac & cheese?  Heaven in a to-go bag, my friends.  As Amanda puts it, “Mac & cheese is the quintessential comfort food… the perfect pairing… but it’s also great on its own as a snack”.  In other words, I’ve just been given permission to drive-thru Chick-fil-A and order only mac & cheese.  I’m a kid again!

Chick-fil-A’s mac & cheese

Chick-fil-A’s mac & cheese is made with a special blend of cheddar, Parmesan, and Romano, and baked fresh every day. Uh, push the pause button here.  Three cheeses sounds a little fancy for the mac & cheese I had in mind.  If the restaurant really wanted to arrow the bullseye, they should’ve done a deal with Kraft Foods and offered the mac & cheese.  You know the one – the proud little blue-and-gold box of the “cheesiest”, with the pile of pasta curls and pouch of powdered who-knows-what?  There’s simply no equal.

Kraft introduced its “Macaroni & Cheese Dinner” in 1937 with the slogan, “Make a meal for four in nine minutes”.  Back then – the Depression years – you could buy two boxes of Kraft for a single food-rationing stamp (Make a meal for eight…!)  Fast-forward to the 1980’s, when my wife and I were managing our shoestring food budget.  At least we knew we could buy Kraft mac & cheese.  Three boxes for a dollar!

Three-cheese blend aside, I agree with Chick-fil-A.  Mac & cheese is the quintessential comfort food.  Comfort food is defined as “… providing a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone”, and “…tends to be high in calories, high in carbs, and easy to prepare”.  Well hey, you might as well just say, “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner”!  Sure, you could turn to other comfort foods on Wikipedia’s short-list, like chicken soup, chocolate-chip cookies or grilled cheese (Tater Tots and sugary breakfast cereals didn’t make the list – for shame!), but take my money – and give me comfort – Kraft mac & cheese earns the top spot.  Just ask any Canadian; it’s the most-purchased grocery item in the country.

Recently, mac & cheese sits side-by-side with Brussels sprouts as a trendy restaurant offering, even in the fancy places.  The problem is in the spin – all those added ingredients for a supposedly better taste.  Lobster mac & cheese.  Mac & cheese pizza (topped with shredded Colby-Jack).  Mac & cheese pie (with a bready crust).  Even Kraft messed with the Original (“Star Wars-shaped” pasta?  Come on!).  Admittedly, their “Shells & Cheese Dinner” with the Velveeta cheese sauce is a pretty good option.  But it’s not the Original.

Comfort foods are further defined as “… food associated with the security of childhood. They are believed to be a great coping mechanism for rapidly soothing negative feelings.”  There it is, and that’s what I need right now.  The couple of Kraft boxes in my pantry are calling me home.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the foxnews.com article, “Chick-fil-A’s Mac and Cheese Hits Menus Nationwide”.

Poultry Par Excellence

Among its endless and varied topics, Wikipedia includes a list of “notable chicken restaurants” (just about all of them U.S.-based). In the fast-food subcategory alone, you find over 75 fowl food-stops. I recognized about one in ten as I scanned the list, including Bojangles’, Bush’s, Church’s, El Pollo Loco, KFC, Popeye’s, Raising Cane’s, Wild Wings, and Zaxby’s. That’s a lot of drive-thru chicken. Yet put ’em all in the back seat, because I side with those clever Holstein dairy cows, begging me to “Eat Mor Chikin”.  And I do eat more – at Chick-fil-A.

As the kids morphed from teenagers to adults, fast food pretty much disappeared from our eating-out options.  Starbucks aside (because coffee is the elixir of life), we stopped navigating the circuitous drive-thru’s of McDonald’s and the like.  Our palates demanded better and healthier.  More appealing sit-down options beckoned on every street corner.  But Chick-fil-A stubbornly persisted in the mix, as if waving a banner with the words, “Exception To The Rule”.

Dwarf House – Hapeville, GA

No matter how you label it, there’s a lot to like about Chick-fil-A.  For one, it’s the great American success story.  Its origins trace back to founder S. Truett Cathy, and a 1960’s-era restaurant near Atlanta called Dwarf House.  Its popularity swelled through twenty years of growth in shopping mall food courts. Its first free-standing restaurant opened in 1986.  Today, you’ll find more than 2,400 Chick-fil-A’s scattered across the continent, including a prominent three-story location in mid-town Manhattan, and several in Toronto, Canada.

It’s all about the food, of course.  Chick-fil-A’s most-ordered entree – the classic chicken sandwich (breaded, with pickles and a butter-toasted bun) – is a recipe unchanged since its inception fifty years ago.  The signature waffle fries accompanying the entrees are the most popular item on the entire menu.  And Chick-fil-A’s lemonade and milkshakes have a devoted following all by themselves.  Some patrons cruise the drive-thru for nothing but the drinks.

The Chick-fil-A’ “classic”

There’s more to like about Chick-fil-A.  Their brand of customer service is exceptional.  Chick-fil-A is the only restaurant I know where you’ll hear the words “my pleasure” in exchange for your “thank you”.  Between your order, payment, and the window itself, you’ll probably get “my pleasure'” three times in a single drive-thru.  That kind of courtesy never gets old.

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)

How about the numbers?  Chick-fil-A is the third-biggest U.S. restaurant chain ranked by sales (behind only Starbucks and McDonald’s).  Their sales have quintupled in the last ten years, to over $10.2 billion.  Chick-fil-A’s market share among fast-food chicken restaurants hovers around 33%.  Their nearest competitor – KFC – is a distant 15.3%.

Here’s one more reason to love Chick-fil-A: they’re closed on Sundays (as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas).  In the company’s own words, “Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”  No matter the faith angle, you have to respect a restaurant giving its entire workforce the day off once a week.  Not to mention, a closed Chick-fil-A just makes the heart grow fonder.

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) profile on Chick-fil-A shows they don’t mess with success.  McDonald’s regularly tests its patrons with trendy offerings (“Bacon Smokehouse Burger”).  Burger King reinvents itself with its upcoming “Impossible” (veggie) Whopper.  Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A maintains a little-changed menu of what’s been selling for decades: responsibly sourced, domestically produced, no-filler-no-preservative chicken.

At the conclusion of the WSJ article, I found one hundred reader comments about Chick-fil-A.  I scanned half of them, and every last one was positive.  That’s a first for me.  In today’s cynical world, 100% positive feedback may be the most telling statistic of all.

Final factoid.  For all my allegiance to Chick-fil-A, I must admit I didn’t know the origin of the name – until now.  Go figure, it’s just a mash-up of “chicken fillet”.  And the “-A”?  “Grade A”, a subtle nod to the quality of the Chick-fil-A product.  No wonder those cows push you to lay off beef.  They’re offering chicken par excellence instead.

Some content sourced from the official website of Chick-fil-A.

Which Came First?

When my son wrapped up his undergraduate college years, he gradually reduced the stock in his refrigerator to just about nothing.  Living on a shoestring budget, he wasn’t about to purchase food he didn’t need after graduation.  I’ll never forget the phone call one of those last couple of nights.  He told us – rather proudly – he’d made a meal with two eggs… and a can of processed chicken.  A “chicken scramble” if you will.  To which I replied, “ick“.  If we’d been on FaceTime he’d have seen my face turn a lovely shade of green.

Some foods were just not intended to be consumed in the same bite.  I can’t think of a better example than chicken and eggs.  All chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, so why on earth would we eat them together?  Can we skip the biology class and agree – at least by one definition – chickens and eggs are essentially the same “thing”?  And really; how often have you found them side-by-side on your breakfast plate?  Hopefully never.

The memory of my son’s kitchen creation locked itself away in my brain until recently, when Starbucks decided to meddle with their sous vide egg bites menu.  Not content to offer just “Egg White & Pepper” and “Bacon & Gruyere”, Starbucks now offers “Chicken Chorizo Tortilla”, described as “perfectly cooked, cage-free sous vide egg bites, including chicken chorizo, and…” and… and… and I stopped reading right there.  I couldn’t get past eggs and chicken in the same offering, gag reflex included.  I’m not sure I’ll order any egg bites anymore.

To lend credence to my chicken-OR – not chicken-AND – claim, I turned to one of the experts in the field: fast-food icon Chick-Fil-A.  CFA offers an extensive breakfast menu (Starbucks does not) so I figured, a restaurant built entirely on chicken would never offer eggs mixed up with chicken.  Wrong-o.  To my disbelief (and horror), two entrees loom large on CFA’s breakfast menu where you can get plenty of both.  Choose from the Egg White Grill: a breakfast portion of grilled chicken stacked with freshly cooked egg whites on an English muffin; or the Chicken, Egg, and Cheese bagel: a boneless breast of chicken along with a folded egg and American cheese.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?

I’m not sure who said it, but some would assert “the chicken is merely the egg’s way of reproducing itself”. (The same applies to the caterpillar’s “use” of the butterfly.)  I like that, evil as it sounds.  Kind of devalues the chicken, but also kind of proclaims: the egg came first.  And what about that quandary, “which came first”?  There’s not much to discuss if you really think about it.  Make the simple choice – science or religion.  Science votes for the egg, laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken (but evolved into one once the egg hatched).  Religion votes for the chicken, created by a higher power in those first six days.

Maybe chicken + eggs is the greatest thing never eaten and I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I suppose I could ease into the idea one entree at a time.  Start with corned-beef hash… with fried eggs.  Move to full-on steak… and eggs.  Swallow hard over chicken… and waffles (eggs in the batter).  Then, at long last, order that new sous vide egg bite from Starbucks.  Yeah right, that’ll happen… as soon as we all agree on “which came first”.

Creatures of Habit

WHAT IF Starbucks decided to close its stores for a whole day? Imagine, you’re driving to work with early-morning brain fog, you pass by the most convenient Starbucks, and from the street you see a big “CLOSED” sign behind the glass.  Not to be denied, you head for the drive-thru, but your access is blocked by green cones (everything matches at Starbucks).  You’re still in denial, so you pull into a parking space, get out of the car, and peer through the darkened windows. Horrors. Your 7×24 caffeine-addiction fixer-upper (well, almost 7×24, but who craves coffee at 3am?) has taken the day off.  Are you getting a case of the jitters just reading this paragraph? Is this a Catch-22, because you can’t think up another coffee option until you’ve actually had your morning coffee?

We had a little “sip” of this scenario earlier this week, didn’t we?  For reasons that were relevant-today gone-tomorrow (maybe), Starbucks took the high road and delivered several hours of anti-bias training to its employees, closing 8,000 locations in the process.  For one interminably-long afternoon and evening on Tuesday, you had to search a lot harder to find your grande no-whip Caramel Macchiato.  When Starbucks’ announcement lit up the front-page headlines last week, my first thought wasn’t, “the lines are about to get longer at the bathrooms” (though admittedly, it’s a legitimate concern since I’m a man of frequent visits), nor was my first thought, “we’re about to see a lot of, uh, interesting people at Starbucks now” (because we already do, don’t we?)  Rather, my thought was, “how the heck are we gonna cope with several hours of no-Starbucks, when 100 million patrons – you read that right – frequent their stores every week?”

In a related headline, an economist claimed this one-time Starbucks shutdown would cost the company $12 million and be a boon for “coffee competitors” like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.  Laughable.  I know those restaurants have their fair share of coffee allegiance these days – if you consider “fair share” less than 1%.  No, the world didn’t rotate off its axis on Tuesday, but I also won’t promise patrons didn’t line up at the Starbucks drive-thru hours before the open on Wednesday morning.  Our Starbucks habit was ingrained at an early age, well before the competition stepped up.  Howard Schultz is a genius.

More likely, the impact of Tuesday’s shutdown is what I refer to as the “Chick-fil-A effect”.  If you’re a fan of CFA, you’ve known from the get-go their stores close on Sundays.  It’s a simple building block of the founder’s philosophy: CFA employees should spend their Sundays resting and at worship, with family and friends.  Now, you might pass Chick-fil-A on a Sunday and think, “Closed.  What a nice gesture – more companies should do that.” But I’m pretty sure you’re actually thinking, “Damn – I was really craving a #1 meal, hold the pickle, w/ lemonade”.  And that thought will stay with you until Monday. And Tuesday, And Wednesday, or whatever day you next pass by Chick-fil-A.  Maybe their alt-slogan should be, “Closure Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” or something like that.  It’s as much a business strategy as a thoughtful benefit for CFA employees.  On that note – trust me – Starbucks will make up Tuesday’s lost business by the time I hit the “publish” button on this post.

Nothing Bundt Cakes (“Home of the Most Delicious Bundt Cakes Ever!”) is kinda sorta the same animal as Chick-fil-A.  For reasons suspiciously vague, NBC allows its franchisees the option to close on Sundays.  Google your NBC’s hours before you head over for a white chocolate raspberry bundt or a lemon bundtlet.  The next time you find their doors unexpectedly locked, I predict your dreams will be relentlessly invaded by dozens of little flying bundtinis – at least until you satisfy your craving with a purchase.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here’s the irony about today’s musing: I’m typing my post from a Starbucks.  I’m sitting quietly at a table, enjoying a grande cold brew with a touch of cream.  The baristas are unusually perky (surely a side effect of their recent training).  The restaurant feels quiet and “inclusive”.  In other words, I didn’t cry over spilt coffee on Tuesday. Instead, I just proved my theory.  a) Tuesday afternoon I couldn’t go to Starbucks.  b) I wasn’t even planning to go.  c) The store closures were in the headlines, which inserted “caffeine denial” into my brain.  d) Here I am, just two days later, getting my Starbucks on again.

Touché, Mr. Schultz.