R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Good Times and Laughter Too

My wife and I will attend two weddings this summer; one for friends and one for family.  This week I noticed one of the brides-to-be on Facebook, requesting “songs you want to hear/dance-to at the reception”.  Clever girl, making sure her guests have a say in the music.  My guess is – whether requested or not – the deejay will find room for Kool & The Gang’s enduring party anthem, “Celebration”.  It’s as timeless now as it was when we first heard it in 1980.  And ce–lah–brate-ing good times is as timeless at weddings as it is for the passing of a loved one.

Plucked from another section of the significant-life-events portfolio, my wife and I attended a Celebration of Life this past weekend, for my uncle (my dad’s twin brother).  I label two aspects of my uncle’s passing as “merciful”: 1) He was weakened by a heart condition over the last three years of his life; and 2) One or two of his family members were not available for an immediate memorial.  Because of the first aspect, the extended family had plenty of time to make peace with my uncle’s eventual passing.  Because of the second aspect, what may have been a funeral became a celebration of life instead.

No need to vote on this topic.  Whenever circumstances permit, choose Celebration of Life over Funeral.  Funerals lean to the shock and mourning of a life lost – somber affairs are they.  Celebrations of Life revel in the happy memories of one life, and the joy brought to countless others.  Such was the case with my uncle.  His celebration included a church service, hymns, and a homily (given by the “celebrant”, of course), but what moved me to my core – and what I couldn’t get enough of – were the stories shared by my cousins (my uncle’s children) and my father (his brother).  Those memories included things I never knew about my uncle, such as his talent as a cartoonist and his childlike demeanor with his grandchildren.  I’m even more inspired by the man than I already was.

My uncle’s celebration moved on from the church to a beautiful setting by the San Francisco Bay, where drinks, lunch, photos and memories were shared for several hours.  It was as much a family reunion as a celebration, and my uncle wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Before he passed, he let it be known we should make merry instead of mourn.  And so, …There was a party goin’ on right there; a celebration to last throughout the years.

Whether we celebrate births or birthdays, weddings or wedding anniversaries, Sunday Mass or Christ-mas, we get a healthy dose of festive occasions in our lifetimes.  Perhaps that’s why we’ve come up with so many words to describe them.  Merriam-Webster published one such list here, including Bash (America’s melding of “bang” and “smash”, somehow maturing into “party”); Blast (surely inspired by loud musical instruments and champagne bottles); Rave (actually inspired by a Middle-Ages term for “acts of madness”); Blowout (once defined as a “one-off indulgence”; somehow morphed into “major festive occasion”), and finally my favorite – Wingding (once “feigned seizures”, now “wild partying”).

But enough digression.  Well, almost enough.  My nod to all things “celebration” wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the town in Florida by the same name.  Developed by Disney as a utopian master-planned unincorporated community “created from scratch”, and “a town worthy of its brand and legacy”, Celebration was/is Disney’s nod to New Urbanism: development based on the small towns of early America, with compact downtowns, “walkable” streets, diverse housing stock, and plentiful public spaces. Celebration doesn’t even consider itself a town, preferring instead the label of community, as in “strong spirit, and desire for friendship with neighbors”.  Sounds like a festive gathering to me!

There will be many more celebrations of life before the one that has my own name on it.  I’m okay with that.  Celebrations of life are a unique blend of revel and revere, partying and paying respects – the dual reasons we raise our glasses to someone’s name.  Just be sure it’s a party.  As Kool & The Gang puts it: We’re gonna have a good time tonight… Let’s celebrate… It’s all right.

America Makes the List

Last Friday’s celebration of the Chicago Cubs in the Windy City made headlines the following day. The fantastic turnout to celebrate a long-awaited World Series victory – from those lining the parade route to those further south at the rally – was generously estimated at FIVE MILLION people. That’s a serious confluence of baseball fans. But the number really gave me a jolt several days later, when someone ranked the gathering as the seventh largest in human history.

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Five million.  Hard to picture that many people in one location.  The population of Chicago is only half as much so the suburbs must’ve emptied out as well (it was a record day for the Metra commuter rail service).  Maybe I should’ve hired a helicopter or the Goodyear blimp and flown overhead, just to see all those human heads from a single vantage point.

Perspective?  If you take the combined attendance to Major League Baseball games in the 2016 season – 73,159,044 fans watching 30 teams play 2,424 games  – Friday’s crowd was almost 7% of that.  If you only consider the attendance to the seven games of the World Series – 299,704 fans watching 2 teams play 7 games, Chicago’s party drew seventeen times that many.

Five million people live in Norway (though I challenge you to see every single Norwegian from one location).  Five million people also live in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, but how would you get them all to stand still while you counted?

I still can’t picture five million, but maybe the following will help.  Dunkin’ Donuts just announced its “DD Perks Rewards” program exceeded five million members.  Whirlpool just announced a recall of five million tumble dryers in the UK because of “blaze risk” (same technology as the Galaxy Note 7 phone?)  A recent census indicated five million people have jobs in Switzerland.  By the year 2020, a bunch of new robots will be added to the global workforce, thereby eliminating – you guessed it – five million jobs.  Finally, here in Colorado the government’s ‘Project Baseline” built a vault to store all kinds of seeds for future experiments, in response to climate change and environmental degradation.  Scientists have been collecting the seeds since 2012 and the vault now contains… five million of the little buggers.

Those are some fun facts but they don’t really paint the picture I’m looking for.  Let’s consider five million another way.  When someone says “seventh-largest gathering”, you want to know about gatherings one through six, don’t you?  What would you guess – religious pilgrimage?  Papal mass?  State funeral?  Correct, correct, and correct.  Here are the top ten gatherings in mankind’s recorded history:

  1. Kumba Mela pilgrimage, India, 2013 – 30 million
  2. Arbaeen festival, Iraq, 2014 – 17 million
  3. Funeral of CN Annadurai, India, 1969 – 15 million
  4. Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran, 1989, 10 million
  5. Papal gathering in the Philippines, 2015 – 6 million
  6. World Youth Day (also attended by the Pope), Philippines, 5 million
  7. Chicago Cubs World Series Celebration – 5 million
  8. Funeral of Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1970 – 5 million
  9. Rod Stewart concert, Brazil, 1994 – 3.5 million
  10. Hajj pilgrimage, Mecca, Saudi Arabia – 3 million

Thanks to the Cubs, America finally makes the list.  But I’m no closer to picturing five million people than I was at the start of this post, and I’m running out of words.  Tell you what.  If the Cubs win the World Series next year (meaning the world comes to an end again), I’m heading to Chicago to be a part of the victory celebration.  If I can’t picture the number, at least I can say I was “one in a million”.  Or five million.