Past Cards

Restaurants tend to leave advertising freebies at the host stand or on your table to remember them by. After paying the bill, you might grab a logo’d toothpick or a couple of plastic-wrapped mints on the way out the door. The fancier establishments offer books of matches (as if smoking remains the chic habit it once was). But every now and then I come across my favorite restaurant takeaway: the plain and simple postcard.

I’m almost afraid to ask a young person what he/she thinks of a postcard.  They’d turn it over and over in their hands and wonder what purpose is served by a laminated photo on card-stock paper (“Just show me the photo on your phone!“)  Then they’d flip the card to the back and realize it has something to do with snail mail (“Just send me a text!“)  Finally, they’d wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of pen/paper just to let another someone know where they were having dinner (“Just add your location on Facebook!“)

Remove smartphone technology and postcards suddenly seem relevant again.  Take a break from the dinner conversation, scribble a few sentences, add a mailing address, affix a stamp, and voila!  A thoughtful bit of correspondence in mere minutes – the precursor to the Post-It Note.  If you’re lucky, the restaurant pays the postage and mails the card.  If you’re even luckier, your recipient still checks their physical mailbox.

A 1908 postcard… of a Chicago postcard factory!

Postcards have more history than a modest rectangle of heavy paper would suggest.  The very first postcard was sent in 1840, in London. (Someone who believed “very first” paid $40,000 for it in 2002.)  In the later 1840’s, postcards began circulating in the United States, as printed advertising.  Soon after, postcards became the Mini Cooper of personal correspondence; a quick letter sans envelope, but without images (because your personal note went on the front of the card back then).  By the 1870’s, manufacturers were producing “picture postcards”, with the divided back you see today.

Risqué front image (at least for 1890) from the popular “seaside postcards” of the United Kingdom

The advent of the picture postcard led to a little controversy in certain parts of the globe.  Images sent from one country were not always deemed “proper” in another (i.e. sexual references in popular UK “seaside postcards”, or images of full or partial nudity from classical statuary or paintings).  Accordingly, some countries refused to handle picture postcards.  Those same images are clearly conservative by today’s standards.

Like baseball cards, postcards have become a collector’s item.  The value of a given card is associated with the image on the front.  Online resources include collector websites and clubs, catalogs, and trading platforms.  When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I collected postcards – one summer – to document the stopping points on a month-long trip my family took to the American states in the northeast.  Pretty sure none of my cards held value, but I still wish I kept them.

My “Northeast States” collection c. 1975

[Trivia pause: collecting postcards makes me a deltiologist.  Aren’t you impressed?]

Postcards have their own terminology, as if to elevate their status among mailed items.  A large letter postcard shows the name of a place in big letters (instead of a picture).  An early postcard is any card issued before the era of divided backs.  An installment card is one of a set, forming a single picture when placed in a grid.  Postcardese is the short-sentence, abbreviated writing style of postcards.  Finally, midget postcards – noticeably smaller than the standard 6″ x 4.5″ version – were issued as souvenirs and bound in sets.  (If you look at my collection photo you’ll see several midgets).

“Large Letter” postcard c. 1940s

The next time you come across a postcard, give the little guy a (first-class) ounce of respect.  He’s been around a long time, and the post office – depending on country – may still send him for less than the cost of an enveloped letter.  Remember, the postcard was the original format of brief long-distance correspondence.  Think about that the next time you text.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Ahoy, Matey!

At the Jolly Roger Restaurant in the small Southern California town of Oceanside, you can order an Avocado Blast as a starter (tempura-battered avo stuffed with shrimp and tuna), Orange Coconut Salmon as an entree (panko-crusted with a sweet ginger glaze), and fruit-topped New York Cheesecake as a dessert, all while watching live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. The “JR” may be a little fancy for your tastes but let me tell you; it’s a LOT fancy for mine. That’s because the only version of the Jolly Roger I ever knew was my favorite boyhood burger joint.  As pirates like to say, “Aarrr…

Why blog about a long-ago restaurant?  Because I’ve just returned from several days of vacation in Del Mar (just a few miles south of Oceanside), where my family and I spent my childhood summers.  Del Mar is renowned for its county fair and thoroughbred racetrack (“Where the Turf Meets the Surf”), but for me it was – and still is – a nirvana of sun, sand, and surf; chock-full of happy, carefree memories.  Including the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar beach

The beauty of Del Mar back in the day, besides its seaside location, was the sheer simplicity of the place.  The town was the perfect setup for a kid.  You could walk or bike from the residential areas to the shops in minutes.  You could spend pocket money on Slurpees and pinball at the 7-11.  You could meet/greet frequent passenger trains at Del Mar’s tiny station (while those same trains flattened pennies on the rails).  You could also sneak into the racetrack, collecting discarded betting tickets in hopes of finding an overlooked winner.  And if you were lucky, you had dinner at the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar train crossing

The Jolly Roger got its start as an ice cream parlor in 1945, adjacent to the lake in Big Bear, CA.  But the lake promptly went dry, which led to a lack of landlubbers walking through the doors.  The parlor then relocated to Newport Beach (where the ocean never goes dry).  Patrons soon asked for more than ice cream, so the JR evolved into a coffee shop; then into a chain of restaurants.  At its peak, the JR had forty locations, each adorned with the trademark black flag with skull and crossbones.  But as one article cruelly described its demise in 1985, “…the Jolly Roger pirate has ‘walked the plank’, and the restaurant chain has been consigned to Davey Jones’ locker.”  As far as I know, Oceanside is now the only remaining restaurant.

There’s more to my JR memories than those couple of seaside locations.  The JR also had a restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles, in a shopping center my dad developed back in the 1960’s.  The center is still there but alas, not the JR (now a Mexican restaurant).  No matter; the memories remain.  I never complained when my dad wanted to stop by his center on weekends.  That usually meant a family dinner at the JR, and a lot of yo-ho-ho-ing around the table.

Jolly Roger menu – original cover page

Sadly, the Jolly Roger location where my family and I shared many a dinner – next door to Del Mar in Solana Beach – is also gone (converted into a Starbucks – shiver me timbers!)  And the Oceanside restaurant has evolved into something a whole lot fancier.  No matter again.  My JR will always exist.  I picture the restaurant where the waiters dressed like pirates, the kid’s menus looked like a pirate, and the best options for dinner were burgers & fries, grilled cheese, and milkshakes.  The JR also had quite the dessert menu, including full-boat chocolate sundaes and coconut-cream pie.

Dead men tell no tales, but I sure do.  Thanks for the memories, JR!

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.

Slipping Away

Every time we travel to California – this past weekend, for example – I have to be reminded about their statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags.  You think I’d remember – Cali put the kibosh on the bags three years ago.  Still, we fill our basket with groceries, head to the check-out, and the cashier goes, “want to purchase bags?”  Argh.  I should store a couple of reusables in my suitcase; the very ones I keep in my car in Colorado.

Plastic straws followed plastic bags, of course.  Four months ago, the Golden State placed “discouragement” on the plastic variety (you must ask for them now).  We sat down to a meal and our waitress brought glasses of water – with paper straws (argh again).  Admittedly, “legal” sippers are pretty good.  No reduction to mush like breakfast cereal sitting too long in milk.  Other than the cost (several times more than plastic), and the fine ($25/day for un-requested plastic), paper straws are hardly inconvenient.

Now then, the real topic for today.  California is looking to “strike up the ban” yet again – on paper receipts; the little critters we receive after credit card transactions.  Say it isn’t so, West Coasters!  Bags and straws I can deal with, but a ban on paper receipts?  That’s just stealing another book from my old-school library.

According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the facts are these: paper receipts generate 686 million pounds of waste per year. (Can someone please quantify 686 million pounds – say, number of filled swimming pools?)  Paper receipts also generate 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. (Again, quantify – number of breathing humans?)  Also, paper receipts contain Bisphenol A (BPA); not exactly an appetizing compound.  In other words, don’t eat your receipts just because the food was lousy.

Without paper receipts, my personal budget maintenance takes a blow.  I keep everything in Quicken, so give me points for electronic accounting.  But I also use paper receipts – an old-fashioned double-check mechanism.  I enter the transaction from the receipt; then cross-check against the Visa statement (Jacob Marley reincarnated?)  Why do I do this?  Because once upon a time a waiter decided to triple my tip after I’d signed the bill and left the restaurant.  Later, my paper receipt didn’t reconcile with my Visa statement.  Busted.  I promptly called the manager, who investigated and lo-and-behold, discovered a pattern of gouging.  The waiter was fired.  More points for me!

Now here’s the irony in my triple-the-tip story.  What if the restaurant didn’t use paper receipts?  What if I processed my transaction through Square or an iPad, self-swiping my card and choosing the percentage tip?  For starters (and finishers) there wouldn’t have been gouging because there wouldn’t have been a waiter.  It would be like standing over the shoulder of the processor at Visa – instant reconciliation.  In effect, my story is a vote for no paper receipts.

Truth be told, I’m already evolving – slowly – from paper receipts.  When given the choice (Home Depot comes to mind), I select “email receipt” or “no receipt” more often than “paper”.  Unlike robo-calls, I accept the unsolicited side effects of electronic commerce (i.e. email spam).  In a nod to maintaining control, I select self-check-in at airports and self-check-out at markets.

More likely, I’m caving on paper receipts because I’ve already done so with a laundry list of other paper products.  My written letters have (d)evolved into email.  My paper-printed books have dissolved into bits/bytes on my Kindle e-reader.  My to-do lists now reside in a phone app.  Bills arrive in my online inbox instead of my streetside mailbox.

Phil Dyer, one reader of the Wall Street Journal piece, commented, “California will soon attempt to regulate earthquakes”.  49 of 50 U.S. states just LOL’d.  Me, not so much.  After all, I never thought I’d see the day where I’d give up my paper receipts.

Tipsy-Turvy

Emily Post’s Etiquette is surely an authority on its topic, considering the book was first published in 1922 and is now into its nineteenth edition. I would’ve enjoyed meeting Ms. Post, as Etiquette remains “the most trusted resource for navigating life’s every situation”. The advice never veers from its original premise, simply adapting to times as they change.  Of course, it’s all about manners – good ones at that. And were Emily Post alive today, she’d have us flip to Chapter 13, for a review of a practice of growing concern (and confusion).  Chapter 13 talks about tipping.

   

I’ve written about tipping before.  Three years ago (!) I told the story of my family’s visit to New York City, and the cabbie who crammed the six of us into one vehicle, then demanded a bigger tip than I gave, as a reward for saving the cost of a second cab.  I disagreed with him, because I believed – still do – a tip reflects the service itself (which was marginal).  More importantly, the recipient should never expect the tip, let alone argue over the amount.

Square’s POS

So-o-o, why is tipping such a hot topic now?  Because restaurants and coffee shops are moving to point-of-sale (POS) technology at the counter, allowing the customer to complete the transaction through an iPad, no cash required.  POS software (like Square) includes a tipping screen, offering suggested percentages/amounts, or no tip at all.  It’s a change to the social dynamic.  Before POS, you could discreetly add (or not add) a tip to your receipt before signing, or perhaps throw a few coins into the jar.  With POS, the tipping decision is forced on you at the front of the line (hurry up!).  And don’t be surprised if the person behind you sneaks a peak while you choose your tip.

My issue is not with the POS technology itself.  I like the security of completing a transaction (i.e. the credit card never leaves the hand), and I don’t mind navigating a couple of iPad screens to do it.  What I do mind is “tipping manipulation” as I’m standing at the counter.  The suggested amounts are the first thing you see, and beckon in LARGE FONTS.  To leave a smaller amount requires additional screens.  The “No Tip” option sits at the bottom like an afterthought.  Behavioral science says you’ll almost always choose from the top row, whether the service deserves it or not.

POS software gives the merchant the option to remove the tipping screen altogether, but I’m not suggesting they go back to a jar of coins.  Instead, before the tipping screen, why not insert a common courtesy (channeling Emily Post here): a screen simply asking, “Would you like to leave a tip?”

If your habit is to always (or never) leave a tip, consider the variables behind the curtains.  Some businesses adjust employee pay down if the position receives tips.  Other businesses pool tips, then divide the pot between all service positions (did you really intend to tip the dishwasher)?  The American Restaurant Association claims some states allow service businesses to pay less than minimum wage, because tips are legally considered wages.  Finally, minimum wage varies by state, so a nice tip in one state might be an insult in another.  Yet you, the tipper, have no idea if one or more of the above applies as you’re about to pay.  Messy, no?

Timeout for a favorite tipping story.  After years of one-on-one sessions, my personal trainer decided to resign my athletic club and pursue another career.  Knowing she was leaving, I asked if I could leave a tip with my final payment.  She declined, saying club policy did not allow tips.  However, she said, I could give her a positive review through the club’s on-line survey, and then she would likely receive a bonus in her paycheck.  Money and acknowledgement by her manager?  I completed the survey.

Someone once said, “Tips are like hugs, without the awkward body contact.”  I like that, except we’re starting to get awkward again.  POS screens allow for invasion of personal space, bringing tipping into the open.  Maybe Square should take a “tip” from Starbucks.  Use the Starbucks app to pay with your phone at the counter, and the tipping comes later, in the privacy of your own whatever.  You’re given several hours to consider if and how much you should tip.  I think Etiquette Chap. 13 would agree with that approach.

I’ll continue to be a savvy tipper, no matter what I’m faced with.  If I use a POS iPad, I’ll go with a “Custom Tip Amount” if I need to.  If I sign a credit-card slip, I’ll always tip on the pre-tax amount and I’ll never blindly choose 15%.  If it’s cash in hand, I’m at the mercy of the denominations I have in my pocket.  And in every case, I’ll ask myself the same question Emily Post would pose: “Did I receive notably good service?”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”,  from the Wall Street Journal article, “You Want 20% for Handing Me a Muffin?”, and from the USA Today article, “How Much to Tip…?”

Crafts of the Hand

Several months ago, my wife and I went to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants – a place we frequent every few weeks.  As we pondered margarita options, we asked the waiter for an order of table-side guacamole, a delicious specialty and a great way to kick off the meal.  Much to our disappointment, our waiter informed us we could no longer get guac table-side; rather, it would come already prepared and straight from the kitchen.  Sigh.  Add another item to the demise of handmade food and beverages.  Rekindle the pour-over argument.

What’s the “pour-over argument”?  It’s perhaps the most contemporary example of the struggle between handicraft and automation.  At your local coffee bar, most drinks are poured-over, meaning individually-prepared using a single paper filter, adding the coffee grounds and finishing with a slow pour of the water.  If your coffee arrives with foam-art, consider it a pour-over.  The argument asks whether it’s worth the wait for an individually-prepared coffee, when a large-batch machine can produce the same result in a fraction of the time.  One estimate claims large-batch can produce 100 coffees in an hour, while a barista creates less than ten.

I’m not here to defend the pour-over, but simply to discuss it.  In fact, my first thought when I heard “pour-over” is what you see in the photo above.  Admittedly, I love the speed and consistency of Keurig’s K-Cup’s, and I’m an unashamed frequent-flier at Starbucks.  But that’s not to say there’s not a chair at the table of life for pour-over’s.  Even if the quality of handmade can’t be distinguished from large-batch (taste test, anyone?), what about the calm of watching “drink-art” creation, and the opportunity to socialize with the barista?  Perhaps it’s the fringe-benefits making pour-over’s the healthier option.

Table-side guac is just one example of “pour-over’s” threatened by today’s demand for speed and efficiency.  If I ask you to think of a product previously handmade but now produced by automation, I’m sure you can name several.  Milkshakes. Beer. Even pizza, which can now be prepared start-to-finish by a robotic chef.  But the flip-side of robots is advertisement focused on food-prep the old-fashioned way.  “Handmade” milkshakes.  “Craft” beers.  “Fresh-squeezed” lemonade.  And pour-over coffee.

Business’s bottom line loves the idea of automation.  Labor is typically your most expensive line-item, so who would argue with removing it?  Well, maybe those willing to pay for the experience.  At your finer restaurants, you can still find table-side salads (Caesar), entrees (Chateaubriand or Steak Tartare), and flaming desserts (Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee).  At Sunday brunches you can still enjoy made-to-order omelettes and waffles.  With those examples, I’d argue you’re not just paying for the food.  You’re also paying for a slow-down moment: a chance to enjoy a chef-artisan do his/her thing while engaging in a little conversation. As a recent Wall Street Journal article puts it, “[pour-over]… is more about delivering peace in a fast-paced time”.

Here’s my plea.  The next time you’re having something prepared in front of you – whether a simple burrito at Chipotle or an elegant Steak Diane adjacent to your white-clothed table, put away the phone, take a deep breath, and just enjoy the moment.  Have a chat with whomever is preparing your meal.  It’s an experience worth poring over.

What’s ‘appening with Dining Out?

After moving our daughter into her college apartment last Saturday, we offered to take a group of her friends out to a local restaurant to celebrate the beginning of the school year.  The place we chose did not allow for table reservations but did offer call-ahead seating.  Thus did our party of ten arrive during the busy dinner hour and was seated less than ten minutes later.  It’s fair to say this call-ahead experience was entirely pleasing to the palate.

58 - palate

Call-ahead seating is an interesting concept to me.  It’s somewhere between a full-on reservation and simply showing up for dinner.  The restaurant puts you on a list when you call ahead, and then you’re given the next available table after you arrive.  In essence, call-ahead mitigates the restaurant’s risk of the no-show reservation.

Call-ahead feels entirely dated if you use OpenTable, of course  With OT you’re limited to the restaurants supported by the app, but you’re also given the convenience of choosing cuisine, location, menu, and time; right up to the moment you walk through the door.  OT’s website boasts “seating more than 20 million diners per month… across more than 38,000 restaurants”.  Clearly the new-age approach to restaurant reservations has arrived.

But is OpenTable also dated?  With a little research I was amazed to discover several other companies changing our approach to dining out.  Consider the following:

NoWait allows you to add yourself to the wait list of a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations.  NoWait is like having someone stand in line for you, with the convenience of knowing when that person gets to the front of the line.  Hence you can shop or have a drink nearby instead enduring the crowding and impatience of the restaurant’s waiting area.

Rezhound and TableSweep are boosters for OpenTable.  They scan OT for newly-released (cancelled) reservations, then notify you by text or email with what they find.  You have to jump over to OT to actually book the reservation (be quick!), but it’s a great concept if you’re in the habit of waiting for last-minute seats at popular restaurants.

Table8 is designed for the more upscale dining experience.  Table8’s restaurants set aside a fixed number of peak-time tables every night.  You can reserve any available table at a Table8’s restaurant for free, or reserve one of the “set-aside” tables for a fee if there are no other tables.  Again, last-minute seats at popular restaurants, as long as you’re willing to pay a little extra.

Settle allows you to book a table, pre-order your food, and pay for your meal on your phone.  I’m not a fan of Settle’s time-saving tactics.  I think the moments perusing and discussing the menu is part of the fun of dining out, not to mention the brief relationship with your waiter.  If saving time is your objective, just get your food to-go.

Shout borders on the absurd.  Shout is the ticket-scalper’s approach to restaurant reservations.  For a fee negotiated with the “seller”, you the “buyer” can purchase a hard-to-get restaurant reservation, or pay the seller to wait at a given restaurant until your name is called.  Really?  Is the restaurant that good and your time that important?

To end on a humorous or horrifying note (take your pick), Happy is marketed as the do-it-yourself happy-hour app.  Walk into a bar, cue the Happy app, and a timer starts a 60-minute countdown: to enjoy whatever 2-for-1’s or other specials the bar has to offer.  So now you can get extra drinks any time of day.  Just remember, you only have an hour.  On your marks… get set… DRINK!