Franchise Free

One of the great things about Stonington, Maine is that it’s far off the beaten path.  So far, in fact, that it’s totally franchise-free.  You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks here.  In fact, you’d have to drive dozens of miles into the mainland before you hit your first  franchise fast food restaurant or coffee shop.

Located at the tip of Deer Isle, out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, Stonington is just too small and too remote for the big franchise chains.  That means if you’ve got to start your day with some kind of Starbucks brand caramel-topped pumpkin spice latte grande, this just isn’t the place for you.  (It also means that you won’t find a discarded Starbucks coffee cup or a McDonald’s wrapper around town, either.)


That doesn’t mean that Stonington lacks for coffee or the other amenities of modern life.  Instead, locally owned businesses have filled the niche that would otherwise be filled by the big chains.  There’s a great coffee shop called 44 North where you can get your java fix, and there are really good restaurants, ranging from the classic home-cooked offerings offered at the Harbor Cafe (pictured above, where the haddock chowder is addictive and you have to save room for dessert) and Stonecutters Kitchen and the Fin and Fern to the more high-end fare found at Acadia House Provisions and Aragosta.  The other businesses in town are locally owned, too — and some of them are employee-owned co-ops.

The local ownership adds a certain indefinable quality to the buying experience.  There are signs around the island noting that buying from local businesses means local jobs, and that’s clearly the case.  It actually makes you want to shop at the local options and support the local economy, in a way that just doesn’t apply to stopping at a national chain operation.

It’s all a pretty old school approach.  There’s nothing wrong with the big companies and their franchises, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of what America was like before large-scale national brands took hold and unique local businesses lined the sidewalks along Main Street.

Olden Arches

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2016 is:  do not go to McDonald’s even once, for any reason.  I almost made that goal in 2015, but when I was on the road and had missed dinner and was driving at about 8 p.m. one night and McDonald’s was the only option, I gave in.  It was, of course, a mistake.

large_072309-mcdMcDonald’s was once one of the strongest brands in America — but then, so were Blockbuster and TWA.  I remember going to get McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries, and a shake when I was a kid, 50 years ago, and it was good food.  Those days are long gone, however.  Now McDonald’s food is, in my opinion, virtually inedible.  My last visit, which sealed my resolve to remain happily McDonald’s-free, involved getting a cheeseburger that tasted like it had been sunning itself under the heat lamps for approximately a decade or so.  It was hard and looked and tasted like shoe leather, and the “melted” cheese had hardened to a sharp-edged, rubber-like consistency.  It was so disgusting I couldn’t eat it, and I was starving.

What happened to McDonald’s?  Who knows for sure, but at some point someone must have decided to cut corners, save a few bucks here and there, think that more salt equates to better flavor, and count on old habits and screaming kids insisting on Happy Meals to get the customers to keep visiting the Golden Arches.  But Americans are no more committed to McDonald’s than we are to, say, making calls on land line phones.  We are interested in looking for the next best thing and getting value — and right now we aren’t getting it from McD’s.

I’m not alone in this.  McDonald’s sales have been falling for years, and its new management keeps promising changes that will resurrect the brand. I don’t think they can do it, because McDonald’s operators aren’t innovators or great competitors, they’re used to succeeding just by virtue of being the big dog with a stop on every corner.  Former 800-pound gorillas don’t do well as suddenly underfed chimps.

Speaking of underfed, did I mention that I’m resolved to never eat at McDonald’s in 2016?

A Three Starbucks Stroll

How much coffee do the people of Columbus, Ohio drink, anyway?

IMG_4533My new walking path to work heads straight down South Third Street, from German Village to downtown Columbus.  It’s a pleasant walk of about a mile and a half, past churches, hotels, the Ohio Statehouse . . . and three Starbucks.  Three, in such a short distance!  And there are other, independent coffee houses like Stauf’s sprinkled in along the way, too.  If you wanted, you could easily buy your steaming hot cup of triple latte grande with whipped cream, drink it, get multiple refills along the way, and end up in the office with a groaning bladder and a head buzzing with caffeine and sugar.

Starbucks are ubiquitous in our culture, like McDonald’s was years ago when there seemed to be a Golden Arches at every intersection.  But many of those McDonald’s outlets ultimately closed, either due to overkill, or Big Mac fatigue, or America’s innate interest in always moving on to the Next Big Thing.  You wonder how many of the Starbuck’s that now dot the landscape will survive, and when the current fixation with jazzed-up, flavored coffee will end and be replaced by . . . who knows what?

The Existential Reality Of Tofu McNuggets

In Japan, McDonald’s is introducing Tofu McNuggets: a mixture of fish, tofu, onions, edamame, carrots, and soy beans that is deep-fried and served with a ginger sauce.

I mention this not to comment on the gastronomic merit of Tofu McNuggets. I haven’t tried them, but I don’t need to taste them to know that they sound god awful.

Instead, I note this development only to point out the absurdity of modern corporate branding, and how it has become completely unmoored from roots or reality. Long ago, McDonald’s was a local hamburger joint. Then it grew into a chain. Then it became a franchise with outlets from sea to shining sea. Then someone at McDonald’s decided that the “Mc” in the original name had branding value, and the Big Mac and McRib and other annoyingly named menu items were born. Then the “Mc” branding was applied to new menu items like chicken, in the form of Chicken McNuggets. Even though the chicken was flavorless and crappy, the Mcbrand apparently had value — and Tofu McNuggets sold in Tokyo are the inevitable result.  It won’t end there, either.

And so, a little business that once probably made and sold pretty good hamburgers to locals became a mega business that sells awful-sounding fried tofu in Japan, using the same brand that means . . . what?  Everything, and nothing. In their own appalling way, Tofu McNuggets tell us something essential about our world.

Charging For Extra Condiments At McSkinflint’s

Today, when Kish and I drove to Pittsburgh to drop off Richard’s stuff, we stopped at a McDonald’s for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. As we rolled up to the drive-thru window, I was amazed to see this sigh: “There will be an additional charge for extra condiments.”

IMG_1706Seriously? If some poor schmo wants to get an extra packet of runny catsup or crummy mustard, hoping to bring a little extra dose of flavor to their otherwise unbearably salty McDonald’s fare, McD’s is going to charge them an additional amount? How much do they charge for those little packets, do you suppose? It’s hard to imagine it would be more than a penny or two. Is McDonald’s really so desperate for a little extra pocket change?

And what sort of problem is being addressed by this new policy? Does McDonald’s think people are taking unfair advantage of one of America’s most ubiquitous companies by asking for extra condiments? McDonald’s makes a big show out of being a good corporate citizen. If struggling families are loading up on the extra condiments and taking them home to try to make their food budgets stretch a little bit farther, can’t McDonald’s just accept that?

As our readers know, I’m not a big fan of McDonald’s, but this sign left more of a bad taste in my mouth than the last crappy McDonald’s cheeseburger I bought. What a bunch of tightwads! Maybe they should rename that annoying clown Ronald McCheapskate.

I Solemnly Swear Never To Go To McDonald’s For Food Again

Today I made a colossal blunder — one of those extraordinary, life-altering misjudgments that can affect the course of human events for generations.

I was driving from work to visit my mother.  It was about 12:30, and I hadn’t eaten anything all day.  The route to Mom’s place takes me past a McDonald’s.  So, even though I normally don’t eat at McDs, I thought I would go through the drive-thru, get a sandwich, and continue on my way.

IMG_3850That was the first mistake.

At the drive-thru, they were advertising the new Quarter Pounder “flavors.”  I decide to take a shot at the Quarter Pounder with bacon and cheese.  I carefully instructed the order taker that I did not want pickles.  Then I drove on. That was the second mistake.

I paid the pleasant young lady at the money-taking window, then pulled up to get my order.  The pleasant young lady at the food delivery window regretfully advised me that my sandwich wouldn’t be ready right away, so I should pull up into a waiting spot to get out of the lane of traffic while my sandwich was prepared.  I did so, reasoning that this meant that my sandwich was more likely to be served piping hot and properly cooked.  That was the third mistake.

I think I waited in the special parking space for about five minutes.  I can’t say for sure, because your sense of time becomes horribly warped as you wait in a special parking spot for “fast food.”  It could just as easily have been a century.  I think I had to clip my fingernails twice as I waited, to prevent them from growing into claws.  Finally a pleasant young lady came out and handed me a bag with a cheery smile, and I drove off.

As I looked in the bag, I saw that they gave me french fries, which I didn’t order.  In addition, the bacon cheese Quarter Pounder included pickles, even though the order slip taped to the box said, explicitly, “no pickles.”  I shrugged, removed the pickles, and bit into the sandwich.  That was the final mistake.

The cold cheese that had once been melted and now was welded to the inside bottom of the box which should have been a clue.  The sandwich was, at best, lukewarm.  It clearly had been sitting for some time before it was brought to my car.  The beef — well, let’s call it animal product to be on the safe side — had been cooked to the consistency of shoe leather and was absolutely, completely tasteless.  The “bacon” could not be cut by human teeth.  It was, without question, the worst sandwich I’ve ever tried to eat.  I was hungry, but I just couldn’t finish it.  I ended up kicking myself for going to McDonald’s in the first place.  What did I expect?  The food there just sucks, and its only commendable quality is that it is fast.  If you have to wait for it, as I did, it has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

It’s taken me 56 years, but after today I think I’ve learned my lesson.  I hereby solemnly swear that I will never go to a McDonald’s for food again.  Golden Arches, you’ve had your chance, and you’ve blown it.  Never again!

Goodbye To That Troubling Shamrock Shake Commercial

Although there is some Irish ancestry in our convoluted family tree, I don’t pay much attention to St. Patrick’s Day one way or the other.

This year, though, I’m glad to see March 17 pass by, because I hope to never again see the frightening McDonald’s shamrock shake commercial.  Many TV ads suggest deep back stories, but nothing as troubling as that reflected in this 30-second depiction of a profoundly dysfunctional marriage.  The husband would do well to turn and sprint out of the house, drive away at breakneck speed, and change his identity, before his deeply disturbed and terrifying mint-loving wife decides it’s time to take even more severe steps to keep his behavior in line.  Run, buddy!  Run away as fast as you can, before it’s too late!

Could this commercial actually be successful in enticing the average person to try the shamrock shake that evidently has moved the wife to the brink of axe-murderer craziness?

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

The Step-Down Phenomenon: Dining Out

A few weekends ago we went out to dinner with friends on both Friday night and Saturday night. Friday we went to a relatively new restaurant in the Arena District and had an exceptionally good meal. Saturday we went to a restaurant at a busy corner in the Short North and had a pretty good meal. At both locations, we noticed how empty the restaurants were. Indeed, on Friday night there were perhaps four other tables filled at a fine restaurant with well-prepared and interesting food, skilled wait staff, and very pleasant surroundings. The turnout was so low that I gave our waitress an extra-large tip to compensate for the fact that she had only two tables to handle during the entire evening. (I would mention the name of the restaurant, which Kish and I would gladly frequent again, but I don’t want to embarrass it.)

There is no doubt that the recession has affected the restaurant business. Overall, the number of restaurants in America has declined, and the drop in business has hit “fine-dining” establishments particularly hard.  In the meantime, restaurants like McDonald’s are doing just fine.  People still want to eat out.  When they go to a McDonald’s, they may not get the highest quality food, but they get out of the house, have a filling meal, and don’t have to worry about doing the dishes when they are done.

This is an instance where the step-down phenomenon has pernicious effects.  McDonald’s , with its overly salty food and bastardized versions of food classics like lattes, will always be with us.  A high-quality restaurant, on the other hand, is to be treasured and savored, and there is no doubt that more of those fine dining establishments will fail before the recession loosens its strangling grip on the nation’s economy.  No business can survive for long serving only four or five tables on a Friday night.