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?