“So, how was it?” me excitedly rushing up to one of my bosses, Dale Kemner after her birthday dinner at The Lazy Ox, a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that I had been hearing great things about but had not tried as of yet. I listened, mouthwatering as Dale fed me nuggets of her birthday dinner through her retelling of each tiny detail, every small plate of expertly executed and seasonally focused food. I listened and mentally pushed the restaurant up my list of “must try” joints. “Oh and after all of that, and a bottle of white Burgundy, when we split the bill it was $100 a couple” joint just leapt to the very top of that list. I’m restricting my spending as much as the next guy, um, gal, but I don’t buy shoes, clothes, art, or fancy junk for my pad so, the occasional dinner out is something I allow myself. Something I need from time to time, along with a great bottle of wine, to reward myself for busting my ass and becoming the Queen of Leftovers. Have to…..
Got home and after the long day, and hearing about such a nice dinner out, I announced that I wasn’t really feeling the whole cooking deal that evening. “Well, we could knock another one of those chains off our list” my husband offered. Okay, this is where I need to explain that I have this thing, well I have many “things” but my chain restaurant thing is kinda weird. I go to a handful of them, enjoy the food even; Chili’s and Islands both have pretty decent chips and salsa, burgers and tacos, Outback is a go-to for crab legs when I am in dire need and I dig me some Cracker Barrel when I’m in a town that has one….although if there were a Cracker Barrel down the street I doubt I would be there too often. So I’m not some snoot that looks down my nose at chain restaurants. I wish there were fewer of them and that they weren’t running small restaurants, with better food, out of business but I don’t make sweeping “They all suck” comments. Now that being said, I do look down my nose at shitty food and have no problem calling out the places that serve it up but, you ever heard me tear apart Olive Garden? Nope, know why? I’ve never been. So this is the weird part, I just don’t feel like I can make fun of a place until I’ve actually eaten there. So every once in a while we belly up to one of these places just to see if it’s all that we fear it will be. “Well, we could knock another chain off our list” and I was on my way to TGI Fridays.
The last place like that we went to was Applebees and while I was completely grossed out by the menu and volume of crap they put on every freaking entrée, I mean do you really need to cover your steak in cheddar or parmesan shrimp sauce?! Gack! And I burst into a fit of giggles when the woman behind me ordered like the biggest entrée on the menu, swapped her veggie side for fries, with Ranch of course, added on some boneless chicken wings and then added “No salt” after picking the rice pilaf option. Nearly shot my martini through my nose after listening to that exchange but all in all the food wasn’t gawd awful. I had to make some modifications, no sauce whatsoever on my meat, medium rare as opposed to my normal rare…just knew better and went for a simple baked potato rather than one of their stuffed and stacked sides. Was far from great and I don’t foresee us going back anytime soon but better than I had feared. Now TGI Fridays? Two bites in and my husband actually said, “I’d give anything to be at Applebees right now” it was that bad. Bland, greasy, ugly food and the tiny side salad I ordered in place of some wretched fried, mashed, sweet potato option, was the saddest pile of once-frozen lettuce I have ever seen. To top it off I’m sure our server was on some work release program and the place was filthy, like having to pry the covered-in-sticky menu pages apart. Should have left them stuck and hightailed to Outback or whatever.
Marched into work the next day, straight back to my boss’ office and said, “I learned a very valuable lesson in perceived value last night”. “It’s cheap and easy” the thing I hear most when people talk about hitting up one of these chains, cheap and easy. One shared appetizer, two drinks each and two entrees and with tax and tip at that there TGI Fridays, $98.00, just a couple dollars less than Randy and Dale had spent on a real meal from an independent. What, The, Fuck?! Far from cheap and chocking down that sub-par food was anything but easy. Cannot for the life of me figure out how these places became known for being “cheap and easy”.
“Sorry we haven’t been here for a while” a fairly regular customer I hadn’t seen in a couple months. She went on to tell me that she and her husband were trying to reel in their spending and cut some costs where they could so they had been picking up wine at the grocery store while they were there gathering their other items. I nodded; let her know that I understood as she continued. “We burned through the wines at the market pretty quick and then started running through the options at Trader Joe’s” she went on. “They have so many wines under $10 that we thought we would find at least something we would enjoy drinking” she was becoming more and more animated as she shared her tale of woe with me. “I have no idea how much money I poured down the drain with each bottle of $7.00 wine, so then we thought we would up the price a little, you know, try the stuff from $11-$15 in the hopes that we could at least finish a bottle” her eyes big, shoulders and arms bouncing a little more with each expression of annoyance and frustration. “Then one night we were struggling through one of the more expensive wines we got from TJ’s and it dawned on me, why the hell are we suffering through this crap when we can go to The Wine Country?!” she motioned to her shopping cart that contained no fewer than twelve bottles, “Look at that! All of these are $15 and under and I already know we are going to be much happier with them. I don’t know what the hell we were thinking” she muttered as she made her way to the checkout. Not the first time I’ve heard that story, not even close to the first time. The perception being that you can get better deals at the grocery store or Trader Joe’s but how much of a deal is it when you are drinking, or trying to drink wines that are often purchased on closeout or factory made, lifeless, soulless swill? Of course not all of the wines in those places are like that, but more often than not the ones in that under $15.00 category are. I mean, do the math, when you are at a chain, a national chain and those skews are in every single one of those stores….well just how handcrafted and special can those hundreds of thousands cases be? Cheap but, easy?
“It’s my first time here and I noticed that you don’t carry any of the typical (nice choice of words by the way) high-end Champagnes” a gentleman that had stopped into the shop after visiting the bakery next door. I explained our Champagne department to him; that we have found that these grower, smaller production Champagnes offer so much more actual value in terms of flavor, depth, structure and length. I also mentioned the minefield of pricing games involved with carrying many of those “typical” wines, that suppliers will sell those dusty “yellow” boxes of Veuve Clicquot, (Boo Pecoche) to the Costco down the street, often at prices so low that thy can sell it to the customer for a price that is less than what we, as a small independent store, paid for it per bottle, and lastly I posed a question to him, “Now what would make a consumer drive out of their way to come here and pick up a bottle of Champagne that they can grab at the market while buying Tums and Trisquits?” I kept it short and not too preachy, the gentleman nodding and following along and in answer to my question he responded, “Well they can be good for a gift. You can give someone a bottle of Dom and they will think, Oh look how much you spent on me” not exactly the way I like to think about gift giving, or receiving for that matter but I guess there is some value to that. “Yeah but, with wines like these, that are so much more layered, mouth filling and complex, they will open the bottle and taste what a special gift you found for them. Opening a bottle of Dom is never going to turn someone on to a new passion, wines like this” my hand resting on a bottle of Camille Saves Carte Blanche, “They can”
Not sure if it was the explanation or my impassioned belief in what I was telling him but the guy gave me a big grin and walked out with a bottle of Champagne he had never heard of before, that and a curiosity that was just too gnawing for him to ignore. He had to taste what I was talking about and that right there is why stores like The Wine Country are so important, valuable to the community and worth driving to. No bottle necker is going to be able to explain things the way an actual person, wine loving person can. No shelf is going to be able to help you find a wine that is to your liking or explain why that Franciscan Cabernet might not be the best option for your poached dover sole, and no one at Costco is going to tell you that you don’t need to spend the $50.00 on Far Niente Chardonnay when you can get two bottles of wine that’s equally as good for less. Look, you don’t take your car to the florist for repairs or get a physical at the doughnut shop, why buy your wine anywhere else but at a place where the people working there live, breathe and bleed the stuff? People that drink wine every day and are stocking the shelves with wines in every price point that they would and do drink themselves and whose ultimate goal is to give you the best wine drinking experience you can have, give you that, “Holy shit, this is so good” moment so that you will make that drive to see us once again. Unlike TGI Fuckyou’s we care about your pleasure and aren’t slinging slop while resting beneath some veil of perceived value. With a good retailer you will not only drink better, you can do it much cheaper and that, in this economy is extremely valuable.