Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Don't blame the customers you couldn't keep

     On Friday, my wife and I celebrated the end of the week by walking over to Kamehachi and enjoying a sushi dinner. We could have gone to BluFish on Willow, also very good, or Fuji Yama over on Dundee, truly excellent. But those require getting in the car, and we like to support restaurants in our immediate neighborhood.
    Good fish. Good prices. Good service. As always.
    On Sunday morning, we did make the drive to Prairie Grass for breakfast: Sarah Stegner's lemon ricotta pancakes. To. Die. For. We had thought about Georgie V's—also very good, and within walking distance. But those pancakes...
    "And besides," I said, sealing the deal, "maybe we'll run into Bill Kurtis." Sometimes we run into Bill Kurtis. We've gone there 50 times. At least. We chatted with the owners, Sarah and her husband Rohit Nambiar. We praised their pumpkin pie: really, the most delicate pie. Not too heavily spiced... 
     What I'm trying to say is we're restaurant sorts. We eat at restaurants, think about restaurants, enjoy restaurants. Especially restaurants in downtown Northbrook. We are rooting for them, patronizing them, hoping they can solve the puzzle and find success. Nobody wants to see a business fail. To see someone's dream wither.
    So of course we noticed, and were saddened, when two, count 'em, two restaurants within a few blocks of our house both closed at almost the same time. Lucky Fish abruptly covered its windows with brown paper a couple weeks ago. Then Jar Bar, directly across the street, announced it will go out of business at the end of the month.
    In a story on the closings in the Northbrook Patch, both restauranteurs threw their customers under the bus.
     "The support wasn't there," said Lucky Fish's Steve Geffen, washing his hands of doing anything wrong.
     "Small business can only thrive on continued daily support from its community," wrote Jar Bar owners Karen and Adam Firsel.
     And why wasn't the support there?
     They didn't say. So let me designate myself as a spokesman for the community and suggest a few possible reasons.
     The support wasn't there because both restaurants fell down on the job.
     Lucky Fish is something of a puzzle. An extension of the popular Lucky Fish in Highwood, it always seemed crowded. I ate there a dozen times. It was expensive, but the food was good. Except when it wasn't. The quality was erratic. My wife would find a meal she liked, then return and order it again and it would be completely different. That bothered her. What bothered me was that the service was fumbling. At those prices, they should have had the bring-your-meal-to-you drill down. They didn't. Instead it was Amateur Hour. It was as if they yanked passersby off the street and put them to work rushing meals from the kitchen. The space also had an unfinished quality; it was like you were eating in somebody's garage.
     And the Jar Bar. I was really excited about the Jar Bar. Good advance press. They spent a lot of money getting the place ready. It had this way cool blue sign.
     A day or two after it opened, I went in for breakfast, hoping for the start of a beautiful relationship.
     "Would you like to try our buttered coffee?" a woman behind the counter asked.
     How nice. "Sure!" I said, expecting, from her phrasing, that she was about to give me a sample. I had never tasted buttered coffee. 

     Instead she handed me a cup of coffee and charged six dollars.
     I've never spent six dollars on a cup of coffee in my life, at least not one that didn't have a slug of Jameson in it.
     On top of that, the oatmeal was the sort of gelid glop you make yourself out of a pack of instant. Half filling a little paper cup. Like the old Catskills joke: lousy and in such small portions.
     So let's reprise: wildly-expensive buttered coffee that I didn't know I was ordering, coffee that tasted, well, like coffee, plus a dollop of the kind of oatmeal you made for yourself in a cup in college. Total price, $11 plus tax.
     Would you go back? Despite feeling robbed, kind soul that I am, I did return, figuring they wouldn't rob me twice. I got a cup of non-buttered coffee, drank it and left and that was it. Why? I can make coffee and instant oatmeal at home. Plus, the place was packed with the owners' friends; sitting there, I felt like I had crashed a party where I hadn't been invited. The sense of having been robbed lingered. They had other meals, but they didn't appeal: poke, bleah. Plus the fare didn't sit well together on the plate of the mind: the only thing worse than poke is poke and oatmeal. The room itself was uninviting. I walked by Jar Bar dozens of times—my dry cleaner is around the corner—and never once saw anything that moved me to step inside. Not an appealing sign, no special offer, no "Try our fresh-baked whatever." They did have a chalkboard on the sidewalk, and would write witticisms, and I give them credit for trying. Still, I live two blocks from the restaurant, and never got a flier, a coupon, nothing. Were it my restaurant dying on Shermer, I'd be buttonholing customers in the street.
     I was tempted to write this while they had a chance to fix themselves, but didn't want to draw attention to their shortcomings, to step on the fingers of a new business trying to climb up the slippy pole of success and, frankly, my experience of human nature is such that I know it wouldn't have mattered. Very few people can take responsibility for their own failings. They'd just resent it. Reading how the culinary masterminds behind Lucky Fish and the Jar Bar both blamed the communities where they set up shop for their own mistakes, it tells me I was right.
     People can eat at home. If you want them to patronize your place instead, you had better give them an offer they can't refuse. And if they do refuse it, don't lash out. It's a bad look. I want people to read my column, but I'd never dream of damning those who don't. It's unprofessional. Read what you like.
     The two restaurants mentioned in the beginning of today's post  aren't the only ones we've gone to this week. After another great meal at Kamehachi, we were walking home, and decided to stop in at Graeter's and pick up desert to take home. Graeter's is always crowded, even selling ice cream in the dead of winter, because it's really good ice cream, sold with enthusiasm in a fun setting. What's not to love?
     Before we could walk across the store to the freezer case we had been intercepted by Daniel, a clerk, who stepped from behind the counter. Could he help us? A pint of ice cream? Why here they are. Have we tried this flavor? Or that flavor? Please, taste some samples. He handed us little spoons piled with ice cream, apologizing that they were uneven.
    Read that sentence again: he apologized that the free samples he was handing us were uneven. Compare that with Jar Bar tricking me into buying six buck coffee.
     Daniel kept up a banter so enthusiastic, so friendly, that I not only paid $6 for a pint of ice cream, but tipped him a buck AND signed up for their special Graeter's fan club. And I never sign up for those clubs.
     That's how a food establishment stays in business. It isn't rocket science. Sell something good. Do so from a pleasant setting. Nicely. Treat your customer like you value their patronage. Form a relationship: I knew the name of the clerk at Graeter's because he was so personable I asked him. My wife and I walked away, happy, talking about that bright young man's shining future. 
     If you can't do that, at least have the good graces not to blame everybody else for your own shortcomings. A lesson for whatever establishment moves into the Jar Bar and Lucky Fish spaces. The restaurant game is difficult. But it can be won if you play it right. And if you screw up, don't try to ladle out your bitterness to the public. That, you should eat in private.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Flash: ace kid reporter rips lid off the game game

Ava Gray, left, interviews Ellie Skalla, of Oak Park, about the game she created.

     The 2018 Chicago Toy & Game Fair was a noisy, crowded, sprawling affair filling Festival Hall at Navy Pier over the weekend. There was no obvious focal point, but a blur of activity: wandering Star Wars characters and Boy Scouts, virtual reality, stuffed animals, board games, more than 100 young inventors hyping handmade games at science fairish booths.
     Ava Gray, 12, received her press credentials, plunged in and started asking questions.
     "What's your name?"
     "How do you spell that?"
     "How old are you?"

     One of 25 young reporters nationwide who won a spot on the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps, the South Side 7th grader had, like any good journalist, formed a strategy for the event.
     "I want to investigate the ping pong tournament and the yo-yo challenge," she said beforehand.
     Before she had stepped through the entrance, however, she was snagged by a fair flack, Emily Blosser, from Brilliant PR & Marketing, who guided her toward the Young Inventor Challenge.
     "They're coming up on a break," said Blosser as they walked. "The perfect time to interview. So we'll walk back there. All right?"
     Gray was delivered to a pair of sisters, Emma and Kyra Bichler, 10 and 7, who talked about their game, Breakaway.
     "I like code," said the older girl.
     Gray never stayed in one spot long, but moved from one inventor to another, peppering questions.
     "Can you tell me more about this game?"
     "Did you invent this?"

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bias makes you stupid

Bayeux Tapestry (detail, the Death of Harold)

     The Chicago Sun-Times has the largest circulation of any newspaper in America.
     Bigger than the New York Times. Or the Washington Post.
     In fact, bigger than those two put together.
     Do you believe that?
     Because it isn't true.
     I wrote the first line as an example of bias. Were I to sincerely insist the above were true, you would rightly assume that I was doing so because I work there, and was waving the flag for the home team, regardless of the facts, under the mistaken notion that such exaggeration made me look better.
     It doesn't. Yet people still do this. A lot. Why? Wounded ego. Fear. Cravenness. They feel small—Flash! We're all small—and want to puff themselves up bigger than they actually are.
     We see this continually in our president, spouting self-adoring nonsense because he wants to appear bigger than he is (a reminder that self-esteem has nothing to do with externals. He's rich and famous and the president of the United States. You'd think that would be enough. It obviously is not).
     Look at the gruesome torture/murder early last month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was clear from the get-go that the killing was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was assassinated at the Saudi Embassy in Turkey by thugs imported ahead of time for that task.
    The idea that it was some rogue operation, as Donald Trump first suggested, was ludicrous. But suggest this patent bullshit he did, the beginning of one of the more appalling threads of our president's Bayeux Tapestry of lies and evasions.
    Why?  Donald Trump despises the media, because the free press takes his various lies and missteps and hangs them out in public, like a housewife stringing laundry along a clothesline, for all to see, faded and repulsive in the light of truth.
     And Trump loves despots like the crown prince.
     Plus the Saudis buy lots of expensive suites in Trump hotels. And arms too.
     So even after his own CIA—oh, Trump also hates American intelligence agencies because, like the press, they keep track of his missteps—points out the obvious: of course the prince ordered the killing, Trump clings to his fictions, the way he babbles about forest floor maintenance so as not to point out the obvious, that the California fires have a connection to global warming.
     Bias makes you stupid, or seem stupid. In trying to look better than you deserve you look worse, as bad as you actually are. Admitting your flaws mitigates them.
     This is why responsible people—journalists, leaders, anybody—recognize that the world as it is and the world as they would wish it to be are two very separate things, and embrace reality because it's what we're stuck with.
     The Chicago Sun-Times, by the way, is in fact the 35rd biggest newspaper in the country, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. In my view that's plenty.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saturday Snapshot #15

     "Everybody's Asian," I thought, shopping last week at Costco.
     The notion came out of nowhere, and I looked at it, as if somebody had lain an unfamiliar coin in my open palm.
     What to make of it?
     There is a certain inherent racism in such a thought: we aren't supposed to notice such differences.
     Though we all do. We've trained ourselves not to remark upon such thoughts; it's safer that way. Nobody can complain about something you didn't say.
     But I feel comfortable ... well, maybe not comfortable ... I believe that sharing the thought is not blatant folly because it wasn't followed by any kind of negative imperative. It wasn't "Everybody's Asian, so I 'm not coming back here," or "Everybody's Asian, and they're eating up all the coconut shrimp like Asian people do."
      I don't harbor negative stereotypes, that I know of; I have Asian friends, relatives. They have the same good qualities and flaws that everyone else has.
      Still, there the thought was: "Everybody's Asian." 
      Instead of pushing the thought away, I tried to pick it apart, understand what it meant.
      Maybe because the status of Asian-Americans is in the news due to the Harvard lawsuit—Asian students alleged that they were the victims of quotas,  that standards are lowered for non-Asians so that the university wouldn't have a percentage of Asian students high enough to spark discomfort. The sort of systemic bias that Jews faced in the 1920s and 1930s.
      Maybe Harvard looked around and had the same thought I did at Costco. That's reassuring. At least it isn't just me.
     Noticing the presence of others who are different than oneself is a sign of mild discomfort. I might expect my suburb to be a certain mix, and if that mixes shifts—the Asian population of the Northwest suburbs is growing faster than other ethnic groups—you notice.
     Discomfort being how dominant races feel when they find themselves in the minority.
     Not that I felt discomfort. It felt like a neutral observation, maybe salted with muted surprise. In certain settings it wouldn't be remarkable. If I were, oh, at the Super H, an Asian market in Niles, I wouldn't think, "A lot of Asians here." It would be expected. As it would be in Japan, or China, or Taiwan, or the other Asian countries I've visited. So perhaps because I was in the Costco in Northbrook. No different than finding regular-sized packages for sale.
     Nor that I consider myself the member of a dominant race. As a Jew, we're by definition in an extreme, despised minority, though our minority card seems to be revoked. We're the minority that other minorities feel  free to hate, or lump together with white Christians, as circumstances dictate. The worst of both worlds; all the drawbacks of being a minority but none of the benefits.
     That isn't true either. Benefits aplenty. See, this is why people don't write about these issues. So easy to slide into the ditch.
     At checkout, I looked around, tried to put a number on that thought. Was "everybody" really Asian? No, not even a quarter. Enough that it would register on my radar. So the thought was something bogus, unvalid. A glitch in the system.
      Which is what makes this exercise worthwhile. We can't recognize our errors if we never examine them. The whole subject is generally avoided. We yield the issue to the people most concerned, supposedly. But that too is a kind of racism. It is of concern to us all. Silence is too easy.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Want this cute robot dog? Tough — Illinois law keeps Sony from selling it here

     My brother was in Tokyo a few weeks ago, looked at this robot dog, and noticed the line about it not being sold in Illinois. He mentioned it to me, and I started to probe into why, and stumbled upon next week's Supreme Court case. As I often say in this job, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. 

     Meet Aibo, Sony’s new robotic dog, introduced in the United States in September.
     Cute, right? Sits on command. Plays with his cute little pink ball — Aibo loves pink. Scratch his cute round head and he dips it and wags his cute tail, adorably. He has a camera in his nose.
    Would you like to own Aibo, maybe to liven up your Gold Coast apartment without the bother of taking an actual living dog on unpleasant, windswept walks in the wintertime?    

     Too bad. You can’t have him. And not just because of the price — about $3,000, a night on the town for Chicago’s nouveau rich.
     No, you can’t have Aibo because nobody in the state can buy him. Sony won’t sell him in Illinois. It says so on Sony’s Aibo website if you try to order the little pup:
     “This product is not for sale or use in the State of Illinois, and may not be shipped to purchasers in Illinois.”
     Aw, gee. We know Illinois has problems. But are we so screwed up that multinational corporations won’t sell us a dog? Illinois is the only state in the country where Aibo is not sold.
     What makes us so special?
     Meet the 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Without going too far into the legal weeds...

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

What would you grab in a fire?

    The California wildfires causing such devastation have drawn attention, concern and sympathy across the country—well, except for Donald Trump, who saw them as a chance to lash out at the state for ... well, forest conservation, insanely enough. It was almost funny to see him suddenly start heaping praise on first responders, trying to cover for his initial mean-spirited slam.
     Our Fearful Leader notwithstanding, it's impossible to avoid being caught up in the drama of the raging fires in the Golden State, the courageous efforts to battle the blazes, and the sight of ordinary people forced to flee their homes, sometimes at a moment's notice.
     Which raises the question, if only in the back of the mind: what would you take? Confronted with the same situation—the fire approaching, you have to run for your life, what would you grab going out the door?
     Having pets, that's easy. I would grab the dog, try to corral the cats, get them in the van and get out. Nothing else in the house is worth the time it would take to pick up.
     That's something of a fudge, I suppose. Given a couple minutes, I could come up with something. An armful of old journals—they're irreplaceable, and useful in reconstructing the past, which I sometimes do. I might grab our wedding album. But really, with Facebook, so many photographs are safe online (not to mention about 40,000 I have tucked safely in iCloud) that fire doesn't pose the threat to memory it once did.
     At least I assume they're safe. It's always remotely possible some computer worm or sun storm could wipe out the Internet. But I doubt it....
     That said, I didn't want to take chances. I do have 10 years worth of jottings on the boys, when they were small, that I did worry might go up in smoke if the house burned down. I didn't see the need to worry, in this day and age, so spent the hour it took to photograph each page, then transfer the pictures onto a thumb drive and toss it in the bank vault (this was before the iCloud). It seemed prudent.
     Part of me worries this is a sign of shrugging age. Isn't anything precious? But to be honest, I believe it reflects proper values and priorities. Once you've cleaned out the home of a departed relative, as I have, the grip of things loosens. It's just stuff.  Like money, it's just not that important.
     The realization is something of a comfort really. Dozens of people have died in the California fire, a few no doubt because they were lingering to load up their cars with crap. Maybe the fires just moved so fast, maybe they didn't realize it, and I don't want to criticize the dead. But I like to think that before the fires were 10 miles away I would be camping out at a Motel 6 somewhere if I humanly could. That might not be possible for everybody. But if it is, that seems the path of prudence. You can always buy new stuff. You've got the one life, and it's foolish to risk the latter for the former. Grab the wife, grab the pets and get out. That sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In November, the leaves fall and the president violates cherished traditions

     The trees are bare. Dry leaves blow around the yards, the gutters. Leaves of all sorts. Maple leaves. Oak leaves. Big catalpa leaves and tiny linden leaves. Yellow ginkgo leaves. Serrated elm leaves. Oval ash leaves. Buckeye and hickory and persimmon. Beech and redbud and poplar. Many, many leaves.
     Of course there are, you might be grumbling. It’s November. Get to the point.
     The point being that belaboring what everyone already knows gets dull. Which is why I haven’t been commenting on Donald Trump lately. Once we’ve established — and boy have we ever — that the man is a liar, bully and fraud busily trampling cherished American institutions, each new instance of deceit, intimidation, chicanery and blasphemy, well, at this point it’s just another leaf in a huuuuge pile.
     Over the weekend, however, Trump violated a norm so long established that, speaking personally, I felt a kind of awe. It was impressive. While the world leaders went to the American cemetery in France to mark the centennial since the end of World War I and honor Americans killed, Trump stayed in his room. The White House explained that it was raining: “logistical difficulties caused by the weather.”
     The Internet erupted with photographs of Barack Obama in a downpour, drenched to the skin, doing what leaders do. No need to stop there. Begin at the beginning: George Washington, riding to his inauguration in … c’mon, anybody? … New York City. In Philadelphia it began to rain, and his entourage urged him to get into a carriage. The Father o
f Our Country waved that off. He would remain on horseback, like his escort.

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