Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some companies you can't forgive

Photograph courtesy of Lexie Rand
    Sunday dawned and the iMac had trouble snagging the Internet.  Who knows why these things happen? A glitch.
    I did what anyone does under those circumstances: shut off the computer and turn it back on. 
     Still no go. 
     A creeping dread. What if we were cut off?
     I alerted my wife. She suggested powering down the modem, and turning it back on. That sometimes drives the gremlins away. We traipsed downstairs, began pressing buttons. 
    Modem lights no longer blinking, she said we should give it time— to cool perhaps — so we went for our walk in the Botanic Garden. A Halloween celebration was going on—little kids dressed as dalmatians, as princesses.
    It was nice. Still, I was concerned -- my thoughts were of you, of course. If I couldn't get online, I couldn't update the blog. I might miss a day — Every goddamn day, remember? — and not only would your day be just a little less festive, but the trolls hiding under the bridge of Eric Zorn's blog would all leap up and start gleefully dancing around their Malice Pole, cackling and ululating that Steinberg had missed a day, missed a day, missed a day. So yes, I guess I was thinking of myself too.
     "I suppose I could take the laptop over to Caribou Coffee and use their wi-fi to update the blog," I said, as we walked.
    "Starbucks," my wife said. "You'll go to Starbucks."
    "Of course," I said, immediately understanding what she was meant. The Caribou Coffee in Northbrook is radioactive. You can't go in. A dead zone, our own Chernobyl. Oh, the building is there, a block from our house, but it no longer exists as a place a person could walk into and get coffee and a sweet roll and go online. 
    Why? It had, during the recent homecoming week, allowed students from Glenbrook North High School's gay-straight alliance to paint a window, as local businesses will do during homecoming festivities. But when the Caribou manager saw what the students had painted, the rainbow gay pride flag, he quickly washed it off. 
    Parents complained on Facebook. They urged boycotts. The newspapers covered it. I expected the Caribou to do what any sentient business  would -- beg the kids to come back, ply them with brownies and soda, allow them to repaint their window, a bigger rainbow flag this time.
    But no. The Caribou corporate parent in Minneapolis issued the standard, we-welcome-everybody-to-buy-our-coffee BS statement. The Illinois Caribou organization did too. But nothing from the local coffee stand operator, the guy with the most to lose. He should have been going door-to-door in sackcloth, personally apologizing to residents. 
    To me, purely from a business perspective, it is that second lapse that is the true sin. People are human, they err, they let their fears and biases get the better of them. Happens to everybody. But to leave the error sitting there, festering, particularly a business as marginal as a coffee shop—it isn't like coffee is hard to find—in a squishy liberal community like Northbrook, well, that's just unforgivably stupid. "It's worse than a crime," as Talleyrand said, "it's a blunder."
    To people with long memories, such as myself, who sometimes shudders when I see a BMW because of a photo I saw at the Holocaust Museum in 1994 of prisoners in World War II walking the "staircase of death" at a BMW factory, Northbrook's Caribou Coffee is now a hate group, like the Posse Comitatus, and we are never, ever ordering coffee there again. It might as well change its name to Westboro Baptist Church Coffee.
    That might be petty of me. But in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck," "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice." Maybe there is something about humans that just needs to hate something, and since I can't find it in my heart to despise any particular group of people based on race, religion or nationality, I express that natural tendency to loathe by really getting my back into hating certain companies and their products, and not always rationally either. 
     I will not, for instance, drink Perrier, because it was tainted with benzene. The fact that it was tainted with benzene in 1990 is meaningless. You can get pure water from the tap; what bottled water companies are selling is an idea, and if that idea is "benzene," even faintly, why waste your money? Go for the brands that weren't once poisoned. Time doesn't fade on horrors. Brown's Chicken didn't wait a couple years after the massacre and then try to re-open the shop where it occurred. They tore the building down. Because it would always be tainted.
    Not that forgiveness is impossible. For years I did not fly American Airlines, because American flipped a DC-10 over at O'Hare in 1979, killing 271 people. I didn't even like to fly on DC-10s. But after 25 year or so, the memories of reading the graphic descriptions of body parts being plucked out of the fields around the runway faded, a little, and I grudging allowed myself to fly American, and now I quite like it. 
    But for some companies there is no forgiveness. Ford, and its anti-Semite founder, Henry Ford—as bad as it is to be a fan of Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler was a fan of him. Or Jimmy John's, rushing to bitch that giving health care to its workers will add pennies to the price of a sandwich. Or Walmart, which is practically a branch of the Chinese Communist party. 
    For me, the lowest rung of chthonic corporate ill-will must be reserved for The Berghoff Restaurant. The Berghoff used to be my favorite place to eat. When out-of-towners came to Chicago for the first time, I would take them proudly to the Berghoff, as if I had created it -- my pal Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker's man in France, and I had our first meal there.
     Then, in 2006, the Berghoff pretended to close, in order to fire its union waitstaff, putting its customers through this elaborate mock farewell, only to reopen, on the down low, a few months later. They did it for a little money. It was if your mother staged her own death and funeral, fooling you kids, in order to get out of some magazine subscriptions she no longer wanted. 
    As with Caribou, the vile initial act was compounded by the indifferent response. The Berghoff never apologized, never explained. Just a big, loud, drawn out, middle finger in the air fuuuuuuuck-youuuuuu to all its devoted, long-time customers. Then turn around, smile broadly, adopt a different tone of voice and welcome them all back in with a sweep of the arm to spend their money there again. No thanks. 
    Still ... I'm a soft-hearted guy. I don't like to hold grudges. Even when right, it still feels petty. And I missed their creamed spinach, their schnitzel. I ran into the Berghoff publicist at the McCormick Place restaurant show a few years back. Let's bury the hatchet, I told her. All that has to happen is for one of the vile Berghoff spawn -- I didn't use those exact words -- to spell out exactly what happened, and in the purifying light of candor, all will be forgiven, and I will lead a joyous procession back to the Berghoff for thuringer and sauerkraut sandwiches and their good homemade root beer.
    No dice. 
    So damn the Berghoff then, the restaurant, the family, the whole edifice of deceit and bratwurst. There is no wrath like the lover scorned. May the avenging god of restaurant calamity smite it, and send it down to the oblivion that has claimed so many far better restaurants. And while the Berghoff lingers, unwelcome, on Adams Street,  a haunt for tourists and the soulless, we turn our faces away from it, the way we'd turn away from a lunatic on the street corner doing something disgusting.
    Sometimes it takes effort. I ran into Newt Minow, the famous lawyer, at a party, and it turns out he is a fan of the column. We decided to have lunch. We chatted in his office for a while, then went down to the street. I found he was steering us toward the Berghoff. Respect mingled with a kind of panic. 
    "Umm, Mr. Minow," I finally said, freezing in the entranceway. "We don't want to eat here."
    "We don't?"
    "No," I said. "Bad karma." I believe that puzzled him a bit, but we walked out, ate nearby at Vivere, on the ground floor of the Italian Village, without having to worry about the ghosts of betrayed waiters spitting curses upon our food.  Our lunch was excellent.

Postscript: The Caribou Coffee in Northbrook went out of business in May, 2014, part of a corporate mass closing of outlets. 


  1. I don't think it was Jimmy John's saying the sandwich price would go up, but I do know that Papa John's owner said that the cost of a pizza would go up a gigantic 14¢ if he had to give the workers healthcare insurance.

  2. It was both of them. I can cite references, if you like.

    1. I only heard of the Papa John's insane & hateful response.

    2. I quit buying Yuengling lager for the same reason. Greedy SOBs.

  3. From Salon: During the presidential race Jimmy John Liautaud, founder and CEO of the sandwich company Jimmy John’s, mentioned in a Fox Business News interview that his company would cut hours if the ACA was enacted. “We’re not doing it now, but we have to bring them down to 28 hours. Yes, we have to do that. There’s no other way we can survive it, because we think it will cost us 50 cents a sandwich. That’s just the actual cost.”

    I referred to as "pennies" because every economic consensus is that the 50 cent notion is a wild exaggeration.

    1. I believe he's also habitually threatened to move his corporate HQ if he didn't get tax breaks. This is a year old, I don't know what's going on with them now as I won't eat there and doubt he's changed his tune. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20120927/NEWS0702/120929795/jimmy-johns-founder-moving-operations-out-of-state-next-year

  4. Neil,
    Did Jimmy Johns follow through on their threat? If so, I'll drop them. Thanks for the update on the Berghoff. Eventually, we're going to take the grandkids to visit Chicago and we'll make sure to stay away from there even though I liked it too.

  5. yeah, I boycott Starbucks because they support gun control. Repeal all gun laws now. Arm the homeless! Free ammo and guns for everyone with government gun stamps. Rock and roll!

  6. Well written. Makes sense.

  7. I stood in the only line for 15 minutes to buy a 6 pack of beer. Finally when it was my turn the cashier said "sorry, it's 12:05 and we can't sell liquor". I never went back. My 15 year boycott of Dominicks finally worked.

  8. Don't forget Hobby Lobby whose batshit evangelical founding family refused healthcare for its employees that would pay for abortions. Also, Sweet Frog yogurt chain hands out FROG stickers (that's Christ-speak for Fully Rely On God). My 12 year old handed the sticker and his yogurt back to the cashier and said "no thank you, sir."
    Yes, he got a huge bonus in his allowance that week.

    1. It isn't just abortion Hobby Lonby doesn't want their insurance to cover, it's birth control as well. They are suing the US govt to be able to offer insurance that doesn't cover bc. Nuts.

    2. And Days Inn's fundagelical founding family doesn't allow bars at their motels. Who's going to stay at a motel that doesn't have a bar?

    3. ChiFilA also on the fundy nutjob list. At least that jerk gives all his employees every Sunday off. Wonder if he gives the Jews Shabbos off? Doubt it somehow.

  9. "I don't like to hold grudges."


    -- MrJM

  10. @MrJM -- Shhhhhhh.... : ) You'll give it away. (File under "Honorable man, Brutus is an")

  11. "Fuck Macy's!" Yes, I have a shirt that says that, in the old Marshall Field's script. I refuse to step foot into a Macy's, ANY Macy's anywhere. Well, except for once a year. At Christmas-time, I head into the State Street store (you know, the one they claimed would always BE a Marshall Field's), and go to the Letters to Santa area. Then I ask Santa to please bring back Marshall Field's.

  12. I always LOVED that Moonstruck line, and Ive only been back to Berghoffs twice since the charade, but from now on I WILL boycott it. I mourned their closing, and then was aghast at the sans union reopening, as were youd, but didnt think to boycott. As for Macys, I have a pile of green Marshall Fields bags I took their last day, I on,y go there in an emergency and for convenience since ?im a block awat, and I will never, ever buy a bix of .frango mints, mucg as .i love them, unless they have the Marshall .fuelds name and logo on it, and I insisted on using ,y Fields card until they stopped permitting it in this last year.

  13. Jewel was aggressively selling California grapes when the farm workers union was calling for a boycott. There were even Chicago cops there to harass the picketers. It's 44 years and my wife hasn't set foot in a Jewel store.

    Not to rain on anyone's grudge, but Field's wasn't Field's either by the time Macy's bought it. After they closed the men's store, they had men's clothes sorted by designer just like the women's department.

  14. I'd feel a little better about sticking up for the Berghoff's waiters if they hadn't been so effing rude. I know that was supposed to be picturesque or whatever, but they just came off as jerks.

    I remember my mother taking me there to eat when I was little. A waiter tried to return a tip he deemed insufficient, telling the diner, "Here. You must need this more than I do."

    The diner snapped back, "My father should have shot you in Germany when he had the chance!"

    The waiter stalked around the table and came at the diner. They got into a shoving match that the manager had to break up.

  15. Two more on the list: Radio Shack and Walmart. Several years back RS laid off/fired some staff with a EMAIL! I lived in Bentonville for several years and learned some sneaky tactics from friends who worked for WM. It is NOT a family-oriented company, bullying people to work an extra shift with fear of reprisals if they don't. Not paying the vendors for their product UNTIL it is taken off the semis and inventoried (which could be months). My sister has worked in corporate WM for over 25 years, without ever being given a managerial position (even though doing the work of her managers)! She'll retire a millionaire, but at what cost to her psyche and self-esteem?

  16. Wow... I always wondered what the backstory was behind Berghoff's, and always thought it was weird how it re-opened after the big fanfare of it closing. I don't go there anyways, but now I've got a better reason to not go! Thanks!

  17. Let's not forget those photos of Jimmy John Liautaud with the exotic animals he paid to hunt. Takes a big man to hunt those elephants and leopards. Never giving him another dime.

  18. My personal pointless enemy is Casey's gas stations and convenience stores. Avoiding them in Chicago is not a problem, no market penetration, but downstate, it takes an effort. The reason, they were guilty of price gouging on September 11th. No shit, Lisa Madigan made them pay a fine and everything. And yeah, Jimmy is a tool as well, and avoiding Papa John's is hardly an effort, that's some crap pizza.

  19. To this day, I do not buy gas at ExxonMobil (ever since the Valdez oil spill). Petty, I know, but it feels good to drive past a block to get gas from a different company. Now, jimmy John's owner is accused of trophy hunting big animals, I'll never go there again either.

  20. Jimmy John's isn't any good anyhow.


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