Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Year of Years:1968

If you are of my vintage you remember with crystalline clarity the place and circumstance of a handful of events outside your personal sphere. For me they were the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of RFK, the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and 911 which happened on my 60th birthday. Of the three that happened in 1968, MLK, RFK and the Chicago riots, I had a peripheral connection to two.

I had become friends with a David Gaon, a young lawyer at Baskin Robbins. And, while I don’t remember having strong political feelings, I must have tilted left. On the night of June 4 David and his wife and Peggy and I took drove to the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park to hear Bobby Kennedy speak. Early in 1968 Kennedy decided that he had to speak out against the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and income inequality and that was the substance of his towering speech. We were was transfixed. The next day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. He was 42.

By August I was in Chicago for my first Baskin Robbins annual convention which coincided with the DNC. We spent the day writing slogans for the new flavors of ice cream that we were introducing. We would perform a skit later that day to reveal the flavors. How I got lumped with the marketing types I do not recall. One of new tastes was Orange Marmalade Ice for which I wrote the catchy and oh so flavorful line, “Spread it on your muffin.”

Later that steaming August 28 about 10,000 protesters assembled at Grant park for a demonstration against the Viet Nam War. In mid-after noon a young demonstrator began lowering the flag that was flying. The police broke through the crowd and began beating the young man. The crowd responded by pelting them with food, beverage bottles, rocks and chunks of concrete.

For the remainder of the day and especially during the night the police attacked the protestors without restraint. Violence was inflicted on people who had broken no law, had disobeyed no order and presented no threat. Peaceful demonstrators, onlookers and residents who lived in the neighborhoods where the protests were being held were beaten and tear gassed.

From my room at the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel I watched the tear gas envelope Grant Park and watched Mayor Daley’s goons bludgeon peaceful protestors. As I watched from the fifth floor, CBS News was capturing the mayhem on the streets and at the convention center. On the CBS Nightly News Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted person, decried the violence as “police brutality. He removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his left cheek.

At the convention itself, CBS reporter Dan Rather was manhandled by security guards when he attempted to interview a Georgia delegate who was being removed from the hall. The cameras turned their attention to Rather as he was approaching the delegate, “What is your name, sir? he asked. At that moment he was grabbed by the guards. He could be heard telling the guards “don’t push me” and “take your hand off me unless you plan to arrest me.” All of this on national television.

When he was released, the breathless Rather told Cronkite:

“Walter…we tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way. This is the kind of thing that had been happening outside the hall, this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall. We…I’m sorry I’m out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that. What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being hauled out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant, well as you can see, they put me on the deck. I didn’t do very well.”

An angry Cronkite tersely replied, “I think way we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan. If I may say so.”

A 20-year-old intern, Chris Wallace, was working in the CBS newsroom that summer. He remembers smelling the tear gas floating above Michigan Avenue. He watched police beat the anti-war protesters with Billy clubs. On the street his father Mike Wallace was assaulted by a policeman and arrested.

We lost our innocence in 1968. The pointless tragedy of Vietnam and the craven Nixon White House abetted by the Republican Party arose from the mistakes of the sixties: errors and miscalculations built on a foundation of hubris and lies dating back to post-war Indo China and which were perpetuated through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. Kennedy had known the war couldn’t be won since he took office in 1960. So, too, did Johnson and Nixon but each allowed young Americans to continue to die. In fact, the bulk of those 57,000 deaths occurred after 1968 when it was already clear we could not win. Cynical isn't the half of it. General Westmoreland lifted his granite jaw and lied about the numbers. Robert McNamara knew but hid the truth. The war lasted seven more years. And for nothing.

John Laurence, a CBS reporter in the ground in Viet Nam recently looked back. “As a citizen [in 1968] I was worried that the country was being polarized as never before and that no good would come of it. I had to wait 50 years before having the same worries again.” Past is prologue.

Laurence’s reporting had led Cronkite, a former World War Two correspondent, travel to Viet Nam early in 1968.

“He had been hearing all of those lies from the Pentagon about how well it was going for three years,” said Cronkite’s senior producer, Ronald Bonn. “All of a sudden it exploded in every city in Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s trip led to a prime-time special on the war which aired on February 28, 1968. The broadcast was a watershed moment for television news in that Walter Cronkite declared that there was no victory in sight for the United States.

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” said the wise man. It was worse than a stalemate. It’s not a tie when you turn tail and your enemy gets the whole country. Walter. We lost that war.

To this day, conservative wags will say that Cronkite’s testimonial dampened support for the war effort. John Laurence dismisses that talk.

“All the optimists who argued that we were winning did a terrible disservice to our country. They really didn’t know what they were talking about. So, too, do the revisionists of today who would have people believe that Walter was undermining the war by being truthful about what he had learned.” Truth to power.

Cronkite’s even-handed reporting had become the television industry standard. His willingness to offer his interpretation based on the facts as he understood them gave birth to the blend of fact and opinion that prevails today for good and sometimes ill.

On June 6, the day after Bobby Kennedy’s murder, and perhaps prompted by Cronkite’s February voyage into truth telling, NBC’s David Brinkley warned that political assassination was putting the country in the danger of becoming a police state. “And in a police state, people don’t shoot politicians, politicians shoot the people.”

In an autocracy those in power will do anything to maintain control. Read Russia, Turkey, Nicaragua and Venezuela and the heart of despotism, Africa. Which countries will join the descent? Hungary, Poland, the United States? What could possibly go wrong when only 25% of the population believes that democracy is essential to its wellbeing (that number was 80% a generation ago)? And the legislative branch is unwilling to exercise its constitutional obligation to check the executive and appears to believe its first duty is to “protect” the president and the party before the nation.

Assault on the free press is always part of the path to dictatorship or military rule. Any coverage not entirely supportive of the Dear Leader is suppressed. To Nixon the press was the enemy. Echoes of that sentiment reverberate in the White House today. Attacking the press is page out of the Hitler and Mussolini songbook along with every tinpot dictator in history. Control the press, better yet be the press, and you’ll control minds. Hear one song and one song only and soon you’ll soon know all the words and believe every one of them. There’s nothing particularly inventive at play. There’s no need to reinvent the formula. The formula works.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A year among years: Part One

If BC and AD demark the history of the world as we know it, 1968 demarks the post-war United States that was and what it is today. For anyone born before 1950 that tumultuous year divided our callow youth from our wary adulthood. When I think back to the late sixties and early seventies I tend to think that every historic event happened in the tsunami of 1968. Nationally we were overwhelmed by psyche shattering events and as young adults we were stumbling through the early milestones of adult life; marriage, births, and first real jobs.

Christmas 1968

On the very first workday of 1968 I reported for work at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream’s headquarters on Burbank Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank, California. It was January 2. My road to becoming an exempt clerk (code for no overtime pay) in the Store Planning department at Baskin Robbins was paved by losing my position as Manager of Food Operations for a chain of drug stores in Tucson and the pressing need to support a wife and four-month old son. California beckoned. The Golden State was and will always be the land of possible dreams.

In late November of 1967 I traveled to Los Angeles to look for work and wound up walking into the Ame’s Employment agency at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. I was a 26-year-old married father of one and a recent graduate from Arizona State University on its eight-year work release program. My resumé boasted a list of food service jobs; pizza cook, singing waiter, bartender, assistant restaurant manager and former Manager of Food Operations at Ryan Evans. Not on the resumé was a lot of living, none of it easy.

The position as a store planner at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream is the only one I remember pursuing and, certainly, the only one that led to an interview. There was, however, a small catch. I had to be a draftsman to fill the slot. I was told that I had to draw the floor plan of a typical Baskin Robbins store and bring it to my first interview. “When?” I asked.  “Tomorrow” they replied. I had helped design and remodel seven Ryan Evans stores during my truncated employment there and may have had some inkling about laying out a retail business. In less than a year at Ryan Evans I had performed three roles starting with the remodeling of the stores, handling advertising for a few months and, finally, operating our lunch counters. I upgraded the menu and renamed them Sunburst Cafes. Sales doubled but they were still little more than lunch counters new name or not.

Being a veteran of jobs that I wasn’t equipped to do, I figured I’d become a draftsman overnight. How hard could it be? Fortunately, Peggy had majored in architecture and owned the basic tools; a drafting board, a straight edge, various triangles, mechanical pencils and, importantly, erasers. Under her watchful eye I finished my floor plan at dawn. To award my effort with a D would be over-grading.

In the morning I was interviewed by four people; Larry Tate, the general counsel (don’t ask me why I had an interview with a lawyer); Ross Roeder, the VP of Human Resources; Kurt Kornreich (who pronounced it Cornrich to head off assaults on his moniker) and Frank Merlino, a construction guy and the long-time Store Planning Manager at BR. I’ll start with Merlino who did not guffaw at my amateur drafting attempt. At best, he saw that I was no pretender to the throne. Or so he thought. Both Tate and Roeder had told me that Merlino had threatened to quit on two occasions and that, if I could learn how to draft and get a handle on the department, they’d accept his resignation the next time made the threat.

In three months they accepted his resignation, I became store planning manager and my career trajectory tilted upward. Three months after that Merlino put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son Frankie found him.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Out of the Dark

Far beyond the sales growth, profit and awards I’m most proud of what didn’t happen during the Black Out of 1977. I was home in New Canaan at 8:27pm on Wednesday, July 13 when the first call came from Bruce Raba, our District Manager in Brooklyn, telling me the borough had lost power and things were going to get ugly fast. Restive crowds were gathering on the corner of Bedford and Lafayette and at Nostrand and Atlantic. I turned on the television as a lighting strike tripped circuit breakers at Buchanan South on the Hudson River. A second strike caused the loss of two 345kV transmission lines and the loss of power at the 900MW nuclear plant at Indian Point. At 8:55pm there was another strike at the Sprain Brook station in Yonkers and things went downhill from there. By 9:36pm the entire Con Edison system had shut down, almost exactly an hour after the first strike. A surreal light glowed across the Hudson from New Jersey but the sky over Manhattan was dark enough to see the Milky Way.
My first concern was that we would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of product. I called our Area Managers and asked them to call our major suppliers and to lean on them for refrigerated trucks so we could keep the chicken and produce cold until power was restored. KFC chicken was shipped fresh and packed in ice but not frozen making it especially vulnerable. Before morning a million dollars of product had been saved in the trucks thanks to our quick thinking and the unflinching support of our suppliers. We lost absolutely nothing. We had conceived and executed a rapid response on the fly. Most of our inner-city managers, often middle aged black women, stayed in “their stores” throughout the night and through the next day. The ownership they took for their stores was extraordinary. I couldn't respect them more.
New York was dark for 25 hours. The steaming streets became war zones where, according to the NY Post, “Even the looters were being mugged.” By the time the lights came back on arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and more than 1,600 stores had been looted. None were KFCs.
I believe that because we had rejected the carpetbagger mentality that had prevailed before 1976, that we had demonstrated respect for neighborhoods of color and that our locations were managed by people who were pillars of the community and who took ownership of the situation we were spared.

The Blackout of 1977 was “a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled over the city. An economic decline, rising crime rates and the panic-provoking (and paranoia inducing) Son of Sam murders had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s Dark Ages.” according to Time Magazine. Some saw unrelenting poverty and institutional neglect as the fuel that ignited the explosion. The head of the National Urban League said, "The underclass in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the rules of the game because they find that the normal rules don't apply to them." 
This is one of two stories from my forty years operating restaurants of which I most proud, and both come from places of mutual respect and a measure of caring and humanity.
KFC stores in the inner city were often the only national brand businesses in their neighborhoods. One store in the Bronx comes to mind. It was literally the only operating business within six square blocks. Each time I visited the store it felt like it was the last living thing amid the burned-out hulks of apartment blocks and tenements. It looked Hamburg after the bombs. Its manager was a proud Egyptian PhD in Chemistry who had tried teaching high school in the South Bronx and had been unable to stomach the utter disinterest and lack of respect he was shown. To hear him tell it, a teacher in Egypt wielded absolute authority in his classroom. In the Bronx it was worse than babysitting. He was better off, he decided, to manage an ordinary KFC store where he could expect and demand performance from his employees. He did just that and was named one of the ten best managers in the country at the convention in New Orleans in 1977. One of ten from 1,000. I wish I could remember his name. I’m embarrassed that I can’t.
Of 68 store managers in NYC, maybe half a dozen were Anglo males. KFC in New York was a true United Nations, operated by immigrants from around the globe. Another top ten manager whose name I can remember was Deepak Patel in Manhattan. Deepak, a slight, soft-spoken gentleman with a college degree and a commitment to excellence was a first generation American from Pakistan. When I Googled Deepak Patel four names popped up, three were medical doctors in the United States and the other was a retired New Zealand cricketeer of Pakistani descent.
Without immigrants we couldn’t have operated those New York stores in 1977. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Top Ten and a Hat

The hat, July 29, 2018
It felt like we won everything in sight at the Top Ten Awards during the 1977 national convention in New Orleans. The top ten store managers, area managers and district managers from across the company were chosen based on sales growth, profit and QSC; Quality, Service and Cleanliness. "QSC, QSC, QSC" was the battle cry at KFC throughout my tenure. Our full court press to improve the customer experience arose from the realization the we had been tanking for years. No amount of marketing was going to right the ship unless guests wanted to come back again. There’s an adage that says that the repeat customer is the best customer. That little nugget puts the true back in truism.

The cornerstone of our big QSC push was unannounced inspections of all of our 1,000 company owned stores across the nation. The 100-point inspection was really tough, some said too tough. There was carping from the old timers who had mailed it in for, well, forever. Most of our middle managers were lifers who were mechanics who could fry the hell out of a chicken but couldn’t manage other managers if their lives depended on it. Most were hard drinking ex-college football players who had formed a University of Kentucky Boy’s Club at our headquarters in Louisville and in Detroit, Dallas, LA and South Florida. John Y. Brown, the former Kentucky Governor and previous owner of KFC hadn't helped. He didn't give a lick. Phyliss George's husband, the man who almost killed the Boston Celtics, was a slovenly con-man without a scruple to his name. Come to think of it, he had a lawyer fixer like what'shisname. 

KFC's death rattle meant that two new vice presidents replaced two neanderthals. Joe Johnston, a preppy thirty three year old from Tulsa took over Region Three in the center of the country and I inherited Charlie Rogers' Region One. Look up "good old boy" in your Funk and Wagnalls and you'll find Charlie's headshot. Really nice guy out of his depth.

Joe wore three button suits from Southwick and heavy starched Gant button downs. I wore fitted Italian 140s and too much hair. A little self-awareness would have helped. We were part of a Fortune 500 conglomerate not the fucking Cosa Nostra.

I remember the Red Carpet at the Windsor Court like it was yesterday. 

“Who are you wearing, Steve?” asked the host.

“I’m wearing Lubiam and Bruno Magli." The crowd went wild.

After a year Region One led the company with a 96-point QSC average across its 200 plus stores. The other regions scored in the 80s. When the QSC scores were combined with our sales and financial numbers the case could have been made that we had won all thirty of the Top Ten awards. As it is we won four of the top ten District Manager awards and would have won a fifth but Bill Roquemore, the District Manager in Columbus, had become a Regional Manager at Pizza Hut and he was denied his due. Jim Willey seemed embarrassed when he told me that Bill wasn't selected. “Anyway, this way we can give the other regions a chance.” Meh.

Our final tally was something like fifty-five percent of the awards from twenty percent of the stores. Hair or not.

On the night after the Top Ten Awards and a dirge of mind numbing speeches we staggered to the Old Absinthe House by way of the Acme Oyster House and Preservation Hall. We pounded adult beverages till the sun came up; we being Peggy and me, Bob and Jeanine Buxton from New York, Gary and Brenda McCain from Tidewater and Billy Genovese from Delsaco in Paramus. Delsaco, short for Delicious Salad Company, made our cole saw and book. As the clock ticked 3am a couple of cowboys ambled in from Central Casting. I made 'em for East Texas owing to their hats and brims. Hat crowns and brim shapes are as regional as a South Boston accent.

I exclaimed to nobody in particular, “Man, I want that hat.” “Which one?” Billy asked. “The brown one with the high crown. The tall guy.” I answered.

At that very moment the tall guy with the coffee colored lid went to the men’s room. Billy Genovese followed him in. I thought nothing of it till he came back to the table. “No luck. He won’t sell it.”

“You mean you tried to buy the hat right off his head? You didn’t need to do that.” What I meant was, “Next time I give you a job don’t come back empty handed.”

Don't cry for me, Argentina. Four months later a large package arrived at my Greenwich office. It was from Bob Buxton in New Jersey. When I opened the box, there was the hat. Well, not the actual hat from the Old Absinthe House, that would have been epic, but it was the identical twin of my beloved cognac New West by Bailey in the size of huge.

The hat in 1978

The hat in 1984
Bob, a long time horseman in central Jersey, had trailered a horse for the owner of Jack’s Barn in Farmingdale in trade for an exact copy of my treasured sombrero. I still have the hat and the pictures to prove it. I’ve changed the crown over the years. I learned to steam cowboy hats when I was ten. I did not learn, however, to make it a huge plus. Who knew that heads and feet continue to grow while the rest of us shrinks?

Last thing I heard Bob Buxton is training horses in Oklahoma and I am not a cowboy in Taos, New Mexico.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

New York New York

It wasn’t all cocktail hours and bar crawls in New York in 1976 and 1977. Facing me was the seemingly Quixotic mission of turning around the worst of KFC’s five national regions. My new region was headlined by Metropolitan New York, but also included New York’s southern tier; the Tidewater area of Virginia, Columbus, Pittsburgh, a sliver of West Virginia coal country and one down at the heels city in Massachusetts. 229 company owned stores all told. Region One, anchored by its comatose 68 store NYC district, was the doormat of the nation by every measure; sales growth, profit and operating standards; the thing we called QSC, Quality, Service and Cleanliness. We possessed none of the above.

Just six years has passed since I had been demoted from being Director of Operations of Four n’ 20 Pies, a company I had co-founded, and had been banished to Queens to fix one ailing restaurant. When informing me of my fate my boss, Kurt Kornreich, told me, “I don’t think you’re a top guy.” Those words and the punch they delivered have stayed with me. Yet here I was, a wunderkind on his white horse, riding into New York to save the day.

My entrance on Manhattan’s main stage was an crowd pleaser that’s for sure. The day before I was to take over the market, Colonel Sander’s toured a handful of our Manhattan stores with Mimi Sheraton, the bitch goddess food critic of the New York Times. When she and the Colonel visited the unit on 6th Avenue between Greenwich and Waverly the Colonel came unhinged. The chicken wasn’t fresh. It was supposed to be pressure fried every two hours. You could tell long it had been sitting by its internal temperature which should hover around 170 degrees. That chicken hadn’t seen 140 since day before yesterday. But the gravy, God help us, was mucilage and Harlan Sanders was the original gravy Nazi. The gentleman from Corbin, Kentucky carried a silver tablespoon in breast pocket of his white suit for heaven’s sake. When he tasted the paste, he erupted into an expletive filled tirade which was faithfully recorded by Mimi’s able sword, I mean pen.

Her byline ran in the Times the next morning. And that very afternoon I was to host a press conference at the 21 Club to welcome the Colonel to New York. I couldn’t have wished for a more auspicious start. What does a 34-year-old pup say to Colonel Sanders, whom he has yet to meet, in front of 100 slathering jackals? Let’s just say he deviates from the script he wrote the week before and prostrates himself before the great man. “Thank you, Colonel Sanders, for pointing out our myriad shortcomings. Next time you visit you’ll be happy with the gravy.”

After the press conference when I was finally introduced to the Colonel. I said, “An honor to meet you, sir.  I’m sorry you had such a disappointing experience yesterday.” He paused a moment, looked me in the eye, touched my arm and said, “So you’re the new man. Good luck to you, sir. I know you’ll take care of it.”

When I accepted the promotion from executive vice president of Pewter Pot, the 22 unit coffee shop chain I’d been operating in Boston for three years, somebody in HR told me, “If you can fix that train wreck they ought to give it to you.” The situation was so dire that nobody thought it could be fixed. My calculated risk was the third in a ten-year foray into fixing broken restaurant chains. If the company was on its last breath, I figured, the easier it would be to turn around and look like a star. It worked most of the time. 

The lynchpin of the whole deal was obviously New York. If I couldn’t fix New York it was game over.

As in three earlier turnarounds, the first thing we did was the thing that didn’t require a brain. We spruced up the stores so that they were places you’d want to work, maybe even be proud of. We called it “Paint Up-Fix Up” and it wasn’t much more than that. They weren’t big dollar improvements, certainly, but it was enough to provide a working environment where we could require performance. It meant that we could plausibly convey our expectations for food quality, store cleanliness and service. We came to lead the nation in all.

After we completed the rudimentary paint-up fix up and had made our expectations clear, we held rallies with every employee in our New York market in attendance. The rallies were held in the auditorium of the New York Hilton and featured high end audio visuals including the television advertising campaign we were about to launch. Glossy TV ads and big sound always get the audience going. 

Because we needed to drive traffic into our improved stores we blitzed the market with the famed “Buck a Meal Deal.” That’s one piece of chicken, mashed potatoes and a biscuit for one single dollar. Thank you very much. It didn’t pretend to be elegant, but it rang the cash register and gave us some breathing room. But the Buck a Meal gambit almost cost me my job. I had acted unilaterally on the promotion as I was prone to do and Tom Frank, KFC’s senior VP of marketing, gave me a proper dressing down despite its success. I told him that I thought that kind of call was within my purview. He grudgingly accepted my apology saying that, “If I thought you knew better I’d have you fired.” I may or may not have known better. Managing up was never my strong suit.

The sexier and equally true story of the Miracle on 42nd Street was the first ethnic advertising ever done at KFC. Contemplate that for a moment. You have a product that hews sharply to the black and Spanish communities and you’ve never acknowledged their existence except to put your stores in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. The “inner city” stores were operated to an entirely different and far lower standard than Midtown or suburban locations. A wall separated the customer and the customer service worker, a wall with a bulletproof glass window and what appeared to be a bank teller mechanism. I had them removed immediately.

My two area managers in Harlem, one black and one Puerto Rican, packed heat. Street punks with a capital P. When I called them in to my Herald Square office to inform about our new rules of engagement they responded with unsuppressed giggles. I didn’t miss a beat, “You are fucking fired. Give me your gun and badge.” Well, maybe not the second part.

With a modicum of momentum under our belts, we introduced two new marketing campaigns in rapid succession. The first, “Welcome to New York” was television commercials aimed at the black, Hispanic and Jewish audiences. They were simple confections which featured likeable Hispanic, black and Jewish women welcoming the Colonel to New York. The Hispanic one was actually in Spanish. We were really welcoming New Yorkers back to KFC with the Colonel as a beacon of finger linkin' goodness.

But we really hit the big time when we hired a spanking new, black owned advertising agency, Mingo Jones and Guilmenot, to develop a major campaign for us, one that went national after its epic success in New York. Frank Mingo, the first black vice president and account executive at McCann-Erickson where he managed the Miller Brewing account, was 36, Carolyn Jones and Richard Guilmenot both former vice presidents of BBD&O were 33 and 29, respectively. The 6’6 Mingo had a creative vision as imposing as his stature. Frank was a great storyteller with a profane streak. I recall that one time when he referred to someone he didn’t like or trust as a “jamf.” I asked him, “What the hell’s a jamf?” He replied, “Jive ass motherfucker.” A bullshitter. Frank Mingo wasn’t one.

KFC had been running a yawner of a national campaign “It’s so nice to feel so good about a meal” and Mingo, supported by copious research, concluded that KFC with New York as its test piece needed to get back to promoting the product itself. So, we employed billboards featuring Gladys Knight’s 1,000-watt smile and radio commercials where she sang our new slogan, “We do chicken right.” Between 1977 and 1980 KFC’s New York sales increased by 70% and KFC adopted the theme for its national campaign.

By 1981 Mingo Jones, Guilmenot had left the firm, was the second largest African American owned advertising agency in the country. Sadly, Frank Mingo died in 1989 at 50 and Carolyn Jones in 2002 at the age of 59. Guilmenot has a consulting firm on Long Island. He’s 70. Jesus, we were young. And I'm still ambulatory.

After the success in New York and throughout the region I was offered the presidency of KFC’s Mexican fast food chain Zantigo. I turned it down the twice. I knew I had a good thing going, the number one region in the country by wide margin, an idyllic home in the perfect New Canaan, Connecticut and the autonomy of distance. I would soon learn how key that is. First, Jim Willey the president of KFC, tried to sell me on the promotion and, though I liked Jim and saw him as something of a mentor, I demurred. Then he told me if I took the job I’d be the next president of KFC. I declined again. 

No is no until it isn’t. I was summoned to Santa Barbara by Hicks Waldron the president of Heublein, KFC’s parent corporation. There on a terrace in Montecito overlooking the blue Pacific the persuasive Waldron said, “I need for you to do this.” It sounded more like a command than a request. I said "Yes.”

It was not a stellar career move. I found myself at loggerheads with senior management over the strategic direction of Zantigo from the get go. And, though our numbers were astounding, and we received the best qualitative evaluations in the history of KFC, Willey died, and I did not become the next president of the company. That was a drunk named Bill Reidy.

I went back to Boston to start Pizzeria Uno. Zantigo was sold to Taco Bell within a year.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Vatican of Saloons

PJ Clarke's at Hapy Hour
In the New York years, I drank at P.J. Clarke’s every time I was in the city at the end of the business day. I’d say it was “one and go” but according to my co-worker Erv Hall, that‘s not humanly possible. One evening after work Erv and I went to the bar and I said, “Let’s just have one and go.” He replied with a grin, “Steve, there’s no such thing as one and go.” Those words proved prophetic.

It was at the old saloon on the northeast corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue that I first learned the 80-20 rule. That’s the adage that says 80% of a bar’s business comes from 20% of its customers. The regulars. In my beer o’clock visits I always saw the same half dozen guys at the front end of the bar by the window overlooking Third Avenue. I figured that if they were always there at 5:30pm and I was just an occasional customer, they must be there every single afternoon. Extrapolation is my middle name.

I first visited the joint in 1970 when I was banished to Rego Park, Queens to fix an underperforming restaurant that I had opened a year before. I lived in a basement apartment in Forest Hills Estates where I could walk to work and take the subway to the City for recreational purposes. The floundering restaurant was right across from Lefrak City, a huge apartment complex, and 2-1/2 blocks from the long gone Alexander’s Department Store at Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road. The little pie shop was the first place where a newly fired employee threatened me. “You won’t make it through the week,” he warned. That's 2,486 weeks ago. I'm feeling good about my chances.

How I stumbled on P.J. Clarke’s escapes me, but it became a haunt, the first step on a bar crawl up 1st Avenue to Yorktown and back down 2nd to 57th Street. My guess is that I learned about the bar in a bar, the way I learned everything else I know. My neighborhood bar in Rego Park was in Elmhurst or was it Corona? It’s confusing. Anyway, take a left out of my place, walk to Queens Boulevard, hang a right at Alexander’s, walk another couple of blocks and Walsh’s Pub was across the street.

Among the many things I learned at Vinny Walsh’s establishment was how to process 35mm negatives to get prints that looked like they were made with 4x5 sheet film. I was tipping Half and Halfs next to an older guy who, it turns out, was a local portrait photographer. We began to compare notes. I told him that I wanted to produce prints with as little grain as possible. He turned to me and said, “Go to 47th Street Photo in The City (that's what you call Manhattan if you're in the know). Ask for Seymour. Sy knows everything there is to know about the darkroom. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Sy did. On my nightly, I mean next, sortie into Manhattan I walked into 47th Street Photo and asked for Seymour. I told him some barfly in Elmhurst told me to look him up and that I wanted to know how coax creamy acuity out of a 35mm negative. He told me, “Kid, you gotta use Edwal FG7 developer not that Kodak crap. Use it 15:1 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution. Prints like nothing else, I’m telling you. And here’s the kicker, you can push the film. Take Kodak Plus X film that’s a 125 ASA and push it a 400, 500 ASA. I did it and it did. So, when I got back to my darkroom in South Pasadena a couple of months later I started shooting Plus X at 400 or 500 and getting prints that looked they came from a Hasselblad at 100 ASA. That Edwal FG7-Sodium Sulfite hack is the process I used till my darkroom days ended in the 2002.

I also learned about the Irish bar circuit at Walsh’s which, New York being New York, was epic. My favorite barkeep at Walsh’s, one Jack Kearns, tutored me on the midweek ritual called “busting balls” which isn’t quite what it sounds like. It’s drinking tour of Irish bars. On a barkeep’s night off, say Tuesday, he would hit all the bars on his circuit and “be taken care of.” Meaning he’d be treated like royalty by his brethren of the brew. He’d wouldn’t pay for a single drink. On Jack Kearns’s Irish bar circuit were, Peter’s Back Street in Bayside, Patrick’s Pub in Douglaston and the John Barleycorn in Manhattan. Only the John Barleycorn survives.

Back then it was protocol for your favorite mixologist to “buy” every third drink, and in a clearly understood quid pro quo, you’d tip him the full amount of that beverage. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the proprietor who understood the game. The IRS not so much. If Vinny didn’t tolerate the larceny his star bartender would move down the block dragging his regulars with him.

PJ Clarke’s has been called “the Vatican of Saloons.” PJ was Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish immigrant who tended bar at Duneen’s Saloon which opened its doors in 1887. Ten years later he bought Duneen's and changed the name. The venerable establishment is famous for its longevity, that it hasn’t been replaced by a skyscraper, its celebrity clientele, and for its pews, I mean urinals.

The urinals at PJ Clarke's

You could park your car in those things. They were chest height with an ice block covering the drain. They say you can tell how busy a shift is by the size of the melting block. Easier than counting the drawer I guess. "O'Shaugnessy, go measure the ice."

Wilt Chamberlain walking south on 2nd Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets in 1977 

On one occasion after half a dozen black and tans I stepped into the men’s room directly behind me. When I opened the door to go back to the bar I walked into Wilt Chamberlain’s ass. I do not exaggerate. The man was so big that at 5’-11” I was eyeballing the big center’s pockets. Unlike most “big men” of the day who were storks, Wilt’s 300 pounds was distributed perfectly on his 7’-2” frame. Imagine Lebron James but half a foot taller. Wilt employed a handler to fend off male patrons. I watched his body man collecting head shots from all the women queuing up to meet the man who scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962 and, according to Chamberlain, 10,000 women. I’m afraid to do that math.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

La La Land and other fables

While I tend to look askance at chain restaurants I'm compelled to award an honorable mention in the best steak sweepstakes to Morton’s Steakhouse. Morton’s is notable because their steak is cooked on a flat top not a wood fired grill, a char-grill or a broiler. A strong case can be made that cooking a steak on a flat top or griddle, called “a la plancha” in the Spanish speaking world, is the superior method. The sizzling surface sears the meat so all the juices and fat are sealed in. And on the plus side Morton’s slathers the steak with butter. It’s affront to your arteries but you’ll die happy.

Morton’s in Boston was the scene of several bacchanalian orgies of steak and wine in the waning days of my restaurant career. One of my partners was an oenophile and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. His best friend was one of Boston’s biggest wine distributors and importers whose company had discovered Guigal wines and had become the importer for the whole country. Bob had his own million-dollar wine cellar at home and, as such, you knew he’d bring one hell of a bottle to the party. You also knew that you didn’t have one as good or that you could afford.

The price of entry to these bleary nights of indulgence was that each participant, of which there were four, had to bring a worthy, read old, bottle. The fraught task brought on the cold sweats. How will my pathetic offering stand up? I didn’t have much of a cellar and the oldest, dubiously drinkable wine I owned was a standard issue, $6.00 when released, 1968 Louis Martini Cabernet. At least it got bonus points for being part of illustrious class of 1968, one in which Napa Valley cabs were deemed the equal of those from Bordeaux. The wine had been stored with no adherence to the strictures of proper wine storage, to wit a humidity controlled 55 degrees. The sad little thing had been kept in a pantry next to the Smucker’s apricot jam.

My erstwhile partner brought one of Guigal’s La Las, La Landonne specifically. Our resident wine maven brought a legendary 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s the famed wine redolent of menthol from the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the vineyard.  And I brought the cowering little Louis Martini. I don’t remember what our fourth member contributed, or care.

As protocol requires, we began with the wine most likely to fail. Namely mine. We opened my thirty-year old relic, a gift from a friend in 1981 when we opened a restaurant on Lombard Street in San Francisco. Thanks Lenny. It poured light, more like pinot noir than cabernet. But, to our amazement, the lyrical little wine filled our stems with floral notes and lithe elegance. The Martha’s Vineyard from the watershed 1968 vintage that had proved that California could make world class cabernet was full bodied and fresh with menthol notes and pure expressive fruit. 1968 was deemed the best year since 1947. 2016 tasting notes that I found online glorify the 1968 Martha’s Vineyard this way, “Definitely the first time I’ve seen this bottle, and probably the last. This was stunning in every sense of the word! With good color, chocolate mint, cherry, tobacco and earthy nose that got you going and kept you going as well. Full bodied, fresh, deep and long, the fruit had beautiful purity.This is definitely one of the best, mature, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon wines I've ever tasted.” Today the regal beauty will set you back $1,294 smackeroos.

What's his name's La Landonne was as advertised, stupendous. The biggest, most tannic of Guigal’s Cote Rotie wines, it showed firm minerality along with blackberry, spice and tobacco. 

You can still pull the cork on a 1968 Heitz cab or a 1982 La Landonne and be left murmuring superlatives to express your awe. The 1968 Louis Martini, alas, has left the building.

At this moment the La Landonne retails for $669 and the Martini is a paltry $170.