Sunday, August 26, 2018

"The best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country for that matter"

While the Chicago police riots were the most indelible memories of that August visit, another event foretold my life though I didn’t know it at the time. Stay with me here. In 1961 after my active duty stint in the Army Reserve I went to LA instead of back to college as I had promised. My father, a Los Angeles attorney of little distinction, introduced me to Michael Willis, my cousin from Corpus Christi, who was attending prestigious Art Center School when it was still in LA. Michael was living in a rooming house just off Wilshire Boulevard. I moved in.

Boarding house life was restrictive, constrictive and downright asexual. It was way too structured for a young gentleman of my social proclivities. I was a late bloomer and had a lot of catching up to do. On a visit to Art Center Michael introduced me to Jerry Roman, also an Art Center student. Jerry and I hit it off and soon we were living the California lifestyle in a standard issue midcentury apartment complex, two stories, a rectangular footprint with a swimming pool in the center courtyard. About that time, I got a job as a telephone claims adjuster at Kemper Insurance which was an easy walk from our digs. The job was simple. I settled telephone claims for predetermined amounts. Say your can of Hunts tomato paste exploded in your kitchen and you insist on repainting. That’s $500. Settling was always cheaper than a lawsuit. My grisliest claim was for a human thumb in a can of the aforementioned Hunts tomato paste. That's macabre I grant you but really funny.

Dave Burgraff, another adjuster, had a little house in the Hollywood Hills. He gave fabulous parties, one of which was attended by none other than Johnnie Mathis. Also attending was a young giant named John Elvin who boasted that he was the best conga drum player in the world. When I asked, “What about Preston Epps who did Bongo Rock last year?” “No comparison” he scoffed. Bongo Rock was #14 on 1959’s Top 100 and Epps, now 86, still works as a studio musician. And nobody’s ever heard of John Elvin.

Elvin was 6’-6’’ of blonde perfection. A movie star in waiting. He told me that he’d been approached by Henry Willson, the man who invented “Beefcake” and who had discovered, renamed and invented Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue and Clint Walker among others. It was widely known that Willson coerced heterosexual actors into sexual relationships in return for publicity and roles. John was perfectly aware of it and said that he was resolutely straight and committed to staying so. At least he didn't become Biff.

One day Burgraff didn’t show up for work and my boss Kazi Kagao told us he’d broken into a house in Pasadena, pistol whipped the elderly owners, rifled the safe and escaped with $500,000. He was rumored to have escaped to the south of France and was never heard from again.

Three flight attendants, called stewardesses at the time, Linda Moon, Stephanie Mirras and Grace Vallos lived across the way.  Linda taught me how to drink chilled Chenin Blanc from an actual stemmed glass and prepared macerated fruit to go with it. Stephanie, a genuine 10, taught Jerry Roman the facts of life. Jerry was as handsome as Stephanie was gorgeous. They were an item until she moved in with Rafael Campos, an actor best known for playing street hoods in movies like “Blackboard Jungle.”

After going back to college in the fall of 1961 I didn’t see Jerry again till my epic August 1968 visit to Chicago. He was an art director at a major agency and had a recently created a television campaign for Prudential Insurance that featured a newborn baby and Barbra Streisand’s sonorous voice singing “Jenny Patricia five days old….”  I located him and we arranged to meet downtown where he worked, and where I was staying. He said, “Meet me at Pizzeria Uno on the corner of Ohio and Wabash. I’m going to show you the best pizza you ever had.” It was like nothing I’d ever eaten before and I was a seasoned professional when it came to pizza. I was gob smacked by the rich, gooey, thick and artery clogging pie. Two inches thick of Chicago sausage, that means fennel, baby, mushrooms, hand crushed whole tomatoes and a pound of mozzarella. I fell in love with that pizza, the pizza Tom Brokaw called “the best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country, for that matter.”  Who could have foreseen that eleven years later in October of 1979, I would become a partner and chief operating officer of Pizzeria Uno and would personally take deep dish pizza to every major city in the country. It would be a wild ride.

I had been offered a partnership position in Pizzeria Uno toward the end of 1978 a year but just become president of Zantigo, KFC’s Mexican fast food chain and felt I had to give it fair shot. That was a mistake on two levels. First, had I remained a KFC vice president for another year there’s every chance I would have become president of the company, second, I detested the Zantigo gig. That made me rethink the offer. 

Before finally accepting the Pizzeria Uno deal I made a pilgrimage to the mother ship Chicago to confirm my feelings about the fabled pie. I guess I should say motherships since there were two locations a block apart, Uno which opened in 1943 and Due which opened in 1952. While I stood at the bar waiting for a table at Due I chanced upon the founder, Ike Sewell, holding court at the bar. I shouldered my way through a bevy of female admirers to meet the great man. The gregarious Texan, an All-America football player at UT, operator of barnstorming airshow and longtime liquor salesman, invited me to join the festivities. He, his cheerleaders and one 37-year-old interloper bounced from bar to private club to bar until we stumbled home as the sun rose over Lake Michigan. I had a new hero. I had been out-partied by a guy forty years my senior. 

Ike Sewell was a man’s man who attracted women like catnip. You’ve heard the line, “Every woman wants him. Every man wants to be him.” That was about Ike Sewell I'm certain. He still had the frame and muscularity of the athlete he had been. The man wore suits like a model. For a dozen years he'd been named one of Chicago’s “Dapper Dozen” in Irv Kupcinet’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though not tall, maybe 5’-8”, his hands were like catcher’s mitts. He moved with the grace only great athletes possess. When you met Ike for the first time he looked you dead in the eye and bent in toward you. I loved the guy. He was a close to an idol as I ever had.

The next day I called my future partner. His first words were, “You want to do it don’t you?” I said I did. I flew to Boston that weekend, drove to his house on the Cape and did the deal. It was smooth sailing till he wouldn’t let me locate the toilet tissue holders in the men’s room stalls of our second location in Harvard Square. He had to make that critical call. It was an omen.

Ike and Florence Sewell had a floor-through apartment high above Michigan Avenue. Florence, a former Conover model, was the female version of Ike.  She was improbably regal and one of Chicago’s fabled hostesses. Ike and Florence had a refrigerator just for champagne, Laurent-Perrier pour madam et Taittinger Comte de Champagne pour monsieur. Florence always spiked a whole strawberry on the rim of the flute before serving. 

I had never seen that kind of style and haven’t since.

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 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 that evening. We were transfixed. At 12:50am Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. He was 42 years old.

In August I was in Chicago for my first Baskin Robbins annual convention which happened to coincide with the DNC. We spent the day writing slogans for the new flavors of ice cream that we were introducing and would perform skits later that day to reveal the flavors. How I got lumped with the marketing types I don't 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 steamy August 28 about 10,000 protesters gathered at Grant park for a demonstration against the Vietnam War. In mid-afternoon 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 and rocks.

For the rest 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 the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel I saw the tear gas envelope Grant Park a scant two blocks away and watched Mayor Daley’s goons bludgeon peaceful protestors. As I watched from my room on 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 taken 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 corrosive Nixon White House abetted by the Republican Party arose from 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 into authoritarianism? 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 a song out of the Hitler and Mussolini hymnal and is a device used by 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.

Thomas Jefferson told John Jay in 1786, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." And later, "The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by a despotic government."

The danger is real.

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.