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July 28, 2011 / admin

Behind the Column: Chuck E. Cheese’s

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“Nothing makes you feel creepy like walking into a Chuck E. Cheese’s alone, with an SLR camera.”

This week, I covered the new pizza at Chuck E. Cheese’s for SeriousEats.com.  It was no ordinary experience.  Well, none of them ever are (33 slices of cheesecake, all of the mix-ins at Coldstone, etc.).  This one, though, was run-of-the-mill in terms of content: try the pizza, decide what you think.  The experience, though, was another matter.

When I walked in the front door, I stepped outside my own body and looked at myself: a lone male with a photo apparatus entering a place filled with children.  It just looks wrong.  I started to panic.  If I were accused of anything by security, what was I going to say?

Me: “Honestly, officer, I was just taking pictures of the pizza!”
NYPD: “You people make me sick.”
Me: “Food bloggers?”
NYPD: “That’s it smart-ass it’s taser time!”
Me: BZZZZZZzzzzz….::gurgle::

I had visions of grandeur for this post.  I wanted to dive in the ball pit. I wanted to do a hilarious Conan O’Brien style video of some kids beating me at skeeball.  I could have gotten some hilarious footage of kids saying things about the pizza.  In reality, I walked in, realized how strange I looked, and spent the next half hour reading the news on my phone.

Frankly, it looked as fun as I remembered.  One kid was absolutely rocking a game right next to my table and carrying armfuls of tickets back to his table.  It made me miss going to Chuck E. Cheese’s as a kid, and I wanted to join in the fun.  But, sadly, I couldn’t.

Well, I could have.  I was not the only 20-30 year old that seemed to be milling about unaccompanied by a minor.  Once I realized that there seemed to be other unaccompanied adults, I almost had a panic attack.  ”All of this is strange,” I decided.  ”I’m going home to watch Lost.”

And that’s what I did!

July 16, 2011 / admin

Behind the Column: Press trip to Denny’s HQ

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Have you ever been to Spartanburg, South Carolina?  It’s a beautiful, little southern town, with a history that dates back to the Revolution.  Founded by Scots-Irish from the Appalachian Mountains, it was named after a regimen that fought for the colonies against the British.  The old days, though, have passed, and though quaint, Downtown Spartanburg’s mainstreet is, well, odd.

The tallest building in town is the Denny’s HQ, which looms over Main Street – their old business district – like a government monolith.  When you stand at the food of the building, you notice that it’s made of granite and stone panels, not FBI/J. Edgar Hoover/Beltway concrete.  They have quite a nice park laid out at the food of their building, and the company is a major employer in the town.  It’s quite a nice place, actually, like a reverse Monet: horrifying from far away, but beautiful up close.

I learned all this on a trip to Spartanburg this past Mark.  The impetus for the journey was an invitation from Denny’s to a press event at their HQ to unveil Baconalia, a promotional celebration of Bacon that they launched in March.  I was more than happy to oblige, mostly because A) I had never been to Spartanburg, B) I love South Carolina, and C) I love Bacon.  It was a fun trip, which included meeting the guys from Mr. Baconpants, sampling the food straight out of Denny’s test kitchen, and hearing about the new product creation process at Denny’s.

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As the pictures above show, their HQ food wasn’t dramatically different or better than the food that appears in actual restaurants.  As I write in my column on Serious Eats, I can never write critically about the food at a Press Event, because the audience will always be skeptical of the controlled environment, as well they should be.  Surprisingly, though, Denny’s was giving us a very real look at their food.  They put specially crafted an sculpted dishes out for us to photograph, with perfect sunny-side up eggs, and what we ate was meticulously cooked in small portions.

Sadly, the whole of Baconalia was more of a “sprinklefest” than anything else.  Though avant-garde in some respects, the dishes mostly were places that bacon pieces could be sprinkled: in pancake batter, onto ice cream, our layered on to a sandwich.  The Bacon meatloaf had pieces cooked into it, but the overall trend was variations with bacon, not new dishes.

July 5, 2011 / admin

Why I write about Fast Food: Part 1

When I was five and he was one, we discovered my brother had a severe allergy to peanuts.  The more we learned, the more we began to err on the side of cautious.  We didn’t order as much Chinese food, we didn’t venture out to restaurants we didn’t know, and we tried to eat at places that were safe.  My mom had heard horror stories of people with peanut allergies eating something fried in peanut oil and dying, so she tried to be as careful as possible.

As he grew older, my brother began to watch after himself.  We went back to normal routines, but he had to develop his own survival mechanisms.  Back then, he specifically requested Wendy’s.  Why?  They had no peanuts in the store, and he felt comfortable with the staff at the one near our house.  It became his go-to, to the point where we had an entire drawer of excess Wendy’s BBQ sauce packets.  My brother just liked Wendy’s, and felt comfortable there.

I don’t think that we, as a family, ate more or less fast food than the average.  My mom prepared home cooked meals, sometimes we had pizza or Chinese delivered, and sometimes we ate out.  Fast Food at Wendy’s was just a really convenient tool in our anti-allergy tool kit.  Restaurants like Chick-fil-a do use peanut oil, so we knew that those were not peanut friendly.  Wendy’s we had faith in, and could rely upon.

Today, my brother mostly eats chicken breasts, egg whites, and protein mix; There’s not an ounce of fat on him.  But despite living in a university town full of food options, he always asks me to take him to Buffalo Wild Wings when I visit.  Why?  He’s just comfortable there: no surprises, nothing hidden, nothing risky.

June 25, 2011 / admin

#1 on SeriousEats!

My post was #1 on SeriousEats.com this week!  Thanks for all the support!

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June 20, 2011 / admin

Beyond the Column: Cheesecake Factory

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Today, SeriousEats.com launched SeriousEats: Sweets.  Congrats to them on the new blog!

To christen the new blog, yours truly went to the Cheesecake Factory and sampled all 33 of their cheesecakes.  It is a truly epic piece, so I wrote it with a Dantean style, after my favorite epic poet. (At least, I did until I actually started writing about cheesecake. Dante didn’t do cheesecake.) I hope you enjoy it, and you can read it here.

I also have to say thank you to Maggie Hoffman, Carey Jones, and Christine Tsai, all of SeriousEats.com.  Maggie is my Drinks and Sweets editor, and was with me on the trip.  Christine, the site’s main developer, is one of the best photographers on staff, and she is responsible for all the awesome photos.  Carey Jones is my main editor, and is responsible for a) making sure I get my columns in on time and b) making sure everything is spelled correctly.

I’ve been talking about this post with friends, and the reaction has been “How did you do that?” or “Did you eat anything else all day?” or “How long did it take you?”  So, I thought I’d answer some of the questions as part of my series, Beyond the Column.

How long did it take you?

About three hours.  It wasn’t just tasting, there was also note-taking, photographing, and reviewing the descriptions of each cake.  At a certain point, around number 18, we definitely sat back for 15 minute and caught our breath.  That was a tough point, but we all pushed through and found a second wind.  Some of our favorite cheesecakes, like the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, came near the end.

Did you eat all 33 pieces of Cheesecake?  That sounds gross…

I didn’t eat all 33 whole pieces.  I had two other people with me, Maggie and Christine, who sampled each one as I did.  Some bites are larger than others, and mine are pretty large.  I took about 2 bites of each one.  I estimated that there were approximately 15 my-size bites in each each piece of cheesecake, so that would mean I had about 4 full-size pieces.

Did you eat anything else all day?

Yes! I started following a strict low-carb diet that week, and I had to break it for this tasting.  I had eggs in the morning, and pea soup for lunch.  The cheesecake tasting was in the afternoon, and then I had chicken breasts for dinner.

Was it gross?

No.  I actually kind of enjoyed it.

How much did it cost?

Full disclosure: Nothing.  It was free. Carey Jones, my editor and the editor of SeriousEats: NY, and came up with the idea of trying all of the cheesecakes at the Cheesecake Factory.  She contacted their Public Relations office, who arranged for us to try all of the cheesecakes.  I am very grateful to the Cheesecake Factory for facilitating our idea.

Are you done with cheesecake for the rest of your life?

No.  Actually, the day after, I was craving their cheesecake.  It’s quite good, and I quite liked it.  Sadly, there aren’t any in New York City, and I’ve been trying to stay away from sweets as a part of my diet.

I hope you enjoyed the article!

June 12, 2011 / admin

Interview with Biscuitville’s CEO, Part 1: History, Footprint, Expansion

biscuitville-logoLet’s play word association.  I’ll say a word, and you think of the first thing that comes to your mind.  Ready?

Fast Food CEO.

What are you picturing?  Probably a man in a suit, mid 50′s, with a rather round figure.  At least, that’s what I had in mind of the archetype Quick Service Restaurant executive.

Burney Jennings, the CEO of Biscuitville, reminded me more of Lance Armstrong: slim and trim, with a big smile and a firm handshake.  I met him at the Biscuitville headquarters for an interview mid-week, and he had the presence and physique of someone who likes to run for 60 minutes a day.  Whether he does or not, I don’t know.  It never occurred to me to ask when I sat down to talk with him about his restaurants.  But I did have the time to learn more about Biscuitville, its corporate structure, and its operations.

John: I read on the website that Biscuitville started out when your father founded a chain called Pizzaville.  Can you tell me about the evolution of Pizzaville to Biscuitville?

Burney:  My father started out in the Pizza business.  He had twelve restaurants called “Pizza-to-go” and later changed the name to Pizzaville.  At a certain point, he started selling Biscuits in the morning.  He saw that there was a better return on biscuits than on pizza, so he did an experiment in Danville, VA, with a Biscuitville restaurant.  It was successful, so he changed the name and style of all the restaurants.

John:  I heard a story about a grandmother’s biscuit recipe…

Burney:  My great grandmother’s recipe.

John:  It was inherited by your grandfather?

Burney:   The story goes, on my great grandmother’s deathbed, she gave my dad the choice of the family farm or the biscuit recipe.  He chose the biscuit recipe.

John: Can you confirm or deny the story?

Burney: [Laughs] I cannot confirm or deny that.  It’s what my father told me, so I cannot confirm or deny.

John: I’m sorry to put you on the spot…

Burney: [Laughs harder] You’re not the first person to ask me that question and to put me on the spot like that.

John: Local chains can often mirror the local flavor.  California, North Carolina and New Orleans all have their own cultures, which give their chains a certain local flavor.  As far as your footprint goes, where is it? How far does it extend?

Burney: We’re headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina. All of our restaurants are within a two hour drive.  We have a high concentration in the Greensboro, Burlington, and Highpoint markets.  We also have five in Durham.  We have been in business for 45 years. We have 58 stores in 45 years in business, that is not explosive growth in this industry.

John:  Speaking of growth, what are your plans for expansion?

Burney: Our expansion plans are to do some infill within the radius.  For example, Raleigh is a really populated market, where would like to add restaurants.  We have two down in Charlotte, and could do some infill there. That is our goal before we expand to markets like Columbia [SC] and Spartanburg [SC].  We have a store in Lynchburg, VA, on the north side, but we don’t have any in Roanoke, so that would be a natural place to add.

John: Before, you had a 90-minute radius.  Now it’s two hours.  Why do you keep stores so close?  Is it a producer in the area?

Burney: We do our own warehouse distribution, which is pretty unusual in our industry.  Typically, you sub that out to distributors.  It’s located in Graham.  That’s not the issue.  You can service restaurants in Atlanta from Graham.  It’s more of a management issue.  For us, because we don’t franchise, we have supervisors who visit the restaurants once a week.  If we went further out, we would have to hire supervisors just for those areas.  So right now, if it looks like we can add restaurants near our own home base, that’s what we’re going to do.

John: I had in my mind that 90 minutes was a producer issue.  Where do the ingredients come from, then?

Burney:  We make the biscuits in the restaurant.  We have fresh ingredients coming into  the warehouse.  The sausage comes from Sevierville, Tennessee.  The Ham is coming from Wilkesboro, NC.  Our Chicken is out of Mississippi, the bacon from Ohio, and the steak from St. Louis, MO.  Oh, and the flour is from Henderson, NC, just northeast of Durham.  When you’re looking at a map, most of our key ingredients are 8-10 hours away maximum.

For the second half of the interview, stay tuned.  I’ll be releasing it soon.  In the meantime, the full, official history of Biscuitville can be found on their website.

June 8, 2011 / admin

Tony Atlas Shrugged: Taco Bell

A colleague in the media world, David Blend, reached out to me some months ago about Taco Bell.  He’s compiling 50 reasons he misses Texas, and one was that Taco Bell in the Lone Star State just tasted better.  They can be found at Tony Atlas Shrugged: 50 Things I miss about Dallas.

He solicited my opinion as a Fast Food guru, and I gave him my candid thoughts.  He elected not to edit them, and just post my email.  It’s a cool post, and a cool project that is definitely worth checking out. Here’s the link: Taco Bell tasting as good as I remember it.

May 29, 2011 / admin

Introduction to Biscuitville

biscuitville-logoIf I asked you to guess what type of restaurant Biscuitville was, I’m sure it wouldn’t be difficult to hazard a guess.  I had never heard of them, but a college friend recommended them to me.

If you’re not from North Carolina or Virginia, chances are you’ve never heard of them.  There are only 50 restaurants, all located in those two states, and all within a 2-hour driving radius of Greensboro, where the company is headquartered.  They focus mostly on breakfast, and most restaurants aren’t open after 2pm.  Believe me, they’re worth rising early for.

My first trip to Biscuitville was also in my first week of having my own SLR camera (Nikon D3100 for those interested).  The photos aren’t perfect, because I was still on the early end of the learning curve.  For that, I do apologize.

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The moment I laid eyes on the Ultimate Sausage Biscuit, I knew it was my breakfast that day: egg, two sausage patties, and two slices of cheese on a biscuit.  It didn’t disappoint either.  The sausage tasted really meaty, with a medium amount of pepper and spice.  It was much thicker than Jimmy Dean or Bob Evans sausage.  The egg was still moist, and had brown fry marks on it – a good sign that it was freshly fried. The American cheese hadn’t melted, which disappointed me, but that has become the industry standard, so I can’t blame them.

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The Ham biscuit is fairly simple: a thin slice of cooked country ham on a biscuit.  It was salty, as country ham is, but there was a nice balance between ham and crumbly biscuit.  Some biscuits pull apart into flaky layers.  Other biscuits are more like a muffin: one single composite unit.  Biscuitville’s are the latter as opposed to the former.

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The cashier recommended the Chicken Biscuit to me, and she was right.  A really flavorful fried chicken breast atop their crumbly biscuit.  I found the fillet very meaty and not too salty.  In fact, tasting their juicy, meaty breast changed my opinion of Chick-fil-a: Biscuitville’s is much less brine-y and has much more chicken flavor.

Luckily for me, this was not my only trip to B-ville while in North Carolina.  The first try, though, I found simple, but awesome.  Look for another post on their sandwiches soon, as well as an interview I had with the CEO of the chain.

May 25, 2011 / admin

Beyond the Column: Cook-out in NC

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Earlier this month, I covered Cook-Out, a North Carolina Chain for SeriousEats.com. Cook-Out is a pretty cool chain that I had never been to.  True to the name, everything tastes like it was cooked in somebody’s backyard on a Weber.

As I was sitting in the parking lot of the strip mall adjacent to the restaurant, preparing my meal for photographing, a gentleman approached me:

“Listen, Mr. Photographer, any chance I could have like a dollar to get some Cook-Out?”

That man walked away with a dollar, mostly because he called me “Mr. Photographer.”  All-in-all, I paid less for a burger, bacon cheese dog, bbq sandwich, shake, and onion rings than I would have on a whole “value” meal at a Manhattan Burger King.

You an read the original article here.  Happy Memorial Day, all!

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May 15, 2011 / admin

Slow Food: Crawfish Boil

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Contrary to what you might think, I don’t spend every waking hour at a counter ordering burgers and fries, or sitting in the drive-thru line.  One of my favorite activities is being around the dinner table for extended periods of time. Who doesn’t love that?

I spent a week in North Carolina recently, visiting my friend, Will, and his family.  Though they live in North Carolina, my hosts, the Benjamins, are originally from New Orleans.  In my honor, they had crawfish shipped up from the Bayou, and we had a Crawfish Boil.

Nothing could be further from Fast Food than a Crawfish Boil.  Hosing down and cleaning off the crawfish took me and Will at least 10 minutes.  You need a lot of time to bring a 25 gallon drum of water to a boil.  Once everything is cooked and drained, each crawfish needs to be broken open by hand to produce the meat.

For those who’ve never had one, there were around 20 pounds of crawfish in this boil.  Added to the mix, as you can see in the photo, were potatoes, lemons, and corn on the cob.  All of that is spiced with a “family recipe” of spices that the Benjamin family said they “might consider sharing with me one day.”  Other recipes, like Alton Brown’s, include cayenne pepper, coriander, paprika, and andouille sausage, just to give you an idea.

All in all, we spent about three and a half hours at the table eating crawfish and drinking beer.  That, to me, is the essence of Slow Food, from beginning to end.

Many thanks to the Benjamin Family for their hospitality and for sharing a NOLA tradition with this Yank.  Who ‘Dat!

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