Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Gone with the wind, but not forgotten

By Dick Hirsch
Among the more humbling situations that a person can experience is the occasional search for a missing garbage can that has blown away during a high wind.

I’ve just recently completed such an expedition and can report it was much more challenging now than a comparable mission would have been just a few years ago. The reason? All the containers in front of every house are identical. It is part of the effort to professionalize refuse collection and elevate garbology to a science.

In the old days, the refuse containers reflected the personality of the homeowner. If you were a person like me, your cans conveyed their own aura. I was never one to expend large sums on new garbage cans when older models---even those that were dinged, dented and rusty---could hold the same amounts of trash.

They may not have been elegant in appearance, but they did the job just fine and they were readily identifiable should they be blown away. An added plus was the simple fact that they were unlikely to be claimed by any other person into whose yard a gust might deposit them. Who would ever appropriate a rusty, beat up garbage can?

Now the situation has changed dramatically; every container in my neighborhood is blue. The large garbage totes are blue, as are the smaller recycling bins. The totes are heavy and can be blown over, but they are bulky enough that they won’t travel very far, usually no further than the middle of the street. The bins are different, however. Their design provides that inner space which is ideal for catching the wind and propelling the bin airborne in a unique tumbling flight pattern.

That is what happened in my case. I found some evidence of its fate at curbside, a few cans, plastic containers and an empty ketchup bottle, but there was no sign of the bin. I scanned the horizon briefly, but it was too windy to embark on a comprehensive search. The following day, as things calmed down, I resolved to find the bin. Down the block I saw one, unattended on a front lawn. With even a cursory glance, I knew it wasn’t mine. I moved along, checking for stray bins among bushes and in side yards, but found none. Disappointed, I returned to the home with the bin, rang the doorbell, and asked the woman who answered whether that was her bin on the lawn. She said it wasn’t.

“That’s a stray,” she said. “If yours is missing, why don’t you take that one?”

I had considered that as a solution. I thanked her for the suggestion and said I would remove the bin from her front lawn and take it home.

“Good,” she said. “But be careful what you put in it. “It’s cracked.”

Cracked? That was an understatement, a misdiagnosis. The bin had survived, still whole, but it had been smashed by a car or delivery truck. The result of my search, a busted bin, was not very satisfying. My bin was gone with the wind, gone for good.

I never have associated the area with high winds, although I know it can get gusty. The emphasis has always been on snow, with wind being almost an afterthought. Any discussion of the legendary blizzard of ‘77 always focuses on the amount of snow and the height of the drifts. But wind played an essential role, blowing a monstrous quantity of snow off the frozen lake onto city streets. Yes, the wind gets underplayed, with snow getting the headlines.

Years ago I met a man who moved to Buffalo in early December. As is often the case with new arrivals, he expressed concerns about the weather and the impending winter. I tried to calm him.

“Where is the Hotel Statler?” he asked. “I understand they put ropes all around the building in the winter for people to grab onto so they don’t get blown over.”

I had never heard of such a thing. It was a fable, an urban legend. Then I offered to drive him down to the scene so he could see for himself. We parked and walked toward the hotel. There were no ropes, but it was somewhat breezy, and a sudden gust swooped in and scooped the hat off my head, sending it soaring high in the air, toward City Hall, disappearing into the evening darkness. I tried to reassure him that it was a fluke. That was the last hat I ever owned.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Location, location, location doesn't always matter

By Dick Hirsch

By this time, just about everyone can recite the cardinal rule that supposedly must be followed if success in the retail business is the goal. That rule:

Location, location, location.

Some adherents enunciate it just that way, all in one memorable fragment of a sentence, while others will compile a list, offering the three most important considerations leading to business success thusly: 1. Location; 2. Location; 3. Location; you get the idea. I never learned that rule in school. Does anybody? I do remember my Uncle Sam reciting it to me years ago when he bought a small liquor store on Chippewa Street, where he ended up working 12 hours or more a day, dealing with the wine and schnapps fanciers in the area.

I realize the strategic importance of that advice, but I question whether it can be universally applied. I don’t think it works when it comes to restaurants, a business which operates with a cardinal rule of its own.

Even among those who will readily admit they know absolutely nothing about restaurants except how to read a menu, any discussion of that business always stresses the risks. The conventional wisdom maintains that at one time or another almost everyone dreams about how much fun it would be, as well as how much money they would make, if they opened their own restaurant. They either overlook or are unaware of the investment of time, the long days and the hard work, that restaurants require.

Here we have two apparent truths that were long ago chiseled in stone. I argue they are both accurate, but I’ve concluded that location has less bearing on restaurants than on other retail operations. Let me cite a few case histories; names won’t be revealed to avoid hurt feelings, but the examples are accurate.

Consider the C.T., a long time favorite dining and drinking establishment in a relatively obscure location in Amherst, which closed several years ago when the owner retired. It was always busy. The menu was diverse, the food was good, the servers were attentive and the bar was usually crowded. People sometimes would stand in line to get inside for dinner. Former customers missed the place when it closed.

Since the closing of the C.T., there have been three varied operations at that location; first a “California style” grill, then a Mexican cantina and next a Greek taverna. None of them have been able to kindle any interest among the former patrons of the C.T. Their experience seems to indicate that it is a lousy location for a restaurant and that the C.T. was one of those happy exceptions.

Then there is the case of J.P., a favorite creative dining spot in the Elmwood neighborhood for many years, serving an imaginative menu that changed with the seasons. When J.P. closed after a successful run, the space was taken over by a succession of others who have so far been unable to come close to emulating the success that J.P. developed at the location. Once again, considering the successful past history and the struggle of subsequent operators, it appears that location is somewhat incidental.

There are probably many other similar examples, but I cite those because I am familiar with them. The history of those locations indicates that the site really seems to have little influence when it comes to dining out. What are the deciding factors, the reasons that some places flourish and others are short-lived?

Your guess is certainly as good as mine, but I would say that food type and quality as well as price obviously must be at the top of the list. But there are other considerations that are more difficult to explain and quantify. A skilled, dedicated owner whose presence creates a personality for the place seems vital, as does the performance of a well-trained wait staff, whose members strive to provide good service. Ambiance is important, too, and that doesn’t only cover the decor and the atmosphere. It encompasses the feeling the place projects, the type of customers it attracts, as well as the noise level and the lighting. That is probably an incomplete inventory, but if I were preparing such a list I would put location near the bottom. When pizza was a relatively unknown menu item, people rushed to the B.C. on Hickory Street. S., at a remote suburban location, became a prime destination for its beef on weck.

No, location doesn’t seem to matter when appetites are concerned.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

But they promised no heavy lifting

By Dick Hirsch

How is it that with a declining population, coupled with the downsizing or departure of many businesses, the telephone directories keep getting bigger?

No, I haven’t been losing any sleep as a result of my concern over what appears to be an unbalanced relationship, but it does trouble me each time I open a directory. Am I the only one who has wondered about their size?

As the new year begins, that remains the nagging question, a puzzle that continues to defy solution. I thought that through independent research and interrogation of various suspects, I would find the answer last year, but I made no worthwhile progress. This is an elusive issue and it penetrates to the core of local affairs. It demands an answer, yet it seems to be a question many regard as either unimportant or unfathomable.

I quit making new year resolutions some time ago, but I am serious when I make this pledge: I am determined to find an answer to this question in 2008. Furthermore, I am soliciting the help of inquisitive readers by going public with the question at this early date. Maybe that is what this question needs, a public airing. Until now, telecommunications leaders, as well as public officials and business leaders, have refrained from trying to stimulate any official inquiry, perhaps fearing it would reflect on the status of the community.

Logic would seem to dictate that with a smaller population in the area covered by the telephone book, the book would shrink, right? Am I missing something? If you detect faulty reasoning here, speak right up. Fewer people should mean fewer listings and fewer listings should fit in fewer pages. A rational claim might be that the size of the phone book is directly proportional to the population involved. I’ve been in towns like Arco, Idaho, and Moab, Utah, where the phone books are useful but dinky, reflecting the population. But it doesn’t seem to work that way in Buffalo. So what’s the reason?

Some people tell me it is the coupons. That’s ridiculous. Yes, there are pizza, carpet cleaner, oil change and plumbing coupons, along with a substantial variety of other savings opportunities, but they don’t add much bulk to the books.

Of course, the directories have endeavored to become encyclopedic reference sources in recent years, with area maps and seating charts of public arenas, ZIP codes, and background articles about the community, but that material really doesn’t add up to much weight, either.

As you can see, I’m troubled by this misshapen relationship between population and phone book. I sometimes wonder how many trees it takes to provide the paper for these directories. I don’t want to minimize the importance of the phone book. It remains an essential reference at home or office.

I delayed writing this until the arrival of the second book the other day, delivered by two people from Verizon. Years ago, one person could do that job, but now, with phone books as heavy as they have become, two people showed up at my office, which is on the second floor. One person lugged the books up the stairs, while the other person handled the transaction, which involved asking me to sign a receipt. They apparently take turns doing the heavy lifting.

“Yes, you’ve got to be in pretty good shape to carry these around,” the delivery man agreed.

The other book, known as The Talking Phone Book, had arrived about three weeks earlier. One of the corporate goals of the publishers of that book has always been to get it delivered early, before Verizon, in the hope that recipients will adopt it and reject or ignore the other when it arrives. They both contain the same listing information.

The books have another quality in common. They are cumbersome and unwieldy. Verizon, at a shade under 6.5 pounds, this year outweighs its competitor by two or three ounces, according to my bathroom scale, and is somewhat thicker, measuring 3.5 inches. Thus, if you want to build up your upper body and don’t wish to invest in a set of weights with which to do regular curls, just choose either phone book and begin your workouts. Occasional routine lifting to check numbers will do nothing for your biceps.

I’ll continue seeking an answer. For now, I’ll put the blame on the advertising salespersons for each publisher, who are all determined to outsell the competition. You can’t really criticize them for that, can you?