When the name of a restaurant or store is preceded by the pronoun, “a,” I try not to patronize it.
“Oh look! There’s a Chili’s!”
“Let’s find a Safeway.”
“There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts right up the street.”
“Look! It’s an Ace Hardware!”
Here in Merida, many of us love Home Depot, Costco, Vips, Bennigan’s, Office Max, etc. And it isn’t just us foreigners – it’s everyone. I myself adore Costco and shop there for meats, cheddar cheese, cat food, and many fruits and vegetables.
But Merida, more than most places in the US, offers an amazing variety of high-quality independently owned businesses with great services. These businesses have usually worked hard to establish a clientele and the owners take pride in their establishments. Some of the corporate chains, like Costco, have great personnel, but it isn’t the same as dealing with the owner who knows everything there is to know about the product, and in many cases, had a hand in producing it.
But let’s talk first of all about hardware and items for maintaining your home. Or tires. Or coffee. There are hundreds of little family-owned hole-in-the-wall hardware places in Merida that look tiny from the outside, but it’s only because they operate differently. Instead of having miles of shiny shelves for us to browse through, these stores have clerks who know all. If you bring a part in, even an obscure one, they disappear into the bowels of the place, which is actually huge, and come out with what you need. The same for car parts. And plumbing parts. I’m sure many of you out there know a lot more about this than I do, but the point I’m trying to make is that the small stores support families. Also, many of them are unique. Stationers, for instance, have merchandise like paper notebooks that you can’t find in Office Max-Depot. And dozens of kinds of pens and pencils. Each of these inventory items is selected carefully by the proprietor instead of a corporate team.
Take-out food. That KFC near McDonald’s on Montejo produces the scariest food I have seen perhaps ever. VIPs is intolerable, and the rest – Chili’s, Boston’s, etc. are predictable and boring. If that’s what you like, fine. But me, I prefer the little Lebanese take-out places owned by the families in the houses where they sell the food. Or practically any of the cocina economicas. The one near our house, Dona Chary’s, (56th near 47th) makes food comparable to a white-tablecloth restaurant. When Dona Chary is in the mood, she makes a mean chicken cordon blue or a complex mole.
Driving through the USA gives me a horrific insight to corporate domination. Every single mall off the highways has Jo-Anna’s Fabrics, McDonald’s, often a Macy’s, Verizon, Starbucks, Bank of America, you know the list. And IT COULD HAPPEN HERE.
On my recent drive from British Columbia to Seattle via state route 9 rather than the interstate, I avoided all chain restaurants. Here are two notable stops.
In Sumas, right at the border, I had an inexplicable yen for a good tuna sandwich. I drove through the small town and picked what must have been the best tuna sandwich place in the state of Washington. The Anker Diner packs their tuna with sweet relish and makes a huge, fresh sandwich on whole wheat bread. The whole restaurant was done in red, black and white, and there were pictures of the owner’s muscle cars on the walls. The music tape was non-stop Elvis. The place had personality. It was immaculate. You could tell someone put love into both the decor and the food.
About an hour later, I started looking for a good cup of coffee, and had zero confidence of finding any. Well, you just never know, do you? I’m tooling down route 9 and missed the turn to Sedro Woolley, going straight instead, about half a mile, toward Mount Baker. Just as I realized I was going east instead of south, and was looking down the lonely highway for someone to ask where I should go, a mirage rose in front of me, in the shape of Il Caffe Rifugio. Sofas and comfortable chairs. Teapot and cup collections artfully displayed. Local crafts for sale. Effete coffee. Faux Fiesta Ware. And most of all, Richard, a refugee from corporate America, who had created his ideal cafe. The coffee was splendid and so was the fresh-baked cinnamon roll. If I am ever in that area again and I can remember where it was, this place will be a destination for me. The location is so very obscure, that I hope he makes it. Everyone in Seattle should rush right up there. Half mile or so east of route 9 on the Mt. Baker Highway. The address is in Deming, WA. 360-592-2888. Check out their site at www.ilcafferefugio.com. They post dinner menus ahead of time!!!!
I’m not saying that chain businesses and box stores are bad and that we should avoid them. There are obvious reasons to go there sometimes, and they do provide a lot of employment. My point is that if you want special attention from someone who is invested in making you, the customer, happy, go to a family-owned place. In independent restaurants, the food is often original and interesting. Now, if you want your lobster thermidor to taste exactly the same every time you order it, you should go to a chain establishment. They are nice and consistent. Yawn.
PS – Someone who worked there told me that at the Olive Garden(s), each component of each meal is frozen in individual pre-measured, pre-cooked packs. When a customer orders a meal, the “chef” empties the appropriate combination of frozen containers onto a plate and nukes it. No extra seasoning, no nothing. Now, that’s predictability. This is only a rumor.