Guest Rant

My friend David Hagedorn is a food expert.  He talks about it, writes about it, cooks it, even eats it.  He was a pioneer in the city, the chef-owner of Trumpets, a Nineties restaurant and nightclub near Dupont Circle.  Now he writes.

He is co-author of several books, one of which is the Rasika cookbook that will be published later this year; and he writes for Bethesda Magazine and for Arlington Magazine in which this now appears:

Dear Restaurants: These Things Are Turnoffs

Our food critic, David Hagedorn, indulges in a bit of a rant.

As a restaurant critic, it’s my job to write about the total dining experience, not just the food. A lot of factors play into a customer’s overall impression of a place, including the décor, libations and, most importantly, service. In the end, it really comes down to one question: Would you go back? For restaurateurs who want to ensure that the answer to that question is always yes, here is some food for thought.

The Pregame

Service doesn’t start at the door. It begins the moment a diner calls a restaurant or visits the website. The site, by the way, should be user-friendly with the address, phone number, hours of operation and social media information on the home page. The menu should be easy to access and always include prices.

A no-reservation policy is, in my opinion, bad service.

When the person who answers the phone asks if he can put the caller on hold, he should give the caller time to say “OK” before pushing the hold button.

Valet service (if it is offered) is usually subcontracted, but that isn’t a pass for restaurant management to ignore what’s happening at the curb. The valets should be providing the same level of respectful service as the staff inside. And wouldn’t it be great if restaurants could figure out a way to put the valet charge on the bill so diners don’t have to take out their wallets before they even walk in the door?

Being a host is one of the hardest jobs in a restaurant. These front-line workers are usually paid very little and yet they are expected to placate unhappy patrons with calmness and élan. The host should not be left there untrained, alone and unempowered to fix problems that may arise.

The Ambience

Passing off inexpensive construction as hipster minimalist design may save money, but it furnishes discomfort and is therefore a disservice. I am tempted to create a keyboard shortcut—Control+Alt+Yawn—for the following scheme, which sadly applies to the majority of today’s new eateries: “an open, subway-tiled kitchen, concrete floors, exposed ductwork, Edison bulbs dangling from the ceiling, wooden benches and chairs as comfortable as buckboard.” Bunker décor is not awesome.

While I’m at it, here are some other design flaws that plague all too many establishments:

Lack of soundproofing. When noise—laughably rebranded as vibe or buzz—freely bounces off multiple hard surfaces, it makes conversation next to impossible.
Six-seater booths. This configuration often requires diners who are seated against the wall to take their plates (which may be oven-hot) from the hands of a server who can’t reach them. Which increases the risk that a part of said dish will land on the head of the person in the middle. I say, “Death to six-top booths!”
Form over function. Silverware that sinks into the middle of a wide, shallow serving dish and into a pool of sauce when I try to rest it against the rim? Not great. The same goes for heavy-handled flatware that falls to the floor (or onto me, which has happened plenty) when plates are cleared.
Skimping on drink lists. Why should four people have to share one cocktail menu? Print more.
Oversize menus. Sure, they’re dramatic, but when they obscure my ability to converse with the guest across the table, or are too awkward to put down anywhere (either before or after we’ve looked at them), the

The Booze

Cocktail programs have greatly improved in the last five years, but still I find that many concoctions are too sweet or unbalanced, and they often contain at least one ingredient I’ve never heard of or don’t want in my drink. (Falernum, shrub, verjus rouge or Cardamaro, anyone?)

I usually test the bar by ordering a Hendrick’s Gibson and asking if they have good cocktail onions—not the nasty little ones from Sysco that have been festering in the same jar for five years. If there are no cocktail onions (immediate deduction), my Gibson becomes a martini with an olive.

So here’s a question: If chefs are pickling everything else under the sun—as the current culinary trend seems to be—why not cocktail onions? Or at least keep a small jar of a good brand on hand. (I recommend mixologist Todd Thrasher’s, which are available at http://www.societyfair.net.) In the same vein, chuck those chemical-tasting maraschino cherries and invest in some tasty Luxardo cherries instead. Today’s drinkers are sophisticated. Rise to the occasion.

Small Plates, Big Problems

There are perhaps no words more terrifying to today’s diners than these: “We are a small-plates restaurant and our food is meant for sharing.” (As my husband likes to say, “If they’re small, you can’t share them!”)

Next, we are forewarned that the food will come out when it’s ready. Which means that if we don’t want to be in and out in 20 minutes, we have to keep at least one (possibly oversize) menu on the table or under one of our chairs so that we can set our own pace and order course by course. That’s not service; it’s the opposite of service.

Compounding this scenario, a server will invariably show up with our next course in hand, find the table filled to capacity, and look to us to do the rearranging to make room for our garlic shrimp and beef skewers. These will show up with three skewers to a plate, even though the order is meant to be shared by four people.

And if we are supposed to be sharing all this food, why are we only given bread-and-butter plates to hold it all?

The Service Game

By and large, I tend to receive excellent service in my dining adventures around the DMV, but there are annoyances, all of which could be fixed by better management. Allow me to catalog some of the misdemeanors most commonly committed by waitstaff:

Introducing themselves by name and telling me “I’ll be your server today.” I’m aware of their function. If I need something, I’ll catch their eye and politely say, “Excuse me.”

Asking if I’ve dined there before. If I have and they don’t recognize me, they are confirming that I’m forgettable. Fellow restaurant-goers, the answer to this question is always yes! Because if we say no, then we are about to get…

The Spiel. And The Spiel is to be avoided at all costs. We know how to read, right? If the menu is so complicated that it needs to be explained or translated, the owner or chef needs to rewrite it.

Validating or complimenting my order. I know what I ordered is a good choice. I just made it.

Auctioning off entrées tableside. To determine who ordered what. Servers need to learn guest position numbers and use them.

Using the royal We. As in, “How are we enjoying our meal?” Because one day I’m going to respond, “I’m enjoying my meal just fine. How are you enjoying yours?”

Accidentally pouring flat water into my sparkling water. Restaurateurs, here’s an idea: Use a different glass for sparkling water. Problem solved.

Leaving empty cocktail glasses on the table through dinner. Honestly, they just take up space. (Even more so if they are competing for real estate with 12 awkwardly overlapping small plates and an oversize menu or two.)
Throwing the kitchen under the bus. If the food is taking too long or if the order is wrong, don’t play the blame game. Get a manager involved.

Asking, “Are you still working on that?” If you are looking for a green light to clear dishes, the correct etiquette is to wait until everyone at the table has finished, then gesture toward my plate, look at me, and ask, “May I?”

Stacking plates when clearing the table. Just don’t. This isn’t a mess hall.

Bringing containers to the table for me to pack up my own leftovers. When did this bit of service become the diner’s responsibility?

Turning on the charm right before the bill comes. This, after being inattentive or less than pleasant all the way through the meal? I mean, c’mon.

The Devil’s in the Details

Little stuff really does matter. Even if the food is terrific, a lack of regard for the small things can kill a dining experience. Among my biggest pet peeves:

Fingerprints all over the front door. This is the diner’s very first impression of a place.

Cloudy water in flower vases. Especially in a giant arrangement at the host stand (a clear signal that other things might be off).

Brown-edged lemon or lime wedge garnishes.

Tables that aren’t set with salt and pepper.

Sour-smelling beer coolers and mats. This odor is instantly recognizable and off-putting to diners.

Dust. On light fixtures, shelves or displayed beer and liquor bottles. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Crumpled or smudged paper menus. These should be single-use items. Print more.

Poorly maintained bathrooms.Which brings me to…

Yes, the Bathrooms

Call me old-fashioned, but I long for the days when I could squeeze soap into my palm, turn a faucet on, wash my hands as long as I pleased, turn the water off and dry my hands on an actual piece of cloth.

Nowadays I find myself performing a Marcel Marceau mime routine in every automated restroom, waving my upturned palm under the soap dispenser until it finally relents (or not)—at which point I have already given up and moved my hands to the faucet, doing the same hand dance for water that may or may not come.

Then I get to wave hello at the towel dispenser until it releases one measly square of paper that is insufficient for the task at hand. After a second (and usually fruitless) waving session, I give up and dry my hands on my pants, only to hear the dispenser click as I’m walking out the door, priming itself for its next victim. I’m pretty sure it’s laughing at me, too

Other Things I Could Do Without

In no particular order: dish-towel napkins (although I’d take them over polyester napkins), filament bulbs, Mason jars, mussels, burrata (there’s a lot of badly made burrata out there), branzino, beet salad, pickled everything, menus that play it fast and loose with food terms (not everything sliced thin is carpaccio; not everything cooked and chopped up is rillettes; not everything raw and chopped up is tartare), Brussels sprouts (especially deep-fried ones that are burnt or drenched in anything sweet, like maple syrup or honey), octopus, badly shucked oysters and finally…(deep breath) overwrought desserts that are rife with powders, gels, foams, drizzles and shredded pieces of sponge cake.

Who’s Doing It Right?

As a man who dines out four times or more per week, it’s hard to recall every detail and every transgression in every place. But if asked the fundamental question, Would you go back? I would say yes to these restaurants, all of which deserve shout-outs for getting the service angle right on my most recent visits (in no particular order): Ambar, SER, Requin, The Liberty Tavern, William Jeffrey’s Tavern, Rus-Uz Restaurant, Social Oyster Bar, Yona and Live Oak.

David Hagedorn is the food critic for Arlington Magazine and Bethesda Magazine. He feels 10 pounds lighter having gotten this off his chest.

 

 

The Subjectivity of Praise

Tom Sietsema’s spring dining guide, an annual restaurant listing of the Washington Post, appeared when some of us at Bread Furst were still in Chicago for the awards of the James Beard Foundation.

Those honors are conferred in the first weekend of May each year in an extravaganza, a weekend of parties and restaurant dinners followed on Monday evening with a celebration in the beautiful art deco Civic Opera House.

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These are supposed to be the Academy Awards of food and I suppose they are.   Thirty-five hundred people in black tie and evening gown, a red carpet entrance for the nominees, a long, long ceremony and then generous, crowded “after parties.”

I skipped the red carpet. I had walked on it for the previous two years and felt uncomfortable about that fuss. Beside, it was raining and I didn’t want my bow tie to get wet.

The “outstanding baker” award is the first of the evening to be announced. The award was first given in 2015 and when it was given to me the other day I was of course happy but sharply aware of the subjectivity of it all.

After all, Dan Leader of Bread Alone, Steve Sullivan of Acme Bakery, Michael London of Mrs. London’s were bread bakers before I became one.   None of them has been nominated.

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Michel Suas, like me, nominated each year, has done more for American baking than any other person.

But it was I who won the award this time.

We returned from Chicago on the release date of Tom Sietsema’s spring dining guide, an annual listing of the Washington Post.

Tom offered two this time, one of old restaurants and another of new ones; and the lists reminded me of the award I had received the day before and about the capriciousness of such choices.

Some of my favorite restaurants were in the Post’s list – Mintwood Place, Oval Room, Charleston Obelisk, and others — but many other celebrated restaurants that he likes were not.

What happened to Corduroy? How about Woodberry Kitchen, Rasika, Pineapples and Pearls and Bad Saint (neither of which I have ever been to).

Tom Sietsema is my friend and I know that he likes those restaurants too but they were not in the dining guide because (I imagine) he wanted to make room for others like La Piquette and Perry’s that also deserve to be included.  And not every restaurant can be listed.

And that’s my point.

There are now a lot of very good restaurants in Washington and there are now a lot of very good bakers in America. Selecting mean excluding and this year having been given the Beard award this time, I am the beneficiary of that.

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It’s Not Nice to Defy Mother Nature

Eating locally and seasonally is important to me.   I believe it is good for the environment but I also think it’s more fun to eat seasonally than to eat un-seasonally.

I know that lots of people like to eat corn on the cob in December. Why not? If they like it there it is – available in plastic bags and already peeled and even super-sweet I imagine. But I like practically every food that exists and can easily take advantage of my indiscriminate tastes to rotate seasonally the foods I eat.

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Eating strawberries and asparagus throughout the year robs me of the opportunity to discover them newly each spring when they come into season.

In Baltimore where I grew up, my family always greeted spring with dinners of shad, little potatoes dressed with chopped parsley, and asparagus with Hollandaise.  Starting in late January I would ask my grandmother and my mother from time to time, “Is there shad yet?”

We looked forward to eating that meal each spring. Who wouldn’t?

But putting aside traditions and environmental concerns, most foods that grow in the ground taste a lot better when they are local and therefore seasonal. They are not picked before their time and develop fully.

But the other day, Eun, my partner, pointed out to me that Earth ‘n Eats, the Mennonite co-op in Pennsylvania from which we buy a lot of our produce was offering its own hothouse tomatoes. Eun thought we ought to try them.

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There is no matter on which I am more rigid than eating tomatoes when they are not in season. I love waiting masochistically long until early July when the first tomatoes are brought to us from southern Virginia farms. I love monitoring carefully and even declining to use those first tomatoes because they are all pulp and no juice and clearly picked too early.

But when two weeks later the real tomatoes begin arriving I change our menu radically to celebrate them for the rest of the summer and until the nights get colder in September and tomatoes stop ripening.

At The BreadLine, my downtown restaurant, I was known by customers to be generally curt and arbitrary; and when people would ask in January for tomatoes on their sandwiches I would throw my arms dramatically into the air and say, “Where do you imagine I would get tomatoes in January?”

I remember saying that meanly one day to two college-aged young women who fell off to the side to wait for their foods. One said to the other: “Really, what is he talking about – ‘where would he get tomatoes in January?’ I mean they are in every Safeway I go to.”

So much for being condescending.

Anyway, I breached my scruples the other day when Eun suggested we try the tomatoes from Earth ‘n Eats. It is she, after all, who manages Bread Furst and so I wanted to agree with her suggestion and not be my imperious self at that moment.

So I ordered hothouse tomatoes.

Josiah delivers early in the morning and the tomatoes had already arrived when I arrived, perfect entirely unblemished orbs of very hard flesh a little like reddish lacrosse balls.

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I cut into one. It glistened with a pink and white interior. Not a drop of tomato juice fell onto the cutting board.

I sighed and said a little prayer of apology to Mother Nature and then I made a taboulleh, a delicious salad of parsley, mint, bulgur wheat, olive oil and lemon juice almost good enough to compensate for the deficiencies of the flavorless tomatoes I cubed and added.

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Dining at the Heights

I have been thinking about the jambon beurre at Mirabelle, the wonderful looking new restaurant near Lafayette Square where the Christian Science church used to be.

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Frank Ruta is a friend whose meticulous food I love. You may recall he cooked dinners at Bread Furst after his restaurant Palena closed and before he went to the Grill Room in Georgetown. Last week, my first time at Mirabelle, I ordered a knockout squab, asparagus, and morel dish for dinner.

The Post carried a story about Mirabelle’s decision to price its luncheon sandwich at $26, calling it “another example of skyrocketing restaurant prices.” It is that but not just that. It is a pricing strategy, a definition of what Mirabelle wants to be in the competitive high end of restaurants in this city.

It is saying in its pricing, “We are going to be the most important restaurant close to the White House. We are going to be the restaurant choice of people to whom high prices are routine and irrelevant except as a statement of our importance and theirs. We are going to be the restaurant of people who wear Rolexes and drive Mercedes.”

A long time ago high-end dining in Washington meant French restaurants like Sans Souci, Place Vendome and Rive Gauche. That was a long time ago, indeed half a century ago, but there are now restaurants like Metier and Marcel’s that carry on in far more modern ways the tradition of high-end dining, meaning elegant food and elegant service.

That is not easy to achieve.   I often think great service is even harder to achieve than great food.   Charleston in Baltimore offers attentive yet unobtrusive service. I mean a dining room in which bussers don’t put tap water into a glass previously filled with sparkling water and no server interrupts conversation at the table, asking, “Is everything to your taste?”

Instead watchful wait-staff stand in the dining room looking for cues from diners that suggest someone might want something. Otherwise the dining room is quiet and restful.

 

Marcel’s is like that as are the restaurants of Eric and Celia Ziebold, Metier and Kindship.

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I wish there were more because for some old fogies dining in well lit and very quiet restaurants is a wonderful and peaceful experience.

This style of dining is not for everyone. Lots of people, especially young people, like a more free-wheeling experience – lots of small plates, cell phone photographing, rollicking music, and action

I think that Frank Ruta and Hakan Ilhan intend Mirabelle to be a Charleston, a Fiola, an

elegant restaurant with polished service and great food. Still: $26 for a jambon beurre?

I would pay a lot for the squab with morels and asparagus, what I ate that evening. Or for the veal chop at Tosca. Or the seafood tower at Fiola Mare or the Métier potato salad with black truffles.

But $26 for a jambon beurre? I don’t mean to sound competitive because I am not; but Bread Furst’s jambon beurre consists of half of our baguette, Heritage Foods’ ham, a good Gruyere, and high-fat butter and we charge $10.

We are not at 16th and I Streets. We look nice, I hope, but we are not beautifully appointed.

UnknownWe don’t have hand-made cheese carts and fresh flowers.

Most important, our clientele is our neighborhood.

 

I am not sure what to say about dining at the high end. Washington used to be a city in which going to “a fancy restaurant” meant going to Cantina d’Italia or Jean Pierre. Now we have so many choices in our city, so much variety at the high end and well suited to our times. We have Métier, Marcel’s, Fiola, Komi, Minibar.

Now, however – and this was not so in the past – we have many restaurants that cook wonderful food and charge more moderate prices. Older ones like Obelisk and the Oval Room. Newer ones like Mintwood Place, Red Hen, and Tail Up Goat.

So if it is not necessary to spend $200 to $300 per person on dinner – and that is what it costs when all is said and done in some of the high-end restaurants, then why do it?

For lots of people marking a birthday that way makes the evening very special. For others spending that much money is a wonderful evening’s entertainment like a seat in a Broadway theater that costs as much or more. For others the experience is rewarding in ways I don’t fully understand; it’s a way of being “in the scene.”

I believe that everyone is inconsistent in his/her spending on food. Some of our customers who gleefully spend $225 per person at Komi and $280 at Pineapples and Pearls think that Bread Furst’s prices are too high.

I who have never been considered a thrifty person don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a meal. I am hardly a Puritan but I just don’t feel good spending that much in a restaurant.

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On the other hand, my wise friend Susan Friedland who for years was Executive Editor, Director of Cookbook Publishing at HarperCollins., chastised me a couple of months ago as I complained about the bill she, Maury Rubin of City Bakery, and I had just split on an excellent dinner at Le Coucou, “You loved the dinner. You loved the Dover sole. It’s too expensive? Do those dollars mean so much to you?”

I can imagine that for many people, perhaps most people who go to high-end restaurants, sitting outside on a beautiful spring day at 16th and I Streets, a block from Lafayette Square, justifies the price of a $26 jambon beurre.

Photo of Ziebolds by Washington Post, of Susan Friedland by the Boston Herald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cookie Roberts

             I don’t write these little essays as advertisements for Bread Furst. I rarely beat the drums in this blog for our breads or tell you about new foods on the shelves. But this time I can’t resist telling about our new Cookie Roberts.

When I was young and in college I plunged into a group of politically active students from many colleges who met each other in the National Student Association.

In those days – the Fifties – we were said to be “the silent generation” that followed the “Greatest Generation” and preceded the Civil Rights/Vietnam generation of the Sixties.

But we weren’t silent at all. We campaigned for Civil Rights and disarmament. We marched to protest the Soviet repression in Hungary.   We were able (thanks, as it later turned out, to the CIA) to travel to Soviet-sponsored international youth festivals.   Politics, domestic and foreign, occupied us fully.

Nearly all my lifelong friendships were made in those days. Marriages were made among us. Many of us went on to careers in public life streaming into Washington in the early 1960s. Some of those over time became illustrious as politicians and journalists and in other professions as well.  There were even a few lawyers but no one I knew then became an investment banker.

I had a dinner party a couple of weeks ago. Former Congressman Barney Frank was visiting and was staying at my apartment. Steven and Cokie Roberts came. Steve went to high school with Barney in Bayonne, New Jersey and then to Harvard with him. Cokie was at Wellesley at that time.

Jane Mayer, the writer/author, was there with her husband, Bill Hamilton of the New York Times. David Hagedorn came with his husband Michael Widomski. Hagedorn is a former chef, now a food writer, and Widomski is at the Department of Homeland Security.

The dinner was good (if I may say so) but I had an agenda beyond serving good food and having good conversation. So when it was time for dessert I bought out a platter of four different cookies and announced that we would select “Cookie Roberts.” Everyone would have a vote but Cokie would have all the votes.

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Cecile Mouthen, our pastry chef, had outdone herself. There were four cookies.

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There was a bananas Foster cookie flavored with a rum glaze, chocolate chicory shortbread, a chocolate-brushed shortbread with a crunchy praline top, and a cookie with praline throughout.

 

 

 

 

And so we tasted:

 

We consulted:

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And we chose.

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The winner was the praline shortbread and it’s available at the bakery.  (As is the bananas foster cookie — the bakery staff couldn’t resist.)

We had a good time that evening, of course and the contest was a lot of fun.  But we noted as well as we always do when we see each other about the importance of lifetime friendship.

 

 

 

 

Aliens in the Kitchen

Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.                                          Franklin Roosevelt, 1938

 

We used to call ourselves a nation of immigrants.   We still are that – more so now perhaps than ever.   You may be tired of hearing about immigrants and immigration as that subject is on the front pages of newspapers nearly every day.

Many Latinos didn’t show up for work on February 15th, “the day without immigrants,” and many restaurants in the city closed, partially in solidarity and partly because they couldn’t open without their immigrant staff who didn’t go to work that day. It was to have been a demonstration of how dependent we are on immigrant labor – at least in the food business.

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We are living in an unkind age in which some believe that newly arrived people are harming those of us born in the U.S.

The argument right now, although now aggravated, is not new at all. American history has been filled with controversies over immigration and periods of xenophobia – whether the targeted immigrants were Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, or as now Middle-Easterners and Africans, Latinos and others.

I have no wisdom to add to what has been said and written during recent years and especially during recent weeks but I have a lot of day-to-day experience with immigrants.

In 1989 when I decided to open Marvelous Market I was not acquainted with the lengths to which foreigners had to go to get employed here even though government scrutiny was lax then.   I began to meet people who lived in Mt. Pleasant and a few suburban neighborhoods. They lived in apartments often with seven, even ten other people.

It was possible then to find those who had had cooking experience or said they had; but no one had bread baking experience. The people we hired were hard-working quick learners, however.

And so they came – men who presented American names like Douglas that they supported with dodgy identification cards, or sometimes counterfeit Social Security cards and even driver’s licenses. After getting jobs with us they offered their brothers, friends, wives and even high-school aged children for part-time jobs. And feeling more secure Robert would ask to be called Raul and Douglas would re-introduce himself, this time as Asiro which of course were their real names.

Miguel Baez from El Salvador, Cesar Cfuentis from Guatamala, Eugene Sampah from the Ivory Coast, Dahmane Benarbane from Algeria – an international potpourri of men and women nearly all of whom had arrived in the U.S. under questionable circumstances and who (I hasten to add in case the immigration people are looking) eventually became legal.

Becoming legal – that’s a story. My partner Eun Yim who runs Bread Furst came to the U.S. in 1977.   Her family paid a broker $10,000 to get their visas.   Nonetheless it took three years.

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When I opened Marvelous Market fake IDs were easily available on the streets of Mt. Pleasant.  I fantasized then that all the Social Security withholding we sent to fictitious accounts would help fund the trust fund for an additional few decades.

In those days there was an industry of lawyers who offered to help people who had arrived illegally get green cards that made them legal. You can imagine how much they charged and often they took their fees and did nothing.

Bread Furst’s chef, Robert Dalliah, came to Washington from Gambia in 1993 on a student visa to attend Montgomery College. He got a job at the Original Pancake House in Bethesda to support himself and then a second job doing pastry at Marvelous Market. He stopped being a student in 1995 but continued working. In 1997, he became the back cook at The BreadLine when it opened.

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One day in 1998 he mentioned that he wouldn’t be coming to work the following day. Knowing how dependable he was, I demanded to know why. He said simply, “I am going to be deported tomorrow.”

I called Elliott Lichtman, an impeccible lawyer who specializes in immigration matters and over the next year or so we went through the arduous process by which Dalliah became a legal resident. I don’t know that such a thing would be possible now.

Politicians rail about our porous boarders. It still amazes me that the same people who get so hot under the collar about immigrants often are those who espouse the old theories of American exceptionalism that ought to help them understand why those who live in other lands want to be here.

I don’t know how pourous our borders used to be but they are hardly that now. It is very hard for non-citizens from many countries even to travel to the U.S. much less immigrate. And the un-American practices now being adopted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to divest us of immigrants already here remind me of the World War II roundup of Japanese that began in 1942.

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Now: A Los Angeles immigrant arrested as he drops off his daughter at her school.

Now: A young woman brought to this country as a child arrested in Jackson Mississippi after speaking up for immigrants. (Her father and brother had been arrested days before.)

Last week:   ICE agents raided homes and workplaces in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

Mr. Trump talks about “getting rid of the bad actors,” but in fact under his administration, ICE is going far beyond immigrants with histories of serious crime and is beginning to enforce immigration laws aggressively with a strategy not known and perhaps non-existent. And if Congress agrees to Mr. Trump’s request to add 15,000 agents who knows how aggressive the agency will become?

Is this what we want of America?

There is such passion in this country. Mr. Trump did what he could last year to make “illegal immigrants” the Willy Horton of the election year. He and his angry or frightened or bewildered supporters argue that these illegal people take jobs away from real Americans. But in my experience that’s wrong.

In the 27 years I have been in the food business, there has always been a shortage of cooks, wait staff, cleaners, dishwashers, etc. We in the food businesses are looking all the time for staff.   Cooks are in great demand and new restaurants are always raiding existing ones to find staff.

In the three Washington food businesses I have begun as well as in every other American food business I know, newly arrived immigrants do a lot of the work.   They are the bussers clearing tables and pouring water. Frequently they can’t understand English well enough to point customers to the washroom.

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Look into the kitchen of any restaurant or into the eyes of someone sweeping the floors and you will see Spanish-speaking people doing the hard, repetitious, exacting work of food preparation and service.

Whenever I see an industrious cleaner in an office building or a gym, whenever I am served by a smiling person in a coffee job, I pitch him or her to come talk to us about a job at Bread Furst.

Some immigration opponents argue that the availability of immigrants depresses all wages.   Not in my experience.

In my experience in Washington immigrants are not taking jobs from native-born Americans.   I presume that is equally true in the fields of Texas and California where each year farmers must bring into the country as temporary workers to help with harvests.

We have always had a nativist impulse in America and anti-immigrant periods before.  But never before have we tried as we do now on our southern border to wall ourselves off.

Our new Attorney General has just given approval to using Guantanomo once again. Are we now going to create little Guantanamos in our country to hold people until we can find countries to which to send our farm workers, restaurant and construction workers – and for what?   For taking their lives in their hands to come across our borders to work hard to earn a living wage much of which they then send back to their families in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.

It’s a crime to come here illegally.  But why has it become so important a crime?  Something terrible has happened.  We are forgetting who we are.

 

 

Cleveland Park Woes

I have been reading on the Cleveland Park neighborhood listserv an interesting discussion. It began this time with the news that 7-Eleven has rented the space that used to be Dino’s Restaurant, Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street, and will now open a store one block from the store it closed several years ago.

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I say the discussion began “this time” because the neighbors in Cleveland Park pretty frequently write to each other about their disappointment with their commercial strip on Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Porter Streets.

It is not up to their standards and they have lots of explanations most of which seem right to me. Among them:

Parking is difficult in their neighborhood and people don’t walk much. The constricting little lanes on Connecticut Avenue to which the neighborhood is so attached complicate traffic and don’t permit storefronts as visible and inviting as they might be otherwise. Landlords seem willing to tolerate long vacancies in their stores rather than reduce their rents and fill the stores. The massive Metro entrance on the west side blocks the view of the stores there and is always dirty.  A lot of the strip is now owned by a large, national, publicly traded company that doesn’t care much about vacancies or the neighborhood. There are greater attractions on Wisconsin Avenue since the opening of Cathedral Commons. The neighborhood is not densely populated enough for its businesses and further residents don’t support small businesses as much as they should.

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I agree with all of this. The Magruders/Palena space has been empty for two and half years, the former Dino’s for three years.

Small business is hard; it is risky. When they are entertaining the proposals from small, independent businesses landlords are able to extract few protections of consequence. They ask for personal guarantees and for larger-than-usual security deposits; but in the end they take greater risks than they would like to.

One Woodley Park resident wrote to the neighborhood site:

I can’t stress enough how problematic landlords are in this situation. Woodley Park wanted small locally owned business that would come into our neighborhood and make positive contributions to the community.

But the landlord made this argument

Market conditions demand tenants with good credit ratings, and eating establishments with a national presence have the requisite financial stability to not only sign leases but proven track records of success. Without such capabilities, the space is at risk of remaining vacant, which negatively affects the streetscape and viability of other retail spaces.

If you were a landlord wouldn’t you prefer to rent to 7-Eleven that might fail but will never default on its rent rather than a local operator who might have to struggle all the time to create a viable neighborhood business?

Businesses don’t always work well. Often they fail to pay their rent on time or at all and landlords have to make the difficult choice of hoping that things will work out or foreclosing, taking their spaces back and looking for other tenants.

Here is what another resident had to say:

Landlords invest in a neighborhood wanting nothing more than the vibrancy of the neighborhood! That said, they are people trying to earn a living, like everyone else. They’re trying to find a safe “investment” of their resources, just like everyone else. And when they spend $ tens of thousands to fit out space for a tenant (no exaggeration), PLUS pay a broker a hefty leasing fee, PLUS deal with the space being empty with no income while it’s being built, PLUS legal fees to negotiate the leases, …and then, after all that, the tenant fails and shuts the door before the lease term ends (e.g. Remember the cereal store, the StoneCold (sic) Creamery, the French pastry shop, the knitwear and running gear stores next to Petco, etc, etc…),  that’s the landlord’s money down the drain. It’s not that landlords don’t love independent retailers, or care about the neighborhood…they absolutely do! But it’s a very risky business

The 7-11 is exactly the kind of business the rental agent dreams about, a national chain with deep pockets that can carry a store that cannot always pay its own way. Neither the ANC representative nor the local residents can do anything to convince a rental agent to rent to a bookstore or stationary store, a fabric shop (one of my wishes) or a consignment shop (my other wish).  If you can crack that hard nut called the commercial rental agent, you will be accomplishing a lot.

Commercial property losses are valuable and sometimes landlords abuse them. They stop really trying to rent their vacant stores in the hope that a 7-Eleven will come along. They reject supply and demand and hold their rents at whatever level they think might be possible if some national chump does come along – and sometimes one does.

Then neighborhoods lose a second time. After having endured long periods of vacancies they end up with stores they don’t really want.

Landlords ought to be penalized for refusing to drop rents; someone wrote that in the listserv discussion:

If you want to force private building owners to stop sitting on vacant spaces and show some interest in the vitality of our neighborhood, then urge the Council to stop the practice of exempting them from the vacant property tax for up to two years if they “advertise.”

I think that’s right.

All this explains only partially why Cleveland Park appears to be doing poorly in its retail because other neighborhoods are doing better.   The other side of the neighborhood, along Wisconsin Avenue, is prospering. Van Ness is blooming. Even Adams Morgan is coming along.

Adams Morgan has been in the doldrums since 1991, even before that. It has an abundance of apparently avaricious landlords who rent their spaces to awful businesses.   Eighteenth Street looks deteriorated. It is perceived as dangerous.

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But a new luxury hotel is rising on Columbia Road now and a few new restaurants and good old ones are doing very well. Adams Morgan appears to be on a slow rise.

When I decided to open Bread Furst I first looked at a space on Connecticut Avenue near the Washington Hilton, the Dupont Circle area. Then I considered a vacant space in Adams Morgan next to Mintwood Place. It had been vacant for a few years then (and is still vacant). I considered Mt. Pleasant and other spaces at Dupont Circle. I negotiated on the space at Chevy Chase Circle that is now Macon, the restaurant.

But I never considered looking in Cleveland Park.

Van Ness has never been very much of a neighborhood, not nearly as glamorous as Cleveland Park. Forest Hills is beautiful but on the whole the area is dominated by the looming University of the District of Columbia and by the massive futuristic Intelstat complex.

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An unlikely candidate for renewal – but since Bread Furst opened in May 2014 here is what happened at Van Ness:

Neighbors formed a “vision committee” and applied to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street America program and to the city for a grant.

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They recuited Theresa Cameron to be a full-time director of the program and she has been at work for a year guiding community and economic development, organizing neighborhood events, and recruiting small businesses to enrich the neighborhood.

It was the right time for Van Ness. The old arcade, lovable but threadbare and impractical, was about to be demolished and a high-end rental building erected. The project belongs to B.F. Saul, not a detached national giant, but a local company committed to the city.

 

The Saul leasing agent, Zachary Friedlis lives in the neighborhood and, with the support of the Saul Company, rejected overtures from national chain                       stores and set out to find local operators for the two retail spaces in the building.

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So Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola, one of the city’s illustrious chefs, is about to open a neighborhood pasta restaurant and the operators of Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase have opened a market-deli in the other retail space.

 

 

 

 

And the building itself is beautiful.

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As for us, the neighborhood values us so much that we see the same customers all the time, many several times each week. And there is no day during which someone fails to tell me how much we have done for the neighborhood.

OK, Cleveland Park. You are a few blocks down the street. Your neighborhood has always been my favorite in the city. For 60 years I have envied friends who live there. You are one mile away from Bread Furst. You should have fabulous neighborhood retail.

You have some disadvantages: You really have only half a neighborhood as the east side of Connecticut Avenue is practically in Rock Creek Park. Parking is more than difficult; it is a daunting challenge. Commercial development on the Connecticut Avenue side of your neighborhood has been eclipsed by development on the Wisconsin Avenue side. Those little parking lanes to which you are so attached are unappealing to prospective retailers. There is no possibility for customers to dash into and out of a store.   Shopping there is a project.

But you have a fabulous movie theater and a few very good restaurants.  You have far more street life than Van Ness does at the moment.

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And just like us, you have a loveable but impractical little shopping mall. But what a spot it could be if you would encourage development of it into a mixed use building like our new Park Van Ness.

You know that you have a bad reputation among small business-people who say you don’t support your neighborhood’s independent business.

There are things we can do to re-energize the Conn. Ave. commercial area. One thing we should stop doing is publicly complain about our business area. We have many great businesses and it does them no benefit to have residents declare that it is a sleepy, sad place to visit. Let’s support our businesses to the rest of DC…

We can’t force building owners to lease to our desired businesses, but if we don’t support a business it can’t survive. But that isn’t how you want to influence the mix of businesses in Cleveland Park.  Let’s focus on our current businesses and show future businesses that Cleveland Park is an exciting place to be.

It puzzles me that you don’t exercise your formidable neighborhood power.

Here is what one of you wrote:

Cleveland Park looks a bit derelict anyway: broken trees, broken sidewalks, parking meters that don’t work, empty retail spaces, plus it’s a speedway five hours a day — which prevents commercial activity for those hours. Would be nice to have a total make-over, with multi-story buildings, more restaurants with outdoor seating, traffic flow rationalized… Cleveland Park has no cachet: you go there for a specific errand, not to browse or take in the ambience or to linger on the sidewalk. It needs to tart itself up.

Small business is very hard; I have written that here before and everyone knows it. It gets not easier but harder. The new wage and hour regulations of the Obama Administration are complicated, expensive, and burdensome.

The universal paid leave policy for the District cheerfully advocated by right-minded good citizens is going to make things even more difficult for small businesses.

Our American habit of passing off onto small business the costs of social services that in virtually every other country are bourn by government makes life perilous.

But we are here, a small independent bakery with no aspirations of expansion, very happy to be an important part of a single neighborhood that is self-consciously pursuing its own improvement.

Surely Cleveland Park can do all that too.

 

 

 

Staff Sadness

We talk a lot at Bread Furst about ways of increasing the wages we pay to staff. It’s complicated.

Bread Furst’s starting wage for sales help is $12 an hour; that is 50 cents higher than the minimum wage in Washington but it’s hardly worth boasting about. We’ll increase our minimum wage again at the end of the year and we’ll continue to increase it. But I am afraid it is always going to be too low.

Restaurants are able to pay far more than we can. Even though the minimum wage for wait staff is $2.77, the staff are not dependent on that wage. In a successful restaurant, the minimum wage becomes unimportant because of tips. A server at a busy restaurant can earn $70,000, even more, $100,000.   The wages of servers are three or four times higher than those of our sales staff.

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A small independent retail food business like ours cannot compete for staff, at least not with money and I don’t know if we will ever be able to pay a living wage in a city as expensive as Washington.

We have a heterogeneous staff: People who want to learn, culinary school externs, people who want to open their own bakeries, some saving for school, some trying out a career, people who have worked with us in other food businesses, and people who respond to our ads for help or just walk in.

Some of those are people who haven’t had much work experience, are marginally employable; some don’t speak English or don’t have good work skills or interpersonal skills.

Many of them pass though the bakery very fast. Our turnover is ferocious on the sales floor; you may have noticed that.

Eun, our general manager, and I sat down last week with a young man who had been coming to work late nearly every day. Eun wanted to give him a last warning, a last chance.

I told him that I realize that being punctual all the time may be a requirement he has never before encountered. But, I told him, if you can learn to do this your opportunities for work will grow and grow.

The next morning he called Eun on the telephone and told her that he wouldn’t be coming in again; he didn’t want to be held to a standard of punctuality.

People say they oversleep. Or their grandmother died. They can’t get out of their neighborhoods because there was police activity on the block. Their boyfriends are sick. Their boyfriends are arrested. Their baby sitter didn’t show up. They have to be witnesses in a trial. Metro was late. Busses didn’t come.

We are, for many people, an entry into the labor force. That’s not a bad thing to be.  When people succeed here – when they sharpen their food skills and service skills and acquire the habits of being dependable, they can, if they want, move on to jobs that pay more – like restaurant service jobs.

We try to compete with restaurant incomes in other ways – by creating an environment that is like family, by emphasizing how much the customers like us and return and learn the names those who work here (and vice versa).

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Jerimi Meade came to us May 15th. Tall, skinny with dreadlocks, he was a whirlwind and some of you may remember him. He was always in the customer areas, wiping tables, sweeping, polishing glass. I, of course, took to him immediately and got quickly fond of him.

I told him that he was my “swat team.” We walked together through the bakery’s customer areas and I showed him what I see. He told me he would like to repaint the wainscots. He told others that he really liked working here. I didn’t ask much about his life – I wish I had.

Early in July he disappeared. He stopped showing up for work.

Eun did what she always does when this happened. She telephoned him frequently and got no answer and so she worried because none of thought he was the kind of person to stop showing up.

I felt bad that he had disappeared and then I went off on my cross-country drive.

I don’t know what happened to him. Perhaps the police do. What I know is that on August 25th we learned that he had been bludgeoned to death and was accidentally discovered in a field in southeast Washington.

There had been a death notice in the Washington Post on July 27th that said this:

JERIMI S. MEADE  

Passed Friday, July 15, 2016. He leaves to cherish his memory wife, Aishya; son, Nehemiah; daughter, Nyema, mother, Gwendolyn; father, Steven; six sisters; one niece; one nephew; a host of other family and friends. Services will be held Thursday, July 28, 2016 at Austin-Royster Funeral Home, 502 Kennedy Street, NW. Viewing, 10 a.m. Service, 11 a.m.

 

Most of us encounter this kind of violence only when we read in the Post that a person or two was killed in Washington by a gun. But one of the sadnesses of a small business that employs a diversity of people is that we encounter it a little more.

For a while a young man worked for us. He was one of two young men who accepted our invitation to stay at the nearby hotel during the massive snowstorm last winter so that we could remain open.

A few months later he was arrested and charged with having murdered his girlfriend.

Stories like that are exceptional of course. Mostly, people who come to work here with narrow work experience and narrow life experience fail simply because they can’t manage our standards.

We try. Eun teaches and coaches all the time and some of the salespeople you encounter here respond and stay with us. It’s wonderful when they do.

Jerimi might have been at Bread Furst for a long time. He was a special person. He liked being here at 6 AM, an hour before we opened. I really knew that he was special and am ashamed that I did not take the time to find out more about that specialness.   I know more now.

He had a mother and five sisters and a devoted mentor with whom he lived for a while and who was in his life steadily. He had graduated from high school, was bright and artistic and had a presence, but even so, he had trouble with the police and spent some time in jail.  I was told he sold drugs to help support his sisters and ultimately his children too.

You know the cycle: A boy gets into trouble, has an arrest record and then a jail record. He doesn’t accumulate a work history and without that but with a criminal record it becomes harder and harder to get a job.

One of our staff who got close to Jerimi and who comes from the same background says, “When you grow up in a certain environment you get drawn in even if you don’t want to.”

It’s hard to overcome childhood. Indeed it’s hard to overcome – period. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who wrote about universal change, also wrote, “Character is fate.”

This bakery is becoming what I wanted when we opened, a neighborhood place. I am happy when I see as I did one day last week three young teenaged girls sitting together after school eating cake.

It is also more than any other bakery I have started in the past a workplace of diversity

President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all ships,” but in our modern culture that has turned out not to be so true. The tide has lifted some ships a lot more than others. We can provide here a place where ships can rise slowly but many of the ships go down.

Jerimi spoke about turning his life around and I wish we could have been part of that. Jerimi had character but I don’t think it was his fate. His fate turned out to be a great deal sourer than his character.

It is sad. In some ways Jerimi had more of a chance than others do. The family that adopted him was devoted to him. He had a chance to go to summer camp in the west when he was young. He had a chance to get more educated.

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He wasn’t a hero.

Another of our staff who come from the same background but without some of Jerimi’s advantages says, “You have to be careful about your friends. Jerimi wasn’t careful enough.”

Perhaps for him as well as many others, environment is fate.

 

 

B Patisserie

You don’t have to know precisely where the shop is because the first thing you see as you turn from Divisidaro onto California Street is the line that’s there at almost any time but, of course, especially thickly on weekends.

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The line is out the door and down the sidewalk where people wait very patiently, I must say. Finally still in line, customers pass slowly through the door and are hit with the powerful smell of butter baking.

It’s B Patisserie in San Francisco.

You may know that Bread Furst was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award this year and last year; but you might not have noticed that in both years B Patisserie was one of the other four nominees for “best baker in America.” It deserves that.

This bakery, classic in style, is three and a half years old and is the collaboration of two people, one of whom I have written about before.

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Michel Suas, as I have written, has done more for baking in America than anyone else. That is to say he designed most American bakeries that make traditional breads and he created the San Francisco Baking Institute, the premier baking school in the country. His collaborator is less known and followed a classic career path.

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Belinda Leong is 39 years old. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she began her pastry career at the age of 19. At first she taught herself. Then she worked for nine years at a fancy San Francisco restaurant and then treated herself to three years of stages (working to learn) in Europe – at Pierre Herme in Paris, at Bubo in Barcelona, and at Noma in Copenhagen. Then she returned to work at Manresa, the excellent restaurant south of San Francisco.

She wanted to open a pastry shop, but not to manage the business parts of a small business. That’s how she teamed up with Suas.   He too used to be a pastry chef but here he manages  business matters while she makes pastry – all the time – really all the time.

She allows herself one day off per month

As you must know by now, I don’t have a taste for refined pastries. I think that  many pastry shops sacrifice flavor for appearance, making pastries with out-of-season fruits shiny with a thick layer of gelatin covering colors that don’t really appear in nature and making them far too sweet.

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I prefer classic American desserts – pies and cakes, puddings, cookies and the like. But no one could resist what Leong does.

She stands at the back of the bakery next to the oven making what she calls “modernized French” pastries. The flavors  are classics like chocolate, almond, and hazelnut. In texture many are caramelization for crunch and to add character to the sugar.

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They are, like Bread Furst’s desserts, not very sweet and the flavors are sophisticated. “I am not as stuck on presentation as on flavor,” Loung says. “I don’t want to be trendy; I don’t want to do what other people are doing. But I don’t want to do only traditional things like almond and chocolate croissants. I’d rather do fruit croissants along with the traditionals.”

B Patisserie, like Bread Furst, is open seven days a week and serves 600 customers on weekdays and 1,000 customers on weekend days so as you might imagine, service is very slow.

But this is San Francisco where food customers are patient with long lines – lines like those at Tartine Bakery, at the great breakfast restaurants like Plow, at Bi-Rite’s ice cream shop, and Delfina’s pizza joint.

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Patience is a virtue – not in Washington, of course.

 

 

Waltonland

I used to believe that the best quality of life is found in America’s smaller cities. That was before I knew Reading, Pennsylvania

I spent much of three years in Reading and after I came to know it very well and to love being there, I had a greater understanding of the impact on smaller cities of American neglect – the economic and social changes that have reduced so much of this country to poverty and blight while we refuse to spend public money on our own public good.

I arrived early on a Friday afternoon in another small city, Bentonville, Arkansas and went immediately to the Crystal Bridges Museum.

I spent the next four hours looking at the extraordinary collection of American art housed inside a Moshe Safdie building.

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I stayed the night a short walk away from the museum in a beautifully appointed modern hotel called the 21-C that is really an extension of the museum. The ground floor had room after room of paintings and sculptures and every guest floor lobby above had more – drawings, quilts, more sculpture.

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The following morning was Saturday and I walked again through the manicured woods between the hotel and the museum and then drove through the town looking at its perfect lawns and carefully tended houses.

I felt as if I were in the Truman Show or in Seaside, Florida

As I prepared to drive away from the town I saw a farmers’ market ahead of me in the little town square. I parked to see it.

The produce being sold there was in quality at least as good what is sold by the Dupont Circle Market in Washington and, of course, at prices a lot more modest.

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And then I left town for the long drive to Amarillo Texas, my next stop and I had a lot of time to think about Bentonville.

I drove through all of Oklahoma (a big state) sometimes getting off the highway to explore.  I ate fried chicken at June’s Place in Checotah.   There wasn’t much else in Checotah.   There was, however, a Walmart.

I saw many, many Walmarts.

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As I drove on Route 69 to get back to I-40, there was a Walmart Superstore. I had seem them everywhere on my drive, even in Hazard, Kentucky.

I thought about Selma, Alabama. I had been there a week before and it was the first time I had seen it since the Civil Rights march in 1965 that required Justice Department protection from the famous sheriff whose force had attacked an earlier march with dogs and firehoses.

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The Edmund Pettus Bridge has not changed at all and I don’t remember what the downtown of Selma was like in 1965. I know what it looks like now – deserted – I mean really deserted, stores largely locked up, the downtown mostly abandoned.

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I stopped at a coffee shop, two women serving one customer. They were happy to have another customer. We talked for a while.

Selma was a trading center and cotton market a long time ago, also a manufacturing city. Nowadays its median household income is $21,000.

When I left Selma, I drove past a huge Walmart.

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To say that Walmart dominates Bentonville is one thing but what I didn’t fully understand is how much Walmart dominates all of the American landscape   I know, I know. Everyone knows this but to experience it was another thing for me and awful.

I went though towns that were always poor, Harlan, Kentucky for example. But as I passed one Walmart after another, I kept thinking: There are more than 5,000 Walmarts in America.  It’s as if Walmart is a giant vacuum cleaner that sucked the retail out of every small town I saw in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida.

When I finally got to San Francisco a couple of weeks later I noticed with a new eye the number of small corner grocery stores there are in that city. There are lots of reasons for it: San Francisco is a big city, a rich city, a city of dense neighborhood, a city that’s doing very well.

Big cities are different from small cities and smaller towns and have greater economic wherewithal. I know. The migration of Americans from smaller places to larger ones began a long time ago. I know. And I have a bias about the contributions made to communities by small businesses so consider that when you read this.

Not every town can be like Bentonville but I can think of no excuse for allowing so many towns to be like Selma.