Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Pepsi Challenge to Get It Right

I have been doing something new to save money lately. It’s actually quite simple. I stopped going out to eat. I started seeing the difference in my wallet almost immediately. Before, when I received my paycheck, I would pay my bills for that pay period, throw some in the savings account, and then the rest slowly got chipped away buying gas and Big Macs. I began to realize how much of my money was being siphoned out by my frequent trips to restaurants and made the decision to stop. The only time my daughter and I have eaten out in the last six weeks has been when we are traveling.

On a recent trip out of town, we made a stop at Burger King for breakfast since we were on the road and did not have the option of running home to eat. I made my order of hash rounds, a breakfast sandwich, and small drink and was then thrown off guard by the worker asking me what kind of drink. The question confused me for a moment. I realize it was a very simple question, but it had been a few years since that question was a part of the ordering routine. Fast food restaurants just give you the cup now so you can go fill the drink for yourself. Rarely, do they fill it for you anymore.

After feeling foolish for being thrown by the question, I ordered a Pepsi. We got our tray and sat down to relax before getting back on the road. I started on my croissan'wich (I always get the sausage) and took a big gulp of my soda. I almost spit it back out. Something was wrong with it. I couldn’t place it, but it didn’t taste right. Kirsten always orders water, so I asked her to taste it. She said something was off as well. So, I took it back to the counter.

I told the girl something was wrong with my Pepsi, so she made another one. I tried it as soon as she handed it to me, but it still had the same problem. She yelled back to the manager, “Dan, there is something wrong with our Coke machine.” That’s when I realized the problem. I quickly stopped her so she would not get the manger since there was nothing wrong with the soda.

I explained to her the problem was that I had ordered a Pepsi and she gave me a Coke. She defended herself, saying, “We don’t have Pepsi here. We have Coke.” I told her that I understood and apologized for not looking to see what they had before I ordered, but advised her that in the future, to prevent confusion, if someone orders something that is not on the menu, she should tell them and not just substitute something else. She huffed and told me, “Pepsi and Coke are the same thing!” I tried to get her to understand that if they were the same thing, then I would not have been able to tell the difference when I took a drink, however, I think most of her brain power was being used on chewing her gum.

Who drinks this?
Whether a restaurant has Coke products or Pepsi products is determined by a number of factors, but they are not interchangeable. I, personally, am a Mt. Dew fiend and I know many people who are, but I don’t see people running around drinking Mello Yello, which is Coke’s counterpart, because they aren’t even remotely the same. I like Pepsi better than Coke and I highly prefer Mt. Dew to Mellow Yello. However, the Coca-Cola brand wins out on the Dr. Pepper/Mr. Pibb comparison. I like both, but Mr. Pibb is a little better. I will drink a Sprite rather than a 7-UP, but would prefer to not have to drink either.

When I order a Pepsi, I am not asking for whatever cola drink may be behind the counter. I am asking for a Pepsi. I have had many servers say, “We don’t have Pepsi. Is Coke okay?” I love that question. It means the worker has enough respect for the customer to give them the option. If the establishment doesn’t have that brand, just let me know and I will be happy to choose something else, but do not give me something I didn’t order.

Most of the time, I remember this when I go into a restaurant and I ask if they have Coke or Pepsi, but sometimes I forget. A good employee will make the distinction. Unfortunately, this does not just happen with sodas. A few years ago, I ordered a Frisco breakfast sandwich at Hardee’s. The Frisco is ham with egg and cheese on grilled sourdough. The grilled sourdough is what sets this meal apart from the others. Upon arriving at my table and opening the wrapper, I noticed that the bread did not have the usual golden brown color. It was white.

Notice the beautiful color
I took it back to the counter where the manager explained to me that the grill was broken, so they had been toasting the bread instead of grilling it. I was amazed that the manager could not understand why I wanted my money back. This was not what I had ordered. There is a difference. The menu even has a picture of the sandwich, which states ‘grilled sourdough.” A grilled cheese sandwich is much better then toasting some bread and then putting cheese on it. I understand things happen. The grill was broken and they were trying to get it fixed, but they knew that when I ordered my sandwich. How hard would it have been to mention, “Oh, just so you know, our grill is broken. We can't grill the sourdough right now. Would it be alright if it was toasted?” Then I could decide and there would be no problems, but don’t take my money and then switch my order to something you hope will be acceptable.

These substitutions are even harder to forgive in nicer restaurants where they should know the difference between ‘butter OR margarine’, ‘mayonnaise OR salad dressing (Miracle Whip)’, and ‘sweet tea OR unsweetened tea that you can put sugar in yourself.’ They are not the same.

I decided to stop eating out for purely financial reasons, but it does my blood pressure good to not have to put up with these preventable mishaps every time I walk into a restaurant. Plus, at home, I get what I want. My sandwiches get grilled when I want grilled, toasted when I want toasted, my eggs are always the way I like them, and no one is throwing a lemon slice in my tea that I didn’t ask for.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's All About Patience and Determination

I have had the most amazing week. A few days ago, I was thrilled with the events of the afternoon and then this morning, it happened again.  Life does not get much better. Unfortunately, my daughter could not comprehend the gravity or importance of this monumental occurrence, so I have been trying to educate her.

Sunday afternoon, I was pulling into the Wal-Mart parking lot and was immediately reminded of why I need to plan my trips a little more intentionally. We have one of those super Wal-Marts that is bigger than many small towns, and on the weekends and some evenings, the crowds can be quite overwhelming. As I approached the lot and saw the hundreds of cars, I immediately started to reconsider how much we needed the items I came to get. The over-crowded aisles and the long check-out lines would make this a miserable experience, as usual. I need to remember to plan my Wal-Mart excursions for weekdays, but I decided to brave the masses since I was already there. However, first, I had to find a parking space.

Being the middle of summer, I do not want to walk across 300-degree asphalt any further than I have to, so I began the quest for a decent parking spot. I started my usual routine by pulling into the side entrance to drive by the front doors. This is more than just habit, there is a reason for this approach. Coming in from the side gives me a better view of the front spots. I can quickly scan the spots to my left while I dodge the endless stream of shopping carts exiting the store to my right. This foot traffic does pose a serious hazard, but gives me the slow-motion drive-by opportunity needed to find what I am looking for.

If I come in the front entrance and am driving directly toward the front of the store, there are too many parked cars in the way of potential empty spaces located in the acceptable parking zones. Plus, due to this vastly inferior viewing angle, sometimes a space occupied by a sub-compact or a motorcycle is mistaken for being empty, causing me to bypass various parking opportunities while pursuing what gave the illusion of being a better choice. Upon discovering that the spot is not empty and realizing I should have taken the one I passed two spaces back, it is usually too late to back up because of the Jeep behind me who now thinks that is her spot just because I passed it.

Finding the right spot is crucial in determining the initial mood for embarking on a shopping journey. This concept is held even more dear in other parts of the world. When I lived in Puerto Rico, I was amazed to discover that they had valet parking at Wal-Mart. Being what my ex-wife called ’cheap,’ I never took advantage of this service, but I definitely saw the attraction. These Wal-Marts would rope off all the best spots and then charge the customers to use them. If I wanted to park close, I had to pay for it, however, there was a much greater downside than just having to park further away. Being a major metropolitan area, the parking lot could not accommodate the numbers of cars trying to find a space. So, the people who did not take advantage of the valet ‘convenience’ may not be lucky enough to find a spot at all. However, my frugal nature and sense of adventure would step up to the challenge every time. Because of this, we started to participate in a creepy practice I called ‘shopper-stalking.’ I did not invent this practice and it took a while to understand the unwritten cultural rules for how it works, but the concept was pretty simple.

After cruising up and down all the aisles and determining that there are literally no spots available (not even on the furthest reaches of the lot), drivers start to watch for spots that are about to become vacant. One of the best ways to get a spot is to follow a shopper to their car. This is the creepy part. As an exiting shopper walks into one of the parking rows, if you are swift enough to be the first car behind her, you may be able to get her spot when she pulls out. There are some rules that must be obeyed. The pedestrian, upon noticing that she is being ‘stalked,’ walks on the right side of the lane. The ‘stalker’ stays to the right as well. This allows other cars to pass since the first car has already laid claim to her spot. However, that claim has not been made unless the ‘stalker’ has turned on the right turn signal. Once that signal comes on, it communicates to the other drivers that this spot will be yours, despite the fact that you do not yet know where it is located.

Since these parking lots cover vast spaces, it may take several minutes for the shopper to reach their car and I never did grow accustomed to creeping behind a walking person in my car. It felt so sinister. That is why I called it ‘shopper-stalking.’ Plus, if the person you are following passes between the cars to get at her vehicle in another row, you then have a legal right to race to the next row over and run her down. I only had to do this once, but I did not feel good about it. Her spot wasn’t that good anyway.

Now that I am back in Illinois, I do not have to ‘shopper-stalk’ any longer. My local store always has parking available, even on the busiest days, but I may have to walk for it. I am not doing that. I do not know why I cannot park at the back of the lot, but I just can’t do it. My daughter will get upset because I will spend an extra 10 minutes cruising around the lot to get a spot that is three spaces closer than the one I turned down earlier.

I am willing to trek all over town on foot, so this is not about laziness. Maybe it is male ego or the inability to reject the challenge. I don’t know, but I will not exit the vehicle until I have found what my friend Dawn calls ROCK STAR PARKING. Maybe it is an ego thing.

So, it is a crowded Sunday afternoon and I am approaching the store from the side. I carefully maneuver through the throng of exiting shopping carts, motorized wheelchairs, and leashed toddlers while scanning the spaces. I take the first row right after the doors to look for available spots. The first empty spot is about 15 spaces back. Not good enough. I cut through the row of parked cars to now approach the row right in front of the doors. It appears that there are no close spots in this row either so I will have to go another row over to try my luck. However, as I got close to the end of the row, I saw back up lights come on to my right. This person was pulling out of the very front space! The coveted front space! Only handicapped spaces are closer!

I immediately threw it in reverse to give them room, but someone started honking. There was a car right on my bumper. I couldn’t back up. I quickly reassessed the space between my car and the one wanting to pull out and determined that it may be possible to get out if the driver was very careful and pulled in their trunk. I put the car in park to wait and see how this played out. My daughter exclaimed, “Dad, you have to pull up. They don’t have room.” I let her know I was not going to miss this opportunity. How often does this happen? I will never get to park this close again without a wheelchair. She rolled her eyes, got out of the car, and ran inside the store.

Determined to hold my ground, the driver calculated the extra space he had to work with since he was in the front spot and wasn’t pinned in by cars on both sides. As cars were honking at me and an old woman started tapping on my window, he finally figured it out. I proudly pulled my vehicle into the spot and stepped out of the car with my head held high. The cursing and rude gestures coming at me from random vehicles were not going to bring me down. I knew what I had just accomplished. I don’t remember what happened inside the store or how long it took me to locate my daughter, but it doesn’t matter. The best part had already happened.

Today, six days later, I return to Wal-Mart and am reminding Kirsten of the fantastic experience we had last time we were there. As she pretended to ignore me, I noticed that same spot was just open and waiting for me. I pulled into it with no problem and got to relive the moment again.