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Rose Tinted Glasses

April 28, 2011

Prisoner of hope. I’ve used that term here before a handful of times. Where it first comes from escapes me, but I came to it from my Hungarian rabbi in Berkeley who had more gravitas in his little finger than the entire New York State Legislature combined.

I say this because I am optimistic about the future of food in our area.

Without a doubt, the food here today is much better than when I first came here four years ago. And I understand that this has been part of an ongoing trend. Still, I would trade our twelve best sushi restaurants for one mediocre Ethiopian restaurant. But that’s another campaign.

Today, I want to finally address B’s thoughtful and lengthy comment of two weeks ago. His comment was in response to how I thought the Times Union poll would actually make a difference and improve food in the region. The last time I tried to address just one part of it didn’t quite get the response I had intended. So to prevent any further backlash, I’ll do my best to take it slow and answer fully and completely.

Ok. Here it goes.
B started off with something I don’t entirely agree with, so we’re off with a bang. This is how the comment begins:

Daniel, I think you’ve got your rose-tinted glasses on for this one, sorry.

It would be great if the world worked the way you outlined here. Really, it would! The cream rises to the top, greatness is celebrated, and success comes to those who consistently deliver the best product for the price.

But taking a 360-degree look from any spot in the area is proof enough that this utopia doesn’t exist.

There are always a lot of bad restaurants that find some way to survive, and even good restaurants can succumb to bad business practices that cause them to fail. Some might even argue that owning any kind of a restaurant is bad business.

That said, there are plenty of cases locally where I can see examples of this utopia that B sheds doubt upon.

Cheesecake Machismo, Crisan, Caffé Vero, Katrinella’s Bistro, Capital Q, Parivar, Andy’s, Cardona’s, The Ale House, The Pizza King, Famous Lunch, Ralph’s, Dewey’s, Dan’s Place Two, Hattie’s, Garden Bistro 24, Peter Pause, Ala Shanghai, and I could just keep going on.

Just because these places aren’t yet celebrated by the TU doesn’t make them any less beloved by the loyal throngs of patrons that keep them in business. Ok, moving on.

So look, you think the first effect of a place winning the best of reader’s poll is “1) It would encourage people to go and try it for themselves.”  Except that’s not actually what happens. Many/most people reading the results have voted in it. Even if they haven’t, when they see their favorite didn’t make the top spot, they just think that’s stupid and keep going to the place they like. This is just human nature, and like differences in personal taste, you aren’t gonna change it.

Add in everything -S says above, plus the fact that in this instance you’re talking about a place in Saratoga which is a significant drive for the ~300,000 people in Albany County, and it just doesn’t make sense that a ranking in some reader’s poll is going to change hearts and minds.

I would love the world to work the way you hope it will here. I will be happy to be wrong. I just don’t see it, and again, I think there are better places you could be directing your energy.

With B’s first point of this section I disagree on its face. I believe the reason why so many local businesses actually campaign to win this poll is because it does drive traffic and trial. But most of all it builds awareness, and that alone is important, because you can’t get someone in the door if they’ve never even heard of your small (but awesome) restaurant.

For better or for worse Saratoga is part of our region. Granted, I admit it’s a part that I don’t get to nearly enough for the exact reasons that –S and B say. But even the city dwellers of Albany get up to Saratoga occasionally. And when we go, the things we do there are informed by many sources, the Times Union being just one of them. But to be clear, it’s not the ranking that’s going to change hearts and minds, it is getting people to try these places. But if you haven’t bought into the idea that being listed as a winner brings people through the door, then I can understand where this argument is coming from.

B ended the above section with a mention about some better places I could be directing my energy. I wonder what those are? (By the way, this is my favorite part of the comment).

You’re an influential guy, you’re erudite and well-spoken. Most importantly you’re genuinely passionate about food, particularly good food. And you’re sitting there cross-referencing Yelp and past TU reader’s polls? It’s a free country, but I wonder what would happen if you spent that energy, I don’t know, talking with local restaurateurs or organizing a consumer group or something that is probably a better idea than I can come up with.

Gosh. That’s the nicest string of complements I’ve gotten in a long time. It’s nice to get love notes to balance out the hate mail. Thank you.

As it so happens, much of this blog happens late at night. The kids are in bed and my decision is whether I stay up late playing video games, do some housework, or write about food. For the past couple of years, writing has won pretty much every night.

I’m not entirely sure local restauranteurs want to talk with me. And even if they did, I’m not sure they would want to talk at the end of a long day. So late at night, in the still of my house, I am indeed cross-referencing all kinds of data on the internet, at least during that one time of year I work on the FUSSYlittleBALLOT.

But your ides have inspired me to start thinking about other ways that I can make a difference in our community. Any other suggestions are welcome. Especially if any of them come with some form of potential income.

B then closes with a few more questions where for the first time we are in perfect agreement.

You want to make the poll more representative? You of all people know that there’s a place for more than one “best” in most of those categories. We need Cardona’s just as much as we need the Asian Market. You really want to open up some minds, campaign for more granularity in the poll. That will hit people at the source — you’ll be making them think more about the choices in the area when they’re filling it out, instead of trying to convince them after the fact. You can’t tell people what to like.

Anyway, as I said before, good luck!

I’m with you. Maybe I can sit down with Michael Huber at the Times Union and chat with him about this. I know that this year they simplified and shortened the poll significantly. So adding granularity to the poll may not be feasible. The ones that personally kill me are the ethnic restaurants that are all clumped together.

Maybe at one point it made sense to have a Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean category. But now we actually have Chinese restaurants that don’t serve sushi. And as it turns out our one decent Korean restaurant primarily serves Thai food. Yet Thai is included in the Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. And as odd as it sounds we have actually had good versions of all three of these cuisines available locally for many years.

It makes me feel good that I was able to end on common ground with B.

I’m not sure where he gets the idea that people’s behavior remains unchanged by the results of the poll. But I’m going to call out my twelve years of experience in advertising and marketing to back my claim that things like this have an effect.

You may not be able to tell people what they like, but you can influence and inspire them to give someplace a try. Just like I can’t make you sign up for the Flying Pigs Farm CSA, but I can tell you about it, and remind you about it. And that brings you one small step closer to considering joining. The more people hear a message, and the more times they hear it, the more likely a few folks will take a desired action.

As unlikely as it may sound, I’ve seen it work first hand.

Now will you please go and check out the pork CSA? Flying Pigs Farm is finally taking a chance on Albany. I want to show them just how many people here care about eating great food. What can I tell you, I’m a prisoner of hope.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    April 28, 2011 10:26 am

    Positive. Hopeful. I like. :-)

  2. April 28, 2011 10:55 am

    There are a lot of transplants here, especially GE people, and while the TU rankings may not shake the loyalties of longtime residents, they certainly pique the interest of newcomers who are still discovering the area. I think it’s definitely a hill worth, if not dying on, at least fighting for!

  3. Ewan permalink
    April 28, 2011 11:15 am

    Pork share paid for; I’m going to need to buy a small freezer as well, I think, but that was already on the agenda. Really hope it lives up to the hype; $500+ is still a lot of $.

  4. April 28, 2011 11:32 am

    As a Saratogian for nearly seven years now, I can certainly appreciate the vast differences between my city and the Albany area since I grew up in (gasp) Cohoes. Sure, some would say that Saratoga has traditionally been home to pricey mediocrity catering to a mostly tourist crowd who comes in and does their best to muck up traffic on Broadway. However, there are a number of places that are completely worth the 30 -45 minute trip up the Northway once in a while (Max London’s, Maestro’s, Gotchya’s – just to name a few). These places understand and appreciate the need to appeal to both the tourist and local crowds, and they are growing in diversity (i.e. Saratoga Winery, Harvest and Hearth, Phila Fusion). Conversely, and of course I only speak for myself here, hopping in a car and hitting Central Avenue for some great Indian food at Lazeez or Aashiana on a Friday night with my wife is not a big deal either.

    I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there are times when I wish for the more clearly urban atmosphere of our capital city, but I think Saratoga has a lot to offer if you know where to look (or know a local)! Come on up, and I’d be happy to show you around sometime.

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