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An Open Letter to the Times Union

January 30, 2012

To the Editors:

Surely there are plenty of people who would like to change the annual Times Union Best of the Capital Region poll. I imagine that many of them are lobbying to include a category that serves their personal self-interest. Given the tenacious, entrepreneurial, and competitive nature of our local cupcake bakers, they must be calling weekly to try and find a way onto the ballot.

Let me begin by saying that I have no horse in this race.

My family moved to the region over four years ago from Berkeley, California. The transition was not easy. But over the years, I have diligently sought out magnificent and wonderful places that make the Capital Region truly special: fantastic restaurants that one would not expect to find in a region outside the top 50 DMAs and unique offerings that cannot be found anywhere else.

And every year when the Best of the Capital Region poll is released, I’m crestfallen to see none of these places even get mentioned. To dismiss this poll as a popularity contest is doing the paper and the community a great disservice. What could be a source of great regional pride has recently only served to reinforce the stereotypes of Albany as a backwater of civilized society.

Furthermore, these feelings are not mine alone. Others have noticed and are similarly discouraged.

To be sure, improving the results will take time. But the first step is fixing the questionnaire. I have three specific suggestions that will help to move the poll in the right direction.

1) Individual Locations

There are many people who have suggested that chains have no place on the Best of the Capital Region results. I’m not entirely convinced of that, especially since in many cases the local outposts are owned and operated by members of our community.

However, as consistent as any chain may try to be, there are variations between locations. This is certainly true for the Best local grocery store category. It’s really impossible for most people to take a holistic view of a chain grocer in the region, given its relatively large footprint. Votes become more like guesses based on a reader’s personal experience.

Not only would it be more accurate, but it would also be more useful and interesting to ask people what is the best individual local grocery store. It would give The Fresh Market a chance to take the first place in the category, and it could wake people up to the splendor that is the Slingerland’s Price Chopper or their store on Central and New Karner. Hannaford could take it with their Latham store. It’s anyone’s ballgame.

This logic should hold true for EVERY CATEGORY. Best individual drug store/pharmacy, best individual pizza place, etcetera.

Will it be harder for our larger local chains to win than in years past? Sure. But it will also make it harder for places like Pizza Hut, whose mere presence on the list of Best pizza is insulting for a region where the standard for pizza is higher than most of the country. It should also give a better chance to smaller places that make truly amazing pizza, like DeFazio’s and Pizza King.

2) The Categories Themselves

When this survey started 15 years ago, I understand that the Capital Region was a very different place. Perhaps there weren’t a lot of ethnic restaurants and it made a lot of sense to try and group them by their geographic region.

But categories like Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant and Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant have to go. As one of my readers succinctly put it, “They are embarrassing and make us look like hillbillies standing next to the outhouse with a straw between our teeth.”

We have a glut of sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, which could easily fall in two category, but at the very least need to be extracted from Chinese and Korean cuisines. We have plenty of restaurants that offer exclusively Chinese food, which should absolutely have its own category. Yes, there are still some places that offer a little bit of both. For those I would suggest an umbrella Best Pan Asian for beloved institutions like Ichiban, which continue to serve both Chinese and Japanese cuisine.

Another ethnocentric question on the poll asks readers to vote on the best ethnic market. All the responses are Italian. We have an amazing variety of South Asian, East Asian, African, and Latin markets in the region. This may need to be broken up into two categories as well: Best Italian market and Best ethnic market.

Then there are the things that are unique to our region that are completely missing from this list. We are in the heart of apple country, and there is no question about Best apple orchard? The Capital Region also has a unique style of hot dog, the three-inch wiener with the works, and a Best mini-hot dog with meat sauce category would help to draw attention to this regional specialty. The same holds true for Best fish-fry sandwich.

At the end of this letter I’ve attached a list of categories that has been revised to reflect the above.

3) Best versus Favorite

There is a fine line between the things someone might like the most (aka their favorite) and what they know achieves a higher standard (aka the best).

For example, my favorite local bakery is Crisan. I love them because they are committed to using high quality ingredients, it’s conveniently located, they accommodate last minute orders, their baking skills are excellent, they offer a great product at an outstanding value, and I enjoy chatting with the staff. Crisan may make the best pastry in Albany, but it is not the best bakery in the area.

That is Mrs. London’s. Their croissants are the best I’ve had anywhere, and they also bake some killer bread. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s out of the way. Sure, it’s a little precious inside. But it’s the best.

I believe that your readers can make these distinctions themselves if they are reminded at the beginning of the poll that the Times Union isn’t looking for their favorites, but rather their thoughts on which individual location is truly the best. It may not be the place they go every day. Likely it is not. It may be the place where one goes for special occasions.  The best place may even be the one that is just a little bit better than your favorite spot, it’s just a bit off the beaten path.

In some ways, this last bit is a matter of semantics. In other ways it’s the one thing that gets to the heart of the issue. Very few people would say that Subway makes the best sandwiches if they sat down and thought about the difference between The Best and their favorite. Subway may have the best value, it may have the best speed of service, or it might be the most convenient. But I refuse to believe that a plurality of your readers cannot recognize there are better sandwiches in the area.

As you retool the Best of the Capital Region ballot for 2012, please consider the above suggestions. I look forward to the day when the picture painted by the major Albany newspaper matches the Albany I’ve come to know and love, and getting this ballot right is the first step in that direction.

Sincerely,
Daniel Berman
and the undersigned
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Note: That means if you agree, please say so in the comments below.
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45 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Z permalink
    January 30, 2012 11:46 am

    Agreed. I’ve always felt the TU Best Of was a comical catastrophe. It needs work and these are some productive suggestions to turn it into something that’s actually useful and worth reading.

  2. pixie1998 permalink
    January 30, 2012 1:45 pm

    I agree. I don’t even read it anymore – it’s ridiculous and aggravating.

    • January 30, 2012 3:32 pm

      This is the exact reason why it needs to change. It is so easy to dismiss the whole survey based on the outcome.

      The people who don’t dismiss the survey may actually believe the outcome from the quality perspective. It’s important for our local media to reflect some local pride. There may be cases where the big box stores do things better than the local places. My goal in this is to urge the people organizing the poll to be clear that quality is the main criterion in the survey. Only then will the results start reflecting how things really are.

  3. January 30, 2012 2:55 pm

    DerryX points out another very significant issue with this survey today — geography, which you touched on above as well. An accurate survey pretty much requires that you break it out into “best in Albany,” “best in Rensselaer County” and “best in Saratoga County” to be relevant to the reader, which would be cumbersome for sure, but the results would be much more useful. I mean, you say Mrs. London’s is “out of the way,” but I’ve never been to Crisan, ’cause to me, THAT’s out of the way.

  4. January 30, 2012 3:08 pm

    Appendix I – Specific Category Changes and Suggestions
    1) Best local grocery store (individual location)
    2) Best wine store (individual location)
    3) Best beer store (individual location)
    4) Best bakery – Pastry (individual location)
    5) Best bakery – Bread (individual location)
    6) Best ethnic Italian market (individual location)
    7) Best ethnic market (individual location)
    8) Best farmers market (individual location)
    9) Best health food store (single location) Best butcher (individual location)
    10) Best restaurant to open in the past year (individual location)
    11) Best restaurant for kids to take the whole family (individual location)
    12) Best hamburger
    12) Best pizza (individual location)
    13) Best sandwich shop deli for a sandwich (individual location)
    14) Best Chinese restaurant (individual location)
    15) Best Japanese restaurant (individual location)
    16) Best Thai restaurant (individual location)
    17) Best Pan Asian restaurant (individual location)
    18) Best Indian/Pakistani restaurant (individual location)
    19) Best Mexican restaurant (individual location)
    20) Best Latin American restaurant (individual location)
    22) Best Italian restaurant (individual location)
    23) Best tavern (individual location)
    24) Best soft serve ice cream (individual location)
    25) Best mini hot dogs (individual location)
    26) Best sports bar (individual location)
    27) Best espresso (individual location)
    28) Best coffee shop (individual location)
    29) Best diner (individual location)
    30) Best apple orchard (individual location)
    31) Best fish fry (individual location)

  5. Josh K permalink
    January 30, 2012 4:31 pm

    Dan, we may have our differences of opinion when it comes to what is “the best” in this area, but I wholeheartedly agree with this letter.

    I hope the TU can fix this section for the better. It will not only help out local business but improve the image of the Capital Region as more than just the small city north of “The City”.

  6. January 30, 2012 5:10 pm

    I’m more than happy to add my name as a signatory. Agree with your criticisms and think you’ve come up with some pretty good solutions. Chef up, TU!

  7. techcommdood permalink
    January 30, 2012 6:47 pm

    Agreed. The poll is useless if it’s not specific and accurate. I don’t pay attention to it because it’s mostly irrelevant and useless.

  8. January 30, 2012 7:19 pm

    Let me start by saying that I do not have a pony in this race. Yes, as a point of disclosure I blog for the Times Union, and that I find their “Best of” polls to be both a complete ego-stroke and a source of disdain. “Oh, you voted for Olive Garden for best Italian Restaurant? What’s wrong with you?” “How dare you vote for Hot Dog Charlie’s for best hot dog in the area, have you no shame?” Jeez o’petes.

    That being said, I agree with your suggestions for changing the “Best Of” polls. Whether or not they will ever get implemented is another story in and of itself.

  9. Michelle Bascom permalink
    January 30, 2012 7:27 pm

    Agreed. Great suggestions, Dan.

  10. January 30, 2012 8:05 pm

    Well written, constructive and (fairly) concise. ; )

    Please consider me a supporter. I hope someone finds the time to listen at the TU.

  11. January 30, 2012 8:14 pm

    Agreed wholeheartedly. Looking forward to this year’s FLB.

  12. Eschatologist permalink
    January 30, 2012 8:26 pm

    I believe that a failure to, at a minimum, respond publicly to such an earnest, cogent appeal such as this must be construed to communicate a great deal about the integrity of our primary Newspaper.

  13. January 30, 2012 9:17 pm

    I completely agree with you. I don’t have a significant problem with the current ballot but your suggestions are amazing.

  14. January 30, 2012 9:40 pm

    Things need to change, and this is a great way to start. I’m on board.

  15. Weenie girl permalink
    January 30, 2012 11:30 pm

    I support your suggestions. I applaud your enthusiasm. I share your hope that the survey will change so that the results are [more] meaningful.

    Thank you for taking this on.

  16. Bonnie Kohn permalink
    January 31, 2012 12:34 am

    The changes you suggested are great!

  17. January 31, 2012 1:10 am

    Agreed. Very nicely put too.

  18. Roger A. Ksenich permalink
    January 31, 2012 3:47 am

    I whole heartedly agree with the concept. Some additional thoughts:

    Metroland use to do two different surveys; their readers and their staff. It might be good for the T.U. to do something similar. Readers of course would be handled as usual, but a second select group of individuals, who would be expected to be more knowledgeable about the category and businesses they were evaluating, (e.g., chefs, culinary teachers/students, diaticians, nutritionists, food reps, wholesalers, farm stand owners, reviewers from other area newspapers, etc.) would vote for their favorite(s). In some ways the T.U. is already doing this when they periodically evaluate a product like mayo or yogurt. If they reported the favorites of a select group along side of each area that the readers voted upon, then we might see some lesser known and worthy businesses receiving recognition.

    Some of the categories might need to be broken down even further (e.g., Pizza – thick crust; thin crust; wood fired). Even ethnic markets may be too broad of a category when you are hoping to segregate the various ethnic restaurants (e.g., Markets – Mexican, Asian, Indian, Italian, Eastern European).

    Finally, print the results in a booklet format with staples holding the pages together, a table of contents, AND an index. Readers may be willing to save the information for a longer period of time to reference until the next year’s issue is available.

    Best wishes with this effort.

    • January 31, 2012 1:07 pm

      Roger… Do you really need to break it down any further? Thick vs Thin crust pizza? Really? How about best place to eat on a Friday vs. Saturday? This is where a good idea can be completely ruined by being over thought or broken down into the most miniscule of details. It’s a readers poll from a newspaper, not the Zagat guide, love. It’s suppose to be broad sweeping. Break it down too much and people will call that ridiculous and there will be a cry(though not as intricately crafted) to have it simplified. With popularity polls, you can’t be all things to all people, though I do believe that the proposed revised one is pretty balanced.

      Which brings me to another other point: binding it and making it into a reference guide. Are you going to pay for that? Are you doing to advertise in it to pay for it? It’s great that you want all of these fantastic things, but are you willing to pony up the dough for the added cost or, like most, will you just toss it away and look up the results online like the majority of people will?

      Good luck with your letter, Dan.

  19. Lizz permalink
    January 31, 2012 8:29 am

    But we don’t want the outsiders to think Albany’s too cool…the rent in Center Square is already too much!
    On another note, I support the changing of the ballot to leave out the chains and support more local businesses.

  20. January 31, 2012 10:59 am

    Excellent suggestions. I’ve used to be appalled by the poll and haven’t cared to even look at it in years.

  21. Harrison permalink
    January 31, 2012 12:14 pm

    Agreed. 110%

  22. A Professor's Wife permalink
    January 31, 2012 12:32 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with adding in “individual location” – it would be very useful to someone like myself who is relatively new to the area – useful is the key word here. Popularity, i don’t care about – quality is what I’m looking for when I’m seeking the richest, smoothest mocha in the area. High five.

  23. January 31, 2012 12:52 pm

    I haven’t looked at the results in years, mostly on the fact that the best grocery store is Price Chopper and the Best Pizza is Pizza Hut (gag!) So I wholeheartedly agree!

  24. January 31, 2012 12:56 pm

    Totally agree. The same is true for the non-food categories. Overall, I’d like to see locally-owned, individual locations mentioned, because that is what’s unique to the Capital District. You can find a Pizza Hut or a Home Depot anywhere.

  25. January 31, 2012 1:55 pm

    I agree with each point.

    Logically, individual locations should be encouraged. Price Chopper as a whole is awful; that does not preclude certain locations from being wonderful.

    I truly appreciate you writing on best versus favorite. I find that the survey only allows for ballot stuffing and favoritism, not truly what the best offerings in the Capital District are.

    You have my support!

  26. January 31, 2012 2:02 pm

    Agreed with the entire premise.

    I’m not against national chains being left out of the food categories entirely. If only because the results make me weep for society. It’s not even about “supporting” local business. It’s that DeFazio’s is 100x better than Pizza Hut, Domino’s, etc. We’re not saying that to be nice. It’s true. Here’s an idea, after the TU publishes the full results, it gives the full data to me. Then I can strip out the ballots of everyone that voted for an Applebee’s, an Olive Garden, a Pizza hut, etc. Because we obviously can’t trust their judgment.

    My extreme antics aside, the first two points are the crux of the problem. The third is a tricky nuance that a lot of people don’t get.

  27. January 31, 2012 2:30 pm

    I agree. I especially like the individual location suggestion.

  28. January 31, 2012 4:17 pm

    Agreed!!

  29. Melissa Waters permalink
    January 31, 2012 6:46 pm

    Mr. Berman nailed it.

  30. Awesomedude permalink
    February 1, 2012 8:42 am

    just leaving a quick note of agreement!

  31. Jessica R permalink
    February 1, 2012 12:25 pm

    Agreed on all points, especially individual location!

  32. Amy permalink
    February 1, 2012 7:13 pm

    Agree full-heartedly! Great points, and well-written. Hopefully it will be equally well-received.

  33. Chris permalink
    February 1, 2012 9:02 pm

    Great letter, desperately needed. I would lobby to add the category of “Best Brewery” as we’re lucky to have a few breweries/brewpubs (there are differences between the two) that I and a TON of other people frequent such as the Pumpstation, Brown’s, the Van Dyck Lounge, Davidson Brothers and the Chatham Brewery, heck, even Matt Brewing Company and Brewery Ommegang if you want to go that far. Best beer bar might even be a good one consider we’ve got a nice selection of them to choose from now.

  34. Eric Paul permalink
    February 2, 2012 11:41 am

    Great letter! I very much agree with the single location and further breaking down the categories. I think you have to break the ethnic markets and ethnic restaurants into their own categories. If there are not enough businesses in a category then it shows that their is an opportunity in the Capital District.

    The Times Union best of is compromised without reform. I add that I think there is room for an open letter to Metroland too. I think their best of also compromised in that they have so many categories it seems like they are trying to create every opportunity to recognize local businesses in such a way that it seems either artificial, uncritical, or as if it is all of their buddies.

  35. mirdreams permalink
    February 3, 2012 12:14 pm

    I agree that it would be good to have a more varied list.

  36. Kyle permalink
    February 4, 2012 2:37 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly Dan. There’s a reason people call this place small-bany and it’s because of these types of small minded surveys that media like the Times Union tout as being meaningful. Chains have their place but they shouldn’t dominate the lists.

  37. Kate H permalink
    February 5, 2012 9:32 am

    I totally agree, while I usually skim the survey looking for info into places I probably should try I get disappointed that there’s no difference between a local pizza place and a chain which can have a half dozen or more locations.

  38. February 6, 2012 11:41 am

    agreed, this will be fun to revamp! Down with mediocre!

  39. February 7, 2012 2:30 pm

    Heartily agree. Great suggestions, Daniel.

  40. February 8, 2012 8:08 pm

    Daniel,

    Thank you for putting all of the time and effort into coming up with these ideas. Thanks, too, for your readers for their input.

    You have all given me a lot to think about as I go into leading this year’s Best of the Capital Region section, which includes the readers poll and another editorial element (last year it was photos and captions), This will be my fourth time at the helm.

    I agree that the Times Union can always do better in presenting useful information to our readers. and over the years we have made some changes to address the points that you do make. For example, a few years ago, I was the one who decided that instead of just having one category for Asian restaurant that we should have three, based roughly geographically (East, South and South-East). So every year there have been some changes, but last year the biggest change was reducing the number of categories from 100 to 72, to make the ballot more user-friendly for those filling it out and not overwhelming either the staff (most of the newsroom has a role in the project) or the readers of the section in print or online.

    Anyway, your and your readers ideas will definitely part of the mix when we meet to plan for this year’s Best Of. I feel encouraged that you’ve started this conversation so early, considering the section has usually been published in June.

    Thanks again,
    Michael Janairo
    Arts & Entertainment Editor
    Times Union

  41. February 13, 2012 4:17 pm

    I agree with you, Dan. Thanks for caring enough to put it so well in writing. And hey, how about a category for Best Local Winery? I’ll suggest it to Michael Janairo, too. Now Blog On!

  42. David Buchyn permalink
    February 21, 2012 7:37 pm

    Agreed.

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