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The Chronic Sonic

July 3, 2015

Yesterday I bought three copies of the Albany Times Union at my local Stewart’s. It seems like I’ve been in the paper a bunch lately. Last month it was for the blog. Yesterday it was for Yelp. That’s just crazy.

This Yelp gig, much like the All Over Albany one before it, has really helped to shape the way I think about what’s going on in the world of food throughout the Capital Region. When I arrived here over eight years ago, I was focused on the area’s lapses and failings. The AOA work required me to actively find good things. And as a Yelp Community Ambassador, I find myself actively looking for the good in a place.

It’s been so long since I’ve eaten at a Sonic Drive-In, I honestly can’t even remember if I had positive associations with the chain or not. The first Sonic opened up in the Capital Region this week, and the cover story on yesterday’s Times Union was an irate opinion piece by Chris Churchill. This was A1, above the fold, and it begins, “It’s happening once again. The opening of a national chain is causing the good people of the Capital Region to act like a bunch of yokels.”

Honestly, the old me would have loved a story like this. And part of me still does. But writing this blog over the years has taught me a thing or two about the nature of our culinary scene. And I have to say, I may see things a little bit differently than Mr. Churchill.

The people of Albany love chains. That’s undeniable. I’ve come to accept and understand it.

I also do appreciate the paper trying to take a stand in order to move the region in a more positive direction. This specifically was what I craved upon moving here eight years ago. The newspaper should have a voice in shaping people’s opinions, not just echoing them.

It’s absolutely nuts that the opening of a chain drive-in burger joint is blocking up traffic on a major arterial in the region, based on a neverending hunger for the new and shiny national chain. But in all fairness, this is different from the opening of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, The Fresh Market, and Trader Joe’s.

I really think that most of these cases need to be looked at individually. That said, Dinosaur and Trader Joe’s are eerily similar, in that each had a loyal following of customers who would routinely drive hours out of their way just to get a semi-regular fix of their favorite place. So when a trip to one of these places became as convenient as taking a short drive, it’s no wonder people were excited.

The Fresh Market was different. That was about the struggle of living for years under the tyranny of a grocery duopoly. People of the Capital Region were starved of grocery innovation for so long that there was a massive appetite for anything new.

Sonic, and its resulting frenzy, is largely a product of unfortunate media buying.

As we mentioned before, one television commercial isn’t terribly meaningful. But if you run lots of commercials for a long enough time, they have a way of insidiously creeping inside your head. And even though we had no Sonic restaurants in our DMA, television ads have been running in the Capital Region for years.

Sometimes it’s more efficient to buy a national or regional commercial schedule than it is to pick out individual markets in which to run your ads. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a broadcast spill analysis or a break-even calculation for buying spot versus network television. Those I don’t miss.

Anyhow, nothing is more motivating than seeing ads for a product and then being told you can’t have it. Most people will want it even more. So, quite by accident, this frenzy has been engineered.

In the parlance of our time, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

But the headline of Churchill’s column was “If only frenzy over Sonic extended to local eateries.” However, I think it totally extends to local places. Does anyone remember the frenzy surrounding Tavern Noodle? How about that line on Central Avenue in the mornings before Rock N Roll Brunch? My understanding is that 15 Church has a totally full reservation book. At festivals I can’t get close to the Slidin’ Dirty food truck. I won’t even go to the Lucas Confectionery if it’s not a Monday or Tuesday night because people started flocking to it in droves. And even at Ralph’s Tavern, an older regional institution, I had to wait almost an hour for a table on a busy weekend evening.

Sure, there are plenty of great local places that deserve more attention than they get. Pirates Lakeside Grill is one of them. Park Side Eatery is also doing great work, and always seems less crowded than it should be. Hong Kong Bakery and Bistro should be packed at all hours of the day, but isn’t. Bread and Honey is baking up some great stuff in Albany, but doesn’t seem to have ignited a ton of public interest. All of these businesses have a loyal fan base, and I’m not concerned for their survival. But sometimes we lose great local businesses like Shwe Mandalay because the local community fails to embrace them.

I suppose I’m concerned with how the column ends, “‘Look, Ma! I’ve never seen a restaurant like that one before! Let’s get us some!!” Churchill’s dream is to get “the yokels” excited about new and interesting places. I think that by in large, the new and interesting places are doing quite well. Umana on a Saturday night is hopping. Peck’s Arcade fills up. Stacks Espresso Bar gets packed during the day.

Personally, it feels more like we’re losing a bit of our soul, as the younger generations aren’t embracing those old places that make the region special. I was warned to get to Peta’s in Schenectady for beans and greens sometime in July because the owners will be selling it, and that I shouldn’t miss out. The City Squire in Schenectady just closed. Dewey’s Diner broke my heart when it shuttered operations.

On the flip side, we are getting a ramen bar, which incidentally is now open in the old Miss Albany Diner. I really shouldn’t tell you, because soon it too will likely be mobbed. And while in my heart of hearts I know that’s a good sign, part of me likes great places when they are my own hidden finds.

Fortunately for you, I’m terrible at keeping secrets.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2015 11:48 am

    You and I have somewhat similar experiences. I moved to the Capital Region in 2006. One of the biggest issues I had when settling in that first year was feeling like the area had no food culture. It felt like everything was a chain. Then two things happened. The first was that I learned there actually WAS a food culture… I just had to know where to look for it. When I discovered Schenectady’s Little Italy, for example, I was mollified a bit. The other thing that happened happened gradually: in the last 9 years (or so) the Capital Region’s dining scene has absolutely bloomed. From chic city vibes to *authentic* ethnic holes-in-the wall to Euro-style gastropubs, we’ve really got quite the variety. And to me, the best part is that most of these establishments are local. I honestly believe that people moving here in 2015 would not have the same impression of the area’s dining scene that I did in 2006.

    I don’t really know where I’m going with this other than to say that I am definitely one of the people who gets super excited whenever something new and different opens… for me, though, it’s more likely to happen when a local sous chef decides to open his own restaurant or when a place like 15 Church opens a patio.

    But I get chains. I understand why we have them and why people go to them — I am one of those people. It’s the mix of chains and non-chains that’s most important to me… and I think the Capital Region has made strides in finding that balance.

    (Side note: I don’t know if its because of those television commercials you speak of or past dining experiences or what, but over the years I’ve known quite a few Albany-area people who have taken road trips down the Thruway *just* for a Sonic fix. I’m assuming they’re part of the yokel crowd.)

  2. JoeN permalink
    July 3, 2015 12:34 pm

    Why anyone would choose bland, precooked, mass produced food-like substances over a place like Pirates Lakeside Grill is beyond me. There are two things I am sure of when I go to PLG. First, what I am getting served is of the highest quality and second, it is cooked to order and not sitting under a heat lamp. Throw in the fun atmosphere and that is why their customers are loyal, some to the point of taking opening day off of work to be one of the first in line. The people who turned Route 7 into a parking lot have no idea what they are missing. One trip to PLG and they would throw stones at places like Sonic.

  3. July 3, 2015 3:11 pm

    The same T-U just released its list of the best restaurants to open in the past year.

    1. City Line Bar, Albany
    2. Slidin’ Dirty, Troy
    3. Texas de Brazil, Guilderland
    4. Texas Roadhouse, Colonie
    5. Burger 21, Colonie

    Nice to see Slidin’ Dirty up there but where’s 15 Church? Where’s Peck’s Arcade? I think Mr. Churchill has a point.

  4. July 5, 2015 1:32 pm

    The people of Albany love chains. That’s undeniable. I’ve come to accept and understand it.

    Which requires me to make my obligatory point that the better way of putting this is that “the people of the United States love chains.” They thrive everywhere. (Try counting the nmber of McDonald’s and Starbucks the next time you walk around Manhattan.)

  5. July 6, 2015 8:52 am

    Well, the flip side of chains is that it does keep “the masses” out of some of my favorite places…
    It would be sad to see Peta’s close/ change hands.

  6. July 10, 2015 5:39 pm

    Agree on most points! The Albany Druthers has been slammed and they haven’t even done any official marketing yet. The Shop in Troy was busy even on this past holiday weekend. The new grilled cheese lunch spot downtown had long lines its first week.

    BUT some of the local business failings are their own fault. We try and try and try to support Bread & Honey but they are always either running very low on bagels or it takes 45 minutes to get 6 bagels and cream cheese. If they want to compete with Brueggers and Uncommon Grounds they need to improve thoes things. We want the good bagels, but we also want to be able to grab them within a few minutes. Similar service and/or hours/availability problems have led to the demise of many many other promising local businesses. I think the locals really want them to succeed, but they need to do their part, too.

    On that note, we’re trying Pirate’s Lakeside Grill for the first time tonight, on your recommendation.

  7. July 10, 2015 8:11 pm

    I’m pretty sure that insulting people isn’t the way to convince them of anything — the TU’s writer should know that.

    I’m curious about Sonic myself, just because of seeing those stupid commercials all of these years. But I’m also annoyed that they have something called a “chili-cheese coney” on their menu, but it’s a chili-cheese hot dog, not a coney. There’s not a single coney on their menu… and that’s a shame, ’cause they’d fit right in, and they’re both delicious and impossible to find around here.

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