There’s a saying in England that goes: “An American thinks a hundred years is a long time; an Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long distance.” This epigram’s charm comes not just from its tweak at Americans’ historical rootlessness but also its respect for Americans’ love of mobility. Although it may be a hoary cliche that Americans have come to enjoy intense relationships with their cars, it is also an undeniably true statement. The American Car Dealership and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age prove it.
The former is published by a specialty house that bills its titles as being “of interest to automotive enthusiasts.” As expected, it occasionally verges on hagiography for its subject—the much-maligned car dealer, in his new-car, used-car, and parts-and-service incarnations. Consider this mind-boggling passage by author Robert A. Genat, a freelance automotive writer in Encinitas, Calif.:
Quite often, people who are basically upstanding and honest citizens will do their utmost to get the best of a used car salesman. Even sweet little old ladies turn into cunning adversaries, because they are sure they are going to be cheated by the fast-talking used car salesman. As the customer approaches the dealership, a mantra of “I’ll cheat him before he cheats me” can be heard softly chanted. Almost every used car salesman has a story of a customer who tried to dupe him on a used-car trade-in by removing all the serviceable components. The day following an appraisal, the customer would bring the car back with a set of bald tires, a radio that didn’t work, and a dead battery—none of which were on the vehicle when appraised the day before.
It may be hard to imagine little old ladies snookering used-car salesmen, but readers, take heart: In Genat’s universe, there’s an easy way to tell the good guys from the sharks. “The salesman must be perceived as a good friend or neighbor,” he writes. “To help foster the image of a solid trustworthy family man, one salesman always had photos of his family in his office. It’s hard not to trust someone whose kids play little league baseball.”
Maybe. Fortunately for Genat, such inexplicable passages are mere lapses. For the most part, Genat demonstrates that he understands his field well—and that he’s willing to share his knowledge of the car-selling business for good, not for ill.
Unlike many of the flashy, nostalgia-laden volumes that are targeted shamelessly to baby boomers every year, Genat’s book does a solid job explaining the nuts and bolts of how cars are marketed and sold. For instance, Genat relates the fascinating story of how new-car dealers in 1938 proposed shutting down the used-car market by junking all cars more than 6 years old—an honest-to-goodness, caught-red-handed example of big business trying to foist planned obsolescence on the American public.
Genat’s most valuable lessons cover the weird Kabuki dance of showroom car-selling. He describes the difference between “up” systems (in which sales staffers take customers in an orderly rotation) and “open floor” systems (in which the piranhas are free to fight among themselves for any piece of meat that walks in the door). He also explains how sales commissions relate to sticker prices and to dealer invoices, and, in turn, how salaries can be affected by “spiffs” (cash bonuses given for almost any reason, ranging from the sale of a desired accessory to a correct answer on a boss’s impromptu quiz).
“Every car salesman has developed biases (most unjustified) toward certain types of customers,” Genat explains:
One of the types they dislike is what they call a “pipe smoker.” A pipe smoker is best typified by the college mathematics professor who will nit pick and agonize over every decimal point on every line of the sales contract. Asians are also seen as being “too analytical” when making a deal for a car. More than once these biases have come back to bite the salesperson.
The lexicon of car-sales lingo is especially enlightening. A car with myriad problems is known as a “bagel”—presumably because it’s got nothing inside. A “waffle” is “[a] sales tactic used to confuse a potential customer. When this seldom-successful sales method is used, many cars are shown and many prices are quoted in an effort to bewilder and wear down a prospect.” By contrast, “bushing” is the “deplorable practice of having a customer pay more for the car than the price that was agreed upon [for instance, to] confuse, use subterfuge, or claim ‘computer error’ in the computation of figures.”
To be sure, Genat could have answered some other important questions—for example, why car advertising, and especially car-dealer advertising, is so bad, and how recent innovations like online sales, no-haggle pricing, and used-car chains like CarMax are changing the automobile marketplace. But even without such explanations, Genat has performed a valuable service.
Imagine yourself driving along a highway and seeing a sign that reads, “Gas-Food-Lodging.” Now imagine seeing exactly the same sign 40 years ago. During the intervening period, which services have clearly improved?
Hotels and motels are easy; they’ve gotten much better: Compare any old-style roadside fleabag with a below-average Days Inn, Ramada Inn, or Comfort Inn, and the contest isn’t even close. So are gas stations: Sure, they have decreased the number of services they provide, dropping the free maps and putting the kibosh on smiling pump-boys who wash your windows as soon as you pull in. But today, anyone with a Visa or MasterCard can breeze into a station and, a minute or two later, be back on the interstate. At worst, let’s call gas a draw.
But food? It’s true that in the old days your selection would have been narrower. But you most likely would have found a full-service restaurant to pull in to—either an independent diner or a big-menu, fresh-to-order restaurant like Howard Johnson or the International House of Pancakes. Today, by contrast, you would be inundated by an endless array of franchises like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and Taco Bell. Unless you are a 6-year-old, the offerings are far, far worse.
John A. Jakle and Keith Sculle, two Midwestern academics who previously co-authored The Gas Station in America and The Motel in America, don’t exactly grapple with this paradox in Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. But they do explain how the modern chain restaurant came to be. Their book, like Genat’s, is a great nostalgia trip—where else can you mourn the loss of Shakey’s Pizza, now a shadow of its former self with only a few dozen outlets? Better yet, it offers an important slice of American business history.
The story of American restaurants begins before the Civil War, when the term “restaurant” was unfamiliar; at the time, only hotel dining rooms, taverns, coffeehouses, and oyster houses served food. During the 20th century, styles came and went, from mirrored soda fountains to automats to chrome-plated diners. (Diners expanded quickly, the authors explain, because their mobile structures were often considered personal rather than real property and therefore were taxed at a lower rate.)
Jakle and Sculle make some plausible guesses about why certain foods ultimately triumphed over others. The initially “foreign” pizza and tacos won the hearts of Americans in part because they could be carried almost anywhere and eaten without utensils. The ultimate fast food—burgers—offered quick preparation, simple condiments, and straightforward meat, unlike that of unappetizing “steak” platters, which dishonest restaurateurs could smother in sauce to hide any shortcomings. (The fact that hot dogs and, outside of Cincinnati, chili never went anywhere as a fast-food format suggests that there may be some truth to that logic.)
The authors provide a mother lode of data to back up their assertions, including dozens of intricately constructed maps showing the relative distributions of fast-food chains in various parts of the country. Unexpected factoids abound: Who would have guessed that Subway ranks second to McDonald’s in outlets, with 12,516 locations—almost double the number of Taco Bells and equal to the total of Burger King and Wendy’s combined? Frighteningly, KFC in 1994 sold 11 pieces of chicken for every man, woman, and child in America. The consumption of frozen potatoes sextupled between 1960 and 1976; the consumption of hard cheese and tomato sauce and paste doubled over the same period. Of course, these facts can be explained by yet another finding: One-third of all family dining decisions are made by children.
The authors are as well-versed in concepts as they are in statistics. Like Genat, Jakle and Sculle stress the importance of roadside architecture in determining sales. For instance, they report that the Northeast-based Friendly’s flopped in the Midwest because people there “misread the [chain’s] Georgian Revival architecture, expecting to find full-service family restaurants” rather than an ice cream and burger place.
Jakle and Sculle also ably dissect the strategies and trajectories of key restaurant chains. The authors do a credible job of explaining why Burger Chef and Howard Johnson failed (because of poor management and unlucky timing for the former, aging restaurants and a resistance to market specialization for the latter) and why Wendy’s succeeded (in part because of uncomfortable seating that encouraged its clientele to turn over rapidly).
In an unintentionally humorous passage, the authors tease out shades of difference between such nearly indistinguishable restaurants as Applebee’s, Bennigan’s, Chili’s, and Ruby Tuesday. (Astonishingly, during the early days of T.G.I. Fridays—back in the ’60s—the atmosphere was supposed to be such that “young lawyers and advertising account executives could meet attractive fashion models and airline stewardesses.”) Then again, some things really are simply inexplicable, such as why McDonald’s genius Ray Kroc thought that a Hula Burger—a hamburger topped with cheese and a pineapple ring—would be a smashing success.
My own favorite corporate survival strategy has to be Horn and Hardart’s. The nation’s pioneering automat company in the early 1900s, H&H by the ’60s had segued into the unsexy but profitable business of managing other companies’ franchises, from Burger King to Arby’s, from David’s Cookies to Bojangles. Now, almost a century after it founded its first automat, H&H ranks among the biggest restaurant-management companies in America.
Fast Food is far from perfect. The chapter on the history of chain restaurants in Springfield, Ill.—a case study of a typical American city—is a snoozer. And the authors barely discuss the issue of how the growth of fast food has harmed the health of whole generations of American youth.
Even so, Jakle and Sculle go to great lengths to understand the industry. They unearth surprising tidbits from sources as mundane as postcards of old restaurants, and Sculle even took a job as a fast-food employee for a while. (He came away disturbed by the degree of exploitation he found.)
The corporatization of the American restaurant, as illustrated again and again by Fast Food, is undeniably distressing. But if you look hard enough through the authors’ statistical haystack, there’s actually reason to take comfort. According to recent statistics they cite, about two-thirds of American restaurants are still independently owned and operated. And they’re likely to serve a continuing market: A full 90 percent of Americans eat out at least once a week, and 40 percent do so on a daily basis. Praise the Lord and pass the slow-smoked barbecue. CP