preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Oct 31, 2013


I inherited the restaurant from my father and, like him, I expect that someday I will die with a paper hat on my head and a spatula in my hand. He was Big Al, I am Albert Junior, and the shop is Albert’s World Hamburger Emporium. Lofty-sounding? Absolutely. Over the top for what is, in truth, a pretty ordinary burger and fries stand? Perhaps. But we are well known around the area, and the only decent hamburger place for five blocks in all directions that isn’t a national chain. Our section of town is what my realtor friends refer to as being in transition, which is a salesman’s way of saying that a great deal of money would need to be invested in order for it to be elevated to a position of mediocrity. I have worked at the restaurant for going on thirty-five years—twenty-one of those as the underappreciated son of Big Al, the remaining fourteen as owner, proprietor, and gustatory ambassador to a neighborhood that, best I can tell, genuinely appreciates my being here.

It is a rare day when someone enters my shop whose name I do not know and enthusiastically employ in greeting them. It is just as likely that I know the names of their family members and their dog, their address, and the latest bit of gossip or drama in their life, not because I’m nosey but because they tell me. Albert’s employs precisely two individuals aside from myself—Sally, a competent if occasionally-mouthy granddaughter on my father’s side, and Ted, a reticent neighborhood youth who works the grill, waits tables if the need arises, and spends the rest of his time doing whatever needs doing. During slow periods, which are mercifully infrequent, these two typically remain inside pretending to clean up, affording me the luxury of sitting beneath an expansive awning on the sidewalk outside, where I survey the street and share pleasantries with passersby.

It was on one such day that I chanced to noticed an old white panel truck pull up adjacent the abandoned storefront directly across the street. A man I did not know got out of the truck and proceeded to give the building a more thorough examination than it had received ever in the past decade. He carried a clipboard on which he made occasional notes as he walked thoughtfully from one end to the other and back again. After a few minutes of this curious activity, he produced a key, opened the front door and disappeared inside for fifteen or so minutes. Upon exiting, he relocked the front door, climbed back into his truck and drove away. He never once cast his gaze around the neighborhood, nor came close to meeting my eyes. This was my first introduction, albeit a distant one, to Luther Cramer, the man who would, in many ways, define the next several months of my life.

Two days later, I was working the counter, catching up on local news with Bill Jefferson, owner of an occasionally solvent used book and record store a couple blocks away, and owner, as well, of a considerably over-extended line of credit here at Albert’s about which I had been more than a little tolerant in recent weeks. Jefferson had lived in the area his entire life, including having served as town alderman, church deacon, and tax assessor at various and occasionally overlapping times. He had even been a modest competitor at one point in the distant past, a brief stint as part owner of a pizza parlor two blocks west of Albert’s. It was this experience that enabled the man to opine with some regularity on certain operational details of my own establishment, including menu selection, food suppliers, and what had turned out to be not-ineffective strategies for dealing with the local inspectors and regulatory officials who are the bane of restaurateurs everywhere.

As Jefferson began to make some point or other about a newly-elected local politician, I noticed the white panel truck again pull up across the street. This time, as the driver—same man from the previous visit—exited the truck, a larger truck arrived as well and parked behind the first, bearing an emblem on its door and the name Patterson Sign Company. The sign truck was equipped with an onboard crane and bore on its flatbed a large mysterious-looking cargo, for the moment concealed beneath a canvas tarp. Jefferson, ever laconic and noticing that even as I continued to converse with him, my gaze was fixated over his shoulder, offered simply, “What’s up, Albert?” without seeming particularly inclined to expend the energy to turn around and have a look for himself.

“Can’t rightly say,” I replied, watching as the two men conversed intently, accompanied by much gesturing toward the building, the cargo on the back of the truck, and back again. During the course of this exchange, a second man emerged from the sign truck and walked around front to join the first two. He did not appear to engage in the gesturing and dialog of the other two, but simply stood, hands in his pockets, content to absorb whatever was being discussed. I continued to engage Jefferson in bits of small talk while wiping the counter perfunctorily for a few more moments. I do not recall what we spoke about in those few moments, but I very much recall the final phrase I uttered before emerging from behind the counter and stepping to the window to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. What I said was “Well, I’ll be goddamned,” an utterance not particularly noteworthy in its own right, aside from the fact that I had, over the years, established a bit of a reputation as one who eschewed profanity, particularly in public. Indeed, I had been known from time to time to castigate patrons who had the temerity to use such language in my establishment. I had even thrown a customer or two out over the issue in years past. Thus it was with some surprise that Jefferson noted my utterance and felt it worthy of turning about to have a look for himself. What he saw—what I had seen—was the tarp being removed from the cargo on the back of the truck, cargo that turned out to be a brand spanking new sign on which was printed in bright red and white the words “Luther’s Burgers,” and in a smaller font beneath, “The Best You’ll Ever Taste.” Jefferson had by now joined me at the front window just in time to hear me indulge in the almost as rare act of repeating myself. “Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

“You know,” Jefferson offered after a moment’s reflection over what was transpiring across the street, “the neighborly thing to do would be to go over there and introduce yourself. Besides, it’s possible,” he added, “that that sign is destined for another location entirely.”

I turned and looked at Jefferson in a silent display of disbelief, but he only shrugged in response. The crane turned on with a whine as the men began the process of lifting the sign and securing it atop the building. “Huh,” was all Jefferson could muster before turning from the window and retaking his seat at the counter.

It was a week before I could muster the resolve to make that introductory trek across the street. In the intervening days, the level of activity at the new establishment had picked up considerably. A variety of trucks drove up and unloaded tables, chairs, ovens, grills, and an enormous wood-encased item that took the men much evaluation and debate before they could figure out how to get it inside. I imagined it was a freezer, a guess that proved correct when it was at last determined that the thing could not be gotten inside without first uncrating it, and even then only by removing the entire casing from around the double front door. Despite the fact that the place was still several days from opening, Luther chose to keep his brilliant new sign illuminated from dusk to ten or so each night, no doubt in a bid to develop a bit of preemptive brand awareness. One evening, about three weeks after his initial visit, a banner went up spanning the entire façade. It said simply “Grand Opening.” I could stand it no longer and, as I removed my apron and washed my hands, I said to Sally “Mind the store,” and began the longest fifty-foot walk of my life.

As I crossed the simmering pavement, I couldn’t help but glance back over my shoulder at the façade of Albert’s. The painted sign had needed attention for at least a year, and that was being kind. One of the big front windows had a crack in the corner that had been there long as I could remember. There were sun-faded bills taped to the glass on either side of the front door announcing events that had taken place years earlier.

Luther was just descending a tall A-frame ladder at one end of the “Grand Opening” sign when I stepped up onto his sidewalk. He saved me the trouble of an awkward introduction by walking briskly up to me and extending a meaty right hand.

“You must be Albert!” he effused. “Luther Cramer! I’ve heard wonderful things about you … you and your fine establishment. Forgive my rudeness. I’d’ve come over and introduced myself sooner but—well, you know better than anyone, right? It’s nothing but chaos trying to get a thing like this up and running.” He gestured grandly across the freshly painted façade of his restaurant.

“Come on inside,” he offered, “and have a glass of tea. It’s powerful hot out here.” I had not yet uttered a word as I followed him through the front door and into a completely and beautifully decorated restaurant interior. It was retro-chic, decorated to recreate the stainless steel interior of a fifties-era diner. It was bright and comfortable and had clearly cost him a fortune to put together. As he led me toward the counter, my eye instinctively went to the menu posted on the wall behind the cash register. Everything was at least ten percent cheaper than at Albert’s.

Luther drew two glasses of iced tea, handed one to me, and sat at the counter, sipping in silent pensiveness for a moment before speaking.

“I expect it’s occurred to you to wonder why someone would choose to open a competing business directly across the street from yours.” It was a statement rather than a question.

“I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder precisely that.”

“It’s a big neighborhood, Albert. Thousands of potential customers to go around. Plenty for everyone. Guess I just figured that if you’ve gone to the trouble of figuring out the ideal place folks want to come for hamburgers, who am I to second guess you?”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “But why right here, right across the street?”

“Now that, Albert, that is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. There are countless empty stores in this neighborhood. Hell, this wasn’t even the cheapest rent I could have gotten. So why here?”

He was going somewhere with this, but so far I was damned if I knew where. I sat for a moment without answering.

“It’s for the neighborhood, Albert. I’ve been in your place. You probably don’t even remember, but I’ve eaten there twice—month, month and a half ago. It’s not bad, Albert. Not bad. I can taste real talent when I eat your food. But more than that, I taste unrealized potential. You can do a whole lot better and I, my friend, am just the man to help you do it.”

I was genuinely bamboozled. I sipped my tea and tried to remember his face from the restaurant, tried, as well, to offer a cogent response. “I’m sorry, Luther. Maybe it’s the heat or something. Just exactly how does you opening a new burger place across the street from my burger place help me?”

“Simple as pie, Albert. Simple.” He reached for my empty glass and refilled it from the iced tea drum behind the counter, talking as he poured. “I am going to do a better job than you at everything you do. Luther’s is going to be cleaner, cheaper, friendlier, better tasting, longer hours, you name it. And you, my friend, will have no choice but to up your game or lose your customers. Unless, that is, you have a clientele that is so loyal to Albert’s that they will deliberately avoid my establishment even though it’s better in every conceivable way. I don’t doubt for a moment that you’ve got some customers like that. Every long-standing business does. But, Albert, are there enough of them to sustain your business? I’m guessing not.”

“Sounds to me like a fancy way of saying that your real goal is to see me ruined.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth, Albert. Like I said before, this is for the neighborhood, and maybe a small dose of self-satisfaction on my part. When the dust settles, these people—many of them your friends—will have a choice of two excellent, high-quality burger places. You’ve just gotten a little stagnant, that’s all. Bit of competition will do you good!”

My initial reaction to all of this was to conclude that the man was insane. It was difficult to tell if he was espousing some sort of weird capitalist delusion or just toying with me. It was hyperbole, narcissism, and good old-fashioned weirdness, being served up in what felt like more or less equal measure.

“Listen, Albert,” he said, getting up from his seat at the counter. “I’ve got to run and check on some things at the printer. You know, receipts, register tapes, all that stuff. I’m opening up at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. Still having a think about whether or not I want to do a breakfast trade or not. Never was much of a morning person. Anyway, you stop in whenever you like and I’ll spot you a free platter, just so you know what you’re up against. You never can tell—folks might just like yours better. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

And with that bizarre invitation, he walked toward the door and courteously held it open for me. He extended his hand and I accepted it, though I could not for the life of me think why. Luther Cramer was, in all likelihood, the architect of my ruin, and, God help me, I shook his hand. I was still in a bit of a daze when I pushed open the dirty front door of Albert’s and stepped back inside. I couldn’t help but take a good hard look around, perhaps the first objective look around I’d taken in several years. More profanity popped into my head, and it was all I could do to keep it from making it onto my tongue.

I sat down heavily at the counter, lost in thought, and did something I couldn’t remember having done in years. I asked Sally to draw me a cup of coffee rather than walking around and getting it myself. What was shaping up across the street was a genuine situation and I had never been much of a fan of situations. And what really hacked me off about the whole thing—maybe even more than the suddenly very real prospect of losing my business—was the fact that Luther was so damned gentlemanly about the whole thing, almost like it was a game he’d dreamed up just to make my life miserable. I needed to decide what I was going to do about this and that was going to require some thinking. But one thing I sure as hell was not going to do was walk across that street tomorrow when he opened and eat one of his hamburgers. I knew already that his place was new, clean, bright, and less expensive than mine. I fully expected that they had better, friendlier service. Last thing I needed was to eat the food and find out that it was better than mine too.

Ted was half-heartedly wiping down the empty tables and swapping stories with customers. I called him over.

“Do me a favor,” I said. “Pull down all those damned old bills from the front windows and put a wash on the glass, would you?”

He turned in silent compliance but made it no more than halfway to the front door when the sudden thought of Luther watching smugly from across the street as I leapt into action to fulfill his prophecy filled me with dread.

“Ted,” I said, a little louder than necessary, “Tell you what. Hold off on that until first thing in the morning.” He turned away and returned to his table wiping as though the exchange had never taken place.

That night’s sleep was a fitful one indeed, filled with dreams I could not recall upon awakening but which I was certain were dark and ominous. I arrived the next morning slack-eyed and yawning with every third word. But I arrived, as well, bearing a newly gathered helping of resolve and what I thought might be a plan for dealing with Luther. At least it had seemed like a plan as it was taking form the previous night. Now, as I walked into the restaurant and looked about, it seemed more like a bottomless crevasse. Whether I would rappel skillfully down its side or plunge screaming into the abyss remained to be seen.

Jefferson was at the counter when I arrived, as he had been nearly every morning for the past several years. He was warming his hands on a coffee cup and chatting quietly with Sally, punctuating his remarks with the occasional gesture over his shoulder, presumably emphasizing an opinion of one sort or another concerning the imminent grand opening of Luther’s. I stepped behind the counter and tied a starched white apron around my waist. I nodded curtly to Sally and Jefferson but did not interrupt their conversation. There were a half dozen other customers that morning and I quickly made the rounds. Every one had the same question, or some variation of it. What do you mean to do about that new place? Isn’t it terribly provocative that he chose to locate right across the street from you? To a person they espoused their loyalty to Albert’s and I thanked them profusely but encouraged them nonetheless to visit Luther’s and decide for themselves whose food and surroundings they preferred. Saying these words felt at once odd and comforting, for though I knew in my heart that Luther’s was the better establishment, I had resolved that I would defeat him, even if it meant competing on his terms.

I was by no stretch of the imagination a wealthy man, but I had managed to put a bit away over the years against some unforeseen rainy day, and, after having a look at my bank book the previous night, I had determined that the gathering storm clouds over Luther’s merited a bit of investment, perhaps several bits. Looked at in the cold light of objectivity, there was something to what Luther had said yesterday. In the absence of any real competition, I had become complacent. And in the absence of any viable options, my customers had remained loyal to Albert’s. But there was no reason to expect they would continue to do so from here on, given the presence of a new and better alternative. The time had come for a few changes.

By mid-morning Ted had the front windows cleaned and stripped of all detritus. While he did that, I made several calls—window repairman, sign painter, decorator, cleaning service, and food supplier. By eleven that morning, I had made several financial commitments that would cumulatively make a significant dent in my rainy day account. As the lunch hour neared, I stood with a phone to my ear soliciting yet another cleaning service bid, watching as Luther, true to his word, opened with much fanfare his front doors to a respectably long line of customers waiting on the sidewalk. I noted a couple of familiar faces waiting in the line, and couldn’t help but glance back at my own lunchtime crowd, which I took comfort in seeing was only slightly diminished.

In the days that followed, a newly refurbished Albert’s began to take shape. Broken windows were replaced, a top to bottom cleaning occurred during the third night, and I began detailed conversations with a decorator and sign painter. As this flurry of activity got into full motion, I kept one eye ever focused across the street, the better to gauge Luther’s success, which appeared considerable. It was also during those early transformative days that more than a few of my regular customers sheepishly confessed to having given Luther’s a try. To a person, they had nothing but positive things to report. With each such story I felt my resolve stiffen in a way that would have doubtless pleased my new competitor, if, that is, he had been totally ingenuous in his initial explanation of what had motivated him to open in the first place. Thus it was with some astonishment that on the ninth day after Luther’s grand opening—a Thursday as I recall—he failed to open the doors at his regular eleven a.m. opening time. I had, by this time, gotten into the habit of watching his late-morning openings, and it was with more than a little surprise that rather than the usual collection of patrons who waited outside, there was this day no crowd at all. Instead, the occasional couple or lone person would walk up to the door, gaze briefly at what appeared to be a single sheet of paper attached to the door, and walk away, some shaking their heads slowly in confusion. I asked Ted to walk over and find out what the paper had to say.

“Closed ‘til further notice,” Ted offered laconically as he walked back into the restaurant a few seconds later.

“That’s it?” I replied. “No explanation?”

“It’s got a town government seal on it and some guy’s signature at the bottom.”

“Word is he neglected to obtain all the proper permits,” said Jefferson, stepping through the door at his regular midday arrival time, joining the conversation as though he’d been there all along. “Something to do with his plumbing, I believe.”

He walked past without further comment and took a seat at the counter where Sally set a cup of coffee in front of him without being asked. I looked for a moment at Ted and he looked uncertainly back at me. I turned and walked over to where Jefferson was warming his hands on his cup.

“How’d you come to know so much about what’s happening over at Luther’s?”

“I know some people,” was all he replied.

He appeared to have nothing further to offer on the subject and I turned back to my other doings, glancing as I did so back across the street at Luther’s empty storefront. Later that afternoon I made a couple of calls and found that, indeed, Luther’s restaurant had unexpectedly been visited by a city plumbing inspector and found to be in violation of several obscure code requirements, some of which I made a mental note to check for compliance in my own establishment. My contact suggested that the problems were fixable and that my competitor would likely be back up and running by week’s end. Sure enough, within a couple hours of my making the call, a plumber’s truck had appeared in front of Luther’s.

By the following Monday, Albert’s had a freshly painted sign overhead and a newly spotless kitchen and dining area. A decorator was shopping for new booths, tables, and chairs and I was deep in thought about potential changes to the menu. At eleven that morning, without fanfare or announcement, Luther’s opened again as though nothing untoward had taken place in the preceding days. In the week that followed, modest changes began appearing on my menu, along with small but noticeable reductions in the prices of a few items—reductions I knew I could not maintain indefinitely, but which I was willing to endure in the short term in response to what I had seen posted on Luther’s menu board.

When I sat down late that Friday to tabulate the week’s receipts, I was unsurprised to see in stark black and white what I had instinctively known was taking place. Receipts for the week were down about ten percent and the various improvements I had undertaken had reduced my rainy day account by nearly half. It had begun to appear that Luther would win through a slow but inexorable process of attrition. I gave this state of affairs a great deal of thought over the weekend and returned the next Monday morning ready to explore with my staff and even a few longstanding customers other possibilities for differentiating Albert’s from our new competition. I was prepared for anything—anything, that is, except to see that yet again, Luther’s failed to open at its appointed time. There were more people lingering outside the door, and yet another note was affixed to his front door. This time I did not hesitate in dispatching Ted to investigate.

“Health Department closure,” he replied as he stepped back through the door moments later. “Something about an infestation.” His voice was sufficiently loud for some of my patrons to overhear, a situation I did nothing to assuage. Later that morning an exterminator truck pulled up in front of Luther’s. It remained for most of the afternoon. Sometime after three, Jefferson walked in, not unusual despite his own store ostensibly still being open for business.

“Roaches are just a damnable thing in this neighborhood,” he offered to no one in particular as he took his usual spot at the counter. “Damnable.” He ordered coffee and said nothing more. I looked at Ted, who only shrugged in reply.

By Wednesday morning, Luther was back up and running, though the queue waiting outside this time was noticeably smaller than it had been in the wake of his earlier closures. By the end of that week we had rolled out a completely upgraded menu, including greater variety and better fresher food quality. My customers expressed approval with their comments and their wallets. That weekend the new furniture was scheduled to arrive for the dining room, an event that would mark the end of the upgrades I had planned for the place. It took until Tuesday morning that week for Luther’s to close down again, an event that took place with remarkable regularity over the next several weeks. Always early in the week. Never for more than a day or two. Through the grapevine—or, more accurately, through Jefferson, who appeared to have a direct line to the grapevine—we learned that there were OSHA violations, permits incorrectly applied for, insufficient refrigeration temperatures, cracks in the sidewalk, and a myriad of similar regulatory and operational minutia that, by the seventh or eighth event, must surely have been driving Luther to the brink of madness. I had never, in all my years at this location, known our local bureaucrats to be so zealous in the pursuit of their duties, but it appeared Luther was bearing the full brunt of their bureaucratic onslaught, for what reason I could not imagine.

By the fourth or fifth such closure, the ensuing group of customers who awaited the reopening had shrunk to a scarce discernible quantity, while at the same time it appeared as though the clientele at Albert’s had grown to well above pre-Luther levels. Part of me assumed this must be due to the various improvements I had implemented of late. But another part of me wondered whether perhaps Luther’s opening—subsequent travails notwithstanding—might not have alerted new customers to the presence of an available alternative, conveniently located just across the street. Through the entire two months of my competitor’s teething difficulties, I never once deigned to walk back over and discuss matters with Luther. There were moments when I felt as though perhaps I should, but in the end I gave in to my instinct to leave well enough alone.

The final reckoning came eleven weeks to the day after Luther’s original grand opening. I wasn’t entirely clear whether it was the electrical system or the gas leak that proved to be his final undoing, but on that Monday morning what had come to be regarded as the obligatory legal notice taped to the front door was replace by a large sign reading simply “Closed Until Further Notice,” which notice I was promptly assured by Jefferson, would not be forthcoming.

“You know,” he offered as he walked in on that warm Monday morning, “it occurs to me that the man might have spent a bit more time exploring the nuances of operating a restaurant in this neighborhood before diving right into such an expensive undertaking.”

I walked down the length of the counter as Jefferson took his seat. Leaning in closely I said to him, “Seems to me, throughout all of this you have been a remarkably well-informed individual.”

“That’s true,” he replied in his laconic manner. “And yet my tab remains undiminished.” This last he offered with a wry smile and a rare second or two of full eye contact whose import it took me some moments to fully appreciate. Later that afternoon, I glanced across the street and noticed Luther sitting on the sidewalk, still adorned in white apron and paper hat. Suspecting that such opportunities might be fast waning, I handed things off to Sally, removed my own apron, and made my way across the street. Luther looked up as I approached.

“Come to twist the dagger a bit, my friend?” he said, his smile as ebullient as our first meeting.

“Nothing of the sort,” I replied, unsure of my own candor or intent at this moment. “Come to offer my thanks is all. You couldn’t have been more correct in your initial assessment of my establishment. I’ve made an honest go at addressing the deficiencies you pointed out.”

“So you have,” he replied. “So you have. And a fine job too.”

“You know,” he continued, aiming a thumb over his shoulder but not looking behind him, “It’s almost as though someone had it in for me from the get-go. I have never, in all my days, seen the likes of the bureaucracy and politics I’ve encountered these last few weeks. I tell you, Albert, it was all I could do to boil a pot of water without some local alderman or inspector walking in and thrusting a thermometer into the pot to check on it. And yet I don’t see any of these folks spending their time at Albert’s.”

“Luther, I honestly cannot offer any explanation for that. There’s no accounting for politics around here. Maybe I’ve just been around so damned long they don’t bother with me anymore. I imagine with new places they want to establish a track record of sorts before they decide to leave you alone. Best I can come up with, I’m afraid.”

“You may be right, my friend. You may be right indeed,” he said, rising with a grunt from his position at the curb. He extended his hand as he stood. “I expect you’ll not be hearing much more from Luther Cramer around these parts, but stop on by tomorrow if you like, and I may be able to offer you a deal on some barely used restaurant equipment.” He did his best to smile as I released his hand. He walked back inside and I turned to cross the street, wondering if maybe I oughtn’t have another look at Jefferson’s tab after all.

Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared