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All you can eat

The dish on Missoula's recent rush of new restaurants

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For the food vendors, the weekly grind of hauling cooking and serving gear to Caras Park can make even the most positive people a bit cantankerous. Factor in the sun, the wind blowing your sporks onto the concrete and a crowd that might have had a few too many and you've got the makings for a hullaballoo.

By trade I am a baker, but at Downtown ToNight I work mainly as a cashier. I'll chitchat with the tourists who stop by our spot and ask where the ATM is. I'll make change for people even if they're not buying anything. I'll send folks to our competition because we won't sell bottled water.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

On one particular day a woman in her 60s stood a few feet from our menu board. Her nose scrunched and her lips moved as she read. Her husband stood nearby, wearing a Panama hat. I knew they were trouble before they even stepped in front of me.

"Is this all you have?" he asked.

"Yes."

I began to chew on my tongue.

"Do you have bottled water?" he asked.

I told him we have what was on the menu but that the vendors across from us had bottled water. He seemed satisfied. I was relieved. Certainly we could both go on with our day without incident. Then his wife appeared by his side, hand held to her forehead, possibly in salute to me.

"What's a pretzel roll?" she asked.

I described the pretzel bread we use on our pulled-pork sandwiches. I get up at 4 a.m. to make that bread. I hand-roll each ball of dough, sometimes 200 of them in a morning. The bread is gorgeous and it's delicious.

"Oh, you got those at Costco," she said.

My partner and I laughed. I explained to her that we bake all our own bread. "No, no, I saw them there, these are from Costco." She reached for a roll to pick it up as if waving one in my face would prove her case. Using my eyes, I convinced her that picking up a roll would be a huge mistake. The air got hotter. The breeze quit. This was her chance to agree with me and order some food. Instead, she said, "These are definitely from Costco."

My partner sensed the tension and busied himself nearby. "I make every goddamned one of these, okay," I said. The woman moved off.

There were other customers in line, some laughing, some mortified. Admittedly, I could have gone a different direction with the exchange, but I felt like making a stand for all of us who work in the service industry, for all of us who've ever been disrespected (or at least thought they were).

The husband stood in front of me looking anxious, like this wasn't the first time he'd been in this situation. He pulled out his wallet and held it in front of his belly. He ordered something. I stared right over his head. He waved the money a bit to get my attention. I folded my arms. I deliberately blinked my eyes slowly, exuding the bored indifference of a good bouncer. He finally walked away.

The next guy in line walked up, shook his head and with a keen wit said, "Where do you get your bread, Costco?"

•••

Wiener war

The customer is always right, even when they're not

by Jamie Rogers

"The customer is always right" is a meaningless adage that not only damages the psyches of service industry workers worldwide, but is utterly irrelevant in the realm of hotdog vending. A well-chopped onion, a softly steamed bun, an all-beef wiener that has been cooked just until the ends split—these are essential components, but what really makes a meh hotdog a pow hotdog has more to do with the attitudinal thrust with which the dog was served than the culinary precision with which it was prepared.

Think about the best wiener towns in the world: In New York, vendors talk on their Bluetooths as they fish another Sabrett from a vat of greasy water. In Chicago, they refuse you service if you order a dog with ketchup. In other words, the crux of successful hotdog vending is forcing the customer to realize the product is so quality that it doesn't matter how he or she is treated during the transaction. When I used to sling wieners, I believed deeply that my meat was the best meat and that by making it available to the public I was doing the community a solid of unthinkable altruism. This is to say that in hotdog vending the customer is rarely, if ever, right.

Of course, this service philosophy has its dangers.

Three summers ago I was manning the hotdog stand on the corner of Main St. and Higgins Ave., when one of our regulars, a 9-year-old boy whose mom owned a nearby retail business—call him Sam—came to get a jumbo doused with ketchup. This was his typical order. (In my opinion, there are two ways to avoid ridicule for ordering ketchup on a hotdog: 1) You are prepubescent or 2) You ask for such an unreasonable amount of ketchup that your preference goes from being sacrilegious to plain shocking. This kid had both going for him.) After we chitchatted for a moment about the things 23-year-old hotdog vendors and 9-year-old boys chitchat about, he scampered back down the block to his mom's shop.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Less than three minutes later Sam's mom returned his hotdog. She asked if he could get another one.

"Like you want to return that one?" I asked, pointing at the foil-wrapped jumbo she clutched in her hands.

She explained that it was different than usual. "It's soggy," she said.

I agreed with her. The hotdog was soggy. You could even say it was very soggy. Sogginess is unavoidable when you put the equivalent of 35 packets of ketchup on a tube of steamed meat and then wrap it in tin foil.

As I explained this to her, the conversation ran away from me. I could see in her eyes that this was no longer about the wiener. She paused, and I remember this vividly: She turned her head and stared into the middle of the street and the passing traffic and seemed to consider her options. Certainly, this conversation was unnecessary—you might call it a shamefully First World confrontation. But then she placed the hotdog on the top of my stand and said, "You know what, I have enough going on in my life. I don't need this."

She stomped away, before returning immediately, towing her son in hand. She marched right past my stand again and crossed the street to buy Sam a sandwich.

Until that day Sam's mom bought at least one soda from our stand every day. Sam had at least two hotdogs a week. After that day, and for nearly two years following, she did not make a single transaction with me or my partner, Casey. No dogs, no soda, not even eye contact or nods of acknowledgment.

As someone who at the beginning of this story extolled the importance of swagger in wiener slinging, it is only fair I note I also have an at-times paralyzing phobia of confrontation. I didn't think she was right—she was definitely wrong—but I came away feeling like the whole scene was needlessly dramatic, maybe even a little hurtful, especially to Sam. I wonder if he's had a hotdog since.

In preparation for writing this article, I went to see Sam's mom at her shop, which she still runs downtown. I parked my bike outside and felt a bit anxious. The incident was a long time ago, and clearly we have both moved on, but I had pissed her off so much she refused to acknowledge me every day for nearly two hotdog vending seasons.

I walked into the store, which was empty save for her. The shop was clean, well-stocked and smelled like cooked onions.

"What can I do for you?" she asked. She didn't seem to recognize me. I explained I used to sell hotdogs down the street. Her eyes widened and said, "Oh yeah!"

I told her I now work as a writer, and I was doing a story about the service industry. She just nodded, and I felt stupid enough to keep talking.

"Well, I guess I'm just writing about how little things can become big things for no reason. Like buying hotdogs ..."

She nodded.

I told her about the day she returned the hotdog and about how she never patronized the stand again. She kept nodding, laughed a little, and walked behind the counter. She told me she didn't remember the incident, but that Sam was 12 now and could I believe that?

Then she picked something up off the counter that smelled like onions. She folded back the wrapper and took a bite as she seemed to consider the conversation I was trying to have with her.

It looked like a gyro.

•••

Being a better regular

Bartenders serve up advice on how to properly belly up

by Alex Sakariassen

Just another slow Monday night at the Golden Rose in downtown Missoula, and famed bartender Claude Alick busies himself cracking cans of beer and mixing vodka Red Bulls. The jukebox blasts a mix of '70s-era funk. Heads bob, feet tap. The handful of patrons bellied up to the bar may as well be listening to tunes at home.

"What you having, Alex?" Claude asks, flashing a pearly grin. I ask for a beer. Claude reaches into the cooler for a PBR tallboy. He doesn't bother to ask if I want him to run my card or keep a tab open.

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