Last week I had lunch at McDonald's. It doesn't matter which McDonald's, because most of them are interchangeable. In fact, they're the greatest example of assembly-line restaurants in the history of the industry. McDonald's has gotten so good at self-replication over the past fifty-odd years that today the company is less in the business of food service than it is real-estate speculation: Pick a spot, drop a seed, harvest money, repeat.
We're now in a place where making fun of McDonald's is pointless, just shouting at the mountain when the mountain don't care. But I'm going to do it anyway.
I went to McDonald's because it was McDonald's -- at the height of its we're-bad-and-you-love-us ubiquity, the apex of its power and unassailable stranglehold on the tummies of billions of customers worldwide -- that, at least in part, inspired Larry Leith to open his first Tokyo Joe's (see review, page 50) in Centennial ten years ago. And McDonald's definitely inspired the Roman-style training regimen at Leith's now-fifteen-outlet chain.
I stopped by McDonald's at what I figured would be its best moment: the beginning of the lunch rush. The place was loud, busy but not overcrowded, dirty (though I've certainly seen worse) and -- to put it politely -- confused. I could see eight employees, and they, like the restaurant that employed them, seemed entirely interchangeable, since McDonald's regards its workers as just another transposable component in the machinery of production and delivery. But while the idea of a cross-trained workforce capable of complete sufficiency in the field might have worked out well for Caesar in Gaul, it's not a system that translates to a McDonald's in Aurora -- mostly because Caesar's centurions actually could fight, build, march, mend and generally fend for themselves on a campaign, while your average McDonald's employee is commended if he manages to go a whole shift without lighting himself on fire.
My order was taken at the counter by one employee, punched into the computer and then also shouted into the back in what seemed a deliberate undermining of the POS system's sole duty. Several more of those eight workers then swung into action: one finding my burger on the specially designed burger shelf, a second arguing over which burger was the right burger, a third poking disconsolately at the mountain of lukewarm fries in the specially designed french-fry holding area, another jerking me the wrong soda from the specially designed soda machine and two evidently going on break.
I'd ordered a double cheeseburger, a value-sized box of fries and a small Pibb Xtra. Grand total: $3.24. Just under two minutes later, I was handed a double cheeseburger, a limp pocketful of salty, mealy, cold fries and a Coke -- a meal it had taken a half a dozen employees to demand, assemble and deliver. I could get all snobbish and holier-than-thou and say that my meal left me feeling spiritually empty even while juiced on simple carbs and sugar water, but the fact is, I got what I paid for: $3.24 worth of empty calories and brand recognition. As Michael Pollan so eloquently suggests in The Omnivore's Dilemma, what I'd bought was not so much a burger and fries, but a notion of "burger-and-fries," a wholly generic spread of food items so divorced from the food chain that produced them that they can't be judged fairly on things like flavor or taste or texture, but only in terms of satisfaction: How close did this simulacrum come to matching my idea of what a burger and fries ought to be like?
In addition to real-estate speculation, one of the things McDonald's has gotten very good at is lowering the bar by making its iteration of everything the most common of common denominators. Ergo, for the majority of McDonald's customers, the basis for satisfactory comparison is another McDonald's burger. This is fucking brilliant, to say the least. But for me, the burger didn't come close at all. McDonald's took just two minutes to fuck up my order and disappoint me. My average meal at Tokyo Joe's took more than twice that and cost more than twice as much. But when I left Joe's, I felt good. When I left McDonald's, I felt fat and icky.
"We had a healthy skew way before it was hip to be healthy," Leith says. "What I wanted to make was a fun place to go and eat, something that was a lifestyle component. The kind of place that people can go to three or four times a week and feel good." And over the past decade, he's accomplished this. He's pushed the limits of what fast casual is capable of: making everything in-house; refusing to use the fryers that have always been the centerpiece of the fast-food experience and going instead with all grilled and steamed foods; integrating "natural, wild and organic" products into his kitchens as the supply chain for such goods has stabilized.
As for his staff, Leith takes a novel approach to employee equity. "We have this saying -- well, not really a saying, because it's true," he corrects himself. "We actually do this. But we say that the highest-paid person left in the building at the end of the night cleans the toilets. And it's true. That's exactly what we do. All my people know that if I'm there at the end of the night, I'm going to be the one cleaning the bathrooms."
That's probably not a system McDonald's corporate will adopt any time soon.
Not everything at Joe's goes as smoothly. Although an argument could be made that the entire fast-casual movement was based on the sushi-bar model -- you step up, tell a cook what you want, watch him make it for you, take it from his hands as soon as it is finished, then eat -- Joe's doesn't yet have the sushi thing down.
One of the drawbacks to Roman training is that every time a new skill is demanded, it must be disseminated across the ranks. And this can take time -- especially when dealing with something like rolling sushi, which, in the best cases, takes years to learn how to do properly. "It really depends where you go," Leith tells me. "I've got a handful of people who, I think, could stand up against the best sushi rollers in town. But think about it: Think about how long it would take to get an entire workforce trained to do that. A year from now, we're going to be much better."
A year from now, Leith also plans to have grown the Joe's chain from fifteen locations to 23, adding eight more Front Range stores in the next twelve months. He's looking at expanding out of state, too, though he hasn't yet decided where. "We're putting one foot in front of the other," he says. "Everything is going as planned."
Leftovers: After eight years, brothers Stephen and Bill Rohs and Tom Carley, owners of the Painted Bench, have sold the place at 400 East 20th Avenue to Leigh Jones (formerly Leigh Thompson, of Brasserie Rouge/B-52 Billiards/Atomic Cowboy fame). But the doors weren't locked long enough for anyone to notice: They closed on October 29 and reopened November 1.
I got Jones on the phone on November 2, catching her between calls as she tried to resolve some payroll problems, and the first words out of her mouth -- after "hello" -- were "I so want to kill myself right now. You have no fucking idea." The crew had been up until 3 a.m. on opening day trying to get everything done, and she was still a bit frazzled. The restaurant has been renamed The Dish, although the kitchen is still staffed by holdovers from Steve Rohs's old crew and is running on the old Bench menu. After January 1, Jones hopes to turn things in the direction of comfort food with a global influence. "This neighborhood really just needs a second kitchen," she told me. "I know what I want to do."
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Jones had been working at the Bench -- behind the bar at the Bench, actually -- since last December, ending up there after spending time traveling and "making certain that I wanted to get back into this madness," she explained. After the closing of Brasserie Rouge, a rather public divorce from ex-husband Robert Thompson, the purchase of the B-52 building by the crew behind MTV's Real World ("I was probably somewhere in Southeast Asia when that happened, avoiding the 'real world' as much as possible, if you know what I mean"), and the slow release of her diverse business interests, she was looking to find herself. What she found was that she really couldn't leave Denver.
"After everything happened with the Brasserie and the Cowboy and all that, I actually packed up all my things and drove all the way across the country to D.C.," Jones recounted. "But when I got there, I said, 'What the hell am I doing?' and then turned right around and came back."
Jones also picked up the storefront next door at 414 East 20th, which had housed the Perk & Pub (and Sweet Rockin' Coffee before that). This space will become the Horseshoe Lounge -- with any luck, by Thanksgiving week.
"I don't want to be rich and famous anymore," Jones concluded. "I just want to be here, in the business that I love."