She was old but sharp and I knew she identified me yards before I even noticed her standing there. With a sweet smile and grey hair, she was the kind of woman just nutty enough to have 3 or 7 cats but sweet enough to make apologies for her behavior. She held her clipboard like it meant the world to her.
“Excuse me sir, do you speak Spanish?” she asked. “Not very well,” I replied, causing her to slow down on her list of pre-anticipated responses. Her pencil fumbled to find a new section, and once she did she began all over again as if I hit a secret reset button.
“Do you like hot dogs?”
In 30-something years I don’t think I’ve ever missed the opportunity for a smirk or off-colored response to that question; with this woman it didn’t seem appropriate. I said “But of course. Why? Are you inviting me over?”
She glazed over my answer, clearly not a part of her programmed assignment, and asked if I’d be interested in participating in a focus group for a new food product. Call me a sucker, but I’ll find almost any opportunity to make myself available for a marketing survey or questionnaire if it pertains to food. With 20 years of food marketing behind me I guess it’s just in my blood, and I’m just naturally curious to see what the big food manufacturers have up their sodium, preservative-laden sleeves. Besides, if anything I’d have a free lunch at the mall and it just sounded more fun than strolling through Bed, Bath and Beyond. It might take my mind off of asking why I was there in the first place.
She led me into a makeshift office, a space I imagined once held a lounge for part-time security guards or some generic Jewelry Pagoda or Earring Palace or Bracelet Temple. At that point she passed me off to another employee, a young Latin man with a stature and face not normally seen outside of a Mexican calendar. Instead of a shield and javelin, this Aztec warrior was armed with pens and release forms. I obliged as my mind raced with images of him saving a curvaceous goddess in a flawless feather headdress on top of a mountain–with perfect make up no less.
He asked me a variety of questions like “When was the last time you had a hot dog?” and “How often do you eat hot dogs?” and “Do you like the following:?” before stumbling on the word panini. I took a moment to explain what it was to my new warrior friend because I know for a fact there were no Panini presses in Tenochtitlan. He deserved some slack. I explained the semantic difference between panini and panino and how it irks me before I completely interrupted myself.
“Hey, wait, I’m in the food business. I’m biased. Am I still allowed to participate?”
“I don’t see why not,” he answered after ruffling through some papers. Nothing jumped out. We proceeded.
“I’m going to have you answer these questions here on this computer. When you get to page 5 click ‘ok’ and we’ll bring out the food item for you to taste and rate.”
I answered questions about my buying habits, realizing they aren’t really average American food buying habits mainly because of what I do. I’m not trying to be uppity at all, it’s just that I’m not the poster child for frozen convenience foods and novelties from any of the big chain retailers. About the most I can do is the occasional Trader Joe’s frozen pizza although France’s Picard sure does make it look glamorous, no?
I reached the page that would allow me to taste this creation, and I’m not gonna lie, y’all: I was excited. After answering some question about not being physically or morally opposed to foods cooked with microwaves the Warrior brought over a pretzel dog on a paper plate, one small napkin and one tiny plastic cup of water. I was instructed to sip, then taste, then make notes, then sip again and taste as often as necessary in order to complete the questionnaire. I dutifully proceeded.
Over the past month I have tasted over 1,500 various dishes created by complete strangers. I have dug deep into my brain for words, expressions and phrases to use when describing all these flavors. As a judge for the open casting calls for Gordon Ramsay’s Masterchef Season 2 I’ve traveled from Boston to Portland tasting and rating food created by television hopefuls with dreams of fame sparkling in their eyes. It’s been both scary and exhilarating and if there wasn’t a pesky non-disclosure form involved I’d probably tell you more about it. But I share this side job with you because at no point in my life have I felt more ready to taste this secret pretzel dog, more willing to offer my opinion on the future of its success, and more happy that its presence in the marketplace didn’t rely on a complex set of scores and algorithms filled out by me.
Boy was I wrong.
How would you rate the color of this pretzel dog? What did it taste like? Was it overly salty? Not salty enough? How likely would you be to purchase this product for your family, 1 being not likely at all with 5 being very likely? What was the texture of the meat? At $3.49 for two would you consider this a value? The questions wouldn’t stop. I bit, I clicked. I clicked, I chewed. And like Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno, I was pushed too far.
The marketer in me came out.
“I’m sorry,” I wrote, “but I cannot see how this is supposed to be a Pretzel Dog when all I see is a wiener wrapped in dough. There are no baked folds nor twists characteristic of a pretzel, and sampled without the meat there is no flavor, no joy. Could you not have added color or shine to this so-called pretzel? Large flecks of kosher salt? Heck, large white flecks of fake something, anything, to signal my brain that this is a pretzel? At best it looks like a wiener wrapped in flesh-colored dough, and at worst it looks like something from a movie* I’ve seen. You asked.”
I finished by selecting the “Complete Survey” button, realizing I didn’t really offer an opinion on flavor. But when you think about it, these foods are never really about flavor as much as they are about portability, ease, and salt. Tons of salt. I began to hope that the consumer of a product like this would remember that it’s not that different than a hot dog, a food that offers you two choices: meat and bun. Two opportunities to buy the best of both and not get suckered into a buy-one-you-must-accept-the-other-of-our-choosing.
I told the Warrior that I was finished, he took my half-eaten pretzel dog away and led me to another counter. I waited a few minutes, realizing I wasn’t going to get that free lunch I was hoping for and that I’d have to brave the mall once again for what I originally came for.
“Here you go, Mr. Armendariz. Thank you for your participation today.”
I couldn’t believe it. A check in the amount of Four Dollars. I could drive through a car wash, I could get a latte, I could buy a taco. There were many things I could do with those four dollars but I can tell you this: I won’t be saving it in order to buy any Pretzel Dogs in my future.
I said goodbye to the Warrior, tempted to tell him that if focus groups and surveys didn’t work out he could always model for covers of romance novels. I could totally see it.
I waded through disorganized metal folding chairs and exited the mall office. As I left I passed the little old woman with her clipboard again as I heard her ask another passerby “Do you speak Spanish?”
I hope they like pretzel dogs.
(* in 8th Grade health class. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for thinking otherwise.)