Like many Americans in a period of economic stress, I’ve recently tried out a few side hustles. The first was hiring myself out as a gigolo. That was about as successful as David Bowers’ last mayoral campaign. Next I dipped my toes into a related field, business consulting.
My first client was the Texas Tavern, which by the way turns 91 on Saturday. Despite its Depression-era charm and 24/7 cheap grub, the Church Avenue eatery had a challenging 2020 — like every other fine-dining establishment.
Owner Matt Bullington declined to divulge details. But he acknowledged he bought zero Rolls Royces last year, which ought to tell you something. So he hired yours truly to come up with some innovative tactics to drum up sales.
The first idea I borrowed from a genius businessman for whom I worked in college. His name was Joe Cunningham, and he ran an old-style gas station and repair garage in Maryland under the Sunoco brand.
As gasoline barons go, Joe was an outlier. He offered no self serve. His prices were higher than all his competitors’, and Joe’s station was dumpier than theirs, too. Still, customers flocked to Arnold Sunoco, especially male drivers in the summer.
That’s because (no kidding) Joe hired young female gas jockeys, who wore Daisy Dukes and bikini tops as their work “uniforms.” Besides a tank of gas, each customer left the station with a clean windshield and an eyeful.
“You ought to give that a try at the TT,” I advised Bullington. But the reaction on his face was the polar opposite of delight.
“Dan,” he replied slowly, as if he were searching for the right words, “Have you ever heard the term, ‘the objectification of women?’”
I acknowledged I had, but that I never completely understood it.
“In 2021, it’s a big honkin’ no-no,” Bullington continued. “Hell, it was probably a no-no 30 years ago, too. If I pulled a stunt like that, my restaurant would get picketed by the National Organization for Women.”
“Exactly!” I replied. “Imagine all the free publicity you’d get on TV, radio and in print. Think of all the sliders and chile you’ll sell. You’d have to buy a couple more organic cattle ranches just to ensure you never ran out of beef.”
Bullington said his wife, Molly, was in charge of the TT’s marketing, and she would never stand for such a strategy.
He kicked me out of his office and told me not to return until I’d thought up something better. That actually hurt my feelings.
Nevertheless, I was back a couple of weeks later with an another brainstorm. It was a tantalizing new menu item. I even brought a giant mock-up on poster board. The image showed a nice, airy, slider bun — sliced precisely down the middle, with absolutely nothing in between.
“What the hell is this?” Bullington asked when I showed him the poster.
“The new Texas Tavern Election-Fraud Burger,” I proudly replied. “It has the same amount of substance as former president Donald Trump’s election-theft claims.”
I promised him it would sell like hotcakes for $3, which meant his gross profit would be about $2.97.
“That’s even more than you make selling those world-famous bowls of chile for $2,” I added.
Nobody would pay three dollars for a slider bun, Bullington argued.
“Wrong!” I countered. “All your customers who believe the election was stolen will buy it to support Trump, whom they adore. And all your customers who can’t stand Trump will get the joke and buy ‘em, too.”
Suffice it to say, Bullington was even less enchanted with this idea than the last one.
“But it’s totally G-rated,” I protested.
“I don’t care!” he railed. “Can’t you see how divided this country is? All I want to do is sell hotdogs, burgers and chile. That’s food. It’s universal. I don’t want to alienate anybody.”
Before I picked up my crushed ego and left, we had a long discussion. He implored me to come up with an idea that would appeal to everyone. I told him it was that was a tough order; I might have to double my fee.
But I was back three weeks later. And this time, I knew I had a sure-fire winner. I decided to pitch it using the Socratic method.
“Matt, think about right now, February 2021,” I said. “What does EVERYBODY want, really badly? What does everybody NEED? What are they totally desperate for?
He thought for a minute with his eyes closed, then suddenly they flickered open.
“The only thing that fits that bill is the vaccine,” he replied.
“You nailed it!” I exclaimed.
“Instead of charging 15 cents extra for a bowl of chile with raw onions, you can charge 15 bucks extra for a bowl of chile with the vaccine. You’ll have customers lined up all the way to Mac and Bob’s in Salem, the second-best restaurant in the Roanoke Valley.”
I could tell by his expression this might take a bit of persuasion. But I had considered all the angles.
“Where would I get the stuff?” Bullington asked. “Even Gov. Northam can’t get his hands on enough vaccine. He’s dribbling it out, 2,000 doses here, 3,000 doses there. As soon as one batch comes in, the sign-ups are full and poof! It’s gone until the next batch arrives.”
I suggested he expand his mind a bit.
“You’re thinking about the COVID-19 vaccine,” I said. “All that may be true, but there are many other vaccines out there — measles, mumps, distemper … whatever. These days, nobody’s buying those. In bulk you can get them for a nickel a dose.
“You just have to be careful with the advertising,” I added. “Make sure you bill it as ‘the vaccine,’ and make no mention of COVID-19 or coronavirus.”
“But that’s a total Whitey Taylor move!” Bullington replied, a reference to a guy known far and wide as the P.T. Barnum of Franklin County. Whitey may cut a corner here or there, but he’s probably the most successful businessman western Virginia has ever seen.
“Say what you want about Whitey,” I told Bullington. “But have you seen his Trump Store in Boones Mill? His ‘Q’ hats and MAGA banners are flying out the door. Not too long ago, the British Broadcasting Corp. interviewed him. Now he’s internationally famous. I estimate he’s raking in at least half-a-million a week.”
But Bullington wouldn’t agree. You could say he got kind of stuck on the ethical implications. So we left the matter unresolved.
But you never know. One day soon you may wander over to the TT and notice a new menu item — chile w/vaccine for only $17. That’s how you’ll know my brilliant idea prevailed.
Make sure to order a “bowl with.” The skinny is, it prevents rabies and maybe some other dreaded maladies. And just perhaps it’ll keep you safe from the coronavirus, at least until you get the real McCoy. Whenever that may be.
Happy birthday, Texas Tavern.