Friday, December 27, 2019

Fresh Home-Made from Scratch - by Hand! (Advertising Puffery)

What is advertising puffery?

When I took a course in contract law from Professor Pock at GWU, he talked a lot about "advertising puffery".  He also talked a lot about a four-cylinder Opel car that someone bought that had dealer-installed air conditioning that never worked.  I suspect that someone was him - he just couldn't let that go!  Breach of Contract!  He was a great professor, though, just not a car guy.

But what is advertising puffery, exactly?  It is language that seems descriptive, but often is not.  It is just laudatory wording that is not contractually enforceable. When someone advertises a car as "clean!" and "nice!" these are subjective terms, and not legally binding on the seller.  What you perceive as "clean" or "nice" is different than other people (look around you, particularly the next time you are in a parking lot). 

Puffery is meaningless gibberish that just tries to hook you emotionally.

What got me started on this was we drove by a chain restaurant called "Cheddars" which cracked me up.  I mean, naming a restaurant after a cheese?   And in the USA, Cheddar cheese, unfortunately, is all-too-often a bland, inoffensive cheese that for some reason is artificially colored bright orange, which no cheese is, naturally.   Yes, we do have wonderful sharp cheddar cheeses, but you have to hunt for them - like anything else worthwhile in life.  Somehow I suspect the cheese at "Cheddars" isn't Vermont extra sharp.

Curious, I downloaded the menu on my phone.  Google is all-too-good these days at promoting advertised hits.   A lot less so, in terms of doing original research.   For example, I googled "Why are flags at half-mast today?" (which they are here on our island, at least) and all I got was hits about memorial day.   Whatever.   Please let me know what the new Google is - one that provides real data, and not just advertisements and attempts to hack my doorbell.

Anyway, what was interesting about the menu was that things were advertised as "home made" or "hand made" or "made from scratch" which struck me as a lot of puffery.  And it turns out, in most cases, this was true.

Maker's Mark prevailed in a case involving the term "hand made" as the court correctly noted you can't make whiskey by hand (you'd burn your hands down to the bone, in the still).  If this is controlling case law, then the term "hand made" is pretty meaningless.  Those "hand made" biscuits may be made with a rolling pin and a whisk, or made in a Hobart commercial mixer and rolled out by a machine - the buttons of the machines, of course, being pressed by hand.

So I doubt "hand made" has any legal meaning. "Made from Scratch" is informally defined as meaning "made from base ingredients" and not from other prepared parts.  Whether that is a legally binding definition, I do not know.   What isn't clear is where those base ingredients are combined.  You could argue the boil-in-a-bag entree is "made from scratch" because it is - in a commercial kitchen, thousands of miles away, in a vat the size of a swimming pool, before it is processed, bagged, frozen, and shipped to the local outlet.  Whether this is what "Cheddars" means by "made from scratch" I do not know.   All I know is, I would not put too much meaning into it  I doubt Aunt Mabel is back there in the kitchen, rolling out biscuits by hand - but you never know.

The "made from scratch" sides seem, well, a little impossible not to make from scratch, as most have single ingredients. Yes, a baked potato or french fries are "made from scratch" just about everywhere. Steamed Broccoli comprises only two ingredients - broccoli and steam.  No word on whether the broccoli is frozen or not.  One reviewer noted that the "made from scratch" claim might be a bit overblown, as he tried to make a substitution (deleting ham from a Monte Cristo sandwich) and they couldn't do it for some weird reason.   But then again, they never anywhere claim that everything on the menu is made from scratch, only some "sides" from what I can tell.   And besides, a "Monte Cristo" sandwich is just gross - a ham and cheese sandwich (with jelly?!?) deep fried.   Ouch.

It is just another chain restaurant serving what we call "brown food" - fried everything.  By the way, while I am ranting (take that, Lewis Black!) what is the deal with huge billboards showing ultra-close-ups of food - often greasy burgers with way-too-many ingredients, with grease dripping off the fat meat.  I mean, gross.   Worse yet are billboards showing people eating often with food in their mouths or bites taken out of the food.  Others are just weird.  Near Florida is a huge billboard showing a huge spoon of corn with the notation, "Cracker Barrel, Exit XX".    Arrrgh!  Ye turn right at the giant spoon 'o corn, my friend!  Blackbeard's treasure is no doubt buried nearby.

I guess that is what they eat at Cracker Barrel - corn.   But I thought all those old people had diverticulitis?   Maybe not, I guess.

Cheddar's is part of the Darden restaurant chain - the folks who own the Onion Garden and Seasons 52.   They are smart folks, and I bought stock in the chain (and recently sold it at a tidy profit, thank-you-very-much) and I am sure their restaurant will do well, or better than they did with Olive Lobster.  Oddly enough, it originated as "Cheddar's Casual Cafe" and when Darden bought it, the "Scratch" thing was added.  The chicken-tenders are "hand-breaded" doncha know - the way I like my tendies.   Gourmet food!

But my point wasn't to pick on Cheddars.  It is just another in a series of casual restaurants serving brown food that is not very good for you.  We went to another such restaurant, the unfortunately named "BJ's Brew House" and I left feeling bloated.  Oversized entrees, too many beers, and lots of fried food.  You really just have to split an appetizer at these sort of places - or just not go.   But I guess this is what Americans eat, which is why Europeans are so mystified by us.   But say, Croque Monsieur, didn't the French invent the Monte Cristo sandwich?   Take that, Europe!  And certainly German and Polish cuisine isn't exactly low-cal.

This whole thing reminds me of Outhouse Steak House and their "fresh" beef - something you really don't want to eat, unless you have cannibalistic tendencies.  Beef should be aged, as I noted in another posting.  But "Fresh" is another word that is largely meaningless.   Legally, you really can't serve "un-fresh" foods - i.e., rotting filth.  So saying your food is "fresh" is just another way of saying it is "food" (although I guess some would argue it means not frozen, perhaps).

But getting back to puffery, another term thrown around besides Fresh, Made from Scratch, and Hand made, is "Home Made" - what does that mean, exactly?   Exactly nothing, of course.  In order to be "Home Made" in real life it would have to be made at someone's home.  And unless people are living in the back rooms of Cheddar's, technically their soups and salads are not "home made" - unless workers are bringing them in from home - which is probably a violation of a number of health codes.  But again, "home made" doesn't mean "made in someone's home" but rather "made from their own recipe" at least in restaurant parlance.  Or translated into language you and I can understand, "This didn't come off the back of the Sysco truck!" (Insider Tip:  Look for "House Recipe" ketchup on the table!)

Speaking of which, the Sysco truck. Yes, there are about two or three major food distributor companies in America.  A friend of mine works for one of them.   They go to these restaurants - from big chains to Mom and Pop's - and sell them entrees, much as the Schwan's Man does.   You can sort of spot a "Sysco Restaurant" even if the truck isn't parked out back, unloading pallets of pre-made food.  The same entrees appear on the menu as everywhere else.  It is a plug-and-play restaurant, all you have to do is teach a teenager how to use a microwave.

Act shocked.   And that little boutique you go to with all that cutesy stuff?  Yea, it all comes from the Merchandise Mart (owned by the Kennedy family, it turns out) - from the scented candles to the Man-A-Way Spray(tm) - it all comes by UPS truck, and it is the same crap in every candle-and-card district in every damn tourist town in America.

If I sound jaded, I am not.  You see, a lot of the stuff in America is just like all the other stuff in America - and this is true all over the world.   Europeans look down their noses our debased culture, yet there is a Burger King on the Champs-Elysées - and someone is eating there.  Maybe all those yellow vest people, between riots.

What this drives home is that when you do find something special and original, and good, it is all the more special.   It makes seeking out unique experiences all the better.  And this is not to detract from or denigrate these chain restaurants - only to point out the obvious.  I've been to Seasons 52 - another Darden property, and as I noted before, it is a place where cubicle dwellers can go and pretend to be executives.  The happy hour specials are not half-bad.  But then again, I don't eat there more than once or twice a year.   No one should use restaurants as their kitchen - it is unhealthy and too expensive!   The Darden people know their audience, and I suspect they will do well with Cheddars as well (and I will buy more stock, once it crashes during the recession), although I think I am less likely to visit that chain, ever, unless trapped at an airport or something (on a Sunday, and the Chik-Fil-A is closed).

But I guess it just cracks me up - this "home made" this and "hand made" that, "fresh" and "from scratch" as if it actually meant something.   Why is a biscuit "made from scratch" better than one made from prepared dough?   I've had some pretty shitty hand-made, home-made, from-scratch, fresh meals in my day - many prepared by myself!   Even assuming these terms have some real meaning beyond advertising puffery, they are no indicia of quality, value, flavor, or goodness.  A boil-in-a-bag entree can be actually better than something "made from scratch" if the latter is not made well.

These sort of terms are, in the ultimate analysis, just advertising puffery.