The Very Best of Casual Kitchen 2017

With 2017 almost in the bag, here's my annual retrospective of Casual Kitchen's best posts of the year.

Once again, I want to thank you, readers, for your time, your attention, and your support. I'm deeply grateful. See you all in January!

Top Posts of 2017

8) How To Beat Inflation

7) Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers

6) When Food Advocates Tell You What To Serve Your Customers

5) If I Can't Give Advice (!) How Do I Evangelize Frugality and Anticonsumerism?

4) Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices (That You Probably Didn't Know You Were Using)

3) Using Your Sophistication and Great Taste Against You

2) Running Towards Humps

1) Checkers... and Chess

Note for new readers: If you're new here and you'd like to look over Casual Kitchen's best work over the years, a great place to start is the "Best Of" posts from each year:

Best of Casual Kitchen 2016

Best of Casual Kitchen 2015

Best of Casual Kitchen 2014

Best of Casual Kitchen 2013

Best of Casual Kitchen 2012

Best of Casual Kitchen 2011

Finally, let me thank all readers, new and old, for generously supporting my work with your kind purchases at Amazon via the links at this site!

When Restaurants Stop Being Worth It

There is an existential crisis in the restaurant industry. Right now.

Forget about Chili's re-re-vamping their menu to try to win back alienated customers. The restaurant industry is now getting squeezed from multiple directions: rising minimum wages, rising rents, rising legal and regulatory costs, and of course rising food costs too.

What's new this time around is the industry finds itself absolutely unable to pass these costs through to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The latest and most shocking admission of this was from the restaurant chain Red Robin [ticker symbol RRGB]. Red Robin's management said this in their most recent quarterly conference call:

"A top area of focus for us has been managing labor costs. The minimum wage and general regulatory environment is growing at an unprecedented rate, especially on the West Coast, where we have our strongest and largest footprint. Hourly wages are up again this year in the mid-single digits, and we know there's no appetite by today's consumer to spend more to cover this. Absorbing these increases with higher pricing is not an alternative for us."

There it is, straight out of the bird's, I mean CEO's, mouth: Not only are food and regulatory costs rising and minimum wage is increasing "at an unprecedented rate," but worst of all, they can't hike prices any more to compensate.

I'll share yet another an example from a local Irish pub we sometimes go to here in suburban New Jersey. This place is a basic, no frills, casual restaurant, a good place, and it now charges $11 for a burger. And an extra buck fifty for a piece of bacon and cheese.

So, imagine the management of this restaurant as they experience the same inevitable cost squeeze that Red Robin and others face. At first, they'll do what they've always done: they respond to their higher costs by passing them along to us. Just hike that burger's price by yet another buck.

That worked in the past, as the consumer didn't mind (or even notice) a burger increasing from $6 to $7 or $7 to $8.

But at some point the consumer notices. And minds. At some point, that burger just stops being worth it. Where that point is, it's hard to know. It depends. But when a basic burger starts to get up into the double digits, at $11-ish, $12-ish, can you hike prices another buck? And, then, a year from now another buck?

Before you know it, a modest dinner of, say, two burgers and two beers, maybe a side order, add in taxes and tip... suddenly, you're looking at a sixty or seventy dollar tab. For burgers and beers.

It ain't worth it. So people stop going out to eat. This is exactly what intelligent consumers do in the face of inflation.

Heck, I can easily feed the two of us for two weeks on $70.

Even Jim Cramer, stock market spaz for the masses, is onto this. Partly it's because he actually owns a restaurant, a Mexican place in Brooklyn. Regarding these trends, he wrote recently:

"It's a nightmare for any restaurateur. And it's just beginning."

A final note, regarding yet more synergies of being an investor and a (frugal) consumer. You'd have seen this theme coming, likely as much as a few years ago, if you were paying attention to the rising cost--and increasingly questionable value--of dining out versus cooking at home.

Red Robin's Third Quarter 2017 conference call transcript

Finally a quick housekeeping note: Next week I'll run Casual Kitchen's top posts of 2017. Stay tuned!!

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Never Try to Change Someone’s Opinion

This astonishingly direct quote caught my eye recently, from the blunt yet always thought-provoking Wall Street Playboys blog:

"Changing an Opinion: No point here. Unless someone is completely new to a topic there is no point in changing their opinion. It won't happen and if you're right they will simply dislike you because their ego took a hit (you were right and they were wrong). This is not a good way to win at life. Instead of trying to change opinions make a decision on if the person has already made a strong opinion. This is the real trick. If someone is 100% new to a topic then feel free to provide an opinion. If they already have an opinion, just agree with it and take their side of the argument. Besides. In order to have your own strong opinion you should be able to argue the other side with ease… This will save you a large amount of time and we can't over state that enough: 1) figure out if they have a strong opinion – takes a few minutes, 2) then decide to either agree *or* give an actual opinion (if they have an opinion just agree). 

In addition, if you read this paragraph and disagree, we think you have a good point and things aren't black and white so there are definitely grey areas (see if you catch the joke)."

One of the reasons I wanted to write a post about this quote was to remind myself to not be like either person in situations like this. Don't be the guy trying to change somebody else's strongly-held opinion... but also, don't be the other guy, the one who's rigidly ego-attached to his own strongly-held opinion such that he dislikes somebody for the horrible crime of having a differing view.

So, here's my four bullet point checklist for any situation where people ask for (or offer!) opinions:

1) When someone asks your opinion, ask back: "What do you think?" or "What's your view?"

2) If the person does not have an already formed opinion, you may consider the idea of sharing your opinion. Maybe.

3) If the person does have an already-formed opinion, smile, nod and agree. Save time and energy!

And, last:
4) Don't have ego attachments to the rightness or wrongness of your opinions. Much of what we think we know is wrong anyway, we just haven't found it out yet.

Readers, what do you think?

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Rebellion Practice

"I just demonstrated to myself and the world around me that I'm not controlled by it."
--Stephen Guise, from How to Be an Imperfectionist

I just finished a striking little book: How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise. First of all, let me recommend it--highly--to Casual Kitchen readers. Today I'd like to share just one of the many, many good ideas in it: The idea of practicing "rebellion."

First, a little background. Guise's book is for people who struggle with perfectionism, and one of the central themes of his book is to stop letting your perfectly reasonable desire to do things "well" freeze you from doing things at all.

That our desire to "do things well" could actually subvert us might be a counterintuitive idea for some readers. But think about it: if you can't do something well, it's, well, kind of embarrassing. Our egos hate the idea that other people will see us suck--perhaps suck badly--at something. As a result, our egos will generally try to protect us from embarrassment by giving us rationalizations for not trying in the first place. And of course these rationalizations always seem like real reasons in the moment. No one who rationalizes realizes it--that's how rationalizing works. In fact if you look at this through the lens of evolutionary psychology, this ego activity could even be seen as a survival mechanism.

However, if you think about what the source of that embarrassment is, it's our internal assumptions about other peoples' expectations. So, the idea of "practicing rebellion" gets at rejecting or even defying those expectations. As well as our own.

Thus practicing rebellion means seeking out rejection, discomfort and even embarrassment. It means, as I once phrased it here in another post, "running towards humps." And it means not being a good little boy (or girl), obediently doing all the things we're told to do by our egos, by our peer group, by our modern consumer-driven society, and so on. Rebel.

It's up to you to choose what your rebellion might be, and you can feel free to start small. In his book, Stephen Guise shares some modest examples of his own, such as lying down in public places, singing out loud in public, or talking to strangers.

I'll confess, neatniks like me can't lie down in public places, and I definitely don't want to subject the world to my singing. As far as talking to strangers, that's such a perfectly normal behavior for me that I'd have to rebel the other way and not talk to strangers. The point, of course, is to each his own. You have to pick the type of rebellion that suits you.

Here's a list of possible ways you might practice rebellion, some cribbed directly from Guise's book, others I brainstormed on my own. Feel free to add your own ideas!

Rebelling against a typical way of living
Rebelling against any standard or expectation
Rebelling against "play-it-safe" living
Rebelling against the urge to seek acceptance or approval from others.
Rebelling against expected comportment in a given situation
Rebelling against consumerism, against solving problems by making a purchase
Rebelling against talking about politics or the media's latest outrage du jour
Rebelling against standard relationship types (not marrying, etc.)
Rebelling against the dietary conventions of those around you
Rebelling against fashion or clothing conventions (have an unusual hairstyle or clothing)
Rebelling against gadget trends
Rebelling against Facebook or other false/artificial ways to be "connected"
Rebelling against concern over mistakes
Take a sabbatical in the middle of a successful career
Drive a crappy car, even if you can afford a nice one
Have a radically unusual hobby or pastime
Put yourself into odd or uncomfortable social situations deliberately

... and so on.

Note that we can already surmise a few major side benefits from some of these practices. For example, practicing rebellion against consumerism will make you wealthy. Practicing rebellion against things like discussing politics will make you happier. And so on. What's not to like?

Toward your own identity
The point is to run toward that flinch/embarrassment reflex that we all have rather than shying away from it (for more on the flinch see here and here). Consider it a daily kata to train our egos to become less fragile to embarrassment and the perceived judgment of others.

As Stephen Guise phrases it: "It's very desirable to have a desensitized embarrassment reflex, because it brings you freedom."

What he means is here is this is a step towards finding your own identity. Most of us simply participate, without realizing it, in a set of behaviors and identity characteristics established for us by our society, peers and family. So, by choosing to rebel against this "imposed identity" which has been set for you by others, you become more free to seek out an identity that's truly and inherently you.

Obviously rebellion practice can be done at any level, and I encourage you to think about it both metaphorically and literally, and practice your own acts of "rebellion" to the level you consider appropriate.

"Those who need approval don't know who they are." - Stephen Guise

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What Barefoot Running Taught Us About Expensive Sneakers (And What Nike and Others Really Don’t Want You To Know)

"You're definitely gonna want to pay a lot of money for good quality sneakers. I mean, seriously, if you go running in those $29.99 loser no-name running shoes, you'll hurt your knees! Or your iliotibial band. Or something. You'll definitely hurt something.

Forget those cheap shoes. These $175 running shoes are far better. Mass produced, yet designed to fit your feet. And they're built for comfort, with extra padding to absorb all those shocks to your body."

Readers, this is the basic marketing message behind high-end sneaker brands. For many, it's highly persuasive. After all, how dumb would it be to take a chance on some no-name pair of sneakers... and maybe hurt yourself. Right?

But then, something odd happened.

Some ten or so years ago, "barefoot running" became all the rage. And it raised questions the sneaker industry didn't want you asking. For example, a thoughtful if sarcastic sneaker buyer might ask, "Now hold on a minute: First I had to buy overpriced cushiony sneakers to protect myself from injury. And now you're telling me I don't even need shoes?"

But it gets worse: it turns out that many if not most running injuries result from protecting ourselves too much. All that padding in all those ultra-expensive shoes actually prevents our body from feeling, sensing and properly responding to the various healthy stresses of running. Or, as researchers at the University of Oregon found, "the greater the cushioning in the shoe, the greater the impact shock on the leg."

Ironically, this highly counterintuitive discovery was made in Eugene, Oregon--barely a hundred or so miles from Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton. Huh.

Somehow, our consumer civilization transformed running--a quintessentially basic human act--into an expensive pastime, with luxury-branded shoes, unpronounceable injuries... and $300+ marathon entry fees.

It's also instructive to observe the shoe industry's response. After all, no one makes money not selling shoes, so Nike and other high end sneaker brands had to at least try to figure out a way to "brand" the barefoot running experience too.

And so, for only about a hundred bucks or so, we can buy a pair of Nike "Barefoot-Like" sneakers. They're for sale on Nike's website, right next to all those expensive heavily-padded shoes we were supposed to buy before.

Readers, tell me, how are expensive branded sneakers any different from any other zombie-based advertising/consumption cycle? And if it bugs you to pay 30% more for, say, a name-brand can of tuna when it furtively emerges out of the same third-party factory as lower-priced unbranded tuna, shouldn't it bug you enormously to pay 700% more for sneakers? Especially when all those sneaker features they use to justify their high price at best make no difference, and at worst might actually hurt us?

A final note: Speaking as a three-time marathoner and multi-time half-marathoner who's logged thousand and thousands of running miles, most running injuries are form- or technique-based. This goes double for casual runners. In other words, fix your running form, improve your technique, and you'll run injury-free in whatever pair of reasonably priced sneakers you're happy with. For readers interested in an excellent resource on how to improve running technique, I strongly recommend Danny Dreyer's book Chi Running.

1) A short video of a fateful day when the NY Times did a piece on barefoot running. Hipsters raged, then bravely began the search for the next new thing. Note also the mention of the University of Oregon's biomechanical research study at 2:21 in the video.

2) More on how to run barefoot.

3) Why is too much protection a bad thing? For more on this topic, see Nicholas Taleb's discussion of the concepts of hormesis and mithridization in his book Antifragile.

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