In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Earlier this week, virtually every other Milwaukee publication creamed its collective jeans—in the most journalistic sense, of course—with a speculative announcement that Illinois-based hot dog chain Portillo’s would be opening its first Wisconsin location in late 2016. As you know, Matt, Milwaukee Record wasn’t one of them. Sure, I acknowledge we aren’t necessarily the first place people rely upon for breaking food news in metro Milwaukee, but even when you weren’t seeking Halloween discounts, you didn’t seem to be in much of a rush to be the umpteenth writer to cover this. I know I wasn’t. For one, I had honestly never heard of Portillo’s until two days ago. Once I did, though, I was left wondering why it garnered all the attention it had. Not only will the flagship Wisconsin Portillo’s join 40-some other locations in the out-of-state franchise’s arsenal, it will be out in Brookfield.
Maybe I’m still bitter from the last time I left Milwaukee to eat at a restaurant chain, but I’m left wondering why people care? I’m sure their hot dogs are great. All hot dogs are at least pretty good. I’m just puzzled at this latest of so, so many instances of Milwaukee being bowled over by the arrival of another chain. Hordes of southeast Wisconsinites camped outside for an early taste of homophobic chicken sandwiches last year. The arrival of each of metro Milwaukee’s two Jamba Juice locations was met by some with the same enthusiasm usually reserved for a papal visit. Yes, I’m the guy who ate at 13 Taco Bells in an eight-hour span, who has quietly campaigned for a Taco John’s in Milwaukee since I moved here, and who will shame-eat a Qdoba vegetarian burrito a few times annually. Still, I’m left to ponder whether this is one of the few remnants of our collective populace’s little-man syndrome in our constant and surely futile attempt to keep up with Chicago and “put Milwaukee on the map” with standardized consumables that are available in larger markets and referenced in pop culture. Meanwhile, countless local restaurants go under every year like clockwork.
Would Milwaukee’s Reddit crash if we got a Pinkberry? Would an In-And-Out Burger opening nearby precede murder, weather, and Aaron Rodgers on the local news? I don’t know, am I overthinking this, Matt? I’m probably overthinking this.
Matt Wild: You’re overthinking this.
Like you, I had never heard of Portillo’s until two days ago. Unlike you, however, I can only muster a shrug about people getting excited for a national hot dog chain opening in Milwaukee. It’s a place that people apparently enjoy, and a place that people apparently seek out when they’re out of state. Now one’s coming to the area. Cool!
You wonder if the excitement is “one of the few remnants of our collective populace’s little-man syndrome in our constant and surely futile attempt to keep up with Chicago and ‘put Milwaukee on the map.’” I remember worrying about that sort of thing, too: How awful and provincial we must look to the outside world, getting all worked up about something so silly! We’re better than that! We need to act like we’ve been here before, lest the rest of the country view us as the braying moo-cow people we surely aren’t!
But yeah, I totally got over that shit when I realized a.) I was projecting my own insecurities about myself and Milwaukee onto others, and b.) the rest of the country barely knows Milwaukee even exists. So fuck ’em.
Now, the Portillo’s hubbub would definitely annoy me if Milwaukee were starved for local dining options. (Visions of that sweet little old lady in Grand Forks, North Dakota writing an earnest review of a new Olive Garden fill my mind.) But of course we know that’s not the case. And it’s not like our local establishments are hurting for local excitement, either. Staying in the realm of encased meats, look at Vanguard. It’s a hugely successful business that opened to a ton of (well-deserved) hype. It’s also a business that continues to receive a ton of hype. Hell, I’m pretty sure Milwaukee Magazine runs a new feature on the place every other week. I honestly don’t see how a little excitement for an out-of-town joint diminishes the staggering amount of pride Milwaukee has for its own.
Here’s a question, Tyler: What’s the alternative? What are people supposed to do when a beloved business rolls into town? Turn up their noses, sniff, and say “Oh, we already have something like that here, but local”? Isn’t that like dismissing a national touring band because we have, you know, bands of our own? “The Rolling Stones at Summerfest? Who cares when the Platinum Boys are playing a Tuesday night show at Quarters?” Might there be room for—gasp!—both options?
Tyler: You raise some good points and, yeah, I am totally overthinking it. However, I don’t think your touring versus local band example quite translates because to me, widely recognized national or international franchises (what you call The Rolling Stones) are something that’s readily available almost anywhere at roughly the same quality, something that’s inexpensive, something that’s settled upon in a pinch. That doesn’t sound like the Stones…or Platinum Boys, for that matter, to me. That sounds like a tribute act. People go to Subway because there’s one right by your fucking work. There’s one right by everyone’s fucking work. It’s cheap and fast and, not unlike Gabriel Sanchez’s Prince Experience, kind of like something you like. Meanwhile, Love Handle (once located a block from a thriving Subway) is dead. Countless under-supported local restaurants (and local bands, to put this music comparison to bed) are routinely mourned by some of the same people straight-up jizzing over Portillo’s and whatever Mac DeMarco is as we speak.
Yes, I think there is room for both. And I’m not going to perch atop my ethical throne as if I haven’t drunkenly ordered Toppers sticks while, across the street, Strada appears to be on its last gasps. To me, the existence of chains in Milwaukee isn’t the issue, it’s the amplified response to them. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I think you’re right about it having something to do with my own insecurities being confronted. When I lived in the Fox Cities, there were lines out of the parking lot when Sonic and Krispy Kreme opened. I recall actually being excited when Chipotle (a place where I ate almost every time I visited a larger city, while foolishly ignoring area treasures in unfamiliar places) came to town. We’d made it!
That said, I—and others—eventually got over it. In fact, Sonic and Krispy Kreme both left Appleton within a few years. Starbucks and Qdoba are no longer the mark a city’s “arrival” into the favorable light of corporate acceptance that they once were. Portillo’s will do great at first, then likely level off, like Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, and so many franchises before it. I liken this Portillo’s expansion to the growth of Culver’s. To some Wisconsin ex-pats, it’s a taste of home. Yes, a bastardized one, but home-like nonetheless. If the reaction is tempered and patrons are at least trying to strike a balance between supporting local purveyors and settling for corporate convenience, I’m cool with people putting whatever they want into their faces. Shit, if a series of terrible circumstances ever finds me spending time in Brookfield at some point, then fuck it. One lip and anus tube, please!