Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Food Poisoning on a Budget, Or A Review of Dining Options In and Around the Baltimore Convention Center

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 49 - convention center food

Another anime convention weekend away from home is another opportunity to live a few days the way mother nature intended us to—shelling out tons of cash at destination hotels and restaurants. This past weekend marked our first trip to the Baltimore Convention Center in three years, and boy how things have changed. Instead of being a noisy, obnoxious tourist trap, Baltimore has quickly transformed itself into a noisier, even more obnoxious tourist trap. Seriously, I expect Baltimore will be annexed by Hell itself within the next decade.

With home a 90-minute drive away, we had to rely on whatever food-like entities we could procure in the area for three days. We sampled a broad spectrum of culinary creations ranging from the barely edible to the questionably legal. Here now is a review of some of the food options we explored that await travelers hitting up Downtown Baltimore and the surrounding areas for a weekend of conventiony goodness, starting with the best and working our way down the depths of the Baltimore food abyss.

BWI Embassy Suites Continental Breakfast

We ate there: Friday, Saturday and Sunday for breakfast

I’ll start things off with the best of the food we encountered over the weekend, and it was just steps from our hotel room near BWI Airport. Included in the price of the room was a complimentary assortment of breakfast dishes served for several hours each morning. Options included typical fare such as eggs, sausage, chipped beef, cereals, breads, coffee, and juices as well as cooked-to-order omelets and—my favorite—make-your-own Belgian waffles. Oh man, those waffles were amazing. You just pour in your batter, close the lid, turn it around, and you’ve got yourself Waffle Heaven in two minutes. Available toppings included a giant barrel of butter, strawberries drowned in syrup, and a few other fruit choices that varied by day. My only complaint was that the timers on the waffle makers were kind of flaky. Sometimes they wouldn’t go off at all, while others they went off too early. Of the seven waffles I had over three days, three experienced minor issues. But still, this was a great treat that got our days started right.

Nick’s Rating: Completely un-poisonous!
Cost: $0 (approximately $30 value)

Burke’s Restaurant and Cafe

We ate there: Saturday for dinner

By late Saturday afternoon, around 20,000 convention-goers had mobbed every single restaurant within half a mile of the Baltimore Convention Center. We tried to get a table for seven at The Cheesecake Factory adjacent to the Inner Harbor, but the wait would have been nearly two hours. After walking a few more blocks, we stumbled upon Burke’s, a restaurant on the lower floor of some sort of comedy club. They were busy too, so our party was seated at two separate booths. The hostess quietly muttered that we guys were killing her.

The food at Burke’s was pretty good, though anything would have tasted good after eight hours of hard convention labor. I had a soft crab cake sandwich which turned into more of a two-pieces-of-bread-that-I-ate-first-and-then-I-ate-the-soft-crabs deal, but it was still tasty. I also ordered a side of potato pancakes with applesauce that rocked out in my mouth. My wife and I washed it all down with a bottle of white zin. Having become accustomed to the cheapest bottle of restaurant wine anywhere near DC running at least $20, we were surprised that this one only ran $12. We wished we had had two!

Nick’s Rating: Largely edible!
Cost: $25 for food (though our convention paid for that), $12 for alcohol

Potbelly’s Sandwich Works

We ate there: Friday for lunch (carried out)

Having been sent on an errand to the nearby Best Buy (which wasn’t as nearby as we’d thought), I swung by the Potbelly’s across the street to snag some lunch in an attempt to avoid eating whatever the Baltimore Convention Center itself was serving. The line was long, as Potbelly’s lines usually are at lunchtime. After 20 minutes or so, I finally emerged with two chicken salad sandwiches on wheat and a bottle of IBC Cream Soda. My wife loves that cream soda, so I got her one so she wouldn’t mind my flirtations with convention-going costumed catgirls as much. The sandwiches themselves were all right but a little light on the chicken salad. But at least it wasn’t Convention Center food…

Nick’s Rating: It was food!
Cost: $11


We ate there: Friday for dinner

After a hard day at the convention, we were rewarded with a short walk to the nearby First Mariner Arena and a concert of my favorite Japanese band of all time, JAM Project. Before standing in line for the general admission seating, we took a walk across the street to the only quick-service food joint we could see—7-Eleven. I tried out the 2-for-$2.22 hot dogs while my wife went with the Polish Kielbasa which appeared to just be a hot dog painted gray. The one saving grace of these 7-Eleven hot dogs came in the form of my favorite button of all time—the “Push For FREE Chili” button. I’ve never pushed a button so hard and for so long in my life. Really, 7-Eleven would have made more money off of me selling the chili with a “Push for FREE Hot Dog” button. The dogs and chili themselves were mediocre (what do you expect?), but they kept us going for the next few hours of line-standing and concert-watching.

Nick’s Rating: Food was blah, button was fantastic
Cost: $5 (including a bag of chips)

Baltimore Convention Center Refreshment Stand

We ate there: At the brink of starvation—I mean, Saturday and Sunday for lunch

In the deepest, darkest depths of the BCC sat a seemingly innocuous refreshment booth serving a limited menu of burgers, hot dogs, fries, and other demi-foods. I traveled there first on Saturday mid-afternoon as work at the convention was furious and further journeying for food was not an option. I went for a pre-packaged Caesar salad while my wife had the “chicken tenders with fries.” The salad was mostly green and brown lettuce with a few stale croutons and two cherry tomatoes. It was a chore to finish, but I ate it all fearing that I’d malnourish myself and be rushed to a Baltimore hospital whose food would be about twelve miles below the bottom of this list. My wife indicated that the chicken and fries were, indeed, chicken and fries. I tried one of the fries and wished I hadn’t.

I returned Sunday just before takedown of the convention began looking to try the burger. When I arrived, I was told that the only remaining items were the cheesesteak subs. I ordered two, at which point I was told the following ingredients were no longer available:

  • Sub rolls
  • Cheese
  • My dignity

Desperately hungry, I ordered it anyway and ended up receiving giant piles of processed shredded steak-ish meat covering hot dog rolls. It took almost 30 minutes to get through the whole pile, at which point I realized just how terrible the steak-ish meat really was. I mean, it was horrible. I spent the next 20 minutes in the restroom regretting the day that cow was ever born. The fact that the kind lady in the refreshment booth gave me over a pound of the stuff normally would have kept me quiet no matter how bad it was. But it was a new breed of bad, sort of like murderous gangsters who go on to become serial rapists who target blind people.

Nick’s Rating: Stomach-shatteringly awful
Cost: The usual BCC rip-off-because-we-can prices—about $25 on Saturday and $16 on Sunday for two people

The next time you find yourself in the Baltimore Convention Center area, be sure to carefully choose your dining options as there are plenty to pick from at a variety of price points. And if you’re planning to eat at the BCC itself, don’t forget to update your will first… or at least stay away from the Sunday leftovers.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How I Lost 20 Pounds in Two Months on the Krispy Kreme Donut Diet

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 39 - donuts

You may recall from waaaaay back in the early days of Punny Money that my wife once held a part-time job at a Krispy Kreme, maker of some of the finest donuts in the world. What you probably don’t know is that she only kept the job for two months, in between college semesters. During those two months, I ate about 500 Krispy Kreme donuts of assorted varieties… and I lost 20 pounds doing it. Here’s how it happened.

One of the great benefits of working at Krispy Kreme is that, every day you go in to work, you’re allowed to bring home a dozen free donuts. (Correction from my wife: that’s the only great benefit of working for Krispy Kreme, unless you consider smelling like donuts constantly no matter how much you clean yourself a benefit.) It only took a few days of the smell of glaze and toppings to turn my wife off the donuts forever, but she still happily brought home a dozen for me each day she worked.

At first, my wife only worked a couple of days a week at Krispy Kreme. But as her manager realized her superior skills over the other workers—i.e. speaking more than two words of English, and not constantly trying to rob the cash register—she was asked to work nearly full time. That means she could bring home a dozen donuts five days a week for free. I could have just asked her not to bring home the donuts, but I pretty much never refuse free food. So she brought home around 60 donuts a week… and I ate them all.

It wasn’t just the regular glazed donuts, either. While the policy varies from one Krispy Kreme location to the next, my wife was allowed to take home any of the more expensive donuts with toppings and frosting and other yummy things. My favorites were any of the donuts with sprinkles, especially the orange and black Halloween ones (which were still served well into December there). According to the Krispy Kreme nutritional information (PDF), each sprinkled donut comes with about 270 calories, 12 grams of fat, and some other numbers that would give any decent dietitian a heart attack just reading them. And yes, I ate 12 of those five days a week.

So how in the name of chocolate glazed crullers did I lose 20 pounds eating 60 donuts a week? Well, it’s really quite simple:

  • I have an active metabolism. I generally eat around 3,000 calories a day anyway, and I’m a relatively healthy weight for a person my age and height. I’ve had several doctors look at me and say I’m perfectly healthy, so I guess it’s sort of like having a superpower (though I’d gladly trade it in for x-ray vision).
  • If you eat 12 Krispy Kreme donuts, you don’t feel like eating anything else for at least 24 hours. Here’s the key to the Krispy Kreme Diet that can make it work for anyone. If you’ve ever had more than a couple of them at the same time, you’d know that multiple Krispy Kreme donuts can really fill your tummy… and then some. After eating my dozen a day, I didn’t want to look at food again… until the next batch of donuts came home.

In the end, it’s probably for the best that my wife left Krispy Kreme after only a couple of months. I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted without vegetables, protein, and arteries full of blood instead of glaze. I will admit that I do sometimes still long for my daily dozen, and my wife has caught me once or twice sneaking a sniff of her old work uniform that still has a hint of that donutty aroma on it.

Oh, and I should probably mention that I’m not a licensed anything, and if you try to duplicate this diet on your own, you will probably die before you get to the third day. Then again, if any of you emo cut-yourself-all-day MySpace losers out there wants to end it all with some style and flair, I could think of worse ways to go that drowning your vital organs in a bucket of warm, delicious Krispy Kreminess.

I’m just saying…

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How to Fake Pregnancy So You Can Get Free Ice Cream on May 21st

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 26 - free ice cream

You people probably think I’ve really lost it this time. But it’s true! Baskin Robbins is giving away free ice cream to expectant women on May 21, 2008. Between 11am and 10pm, customers in select cities can pop by their BR for a free three-ounce soft serve cup or cone—but only if you’re preggers!

Now if you’re like me, you like free things. And if you’re like my wife, you like ice cream. So when Baskin Robbins and Ben & Jerry’s both had free or cheap ice cream events a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t hesitate to stand in line with a bunch of other cheap bastards to get some of that frozen milk stuff. This time, however, it’ll be much harder to claim our prize. That’s because my wife is not pregnant.

I don’t know about you, but I think this promotion is a little too sexist. For one, it excludes a really swell bunch of folks known as men. Plus it rewards rampant baby-making and overpopulation. Worst of all, it excludes the portion of the population most deserving of ice cream: adorable little girls. I can imagine poor seven-year-old Katie crying to her mom that Baskin Robbins wouldn’t give her free ice cream unless she had sex with a man and got knocked up. Also, unless they can finally figure out how to make their own sperm, lesbians are SOL on this deal too.

Notice that I said it will be much harder to claim our prize, not impossible. No no, I’m not going to impregnate my wife just to get her some free ice cream. (Try explaining that one to your future child. “You weren’t an accident, sweetie. You were a coupon!”) Because this promotion is so dastardly and devious, I feel it is my civic duty to find a way to take advantage of it! And if you’re like me and your wife won’t let you near her until this promotion is over is not with child, here are some tricks you can use to fool the folks behind the Baskin Robbins counter into thinking you’ve got a bun in your oven. (Note: All of these tips work best if you’re a woman.)

  • Bump it up. BR is calling it “Bump Day” for a reason: you’ll need one on your belly to cash in on this deal. If you’re already fat in the right places, you should be able to pull this step off easily. If not, there are a variety of bump simulation devices (BSDs) available on the market today. Rolled-up t-shirts, zip-lock bags full of pudding, and hot water bottles are just a few items you can use to pull off the necessary look.
  • Act pregnant. When you walk into Baskin Robbins, you should do all of the things a woman normally does when she is toting around a baby in her uterus. For instance, if you bring the baby’s “father” along, you can cuss him out for “making you that way.” Or you can ask the person behind the ice cream counter if you can get that order with a side of pickles and hot dogs.
  • Get your glow on. You know how pregnant women have a sort of “glow” about them? Yeah, you can fake the glow pretty easily with various lotions and other things you probably have in your make-up box right now.
  • Provide photographic evidence. A picture from “your recent ultrasound” (oh hey, what a coincidence: a Google image search for “ultrasound”) should be enough to prove that you’re with child, even if it doesn’t show yet.
  • Bring a pregnancy test. If you’re not pregnant, it’s going to be very difficult to pass one of those over-the-counter do-it-yourself pee-on-a-stick tests, even if it’s for free ice cream. So get one of your pregnant gal pals to help you cheat by taking the test herself. Then bring the pre-completed test to your nearest Baskin Robbins, wave it around in the cashier’s face (it’ll be more convincing if it’s really dripping wet), and claim your prize.
  • Break water. Step 1: Strap a plastic bag full of water to your upper thigh under a dress. Step 2: Go to Baskin Robbins. Step 3: Puncture the bag. Step 4: Scream, “My water just broke! Give me my ice cream so I can go to the hospital!” They’ll probably give you one of those 10-gallon buckets just to get you out the door.
  • Just lie. If you’re not interested in any of the above ideas, you could just lie and say you’re pregnant. After all, pregnancy doesn’t really show until a few months in anyway. Of course, if they start equipping Baskin Robbins with ultrasounds, you might be in trouble.
  • Free ice cream for sluts, too. Even if you don’t look or act pregnant, you might still be able to get your free ice cream simply by asking for it, especially if you dress like a whore. If the employees ask if you’re pregnant, simply wink and reply, “Why, are you offering?”

Fair warning: if you try to con your way into some free ice cream with a phony bump and you end up getting pregnant shortly after, you totally had it coming. That said, you might want to avoid Baskin Robbins’ experimental new flavor that it’s offering only during this event: Vanilla Sperm Explosion.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Save Your Failing Restaurant in an Eat-at-Home Economy

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 14 - restaurant

Call it what you want—a recession, an “economic correction,” a figment of your imagination—the economy is hurting. And nowhere is that more apparent than in my belly. Just to make ends meet, I’ve had to cut down my daily caloric intake from 7,000 calories to a mere 6,750. This has had a devastating effect on the local restaurant industry: eateries in my neighborhood are closing down at a rate of one roughly every 37 seconds! (No! Not the Dunkin Donuts! Take the Taco Bell instead!)

Okay, so maybe the situation isn’t that bad, but one only needs to walk into a local casual dining establishment to see that people just aren’t eating out as much today. Case in point: in April 2007, when I went to an annual work luncheon for my small team at a local Italian restaurant, every seat in the place was packed by noon; at this year’s meeting, our 10-person team accounted for about half of the crowd at lunchtime.

If you’re a restaurant operator, you may be going out of your mind right now trying to figure out how to prop up your dwindling business. With rising food prices making it more expensive to cook up that plate of fettuccine alfredo, and rising fuel prices making it more expensive for both customers to get to the dining table and for restaurants to get the ingredients to their kitchens, the situation seems pretty dire all around. But fear not, suffering restaurateurs! My 25 years of food-eating experience and I are here to offer you a selection of tasty tactics you can use not only to ride out the restaurant recession but to help you see your best sales in years.

  1. Cut the fat off the menu. Well, not literally (we Americans love our lard, after all). If your menu is loaded with dishes that force you to keep expensive ingredients in stock while the dishes themselves aren’t that popular, you might want to move them off in favor of lighter, cheaper fare.
  2. Substitute ingredients… carefully. Is anybody really gonna notice if you replace that fresh-chopped tomato sauce with Prego? With lighter customer volume, now might be a good time to play around with different brands and suppliers. Just don’t make tons of changes at once or you could stand to upset a few of the regulars.
  3. Toss consumers a bone. Yes, you’re hurting financially, but that’s because we are too. While it might seem counterintuitive, lower menu prices and coupons can help bring in customers who might otherwise stay at home and heat up a can of soup.
  4. Reward frequent diners. Keep ’em coming back with deals like “pay 5 times, get the 6th meal on us.” Little rewards like this that make frequent customers feel special can help even the most budget-minded ignore rising food and fuel prices and sit themselves at your table week after week.
  5. Cut hours, even days. If it’s costing you more in electricity and staff than you bring in to keep that restaurant open until midnight, consider closing at 10pm. Or if Mondays are slow, money-losing days, maybe you should give your eatery the day off.
  6. Diversify. While cutting back on menu options is one way to cut costs, going the opposite direction might work too. In a dreary, upsetting economic environment like today, some customers may appreciate seeing some new and exciting dishes added to the menu. Or perhaps you could make some small tweaks to existing menu items to give them some extra ‘zaz and boink!
  7. Leverage the power of the internet. Does your restaurant have a website? If not, you’re losing out on one cheap, easy way for customers to find out more about your restaurant. Even a basic web page with a menu and directions could bring in more patrons, especially if your cuisine is unique and hard to find in your area.
  8. Get super-creative. Put your imagination to the test and see what you can come up with to help revitalize your restaurant’s image. Invest in your storefront, make Wednesday nights ’80s Karaoke Night, put in new dining furniture—the possibilities are only as endless as your savings account.
  9. Remember: sex sells. No, I’m not suggesting you install a stripper pole in the middle of your restaurant’s dining room, but you probably could stand to capitalize a little more on your hot college girl wait staff. On a related subject, there aren’t nearly enough Maid cafés in this country.

Hopefully following some of these steps will have your restaurant on the road to booming business again in no time. No need to thank me, restaurant owners… though if you really want to, I certainly won’t turn down a complimentary seven-course feast in my honor.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Seven Unconventional Ways to Fight High Grocery Prices

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 10 - gallon of milk

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a package of boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store that cost $9 a pound. Nine dollars for one pound of chicken—the slowest, stupidest, least tasty of all grocery-quality animals. I could get some real breasts for less than that. Fortunately there were some chicken nuggets in the next aisle on sale for $2.50 a pound, so those yearning for their chix fix would not have to go home hungry.

Unfortunately this was only the first of outrageous grocery store surprises that would greet us on that trip. Most produce items had increased in price by 20% since last year, milk won the race against gasoline to $4 a gallon, and even ramen noodles had gone up in price to 12 cents a package instead of 10. Even filthy rich people are not immune to these increases; fancy-food retailer Whole Foods recently announced that, in an effort to avoid raising its prices, it will now be known as Three-Quarters Foods.

If you’re feeling the pinch in your pocket book when you purchase your products at the supermarket, you’re certainly not alone. And if buying the necessities of life are keeping you from being able to afford your skyrocketing mortgage or raging alcohol addiction, here are some steps you can take to take back your grocery stores from high prices.

  1. Go on a diet. Statistically speaking, there is a good chance you are a fat tub o’ lard. (My apologies to the skinny bitches out there.) Take a close look at your diet and determine if you really need those 900 calories worth of potato chips you eat every day.
  2. Grow everything yourself. It’s not as hard as you think to be self-sufficient with just a little hard work, some packets of seeds, and 12 acres of rich farmland. And lucky for you, 12 acres of prime farmland in your town can be had for just $3.7 million. Kiss expensive groceries goodbye!
  3. Look at another store. I know a couple of people who haven’t been to more than one grocery store or supermarket in the last decade. In fact, my wife’s aunt has been going to the same corner grocery store for the last 32 years for all of her food and household needs, even after it became a post office in 1997. You might find that another store has the products you typically by for a little less than your usual place.
  4. Consider alternatives. Don’t just limit yourself to substituting fresh and wholesome chicken for processed chicken nuggets. Love milk but can’t afford $4 a gallon? Buy powdered milk by the boxful—enough for gallons and gallons of a milk-like entity—for pennies on the dollar. The possibilities are endless; of course, so are the price increases, so you’ll eventually have to substitute everything you like to eat with whatever you find in the day-old section of the bakery.
  5. Try online grocery shopping. One of the best parts of online grocery shopping is that it opens you up to a whole new world of deals and discounts that aren’t available in store. You’ll also find it can take half the time of in-store shopping without sacrificing quality.
  6. Cut out the middle man. If only you could buy your apples, bread, and dead cow parts directly from the farmer instead of having to pay extra for the supermarket middle man. Well, you can—just swing by your local farmers’ market where you can find some of the best produce and other all-natural food items, often for a good deal less than you’ll pay in a store.
  7. Join the shoplifting revolution! Okay, hear me out. If everyone starts shoplifting cartloads of groceries, supermarkets will have no choice but to drop their prices. Sure, some might call it looting, but I prefer the more modern term democratic price correction.

Yay! Now you can afford to eat again. Sadly, thanks to the high price of fuel, you can’t afford to drive to the grocery store anymore. But it doesn’t matter anyway because truckers can’t afford to deliver inventories to the stores. That $3.7 million for 12 acres doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?