Last week I saw a lot of enthusiastic tweets over the news that WaWa might open some gas stations and convenience stores in DC. I'll fully admit that I do not understand why this is such a special thing.

(from Robert Bruce Murray III // Sort Of Natural on Flickr)

In fact, I remember a similar level of enthusiasm a few months back when a certain chain donut shop opened on U Street. I never got it that time either.

In response, plenty of people have said - I'm from Philly (Boston) and WaWa (Dunkin Donuts) is awesome! But still, why? If you're from suburban Chicago, are you committed to loving McDonalds? If you hail from Seattle, must you think that Starbucks is the greatest thing on the planet?

Having heard all the hype, I went to my first WaWa in Virginia Beach last year. It was very much like many of the other gas stations I've been to in my life. Fine - but not all that different from a Pilot or a nice Speedway as far as I could tell. You could order greasy food from a touch screen, that was cool, I guess.

I understand the nostalgia appeal. It's nice to have something that reminds people of "back home" even if that something is a gas station. But I've also found that when that something is removed from the city where you remember it, it loses something.

It's known that I'm a big fan of the Great Lakes Brewing Company, and I'm happy about the fact they distribute in DC. Lately though, I've only been buying it when I'm back in Ohio. It's better, fresher, and less expensive there; and frankly, I'd rather drink something that's local to DC while I'm here.

Counter-Counter Culture

Alex Baca's story on the coffee scene in DC is definitely worth a read. I know that this article has been in talks for a long time, so I'm happy to see it finally come to print, even if I'm way late in making these comments about it.

(from counterculturecoffee on Flickr)

I've expressed my distaste for Counter Culture coffee in the past. I have no reason for disliking it other than the fact that it doesn't taste great.

I recently confirmed this opinion when some friends of the blog hosted a blind coffee tasting. Four of us tasted 4 coffees, including one Counter Culture roast. I picked the Counter Culture as the worst tasting, and none of the other tasters picked it as their favorite. It was hardly a scientific study; but it did confirm my personal belief that there's something off with their coffee.

It irks me that so many of DC's "independent" coffee shops serve Counter Culture, because I don't like it. I especially dislike the company's required method of brewing iced-coffee; but that's for another post.

As Alex's story makes clear, coffee shops in DC don't necessarily serve it because they believe it's the best, they're contractually obligated to serve it under an arrangement where Counter Culture helps pay for some of their start-up and overhead costs in exchange for exclusive rights to serve their coffee. From a business perspective, this makes sense; but most of these shops' customers will never know it.

Now, I happen to think the absolute best coffee shops in DC are the two that roast their own coffee right on-site (Qualia and Sidamo), but I also realize it's not reasonable to expect this from everybody in the coffee shop business.

To me it's actually more a question of what we consider a "local" or "independent" business. I like to support these types of businesses, but when a product is getting shipped in from North Carolina and served at over a dozen different coffee shops, how local or independent is it really?

If a local entrepreneur buys a Denny's or iHOP franchise, is that a local business? That's debatable. Obviously it's part of a big corporate chain, but the owners might still live right in the neighborhood where it operates. On the other hand, what obligation does a coffee shop have to source coffee from a different company than their competitors? A bar can serve the exact same drinks as its competitors and still be a better or worse place to go.

A good compromise would involve a local coffee roaster supplying the beans to the local coffee shops. That's a lot easier said than done, but in terms of calling a coffee shop authentically local or independent, I think that's what it would take.
DCist highlights a U.S. News list of the best vacation destinations. I think the places on the list can be categorized one of three ways:
  • Major cities (New York, Washington, San Francisco)
  • Beaches (Maui, Miami Beach, Honolulu)
  • "Destinations" (Disney World, Las Vegas, Yosemite)
I get why people want to vacation on the beach or go to Disney World or Vegas. I've done all of these things personally. But I've always been curious about what people find appealing about vacationing in cities. I love to do it - but I'm also much more urban-minded than the typical American.

(from Thomas Hawk on Flickr)

If you look at the cities on the U.S. news list, you'll see that they share one key thing in common: ability to walk around. Why does New York, San Francisco and Chicago make this list while Dallas, Atlanta and Houston get left behind? They're all part of the 10 largest metro areas, after all. They're all huge cities with big economies and lots of stuff to do.

When I lived in Dallas I thought about this a lot. What fun would it be to fly to Dallas, then have to rent a car at the airport and spend your vacation driving from destination to destination? It's not that these cities aren't culturally rich or that they don't have things to do - it's that everything is all sprawled out, much like the cities themselves, and that makes them less appealing to the vacationer.

It's not just a bias against big Texas cities; look at what U.S. News writes about San Antonio:
San Antonio's charm lies in its attractive layout and its rich history. It is large city, but retains a small-town feel. There is the obligatory trip to the Alamo, but the main attraction here is the River Walk. Here, you can find outdoor restaurants and cafes in abundance.
Emphasis mine. It's often odd to hear someone arguing against cities to make the claim that people don't like them. Obviously there's something about cities that's attractive and people want to live in them for the same reason that people want to visit them. Good street life, high-quality restaurants and a decent cafe scene aren't just for tourists.

In Fast Food News...

When I saw this article yesterday, I felt a little sad and embarrassed that I actually lived and went to school in University Heights, Ohio. The article is about how the mayor proclaimed February 10th "McDonald's Day" in celebration of a new "state-of-the-art" fast food restaurant that just opened up.

(from WanderingWhitehorse on Flickr)

Now, to put this into some context, this McDonald's replaced a really awful strip mall, so on-balance, the area is still as sprawly and suburbanized as it gets. I just don't understand what's so special about a new McDonald's though...

But there's more. The mayor went on to call this an "environmentally friendly" McDonald's store. A few paragraphs down, you learn that it features a double drive through. Now twice as many people in cars can buy hamburgers and fries without leaving their vehicles!

Honestly, you can't make this stuff up. The fact that this is as newsworthy as it is (ie. at all) and gets this much attention from the mayor concerns me a little.

Electric Cars

The documentary Revenge of the Electric Car opens with a shot of a busy, congested Los Angeles freeway. A voice begins talking about how LA's freeways are great. How they've enabled mobility... how they've allowed businesses to spring up around them. The problem, the voice says, is that almost none of the cars driving on these freeways are electric.

(from alforque on Flickr)

Already, 30 seconds into the movie and I'm cringing, wondering how I'm going to get through an hour and a half of fetishizing electric cars and "happy motoring" as Jim Kunstler would say.

It's true that having lots of gasoline powered vehicles polluting cities is a problem - it's a big problem. But to think that it will be some kind of paradise when LA's freeways are packed, jammed and congested with electric vehicles is a bit silly, to be frank.

Electric car proponents do seem genuinely concerned with the environment - at least I don't think they're putting on an act. But they seem way more obsessed with cars than about some environmental goal. As you watch the movie, you hear little bits about how electric cars are great because they're fast and they can accelerate quickly and they are fun to drive. And that's probably - but when you're crawling along at 10 mph during a Los Angeles rush hour, none of that really matters.

The film closes with another shot of the congested Los Angeles freeway. It's weird, because I imagine a documentary film about the awful problem of sprawl opening and closing in the exact same way. It also makes me think that when you show that image and people say "wow, there's a serious problem here" that they might not have the same thing in mind as you.