Essay 2: Burgers Get Reflective

The photo that started this crazy journey. Picture by the author.

I approach this essay with the slightest of trepidation. This, after all, is the culmination of nearly four months of work, toil, and sweat. I feel I should be forgiven for a feeling of inadequacy to the task. Nevertheless, time waits for no man, and as the due date surges closer I must finally explain my work to the world. This all started with a whim of mine- why not research a restaurant for my project? This would prove to be not only a large mistake, but also a window into something I knew nothing about. In any case, I hope you do not mind a bit of a chronological story- let’s start at the beginning.

I remember the combination of confusion and interest I felt when first presented with the concept for this project: “analyzing the rhetoric” of a specific location mentioned in S Street Rising, with a small list of choice selections presented to us. To be honest, my gut reaction was to pick some place that was convenient- while I didn’t know at the time how long I would be spending there, I would be happy with any place close to a Metro stop on the Red line. Seeing a burger place on the map and being a hungry college student, I naturally gravitated towards BGR, a restaurant I had seen but never entered. Thus, I made the fateful spreadsheet entry, flinging me face first into the world of fast casual dining.

While this is a misnomer, their advertising was very real. Picture by author.

Let us skip forward a bit to after our first essay. By this point, I had realized that there was only so much one could say about BGR: The Burger Joint, an incredibly boring restaurant whose food I refused to eat a second time. I was left with a conundrum- how do I spend the rest of a semester beating what seemed to be a dead horse? I realized this when I thought about the building for a moment- there were THREE fast casual restaurants sharing tenant space in a single building on one block! This seemed beyond odd to me for several reasons, the biggest of which is how they could stay in business without succumbing to competition, even if they weren’t all directly fighting for the same customers. I was forced to look deep into a sort of business that I had never patronized before moving to DC- I had never even been to a Chipotle branch when I began my research. To begin with, my first real question was where this fast casual trend had even come from? The research into that brought something far more interesting to my attention: the intense similarity in fast casual chains. As well as a set of ten rubrics which tended to define these chains, sourced from Technomic by the Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman, it also came to my attention how many built off the idea of “customizing” a menu item within a limited subset of ingredients. This made me realize a more relevant truth- all three of these restaurants, despite vastly different self perceptions, all shared the same storefronts and likely much of the same style of space. This meant, quite simply, I could compare their rhetoric on an apples-to-apples basis, rather than resorting to abstraction.

My research was then focused on examining the fundamentals of how these chains cultivated an intentional atmosphere, which I examined through several articles about more scientific views of how restaurant design and service worked. These were helpful, but only to a degree- the format of this project did not allow for as much in depth analysis as I would have liked, though they did help me interpret much of what I saw. Similarly, I focused my Digital Archives research on getting photos of the restaurants I had yet to patronize, though I chose to focus on exploring the architecture rather than an in-depth look at Sweetgreen from the perspective of my pocketbook. This gave me a decent basis for my project, giving me professional insight and a photo library I didn’t already have access to. However, I still had not yet decided on a focus for the multi-modal portion of the project.

I had hoped to have more interactivity in this project, but American University’s insistence that I didn’t know what I was doing meant a lot of time staring at this for no real benefit. Screenshot by author.

My gut feeling was that at least half of it would be a presentation. In all honest, I would have preferred an essay- I am much better at composing my thoughts into sentences rather than condensing it down into a sensible presentation, but nevertheless I wanted to keep to the multi-modal formula. I went with Prezi, recently the subject of a revamping, for its dynamism, easy embed-ability, and unique way of presenting slideshows compared to similar products. While I have several complaints about it, it’s nevertheless an elegant way of making decent looking presentations. The second half was more tricky- I had originally considering a video art piece intending to bring like to the consumerist consumption inherent in the restaurant, but I lacked the AV equipment and software necessary to bring such a lofty idea to life. However, inspiration came to me from another one of my classes- my AU Scholars seminar, which involved a historical research project. In particular, we made heavy use of mapping tools to present our data and visualize our conclusions, which inspired me to do something similar, though in a somewhat less fancy manner. While I may have had a grander project with more time or a better understanding of the Google Maps API, nevertheless I took on the goal of mapping out every restaurant within a rough half mile of Dupont Circle, and determining the hot spots for fast casual dining. This eventually panned out well, with a handful of interesting data points relating to this which I attempted to give meaning to in my presentation. After writing this essay, I concluded with a simple bit of web design utilizing WordPress- a useful if beyond irritating tool when control over HTML is limited.

I will say that, in the end, I am mostly satisfied with what I have wrought- though I admit not quite. Certain technical limitations, both of my own inadequacies in dealing with APIs and of simple time constraints, meant I had to focus my research on a single block rather than the entire city. Such a thing would have been sufficient in scale to deal with an topic on a national scale, but alas, we find ourselves bound by the neighborhood. While I admit I would have preferred another location if I could go back and change time, I would have likely not learned half as much. Ultimately, it’s what we make of it.

This is what finalizing this project looked like. Photo by author.

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