The local newspaper is a supermarket, the local news startup is a FroYo joint, and now everything…
One city is home to the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Agenda. Let’s stop pretending that they do the same thing.
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Last week, I went to a TCBY. It was great! First you grab a bowl, fill it with whatever soft-serve yogurt you want (Cookies and Cream is low fat? Terrific!). Then top it with whatever you want (I put a few blueberries on mine, just to trick myself into thinking it was healthy, then loaded it up with crushed Butterfinger and brownie bits). Then you take it to the cashier, who is the only employee in the entire store. That person weighs it and charges you by the ounce. Then you eat it. DELICIOUS. I love FroYo! It’s the best!
Would I eat FroYo for every meal? Don’t be silly. To nourish myself, I need to buy food at the grocery store. THE BORING-ASS GROCERY STORE. I mean, get a load of this place. American cheese. Baking powder. Crisco. That is some lame shit right there. And then I have to load the groceries into my car, take them home, and prepare them myself. I hate cooking. I am terrible at it, and, when left to my own devices, will make a Foreman-grilled chicken breast, canned vegetables, and applesauce for every meal. That, or spaghetti. IT IS ALL I KNOW HOW TO DO.
I’ll stop being cutesy and just tell you now: Millennial-targeted newsletters and websites, like Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda, are the FroYo stores here. The Charlotte Observer is a supermarket. (Local TV stations are vaping parlors, but let’s not get into that now). I think you can understand why. Agenda and Five (not AgendaFive) are spunky upstarts, small and nimble, picking off the low-hanging, albeit still sweet, fruit. Do you have disposable income? Would you like a place to spend it? Come on in! The FroYo is ice cold. Here are the eight flavors that’ll blow your damn mind.
The newspaper is a hulking leviathan — a supermarket where you can learn about all things local, important and unimportant, written in a fairly staid style born from years of organizational inertia. Grocery stores renovate themselves from time to time, but they’re still basically structured the same. Coffee and cereal are always in the same aisle. The milk is in the back. In that way, supermarkets are dependable. They’re not always on the top of your mind, but when you need an ingredient for your meal, the grocery store will probably have it. You know this. You could, say, grow your own basil. Just like you could go to a city council meeting in person. Some people do. Most people don’t.
Anyway, back to the thinly-veiled metaphors. If the grocery store down the road from me closed, I’d miss it. I could go to another one further away, but just think about how that complicates things. When dinner’s on and you’re one ingredient short, you can run to the store. But if that store closes, then what? That trip becomes longer, and maybe you just give up on that meal you were planning and order pizza instead. In that way, we take grocery stores for granted. Later on, by the time our arteries are clogged with fast-food french fry cholesterol, we’d put two-and-two together AND IT’D BE TOO LATE. As in: Here lies Jeremy — the Burger King was closer to his house than the Harris Teeter.
Conversely, I loved Pinkberry. When I lived in Charlotte, one opened up at Phillips Place, and for weeks my wife and I swooned over it. I kept seeing people talking about it on Facebook. When we finally went, we waited behind some teenage girls, listened to some thumping music, sat down in some cooler-than-Ikea seats, and enjoyed our FroYo. The whole design aesthetic was like some trendy store you’d see in Los Angeles, I think (I haven’t been to L.A. since I was 14). I was 31 at the time, but being there made me feel young again!
Pinkberry’s grand opening in 2010 got a lot of attention locally. Finally, Charlotte has this thing that’s cool and west coasty! And then, some people went to Yelp to get mad online:
So, you can’t dispense your own yogurt nor can you add your own toppings. This place is like a middle school cafeteria where you point at your selection and hope for the best.
And then some people got mad that some people got mad online:
Pinkberry is the jam! I love that this is NOT a self-serve place. I don’t need a FREAKIN’ bucket of fro-yo. I want fresh toppings that haven’t been tainted by small children’s germ ridden fingers.
And after all of that? Do you know what happened to that Pinkberry? It closed. By then, TCBY had reinvented itself as a self-serve brightly-colored wannabe-Guggenheim-designed frozen yogurt joint. We went there instead.
There was a Food Lion in Charlotte that I went to quite a bit. The Yelp reviews for it come from an entirely different universe:
Clean store with great selections and full shelves and prices are decent too.
This simply is NOT a very good store. The ONLY reason I gave it TWO stars is because it’s conveniently located to my house. That’s it.
Nice enough staff.
Cute Assistant Manager. Ladies, he’s married so he’s just eye candy.
That’s about all.
And that’s okay! Grocery stores elicit a different kind of emotional response. You are already going there anyway to get this thing that you need, so the store is subtly arranged in a way so that maybe you’ll also buy this other thing that you don’t need. Hence, when going to a local Lowe’s Foods to pick up something essential, I end up coming home with a six-pack, because those clever bastards put the craft beer aisle DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM THE BREAD. What can I say? I’m a fan of yeast.
FroYo joints have a great business model. Someone obviously recognized an untapped market for them. You don’t need more than one high schooler to run the entire store at a time. It only takes one lowly-paid person to refill the yogurt, and restock the syrupy walnuts and Heath bar crumbs. The stores are usually pretty small but meant to feel post-modern, in the same way that an art gallery might feel if someone figured out a way to franchise it. Lime green is used unironically. It is possible to hear a Bon Iver song playing and not think oh, that’s weird. Every time I walk into a Menchie’s, I’m happy with a twinge of regret. I should have thought of this.
But FroYo places have to catch your attention, because you do not need to be there, really, for any reason at all. If you do not go inside one, that’s okay! You’ll be fine! And besides, did you know you can buy frozen yogurt and toppings at the supermarket? You can! But then, ugh, you have to go home and prepare it yourself, and eat it at your house, a place where you will not casually run into your friends. An Instagram selfie of you eating frozen yogurt at your kitchen table will be interpreted as a cry for help. Post the same picture from inside a Yoforia, and at least three people will reply with the same comment: “fun!” FroYo, smartly, packages itself as a convenient, quick, cheap, nebulously healthy way to get your fix, and do it in a place that makes you feel like you’re living your best Snake Person life.
And look, not all grocery stores are the same. Some are Food Lion. Some are Publix. Some are Harris Teeter. Just like TCBY is not Pinkberry, which is not Cherry Berry. And while it’s highly unlikely that a FroYo place would ever evolve into a grocery store, it’s also unlikely that a supermarket would ever shrink down and strictly serve frozen yogurt. (Although, the Lowe’s Foods down the road from me has four beers on tap for people to drink while shopping, so it’s now entirely possible that I could come home from there with groceries and a buzz.)
My bigger point is this: Nobody, realistically, compares a Harris Teeter to a TCBY. Why would you? They are two different things. Imagine, if you will, someone complaining because they wanted a pound of macadamia nuts, and that they couldn’t get enough of them at the FroYo place. I, for one, have never tried shoveling a pound of nuts AND NOTHING ELSE into a bowl at Yoforia. I think the cashier might look at me funny. No yogurt, sir? No! I want these nuts! Why don’t you have a separate container meant to hold nuts? These things are going to go flying all over my car when I zip around a corner!
However, if I have never tasted the edible glory of macadamia nuts, I may add them to my yogurt to see how they go down. If they are terrible, I can just eat the other parts of my yogurt, preferably, the parts with sprinkles. If I went to the grocery store and wanted to try macadamia nuts, I would probably have to buy a whole package of them. That seems like a waste. If I decide to sample a nut in the store by cracking open a jar, taking a nibble, then tossing the rest on the floor, I think there is a good chance that I might end up having a long chat about decorum with the store manager.
In any event, I spent a lot more of my time needling over the minutiae at a FroYo joint — the toppings, the music, the lighting, the crowd — than I ever would at a supermarket. When I walk into a grocery store, it is either better or worse than it used to be. I can nitpick, but except for my father-in-law, the general population will be bored to tears by my well thought-out diatribe about shelf selection and price points.
There’s no point in telling anyone to stop bitching about these things on the internet, just like there’s no point in me trying to build a dam across a river with a tiny shovel. If you like Pinkberry, great! If you get excited about Publix, terrific! If you hate one or the other, fine! But at least recognize them for what they really are, just like I recognize magazines for what they really are: Steakhouses.
Postscript (Dec. 6, 2016): R.I.P. Raleigh Agenda, a healthier, flavorful franchise built in the wrong neighborhood.