Joe's Liquor Store and the Roto-Sphere

Joe's Liquor Store in Midtown is just down the road from me and boasts one of Memphis' most fun and distinctive signs. Referred to by most residents as the 'Sputnik', the sixteen, eight foot long colored arms physically rotate in three directions and has been synonymous with the business since it was established in 1962.

Now as it turns out, there is more history to this than one would assume - these sputnik style signs are actually known as 'Roto-Spheres' and the one outside of Joe's Liquor Store is one of only around 17 left in the world with less than 10 of these still fully operational.

Designed by a guy called Warren Milks, around 234 of these signs were created between 1960 and 1971. The 1962 newspaper advertisement referring to the store's Grand Opening featured a photo of its Roto-Sphere with the caption "At the Sign of the Sputnik". By the mid 70's however, the sign had fallen into serious disrepair.

In 1999, Joe's Liquor Store's new owners decided to have their sign restored. They were able to raise the full $12,000 needed through a fundraising event. This "Sputnik Relaunch Party" drew about 450 people from the community and featured live bands, a silent auction, and a fireworks display. The restoration took three months. Since then, Sputnik's motor has been replaced three or four times and it is now completely electric. Although the neon is extra-strength, about two tubes break each year and require replacement.

For more information and pictures of some of the later 'Roto-Sphere designs, take a look HERE.

Old Reliable - The Commercial Appeal

The Commercial Appeal is the only local 'Memphis' daily newspaper left in circulation. The editoial content of the paper was sometimes 'naieve' and unbalanced but local events were generally covered well.
Over the past year we have been noticing that the paper is getting thinner and thinner - was used to be maybe 10 pages of job adverts and classified is now down to just a couple of sides. A sad reflection of the current economic climate and the increasing popularity of electronic media, it is not hard to see why such a reduction in advertising revenue has hit the newspaper industry hard.
Last Month, the Commercial Appeal raised it's prices, reduced it's delivery area and acquired a new President and Publisher. Since then more than ten percent of the workforce (of around 800 ) have been laid off through a combination of redundancies and 'staff buyouts'.
The Commercial Appeal seems to have an interesting history and Memphis would be a worse place without it. Although I prefer a greater amount of world news in my daily paper and find electronic media to be a more convenient format, I sincerely hope that the Commercial Appeal's financial cutbacks are enough to keep the presses rolling. Having surived the Civil War and the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 without missing an issue, it would be a shame to see it falter as the result of the current recession or a lack of adaptability.

Ihop, Ryans and Customer Service Hell

From as far back as my first visits to the US, I was always (generally) impressed with the standard of customer service that was shown by wait staff in restaurants and diners. Sure there were exceptions and a lot if insincere 'Have a Great Day' comments but the whole experience was generally better than the equivalent in the UK.

I had always assumed that there were probably a couple of core reasons for the elevated levels of service. Firstly, basic wages for wait staff are terrible and the workers rely on tips as the major part of their income. Fast, efficient, polite service will mean a steady flow of happy customers and therefore more tips. Secondly, there was a far greater 'service culture' in the US. Eating out is a more general occurrence than in the UK and with so many restaurants to choose from, excellent service is often the distinguishing factor. Treat a customer well, make them happy and then reap the benefits of their returning custom.

Since moving to Memphis, I am continually astounded by the poor customer service and standards that I seem to find in 'everyday' restaurants. Now I have tried to think this one through and I do not believe I am a demanding customer, but at the same time I am not going to accept anything less than I am being asked to pay for. I am realistic to understand that my waiter is probably over worked for his poor wages and is often a the mercy of an unsupportive manager or chef but at the same time there are certain standards that I would expect.

1.) Be Polite - just smile, say hello, look at me when I am talking to you and listen when I am making my order. I encourage suggestions about menu items and even nice comments about my kids but I don't want your life story or a diatribe about how you have had to work a double shift. That is not to say I am not sympathetic but I am here with my family for a meal and I have enough baggage of my own to worry about.

2.) Please offer to refill my drink. Again,I am realistic and understand that you probably have half a dozen tables to manage but if i am sitting for more than ten minutes with an empty glass then I am going to feel neglected. On a similar note, please do not just line up three drinks per person on the table so you don't have to come back - it crowds the tables, give the kids something else to knock over and just makes me think you are just trying to avoid having to revisit my table.

3.) Set expectations about how long my order will take. If the restaurant is backed up and my entree will take thirty minutes then tell me up front. Setting my expectations will allow me to manage my hungry children and will save me gunning for the manager's scalp after twenty minutes. Tell me nothing and leave me at the table without sight of my waiter and I am just going to get frustrated and start knocking percentages off your tip until you return. To be honest, tell me my food is going to take a little longer, will probably just encourage me to order a cold appetizer in addition - this should be a smart move for you.

4.) This is a golden rule. If i am frustrated and angry to the point where I ask to speak to the restaurant manager, please don't make me have to ask more than once. Now I can understand how some people might abuse this rule as a fast track to getting their meal 'comped' but I would sincerely encourage you to take me seriously - a face to face conversation might be an annoyance if you are busy but I can assure you that the outcome is likely to be far better than ignoring me and letting me write a complaint letter to your corporate body. As a manager, If I ask to speak to you, I am tying to be positive and trying to give you an opportunity to resolve the issues that I have. I never want to be told that the manager is too busy to talk to me - if that is the case you are probably in the wrong job and I will feel it is my duty to tell you this.

Today, we spent two hours trying to find a restaurant that would serve us breakfast. First stop was Ryans, a breakfast buffet restaurant that is usually a cheap easy place to take the kids. We had to ask twice for straws for the kids drinks, the buffet was cold and empty and our waitress was asked twice to see if she could sort it out. The manager had to be asked twice to talk to us and never once said sorry or did anything constructive to fix things. You cannot sit three small, hungry children down in a restaurant and then ask them to wait 25 minutes for something to eat. To be fair, we were offered (and accepted out money back) but there was no apology, no smiles, no niceness, just a nasty begrudging attitude and some lame story about how they had some problems in the kitchen. I can understand problems but see Rule 4!.

Our next stop was IHOP over the road. On arrival we joked with the manager that would have to go some to do worse than Ryan's had just done - little were we to know that he obviously saw this as some kind of challenge. We waited ten minutes (acceptable) before a young waitress wafted past us and uttered the phrase... 'Cmon Anderson' Do i look like a Golden retriever? Call me sir, don't call me anything if you like; just look me in the eye and politely invite me to follow you to the table. Common courtesy costs nothing.

One 'polite conversation ' with the waitress and a similar conversation with the manager later and I was hoping that the IHOP alarm bells were ringing and that the remainder of our visit might be accompanied by a more respectable standard of service. No such luck. We waited 25 minutes for our food and watched half our order appear whilst the other half 'was backed up somewhere in the kitchen'. Our drinks were not refilled, our request for a side plate for one of the children was not met and the most laughable moment came when the the restaurant manager asked us whether anybody was siting at the opposite table before he placed some guests there.

Can anything be learned form this morning? Well yes, at least one simple thing...if you want me as a customer then at least try to make me feel welcome. It doesn't matter whether I am going to IHOP or the Four Seasons, I am choosing your restaurant and I expect to be treated right. Making a stand against poor service is uncomfortable and I can understand some people feeling uncomfortable but if we make a stand together something might change.

Butch the Chicken and Sun Studio

If you have never got around to visiting sun Studio, I can thoroughly recommend taking the tour. This small, dirty looking building on the corner of Union and Marshall has borne witness to some of the greatest names (and characters) in Memphis musical history.

Unlike the super glossy Graceland experience, the Sun Studio tour is earthy, very matter of fact and probably as close to a time warp back to the 50s as you are going to get. The tour is conducted by local musicians who talk knowledgeably about the music, history and personalities associated with the studio.

Sun Studio is everything I love about Memphis. It has a fascinating history and is wonderfully understated to the point where I can't imagine how somebody has failed to exploit it's tourist potential even further (anybody for launching a Sun themed bar on Beale Street?).

Now everybody knows about Sun's associations with superstars such as Elvis and Johnny Cash but one of my favorite stories about the place concerns a guy called Roscoe Gordon. Roscoe was a native Memphian and a piano player who found fame on Beale Street playing alongside legends such as Rufus Thomas and BB King. First recording at Sun in 1951, Roscoe worked with the Studio for a number of years and in the mid 50's recorded a song called 'The Chicken'.

The Chicken" not only started a dance craze but also made famous a rooster named "Butch", who, decked out in miniature suits to match his owner, gyrated on top of the piano and drank scotch from a shot glass during live performances, to the delight of audiences. However, Butch succumbed to his excesses at an early age, and Rosco could never find an equal talent among the hen houses of the South.

Only in Memphis could a man score big with a drunken dancing chicken. this is the stuff of legends!

So What Is This All About?

Welcome to ‘Mad about Memphis’, a journal of my ‘love / hate’ relationship with the Bluff City!

As a tourist I visited Memphis many times and fell in love with the friendly, carefree atmosphere of Beale Street, the incredible musical and cultural heritage, the welcoming southern people…and of course the Peabody’s marching ducks. Coming to Memphis was always fun, always exciting and was pretty much my favorite city in the world.

Now several years later, for all sorts of extraordinary reasons, I am living in Memphis and have a wonderful wife and family. The city of Memphis continues to fascinate me but for different reasons. Living in memphis is the complete antithesis to visiting here on vacation - you see a very different side to the city and that side is not a great one.

The purpose of this Blog is simple, and that is to record the good and the bad of Memphis and remind me that for every aspect of the city that makes me hold my head in my hands and sigh, there are still things that inspire and excite me.