Monday, September 30, 2002

September 30, 2002
Last day of month and I'm way behind on art. Got started finally yesterday
about four, but didn't get far. Did two Lewis & Clark roughs but they suck,
big time.

Kathy and I cooked spaghetti, had a Greek salad, watched two Sopranos in a
row. Really enjoyed it.

Walleye Patti changed my life. I was driving across Wyoming last week when I
pulled into Thermopolis just after sunrise and was looking for a real cafe
(see Road Rules, Sept. 28). It was Sunday morning and nothing was open except
a McDonald's. At the far edge of town I saw a billboard, There was a painting
of a big ol' fish jumping right out of the water and the words: "Patti's
Walleye Cafe • World famous bisquits & gravy • if you don't like 'em they're
free • 30 mi. ahead on left • Shoshoni Wyoming."

Even though I was starving, I hit the gas and cruised through the Wind
River Canyon at about 85. Started looking right and left at the 30 mile mark,
but shot right through Shoshoni (pop. 651) and was out the other end when I
realized I must have missed it. I turned around, went back, looked around,
didn't see it, stopped at a Texaco and got gas ($10.20 cash), stopped a guy
getting in his pickup and asked him. He didn't know. Went inside to pay, and
the skinny kid with the earring at the cash register didn't know, nor the
girl in the Fast Break take out area. Finally, a church lady with muffins
smiled and told me it was up the road to "Thermop" (as the locals call it). I
had missed it!

I shot up the road to the north edge of town and saw a cinder block, bait
shop looking affair sitting down off the road (I actually saw it on the way
in but thought, "That can't be it!"). A sign said "Walleye" and another said
"Bisquits & Gravy" but it was nothing like the billboard. Besides, the place
looked abandoned and there were no cars anywhere. I stopped to take a
picture, then noticed the Open signs. I went up to the door and lo and behold
it opened. I saw three women inside standing by a walk-in, "Are you open?" I
asked incredulously. They mumbled something about "sit anywhere you like." One
of the women was smoking and hacking (it later turned out to Patti), so I
went out and turned the car off, amazed that anyone would or could go to this
much trouble to find something so meager looking.

I went into the small dining room that resembled an early 1960s air raid
bunker. No windows and there was a small tv on a moving tray blaring some morning news show and they were about to show that damn video of that Toogood woman hitting her
kid for the billionth time and I didn't want that for breakfast so I took a
booth along the west wall, facing away from the tv.

As the waitress poured me a cup of coffee (it was her first day), in came
a couple who sat in the very next booth, facing me! Now the last thing a
single diner wants is to look up at another diner. As a bonus, they too,
started hacking. The waitress came over and said to the woman, "I guess
stopping smoking hasn't helped your cough any." That told me two things: they
were regulars and I was going to watch them eat one of their last meals, bite
for bite.

I went outside to get a newspaper from the rack so I could sit sideways
and read (and not have to look at the tv or the couple hacking in front of
me). I ran into Patti on the way back in and said, "I want you to know I'm
here because of your billboard in Thermopolis." Patti took a drag off her
cigarrette and said, "That sign has got me more damn business." She said it
like it was a nuisance and if it didn't stop soon she'd have to go up there
with a chain saw and chop it down herself. I didn't want to tell her how hard
I had to work to find her place, but I still wanted to help her. "Patti," I
said as diplomatically as I could, "you need a sign outside that matches the
sign in Thermopolis." She looked at me with a deadpan expression and said,
"It'll just blow down." That was it. She didn't want to talk about it.

The chicken fried steak and the bisquits and gravy were wonderful. But as
I drove away I realized I would probably never go back and I wondered why.
After all, the food matched the advertisement. Here's what I came up with:

• The advertising on the billboard was genius (it made me drive 30 extra
miles to eat!) and the food was actually quite good, but everything else
around it was a failure.

• Many people in a town of 651 people didn't even know she existed (so many
people tell us they didn't know about us, or they thought True West was out
of business, or they tell us they can't find us on the newsstand. Ouch!)

• People want a complete experience. Just having a good product isn't enough.
I wonder if sometimes our "billboards" create an expectation but when the
people get to the web site or to the magazine, they are disappointed.

• How many readers have tried to help us by telling us "our signs don't
match" and we blow them off? Scary and instructive.

Thanks Walleye Patti for changing my life.

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