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kottke.org posts about Shopsins

Psst. Fast Food Secret Menus Are Rare Spots of Fun in Assembly-Line Dining

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2018

For Literary Hub, Alison Pearlman writes about how secret menus at fast food joints like In-N-Out (4x4, animal style) and McDonald’s (a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger with a McChicken sandwich crammed into it) are an attempt by customers to push back against corporate standardization.

As you might guess, chain restaurants with units in the many hundreds or thousands lean toward standardization. The larger the chain, the more it regulates everything from menus to service, which creates the public perception of a homogenous and regimented operation.

This is the strongest at limited-service chains because every segment of the company-designed encounter between patron and server is at its most rote. Regulars are supposed to be addressed the same way as first-timers. Managers don’t encourage servers to recall a repeat customer’s favorite dish or how much ice she likes in her tea. That would only slow operations down-the kiss of death for a high-volume operation. If a server does become familiar with a repeat customer, that relationship could lead to special treatment, such as extra generous provisions of fries or special sauce, but interactions like these stray from the company line.

The piece is excerpted from Pearlman’s new book on the design of restaurant menus, May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, which sounds fascinating. As a former designer who still very much thinks like one, almost every time I interact with a restaurant menu, I’m looking at how it’s arranged and designed. I think often of William Poundstone’s analysis of Balthazar’s menu.

2. The price anchor. Menu consultants use this prime space for high-profit items, and price “anchors”, in this case the Le Balthazar seafood plate, for $115 (£70). By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, the triple-figure price here is probably to induce customers to go for the $70 (£43) Le Grand plate to the left of it, or the more modest seafood orders below it.)

And of course, there’s the 11-page menu from Shopsin’s circa-2004 that defies all rational analysis, a “tour de force of outsider information design”.

Rest In Pancakes, Kenny Shopsin

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2018

Shopsins

Word is filtering through the NYC food community that Kenny Shopsin has passed away. Together with his wife and children, Shopsin was the proprietor of Shopsin’s General Store, an iconic NYC restaurant, an establishment.

Calvin Trillin wrote a profile of Shopsin and the restaurant for the New Yorker in 2002.

One evening, when the place was nearly full, I saw a party of four come in the door; a couple of them may have been wearing neckties, which wouldn’t have been a plus in a restaurant whose waitress used to wear a T-shirt that said “Die Yuppie Scum.” Kenny took a quick glance from the kitchen and said, “No, we’re closed.” After a brief try at appealing the decision, the party left, and the waitress pulled the security gate partway down to discourage other latecomers.

“It’s only eight o’clock,” I said to Kenny.

“They were nothing but strangers,” he said.

“I think those are usually called customers,” I said. “They come here, you give them food, they give you money. It’s known as the restaurant business.”

Kenny shrugged. “Fuck ‘em,” he said.

Kenny’s daughter Tamara published a memoir recently called Arbitrary Stupid Goal…I read it last month and loved it. The book is not only a love letter to her family’s restaurant and the old West Village (which is now almost entirely gone), but also to her father, who is featured on nearly every page.

Shopsin published a cookbook back in 2008, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.

“Pancakes are a luxury, like smoking marijuana or having sex. That’s why I came up with the names Ho Cakes and Slutty Cakes. These are extra decadent, but in a way, every pancake is a Ho Cake.” Thus speaks Kenny Shopsin, legendary (and legendarily eccentric, ill-tempered, and lovable) chef and owner of the Greenwich Village restaurant (and institution), Shopsin’s, which has been in existence since 1971.

Kenny has finally put together his 900-plus-item menu and his unique philosophy-imagine Elizabeth David crossed with Richard Pryor-to create Eat Me, the most profound and profane cookbook you’ll ever read. His rants-on everything from how the customer is not always right to the art of griddling; from how to run a small, ethical, and humane business to how we all should learn to cook in a Goodnight Moon world where everything you need is already in your own home and head-will leave you stunned or laughing or hungry.

Much love to the Shopsin family right now.

Update: Several people wrote in mentioning I Like Killing Flies, a 2004 documentary about Shopsin. There are a few clips of it floating around on YouTube. The NY Times filmed Shopsin making his macaroni and cheese pancakes, one of the hundreds of items on the restaurant’s menu.

Update: The NY Times has an obituary of Shopsin and Helen Rosner wrote Remembering Kenny Shopsin, the Irascible Chef-King of Lower Manhattan for the New Yorker. Yesterday, Kenny’s daughter Tamara posted a photo of her dad on Instagram with the following caption:

@shopsinsnyc will be open Wednesday. My dad won’t be there in body but he will be there. I love you dad.

The carrot is not important. Chasing it is.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

I finally picked up Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal the other day. This is how it begins (emphasis mine):

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The restaurant was Shopsin’s, no longer in Greenwich Village, and after a start like that, I read the next 80 pages without stopping. Really wish I’d heeded much advice to pick this up sooner.

See also “I’ve never had a goal”.

Menu design

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2011

Art of the Menu is a new collection of well-designed menus by the folks who bring you Brand New. Two of the most interesting menus I’ve run across are Shopsins’ (the design of which I wrote about several years ago) and Alinea’s (the menu is an infographic).

The Shopsin’s philosophy

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2008

This NY Times article about Shopsin’s is full of wisdom and bullshit (sometimes both at the same time) from owner Kenny Shopsin.

“I dedicate myself to consuming all sorts of ideas,” says Shopsin, an avid reader and Internet crawler. “Eventually something inside me, probably skewed by my erotic feelings about breasts and things like that, assembles a product and just shoots it up.” For example, a recent item on the food blog Serious Eats about foods on a stick led to the State Fair combo plate: corn-dog sausage, s’mores pancakes and chicken-fried eggs. New dishes are printed on the menu the same day: “I spent almost $3,000 on toner in the last three months,” Shopsin says.

Love it. Check out the video of Shopsin cooking his mac ‘n’ cheese pancakes.

Shopsin’s cookbook

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2008

Kenny Shopsin, the proprietor of NYC institution Shopsin’s, is coming out with a cookbook. Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin is out in September.

Shopsin’s, who closed their beloved eatery in

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2007

Shopsin’s, who closed their beloved eatery in the West Village last month, has updated their web site with plans to open in a stall at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. (thx, janelle)

Quirky West Village eatery Shopsin’s finally closes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2006

Quirky West Village eatery Shopsin’s finally closes for good. Once more, with feeling: the Shopsin’s menu and Calvin Trillin’s classic piece about the restaurant in the NYer.

Update: James Felder wrote a nice remembrance of eating at Shopsin’s on its final day for Serious Eats. (thx, adam)

I Like Killing Flies is a 2004 documentary

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2006

I Like Killing Flies is a 2004 documentary about Shopsin’s, a unique NYC eatery. Playing at NYC’s Cinema Village this coming weekend. See also Shopsin’s menu design and Calvin Trillin’s classic NYer piece.

Quirky Manhattan eatery Shopsin’s not moving to

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2006

Quirky Manhattan eatery Shopsin’s not moving to Brooklyn as previously reported.

Shopsin’s is moving to Brooklyn. Wonder at

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2006

Shopsin’s is moving to Brooklyn. Wonder at the marvelous information design of Shopsin’s menu or read Calvin Trillin’s outing of the restaurant in the New Yorker.

Your moment of information design zen: the Shopsin’s menu

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2004

Two years ago, Calvin Trillin wrote an article for the New Yorker about Shopsin’s, an eccentric eatery in the West Village with about 9 billion menu items:

What does happen occasionally is that Kenny gets an idea for a dish and writes on the specials board — yes, there is a specials board — something like Indomalekian Sunrise Stew. (Kenny and his oldest son, Charlie, invented the country of Indomalekia along with its culinary traditions.) A couple of weeks later, someone finally orders Indomalekian Sunrise Stew and Kenny can’t remember what he had in mind when he thought it up. Fortunately, the customer doesn’t know, either, so Kenny just invents it again on the spot.

Shopsin’s has moved to another Village location since the article came out, but they’ve still got that big old menu. If you dare, feast your eyes on a tour de force of outsider information design, all 11 pages of the Shopsin’s General Store menu.

Shopsins Menu Design

You want chicken fried eggs with a side of pancakes? Page 6. On page 1, there’s gotta be 100 soups alone, including Pistachio Red Chicken Curry. I lost count after 40 different kinds of pancakes on page 10. In amongst the kate, gregg, tamara, and sneaky pete sandwiches on page 2, you’ll find the northern sandwich: peanut butter & bacon on white toast. There appears to be nothing that’s not on the menu, although I looked pretty hard for foie gras and couldn’t find it. If they did have it, you could probably get it chicken fried with whipped cream on top.

On page 8, page 11, and the front of their Web site, you’ll find the restaurant rules:

- No cell phone use
- One meal per person minimum (everyone’s got to eat)
- No smoking
- Limit four people per group

On that last point, the menu has something additional to add (page 4):

Party of Five
you could put a chair at the end
or push the tables together
but dont bother
This banged-up little restaurant
where you would expect no rules at all
has a firm policy against seating
parties of five
And you know you are a party of five
It doesn’t matter if one of you
offers to leave or if
you say you could split into
a party of three and a party of two
or if the five of you come back tomorrow
in Richard Nixon masks and try to pretend
that you don’t know each other
It won’t work: You’re a party of five
even if you’re a beloved regular
Even if the place is empty
Even if you bring logic to bear
Even if you’re a tackle for the Chicago Bears
it won’t work
You’re a party of five
You will always be a party of five
Ahundred blocks from here
a hundred years from now
you will still be a party of five
and you will never savor the soup
or compare the coffee
or hear the wisdom of the cook
and the wit of the waitress or
get to hum the old -time tunes
among which you will find
no quintets

— Robert Hershon

Love it, love it, love it, and I have to get my ass over there one of these days.