Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dr Pepper, Big Macs and other wasted opportunities

Arriving dewy-eyed in Britain in the early 70's was a bit of a culture shock. Some of the things we take for granted today simply didn't exist. For example, I'm a great fan of Dr Pepper – always have been. Well, for as long as I can remember anyway.

Stupidly, I did not realise that it was not on the menu in the UK when I got here. Gradually it dawned on me that I was trapped in a Dr Pepper free zone. Bit like the Twilight Zone really. Bitterly annoyed at finding myself trapped here and depressingly thirsty would be an accurate description. What was to be done?

I managed, somehow, to track down the Dr Pepper Corp of Dallas, Texas. In the pre-internet wonderland we all lived in at the time, it was no mean feat just to find out where they were. I wrote to them. A very civil letter, as I recall, asking why they didn't export Dr Pepper to England. I was sure it would sell. After all - I'd buy some! I got a nice reply from someone (eventually) sympathetically explaining that there were no plans to export my favourite soft drink. Bugger!

Of course, now-a-days you can buy the stuff almost everywhere. I can't remember exactly when this became true – but it was a more that a few years ago. Excellent.

But – how much money could I have made by importing the stuff in the early 70's? Got to be a bundle – a very large bundle! Is the Dr Pepper Corp prepared to apologise to me? Or, more salient, how about some recompense? I'm prepared to discuss it – so, come on Dr Pepper executives – get in touch. Let's talk about it.

Dr Pepper was not the only thing that wasn't available; if you fancied a nice juicy hamburger in pre-Pepper England, your choice was fairly limited. There was Wimpy – and – nope – actually that was it! I don't even think the ubiquitous roadside greasy spoons had yet arrived! What a culinary desert we were living in!

Wimpy was odd. The menu consisted of two burgers: Wimpy and Wimpy with onions. That's it. Oops, I forgot – you could also get chips. Whiskey – Foxtrot – Zulu! The opening hours were even more odd. The closed about 9 o'clock at night – just when you might reasonably expect that folks might be getting ready for a snack! Perhaps they sold soft drinks – but definitely no Dr Pepper (see above).

I can distinctly remember people treating me as some kind of simpleton when I suggested that a real hamburger joint might just make a lot of money! It was patiently explained to me that English people would not eat a hamburger unless it was with a knife and fork. Somehow it was deemed to be “impolite” to pick one up in your hands. English people just wouldn't do it. Like a fool, I believed this. What an idiot.

Macdonalds opened in Oxford Street in the late 70's – early 80's and now they are everywhere. When they opened the “story” changed. I was told that the price of land (extortionate) in England meant that a drive-in Macdonalds was out of the question. Bollards. They've got drive-in Macdonalds all over the place. I could have been in on the ground floor! What a dummy! It's a licence to print money! I missed it.

I should have realised what was going on when I considered the plight of the local fish and chip shop. Fish and chips is an English institution. Critics convinced me that because the English were so attached to their fish and chips as fast food there was no room for Macdonalds or Burger King. How stupid can you get! Take the local fish and chip shop in the small village where I lived. I noticed that it was only open at odd times. Wednesday afternoon. Friday evening. Why?

I simply couldn't understand the business plan. I asked, quite reasonably I thought, why not open everyday and for longer. After all, once you have fired up the fryers and turned on the heat and lights you might as well stay open. You can't sell any fish and chips if you're not open. Of course, as a stupid Yank my idea was treated with amused contempt. I simply couldn't convince anyone that to compete and make money the local fish and chip shop must open for longer hours. I don't think it's there any more.

Not a big surprise.

Now we have Macdonalds in even quite small towns and Burger Kings attached to restaurants on motorways. Again, I could – and should have been the burger mogul of the United Kingdom. Am I bitter? You bet.

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