Tuesday questions, Trumwill edition

[Given that the gents over at Not a Potted Plant so graciously allowed me to contribute this week’s Monday Trivia question, it’s fitting that this week’s Tuesday question comes from Will Truman. — RS]

A couple moves back, I lived in a town with an Applebee’s, but no Chili’s. Prior to that, I had never really eaten at Applebee’s before.  While there, I ate at Applebee’s quite frequently. At some point after we left, the town got a Chili’s. We stopped by there and at at Chili’s solely because we’d always been wanting to eat at Chili’s every time we ate at Applebee’s.

On Twitter, Matt Yglesias commented something to the effect of “In a world where Chili’s exists, why does Applebee’s?”

I tend to like variety. When Wheat Thins go on sale, I tend to buy two of a lot of flavors, including some that I don’t like nearly as much as others. And I recognize that there are some things that I simply don’t like, but others do (fast food Chinese?!). But when it comes to some things, there is one product or entity so much better than the alternative, and so immediately comparable, you wonder why the latter exists. I think that Yglesias’s Chili’s/Applebee’s example is a good one (though I do like the existence of TGIFriday’s).

Another one is KFC. In a world where Popeye’s exists, I don’t understand why KFC does. Popeye’s is better in every imaginable way. They have spicy options that KFC lacks. Their non-spicy option blows KFC’s out of the water. The biscuits are better. The mashed potatoes are better. The
prices are the same or with a slight advantage towards Popeye’s (at least in my experience). The primary argument for KFC is “There isn’t a
Popeye’s around here” or “KFC isn’t as good and so I eat less of it which is healthier.”

Oh, and IHOP and Denny’s. Denny’s will do in a pinch, but why must there be a pinch? Why can’t they all be IHOP?

So what are some products that you don’t understand the rationale for, seeing as how there is such a better product around? The above focus is on food, but it doesn’t have to be about food.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. In a world where actual diners exist, why do we need Denny’s or IHOP. I grew up in NJ, Denny’s and IHOP are weak chain alternatives to the original.

    • I would argue that Denny’s and IHOP represent uniformity for travelers, which local diners do not. However, since both provide that, and IHOP is better…

      The aforementioned Applebee’s town had an IHOP and a Denny’s. We ate at the IHOP when we first moved to town, but quickly found a couple of regional places we liked better. They both, of course, turned out to be chains. But regional ones!

      • Oh i agree about the uniformity issue. I prefer Red Robin to Applebee’s or tgif or chili’s, but they are more regional then national.

        We went back east for the first time in years last summer. We ate at a Fuddruckers which i hadn’t eaten at in almost 20 years. Food was fine but the most memorable thing was a soda gizmo that gave over 100 soda options. America is a wondrous country.

        • Red Robin is a good one. They tend to lack variety, and lack locations, but they do burgers better than anyone else listed. Also, I tend to avoid fries, but I’ll eat theirs with that spice they give you.

          Fuddruckers has the one-pound (single-patty) burger and you can squirt as much cheese as you want on it and you can have complete control over your toppings. It’s a pearl.

          • First Commandment of Tod
            “1. Cheese is given unto you as a Holy food, and thou shall purchase it wrapped in plastic or wax paper. No cheese product in any kind of “can” shalt thou buy, for this is an affront to your Tod. Nor shall thou buy prepared food that featureth cheese from any kind of can, or has cheese that has in any way been “sprayed” onto your snack or entrée.”

          • Burt, for those that want the other kind of cheese, they have that, too. But if you use the squirt tank, you can put on as much as you want!!!.

            It may not be cheese, exactly, but it is to cheese what ketchup is to tomatoes.

        • I love fuddruckers, but to my knowledge they don’t have it here in Chicago. Of course, it would, in theory, be nice for me to eat a vegetable once in a while.

  2. Well, on the choice metric: in a world where we have Burger King, Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, Rally’s, and Sonic… why don’t we have more Arby’s? (Unless you live in Utah).

    On topic, when we have Peet’s, why do we have Starbucks?

    • That’s a good point. Arby’s at least has a great deal of product distinction. I’m not a big fan, myself, but sometimes I want what they got.

      I’ve never been to Peet’s, but I consider Starbucks a last resort. Diedrich’s, out of Cali, used to have a location in my home town and it was a favorite for a while.

      There is a question in here about why Seattle’s Best exists when there is Starbucks and they are both owned by the same company, but I like SBC better, so what can I say?

      • Starbucks burns their beans.

        We have Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Peet’s here in Pasadena. The Peet’s is the best coffee, but their service is abysmally slow. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has better tea than either (no surprise), but they use small ice cubes in their iced lattes and those melt too fast and make ’em watery.

        So it kinda depends on what I’m drinking, I guess. But Starbucks is usually the low dog on the totem pole in any event.

        • I’ll keep an eye out for Peet’s. The big advantage of Starbucks where I live is that they are the only ones that keep decent hours. In my town, they’re inside the Safeway. In the town where I substitute teach, they’re one of only two establishments open past 5pm. The other is the coffee place at Hastings, and Hastings won’t let you use the bathroom without an escort to unlock it for you. Which, in a coffee place, is bad.

          • The best thing about Starbucks is that there are two of them on the road in Utah that are within a stone’s throw of the freeway and they’re both drive-thru.

            Which matters, on long car trips through Utah.

        • I agree, I think they roast their beans too long/hot to work for their brewed coffee. But in general, unless for some reason I really want some brewed coffee and I’m on the road, I never buy it. That goes for almost any brewed coffee. It doesn’t make any sense to: I have various favorite local roasters (these folks in particular – it’s not about the social justice, it’s about the beans), and any cup you buy is not going to be as fresh or made the way you want it as one you make and take with. I don’t actually consistently prefer Peet’s to Starbucks, actually; I’ve had both passable and bad cups of regular joe from both places.

          But I do think that Starbucks’ roasting approach works well for their espresso. Outside of really gourmet places that aren’t so much stop-and-go coffeehouses as restaurants, Starbucks’ espresso is my favorite, at least not surpassed by any chain I am aware of. Certainly it’s more reliable than the espresso from any given independent shop you might wander into. My standard order is a double over ice with a little bit of water or iced coffee over the top. Basically the same price as a cup of brewed. For some reason what comes out as bitter and burnt when it brews and sits comes out as a pleasant (to me) richness when freshly pressed. But then, while it’s definitely not ideal, the burnt taste of Starbucks’ better dark roasts brewed (Pike’s is horrid apart from the burn – undrinkable) has never been the end of the world for me. I’m a dark roast guy anyway. The true gourmands can have their new light roast craze.

          • …Hasten to add, if Peet’s had been the one to expand in the way Starbucks did, I’m sure I’d have just as nice things things to say about it (not knowing in that world that in this one I’m over here thinking Starbucks is plenty good enough given the previous options). There is something to be said for simple presence, and as we found out, Starbucks paid a price for opening as many stores as they did. We can laugh with The Onion about their plan for world domination, but I’m quite glad they did establish as ubiquitous a reach as they have, providing the standard of quality they do. At least when you see a Starbucks, you know there are some people in their trying to serve you as a good a cup of coffee as they can with the beans they’re given, and provide you with a decent overall experience built around that sale Contrast this with the options of getting coffee from people who are mainly trying to serve you either horrible burgers or petroleum products, which is basically where coffee-on-the-road stood before Starbucks came along. We can wish Starbucks coffee tasted more like Peet’s, and that’s a realistic wish, but what’s a fantasy is wishing Peet’s were the one we could expect to see somewhere alongside the gas stations by the interstate in most any town larger than 8,000 people. That’s not what Peets was ever going to be, and I am very glad that one such concern is.

            I also don’t think it’s the case that Starbucks has driven smaller or independent concerns out of business; rather, if anything, they did a lot to rebuild the American thirst for more and better joe, which was a necessary antecedent for the number and variety of great coffee roasters and pourers – national firms, regional chains, and local and independent stores – to proliferate as they have.

            From there, the smaller and more high-end pourers and roasters were able to take the ball and counter-market off of Starbucks’ “burned” reputation to develop ever more specialized and rarified niches. That’s my impression, at least; it could be empirically wrong. But I don’t think Starbucks’ role in expanding and popularizing taste for good (even, for better than Starbucks!)
            coffee is a figment of my highly-caffeinated imagination.

            The point being, just given the how much they’ve expanded the market for and thus the proliferation of decent-to-good if not artisan coffee compared to what any other concern ever even remotely considered doing, I think it just doesn’t really make much sense to ask why Starbucks exists when Peets does. It’s like asking why McDonald’s exists when Culvers does. (Though arguably McDonald’s lowered the average quality of a hamburger available in any given place compared to what existed before, while I think Starbucks raised the quality of the coffee nearly everywhere except urban enclaves where good coffee was already being sold before Starbucks came in. And I actually suspect there were fewer of these in major cities, say, in 1980 or ’85, than we might imagine from the kind of stylized Starbucks-as-conquering-villain story we sometimes hear from partisans of small and independent coffeehouses. I think these competing models developed in tandem as Americans’ taste for better coffee grew and spread.)

            /coffee-specific anti-anti-corporatist rant

          • …I should say, I am very glad that at least one such coffee-focused concern is that ubiquitous, rather than none being.

          • MichaelD,

            This is a very well-stated argument. It’s easy to wish that this one, rather than that one, had reached national dominance. But, particularly in the case of coffee places, it’s not a foregone conclusion that if they hadn’t reached dominance, that somebody better would have.

            That being said, Fry’s, Popeye’s, and some coffee place need to start expanding fast.

          • Thanks, Will.

            It would be great if a national chain could compete with Starbucks on quality, but I don’t currently see it coming. They almost couldn’t make it work themselves – I’m just glad they didn’t pull a Borders (luckily coffee is not digitzable).

    • Five Guys!!

      Sadly, no Peet’s stores around here. We do get their beans. Starbucks is the best local option.

  3. There’s a Lee’s in town here. They are vastly preferred over the KFC.

    I’ve had Popeye’s in the past, and felt their spicy chicken was really good, while their regular chicken was so-so, and their sides were crap other than the fries.

    Back during my entrapment in the deep south I encountered Church’s and Bojangles. Bojangles was basically a ripoff of Popeyes that had a better non-spicy chicken. Church’s had by far the juiciest meat, but the least consistency about its preparation — depending on the staff, you could either get greasity decadence or weird gristle-dominated pieces that looked like they didn’t even come off a chicken.

    IHOP was acceptable compared to Waffle House, which no one should enter except at gunpoint, and only then to order for your assailant and escape during his shart fit. My favorite big-ass breakfast place of all time tho’ is Machine Shed, having grown up eating at the original location. I wish they had one here.

    • I know some people that live and die by Church’s, but I never really “got it”. I do recognize it as better than KFC, though, which isn’t hard. I couldn’t disagree more about Popeye’s sides. At least their mashed potatoes. First rate, in my view. I’m not sure about their other sides since I always get the mashed potatoes.

    • I just want to say…

      “IHOP was acceptable compared to Waffle House, which no one should enter except at gunpoint, and only then to order for your assailant and escape during his shart fit.”

      Positively masterfully done, sir.

      • Waffle House is bad in a very specific sort of way. It’s like watching Sorority Babes at the Slime Bowl-a-Rama. Sometimes you’re in the mood for crap, if it’s interesting crap.

    • I enjoyed smoking cigarettes at Waffle House and Denny’s.

      I don’t know what they put in the food but cigarettes tasted better at those establishments than the others.

      Not that that matters now, of course.

      • Even when I smoked (disclaimer: I still have the occasional cigarette in Vegas, so the puritan ex-smoker would still call me a smoker)… I was not big on the post-food smoke unless the food was something I wanted to forget I ate.

        The exception was In-n-Out. A smoke always went well after a Double-Double.

          • Dr. Saunders, as a fellow Eastern Time Zoner (although far from the coast), I share your sadness. My wife’s parents think we fly to L.A. to visit them; really they’re just a free hotel so we can afford to fly to L.A. to eat In-n-Out. (My father-in-law has almost learned to stop making food for the day of our arrival, having come to realize that first meal in L.A. must be a double-double with onions.

          • Yes, Burgerville!! I have eaten at both and Burgerville wins hands-down.

          • As I understand it, the In & Out will not build a location further than the distance a truck can drive in a day from the company’s one central processing center/warehouse.

          • But what I don’t understand is why Jack in the Box doesn’t move into Mid-Atlantic / New England

          • Burt–Onions must be grilled. How else do you release their natural sweetness. (God love her, my wife made burgers with grilled onions just last night. MMM.)

            Kolohe–That’s one of the reasons I respect In-n-Out; I just resent the fact that I live more than a day’s drive away. Oh, and Jack in the Box? Second only to White Castle, I found that the most revolting burger in America.

          • In the (admittedly circumscribed) world of Shake Shack, why is there any other fast food burger place at al?

  4. In a world with Borders, why do we need Barnes & Noble? In a world with Circuit City, why do we need Best Buy? In a world with… wait, what’s that you say? Next you’ll be telling me there’s no Gemco anymore.

    But seriously, in a world with Target Greatland, why do we need Wal-Mart?

    • Dude! You totally reminded me of the one I forgot.

      In a world with Fry’s, why does Best Buy exist?

      Never heard of Greatland.

      • How Best Buy survives on its service level is truly a mystery to me. I guess it’s cuz Circuit city just managed to suck almost as much, and you don’t win committed converts by sucking only a little bit less.

        • Circuit City did the brilliant cost-saving maneuver of firing everyone with experience thus reducing labor costs. They only had to pay first-year kinda wages instead of paying for people who had years’-worth of raises behind them.

          This resulted in a staff that knew nothing except, barely, how to read the little white card next to the product in question.

          • I remember that. People (by which I mean computer people) who have never forward an email or news article link in their entire life forwarded that to everyone they knew.

            The sad thing is, when I was taking business classes in college, that is what we were told constituted good management. Hire, raise, raise, layoff, newhire, PROFIT!

    • “In a world with Borders”

      Which, you’ll note, is a world we’re no longer in

  5. This may be a little unappetizing, but there is no purported function of pepto bismol that is not better handled by something else ( e.g., ginger for nausea…I could go on, but I won’t).

    Diapers: Seventh Generation has no bleach, no annoying Disney characters, no annoying scent, is far more absorbent than any other diaper I’ve used (far fewer soaked child in the morning incidents), and costs only about 3 cents per diaper more.

  6. In a world with generic petroleum jelly, why do other much more expensive and less effective emollients exist?

    In a world with real butter, why does margarine continue to sell, particularly given the clear evidence that the former won’t kill you but the latter will?

    In a world where you can throw two cats into a burlap sack, why does anyone watch any of the “Real Housewives” shows?

  7. Applebee’s used to be the after-meeting hangout for my college’s gaming club, owing to the cute waitress and the late hours. Nowadays the cute waitress doesn’t work there and there’s another place that’s open 24 hours.

    The other place ( a pizza/pasta/sandwich joint) is considerably worse IMO. But the rest of the folks in the group seem to enjoy their lousy thin-crust pizza more than I do, and the Vegan pizza means that everyone’s dietary restrictions can be handled.

    IHOP has better food than Denny’s, but slower service–especially with a large number of customers. When you’ve got 15-20 people going out to eat at midnight, Denny’s is the better option. And if you haven’t got 15-20 people at midnight, why go to either?

    KFC is, sadly, all I’ve ever know as far as chain fried chicken. Chicken joints seem to be pretty uncommon in small-town California.

    • In my hometown, Denny’s was the place my friends all met to hang out and eat horrible food until the wee hours of the morning when we were home from college. I will always have a certain fondness for it, despite its being otherwise awful.

      • Village Inn after the Saturday midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show for coffee and cigarettes

    • I was going to offer a partial defense of KFC. (The mashed potatoes are indefensible.) But it would have been half-hearted — the chicken tastes okay when you’re eating it, but I couldn’t think of a single time I’d eaten KFC and subsequently been glad about it.

    • Typically, if I’m in a big group and midnight eating and such, I’m not in much of a hurry. I’ve never noticed a bit difference between IHOP and Denny’s speed.

  8. The thing with a situation like IHOP/Perkins/Denny’s is just that there is always going to be enough demand to keep just one or a few more restaurants like that afloat in a given area than any one of them could even project, much lessscale up to in a responsible way. The prices they can charge given the quality of the food they server are just too attractive. So you’re always going to have someone able to step in and make money by opening those one or two more stores. In my area it’s Perkins that dominates, but you’ll still see IHOPs and Dennys. The business is just there, and just one firm can’t focus on gobbling up every last bit of the market while also maintaining supply chains and overall management through constant, total-demand-consuming, unending expansion. So there’s always going to be the slightly lesser brands sweeping up the often not-inconsiderable crumbs left over by the alpha. In some places (actually here in the Twin Cities, I’d say), it’s much more a picture of parity than a leader way out front and then some stragglers.

    It’s not the same dynamic I described with Starbucks, who basically created a new market for a new product at a new price point a lot of places they went, (probably poaching a number of the folk who would sit and drink pitchers of coffee all day and night at Perkins or Country Kitchen – something they were probably somewhat glad of, tbh), but it is a little similar in the sense that, when Denny’s is kept alive by excess demand in larger areas, this means they can perhaps put one where in an IHOP-only world there wouldn’t be an IHOP, a Denny’s, or a Waffle House. People get to sit in Denny’s and drink pitchers of coffee all day, and everyone wins (except maybe the waitresses who get transferred there to open the place up).

  9. In a world where you can buy an iPhone if you’re looking for a spendy gadget phone, how does Blackberry still exist?

    • Corporate IT departments. The Blackberry integration with corporate email systems (read MS Exchange) was very easy to deploy. In addition RIM lets corporate IT manage/lock-down BBs. However, corporate users are slowly revolting against the company-issued BB and begging for the company to buy them an Apple or Android-based device.

      RIM is not long for this world…

      • Shannon beat me to it. I would add that iPhones don’t have physical keyboards. But Androids and WinPhones sometimes do, so that doesn’t justify the continued (albeit not for long) existence of the Blackberry.

    • That’s what a good many (now former) RIMM investors have said over the last year and a half; even the govies are now looking at iPhones also instead of just Crackberries.

  10. In a world with self-immolation, why does The Hangover Part II exist?

  11. In my opinion, Applebee’s exists because I can’t eat anything Chili’s serves — they put either bell peppers or other things I cannot eat into every single dish. Plus, the individual instantiations of Chili’s near my house universally have insanely slow service (waiting over 20min to get soda, and over 40min for the plate of nachos that is all I can order there, which we were going to get before a movie and leave) … Applebee’s, at least in Chicago, has been universally friendly and clean, and their menu is significantly more appealing to me.

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