Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Feeling happy?

Remember Happy Eater? Presumably inspired by America's roadside diners, these dismal boxes of bad food were littered around Britain's motorways and A-roads between 1973 and 1997, when they were gobbled up by the corpulent and equally nasty Little Chef. The Happy Eater logo, you may recall, resembled a bulimic Pac-Man, managing to grin gamely while attempting to purge the ersatz "Real American" hamburgers that been dropped onto the kitchen floor in order to separate them from the frozen multi-patty clumps in which they were stored before being "griddled to order". Eating on the road in the UK is now stupidly expensive, but the recent emergence of mini-supermarkets at motorway service stations and the evolution of the pre-packed sandwich are moving the experience towards tolerability. But in their heyday, Britain's  two major highway dining chains exerted a baleful influence. If hunger struck, there were often only two choices: massively extend your journey time by leaving the motorway to seek decent fare in some town centre, or endure the entirely depressing ambiance of the Little Chef or Happy Eater.

But why would memories of Happy Eater come to mind while holidaying in Bulgaria? The answer comes in the form of this country's very own burgeoning chain of "casual" restaurants. As well as having a go at livening up the dining scene in the downtown areas and new retail parks of Bulgaria's larger cities, this expanding food empire (they're getting into franchising soon and are looking to grow across the Balkans and even into Russia and Ukraine) owns outlets arranged along the country's highways. As we were drawing closer to the Black Sea coast on Saturday afternoon, we stopped at one by the side of the E772 and close to the village of Kyosevtsi.  Hunger had definitely struck, thirst was also an issue, and we hadn't seen anywhere else to grab a bite for quite a few miles. Having spotted other branches along the often narrow and often bumpy roads which pass for major routes in Bulgaria, I wasn't really keen. The chain rejoices in the name Happy Bar & Grill, which, along with its presence by the country's main roads, was what evoked memories of the late, unlamented Happy Eater chain.

As we clambered out of the car on a sweltering afternoon, I asked myself why anyone ever risks including the word "happy" when naming a consumer brand. Surely a case of setting the bar too high when it comes to customer satisfaction? Happy Eater must be the definitive case in point.

Putting these thoughts to one side, we went inside. Definitely a case of that wannabe US dining experience, I thought. Another contribution to the blanding and homogenisation of life under globalisation: sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly ironing out the millions of local differences that make it interesting to travel around the world. But the simple fare (local variations on the burger and chicken nugget themes, really) was edible and served up with the swiftness you'd like when wanting not to take too long a break from your journey. However, while the beer (my other half was driving) was nicely cold, I can't say the food or anything else about the place made me happy. Happiness is elusive, isn't it? I'm not sure we all agree on what it is. Is it found in those short bursts of joy which brighten the day and remain in the memory? Or is it more to do with long stretches of contentment about one's lot in life? Or is it both? Or do the answers to these questions vary enormously across cultures and personality types? Fucked if I know. But I feel sure that eating an inexpensive burger in a nicely air-conditioned building with free WiFi, while alright in itself, is not an experience from which genuine happiness can be derived.

I was also struck by the demeanour of the efficient waitresses working there. Simply put, these girls did not look happy. Nothing like happy. Perhaps not actually completely miserable. But not happy. Bright eyes and dazzling smiles were definitely not in evidence. I don't know if the wages are bad or if tips are generally not forthcoming (I tipped, by the way), but every face spoke of some lack of joy. If I were to guess at the source of melancholy among the waiting staff at the Kyosevtsi branch of Happy Bar & Grill, the uniforms would be my hunch. I think it's pretty rough on those girls that they are asked to wear what can't even really be described as miniskirts. Pelmet would be more like it. It must be reasonably unnerving to think that bending for a dropped fork would involve showing your underwear to a roomful of diners. Maybe it gives some customers a little thrill, but is it really cool in a place most of whose patrons (in the summer, at least) seem to be folks with their kids on the way to the seaside? Sort it out, Happy Bar & Grill. The little skirts might be contributing to the gap between the implicit claims in your brand name and the looks on the faces of your perfectly efficient and polite staff. It was better than the fucking Happy Eater, though.

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