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My name is David Arthur Walters. I am an independent journalist.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Queen Latifah's Fatburger Joint






THE FAT’S ON THE RUN
SOBE Fatburger Review
By David Arthur Walters



“Two in the morning, get fat burger.” Ice Cube, ‘It was a good day’


Call me naïve, but I’d never heard of a Fatburger stand before Queen Latifah opened one at 947 Washington Avenue on South Beach. I thought the very name contradicted the lean, chic look SOBE is still famous for. Although the sleek, elegantly attired models have virtually disappeared from the beach, the healthy, hard body look is in.


Maybe I’ll open up a place and call it Skinnyburger, I jokingly considered. I used to hang out at a cocktail lounge on the West Side of Manhattan called the HiLife, and I often thought of opening a competitor on the same block. I would name it the LowLife. I was sure it would do a great business since there were so many lowlifes around the hood – since I have my prejudices, I cannot truthfully say whether or not I was or am a lowlife. When a new restaurant opened on the West Side, I refused to be a guinea pig: I would wait for awhile to see if it built up a business. If it did not get busy within a few weeks, I figured the food was bad, never mind the service (New Yorkers actually liked to be abused by rude waiters in those days), so I would not bother to patronize the place unless it had a bar with a Happy Hour.


I applied the same test to Fatburger. I walk by there every day on the way to the gym or to surf on the Internet at Manuel’s Internet Café across the street in the corner parking lot. Fatburger was pretty empty when I went by during the first few months after it opened, so I did not go in. Mind you that I am usually in bed by ten, and South Beach, especially on Washington Avenue, is famous for its nightlife, i.e. for sex, drugs, and hip-hopping, and infamous for a few publicized murders. Not that Ocean Drive is not “fun” too – the renovated Clevelander now boasts vomit-proof floors and nailed down furniture, its manager noting to the press that people do not come to South Beach for “rest and relaxation.”


I did peer in the window at the Fatburger menu, focusing of course on the prices, hoping to see figures that would remind me of the ones I enjoyed as a young fellow at crummy diners in the late 50s, but I was not so impressed by Fatburger’s price level. The advertisement pasted on the window, for real shakes, did make my mouth water a bit, but I let the suggestion pass. I asked the shoe shine man outside what he thought of the burgers, and he said they were good. But what finally got me in the place was its Happy Hour advertisement. It seemed too good to be true for South Beach: Between 2 and on Monday thru Friday, one could get, for example, an imported beer, some fries and a hotdog for a fiver. I had quit drinking many years ago, after wrecking two marriages, but just lately I have taken to drinking a beer or two every couple of weeks, as medicine, of course, and never at home. So I suppose a Heineken or Corona at $1.49 each was the main attraction.


The employees inside were certainly personable. I placed my order and found what I thought to be the best table. Of course it had some brown fluid, probably Coke, spilled on one end of it. I motioned to the busboy to come over and wipe the table down.


“I like to find the best table at a restaurant, and it often is the only dirty one in the place,” I said, and laughed.


“Well, some people were just sitting here,” he excused himself for not being jolly on the spot when I entered.


The joint was not busy, but there were a goodly number of customers for that time of day. I noticed that most of them were portly – it would be politically incorrect to use the vernacular term to match the Fatburger nomenclature. The diners were mainly black, which got me to wondering, in all my ignorance, if Fatburger was what is called nowadays an ethnic eatery. I waited for my order for quite some time while enjoying the jukebox-style music. A young, pleasant fellow eventually came over with my Heineken and poured it into a plastic cup. A few minutes later another fellow delivered my hotdog and fat fries.


While eating I noticed that the busboy was apparently conducting a job interview with an applicant who had been waiting for him up front. When he was finished, I waved him over and asked him if he was the manager and owner as well as the busboy.


“Queen Latifah is the owner, and I’m the district manager.”


“Queen who?”


“Latifah. You’ve heard of her?”


“Well, uh, umm, yeah, I’ve heard that name. So how many Fatburgers are in your district.”


“This one.”


“That’s not a very big district.”


“We’re opening another one soon, on Miracle Mile in Gables.”


“Great. I used to work in Coral Gables, and it’s known for having the most expensive lunches in the city, so it’s wise to bring your own lunch and save plenty of money. But I’ve never heard of Fatburger.”


“It’s real big in California.”


“Oh, I see,” I said as I looked at the long list of Fatburger stands around the border of the Fatburger placemat on my table. “You don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of business here. Maybe it takes awhile to build customers. But this is a tourist market….”


“It’s busy at night, so busy we have lines out front, police security. We had a huge crowd for Spring Break, and for Memorial Day Weekend” - known in SOBE as ‘Urban Week’ or “Black Week”.


“I don’t come out at night,” I confessed, feeling somewhat like a traitor to my community.


I discovered from our conversation that my conversant, Robert Ratliff, has many years of experience running fast food operations, and that he was trained for his Fatburger position in Newark. We chatted for awhile about several famous fast food franchises, and about Chicago, where we had both lived albeit at different times – I lived there when the National Guard was called out to protect Old Town from Hippies.


I promised Mr. Ratcliff that I would return soon for a burger, and then I went across the street to Manuel’s Internet Café, where I pulled up several pages of information on Fatburger while listening to Latifah’s music at Pandora.com. Yeah, I’d seen her before, on film, but I was not familiar with her music, which sounded cool. Fatburger, I discovered, is a subsidiary of Fog Cutter Capital Group; there are over 90 Fatburger restaurants. An African-American woman by the name Lovie Yancey opened the first one in 1952 to serve burgers cooked from fresh meat with everything on them hence she called them “fat” burgers.


Ms. Yancey’s burgers must have been good for her: She died in 2008 at the age of 96. By the way, my chilidog, fat fries and beer totaled 1,010 calories, 1,190 mg sodium, and 45 grams fat (per serving). Yes, Fatburger serves veggie burgers.


The most amusing of the information I found on the Net was a scandalous story, that rapper Victor Santiago aka N.O.R.E. had been busted at around four in the morning at the South Beach Fatburger after allegedly ripping up flowers, punching an unidentified man in the face and squirting yellow liquid on his shirt – could that be mustard – after arrogantly asking “Don’t you know who I am?” I had never heard of N.O.R.E., so I listened to some of his violent gangster rap on Pandora, and read on: N.O.R.E. said he had not ripped up flowers nor had he squirted yellow liquid on the man – that must have been something he was eating. He said he had come in for a veggie burger, and blamed the incident on drinking although he said he didn’t have a drink. He insisted he was not normally a violent man, and that his question as to his identity was misinterpreted: He thought perhaps the man had mistaken him for someone else. And what had that unidentified victim done to get himself punched in the face? He allegedly come into the restaurant from the clubs, bringing with him some liquor, as others are wont to do, and then kept trying to get N.O.R.E. to drink some even after N.O.R.E. told him that he never drank “brown liquor.”


What in the world does “N.O.R.E.” stand for? “Niggers On (the) Run Eatin.” He was charged with misdemeanors. I just had to laugh even though I don’t like to hear the N-word used even by the likes of Mr. Santiago. What better publicity stunt could have been pulled on purpose? Maybe I will show up late some night for a fat burger, get punched in the face by a celebrity, sue him and get a new set of dentures, with gold teeth in the front, die my grey hair black, get some cool threads and live out the rest of my life coking it up and clubbing with models on both arms – I wouldn’t mind falling off the wagon at my age if I could afford it, as I don't plan on marrying again.


My chilidog, normally priced at $4.49 was smallish, had a tough skin, and was salty – maybe it wasn’t Kosher. The generous portion of fat fries, normally priced at $2.29, was pretty good if you like the mushiness of that cut – I practically lived on them in Central Park when I was dirt poor. The bitterness of the Heineken, normally priced at $3.50, made me wish that I had gotten a Corona.


Hey, I am certainly not complaining, getting all that for $5.42 during Happy Hour! No, I had not a trace of acid indigestion later on. Before I left the Internet Café, we had one hell of a storm, with hail and stinking, knee-deep water to contend with. I took off my shoes, waded home and helped my neighbors bail water out of their apartments. One must do something to work off the fat!






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