A Leavened Scene in Hammond’s Down

In the somewhat small medium-town of Hammond’s Down, Utah (small being a modifier, and medium town being the noun), there had always been a default pita place, by the name of Mr. Pita, where everybody went – for pitas. Hammond’s Down was one of those unremarkable college towns whose college was neither a massive land grant institution nor a highly-respected intellectual cloister but rather just one of those places people go when they have to go to college, and so far and wide attention was far away from Hammond’s Down, and its levels of quality for things like cuisines – while not awful – were never pushed forward by competition or rigorous opinions.

The family that ran Mr. Pita did so because their parents had, and the kids that ran Mr. Pita were mostly in high school: the college-goers flooded Mr. Pita when they got hungry at night, especially on weekends and Thirsty Thursdays, but disappeared entirely from town during Christmastime, Spring Break, and all of Summer. Everything was middling, and kind of perfunctorily default, but it was right there, so pita-eaters came.

Roland Moller, the small and earnest son of German immigrants, grew up in Hammond’s Down but went to a different college – the big land-grant one – where he smilingly learned World History, and then after losing his teller job at a bank after the Recession (in which the bank admitted to supporting toddler-labor-farms in Istanbul with investment money it didn’t even have), he decided to move with his young wife back home and start a business. She was actually from an old and well-established Hammond’s Down family herself and had grown up there – which is why they started talking, even though not until they were at this other college.

“You’re so proud of your pitas,” his wife had often rolled her eyes ruefully, when he carried them to and from get-togethers in college. He kept his homemade pitas warm in a stack of cheap and stackable tortilleras containers from the Mexican grocery store for carrying to and from the parties. There they would sit ignored on the tables while college kids chugged from red cups filled at the Icehouse keg or dipped into the garbage can full of Jungle Juice, which was tubs of mixed Everclear, Sprite, and Kool-Aid packets, against the backdrop of deafening music and yelling, until the pitas were all knocked down by someone trying to do a keg-stand, or a rowdy couple about to bone.

“Everybody loves my pitas,” Roland would simply declare, more than insist, carrying the somewhat dirty tortilleras back in a stack that reached above his head, in his fastidiously neat sweater vest and thick black-rimmed glasses. Sarah would always eat some – they were quite good – and throw the rest into the Jungle Juice when everyone was already drunk and Roland wasn’t looking, so it looked like they all got eaten before they left. Sarah loved him so.

“I am like a maker of those wooden-carved dogs they have at country fairs,” Roland would tell her, “with my pitas. It is not that they are original, or that they are diverse: it is that I do this one thing with so much care, it can surprise you with its consistency.” Sarah would kiss him on the nose and smile with that attentive look she knew he would appreciate. He wore a lighter sweater vest in bed.

When Sir Pita opened, with its plastic coat-of-arms banners and shiny countertops, there was much to-do. Lines rolled out the door and Roland bustled from place to place, making sure everything was consistently correct. Sarah watched proudly from the counter where she sat, pitching in when a need arrived, while she handled their investments on her laptop and wrote blogs. Within a few days, of course, the hubbub had died down: Hammond’s Down was a small place, and even if the finest restaurant in the country had moved in, most people probably wouldn’t know the difference or shift from their usual routines. The college kids were busy with their finals.

One place where the hooplah did not die down was at the Delmers, long-term proprietor family of the Mr. Pita franchise (franchise of one, but still that was what they called it). Old Sal Delmar was a white-haired patriarch who’d mostly left the business to his overweight and middle-aged son Gary so he could lie on his rust-red recliner and watch Pawn Stars and Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty marathons all day, but the shadow of his formerly stringent and demanding taskmaster self still hung over Gary, berating him for not mopping the floors well enough (in Gary’s mind). They’d run the pita place in Hammond’s Down for generations – everybody knew them – and who the hell were these upstarts that thought they could just walk right in and steal their business?

Everyone did know Sal and Gary and Gary’s wife Louise who pitched in at high school soccer games, and everyone knew their son Terrence who was a fine if maybe-too-of-average-intelligence defensive player, with his vaguely surprised expression at all times like he’d just swallowed a Gobstopper he hadn’t meant to swallow yet, and everyone knew their daughter Callie who had caused a few soccer locker-room rows because her Snapchats were renown for their quality and indiscriminate variety of audience. As was the way in small towns, everyone had interacted with everyone else at work and school and knew their families’ families going way back.

So the town did by no means abandon Mr. Pita, but spread its business fairly equally, patronizing either them or the Sir Pita purely depending on mood of day and which was closer, and things like that. But then on a Sunday afternoon, after Louise had mentioned a change was in the air to her commiserates at church, Gary unveiled the signs and branding of their pita place rechristening: Captain Pita.

To hurry the expected flux in consumer base along, and provide a sense of pomp and circumstance, Captain Pita provided raffles and balloons and had splurged on one of those crazy touch-screen machines that give you 500 flavors of soda. Although after the grand opening, there was again no remainder of hubbub, the business started to swell in Captain Pita’s direction, even just slightly, perhaps due to the implied connotation of support for our brave troops.

Roland sat in his home’s neat and wooden-dog-decorated parlor with his most trusted circle of advisers: Barry Esmar, who ran the kids’ daycare business in town because his wife had always wanted babies but they didn’t marry until 55; Pedro Velasquez, who didn’t speak English perfectly but ran the cleaning and maintenance business that kept Roland’s restaurant so clean and also was a nice guy that always brought more food than he ate; and Jerry Fasilani, who ran the D&D and LAN parties for the area, and always wore a T-shirt with some sayings and symbols Roland didn’t understand, like with police phone booths or with robots. (Sarah watched from the beanbag by the bookshelf, pleasantly there but not intruding, while she balanced their monthly budget and Skype’d her parents on her laptop.) The Green River went around while the guys all watched the standard two or three episodes of Top Gear UK on Roland’s Netflix – he always kept a few cases’ reserve of Green River, for these summits – and then, done thinking, they had all decided what must be done.

Pita Commander opened to rave reviews in intrepid Jenny Kasuli’s Hammond’s High Gazette, calling the new space-age wallpaper and serve-your-own-yogurt-to-be-measured-by-the-ounce-at-checkout systems “thrilling to behold!” Although there were some pagination errors in the mostly-student-produced issue, Roland and his Brain Trust were thrilled to behold it, and business picked up before settling back down, to mostly normal.

Gary Delmar was to be avoided, his teenage children knew, until things had settled down. Being teenagers, with things to do, this was not an entirely unwelcome thing, but still. Louise, massaging his shoulders in the kitchen, knew better than to ask why they couldn’t do what someone who didn’t think too far ahead might suggest they do: inaugurate their business as, the highest Army, Marine, or Air Force rank: General Pita. Well, anyone can see that wouldn’t do. It just sounds like a bland general store variety, a downgrade. And the highest rank of Navy officers, Pita Admiral, that had a dissonant cadence unpleasing to the ear, no matter how you phrased it.

It was the coming of a lesser-organized entrepreneur that got things moving again: some ambitious upstart named DeHaviland who had gotten into his head that he was going to make money and diversify the market and synergize opportunities and other such business-y sounding things, even though, like most greedy and serious-sounding faux-entrepreneurs, he’d never gone to school to learn about business or had successful experience doing things like that himself. He didn’t care about pitas at all; he was just one of those smiling twenty-somethings who get sucked into thinking Amway or Quixstar or one of those lame business-model programs where you sell energy drinks but are really selling the opportunity for others to sell energy drinks are the “pathway to financial independence” and had now decided a food franchise was going to make him rich.

Pita Master went out of business within the month: partly because of its manager’s lack of knowledge and experience, partly because its location had no parking lot, but mostly because both Roland Moller and the Delmar Family spread the word to their family and friends that this place was an affront to the pita institutions of Hammond’s Down, to be shunned and avoided. Also, it was July, so the randomly wandering college kids couldn’t help them. DeHaviland went back to Quixstar.

If there was one thing that came out of the short-lived Pita Master though – besides the seeds of subconscious understanding that the “pita institutions of Hammond’s Down” were now established and were, cohabitatingly, two – it was the inspiration for the next and final round of restaurant-naming.

On the same weekend – the Welcome-Back Weekend for the college students in the Fall – two grand and modern meccas of the pita threw open their doors: Pita Doctor and the Professor Pita. Reinvigorated by the competition, the Delmar clan had gone all-out with rustic down-home charm at Pita Doctor and rediscovered their passion for the pita art form: they had mahogany decor, nostalgia-tinged wall plaques, and a wide selection of ice creams and pies. Even old Sal Delmar came out to the Grand Opening, nodding approvingly at the proceeding with a little waggle of his cane: the surest sign of complete approbation Gary and Louise had ever received, and one that filled them with joy. Over at Professor Pita, all the latest and well-crafted comforts greeted their new customers, with leather chairs, big-screen TVs (mostly showing Top Gear), and a full-on gelato and espresso bar. Roland was in the zone, every part of the system functioning as it should be, while he strode up and down serving customers, stopping occasionally for a nose-kiss from Sarah, who sat on her laptop trading stocks.

Hammond’s Down was thrilled at their new high-end pita establishments. Both were flooded with profits and praise, hand over fist. At first there was just the slightest edge for Pita Professor because, while both establishments apparently held title to the highest intellectual achievements, Doctor Pita seemed to differentiate itself subliminally within the field of practicing physicians, an M.D., while Pita Professor, of course, was more along the lines of an academic Ph.D, and there was a vague – but not statistically insignificant – prejudice from connecting your food with the image of medicine. Eventually, though, things evened out and once again everything returned to equal/normal, customer-wise.

It was at this point, with Roland and the Delmars having reached a peak of mutual respect and foundational acceptance, and both restaurants making a tidy profit, that the time was ripe for what happened next. A particular savvy online-investor / computer whiz, under the association name of HammondsUpAndAt’Em, offered both Doctor Pita and Pita Professor an awesome-all-around proposition. Under her franchising investment (borrowed with great promise from small-business loans), they could consolidate as one, and not just share capital and overhead but then have the infrastructure – combined – to start marketing and selling their pitas online, through a web-store she would establish, with very little risk and a much, much larger market.

It took some time and some consultations – Roland with the Green River round table, and Gary at the recliner of Old Sal beseeching wisdom – but finally both sides agreed, and became one massively productive Hammond’s Down business, full of pride in their burgeoning provisions and increasing their profits exponentially as: The Pita Kings.

And HammondsUpAndAt’Em treated both sides fairly and magnanimously with its large cut of profits, reinvesting most back into the business, and only putting her, the manager’s, personal salary (which was quite large) away for future vacations and college funds and rainy days, although Sarah had to be careful not to let Roland see her log in and out of the management program before she came to bed.

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