Thursday, February 09, 2006

Big News!

It looks like all our hard work out here in the Siberian tundra that is the blogosphere has finally paid off. The New Yorker, that paragon of mainstream taste, noticed all of the attention that Jason Congdon was getting from Delino, Marquis and Immortalized, and decided to write a lengthy profile of this great man for their March 6 issue. As a token of thanks for putting Congdon on their radar screen, The New Yorker has provided us with a sneak preview of the article. Enjoy!


“Give a man a burrito and you feed him for a day; give a man an El Guapo Grande Burrito and you feed him for two days, maybe three depending on whether there’s guac.”

-Jason Congdon

It is taken as a given among modern writers, from Arthur Miller to Eugene O’Neill, that the American Dream is dead. Edward Albee even wrote a play entitled The American Dream, the sheer absurdity of which mocked the very notion of the American Dream. Yet ironically it is here in New Haven, Connecticut, where Albee’s hopeless play premiered some thirty-five years ago, that we are witnessing the Dream’s renaissance.

On an unseasonably warm Tuesday in November, I saunter into the Bulldog Burrito restaurant. At first glance, I don’t see what all the hype is about. It doesn’t seem different from any of the dozens of Mexican joints I frequent in New York - the limited menu, the bland Mexican music, the array of salsas. But then I take a closer look, and I see the television set turned to an offbeat channel called CNN Headline News. I see the handwritten message on the black board challenging customers to take the El Guapo Grande Burrito Challenge. I see the exposed post-modern kitchen, deconstructing the processes by which each culinary masterpiece is created. As these unique personal touches accumulate in my mind, it dawns on me that the Bulldog boosters are right-- this is not your ordinary Mexican joint. But before I can investigate any further, I am graced with the presence of the visionary who made this entire enterprise possible.

At 33, Jason Congdon is not handsome in the conventional sense, but he has the boyish good looks of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s-era Mickey Rooney. He looks like the kind of upstanding young man your mother would want you to marry. And indeed, Congdon is gracious to a fault when interacting with customers or with friends outside of the restaurant. But when it comes to directing his employees, Congdon conducts himself with the cocksure, almost imperious, mien of a seasoned general. Donning his chosen uniform of a Bulldog Burrito polo and jean shorts, Congdon, like Grant at Vicksburg or Washington at Yorktown, commands his small army of Mexican culinary warriors as they ably take on a throng of hungry college students. The sheer efficiency of the operation leads one to think that the restaurant has been around for decades.

Yet while it is hard to imagine now, this bustling café at the corner of Park Street and Elm Street was a vacant lot a scant two and a half years ago. It was then that former Yale football players Peter Mazza and Than Merrill, along with local restauranteur Charles Hague, opened the doors of Mexicali Grille. Though Merrill and Hague had an equal share in the business, Mazza was the brains of Mexicali. It was his idea to serve Mexican food, it was his idea to locate next to student favorite Ivy Noodle, and he came up with the name. As Mazza put it in his chapter about Mexicali’s genesis in Life in the Fast (-Food) Lane: The Peter Mazza Story, “I wanted a fast, healthy and inexpensive food alternative on Broadway. And I love burritos." But sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go awry, and by August 2004, Mexicali was not drawing enough business to stay open.

The question of how the failure of Mexicali Grille became the success of Bulldog Burrito is a contentious one. Officials within the Levin administration claim that after the closure of Mexicali Grille, the President ordered senior aide Walter Geerston to replace the restaurant with a very similar business. A vocal minority in Dean Betty Trachtenberg's office even contends that Levin specifically issued orders pertaining to both a new emphasis on guacamole and the addition of a cantina happy hour as a requirement for any replacement. Congdon dismisses such claims as "an insidious lie perpetrated by bureaucratic bumblers unwilling to acknowledge my innovation." Mazza himself maintains that Bulldog’s triumph is not the product of Congdon’s business acumen, but rather the result of shifting dynamics in New Haven’s Mexican food market. In particular, he points to the moment in September 2004 when one of Yale’s more corpulent ex-bloggers gained control of his Bar Mitzvah savings, pumping hundreds of dollars into the market just as Bulldog Burrito appeared. Mazza believes that he too would have thrived in this newly buoyant market and dismisses the accolades showered on Congdon, derisively noting, “The idea to have a fast-food Mexican restaurant at that location was mine—Congdon just moved some chairs around and made the logo uglier.”

When I ask Congdon about Mazza’s claims, he rebuts them by rattling off a wide range of innovations, from the introduction of shredded chicken burritos to the replacement of Coca-Cola with Pepsi in the soda fountain. In Congdon’s mind, Mazza is just one of the many assorted cranks who wish to belatedly take credit for an achievement that is entirely his. Offhandedly quoting John F. Kennedy, the Bulldog owner remarks, “Victory has a hundred fathers; defeat is an orphan.” A moment later, when I inquire about the competition he faces from the nearby Roomba burrito cart, Congdon observes, “Sun Tzu once said, ‘If you know yourself as well as your enemy, you will come out of one hundred battles with one hundred victories.’ Though the translation doesn’t do it justice.” At this point it is apparent to me that Congdon is a veritable one-man Bartlett’s. But before I can ask Congdon to name the biggest factor to which he attributes Bulldog’s success, we are interrupted by an employee. “Meester Jason, the Virtual Boy in the break room is on the fritz,” says the worker frantically. Congdon calmly tells me we will have to continue our conversation at another time and goes to fix the Virtual Boy, despite the fact that the system has severly diminished his depth perception.

Still hungry for answers, I visit the office of Yale Urban Studies Professor Douglas W. Rae. Rae is uniquely qualified to explain Bulldog Burrito’s meteoric rise, having studied New Haven for over twenty-five years and published his findings in 2003’s City: Urbanism and Its End. “I’ve determined that Ivy Noodle’s success owes to its policy of forbidding parties smaller than four from sitting at six-person tables, but I am still in the process of examining the Bulldog data,” says Rae in a typically professorial tone. “From my preliminary analysis,” Rae continues, “it appears that the restaurant started off dismally, then slowly built up a consumer base until January 2005, at which point its patronage increased exponentially. January 2005 was for Bulldog Burrito what Malcolm Gladwell would call the ‘tipping point.’” I inquire as to what Rae thinks precipitated this ‘tipping point.’ He responds, “You see January 2005 marked the acquisition of Bulldog Burrito’s liquor license and hence the opening of the Bulldog Cantina. That the American university student in the twenty-first century would want to consume alcohol in a fast-casual setting rather than in a publick house or dance hall, this, this was Congdon’s crucial insight.” Rae tells me that he will send me the full report when he is finished, and I leave his office. But on the way out, I run into Film Studies Professor Michael Kerbel, who has overheard my conversation with Rae. Kerbel, who is a Bulldog Burrito regular – he orders the El Vaquero without fail engages me in a frank discussion of the Mazza-Congdon debate, concluding, “To say that Jason Congdon piggybacked on the success of Peter Mazza is like saying that Stanley Kubrick piggybacked on the success of the Lumière brothers.”

I walk back to Bulldog Burrito, and I see a student playfully talking to Congdon as I enter the restaurant. “How’s it hangin’, Cong-dawg?” asks the student. “Can’t complain about this weather, am I wrong?” replies Congdon excitedly, as he gives the student a high-five. At this point, Congdon notices my presence and is visibly embarassed; I’ve caught him off-guard. Eager to get back to more serious matters, Congdon invites me into his office.

Underneath the clippings of “Howard and Nester” cartoons from decades-old Nintendo Powers, Congdon’s desk contains photographs from Chihuaha, Puebla, Baja, and a number of other Mexican states. “Which area of Mexico is your favorite?” I inquire. “Never been,” replies Congdon, “though I once got off at the wrong train stop and ended up in East Norwalk’s el barrio. Nice folks there.” Abruptly changing subjects, Congdon proclaims, “I’m finally ready to answer your question. You see, the secret of my success can be summed up in one word… Guac.” Congdon has an endearing habit of giving his food nicknames – guacamole is “guac,” quesadillas are “quesas,” sour cream is “sour-y.” “Guac,” Congdon continues, “is the only item on the Bulldog menu that turns a profit. Everything else – burritos, quesas, nachos, margaritas, heck even flan – is just a loss leader to bring people into the restaurant to buy guac. I was actually going to call the place ‘Bulldog Guac,’ but a corporate type I spoke to back at Lego talked me out of it. ‘Bulldog Guac,’ that woulda been somethin’, huh?” Suddenly Congdon gets that trademark twinkle in his eye, and he’s lost in his own dreamscape. I half-expect the first verse of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to come on from some unknown jukebox. Still in a state of reverie, Congdon slowly takes a yellowed piece of paper from a filing cabinet. “This would have been the logo,” he drawls, showing me a picture of a bulldog with side orders of guacamole for eyes. Congdon suddenly snaps out of his daydream and states rather seriously, “Through one of my Mexican employees, I have an excellent supplier of cheap avocados. The low cost of that input allows me to make huge profits on the guac. It’s Business 101.”

Eager to learn more about Congdon’s unique reliance on guacamole to financially support his entire operation, I talk to Brandon Gibbons, Vice President of Economic Consulting at McKinsey Consultants. After reviewing only a handful of Bulldog Burrito’s financial statements, Gibbons decides he’s seen enough to come to a conclusion. “Mr. Congdon,” determines Gibbons, “is completely delusional. His own records show that guacamole orders represent a mere 1.3% of his total sales. If, as he claims, he is losing money on all other items, then he would be hemorrhaging cash. Yet these documents show steady profits for Bulldog.” Gibbons continues with a highly technical discussion of the New Haven labor market and a burrito-folding method that some trade journals tout as a breakthrough in efficiency. “In any case,” Gibbons concludes, “my real concern is that Mr. Congdon cooks the books so as to refuse to admit even to himself the runaway costs of maintaining a banned video game system for which it is nearly impossible to find replacement parts.”

At this point, I feel I have a firm grasp on all the complexities and nuances of Jason Congdon the business visionary. But what about Jason Congdon the man? I decide that the key to Congdon’s character must be tucked away somewhere in his upbringing, so I visit Congdon’s boyhood home.

Casa Congdon, as it is affectionately known, lies on a sleepy street in the Dunwoody section of East Hartford. The house, with its aluminum siding and brick chimney, is almost a visual shorthand for 20th century lower-middle-class New England. I stare at its peeling pale green paint – the color of guacamole, of course – until the gaunt figure of Jennifer Congdon swings open the front door. Even on first sight, it is apparent that the Congdon matriarch was extremely attractive as a young lady. But in her desperate attempt to cling to her fading beauty, Mrs. Congdon’s successive plastic surgeries – bankrolled with money provided by her son – have given her face the waxy texture of a children’s doll. Mrs. Congdon, wrapped in a terrycloth robe and puffing away at a Parliament Light, invites me to come inside. “Have a seat in the living room and I’ll be with you in just a minute, sug,” she tells me. Mrs. Congdon proceeds to walk into the dining room and pours an elderly woman – who I later learned is her 97-year-old mother Georgina – a glass of water. The elderly woman then hands Mrs. Congdon a quarter. I only mention this vignette because it sheds some light on quite how deeply the virtue of salesmanship is ingrained in the Congdon DNA.

Mrs. Congdon returns to the living room and hands me a photo album. “When Jason was a child,” Mrs. Congdon begins, “all the other kids in the neighborhood would put up lemonade stands or hold bake sales just to make some pocket money. And boy, Jason didn’t like that. He hated that these kids didn’t care about their food and didn’t have any sense of customer service. So Jason decided he’d set up his own stand. And Jason’s passions, well they lay more in sauces, dips, spreads, that sort of thing.” Mrs. Congdon points to a faded Polaroid photograph. A young Jason Congdon is smiling the kind of shit-eating grin he still gets when he makes a big catering sale to the Yale Herald, as he points to a handwritten cardboard sign that reads, “Jason’s CONGDON-MENTS.” “So what kind of bread did Jason sell to put the condiments on,” I inquire. “Bread?” Mrs. Congdon replies bemusedly, “Oh heaven’s no. Only condiments. Jason was very adamant about that. But boy could he close a sale. And you know, the folks around here, they really took a shine to him. He ended up doing pretty well for himself. And look at what he’s got going for him now. This hi-definition television, the surround sound stereo, that was all bought with burrito money. Sorry, guac money.”

Although he lavishes gifts on his mother, Jason lives modestly in a one-bedroom apartment above Bulldog Burrito. He could undoubtedly afford a spacious house in Hamden or some other tony suburb, but he prefers to wait with the move until he starts a family. In our final interview, Congdon, characteristically self-effacing, remarks, “I don’t need a big-screen TV or anything; that stuff’s really more my mom’s style. Me, I’m happy with this 12 inch black and white guy. It’s great for watching security footage from the double B, and that’s all I’m really interested in right now. Occasionally I flip on Telemundo, you know, just to get a sense of what’s going on with my employees.”

So there you have it—a young man from a working-class background pulls himself up by the bootstraps through a combination of entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and determination. Though he lived with limited means as a child, in adulthood he provides amply for his beloved mother, himself and his future wife and children. To those who dismiss this as an isolated success, I stress that Jason Congdon isn’t some pointy-headed MBA. No, if you scoured this great land from the San Fernando Valley all the way to the Adirondack Mountains, you’d find that he’s just an ordinary American. He’s an ordinary American who dared to have a dream and went out and achieved that dream. A dream of owning his own business. A dream of providing slightly above average Mexican food to overprivileged college students. An American Dream.


Tom said...

the double B. heh.

Lofty Boner said...

this is so touching the american dream should now be known as the american "burrito" dream

Lofty Boner said...

i.e. lofty boner is following the american "burrito" dream by trying to become a pro boxer

Lee the Dealer said...

amazing work. the black and white tv telemundo line is priceless.

Anonymous said...

you've really outdone yourself with this one, dan! i like the part with the mom and the grandma.

Anonymous said...

i like the part about Congdon

Anonymous said...

"Though the translation doesn't do it justice." Amazing.

Nosferatu said...

Truly outstanding.

Veronica said...

Don't know if I get it, but this is certainly well written, sexy.

Anonymous said...

The wild blogger's death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; ...
But anon his awful jubilant words,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a post free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold...

Anonymous said...

Doesn't look like you did all your homework?
Jason is married and lives in West Hartford with his wife and childeren....that didn't come out in the interview?

dirk said...

food is nothing special.....