And just like that, war was in the air.
I hadn't sensed it coming. Only a few moments earlier, all had been right with – well, not the world, but with my gustatory world, at least.
Now, in a flash, geysers of exhilarating, intoxicating, Lou-Ferrigno-like hormones – testosterone, adrenaline, cortisol, and who knows what else – erupted within me. Every cell, every artery, every capillary and molecule and nerve, every everything, flared with Homeric rage and aggression. I was now Achilles right after Hector kills his best friend, Patroclus. I was ready for Agincourt. Rorke's Drift. Gallipoli. Anything.
But this was no military operation. The battle which now loomed before me was a different sort of thing, and a reprise of one I had fought – and lost – many years earlier. This would be my rematch. This time, I would not lose.
You see, my first foray into the societal lists was way back in 1994. I had just moved back to British Columbia from Utah to attempt a musical career.
And not long after I arrived, British Columbia's "favourite family restaurant", White Spot, decided to drop their legendary fried chicken from the menu. By BC standards, this was like Levi's dropping denim jeans. White Spot had built their entire franchise, over seven decades, on their unique fried chicken. Even in 1994, it remained one of their most popular items. I'd always envisioned my own kids having the same White Spot chicken experience millions of others had had over the years. Now, they'd never have that experience, ever, because – from what I was told by various White Spot managers – a new team of executives had moved in at headquarters and decided to obliterate the province's most treasured culinary tradition.
And why? In my gut, I knew the answer: just because they could. Just because there's a bunch of people out there who always assume "change" inevitably equals "progress". Just because Planet Earth seemed to have some stupid law which said, "if it's great, they'll stop making it". (And by the way, supposing no one else has ever come up with that last bit, I immodestly propose to dub it "Bachman's First Law of Commerce". Please, someone put that up on Wikipedia to immortalize me!).
I asked various White Spot managers to lobby headquarters to reinstate the fried chicken. I called up customer service myself. I even called anonymously a few times, imitating different accents, to ask them to reverse the decision.
But it wasn't enough. White Spot never did bring back the fried chicken as a regular menu item. Even worse, when they brought it back years later as a cheap promotional gimmick for a few weeks, it didn't taste the same.
I lost that battle. But that was then. This was now, many years later – one misty, piney night in autumn of 2012, to be exact.
In the intervening years, I'd learned all sorts of new tricks. I also had new weapons, namely, internet weapons, and far more friends in real life. And I myself had changed, too. I was no longer the polite young churchgoer I was then. I was now a grizzled, damaged, hardened, semi-deranged berserker with nothing left to lose in life. Due to my recent divorce, I'd lost my home, my wealth, my song royalties, any remaining hope of a music career from what I could tell, and even the joy of raising my children full-time.
So as I sat there at Victoria, BC's Cactus Club Cafe that night in 2012 with a few of my rugby buddies, staring at the dessert menu, discovering they had just dropped their best-on-earth key lime pie from the menu, the proverbial red mist appeared, war beckoned, and my life – recently rendered a nearly-meaningless void of nothingness – now exploded into an all-consuming wildfire of righteous purpose. And that righteous purpose was to force Cactus Club Cafe to bring back the key lime pie.
I need to explain this.
This was no ordinary key lime pie. This was key lime pie as God himself, Creator of Heaven and Earth, would have made it. It maintained the perfect balance of sweet and sour. And it was made fresh, in-house, every single day, at all the locations of BC's (and increasingly, Canada's) hippest, upscale restaurant chain. Everyone I knew ended their Cactus Club meals with it. In a word, it was well on its way to becoming a national sacrament, right up there with poutine, Molson beer, and back bacon pizza. And now, it was gone, dropped from the menu, despite being spectacularly popular. And why? Because...because Bachman's First Law of Commerce: If it's great, they'll stop making it. Just because they can.
And of course, Cactus guarded the recipe. That meant if they didn't resurrect the dish, it would vanish forever – just like the White Spot fried chicken had vanished, just like the ancient city of Carthage had vanished, just like the Sumerian language and the passenger pigeon and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the original formula for Greek fire and a million other things had all vanished, never to return.
And so, my war began right then and there. I called the manager over. Told him the replacement dessert - some ultra-sweet monstrosity - was literally inedible (which it was). The manager agreed it was a huge mistake to ditch the key lime pie ("one of our biggest sellers", he said). The various servers agreed, too. They said they'd pass on the feedback to the executives in Vancouver. I believed them. Before we left, I gathered up customer feedback cards and asked the rugby guys – always game for some new crazy adventure – to demand, in writing, the return of the key lime pie. They all committed to continuing to bombard customer service with phone calls, emails, etc. I believed them, too.
But this was only the beginning. That night, I went on Facebook and began recruiting confederates from around North America for a "secret mission". I then devised a calling schedule for each volunteer (so the calls would be spread out evenly), and had them call Cactus Club's Vancouver headquarters (from untraceable Google numbers) at staggered times throughout each day to demand the return of the key lime pie. I also made an email and Facebook messaging schedule for sending feedback to the Cactus online team.
"Project I HAVE NO OTHER REASON TO LIVE RIGHT NOW" was up and running in no time, with me directing a growing number of volunteers like Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, hammering away at every facet of the Cactus Club customer support team every day. I couldn't lose yet another battle. I'd already lost everything else; I couldn't lose The Great Key Lime Pie Battle of All-Time, too. That key lime pie was one of the last joys of my life. To lose it, as I had everything else, would be one cruelty too many in an already too-cruel couple of years. No – I needed victory, no matter what. And when Cactus customer service kept insisting the decision had been made, and there was no going back, all I heard was an internal voice shouting "ramp it up!".
So next, I started a special Facebook page – something along the lines of a "Bring Back the Cactus Club Key Lime Pie!" group – and made sure to let the Cactus customer service people know that "this thing was really gathering steam", and that "mainstream media people" were starting to look into the story, wondering why Cactus Club would demonstrate "such indifference to the pleas of their loyal customers". Then I started yet another Facebook page. And then another. And another.
Along the way, I began calling Cactus Club headquarters myself. It was what I had tried in 1994 with White Spot, except multiplied by a hundred. I now made seven or eight calls a day from various Google phone numbers, friends's cellphones, landlines, etc., attempting new accents with each call. Standard British English, something vaguely Bulgarian, Pakistani, Italian, Mexican, various North American voices, Cockney, Chinese, Irish, French, every accent I could think of, every vocal characterization I could do, every angle I could come up with or story, I deployed. The message from all the fake characters was: "Bring back the key lime pie so we don't have to go to Romeo's or Brown Social House" (Cactus competitors), etc.
As the pressure increased, I sensed a bit of give from the Cactus people. After I sent yet another, um, "slightly dramatized" account of my visit to Cactus that dreadful evening, I even got a reply from the sister of Cactus Club's celebrity head chef, Rob Feenie, saying she'd speak to the master himself about the matter. The whole thing seemed to be working.
The team and I kept this up for weeks. I popped into Cactus a few times throughout that time for a bite here and there, and to encourage management to keep the pressure on headquarters. They were all on board. The pressure kept increasing, but still, no change came.
No change came, that is, until one of my secret Ontario confederates – entirely unbidden by me – decided to strike out on her own and finish the job once and for all.
The literary coup de grâce she delivered wasn't a complaint or demand. It was a personal horror story.
In her killer missive, Agent Ontario described how she had traveled from Ontario to Victoria recently for a national real estate convention. She recounted how thrilled and touched she was when the head honchos asked her to organize the executive dinner at the end of the convention. This was a huge opportunity for her to score points with her bosses and move up the corporate ladder. And of all the great restaurants she could have chosen in Victoria, she chose Cactus Club Cafe for the final dinner. The reason? She – and others – had heard so much about this West Coast chain's amazing key lime pie.
Throughout the conference, Agent Ontario said, she kept asking the executive team if they were ready for the best key lime pie experience of their lives. By the time they arrived for their reservations their last night in Victoria, they couldn't have been more excited. Agent Ontario's moment of glory had arrived, all thanks to Cactus Club.
The real estate executives finished their meal, and the dessert menus arrived. It was only then that the most mortifying moment of Agent Ontario's life occurred: after all that build-up, after all her hopes, after everyone's anticipation, after choosing Cactus Club over all the rest...the key lime pie wasn't even on the menu anymore. It was gone. The executives felt let down. Huge disappointment and frustration. And poor little Agent Ontario stood there helpless, absolutely mortified, embarrassed beyond words, like "Carrie" onstage at the prom covered in pig's blood, in front of everyone whose admiration she'd most yearned for.
The thrust of Agent Ontario's story was clear: Whoever made the call to remove the key lime pie from the menu had caused an innocent, trusting woman the worst professional and private humiliation of her life. And...why? For what? And how many more times might that happen?
The message was a masterpiece of emotional manipulation. No one reading it could have remained unmoved. It put into the most intimate, sympathetic, human terms the nightmare wrought by the key lime pie's extinction. And of course, the story could well have been true. Except that it wasn't. Agent Ontario had fabricated the whole thing.
"Wait – you sent that?", I said, after she read it to me over the phone.
"Yeah, a couple of days ago. Why? I thought you wanted the pie back".
"I did. I just – I mean, wow. I mean...that was...more than...I mean, thanks. I just...".
The truth was, Agent Ontario's email represented a level of Machiavellianism even I hadn't contemplated. A part of me (the bad part) was impressed. The good part felt unnerved anyone could lie that boldly without hesitation. Most of all, I wondered what effect the message would have, if any.
I found out about a week later when I walked into Cactus Club. The manager happened to be standing at the reception desk. He broke into a huge grin, threw his arms out wide, and said, "Dude!".
"What?", I said.
"It's back!". And there it was, on the newly-revised Cactus Club Cafe menu, right where it should have been all along.
I was reminded of this little victory this past Monday when our SteynOnline chum, Andrew Lawton, texted to tell me he'd just ordered the key lime pie from Cactus Club in Toronto (the chain franchised out east in 2015). (I originally told Andrew my key lime pie story on the Mark Steyn Cruise up to Alaska). And when I got that text from Andrew, I confess I felt a wee bit of pride, as if something I'd done had made this world just a bit of a better place.
And that got me thinking. I, and just a few dozen others, identified a few key pressure points, pushed, and a few weeks later, a fairly high-falutin' restaurant chain moved. They cancelled their new dish, reinstated their glorious, but labor-intensive, dish, re-printed all their menus, and went through a lot of hassle. And it didn't even take that much from me and my ad hoc team. A few dozen phone calls here, a few dozen emails there, a couple of key personal stories (not exactly true, but...true in spirit, sort of), and the world changed.
In every respect but the desired ends, our action was what The Destroyers do every day. Concerted, targeted action, applied to the right pressure points, and bam – even the biggest entities move.
On this note, Mark recently mentioned the case of food conglomerate Saputo changing the brand name of Australia's "Coon Cheese". This is a remarkable decision, given that (A) the word "coon" seems to have no derogatory connotations in Australia [and only in America, where "Coon Cheese" doesn't exist]; (B) the change will cost Saputo millions; and (C) the campaign seems to have been mostly a one-man show. That last point seems most important: the numbers weren't really there, but then, that's one of the lessons: you don't need the numbers once you locate the pressure points, and apply pressure in just the right way.
Just ask the teenage destroyer-in-training Briones Bell, who with one lousy petition (signed by fewer than 6000 people) and ludicrous accusations of racism, nearly scared Trader Joe's into blowing millions changing its product names. (As it happens, a reaction from Trader Joe's non-insane customers stabilized the wobbling corporation, and the brand names will remain).
And that's all that matters, I guess: Which side applies pressure most effectively. These companies clearly possess no rudder other than public pressure. Who knows what would have happened to Goya Foods after its CEO praised Trump, if conservatives hadn't started buying and promoting their products after AOC tried to initiate a boycott?
Somehow or other, at some point, The Destroyers must be beaten back. That seems to require brazen power-plays along with a few Agent Ontario/Machiavelli-style tricks (like I mentioned above in my key lime pie story). Less complaining, more action. More rock, less talk, as the DJs say.
After all, in war, there's no substitute for victory; just as in desserts, there's no substitute for Cactus Club's key lime pie, which is back on the menu for good.
(I say we bring some along with us on the next Mark Steyn Cruise Mediterranean 2021).
Key lime pie or none, we hope you'll consider joining Tal along with Mark Steyn and other special guests like Douglas Murray and Michele Bachmann for next year's cruise from Rome with ports of call in France, Spain, Monaco and Gibraltar. You can book your stateroom for the October, 2021 voyage here. Also, join in the Mark Steyn Club fun year-round by joining the exclusive community of Steyn fans.