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BURGERS, BOOZE & BASTARDS

The Vortex Blog

All posts by Michael Benoit

EATING YOURSELF STUPID

I once butchered an entire pig to make my own tasty bacon, sausage and pork chops. And it was a really cute pig. So I think I could have become a chef in an alternate universe. But instead I own a bar that many people consider a restaurant. Sure, it’s just a burger joint, but we serve some pretty damn good burgers. My wife and I also own the best Mexican restaurant in Atlanta (Yeah, in my humble opinion, the best by far). Hell, my retirement plans even include organic farming and animal husbandry. In spite of all this, I would never refer to myself as a “foodie.”

When people label themselves it often ends badly. Back in the 1980’s, “young urban professionals” began referring to themselves as “yuppies.” That’s a true story, kids. The word began as an acronym to describe upwardly-mobile, under-40s who were not ashamed to flaunt their success. It was a badge of honor. But eventually their attitude became viewed as elitist, because it fucking was. Now the term is considered derogatory. People don’t call themselves yuppies anymore.

So when will this happen to “foodie?” People continue to use this label proudly, and it always makes me cringe. We’re currently living in the “Age of the Foodie.” It seems all the interconnected corporate machinery is conspiring to get Western civilization to eat itself stupid. Food channels are rife with “celebrity” chefs who hawk their wares in trendy specialty shops and supermarkets. Super-exclusive (and super-expensive) restaurants dot the landscape from N.Y. to L.A. and back again. And all this malarkey continues to be the subject of hyper-polished profiles in fashionable magazines, eventually leeching out into the darkest nether regions of the internet, which by now has been completely overrun with food bloggers. Please. For the love of God. Make it stop.

First, the label is divisive. But that’s by design. The terminally self-aggrandizing like it that way. It represents undeniable evidence of their sophistication and superiority to the unwashed masses. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying good food, or even getting excited about a particular chef. But you don’t have to be an obnoxious jerk about it. The self-proclaimed foodies of today are the same as the self-proclaimed yuppies of yesterday. They’re just practicing an updated version of elitism and exclusion. And enjoying good food should never be about exclusion. More than anything else, what I appreciate about food is how a thoughtfully prepared meal can bring people together. I really love good food. No label necessary.

THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY BALLS

I recently learned that “listicle” is an actual word. I am not making this up. Surprisingly it doesn’t have anything to do with your balls. Or my balls. Or anyone’s testicles for that matter. It is an amalgam of the words “list” and “article.” It’s simply a style of writing in which an article takes the form of a numbered list. It has been suggested that the word “listicle” also evokes the thought of “popsicle,” meaning that while they might be fun, they are void of any real nutritional value. Some people think listicles are a cheap hook. A writer’s crutch. But the secret is that listicles have been insidiously designed to engage our reactive reptilian brain. And it totally works.

My friend Hollis writes a column for Paste magazine. She recently wrote a listicle entitled, “How to Keep Your Ignorant Ass from Getting Kidnapped in Colombia.” It was a humor piece, but all the initial comments she received were from angry Colombians calling for her head. Remarks like “take your anti-Colombian hate elsewhere, pendeja!” were not uncommon. This type of writing really gets people’s attention, which is exactly the point. Listicles get people riled-up. They get people talking, arguing, commenting and sharing articles online. And writing that garners attention also helps generate revenue. For this reason, listicles have become very popular. So, unlike my balls, you’ll probably be seeing more and more of them in the coming years.

Time for a reality check. The idea that journalistic integrity keeps a barrier between advertisers and editorial copy is fallacy. More often than not, listicles are inaccurate, erroneous, or purely fabricated, based on nothing more that the authors personal agenda, who their friends are, or what kind of kick-backs they can get for including certain businesses on their list. To be clear, listicles are not journalism. They’re literary junk food and PR click bait. Once you recognize this fact, you are free to gorge on their absurdity, without giving yourself a brain aneurism. And since I’m not a journalist, but a bar owner with a blog, you just might see some listicles coming from me one of these days. After all, you know you can’t resist a good list.

IT WARMS MY ICY BLACK HEART

Life is too short to tolerate jerks. So when we opened for business, it became my personal mission to educate our customers on acceptable behavior. My main teaching tool was (and still is) a list of house rules called, “Stuff You Really Need To Know.” I didn’t want anyone to overlook them, so I printed them right on the front of our menu. Even though we’ve maintained these no-nonsense policies for well over 20 years, demanding dimwits sometimes still accidently stumble into The Vortex. But the vast majority of our patrons are pretty damn awesome, so my efforts have obviously not been in vain.

The truth is, our loyal fans have always known how to behave appropriately in a bar. They didn’t need our rules for that. But they sure do appreciate the fact that we post them. In fact, they welcome all our efforts to keep The Vortex an official “Idiot-Free Zone,” because it just creates a better experience for everyone. Except for the idiots, of course. Over the years, many of my colleagues in the bar business have personally thanked me for creating this list. No shit. They really have. Anyone that has ever worked in the service industry will totally understand why.

This overwhelming show of appreciation warms my icy black heart. So much so, I plan on producing a new podcast to help keep the conversation going. The podcast, which we’ll call “Vortex Radio,” will offer candid discussions on a broad range of topics related to the bar business. We also plan on featuring a wide array of special guests, including servers and bartenders, restaurant owners, chefs, barflies, local celebrities and all sorts of people who can offer their own unique perspective on the hospitality industry. We hope it becomes another fun outlet to share ridiculous Vortex stories with our fans. Needless to say, drinking while listening will be highly encouraged.

THE REAL DEAL

In case you haven’t heard, burgers have become the latest victim of foodie flim-flam. Every self-proclaimed taste maker with a social media feed has conspired to turn one of my favorite foods, the humble hamburger, into the apex of hipster gastronomy. I hadn’t given this unfortunate circumstance much thought until recently, when I read a snide comment by a local “food writer.” He suggested that any success The Vortex has enjoyed is only due to the limited competition we faced when we opened back in 1992. Now that a surplus of fashionable designer burgers are clogging up the local haute cuisine scene, he feels that Vortex burgers are no longer worthy of your attention. Not with all the flashy new interpretations available to cram in your pie-hole. Or is it cupcake-hole? I just can’t keep up.

Listen, if you’re a big fan of gastromolecular cuisine, that’s great. Can’t get enough truffle oil in your diet? Good for you. Love to Instagram photos of every damn meal you eat? Sure, that’s kind of annoying, but whatever tickles your pickle. If you fancy yourself some kind of burger connoisseur, I’m not going to argue about it. You should feel free to do whatever you want, and eat whatever you want. But trying to marginalize the genuine article in a cheap attempt to promote overblown, novelty food to urban hipsters is really unnecessary. Not to mention a huge insult to our extremely large and loyal fan base.

The Vortex was one of the first places to introduce high-quality burgers to Atlanta, way back before it was trendy. So while some “hipper-than-thou” critic may be bored with what we do, I can assure him that not everyone feels the same way. The sheer quantity of burgers we sell proves this beyond any doubt. I think the fact that we’ve been doing what we do, quite successfully, for well over 20 years qualifies The Vortex as the god-damned Godfather of Atlanta’s burger culture. While trends (and trendy restaurants) may come and go, the real deal will always stand the test of time. And I can state with confidence, both our burgers and our fans are the real fucking deal.

CRYING OVER SPILLED BEER

I personally believe if a U.S. citizen is considered responsible enough to vote, enter into legally binding contracts, serve on a jury, and be treated as an adult by our court system, then they should also be able to go to a bar. Unfortunately, the government disagrees with me. Sure, the government thinks 18-year-olds are responsible enough to put on a uniform and serve in the military, but enjoy a tasty local microbrew? Now you’re just advocating anarchy.

At 21, the United States has the highest minimum drinking age of all the industrialized nations on earth. But that’s only because our legislators know what’s best. In fact, their ideas are so good, they’re mandatory. The Vortex does not make these laws, but it’s our job to figure out the best ways to comply, because the livelihood of a whole bunch of really nice people depends on it. That’s why we recently changed to 21-and-over policy for entry. Needless to say, our decision has caused a few tears.

So I’d like to suggest the following options for college students; 1) Suck it up, and wait it out. Sure, it blows. But it’s only three more years, or less. 2) Get yourself a really good fake ID, just like your parents did, or 3) Dry those tears and do a little work. There are several organizations actively seeking to change the minimum drinking age in the United States. They include the National Youth Rights Association, Choose Responsibility, the Amethyst Initiative, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Use the google machine. Find out more. Get involved. Be the change. That’s a much better use of your time than crying over spilled beer.

SAVE YOUR OUTRAGE

So far, it seems our supporters are highly in favor of our “21-and-over” policy change. We have even received some very nice, rational comments from fans under 21, like the email we got from Kristen. She said, “I understand why you guys are changing The Vortex to be 21 or older, but just know that I’m going to miss it big time. I’ll be back in a year and 4 months though! My friends and I absolutely love coming here. Thanks for everything you do!” Nice, right? Kristen is the type of person that makes running our business so rewarding. Kristen is a true fan of The Vortex. Let’s just come right out and say it – we love Kristen.

On the flipside, I’ve seen comments that make me wonder why people bother following us on Facebook. Do they even understand what the “like” button means? I don’t think they do. I find the strangest responses to be the ones filled with anger and outrage. How is that even a remotely appropriate reaction to a policy change at a bar? After all, it’s just a policy change at a bar. If these crazy bastards are that easily outraged, maybe liquor consumption is not the best choice for them in the first place.

Disappointed, I get. I can even appreciate frustrated. But outraged? I do not understand outraged. The world provides no shortage of terrible things to be outraged about, and in the right context outrage can be morally appropriate. So, save your outrage for the fact that our government spies on every one of us every day. Save your outrage for the fact that “asset forfeiture” is legal. Save your outrage for something that actually matters. In the grand scheme of things, our age policy doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit. We just sell burgers and beer, man. Burgers and beer. Take a deep breath. Everything will be okay.

WE RUINED ANDREW’S BIRTHDAY

Last September we began to notify our customers that we’d be raising the age for entry from 18 to 21, beginning in 2015. We posted signs in the bars, put the information on our website and Facebook pages, and braced ourselves for the deluge of salty teenage tears. Of course, most of the crying came from people who would personally be affected by this change. But oddly enough, some of their weird helicopter parents also seemed very upset. Andrea S. commented, “Just ruined my sons 18 bday for next year!! Good job!!” Then, further down on the same Facebook thread, Andrew S. commented, “There goes my 18th birthday.” We know dude, you’re mom already told us. Dad, if you’re reading this, you don’t have to post a comment. We get it. We ruined precious Andrew’s 18th birthday. We’re really sorry.

SLOW LEARNERS

The “Georgia Smoke-Free Air Act of 2005” basically forced every bar (and restaurant) owner in the State to choose between admitting minors, or offering their patrons the option to smoke. Doing both would no longer be legal. That’s when The Vortex became an “18-and-over” establishment. Saying “bye-bye” to the kiddies was really a no-brainer for us. The Vortex is a bar. Many of our best customers (and friends) are smokers. But children? Not so much.

Of course, some people cried and whined about it. But our supporters absolutely loved the new policy. And while our fans liked the fact they could still smoke in our bar, they let us know that what they really enjoyed was eating, drinking and socializing in an adult environment. Their happiness was substantiated by a big increase in profits, which in turn spread their happiness directly to me. So, everyone I loved ended up being pretty happy about the change.

In hindsight, we should have gone to a “21-and-over” policy back in 2005. But we didn’t. Instead, we chose to deal with all the difficulties of running a bar that admits people under the legal drinking age for another ten years. Ten really long years. But, on January 1st of this year, we finally wised up. We realized it was time for The Vortex to become a totally 100% genuine, bonafide, certified, “21-and-over” bar. You know, a bar. For adults that like bars. And booze. I mean, that’s what we thought we were opening back in 1992. So it only took us 23 years to finally figure it out. See. Even slow learners can learn. Eventually

NAIVE ABOUT BABIES

Before my siblings and I opened our business, we thought, “what would be better than going to a job everyday?” The answer was obviously, “going to a bar everyday.” We really like bars. And we didn’t want to get jobs. So we opened The Vortex back in 1992, as a secret hangout for ourselves. Perfectly logical, right? The original location was a tiny hidden treasure. My brother, sister and I made up a majority of the staff, and once we opened for business, we immediately began having way too much fun.

Being the freedom-loving folks we are, we didn’t implement any age restriction when we opened. If people wanted to bring their children to our bar, we didn’t see any problem with it. So back in the early days you could often find big plastic baby-carriers, filled with actual live babies, sitting right up on the bar-top of our smoky little corner pub. Being new to Atlanta, we assumed bringing babies to bars was just some quaint ”southern” custom we hadn’t heard about. And maybe it was.

Eventually we realized we were naive about babies. An “all-ages” policy for a bar was a bad idea. Over the years, too many clueless mothers and fathers allowed their demon spawn to terrorize everyone, including us. When parents began chastising us about how inappropriate our bar was for their little angels, our reply was usually something like, “Then maybe you shouldn’t be bringing your kids to a bar.” I mean seriously, not everything is right for everyone. And babies really don’t belong in bars.

MY EVER-EVOLVING MESS

I learned from my tech guy that searching the word “vortex” on the interwebs, in any variation, will bring up our website before anything else. I had nothing to do with this fact, but I understand that it’s kind of a big deal. He also let me know The Vortex website gets thousands of unique visitors each month. Thousands. That’s when I realized that maybe I should add some new features in 2015, to engage our awesome fans. So first up, my new blog. You’re welcome, awesome fans.

I’ve never written a blog before, so I contacted my friend Hollis. She’s a published author. In fact, she only became a writer due to my constant, unwavering encouragement back in the early days of The Vortex. If it wasn’t for our inspiring little chats while she was sitting at my bar getting drunk, she’d probably be living under a bridge today. That’s why she’s always happy to help me out. So when I showed her a rough draft of my first blog post, she quickly told me, “It’s too long. People have short attention spans these days, especially for blogs.” She advised me that most blogs run between 250 and 350 words. So that’s the advice I’ve been given so far, and I’m not sure I’ll even follow it. I mean, what can I possibly say in just 300 words? I guess we’ll see.

In the beginning, I plan on writing about what it’s like to run The Vortex. I’ll probably be up for tackling other topics in the long run, but initially I want to give my readers an inside look at the craziness that occurs behind the scenes of our notorious bars. I’ll most likely write about stuff that bugs me too. You know, kind of like blog-therapy. Needless to say, this blog will probably get sloppy and haphazard, and maybe a little crass at times, but I promise it will always be genuine and honest. If you choose to check-in here each week (and I hope you do), you’ll get to witness this ever-evolving mess, first hand. I’d love to tell you more, but I’ve already gone way over my 350 word maximum. Damn. This isn’t going to be easy.