I am nearing the end of my annual trip to California. I go to visit family and friends and because I love California. I am a New Yorker now, so much so that I personally know and am friends with someone who was, for awhile, one of the potential front runners in the race for NYC mayor. But at heart I will always be a Californian.
Usually our trips focus on Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, where I have family. But this year we also included a trip to the Bay Area where my step-daughter wanted to check out colleges and we wanted to visit friends...and my family just wanted to see more of California. And by the way, I am told that the downstairs neighbor of the folks we stayed with in Berkeley frequently have Markos himself over...don't know the truth about that, but apparently Markos and I have nearly overlapping sets of friends in Berkeley!
So far my family's favorite places have been the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, and the pool and jacuzzi at my sister's place in Santa Barbara. And I have some new restaurant recommendations, including an obscure Thai restaurant called Saysetha in Oakland near the Berkeley border. Amazingly fresh and tasty food for cheap prices. Nothing amazing, but just right. And how about Cedar Hill, a great BBQ joint near the Exploratorium in San Francisco?
But today we drove back from Berkeley to Los Angeles. We drove up via Santa Barbara along highway 101. Coming back we took highway 5. It's fastest, but I always remembered not liking it. Now I remember why. It is the horrible desolate right wing blot on California called the Central Valley. And that long stretch got me thinking about road trips and the fast food and gasoline options along the way.
Best thing about living in NYC is the fact that you don't need a car. So we don't have one. Saves us lots of money and keeps our carbon footprint much lower than most American's. Another great thing about living in NYC are the restaurants...LOTS of choice in all price ranges, so not much need for fast food chains.
But when my family travels in California, we need a car and sometimes have to look for the best fast food chain to grab a meal at while on the road.
I am a firm believer in using my power as a consumer as a political tool. I boycott companies I don't like and go out of my way to patronize companies I do like. I have no one criterion for these choices but take into account quality, customer service, political stands, how they treat employees and suppliers, environmental concerns, and past experience. I was raised with Cesar Chavez's grape boycott and that shaped my choices as a consumer. But I am also practical, so I know you have to choose the best of what is available even if the "best" is still pretty bad.
We left Berkeley this morning after a light and late breakfast (almost lunch). Our first choice was where to gas up.
As a responsible consumer, where to buy gasoline is one of my hardest choices. We have sometimes rented alternative vehicles (an electric RAV4 we loved, an early and wonderful Prius, which was much better than the more recent Prius model, a biodiesel VW, etc). But often we just rent a car with reasonable gas mileage and try to find the best of a bad lot when it comes to gas stations.
Looking at one of my favorite resources, Responsible Shopper from Green America, there are NO GOOD GAS STATIONS among the big chains. But the worst are Chevron, BP, Exxon/Mobil, and Shell. I will NEVER buy from these stations. Ever. They are among the worst companies in the world and I refuse to give them my money. Citgo, Hess and Sunnoco are marginally better. I will use these companies by preference among the big gas station companies. But I prefer finding alternatives to these as well. And I don't find Citgo, Hess or Sunnoco in California, which is where we usually buy gas. So I have to dig deeper.
Our favorite gas station is a California company called Conserv Fuel. We first learned about it because it was (not any more, I think) one of the few places that sold nearly pure biodiesel fuel when we had our Bio-beetle rental (we rented the rabbit, I think). We were, in fact, one of Bio-beetle's last customers in Los Angeles. Now they only rent in Hawaii. But we loved them. And Conserv Fuel sold B95 fuel, so we sought out Conserv Fuel stations. We also learned they sell E85 (which we used when we rented a Flexfuel car) and was one of the cheapest stations for regular gasoline as well. So we mostly buy from Conserv Fuel.
Generally I find Conserv Fuel stations are 10-30 cents per gallon cheaper than stations in the same area for regular unleaded gasoline. They also are an independent company, so buying through them seems better than buying from any of the large, horrible chains I list above. So cheaper and independent is a big draw. Problem is there are only four Conserv Fuel stations in the whole country, all in California:
I think their flagship station is one in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles:
11699 San Vicente Blvd
S Barrington Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90049-5105
This is the station we use the most to get gas.
Then there is one in Santa Barbara...and this is our second most commonly used gas station in California:
150 S La Cumbre Rd
La Cumbre Ln
Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Phone: (805) 964-0938
Then there is one in San Luis Obispo:
2211 Broad St
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401-5225
And there is one near the Bay Area:
7920 Brentwood Blvd
at Village Dr
Brentwood, CA 94513-1004
But whether on highway 101 or highway 5, in the vast area between the LA/Santa Barbara area and Berkeley, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, we had no Conserv Fuel stations. So I had to dig deeper.
Valero is our next default. I have no reason to think this is a "good" company. But it tends to be cheaper than other gas stations, it is NOT one of the awful big chains listed in Responsible shopper, and it is all over California. So if we can't use Conserv Fuel, we look for a Valero. Maybe Citgo, Hess or Sunnoco is better than Valero. I don't know. But they don't seem to overlap territory much in my experience.
As we drove along Hwy 5 in the Central Valley, we started getting hungry around 2 PM...and I was watching our gas gauge. We could probably make the whole trip on one tank (in the end we did, with an eighth of a tank to spare) but I was thinking we could fuel up (probably at Valero) somewhere where we could find a place to eat.
Now two things struck me as we drove. One was that the Central Valley was even more disgustingly right wing than I had remembered, at least going by what we could see along the highway. Anti-choice ads. Giant crosses (we are non-religious Jews and don't really like being surrounded by giant crosses everywhere we turn, though we don't care what people believe). And mile after mile were strange signs blaming the Democrats for the current drought, calling it a Congress Caused drought and specifically blaming Boxer, Costa and Pelosi for the drought. Which, of course, as a scientist married to a climate scientist, I find amazingly STUPID on the part of the people (I assume a large agribusiness lobbying group) who spent so much time and effort on those signs. The signs are blaming Democrats for something that was amply predictable from climate change models and funny thing is it has been mainly REPUBLICANS ignoring the warnings. I remember predictions of increasing frequency of fresh water shortages from some 20 years ago. I guess this is one of those "no one could have predicted" moments that the right wing is so infamous for. Of course the rest of us predicted it! But they can't face the fact that their blind adherence to an illogical ideology is biting them in the ass...so they have to blame Democrats. Of course Democrats have, in general, been advocating LISTENING to climate scientists and acting on their advice rather than ignoring it until it became a crisis. Had the idiot agribusiness stooges in the San Joaquin Valley listed to Al Gore instead of George "Mission Accomplished" Bush, they would be way ahead on handling these kinds of droughts by now.
My wife and I were repulsed by the obvious right wing fanaticism being advertised along highway 5. Consequently, though I had planned on stopping for food and gas somewhere in the Valley, in the end my wife and I decided not to spend our dollars in the territory of these idiotic right wing ads and so we didn't even consider stopping until we had topped the Grapevine (Tejon Pass). Only once we had left the right wing signs behind did we consider stopping and buying anything.
Now, I know full well there is a diversity of opinion in the San Joaquin Valley just as much as anywhere else. But if all I am faced with is right wing lies as I drive along a highway, I am going to boycott the whole area unless I see a sign specifically disagreeing with the right wing lies. So message to all those towns along highway 5: you lost my business today because agribusiness wants to put its collective head in the sand about climate change and falsely blame Democrats instead. Even if there was a misguided policy put forward by Democrats, it has to be seen in the context of right wing denial of climate change and a refusal of agribusiness to act to mitigate the effects of their copious water use and environmentally unsustainable practices.
By the way...next to many of those right wing lie signs I saw signs from real estate companies advertising property. Seems to me the signs predicting a dust bowl posted by the agribusiness liars is likely to scare away real estate customers. Why would anyone buy property that has signs posted nearby claiming that Congress is causing a dust bowl in the San Joaquin Valley??? More business ruined by right wing lies, perhaps.
But there was something else I noticed in our drives through California, including in the Central Valley: all along the way dining choices are becoming increasingly corporate. I saw far fewer family run, local restaurants and almost nothing but chain restaurants all along Hwy 101 and Hwy 5. I always preferred local to chain...but I was finding my choices were few on this trip. Corporate America has taken over the food choices on America's highways...at least 101 and 5.
I can't tell you how many times I have stopped along a long trip, often in the past after a long hiking trip with relatively short rations, at a local greasy spoon and had a huge, yummy meal. I almost never went to a chain.
Now all I saw was chain after chain after chain with only a handful of local joints struggling alongside. Now some communities were different (Kings City along 101 had a ton of cheap Mexican places, many seemingly very authentic). But along Hwy 5 in particular we saw almost nothing but chains. So my impression of the great Central Valley of California was chain restaurants and big agribusiness lies implying global warming denial. Leading me to write them off as a place I had no intention of spending my money. In the end I put Black Flag's "Who's Got the 10 1/2" on the stereo and my wife sped up and we got the hell out of the Central Valley.
Now, when faced with nothing but chains, and after topping the Tejon Pass that was still the bulk of our options, what do you do?
Well turning again to Responsible Shopper, I find that Yum Brands (including KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) are up there with McDonald's as the rock bottom of companies with pretty much no redeeming features. I have no intention of giving them my money. Add to that the fact that the last time I ordered something at a McDonald's, the resulting slimy product had been fried in grease so old it might have come from the Jurassic, so tasted so bitter and nasty I gave up on it, and these chains are off my list for good. Also, can't say much for the healthiness of their disgusting products as well. And for those people who say McDonald's fries are good, well back in Brooklyn there is a local place (Bonnie's Grill) 2 blocks from me that has fries about a thousand times better, so why would I bother with McDonald's?
Looking back at Responsible Shopper, seems Wendy's, Burger King and Subway are a bit better than the rock bottom places listed above...but still pretty bad.
But there are some alternatives. First off, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, there are really only two major chains that actually treat their workers well: Five Guys and In-N-Out.
Now I have no idea the politics of these two companies, though I do know In-N-Out is owned by right wing Christian fanatics. But I do know that every time I have been to one of these stores the workers seemed far more engaged and comparatively happy compared with most other restaurants I knew. So learning that they actually are known for treating their employees relatively well does not surprise me. They are also good on customer service and, as fast food goes, they taste pretty good. So Five Guys and In-N-Out rank higher on my list than the big chains listed above. But have to admit, we already have had too many burgers on this trip...and pastrami sandwiches (from Brent's Deli in the San Fernando Valley) and other unhealthy things. So my wife suggested something lighter.
So we landed at El Pollo Loco.
I had thought about this chain when the dirt hit about right wing fanatics at Chic-Fil-A. What better alternative to right wing, fired, unhealthy Chic-Fil-A than grilled, founded in Mexico, relatively healthy El Pollo Loco. I hadn't eaten there in years, but I remembered their chicken was always fresh, always moist, and tasted pretty good. And it wasn't fried. I also looked them up and found they always used chicken with no hormones or antibiotics, something that is very important to me. Now I don't always trust when a company makes those claims, but it is already better than most fast food chains which pile on the chemicals as fast as they can. So we stopped at El Pollo Loco.
And the chicken was as fresh and tasty as I remembered. Have to say the sides were mediocre. I remembered good corn on the cob there from years ago, but today the corn we got tasted so mediocre my son, who is 7, turned it down. As did I! I feel like they cut corners on the sides but kept up the quality of the chicken and tortillas. And they still seem better than the alternatives.
So in the end, we try to go for the independent gas stations and restaurants, but when that isn't possible, we choose the best of a bad lot, with perhaps Citgo, Valero, Hess and Sunnoco our main choices for gas when Conserv Fuel isn't around, and Five Guys, In-N-Out or El Pollo Loco when a local, family run places isn't available.
But the main thing is, it really is possible and often rewarding and satisfying to take your values and spending your money in a way that matches your values. You don't have to settle for the awful corporations that stand for everything you hate. You can find the good alternatives or, at least, the not quite so bad alternatives.
Oh...and one more thing. I was happy to see that up in Berkeley one of the first brew pubs ever in the area, the Triple Rock Tavern, was still around and still serving amazing beer. It was founded by two brothers. I never knew them, but I did know a third brother who went to college with me. My friend's two brothers founded the tavern and named it Triple Rock after the big bad company (selling watery and nasty beer) Rolling Rock sued them when they wanted to call them selves Roaring Rock...and that was before anyone on the West Coast had heard of Rolling Rock. To this day I will never buy Rolling Rock because of that...though if handed to me free...
And wherever you go, remember, YOUR consumer dollars matter. Spend wisely.