Foodie 515: Des Moines Restaurant News, 12/4/23

515 Foodie: Delicious Des Moines, 12-4/23. Big Al’s is in trouble, and Valley West loses another one.

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  • It’s not food, but a delicious read from an Iowa-based author is The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams! I wanted to consume this book in one sitting, but I paced myself, and I’m glad I did. It was one of my favorite reads on the year.
  • Did you know the famous Fairy Tale Cotton Candy is a Des Moines-area business? It’s a part of Chocolate Storybook in West Des Moines, which has been in business since 1985. I mention them because, for the second year in a row, I bought a custom pack of cotton candy for the fam’s stocking stuffers. It was a hit last year, so I’m making it a tradition. Granted, they’re actually too big for some of the stockings, but who cares?
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Thoughts about Big Al’s BBQ

A narrative capitalists the food industry needs to correct is that no one wants to work anymore. There’s a modifier missing from that sentiment. What’s really happening is that no one can afford to work for an unlivable wage in a brutal industry anymore. This isn’t a situation in which so-called personal responsibility and moral fiber can be blamed; it’s a macroeconomic, macrosociological problem. It’s a massive structural problem, and blaming individuals is inaccurate and, frankly, cruel.

Just last week, there was a story about a woman getting jail time for throwing food at a Chipotle employee. The judge gave the woman the option to lessen her jail time by “working at least 20 hours a week” in a fast-food establishment. The woman took the deal.

While the intention of that sentencing is to build empathy, what does it say about working in the fast-food industry that a judge sees it as punishment?

Big Al’s is, sadly, perpetuating that harmful narrative. In his post, he states, “In a society having a tough time trying to find employees who want to work . . .” Every time I see a business owner say this, my first question is, “How much are you paying your employees?” Now, no, I don’t know how much he pays his employees, and if anyone knows, please tell me. I’d like to be wrong in my speculation that he’s underpaying folks.

That said, the causes of his business struggles likely have little to do with workers. There are so many other variables:

  • Big Al’s BBQ moved from the loyalty-valuing southside to the burbs. You’re gonna lose your core customers that way, especially if you move 30 minutes from the location where your popularity grew.
  • Big Al’s moved at least four times in ten years. People are gonna lose track of you that way.
  • They moved to a district with an established barbecue place. Even if it’s Jethro’s, you’re gonna have a hard time competing with that.
  • Ankeny’s Prairie District is a fucking nightmare. Parking is atrocious.
  • Driving in Ankeny is already stressful; with construction at the East Mixmaster, even going to Ankeny is a nope.
  • Dining out is ridiculously expensive right now, and with the holiday season upon us, I imagine folks are shifting spending priorities.
  • The management of Prairie Trail can’t be bothered to maintain their business list.

On a personal note, I’m extremely picky about barbecue. Ankeny is not even on my list of cities to visit for barbecue. Having never had anyone rave to me about the food at Big Al’s, I’ve prioritized other eateries. Moreover, I don’t think I’m his target market, with my non-religiosity and all.

From what I’ve seen, Al has done incredible stuff for the metro, and his generosity is impressive. I know almost nothing about the guy except how his old ads made me laugh. I rarely root against a local eatery, and I want Big Al’s BBQ to succeed.

But blaming workers isn’t going to help anyone.

Love, chai, and donuts. Seeta Lee

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