A war of initialism

Today’s Zippy takes us to 449 S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose CA (more or less next door to the Winchester Mystery House and across the street from Santana Row):

(#1) The title is an allusion to  McDonald’s Happy Meal for kids

Two things: the location; and the goofy dispute over the meaning of the initialism B.L.T.

The Flames Coffee Shop. The place a few years ago:

(#2) Outside

(#3) Inside

But now it’s closed. From the CBS Channel 5 KPIX site on 9/26/16, “Beloved San Jose Restaurant Shuts Its Doors” by John Ramos:

If you looked closely, the smiles of the waitresses held just a hint of sadness at Flames Coffee Shop Sunday morning.

That, and the empty bakery cases, were the only signs that anything out of the ordinary was happening.

“We didn’t know that this was the last day,” said Carolyn Durandette, who says she’s a regular customer. “We were VERY surprised to find out.”

Twenty five years ago, Flames moved into what had been the first Bob’s Big Boy in Northern California and the new owners decided not to change a thing.

“We don’t even have computers in here,” said hostess Connie Amezcua. “We still write tickets by hand.”

It’s an old-fashioned place that fries hash browns by the acre and no one goes home hungry, but Flames sits across the street from trendy Santana Row and someone thinks what this place needs is a million square feet of office space so the coffee shop is standing in the way of progress.

The nondescript office space that succeeded Flames:


That’s the end of the story. But there’s a backstory, and I’ve told it on this blog. Before the place became Flames in the 80s, it was a landmark of 1960s California car culture (built in 1965). From my 10/12/12 posting “Bob’s Big Boy”:

Some time ago, while I was having dinner at the bar of the Three Seasons restaurant in Palo Alto, a conversation involving customers and the staff somehow focused on the Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose. One diner and the bartender were locals and remembered the place with great affection. I was interested in it architecturally, as an example of demotic design for the world of California car culture.

That posting has the architect’s rendering (1966) of the restaurant; the Big Boy mascot for the chain; and its Flames successor from a different angle than #2 above.

Unpack that initialism! The nutjob customer in #1 rants that a B.L.T. is a Bigwig, Loathsome Talkfest, and his sandwich supplies none of these ingredients. Now, joke versions of initialisms are common, but this is way beyond the pale.

On the other hand, companies and organizations are forever messing with initialisms: devising them, declaring them to be orphans, reinterpreting them.

On a small scale, take what is now primarily a drugstore chain, CVS. From Wikipedia:

CVS began as Melville Corporation, formerly based in Rye, New York. The CVS name once stood for Consumer Value Stores; though Thomas Ryan, CVS Health’s former CEO, has said he now considers it to stand for “Convenience, Value and Service”.

In between, CVS was an orphan initialism, which the company maintained was just a name, not standing for anything.

Other cases, from a Slate article by Seth Stevenson on 5/3/04, “Alphabet Soup: Now what does KFC stand for?”:

[Things get] more nuanced when the abbreviation stays put while the meaning shifts beneath it, like some sort of signifying shell game. Way back during the mid-1980s frozen yogurt wars, there was a chain called I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt, which sued competing chain TCBY because the letters stood for This Can’t Be Yogurt. Unperturbed, TCBY deftly shifted its underlying name to The Country’s Best Yogurt, kept the well-established abbreviation, and went on its merry yogurt-peddling way.

… Anyway, the key in all this is keeping the brand identity strong, straight through the name transition. That’s what KFC is banking on as they take those three famous letters, stripped of their meaning 13 years ago, and attempt to reinfuse them with a nearly opposite meaning. It won’t work unless the consumer goes along for the ride.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC [just KFC, an orphan initialism] — lots of us already called it that [and the company was anxious to avoid the negative associations of fried]. But just to make sure, KFC boosted the profile of Colonel Sanders, their familiar brand icon. The Colonel became more prominent in the KFC logo. In one unfortunate campaign, he even became an animated character — with the voice of Randy Quaid — and, in a dark chapter in KFC history, launched into a hip-hop dance while chanting, “Go Colonel! Go Colonel!”

Still, the KFC brand identity stayed intact. Will consumers follow again as they’re asked to believe in “Kitchen Fresh Chicken”?

Of course we will, if we hear it enough as it blares from our televisions. Branding is at times a delicate alchemy. And at other times it’s just spending lots of money. (Like when KFC tried to convince us fried chicken was a health food.) You hammer away at us with your insultingly wrongheaded message until our resistance wears down and we throw up our hands and we accede that yes, we suppose this chicken does come from a “kitchen” of sorts and, OK, by some tortured definition it could possibly be referred to as “fresh.” It’s all so finger-lickin’ sad.


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