Food Network Backlot: Customer Variable

by Tabitha Blankenbiller

STORE 9438

Hi! This is Taylor Keegan from the Burbank store. I’ve only been here for a few months and everything has been great so far, so I didn’t know who I was supposed to give suggestions to. My boss said they have an online system for that, and that all my ideas would go into your circular file. Sweet!!!

Anyway, this isn’t exactly my idea. It’s more of a customer request, I could say. See, I was on my way to check on some burnt bulb reports when I heard someone calling from Gardening. “Excuse me, good sir!” He kind of sounded like Rhett Butler, if Rhett Butler was addicted to Four Loko. When I turn around, I put it together—the wiry glasses, perma-jog, tiki shirt—guys, it was Alton Brown! Right here in our very Depot! I didn’t even know what to say.

I mean, I did know what to say. Because the Home Run Training Program rocks! I said, “What can I help you improve today?”

“Tell me—“ he squinted at my nametag, “Taylor K of Electrical, do you know where I can find some foam?”

I wasn’t sure how to direct his question. I offered to walk him down to our insulation aisle, but he said he needed Styrofoam shapes. “You know, spheres? Cubes? Spaghetti noodles?” I apologized for the fact that Styrofoam shapes aren’t part of our typical home solution catalog. “Bother. Well, is it something we could perhaps custom order? I’m doing a show on beef jerky, and I’ll need to simulate the breakdown of protein fiber structures through the dehydration process.” I vowed that I would submit this request to corporate, and that he could check back within seven business days (excluding holidays) to see if we were able to accommodate his custom order. I mentioned that I’ve been wanting to start making my own salmon jerky, because every summer I fly up to visit my brother in Portland, and we fish along the Columbia River. Maybe Mr. Brown had a dehydrator recommendation?

“Ah, so you’re looking to preserve your bountiful boon for the long term, eh? FOLLOW ME!” He sprinted down the hallway like he was gunning for a fire escape! I caught up with him in the air conditioning aisle. “Now I’m going to guess you’ve been eyeing all those fancy little dehydrators at your specialty kitchen small appliance store, right? And sure, they make great gifts for all those weddings you never wanted to attend in the first place, but they’re bulky unitaskers that only end up cluttering your kitchen, AND you end up with overcooked jerky.” Apparently electric dehydrators have to produce additional heat, essentially cooking foods and making them tough and too dry. “The secret to the best jerky you’ll eat? Why it’s right here in your local hardware store!” You can cold-smoke meats and produce by using air conditioner filters and a box fan, and it all only costs about $20! I told him we should try merchandising the supplies on the end cap, and he said that was fine as long as we cross-promoted with the boxed set of Good Eats Season 1 DVDs. I think he was joking, though. He must realize that we only have a DVD distribution agreement with This Old House.


STORE 9438

Hi! It’s Tyler again. Alton came back to the store today to check in on the Styrofoam. I told him that I hadn’t received a response on his special order, but my boss did relay your answer to our end cap idea, and I explained how important it was to keep with Corporate Merchandising’s floor stock plan at all times. I mean, what if someone who normally shopped in Pasadena came into Burbank and everything was different? It would be chaos! “Well that’s no matter,” he said, because today was all about “Swedish meatballs!”

“Like the ones at the Ikea cafeteria?”

“In name only! Frozen, prepackaged imposters, all of them.” It was high time to bring back his favorite party snack, he proclaimed, and we walked over to Masonry. Did you know that you can make a whole party appetizer chafing dish out of bricks, gel fuel and a cake pan? Then after the party, those hot bricks make the best butterflied barbecued chicken you’ll ever taste! “Not enough people keep bricks in their pantry,” he said. Their weight and ability to conduct heat make them candidates for a number of creative applications—and are much more practical than installing a whole wood-fired brick oven in your backyard.

I didn’t mention that we recently assisted Gwyneth Paltrow with her patio wood-fired oven, because I know we’re pushing the outdoor kitchen concept this summer. But maybe if customers were a little on the fence with installing a whole Italian-style, GOOP-endorsed oven in their backyard, maybe we could talk up the power of bricks? Just a thought. And I promised Alton that I’d double-check on those foams. Thanks! You guys are the best!


STORE 9438

Um, hey you guys. It’s Tyler. Burbank. 9438. I still haven’t heard back on the foam, but I’m not even sure if that matters anymore. I feel like I should make you aware of a potential problem. Alton was back in the store today, but he was acting really…weird. Usually I find him zipping between aisles, reciting best practices on crawfish boils and how to fry a whole turkey without burning the house down. He adds a lot of character to the store, and I know it’s not on-brand character, but you can’t control a location’s customer variable.

Anyway, I spotted him today over in Metal and Welding, and he was just, well, standing there. Staring. Lurking almost. Still, I was stoked to see him—a visit with Alton is the highlight of any shift. I was hoping I’d catch him sometime this week. I just finished reading I’m Just Here for the Food and brought my copy for him to sign. “Hey, Mr. B!” I said, waving from three shelves down. That’s when I noticed he was hunched, rapping his fingertips like Mr. Burns. He was guarding a cart full of hooks and aluminum foil.

“Tell me. Where can I find a cement mixer?”

“A cement mixer?” As you know, cement mixers are kept in Contractor Supplies. And they’re unitaskers. I thought he was joking. “What’s that for, slicing up your mother-in-law’s fruitcake?”

“Cake batter.”

“Does that… uh, make good cake?”


“That’s not Good Eats.”

“Who said anything about Good Eats?!” He snapped, then took a deep Yoga breath. “I want a mixer that will bring a James Beard finalist to his knees. If a cement mixer will not suffice, I’d love to hear your brilliant minimum-wage-level suggestions.”

I wrote him up a claim check ticket for the commercial counter, and he asked if we had any torches. Just tiki torches, I said. In Gardening. “No Statue of Liberty, Olympic torches?” I suggested Dick’s.

Right as he was exiting I remembered, “Hey Alton, can you sign my book?” Without a word he opened it to the title page, swiped the pen from his shirt pocket, and swerved it across the paper. “Harassment of celebrity customers. You know that’s punishable by death in Calabasas.” And then he barreled his cart of hooks out of sight.

After my shift I opened the book back up. Tyler—Good Eat a Dick.


STORE 9438

A big thank you to Sherlynn from Corporate HR giving me a call last week. I’ve been doing everything she suggested as far as limited personal and extended professional engagement with customers, and I’ve been feeling more secure. This week has been smooth sailing, but then today, Alton was back. By the time I saw him he was running at me full-tilt, and I had no chance to defer assistance to a specialized department employee or consult on-duty management.

“Tyler!” He said. “So glad you’re here. Have you ever tried making homemade ravioli with one of those cumbersome medieval torture devices they sell at Williams-Sonoma?” By the time he left, I had a new recipe for eggs benedict and everything I needed to know to make a chick incubator from energy-efficient LED lights and plywood. Maybe he was just having an off day? And I shouldn’t have been so aggressive about the autograph. I got carried away and unnecessarily charged up a situation. Lesson learned!


STORE 9438

Hey, guys. It’s been over a month and I was confident that I wouldn’t have to log any more reports, but he was back today. Lurking Alton. Again in Metal and Welding, this time with a cart full of ice picks. “Oh look, it’s my favorite prole,” he said. “I have a veritable shopping list I’ll need your assistance with.”

Duct tape. Propane tanks. Sledge hammers. I didn’t even want to ask what he had in mind until we got to machetes. “A machete will open a coconut, right?” he asked.

“Well, it would take a good amount of time and not be very safe or easy,” I told him.


“A small electric chain saw might work better.”

He turned back and glowered, as if I’d suggested lunch at Arby’s. “I didn’t ask for BETTER now, did I? BETTER coconut water comes in a can. BETTER cooking tools don’t come from a chain Made in China hardware emporium.”

I said I’d be around if he needed any more help and tried to leave, but he called after me. “I’m curious, Tyler from Electrical. What brings you to the Burbank Home Depot?”

“I… I work here.”

“Yes, but a creative, inquisitive type like you. Why do you work here?”

I probably should have gone with Sherlynn’s advice and immediately disengaged, but I was so surprised. Honestly, I’ve never even thought about why I’m working here. “Well I moved to LA when I was younger to do some Yoplait commercials, you know, the dumb guy who heard his girlfriend talking about all the key lime pie and chocolate cake she was eating, not knowing they were just yogurt flavors, and she wasn’t a secret fatty? I thought that was my big break. I was up for a pilot, but then they went with Jason Segel. But by that time I was already renting an apartment outside of Pasadena, and I’d made some friends, I didn’t really want to go back north. I did a few more commercials, dated a few rich girls, and I just saw this ad on Craigslist.”

“And are you still waiting for that Big Break, Tyler?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, I go in for calls every so often, and I’ve been emailing back and forth with an agent a little bit.”

“What would that mean for your family, striking that big career win?”

“Well, not a whole lot, since my dad’s been long out of the picture, and my mom… My mom…”

“It’s okay, Tyler.”

“My mom, well, she died of breast cancer two years ago. I just wish she could have been around to see me really prove how much I’m worth. I want to think she’s up there and can see she was right, that I wasn’t someone to give up watching. ”

“Thanks for sharing that with me. Good luck.” By the time I mopped my eyes up with my apron and looked back up, the aisle was empty.


STORE 9438

I appreciate the company’s willingness to shift my schedule around Alton’s, but even that wasn’t enough. You can consider this my resignation, and I’m sorry I can’t give my two weeks per Home Depot policy. I hope you’ll understand why.

Alton came back yesterday. Not Good Eats Alton. Fucked up, heart-shanking, let’s-mix-margaritas-with-a-bike Alton. As soon as I saw him towering next to a dishwasher he wanted to force people to use as an oven, I ran. I was almost to houseplants by the time I heard him screaming my name, “TYLER FROM ELECTRICAL! TYYYLER FROM ELECTRICALLL!!” I walked back as slowly as I could, hoping some other associate would step in, someone else would see what this maniac wanted. Why aren’t we staffed better on Tuesdays!? How am I the only one here, Home Depot?

“I need hedge trimmers,” he demanded. “And gardening gloves. And more duct tape.”

You know what? This sick asshole wants to rig up some Edward Scissorhands shit? Be my guest. I walked him straight out to Gardening, to our entire collection of hedge trimmers. Flower clippers. You want a box cutter? I’ll go get you a box cutter. Just leave me the hell alone.

And that’s when it happened.

He was standing back, brushing up against the begonias. Regarding the options, weighing the pain, waiting too long. A sprinkler sputtered on behind us, dousing Alton straight in the neck.

A spark, and then another, crackling around his face, spewing steam and melting gobs of rubber and plastic. Through the smoke I could just make out the outlines of another face—a real face, his face. No, not his face. Another face!

“Ted…Allen?!” He coughed, choked, shaking blue and red wires from around his collar. “You’re Ted Allen in an Alton costume!?” No Good Alton and Leering Alton. Just Good Alton and an imposter. My hand reached for my radio.

“Stop!” he bellowed, holding his hands in surrender. “Just stop.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Alton doesn’t even know,” he said. “He’s way too busy designing home-hacked quesadilla presses to pay attention to what’s being crammed into the lineup. This isn’t hurting anyone.”

“What isn’t?”

“Everyone loves a kitchen nightmare, but my quota was up. Oversaturated, they said. Sure, Chopped rewrote the network. Brought in the ratings. Trended on Twitter. But they were worried. You have to be likeable, they said. Can’t just be eating other chef’s sorrow like canapés, they said. They don’t know how high it feels, watching those greedy little bastards open those baskets, their dreams curdling like so many panna cottas. I need that ten thousand dollars! My restaurant’s gonna close! The real world is cutthroat, bitches.”

“You can’t take Alton to make your next snuff film,” I said, pressing the Call button on the radio.

“What’re you going to do?” he said with that half-smirk I’ve seen over a thousand contestant’s tears. “Radio in your DeVry School of Management supervisor, accuse me of being Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible, dragging Alton Brown’s nice-guy reputation into Cutthroat Kitchen? Have fun waking up in the psych ward tomorrow, Tyler from Electrical.”

The radio slumped back to my side. Of course you don’t believe me. Of course I’m just another cracked out case study in turnover rates. The culinary sabotage machine is too big, too insane to even fathom.

“But why?”

“Because. It’s delicious.” With one quick shove the wires were back underneath his collar, and with his cart of tape and knives, exited around the corner.

Maybe if anyone sees Alton again, they could get him to watch a few hours of Food Network primetime? Catch the con on his own? You don’t have to believe me. Don’t do it for me. Do it for a valued customer. I would, but I just can’t stay here. They know who I am now. Tyler from Electrical, Tyler the Yogurt Guy, Tyler probably in Pasadena. Gotta bail while I can. Thanks for the shot. And please don’t forget the foam.



Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in a number of journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart, Passages North and Brevity. She is also a noted hoarder of condiments and accomplished pint glass thief. For food porn and cat pics, follow her @tabithablanken.


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