Monday, October 03, 2016

Freebirds 2.0

There's a new Freebirds World Burrito that recently opened in New Braunfels, only five minutes from my house. For me and my family, this looked to be a game changer. I've been a fan of Freebirds since I first at a Monster burrito at their first College Station location--Northgate--way back around 1989. I remember their desperate "Save the Bird--Eat a Monster" campaign when summer arrive and all the students departed. I remember breaking my heel late one evening and choosing to go to Freebirds before the emergency room, as I'd not yet had dinner and knew they wouldn't let me eat anything once I checked in to the hospital. I remember making trips to Austin when the location in the Hancock Center opened, because it was only an hour away from our home in Temple, as opposed to 90 minutes to College Station. I filmed a television commercial for Freebirds, and conducted "secret shops" for them for three years or so. My eldest daughter gives me empty Chipotle gift cards every Christmas to troll me. So yeah, I know my Freebirds.

That said, a little piece of my soul died when I set foot into this new 'Bird. First off, save for the familiar logo, it neither looks nor feels like any Freebirds I've ever been in. The decor, rather than the industrial hippie-dip Bohemian-cum-Easy Rider funky that is so distinct throughout the chain, looks like it was designed by someone trying to fuse the essence of CiCi's Pizza with Panera Bread. There are over-exposed, over-saturated photos of large vegetables and other ingredients bolted to the walls, and I swear I've seen the same thing on the wall at the afore-mentioned uber-cheap pizza chain. The right-hand wall when one enters is a sort of faux railroad tie wood facade, and everything else is white tile, steel or concrete. The immediate effect of this is that this particular Freebirds is loud and echo-y. Now, I say this with the full knowledge that Freebirds, in general, is a loud place to eat. But this is seriously over-the-top. The Wife and I gave up trying to talk to each other when we couldn't even understand our shouted comments. And get this--somebody designed a glass "sneeze guard" (or whatever you want to call it) in front of the food preparation area that rises to eye level for me--and I'm 6' tall. The practical result of this, coupled with the loud, echo-y nature of the restaurant itself, is that I had to repeat my ingredient requests over and over and over in a very loud voice to make myself understood. I asked for pico, and they tried to put queso on my burrito. I asked for onions and they tried to put on tomatoes. I'm telling you, it was harrowing. And here's another troubling thing--there was only one choice of cheese. I didn't look closely, but I suspect this place has fewer ingredients to choose from overall. The poor employees were apologetic, but they could not understand me and I could not understand them.

There are other things troubling about this place. First, there is no Libby on a Harley busting through the wall. Heck, there's not even a foil pterodactyl on the ceiling, or flying guitars or, well, anything to give this place a unique identity. There's not even a ledge or shelf for patrons to make and display aluminum foil art sculptures, which has been a Freebirds trademark since the beginning. There's no sauce island, where one can get additional Bad-Ass Barbecue or tomatillo sauce. There's a long bench-like table in the middle of the place we tried to sit at, but the seats are too high for one's feet to reach the ground and there are no foot rests, making it an uncomfortable place to sit. The staff just about panicked when we moved to another part of the restaurant: "Is everything okay? Is there something wrong with the table?" We told them, and their faces fell a little, like they knew of the problem but were helpless to make it right.

My eldest daughter asked why this one was so different from every other Freebirds we've ever gone to. They told her they were trying to make it inoffensive so that they could "cater to churches." I complained about the place's shortcomings, and one fellow explained, "This is really Freebirds 2.0--we're trying some different things." I responded, "I disapprove." Have you ever gone to a chain restaurant that you're familiar with and comfortable with, but quickly realize everything about the location you're in is a step or two below all the others you've ever visited? And you suddenly realize you're in a franchise, where the owner is taking the bargain basement cheap way out at every opportunity? That's what this one feels like--a bargain-basement franchise trying to out-Chipotle Chipotle. It was so earnestly inoffensive my stomach started churning. Back when Freebirds was still based in College Station, they invited a bunch of us to participate in a focus group to chart out the future of the company. Every single one of us listed as our top concern that Freebirds would be bought out and the new owners would do away with everything that made the place unique and worthy of our passionate, loyal following. It looks like Tavistock is determined to see those worst fears realized. Myself and others have noticed a slight but steady decline in Freebirds quality over the past couple of years--yes, we compare notes and talk about such things. Heck, the tubers have vanished from the ceiling of the San Marcos location and not returned. Such things do not go unnoticed. Sad as it is to say, I'd much rather travel to San Marcos or Austin or Schertz or San Antonio to eat at Freebirds, because the one five minutes from my home is only good for take-out, if that. There's still time for Tavistock to make a much-needed course correction on this whole 2.0 concept, but I'm not holding my breath. I can't imagine willingly eating in the New Braunfels location again, because there are four Chipotles nearby where I can get the same (dreadful) experience.

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