America's Test Chicken
America’s Test Chicken (sic), a TV gourmet show, has its origin in an epiphany, the author would have us believe. To save Boston Harbor Periodicals, from financial ruin, the author decides to launch a gourmet show along the lines of ‘The Gourmet Show’ and ‘The French Chef.’ The quirky twists and turns of this comic caper will tickle your funny bone. Jeffrey Feingold turns this into a laugh riot.
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I once was the Chief Operating Officer of the hippiest business in America. One chilly gray November morning, I stood in front of Boston Harbor Periodicals. I’d received a call from an executive recruiter who knew from our business relationship that I was always interested in writing (although I’d gone into business as a career), and that I’d worked in operations at newspapers, marketing agencies and so on. Now he had a client in magazine publishing for me to meet. I stood on a little side street in Boston, facing a tall black steel door on the side of a squat brick building. I was there for an interview but thought I must be in the wrong place. No business name on the building. No marquee. Just the number 777 spray-painted in white on the black door. I opened the door and walked inside.
I was now standing in a tiny room with a steel staircase going up, a handrail on the brick wall, and nothing else. No lobby. No neatly attired businesspeople milling about conducting, well, business. As I placed a foot on the first step of the metal tread, it groaned under my weight, even though I only weighed one hundred eighty pounds. I grabbed the handrail with my gloved right hand, and as I gave it a slight tug to begin ascending the stairs, the retaining bolt that affixed the bottom of the rail to the brick wall popped out and clattered onto the stone floor. I stood for a moment, considering turning around and leaving. Although I was glad to be interviewing with a magazine publisher, I started to wonder just what kind of magazines these folks published. Still, I thought, I’m here, might as well have the interview.
At the top of the stairs, several floors up, was a wooden plain door. It opened onto a capacious but ramshackle place. There were desks and bookcases and magazine racks, throw rugs and lava lamps and hanging beads, plants and bicycles and guitars, strewn about here and there. And there were people. Colorfully, casually dressed people, bearded people, beaded people, reading, writing, playing guitars, smoking things, drinking, and laughing. I walked over to a man sitting in a cross-legged yoga position on a throw rug, apparently smoking a Marijuana cigarette.
“Hey, man,” he said, looking up at me through his rose-colored spectacles. From the astonished look on his hairy face, I knew he’d never seen a man in a business suit in person.
“Hey to you,” I replied. “I’m looking for the publisher.”
“Beats me,” he offered, shrugging his shoulders. But then, looking up, I saw a man sitting in the only office on the floor. I walked over and knocked on the office door. The publisher, Chris Kraven, waved for me to come in. He was sitting at his desk, which was littered with papers, and eating a bagel. I could see he was tall although he was seated. He was thin, with short hair, round horn-rimmed glasses, a white dress shirt and a bow tie. He looked like a prissy skinny chicken in a bow tie.
“So, you’re the business guy,” he said, then pecked at his bagel. “That’s great. We need discipline,” he added, then pecked pecked pecked at the bagel.
“Well, I’m certainly disciplined,” I offered.
“Good. You’re hired,” he said. Peck, peck, peck.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Is there a plan?”
“We have two magazines. Chef’s Illustrated does four million in revenue and makes a gross profit of one million a year. It has no advertising. All the revenue is from subscriptions. I’ve grown the subscription base as much as I can. The other magazine, Naturally Healthy, has advertising revenue, but also costs much more to produce and loses a lot of money. My plan to is replicate Chef’s with other ad-free highly profitable magazines. Like maybe Wood Illustrated. If we have a second mag doing four million in revenue and one million in profit, we’ll then have a total of two million in profits. Then if we add a third illustrated mag …”
“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” I interrupted, “then you’d have, let me do the math, two, then add the one, yes, yes, that would be three million. And then a fourth mag and that would be, let’s see now, take three, add the one … four million?”
Chris finally stopped shuffling papers and looked up at me. His little black beady junglefowl eyes stared at my face intensely, studying. Then he combed his wattle with his right hand, looked up at me, and said, “man, you’re good!”
The next day was my first as the new Chief Operating Officer. The two important things I did that day were to let half the staff go, then hire a new financial controller. I didn’t fire anyone. They let themselves go. Chris called a company staff meeting. A few dozen people gathered in the center of the floor, sitting in chairs, on rugs, one even in a cloth swing suspended from the ceiling. Chris introduced me to everyone. He explained that I was there to help the place “run like a business.”
“The first thing we need,” I informed the group, “is office hours. Right now, no one knows when any other colleague will be in, because people come to work when they feel like it. From now on, we’re going to be open from nine to five, Monday - Friday. And everyone needs to be here then.”
“I have a question,” a woman sitting on a blue and red braided rug said. “Does that have to be 9:00 a.m? Or is 9:00 p.m. good?”
“9:00 a.m.,” I said, “that’s in the morning.”
“No way, man!” she exclaimed. Then she stood up and stormed out the door. I never saw her again. To this day I’m not sure what she did at the company. No one else seemed to know, either.
I asked the group if there were any other questions.
“What if I can’t start until later in the morning because of my aura?” a man in blue jeans, and a tie-dye tee shirt with the catchy phrase ‘Stick it to the Man’ on front, and a red and blue bead necklace, asked. “My aura shines brightest around 11:30 a.m.,” he added.
I didn’t know much about auras. Only that they were believed to be energy fields which emanated from spiritual people, and which glowed in pretty hues of blue or pink or red. Possibly green.
“I’m here to help make our company profitable and to grow the business,” I explained, “I’m more concerned about the color of money than the color of your aura.”
With that, he immediately stood up and exited the building, neither he nor his aura ever to be seen again. It went on like that for a while that first day, until about half the staff left. It worked out well, though, as the half who remained appeared to be the people who worked. I learned later that Boston Harbor Periodicals was the successor to a religious institute founded decades earlier in the same building. A Hindu religious leader, Swami Someone-or-Other, founded a school there to pass on the true knowledge to disciples. One disciple eventually started a newsletter for his followers. She was one of the reasons I needed a new Controller. The newsletter woman eventually became the Controller of the Swami’s school and later of Boston Harbor Periodicals. But she had no accounting or financial background. She’d originally gone to study with the Swami. But she could add numbers, so the Swami put her in charge of accounting. She only liked to send invoices when “the time was right” she told me. She also left after hearing that we were now going to have rules.
Such were the seeds of what was now Boston Harbor Periodicals. Only now the publisher, and an investor in the business, the man who founded White Elephant Farms, were not all that interested in the true knowledge. They were after something a little ‘earthlier.’
My next move, in the afternoon of my first day on the new job, was to call Lisa C. I needed financial help. Like yesterday. Lisa and I had worked together at my last company, a newspaper, where I was the Chief Operating Officer, and she was the Controller. Like me, she was a businessperson. She was an accounting wizard, not to mention very calm and sensible, and she was used to commonsense business procedures and rules. She didn’t suffer fools. She’d grown up in America’s heartland, I think on a farm, I suppose where she learned to count chickens and whatnot. Later, she went to college for accounting. Looking around the magazine office that afternoon, at the braided rugs and chair swings and lava lamps and reefer butts, I smiled as I picked up my desk phone to call Lisa to offer her the job of Controller. This was going to be good!
Lisa’s first and nearly last day started the next morning. Sitting at her desk, as she poured through the company’s financial records, she looked up at me.
“You know the woman who was the Controller before me, what was her name, Flower, or Possum or Petunia? Well, I don’t think she understood accounting,” Lisa said.
“Why, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“We’re broke. We take in less than we spend. We probably have enough funds for another month.”
There was a moment of silence. Then something happened. Something unexpected and rare: I had an ephiphany.
“What if,” I asked, “we can get Chris on television? People love quirky chefs. Just think of The Frugal Gourmet, The French Chef, etc. Maybe we can set up a kitchen here, and feature Chris, in all his peckish ways, testing different products and recipes. A sort of reality TV cooking show?”
“That’s brilliant!” Lisa exclaimed. “And he can have special guests, like on some of those other cooking shows. You know, maybe Elmo or Itzhak Perlman.”
“No, not Perlman – he’s already been a guest on The Frugal Gourmet” I pointed out.
“OK, no problem,” Lisa said, “then maybe Yo-Yo-Ma. There’s just one problem,” she noted. “We don’t have a kitchen. Or the budget for one.”
“No worries,” I said, “I’ve got some contacts in the theater district in town. I’ll get a few set designers and we’ll have a kitchen set made, like on Broadway. I’ll talk to Murry next door, at Murry’s Diner. He can do the cooking part off camera when we need a real oven, then just bring the cooked food here between takes.”
Lisa looked a little troubled.
“You know,” I assured her, “The French Chef isn’t French. And The Frugal Gourmet drives a Mercedes.”
And thus, the plan for what was ultimately to become one of the hottest cooking shows on cable TV – America’s Test Chicken – was hatched. Advertisers flocked to buy in (no pun intended). And the money was rolling in, too. Turns out that the test we had for Wood Illustrated was a dud. So, we dropped Chris’s idea of more magazines and instead launched the new TV show. Boston Harbor Periodicals was saved.
That America’s Test Chicken launch was almost thirty years ago. Today, my good friend Lisa is retired. She lives on a farm in western, MA, with her husband, her dog, and fifty chickens. I live in the suburbs of Boston, with my dog, my son, and his five Rhode Island Red hens. My son loves country music. One of his favorite songs is Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” And one of his favorite chickens is a girl named Chris.