Matt's Oscar Predictions


Now that I have seen all the nominated pictures for Oscars this year, it's time to take a stab at predicting the results. As it's very rare for anyone to get them all right, I definitely expect some surprises come February. But for now, let's engage in the discussion and the dissent and the fun. My picks are in bold. Do you agree with my choices? I'd love to hear your views!

Performance by an actor in a leading role
While Mickey Rourke revived his career with a win in the Golden Globes and his performance was in deed dazzling, Oscar tends to favor more serious fare. Not only was Frost/Nixon an amazing motion picture encapsulating a key time period in American History, every performance in this movie was award-worthy. Frank Langella turned in the performance of his life as Richard Nixon and I predict he'll upset both Mickey Rourke and Academy Award Winner Sean Penn for Milk.

* Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" (Overture Films)
* Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
* Sean Penn in "Milk" (Focus Features)
* Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
* Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Every performance in this category is deserving of an Oscar win, but this is the year of the Joker. Heath Ledger will win, and expect a fitting tribute for this actor who's life tragically ended far too soon.

* Josh Brolin in "Milk" (Focus Features)
* Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
* Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (Miramax)
* Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.)
* Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Six-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet emerged as the favorite to win this year following her double-victory at the Golden Globes. She is also the sentimental favorite to win after being denied for so long. No one has been Oscar-nominated more without a win than Kate. Expect that distinction to end this go-round. While Anne Hathaway gives a breakout performance in "Rachel Getting Married," the feeling in Hollywood is simply it's Kate's turn. Oscar Winner Angelina Jolie's performance in "Changeling" is not as weighty as Winslet's. Meryl Streep's performance in "Doubt," while excellent, does not rate with her Oscar-nominated role for the "Devil Wears Prada." If there is to be an upset, it may come from Melissa Leo's nuanced performance in "Frozen River," but that remains a longshot. Expect Winslet to take home the Oscar as much for her body of work as her brilliant performance in The Reader.

* Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics)
* Angelina Jolie in "Changeling" (Universal)
* Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics)
* Meryl Streep in "Doubt" (Miramax)
* Kate Winslet in "The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
This category is wide open since Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader has been put in with the Lead Actress Category instead of the Supporting Category for which she competed in the Golden Globes. Doubt's dynamic duo of Amy Adams and Viola Davis will probably take away Support for Amy Adams. Davis' role was outstanding, but far too short for true contention. Oscar Winner Mrisa Tomei turned in a stellar performance for The Wrestler, but this category should come down to Taraji P. Henson's multi-nuanced performance as Brad Pitt's mother in Benjamin Button and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I predict it will be a good night for Benjamin Button.

* Amy Adams in "Doubt" (Miramax)
* Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (The Weinstein Company)
* Viola Davis in "Doubt" (Miramax)
* Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
* Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Best animated feature film of the year
When Pixar is on their game, no one can compete with them. WALL-E is even a better bet than Heath Ledger.

*"Bolt" (Walt Disney) Chris Williams and Byron Howard
*"Kung Fu Panda" (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount) John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
*"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Andrew Stanton

Achievement in art direction
This is one of those categories that Oscar likes to reward pictures that didn't quite make it to the Best Picture Category. With it's innovative and completely original sets and art direction, The Dark Knight should do well here, but all pictures in this category are worthy. Benjamin Button might ride the wave of its most nominated status, and Revolutionary Road could also win as a consolation prize. The Duchess has an outside shot, but period pieces such as this one have been much honored in the past.

*"Changeling" (Universal) Art Direction: James J. Murakami
Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt
Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Art Direction: Nathan Crowley
Set Decoration: Peter Lando

*"The Duchess" (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films) Art Direction: Michael Carlin Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
*"Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage) Art Direction: Kristi Zea Set Decoration: Debra Schutt

Achievement in cinematography
There's a strong correlation between Best Picture and Best Cinematography. I think The Reader is poised to be the upset film of the night and take the highest honors.

*"Changeling" (Universal) Tom Stern
*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Claudio Miranda
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Wally Pfister
*"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Dod Mantle

Achievement in costume design
Kate Winslet particularly was stunning in the 1950s costumes created for Revolutionary Road. The entire cast looked 50s sharp.

*"Australia" (20th Century Fox) Catherine Martin
*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Jacqueline West
*"The Duchess" (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films) Michael O'Connor
*"Milk" (Focus Features) Danny Glicker
*"Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage) Albert Wolsky

Achievement in directing
It's rare when Best Director does NOT go to the film that wins Best Picture. This year will be no exception.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) David Fincher
*"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Ron Howard
*"Milk" (Focus Features) Gus Van Sant
*"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Stephen Daldry
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Danny Boyle

Achievement in film editing
For all you Benjamin Button fans, the movie was just two darn long! The whole theater thought so Saturday night. But this is a close category. Because of the amazing action sequences, I give the nod to The Dark Knight, but Milk may win for some of the crowd sequences and Slumdog Millionaire is also in the running for the juxtaposition of the Millionaire game show and real life in India.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Lee Smith
*"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
*"Milk" (Focus Features) Elliot Graham
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Chris Dickens

Best foreign language film of the year
I have not seen any of these, but if you judge by the amount of previews, then I would think "The Class" is the front runner. But the Golden Globe Winner, "Waltz with Bashir" is my pick. I just think the foreign press knows something about foreign films.

* "The Baader Meinhof Complex" A Constantin Film Production - Germany
* "The Class" (Sony Pictures Classics) A Haut et Court Production - France
* "Departures" (Regent Releasing) A Departures Film Partners Production - Japan
* "Revanche" (Janus Films) A Prisma Film/Fernseh Production - Austria
* "Waltz with Bashir" (Sony Pictures Classics) A Bridgit Folman Film Gang Production - Israel

Achievement in makeup
Button was superlative, but The Dark Knight will win.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Greg Cannom
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O'Sullivan
*"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (Universal) Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Button nearly put me to sleep. Elfman's Milk score was genius, but the originality of Slumdog Millionaire should carry the night.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Alexandre Desplat
*"Defiance" (Paramount Vantage) James Newton Howard
*"Milk" (Focus Features) Danny Elfman
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) A.R. Rahman
*"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Thomas Newman

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
I think the voting will be split for the Slumdog selections, allowing WALL-E a win.

*"Down to Earth" from "WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman
Lyric by Peter Gabriel

*"Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music by A.R. Rahman
Lyric by Gulzar
*"O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

Best motion picture of the year
Benjamin Button is a sentimental film, but it's not really Oscar worthy. Plus it's just way too long. Milk and Frost/Nixon represent US history well, and in every way Frost/Nixon is more serious, more weighty, and funnier than Benjamin Button, but it seems to be missing the gravitas necessary for Oscar. Slumdog Millionaire swept the Golden Globes, but America likes to honor Holocaust films, and The Reader is a powerhouse with acclaimed acting performances by all three leads. I'll be betting on The Reader to achieve for Stephen Daldry what he almost achieved with "The Hours" in 2003.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
A Kennedy/Marshall Production Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
*"Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
A Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Production Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers
*"Milk" (Focus Features)
A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers
*"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)
A Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film GmbH Production Nominees to be determined

*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight)
A Celador Films Production Christian Colson, Producer

Achievement in sound editing
Toss up between The Dark Knight and WALL-E. I choose WALL-E.

*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Richard King
*"Iron Man" (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment) Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Tom Sayers
*"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
*"Wanted" (Universal) Wylie Stateman

Achievement in sound mixing
The same. Again I choose WALL-E.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
*"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
*"Wanted" (Universal) Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt

Achievement in visual effects
Grafting Brad Pitt's face on to different bodies was an impressive and difficult achievement. I'm going to choose Benjamin Button in this category, but I wouldn't be surprised if The Dark Knight won.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
*"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
*"Iron Man" (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment) John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan

Adapted screenplay
Button was too long. The Reader hit all the right notes.

*"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Screenplay by Eric Roth
Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
*"Doubt" (Miramax) Written by John Patrick Shanley
*"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Screenplay by Peter Morgan
*"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Screenplay by David Hare
*"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Original screenplay
This is the category where Milk gets its due. Although, after a surprise win at the Golden Globes, In Bruges may score an upset; and as brilliant as WALL-E was, the Academy may see fit to recognize the animated film here where it is loathe to do in the Best Picture Category.

*"Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Courtney Hunt
*"Happy-Go-Lucky" (Miramax) Written by Mike Leigh
*"In Bruges" (Focus Features) Written by Martin McDonagh
*"Milk" (Focus Features) Written by Dustin Lance Black
*"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Thanks for reading!

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Music Monday: My Love

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Historic Days, Historic Challenges, Guarded Optimism


Unlike most Americans, I'm not letting myself get caught up in the emotion of the day. Instead, I'm trying to keep perspective as the weight of the overwhelming historic challenges that face us as a nation are as clearly in front of us as they were when they first emerged during the last days of the Presidential Campaign last October. It's hard not to want to celebrate this historic day, but perhaps it's a little easier for me because Sunday night I received a big dose of perspective.

On the 11:00 News Sunday night, it was reported that a Citgo Gas Station in Asheville, North Carolina, was robbed at gun point. The armed robber did not harm anyone. In fact, as he reached over the counter to take the $400 in cash out of the open register drawer, he apologized to the cashier and said: "I'm sorry, I need the money to feed my family." The owner of the Citgo Gas Station was interviewed on the newscast and said that he felt sorry for the man. I feel sorry for the man and I actually surprised myself in hoping he wouldn't be caught. Americans are hurting. Unemployment is rapidly rising. Home foreclosures reached record levels in December. And despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government is pouring into the economy, we keep plunging deeper and deeper into recession. It's hard not to identify with the armed robber at some level, or at least wonder what you or I would do if we found ourselves out of work, unable to pay our mortgages, facing the loss of our homes and wondering what we could do just to feed our children.

Another reason why I'm not caught up in the emotion of the day is my personal outrage on the spending that is taking place for the inauguration. Yesterday I posted a breakdown of the monies that are being spent over on Inside Government. At least $150 Million will be spent for this year's inauguration. I just think that that kind of spending is inappropriate when so many people are hurting and the government is burning money as if it was heating oil and we were still living in an ice age instead of confronted with massive climate change from global warming. I just feel that such largesse sends the wrong message and sets the wrong tone for the new Administration when the economic climate is so poor.

It's not that I don't understand or appreciate the historic nature of the day. I am so proud to be an American, and I am especially proud that so many different ethnic groups have come together for the goal of electing Barack Obama president. Not because I supported Obama as my choice for President, because I didn't. But because for so long our country has been splintered in so many ways by politics and ethnic mistrust as usual. If we are to be a nation, then we need to be united as a nation. We need to respect each other. We need to be tolerant of different cultural traditions and religious practices and sexual orientations. All of the differences that keep us at arms length from each other should be regarded as strengths of diversity and opinion that bring us together and make us stronger. And once the campaigns have ended, and our leaders have been elected for better or for worse, it's incumbent on all of us to come together as a nation and support our government. We need to be a nation, not a fractured population of red states or blue states.

This does not mean that we can not express differences of opinion--we must continue to do so or our democracy will fail. However, once a decision has been made, we need to be adult enough to move on and not hold grudges or cling to old symbols but instead step up to the plate of the next challenge and continue to work for the change that we desire and continue to make our voices heard--whether through blogging, political activism, letter writing to our elected representatives, or even conversations around the water cooler or on our facebook pages.

We must come together. And, on most levels, that is what is happening today in Washington as our country swears into office our 44th President--the first black man to be elected to the highest office in the land. This event must be celebrated, I know. Especially in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day, it's almost impossible not to be caught up in the emotion of the event. But, at least in my mind, there's a subtle difference between being caught up in real jubilation and in a mob mentality of jumping on the bandwagon.

Perhaps our nation NEEDS a reason to celebrate. News has been dire for so long, and we are all feeling the effects of the economy. I understand the need to be happy and to party and to celebrate. And if the occasion of electing the first black man in history as president and the symbolic final defeat of racism isn't such an occasion, I don't know what is. But I believe such a celebration can and should take place without the largesse.

What would have made this event perfect, considering the economic circumstances we find ourselves in, would have been for Barack Obama to scale down the Inaugural Balls. To reduce the number of them. Are TEN balls really necessary? Or, if that wasn't possible, turn them all into a charity event. If all the money that was spent on the balls could have been donated to local food banks or homeless shelters or Habitat for Humanity projects in New Orleans or something meaningful, then I believe Barack Obama would have really demonstrated what a day of volunteerism and charity really means, and he would have done what is absolutely appropriate in these economic times. But to me, spending $150 million and more, and causing this kind of money to be spent on security and infrastructure and staffing and transportation and all the other costs associated with this day when men are resorting to armed robbery in Asheville, North Carolina just to put food on the table to feed one's children is a largesse that is insensitive in so many ways to the plight of countless Americans and is a slap in the face to those that are just struggling to survive. Here. In the United States. In our own country.

I ask all my readers: How can we pour millions of dollars of aid into Gaza when Hamas doesn't want our help and believes we are as bad and immoral as Israel; when we know that given a chance, Hamas would launch rockets at our cities; and how can we spend so much on the expenses of a Presidential inauguration when Americans all over this country need that money just to put food on the table?

This is why I just can't quite jump on the Obama bandwagon at this time. As much as I appreciate the historical nature of the event that many of us thought we would never live to see, and as proud as we are that we have come this far; so many of our priorities and our choices--at least as far as spending priorities and foreign relations and aid practices are completely whacked.

Beginning this afternoon, the weight of the Presidency will fall squarely on Barack Obama's shoulders. As a nation, I believe we are up to any challenge that presents itself to us, but we need firm, unequivocal, and decisive leadership to deal with the many issues and threats that are now before us:

1) The overwhelming economic recession.
2) Extricating our nation from involvement in two wars while protecting us from terrorist attack.
3) Decisive action, not peace talks, in resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict once and for all without completely destabilizing the entire Middle East.
4) The question of Iranian nuclear capability.
5) Controlling and reducing a national deficit that has long since spiraled out of control.
6) Reforming Social Security and Medicare and ensuring their solvency as the babyboomers begin to retire and stress the system like it's never been stressed before.
7) Reforming our Health Care System to make health care truly affordable for all and making quality, affordable health insurance available to all United States citizens.
8) Instituting a coherent National Energy Policy that will free the United States from dependency on foreign oil and put our national security squarely back in our own control.
9) Recognizing that Global Warming and Climate Change is happening, doing all that is necessary to reduce the impacts, create a Green economy and energy policy, and to start planning now for the impacts of Sea Level Rise before all our coastal cities are put at immediate risk.
10) To restore the respect of the United States abroad and to reestablish our country as the world leader that upholds principles it once was.

Any one of these ten historic challenges would be enough for any administration to take on and struggle with to succeed. But as each administration over the past twenty years or so has failed to deal with them or put them off for the future, they now fall to Barack Obama and the team he has put in place. As most of the nation celebrates today in giddy joy at what our nation has accomplished to get to this point, I hope they realize that the real work has yet to begun. The spirit of "Yes We Can" propelled Barack Obama to the White House, but it's going to take much more of where that came from to solve any of the challenges before us. Barack Obama can not do any of it alone. He needs the unequivocal support of all those that mobilized for him, meaning that they all need to stay engaged and to keep Congress in line and supportive to tackle a massive national agenda like no other.

My fear is that expectations have been set so high for Barack Obama, that anything short of quick accomplishment of the completion of most of these ten historic challenges will be seen as failure, and that the resulting criticisms will start pouring down like the water over Niagara Falls.

My fear, if Barack Obama is not immediately successful, is that those criticisms will be perceived as racist.

My fear, if Barack Obama does not succeed and racist comments begin to fly, is a series of riots that would rival anything some of us remember from the Sixties.

And my fear, if Barack Obama does not succeed, is such a huge national emotional let down--such a huge feeling of failure and lost opportunity, such a huge national malaise that it will be very hard to find any hope or belief in our government or elected officials again. After all, if Barack Obama is indeed the greatest superstar politician that has appeared on the national stage since Kennedy or even Lincoln--as he has all but been proclaimed to be--his success will indeed echo through eternity. But if he can't live up to expectation or fulfill the promises he made to those that were galvanized to elect him and are celebrating that moment today, what depths of despair and disappointment await us?

I'm not running around giddy with joy today. But I am praying for Barack Obama's success.

Thanks for reading.

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Omoma Coffee


It's not good enough anymore to have a great product. You have to get the word out. Which is why I'm doubly pleased to be able to make this post. Most of my readers know that I love 100% Kona Coffee. I drink it. I write about it. I make updates on facebook on looking forward to brewing it. Well if you brag about something long enough, others will take notice, and that is exactly what Jennifer Araten-Castillo from Omoma Coffee did.

Jennifer saw one of my postings and asked me if I've ever had Omoma Coffee from El Salvador. And I hadn't. We began a give and take comparing and contrasting the coffee from El Salvador with my beloved Kona. Jennifer did a great sales job and I was intrigued. So I asked her if she would send me a sample. Jennifer did better than that, she sent me a gift package with a pound of Omoma Dark Roast, an Omoma Coffee Mug with ceramic spoon, and two Nonni's Dark Chocolate Biscotti in a box filled with raffia. The coffee arrived Wednesday afternoon and I couldn't wait to brew my first pot Thursday morning.


But first I had to grind it. As I was grinding the dark roasted beans of 100% rich Arabica from the Araten-Castillo family fincas in El Salvador, I knew I was in for a treat. The coffee had an even richer aroma than the Kona I'm accustomed to. Of course, I was grinding the El Salvador beans myself whereas I usually buy ground Kona, but still.

I carefully measured out enough ground coffee for a full pot, and as it brewed, I visited the Omoma Coffee website to learn a little bit more about this El Salvador mountain bean.

El Salvador has always embodied the three key ingredients in making the best cup of coffee in the world: rich soil, high altitude, and the perfect climate. The world famous Pacamara (strictly high grown) bean, which is the staple crop of Omoma Coffee, is known internationally for its bold yet well balanced flavor. The coffee of El Salvador bears a full-bodied intensity that is unparalleled. The distinct flavors of the country exceed the highest standards around the world, and is often compared to Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain. Thus, Omoma has become synonymous with true coffee sophistication. With a rich history of producing coffee since the country's earliest beginnings, El Salvador continues to be one of the world's greatest producers of premium grade 100% Arabica coffee.
Well who knew? I sure didn't. And now it was the moment of truth. I promised Jennifer I would write a review of the Omoma coffee, and because of her awesome customer service, her reaching out to me, and her generous gift, I was hoping my review would be favorable. And as it turns out, it is.


The Omoma Dark Roast compares exceptionally well to Kona in every category. The differences are subtle, yet still noticeable. The Dark Roast is only a small fraction more bitter than Kona, and maybe just a small fraction more acidic. But it is so flavorful, so rich, so aromatic, so full-bodied it was a real treat yesterday morning to drink my first cup black and to let the dark chocolate biscotti soak that richness in. And the best part, when you go to order the Omoma Coffee on their website, is that a pound of the El Salvador bean is less than half the price of a pound of Kona.

That's right. Kona flavor and quality at less than half the price. How cool is that? You can reach Omoma at 866-694-0230 and/or find them on the web at

Thank you Jennifer, and thanks for reading.

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Hold On

This is for HOPE at The Road Less Traveled:

Hang in there, Hope! Make the change. It will work out.

Thanks for reading.

Service Star: Cracker Barrel


Since the response to my Disney Service Standards post was so positive, and since I've been informed that my actions and my blog post have actually had a positive effect on morale at the Tutto Italia Restaurant in Disney's Epcot Center, I've decided to add a new feature to this blog: Service Stars. When I go out and I experience great customer service, I'm going to rave about it here. We're all pretty quick to complain about bad service, but I don't think we do enough to spread the word about great service. So here we go. I hope you find this new feature valuable and informative.

Cracker Barrel Store #141, Asheville, NC
I had breakfast at Cracker Barrel Store #141 in Asheville, North Carolina Saturday morning, January 10, 2009. When I opened the door I was warmly greeted with smiles by two employees. When I made it past the merchandise to the Host Stand I was again warmly greeted with smiles by the hostess, who sat me promptly. Within ten seconds, my server, Nancy B arrived to take my drink order. I asked for coffee with cream and a glass of water with tons of lemon. Now those of you who read my post on Disney Service Standards will remember that I use the lemon as the criteria to determine if a server is listening to me or not because I always ask for a ton of lemon for my water. While she was gone I looked over the menu. Cracker Barrel had a new skillet breakfast on the menu.

When Nancy came back with Coffee, cream, water and a dish full of lemons I knew it was going to be a great breakfast. I asked her if I could get the turkey sausage patties in the sausage skillet and she said I could. I also asked for honey for my biscuits, which I prefer to butter or jam.

My order was ready quickly, but I was disappointed that it was delivered ice cold. The eggs were lukewarm, the turkey sausage was cold. The potatoes and onions and peppers underneath the eggs were cold. Even the skillet, which I expected to be sizzling, was barely warm--maybe that was the problem, maybe the cold metal skillet sucked all the heat out of the food. In any case, I pushed the dish away and looked around for Nancy. She caught my eye and came to the table.

I informed her what was wrong, she apologized and said she'd go have them make me another skillet right away. I wasn't upset, I wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere and these things happen in restaurants pretty routinely. So another five or ten minutes go by, and I'm not paying attention because I'm reading the paper and I have hot coffee and I'm happy, but then Nancy comes back.

This time the eggs are nice and hot, but everything underneath is still ice cold. I had the impression they just made new eggs in the kitchen and slapped them on my old skillet. Nancy asks how everything is and I tell her, this time a little irked and the poor woman, she was embarrassed and said she'd have them make another one. I really didn't want another one. I told her I was hungry and I'd just eat this one. But then the manager came to the table to follow-up and I explained what happened. He knew about the cold food the first time and was disappointed to learn about the cold food the second time.

The manager told me his name was Mike, apologized, told me my meal would be free and that he would go back and talk to the kitchen manager, remake the food and promised me the food would come back hot the next time. I really didn't want another skillet, but I was allowed to keep the one I had and when the third one came out, it was perfect. Fresh, hot--in a hot skillet--it was the way it should have been delivered the first time.

But what really impressed me was the way everyone responded to the poor food temperature. Both Nancy and Mike sincerely wanted me to have food cooked the way it was supposed to have been and served to me hot. They didn't make me feel uncomfortable for complaining, but apologized profusely and took complete responsibility for the quality of the meal. Mike came back again and wanted to know if there was anything else I needed. The whole time, Nancy kept my coffee cup and water glass full.

Maybe I'm going ga-ga for the wrong reasons. The staff at Cracker Barrel did everything right in my book. That the food came out of the kitchen cold twice was disappointing, but every interaction I had with this Cracker Barrel staff was warm, respectful, polite and professional. And in the end, I enjoyed a very good breakfast. The skillets are good, and I'd order it again. But with the caveat that I would tell the server upfront to make sure that everything was hot.

Thanks for reading.

On Dreams

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. --Yeats
I say:

Dreams are diamonds in the rough. Pursuit of dreams is the richest of living.

Thanks for reading.

Made in Michigan

I'm not a huge fan of Mitch Albom, sportswriter, sometime novelist, news columnist. But every once in a while, he really gets it right, as he did with THIS article that appeared in a recent Sports Illustrated. I wouldn't be surprised if an article like this gets nominated for a Pulitzer. They don't come along very often. I hope you'll read it. Not only because it's a masterpiece of writing, but because it gives you a true glimpse into the lives of those who call Detroit and Michigan home.

Thanks for reading.

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Walt Disney World Service Standards


You just cant match the service you receive if you ever visit Walt Disney World. Customer service is a dying art. Can you believe, when on vacation the last two weeks, that I once asked for directions to a local movie theater from I-95--the major highway in the area, and no one at the movie theater could give me directions? When I explained I was in the car driving and I needed directions, the woman on the phone asked if I had internet access and told me to google directions. Sure, while driving down I-95. I hope she doesn't have a driver's license.

In any case, many of us are very quick to complain. If we feel affronted or put-out or that we were treated rudely, most of us are pretty quick to bring it to the attention of a manager or send in a complaint to a corporate website. If it's justified, that's fine. But by the same token, when you get really good service, you should find a way to praise the service giver as well. The following is the email I just sent to management of Walt Disney World. If you're looking for a place to go on vacation and you want to be treated as a truly honored guest or part of the family, go to Walt Disney World. Stay at Walt Disney World. You will feel yourself relax and become happy inside.


To ALL That This Concerns:

I just returned to North Carolina from a two week holiday vacation in Florida. I have a lifetime of customer service experience starting at the age of 14 when I worked in my Grandfather’s Drug Store. I worked in a leading Michigan public library for seventeen years and in various restaurants as a server for three years and in restaurant management for seven years. I also worked in various capacities, including General Manager, for a large 25-screen movie megaplex. Through the course of various positions, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to the highest levels of service standards. The highest service ethic is what has attracted me to the companies I have worked for. I have read and digested Disney University’s “Be Our Guest” and instituted programs similar to what the Polynesian Hotel used to transform its service ethic in a restaurant setting, but on a much smaller scale. I have attended Doug Lipp’s Disney Service Seminars, and I have read, digested and incorporated Danny Meyer’s principles he wrote about in “Setting the Table” from the highly successful Union Square Restaurant Group in New York City. So let me assure you, I am no stranger to customer service, and sadly, it’s often very hard to impress me.

I am continually dismayed, especially when I go on vacation, at how poor service is in this country. I drove to Disney from the mountains of North Carolina on December 23rd. I stopped at gas stations with disgusting restroom facilities. I ate at a Subway Sandwich Shop where talking on the phone was more important than taking care of a line of hungry guests. In St. Augustine I was prevented from parking in a public lot because it was closing in ten minutes, even though I just wanted to take a quick look at the old fort. I called a movie theater because it’s a long drive down to Florida and I needed a break and asked for directions from I-95 and there wasn’t anyone at the theater who could give me directions. In fact, even though I explained I was on the road and driving, they asked me if I had internet access and told me to google it. Sure, as I was driving down I-95. That night I ate at an Applebee’s in Daytona Beach where the server, who might have been 21, kept calling me “buddy”, was insulted when another guest asked for a glass of water without lemon because she heard on the news restaurants don’t handle lemons in a sanitary manner and essentially he argued with the guest. Ultimately, he made a fuss about accepting a free appetizer coupon I had from Applebee’s, claiming his franchise didn’t honor them and had to call the manager and created a scene and kept me in the restaurant 15 minutes longer than I wanted to and made me very uncomfortable. I could go on. All this happened to me the first day as I was driving down to Florida on a two week vacation and I just wished I had saved my money and time and stayed in North Carolina.


But then something magical happened. On Christmas Eve, December 24th, I was meeting my parents around 10:00 am at Epcot. I arrived at the Dolphin Hotel at about 6:00 am. I was on vacation, I was going to start the day off right with a good breakfast at the Fresh Mediterranean Restaurant. Suddenly, I wasn’t “buddy” anymore. I was “Sir.” The hosts greeted me and explained the restaurant opened at 6:30, very professionally, and smiling. I thanked them and walked around the hotel, taking in the lobby, Shula’s Miami Dolphin Hall of Fame offices, “The Wine Spectator” Review of Todd English’s Bluezoo. As restaurant or hotel workers arrived, they all smiled at me and said “Hello, Sir” or “Good morning, Sir.” I had some questions about the day and I went to the front desk of the hotel, where I met Joshua. I asked him about parking at the Dolphin and at Epcot and if I had to pay twice. He suggested I leave my car at the Dolphin and take the free water taxi to Epcot. I had other questions as well and he was most helpful. I asked him where I could buy a newspaper, since I wasn’t staying at the hotel, and he directed me to a stand with free copies of the “New York Times” and “Wall Street Journal”. Joshua was great, the respect shown to me was great. The lobby of the Dolphin, all decked out in the 50’ Christmas Tree, the Chanukah Menorah at the Check in desk, the comfort of the lobby, the friendliness of the employees... Now it felt as if I were on vacation. Later that day, after I told my father and step-mother about breakfast at the Fresh Mediterranean and the impressive décor in the lobby, we decided to take the water taxi to the hotel as a break from walking around Epcot. We sat in the lobby. My step-mother walked around. The Bellhops working that day were more than happy to take a picture of us in front of the Christmas Tree. I couldn’t get over how everyone kept smiling and was so polite. When people smile at you, it’s hard not to smile back. And when you do, you immediately feel better. Giving and receiving smiles is better than any drug. The staff at the Dolphin Hotel understand that and practice it.

Zakia was my server at the Fresh Mediterranean Restaurant at the Swan. She was amazingly personable. She offered me Coffee and Juice immediately. Coffee was hot. Juice was cold and sweet. I asked for “tons” of lemon for my water—and this is the criteria I use to tell if the server is actually listening to me. Despite me making it clear I want a lot of lemon, most servers ignore me and I have to ask for it repeatedly. The only place that routinely gets it right is Outback Steakhouses. But Zakia came back with a plateful of lemon wedges, more than I could use, and I usually put half a dozen or more in my glass. She explained how the buffet worked. She made me feel at home. She pre-bussed every plate, refilled my orange juice! Who refills an orange juice glass? Nobody but Disney. I asked her where she was from since her name caught my attention. She told me she was from Morocco and had lived in the US for 20 years and had worked at Disney for most of that time. I can see why. As far as breakfast servers go, it’s hard to find a good one. Zakia was wonderful. But the breakfast was amazing as well. The two chefs making the omelettes were very friendly and interested in where I was from. The omelette I ate, even though it contained cheese, was completely free of grease. All the ingredients were fresh and flavorful. The pastry bar was a real treat. The juice bar was great. The fried potatoes were excellent and NOT greasy. The fresh melons were ripe and flavorful. I can honestly say breakfast at the Fresh Mediterranean was by far the best breakfast I have ever had and well worth the $18.00. The restaurant quickly filled up and became busy, but even though demands on all the workers time increased, they picked up the pace and I watched them give the same level of service to every guest, and not only that, worked as a team, helping each other out prebussing, refilling glasses, and even smiling and saying “Good morning, Sir” to guests at tables other than their own.


It’s much more difficult to single-out great service at an entire park, but without exception, every Disney Employee I came into contact with was friendly or helpful in his or her own way. The lady at the United States Exhibit at Epcot who was dressed in a blue dress and giving a seminar on the History of Chanukah, Menorahs, The Dreidl, etc, was brilliant. My step-mother and I thought she was an education director from a local Jewish Temple and we were both surprised to find out she wasn’t Jewish. All of those attending were listening intently and my step-mother and I approached her afterwards and had some questions of our own. As did some of the non-Jewish attendees, so she actually found herself facilitating an impromtu give and take question and answer session after her excellent presentation. Well Done! The fast-pass service at Soarin’ worked perfectly and my father and I only had a fifteen minute wait from the time we arrived to the start of the ride. The “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” show was outstanding! The “mice” scurrying on the floor at our legs was kind of creepy, but we were all giggling like kids. The fireworks and laser light show with the globe in the lagoon used as a movie screen after the park closed was the most spectacular display of its kind I had ever seen. Completely unique and inspirational and the perfect end to a perfect day filled with smiles and surprises, and joy and relaxation. The ONLY criticism I would offer about anything in the Park was the Free Pin Give-Away. We tried to exchange the coupon in the back of the park in the world of nations section and were told we needed to go to the front of the park to exchange it. After we walked all the way up to the front of the park and found the pin-giveaway station—which was not obvious or easy to find—we were given a High School Musical 3 Pin. Well, it’s free so it’s nice, but it would have been cool if you’re giving away a free pin is to let the guest choose which pin he or she would like to take with him or her as a souvenir. And every pin station should have been able to redeem the coupon as a convenience for the guest.


But the best example of service at Epcot all day long, hands down, was displayed by the staff of Tutto Italia at the Italian Exhibit in Epcot. We didn’t think about reservations for dinner, and around 5 pm it was becoming clear that we would miss out on enjoying a fine dining experience for dinner. Every place was packed. But my father went to Tutto Italia and Cassandra was able to get us a dinner reservation at 7pm. We arrived five minutes earlier and were sat immediately. The General Manager was directing the show from the door (Host Stand) controlling traffic and making sure everything ran smoothly. We were shown to our table and waited on by Giandomenico—an experienced Disney Employee from Milan and Francesco Giansante, a new Disney Employee here as an Exchange Student. I have gone to many fine dining establishments. Tutto Italia ranks right up there with the best of them. The food was outstanding, but the service ethic sets Tutto Italia apart. The service team of Giandomenico and Francesco took care of everything we needed expertly. Lemon for my water delivered promptly. Water glasses refilled automatically as they ought to be, when asked first for bread refills, they kept coming automatically—not one but two types of fresh and delicious bread and breadsticks. Although we were given oil for the bread, my father asked for butter. Not an issue. The entrees were all outstanding. The freshmade pasta with crab I had was perfect. The Salmon was exceptional. The spaghetti and meatballs…mmmm. The desserts were decadent, but somehow light and not too rich. We didn’t have any wine because we were all driving two hours to Venice, Florida after we left the park following the fireworks/laser light show. But the wine list looked spectacular and wine service at other tables was very professional. The restaurant was very busy up until around 8:30 or so and then it began to empty out. That’s when we really had a chance to talk to both Giandomenico and Francesco. Two of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. It was like we—my parents and I—were part of the family and we were guests in their house. Service was so warm, welcoming, and pleasant. It was after dinner, right before the fireworks, that I realized how relaxed and happy I was. It was after dinner when I realized I was really on a vacation. And so it was then when I approached the Tutto Italia Assistant General Manager Vinnie Delillo and told him how unimpressed with service in this country I usually am, and how amazingly impressed I was with Giandomenico and Francesco and the entire staff of Tutto Italia for treating us—not just like honored guests, but like family. Vinnie—Vicenzo—was open, personable, friendly, everything you would want in a front of the house manager. And as busy as he was, he had all the time in the world to listen to me rattle on about how great everything was and answer all my questions about how to get everyone I had come into contact with that day the recognition that they deserved.

And that’s when I asked how I could communicate this to the management of Disney World because great service is something to be celebrated and appreciated and to be thankful for. Because in today’s world, at least in the United States, service is a dying art. Caring for guests is a dying ethic. But on Christmas Eve, the day was magic. And I’m not using the word “magic” lightly or to be cute or because it says to include a description of the magical experience on the Email Comments form Tutto Italia gives to guests when they ask where to send positive feedback. There are an infinite number of places to go for vacation. I really prefer outdoor experiences—whitewater river trips—for vacations. I used to go to Amusement Parks all the time, but since I discovered whitewater, rollercoasters just don’t cut it. Thrill rides and the sort really don’t interest me. But if I can learn something, such as the biotechnology on display in the new ride adjacent to “Soarin’”, or attend seminars and shows such as the ones on Chanukah and the American History presentation on display at the American exhibit at Epcot, then I have an interest. And knowing that I’ll be treated to first rate service and hospitality and incredible dining seals the deal.

The rest of my two weeks in Florida did not compare or match in any way the one day my parents and I spent at Epcot. Not even taking windsurfing lessons in Tampa Bay. I did go to one more Applebee’s prior to a movie in Sarasota (Main Street and US-301). The service was much better, but the waitress, although really cute, still called me “buddy.” I think I winced. Or laughed. At least she was cute.

Thank you most sincerely for a truly magical experience!

Thanks for reading.

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