Editor’s Note: Originally published 2002. Revised edition.
The automotive industry has lost much of the magic and showmanship that were the norm just a few decades ago. Newly restyled cars were considered Top Secret, their details and body lines guarded like Saddam Hussein’s exact whereabouts. Those vehicles would be delivered to dealers across America hidden under factory tarps during transport, and would remain tantalizingly covered on dealers’ showrooms. And then, at much-anticipated annual fall parties thrown to introduce the next year’s models, they’d be unveiled in glitz and glamour. Astonishing swarms of excited new-car buyers invaded dealerships every September 20th to see Detroit’s latest innovations first.
Why, in the glittering days before “Zero Percent Financing,” even a grand opening for a dealership’s new location in the suburbs could be a magnificent Event attended by the masses. To my dying day, I’ll remember Saturday, November 13th, 1976, more clearly than I do any other day I spent in the automotive industry. Every minute of that day is frozen in my memory and in more ways than one. Even now when that day’s events cross my mind, I still break up laughing at the absolute insanity of it all.
It started in January of 1976. I’d just taken a management job with a Buick dealership in downtown Dallas. I didn’t necessarily want to work downtown at a time when the suburbs were where all the automotive action was taking place, but I personally liked the dealer who offered the position. One of the so-called “last real Texans,” he’d made his fortune in the car business and was planning a move to North Dallas in the late summer. So I had a hectic 1976, helping to increase Buick sales in an old location, while at the same time we were building a multi-million-dollar dealership up north.
We hired the first ad agency the dealer had ever had: Stan Richards, then trying to move into the big time. (In 2002, the Richards Group, by then one of the largest and most respected ad agencies in America, landed the national Hyundai account.) We held the planning sessions for the new store’s Grand Opening in September with Richards’ agency people. Their concept would play on Buick’s “Real” popularity in the market and the fact that our dealer was a “Real Texan,” and it would capitalize on the “Real” growth of North Dallas to drive the traffic into our store. The agency’s plan? Hire Shanghai Jimmy, at the time a Dallas legend for his famous concoction, “Chili Rice,” to cook the world’s largest pot of chili, right in front of the dealership, one Saturday in early November. The ad agency gave us our slogan at that very meeting: “Some records are meant to be broken, ours is meant to be eaten.” Genius.
Free “Chili”; No Coolers, Please
Of course, the concept of cooking the world’s largest pot of chili outdoors in November brought up a fairly important question in my head: So I blurted out, “What if it rains on that day?” That little gem of logic brought the relatively upbeat meeting to a dead stop. The dealer slowly lowered his reading glasses to the tip of his nose, looked at me sternly and said that my problem was that I “always looked at a glass like it was half empty instead of half full.” At that point in my life I wasn’t extremely bright, but I was bright enough to shut up for the rest of the meeting.
Subsequent brainstorming sessions were held; the chili pot was manufactured — 6 feet high, 8 feet across, as I recall — and a crane was hired to suspend it in the air. Ads were produced, and Shanghai Jimmy was hired and told to buy the ingredients. That brought up the next crisis: It would cost $16,000 just to buy the fixin’s to make the world’s largest pot of chili.
On hearing that, our dealer, who had chastised me for always seeing that glass as being half empty, called an emergency meeting. As we’d already committed to cooking up the world’s largest pot of chili and the Grand Opening ad campaign had started, the dealer was starting to panic over the cost. While $16,000 is nothing today, back then it was fully 1/3 of our store’s monthly profit. (Adjusted for inflation the cost would come to $68,533 in today’s money.)
Suggestions were made: “Can we charge the public for each bowl of chili they eat?” “What can we sell to offset the cost?”
It was the dealer who came up with the plan: “We’ll put so much salt in the chili that people, suddenly dying of thirst, will be forced to buy the colas that we originally planned to give away.” What would he charge? Two bucks a pop, at a time when a quarter would make any Coke machine work. Suddenly our Grand Opening started taking on a Keystone Cops feel.
Warning: Glass Contents Will Vary Wildly
It would get worse. Chili Day, our Grand Opening: Ads were in place on radio and in the paper. Shanghai Jimmy, frail and old, was standing on his platform stirring this humongous pot of chili that tasted like the water content had come directly from the Gulf of Mexico. The stage was set. For this article,
I’ll publicly admit I was wrong to have suggested that it might rain that day and spoil the event.
Instead, it snowed.
And it snowed and it snowed. Now, I don’t remember Dallas Fort Worth’s ever getting its first snow of the year in early November, but it did in 1976. By 10 in the morning, five inches of white had covered the dealership’s grounds. Just enough to where one couldn’t see the handful of customer parking spaces — or the street curbs. Shanghai Jimmy was starting to look like he might expire any minute and fall into the giant vat of boiling chili. (What saved him, of course, was the full rack of butane burners under Texas’ worst chili.)
Snow, bad chili, Shanghai Jimmy wishing he was still living in Communist China working for Chairman Mao instead of cooking for us in North Dallas. The only thing that saved us was the public’s response.
If You Cook It, They Will Come
Thousands and thousands braved the elements to see this Texas miracle of cooking. So many that the line to the dealership’s entrance often seemed to extend up the parkway for a half-mile or more. Of course, that may have been because, for some obviously insane reason, the design we’d accepted for the new dealership included fewer than 20 customer parking spaces. To say that all of this was surrealistic would be an understatement.
The early snow drove that mass of humanity, 50 or more at a time with their children, all holding their heapin’ bowls of sodium-laden chili, running into our new dealership to eat it. Unfortunately, we’d also bought the world’s cheapest paper bowls in which to serve this chili, and naturally some collapsed. Young children dropped theirs by accident, spilling their contents and ruining our brand-new carpet and all of our brand-new furniture.
As for our cola vendors, who’d been assigned to “move the merchandise” to get our investment back on the chili, they still stood at their posts outside, shivering in the snow, ringing up nary a sale. For some reason no one, it seemed, wanted an ice-cold overpriced Coke when the temperatures were below freezing and the snow was falling ever faster.
I watched the “chili con carnage” and found myself silently laughing. In hindsight, my concerns that it might rain had actually been “seeing the glass as half full;” the dealer would have been right about me if I’d predicted snow.
National Guard, BYOB, ASAP
By three that afternoon we’d yet to sell a car, but that wasn’t the only problem. Someone proclaimed that 3,000 people had sampled our chili, and yet the chili in the world’s largest pot had fallen by only eight or nine inches. No one had anticipated that we might have leftover chili to dispose of, and yet we still had enough left to feed most of Dallas County. We started calling homeless shelters and missions, but no one could accept chili cooked without a health permit, even chili cooked at a Buick store by Shanghai Jimmy.
We bought spot radio ads begging people to grab their Tupperware® and come on by to take the stuff off our hands. Like lemmings to the cliff, they did just that, again lining up in their family vehicles on the snow-covered parkway, but that chili pot was still three-quarters full at seven that evening. I never knew where the rest of that chili went, but the dealer quietly went out and paid the truck driver to haul it away. In any event, the rumors that the bass in the Trinity River burped chili powder for months were never actually proven.
The Last Great Grand Opening
The following Monday we assessed our losses. Our new carpet and every chair in the place were chili stained. Few cars had been sold. We wanted to thank him for his bravery and valor in the face of the enemy, but Shanghai Jimmy wouldn’t return our phone calls. The additional spot ads, our last desperate attempt to dispose of the leftovers, may have cost almost as much as the ingredients, which had been the fiscal problem to start. Adding depression to devastation, though, we were standing in the wreckage of our new dealership when the Richards Group’s only mistake occurred to us: They hadn’t gotten the “cooking of the world’s largest bowl of chili” certified in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I’m sure a Chili Appreciation Society or somebody in the state licensing department would raise a stink these days about such sacrilege to the State Dish of Texas. I don’t even want to think about what the EPA, the US Corps of Engineers, PETA and San Antonio’s Daughters of the Chili Angels might have to say. So there will probably never be another Dealership Grand Opening like that one. That’s probably a good thing.
© Ed Wallace 2002, slightly revised 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org