Smugglers' Inn started as a theme restaurant in Blaine, Minnesota and has become, if not a legitimate advertising agency, then a viable agency alternative with two dedicated ad employees, Carol Henderson, art director and Jarl Olsen, copywriter. Read the whole saga in these posts or click the pirate to follow the entertaining tweets of our dishwasher, Pongo. Who may or may not be an orangutan.!/PongoTryHard

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Warning: Contains the word, "prostitute".

Because the photograph looked too much like me.

“Milord? You have to come see this.”

“I do, do I?”  I had seen a lot that Halloween evening.  Much of it, I would like to un-see.

“Yes, I rather think that you do.”

Erin was using “my lord” and “rather” like some fancy-pants English person.  This, despite the fact that Erin was from Ireland.  I suppose she was trying to stay in character; Smugglers’ Inn’s relief seating hostess had dressed up like Mary Poppins for Halloween.  It was a decent get-up, especially with her accompanying carpetbag and umbrella.  I may have been the only one who got the reference, though; some dope later asked if she was a Victorian prostitute.

“Be there in two minutes,” I said, not looking up from my phone.

“We shall await your company in the bar.” Erin held her button nose in the air and strode away from the tiny manager’s office and through the kitchen, swinging her hips like I’m pretty sure Julie Andrews never did.

I finished checking Facebook (hey, I’m the boss) and fortified myself with a glass of Diet Coke before striking out for the lounge area.  I knew the kind of trouble that awaited me.   Or, I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter.  Let me explain.

But before I explain, let me say that this whole Captain Morgan’s Halloween Bash 2015© thing was not my idea.  Until now, our nod to the holiday on the 31st of October had consisted of strewing some fake cobwebs behind the bar and having a bag of fun-sized Snickers bars on hand for the eight or ten trick-or-treaters whose parents were so feckless as to take their little princesses and spidermen padding around the vast Northtown Shopping Center parking lot while nearby, kid-friendly suburban homes stood cheek to jowl extending to the horizon.  The odd Smug’s employee might show up for his or her shift sporting plastic fangs or a rubber fright mask, but they would never work in costume.  We weren’t Taco Bell.

We weren’t The French Laundry, either.  When someone from Captain Morgan’s marketing department called and said that they had seen Smuggler’s Inn on “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” and figured that our name made us a natural for hosting a Halloween party featuring their rum, we didn’t say no.  Selfishly, I thought we might be able to do a tie-in with athletes from the St. Paul Winter Paralympics, Smug’s latest branding client.  When I gave voice to this, I was informed that the Captain Morgan character whom attendees of the Captain Morgan’s Halloween Bash 2015© would be encouraged to dress up like did not have a peg leg. (What respectable pirate captain doesn’t have a peg leg?) Our turn on “Kitchen Nightmares” had ended with Mr. Gordon Ramsay and company fleeing the final taping with Pongo, our dishwasher, hurling missiles at the departing crew vehicles like an Elizabethan theater-goer chucking turnips at a particularly weak cast of Henry VI.  I didn’t know if I wanted to put the gang through that again.

“I already did a vote,” Carol, our socialist day manager, had informed me when I confided that I was thinking about calling the rum people and backing out.  “Everyone's down with it, even Los Illegals”.
As it had been explained to me, Smugglers' Inn was to be one of 11 bars across the country hosting a Captain Morgan’s Halloween party the Friday before Halloween.  The whole purpose of the event was to generate content featuring happy, rum-soaked party-goers that would stream on the Captain Morgan's website.  Carol was saying that even those employees who had hid in the storeroom during the taping of “Kitchen Nightmares” now wanted to be seen by tens of thousands of online voyeurs who didn’t have a real Halloween party to go to.

“Media whores!”  I said.  Out loud.

“Smile and don’t be an arse.”  Erin had dropped her Mary Poppins persona when she had grabbed me by the elbow and marched me out to face the music in the lounge.   She and I were now facing a jumbo screen that was flipping randomly between groups of costumed drunks and MC’s dressed like characters from a swashbuckling movie.   The sound was off, or maybe the music in our lounge was too loud, but I read supers that said Honolulu, New Orleans, San Antonio and Plymouth. 

“Where is the sea witch?” I asked Erin.

“And here he be!” shouted an amplified voice right behind me.  “Here be your captain!”

I turned around and was dazzled by a bright light.  Our lounge was dark, but there was no reason the videographer needed to blind people to tape them, I thought.  No wonder people had complained.

“Happy Halloween!” I said to the silhouette of the MC.   I smiled.  I tried not to squint.

“’Happy ‘alloween, mistah boss mon!” said the Captain Morgan’s Halloween Bash 2015© MC.  There had been some debate when this woman had shown up about whether she’d been in something—a TV show?  Movie? Hip-hop video?  No one could say for sure.  She was early 30’s with honey blonde dreads and sporting a gold tooth that glinted in the light.  I think the tooth was real, but her Jamaican patois was every bit as bad as Erin’s British.  She was kitted out in a loose blouse with tights and a giant belt buckle and knee-high boots--more Three Musketeers than Pirates of the Caribbean, but as Halloween costumes go, it was miles ahead of what the locals were wearing.  I spied the gorilla with a Hillary Clinton mask that I’d been asked to rule on (acceptable) plus the guy in fatigues and greasepaint who had agreed to put his realistic rubber AR-15 rifle back in the trunk of his car after first telling me the story of the heroic army sniper whom he was honoring by getting pissy drunk on $2 rum drinks.  I also spied several all-too familiar faces.  

“Hildy!” I shouted at our cook, “Don’t you have food to get out?”

“All out,” Hildy said.  Like that gave him an excuse to be out of his kitchen wearing a bloodstained apron.

Two of our wait staff stepped into the lounge and walked up to Erin, who was hovering just outside the cone of light that bouncing off the thin spot on the top of my head.  They were smiling—always a bad sign.

“Now, BOSS MON,” the MC went on.  “Yah people tell me dat you been a-working all week on your costume for ‘dis par-tay.”

“Liars!”  I said.  I had a hunch where this was going and it was not a good place.

“Now, where is dis great cos-TUME?”

“Here de cos-TUME be, mi’lady!”  Erin answered.  She was now Mary Poppins from Kingston, apparently.

With my co-workers applauding, Erin walked up to me with blue visor and an ancient hands-free headset that I think I used in the 90’s.  I couldn’t believe that they were actually doing this too me.

“Put it on and be quick about it, mon!  De natives is restless.”  The MC put her hand on her hip and pantomimed lashing me with a whip.  This elicited whoops and hollers from the patrons, who had stopped trying to shout above the music and were all turning their attention to the sweaty guy in the navy blazer fumbling with a visor with a video camera hovering twelve inches from his face.  With a little more effort, I got the hands-free headset on over the goofy visor-thing.  I looked like…

“Mike McCoy! As I lives and breathes, ‘tis Mike McCoy, de coach of de world famous San Diego Chargers!” 

My co-workers all took out cell phones, so that they could record my discomfort.

I shrugged my shoulders and parted my hands in a “Whadda ya gonna do?” gesture. 

I’m sure the MC was asking herself right then how she had come to this place in her life where her job was pretending to know the coach of a mediocre football team on Halloween night.  I mean, I am all for middle aged white guys, but we do all kind of look alike.  Yes, a couple of people had told me that I bore a passing resemblance to the head coach of the Chargers, but I don’t follow the game and if I did, the Chargers? I mean, they are currently two and seven…


Suddenly, I was drowning.  In a glacier.

“…iiii!” I continued.  I spluttered a few choice expletives, which amused the people holding cell phones to no end.  With the videographer’s light dazzling my eyes, I had not seen the full, 30-gallon Gatorade Barrel as it was raised and its entire contents dumped on my head by whom, I know not.  I saw the big screen.  On it was another bar, another party.  All of the costumed patrons were laughing and pointing and holding each other up because they had just seen the funniest thing IN THE WORLD, otherwise known as an unsuspecting man getting doused with a massive quantity of ice water.   The location supered on screen, I noted, said “San Diego”.

So, here it is, a week and change later.  I am in Macy’s, trying on suits to replace a navy blazer that I owned and that is now ruined and I begin thinking of what kind of devious, hopelessly weird employees that I have and I start to laugh.  And I can’t stop.  I get hold of myself and the salesman who was helping me asks what I think of the suit and I manage to say, “The goddamn thing makes me look like Mike McCoy,” and he says, “Who?” but I can’t answer; I am laughing again.  I leave and I go to Mens Warehouse where I manage to buy a wool blazer without embarrassing myself and this is my life. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Smugglers’ Inn named agency of record for the 2016 Olympics!

"Luge?  Yeah, we got one of them."

Incredible, isn’t it?  Our humble little shop from Blaine, Minnesota assigned the entire marketing, advertising and social media for this important international sporting contest?

To clarify, we are talking the winter Olympics and not the somewhat sexier summer Olympics.  To clarify further, our Olympic committee is not the same one that has worry about building a world-class speed skating pavilion out of environmentally friendly materials and then has to worry if terrorists will blow it up, even the restrooms with toilets that flush with grey water that the athletes have previously showered in.  This is the Para-Olympics. The 2016 Winter Paralympics in St. Paul, Minnesota to be exact. 
OK, the Paralympics isn’t as big a piece of business as Coors Light or some of the other accounts that we’ve gone after recently.  But it is a genuine win.  Have you, friends of this blog, noticed that it’s been an extra-special long time since Smugglers’ Inn announced a new business win?  You think the reason for this is some sort of Midwestern modesty?  Have you ever heard of a modest ad agency? The sad truth is that it has been ages since Smugglers’ Inn won a pitch--28 months, if you’re counting.  (We certainly were).  It’s a good thing that we retire half the contents of our salad bar each evening otherwise, we might have had to boil our shoes.   Sure, we  had some fun pro-bono assignments during that time.  Strewing bullet casings stuffed with message across London to promote action movies at the Raindance Film Festival comes to mind.    But “pro bono” is a lot of “bone” and not much “pro”, if you catch my drift. But I bitch.  We’ve got a new client who pays.  Happy we are, Smugglers’ Inn.

Predictably, the timing is challenging.  Our best marketing mind, Pongo, has gone back to his native Sumatra.  His English was rudimentary, but the man (?) had incredible powers of empathy and his minimalist briefs—“Don’t say fun, have fun,” (Cliff’s Amusement Park), “Kid beat-up nobody care; dog beat-up everybody care,”(Park Nicollet Clinic), “It just a boob,” (Femara post-mastectomy drugs), invariably led to work that was both effective and much talked about.  Kat, our seating hostess and the person who  misses Pongo more than any of us, has clearly been trying to channel our hairy Yoda, but na├»ve genius is hard to fake.  “How skate with one foot?  Check it out!” was her suggestion in today's brainstorming session.  Needing some work, this one is. 

We have a month.  Meanwhile, I’ve organized a recce to Afton Alps for later in the week.  St. Paul, like most of the prairie, is topographically challenged and the four-lift Afton Alps is the closest thing the area has to a mountain resort, if one can call 200 vertical feet a mountain.  (We can, of course—and will.)  Kat has invited her cousin to come along with his camera.  The guy assures me that with the right lens, he can make Afton look like Chamonix without snow.  If he can’t, maybe we’ll swipe some pictures of the real Chamonix, 1924 Olympic village and all.  Heck, who's gonna sue the Paralympics? 

There are upsides to being an ad agency with a liquor license.  Tonight, after closing, we will lock our doors and celebrate our long-overdue victory with several bottles of good wine and a keg of Coors Lite beer.  

Which is terrible.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Love, reloaded.

Met on Tinder.

Hate reading?  Download the Mp3

February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is one of two holidays that bring diners out whom might elsewise spend every evening at home with a tub of extra crispy, New Year’s Eve being the other.  Just as with that holiday, many restaurants trot out special menus for Valentine’s Day.  These menus include romantically titled “for two” items, like “Land and Sea Tango for Two” and “Filet Mignon for Two”, that someone who ate out more than two times a year would recognize as the “Surf’n Turf” and filet mignon that you could order any day of the week, but served on one plate instead of two and costing 240% of the price of a single serving.  

Smugglers’ Inn does not engage in this practice; our Valentine’s menu lists the same food prices that we have normally.  We jack up the alcohol.  A bottle of mid-shelf Mumm Brut from California, had at any liquor store for $18, fetches a whopping $50 when placed in an ice bucket by one of our Smugglers’ Inn wait staff on Valentine’s day.  A bottle of non-vintage Moet & Chandon, which few people could tell from a $9 bottle of Korbel Brut, costs $110.  Said $9 bottle of Korbel cost $18, which makes anyone who wants to order it feel like they need to step up to the Mumm’s, at least.  We don’t list Dom Perignon on the menu, but we keep one bottle on hand in case anyone wants it for $300.  So far, no one has.  Bar prices are plus $.50 across the board on the holiday, but it’s all those bottles of bubbly that account for those lovely, fat Valentine’s Day tabs.

Speaking of lovely and fat, the woman at table 2, who might have been one of those people who go out twice a year, was not.  Lovely, that is.
She was plus a few stone.  She also had a voice like Rosanne Barr, if Rosanne Barr was hard of hearing AND TALKED SO THAT EVERYOE IN THE PLACE COULD HEAR EVERY WORD SHE WAS SAYING.

Cat, our seating hostess, walked up to me as I was surveying the dining room.  Despite our capacity crowd, couples on Valentine’s Day sit forever, so she wasn’t busy.  

“Did you see who’s on two?” Cat asked, not looking in that direction.

“I didn’t have to see, I heard. That voice could peel paint.”

“No, not her.  The guy--your buddy.”

I looked past the woman, who was now holding forth on the merits of the Lowell Inn, a getaway hotel and restaurant in historic Stillwater, Minnesota, to study the mug of the man sitting opposite her wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches. I recognized him, or his ‘stache, immediately.

“Lundquist!”  I said it loud enough that I expected the man to turn around, but he didn’t take his eyes off of his companion.

Those who are frequent readers of our Smugglers’ Inn blog may know about our hate/mild indifference relationship with the Anoka County Shopper and its owner and publisher, Peter Lundquist, AKA “The Mystery Diner.”  Cat, like all of our employees, had read his cliche’-riddled reviews of our restaurant and bar.  We have several taped to the wall by the employee break room.  For entertainment purposes.

“Mother of Pearl,” I said.  “That’s Lundquist’s wife?  That explains a lot.”

“Not his wife, “ Cat corrected me, “his date.”

I recall “The Mystery Diner” paying us a visit in the company of his wife.  Maybe the old ‘Stache had gotten himself divorced.

“What do you think--Match?”  I couldn’t help it; some people you just don’t picture computer dating.

“Not Match,” Cat said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “Tinder.”

Tinder, if you don’t know, is a hook-up site, straight up.  Not that anyone I know is on it.

By the by, you need to take for granted that every employee in a bar or restaurant knows if the person with you is your spouse, your lover, your hot coworker whom you would like people to believe is your lover, your blind date, your E-Harmony date or someone you hadn’t seen since college and just happened to run into while filling up your minivan at Arco and decided to have an innocent meal with.  You worry about Goggle knowing too much about you?  Worry about the busboy filling your water glass.


“Popovers,” Lundquist said.  He was making a point of speaking in his indoor voice, so his foghorn of a date would get the hint.  She didn’t.


"I believe you are talking about their justifiably famous popovers,"  Lundquist was saying,   "I have reviewed the Lowell Inn on…”


“You’re quite right.  I apologize.”




Cat and I might have shared a chuckle at the sight of a man who gave us 2 1/2 out of 5 stars pinned like Ahab to a pissed-off whale, but we are not sadists.  Lundquist was almost certainly billing this meal to his business, but he was still a paying customer and paying customers get treated with respect at Smugglers’ Inn, especially when they keep coming back.

“Tell his wait person to send over some champagne, compliments of the house.”

Cat stared at me, not sure if I was kidding.

“Do it.  Send a bottle of Dom.”

Such an act of largesse might look to many like a blatant attempt to buy a critic.  Peter Lundquist, though, is not Janet Maslin and the Anoka County Shopper has never had qualms about doling out editorial props to businesses that advertised in their “newspaper”.

I confess, I would enjoy seeing Smugglers’ Inn get its first ever five-star review, but that was not likely.  Smug’s had been reviewed recently (2½ stars) and we weren’t due for another visit by The Mystery Diner for a while, certainly longer than a little paper full of words that went unread and coupons that went unclipped could stay afloat.  While Smug’s has been able to expand from shrimp scampi and Happy Hour margaritas into providing creatively excellent integrated marketing solutions for small to mid-sized clients, other businesses around us have not diversified. Perhaps the Lundquists had broken up over the decision to go digital—who can know?  What I do know is that a man who, for two-plus decades, has been coming here and judging us, is sitting at table two on February 14th with a woman who almost certainly doesn’t look like her profile photo and wondering what his wife is doing at this moment. And with whom.

“You sure about this? The lady is kind of a jerk.”
Rob, the waiter whose section included table 2, proffered a stand and ice bucket with a crisp, white napkin around the neck of a bottle of Dom Perignon 2000.  It looked like a million bucks.  300, anyway.

“Come to think of it, give them the Moet—no, the Mumm.  Yeah, we’ll do the Mumm’s.”

“Roger that!” Rob said and went to swap out the bottles. 

It’s Valentine’s Day at Smugglers’ Inn.  It is not Christmas.