Battle for bobbleheads

A report from the front lines of the Kings/Carl’s Jr. consumer craze

Photo by Larry Dalton

The madness is visible even at a distance. Traffic is halted for blocks along westbound Broadway and clogging all the side streets that lead to the parking lot of the Carl’s Jr./Green Burrito hybrid franchise at 2615 Broadway. A police car is parked at the corner.

While most pedestrian traffic is heading toward the restaurant, some cautious people are moving away at a brisk pace, looking back every few steps with a bewildered expression.

“Mama, why are the people standing?” asks a little girl crossing the street with her family.

“Because some folks are crazy, honey,” her mother answers.

Outside the building, an older gentleman stands on the sidewalk and shakes his head in disbelief at the scene. A line of people two and three thick snakes out of the restaurant doors, down the sidewalk and doubles back through the length of the parking lot alongside the cars in the drive-thru lane. The sheer number of customers has overwhelmed the franchise staff. Progress in either line is barely perceptible.

A young woman’s voice erupts from the drive-thru menu speaker, “Welcome to Carl’s Jr. May I help you?” Met with silence, she repeats her query. With a sigh, the driver in front of the menu groans, “I’m still the same car.”

“Oh, sorry,” the menu apologizes.

Two cars ahead, a driver yells loud enough for the rest of the line to hear, “She cheated and cut in front of us. She’ll see that cheaters never win!”

What has occasioned this fervent display of emotion? It’s not a demand for world peace, a visit from the Pope or even free ice cream. No, today a shipment of Doug Christie bobbleheads, the fourth in a series of über-collectible Sacramento Kings bobblehead dolls produced by Carl’s Jr. restaurants as a limited promotion, has just gone on sale. The doll’s release is the chum that has people circling the building in a consumer feeding frenzy.

Every Monday during the five-week promotion, a different doll is released. After the first week, the dolls sold out within hours, despite a policy change by Carl’s Jr. management limiting the purchase of the $3.99 collectibles to two per person. With only 30,000 replicas of each player available, competition is fierce. The chaotic tableau at the Broadway Carl’s Jr. is one of many unfolding below starry Carl’s Jr. signs throughout the area as people resolve to “collect them all” or expend their sick leave trying.

As the first triumphant customer emerges from the restaurant with her two nodding Christies and requisite combo meal purchase, a tall brunette grabs her arm. “How many dolls do they have in there?” she demands.

Startled, the woman steps back before answering. “About 300, I think.”

“300! That’s all?” People in line begin moaning and tallying the number of people ahead of them.

As the successful customer scurries away with her bobbleheaded treasure, the brunette continues talking to everyone within earshot. “Three hundred is not enough when we have to compete with them,” she says, jerking her thumb toward the drive-thru line. “That’s not fair! They should have just one line. We should put our bodies in front of their cars!”

Photo by Larry Dalton

A CHP officer, undoubtedly the owner of the black-and-white on the corner, stands near the entrance exuding an air of official calm. To the casual observer, he’s there to prevent any trouble from the doll-crazed patrons. However, when questioned about his activities, he immediately covers his badge with his hand.

“I’m just here for the dolls, but you did not see me here,” he asserts. “I’m supposed to be working.”

His desire for anonymity is not unique in this crowd. Absolutely no one questioned in line will give a full name. The most common reason for the secrecy: fear of getting caught outside work by the boss.

“I’m supposed to be at the dentist right now,” admits a man in a black leather jacket, in line since 7:30 a.m. “Next week, when I come for the Scot Pollard, I’ll be on official sick time. You can use my name then.”

Others, like an anonymous woman wearing gold sunglasses inside the restaurant, express a personal discomfort with their behavior. “My boss knows where I am, but I don’t want to use my name because it’s embarrassing. I got all over my daughter for going crazy over Pokemon and now look at me. I’ve been here since 7 a.m.”

What compels an otherwise level-headed adult to spend half a workday standing in a parking lot in order to purchase a plastic doll, hoping they won’t be recognized in the process? A survey of those auctioning the bobbleheads on eBay (where a single doll can go for more than $50) yielded a variety of answers.

A 63-year-old Kings season ticket holder, Marlene Corey cites the thrill of the chase. “I teamed up with my daughter and we drove all the way to Fairfield finding all the Carl’s Jr.’s along the way. Lines were everywhere and we laughed a lot because it is pretty silly for us to be chasing around looking for bobbleheads. … The hunt is so much fun, even if you get to the door and the dreaded ‘out of bobbles’ sign is up.”

Karen Tom insists the dolls are popular because, “Sacramento has the greatest fans and we are loyal to our Kings.”

However, money is a powerful motivator for many enterprising collectors when fans, desperate to complete a set, pay outrageous prices. “I’ve got two sets [on eBay] now that are bidding at $200-plus and I started them at $75. I saw one go for $269 the other day,” reports backpacking guide and eBay auctioneer Eric Heath. Although Heath, “a Kings fan since day none,” first posted his extra dolls as a lark, he’s been amazed by the response. “I’m speechless. I can’t even begin to fathom the craziness of people out there.

“There are a lot of guys who are, for lack of a better word, really raping people. Some guys are buying tons of value meals and walking out with a case of dolls. Of course, with the new two-per-person rule, those guys who started out buying cases are screwed.

“I was in the drive-thru Monday at the Carl’s Jr. on Madison and Greenback,” Heath relates. “There was a fight behind me with about 10 people and a lady in a BMW who was trying to cut off both lines to get in. It’s dangerous with all those unruly people who want their dolls now. Some lady paid a man $35 on the spot for a Doug Christie today and someone offered me $45 for a Peja. And it’s not going to get any cheaper,” Heath predicts.

Meanwhile back on Broadway, the bobble supply is running low. “Only eight left!” calls manager Alex Lopez. “Are you all buying two?” he asks the people at the front of the line that still snakes down the block.

Everyone nods and Lopez counts heads. “That means you will be the last one,” he determines, pointing at the fourth person in line. The fifth, a short woman with long black hair, immediately protests. “What? No! I’ve been waiting!”

Those in front of her shift their eyes to the floor and ignore her protests. No one offers to buy a single doll so that she can have one, too. The people behind Lady #5 begin to leave the line, but she stays planted until the last bobble is sold.

“That’s it!” Lopez says. “If I had any more, believe me, I’d be happy to sell them to you.”

Lady #5 walks up to the register, manned by Carl’s Jr. employee Gretchen Slomski, and launches into a tale of waiting and denial. Slomski looks nonplussed. “You’ve been waiting two hours?” she says. “That’s all? Some people were here for five! I don’t even get a doll and I was here before all of you.”

The lady turns on her heel and stalks out of the restaurant as Slomski smiles and says, “Welcome to Carl’s Jr. May I help you?”