Goods & Services

If we don’t like it, nobody will

Americans will never eat a seared-ahi salad at a Chevy’s Fresh Mex restaurant, and they have Sacramentans to blame. Or thank.

If you visited a Chevy’s in these parts last summer and ordered a “spinach and artichoke ’dilla,” a “tableside-up margarita” or another unfamiliar and exotic-sounding item and were then handed a survey to gauge your gastronomical experience, you were part of an ancient business practice known as the market test.

Marketing pros regard Sacramento as an ideal product proving ground—a place where the public’s ages, tastes and ethnicities represent a mini-America crammed into a hot, flat space between two rivers and four highways.

Judy Mikalonis, chief creative officer at Verbulant Creative in Elk Grove, says Sacramento has a diverse racial, ethnic, religious and demographic population and that people moving into the area bring with them geographically varied opinions.

Products like Pampers diapers, Bistro Light cigarettes, Starbucks’ Frappuccino Light and Jamba Juice’s Enlightened Smoothies have dress-rehearsed here. Some went on to national stardom while others disappeared.

Consumers and residents of Sacramento shoulder a mighty responsibility: determining the purchasing options of middle-class Americans everywhere. It is a form of civil service much easier than jury duty and far more rewarding than, say, voting in a presidential election in which, in California at least, your role in the outcome is usually a foregone conclusion. When we see a product that is so ill-conceived, so overtly bad, it’s possible that we can actually influence its manufacturers to shelve it for good.

I believe I was one of these unwitting consumer activists earlier this year when I took a call from someone doing “market testing.” After a thorough and embarrassing probe of my exercise habits (none) and eating habits (lots), he asked a question that quickened my pulse. Had I been to Jamba Juice, had I tried an Enlightened Smoothie, and could I rate it from 1 to 10?

This question brought back painful and vivid memories. The Enlightened Smoothie was a low-calorie version of regular Jamba Juice, made with an “enlightened base.” I had tried it and, well, hated it. It had the texture of milk of magnesia and the keep-down potential of a quart of tequila. Drinking it was a suffering I hadn’t experienced since I accidentally took a swig of my niece’s baby formula 15 years ago.

Don’t misunderstand. I adore Jamba Juice. I go there at least once a week, and I don’t care how many calories I consume because it tastes good and is very likely the only fruit serving I’ll have until my next visit. This is probably why I was so eager to unload my dissatisfaction on this market tester. How could Jamba Juice sully such a fine product? Having no negative numbers to choose from, I settled for a rating of one. I confessed to him that I had truly wanted to like the Enlightened Smoothie, but my gag reflex wouldn’t let me. I just couldn’t choke it down. Sadly, 80 percent of it ended up in the trash.

On a recent trip to the franchise on Alhambra Boulevard, I noticed that the low-cal imposters were still on the wall menu, next to some new, uncomplicated-sounding summer specials made with lemons and limes. My disappointment progressed to self-doubt and finally panic. Did the test marketers misplace my comments? Had I been too hard on the Enlightened Smoothie? Or am I simply an outcast in my own city—an un-average American, unlike the rest of you Sacramentans?