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Christine Van Dusen


Top Chef 9.8 recap: Tweets for twits

“Everything is better with bacon.”
“Do a hash for a hashtag challenge.”
“Pick an ingredient and hand it off to someone else to use in their dish.”
“Pomegranate relish!”
“Use a dessert ingredient in a savory way.”

Seriously,  Top Chef viewers? This is as creative as you could get, in sending to the producers your suggestions for this week’s Quickfire Challenge, which required the remaining 10 chefs to prepare a dish according to suggestions and directions sent in by Twitter followers? The first three Tweets above made the cut this week; the other three were ignored. I’m hoping the Bravo folks already deleted better suggestions, like: “Force Heather Terhune to wear Beverly Kim in a Baby Bjorn while they cook. #stopthecrying.”

After telling us that he spent his formative years selling weed to his friends and decided to change his life after waking up one morning to an apartment that was trashed with dog food and “(unintelligible) s— everywhere”—sheesh, were you living at Jesse Pinkman’s house on Breaking Bad?—Paul Qui of Uchiko gets a win for his bacon fat, crispy bacon, blackberries chorizo and mushroom hash. The prize: $10,000, but no immunity.

It’s a hometown win, as the gang is now on Paul’s turf in Austin. We saw them make the drive, and listened to their annoying patter. Heather, it seems, likes a guy with dark hair and who’s tall and funny. “It’s difficult to have a long relationship because I’ve been so career focused,” she says. Riiiiiiiight. That’s why you’re single. She also says she’d choose a night with former judge and Louisiana restaurateur John Besh over $5,000. Good thing. He might want that money, a la “Indecent Proposal.”

After the Quickfire the gang heads to the Driskill Hotel for some drinks and a very awkwardly unsexy pretend-flirtation between Heather and Chris “Malibu” Crary of Whist Restaurant in Santa Monica. Patti LaBelle saunters in, all silver sparkle and flat-ironed bob wig, and gives us a lounge-lizard version of her hit, “Lady Marmalade.” Host Padma Lakshmi then steps on stage to tell us that LaBelle is the guest judge for the Elimination Challenge, for which the chefs will prepare a dish inspired by the person who inspired them to start cooking in the first place.

Cue more tears as the contestants talk about beloved grandparents, parents, uncles and—in Brooklyn chef Ty-Lor Boring’s case—Japanese nannies who make a mean chicken tender (?). Back at the house, Beverly cries again, this time because she misses her husband and son. Chris Jones of Chicago’s Moto gives us an unwelcome glimpse of his crack. And Edward Lee of Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., tells us he’s got balls and “I’m gonna show ‘em.” Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t.

The next day the chefs are given two hours to cook before serving their dishes to LaBelle, two of her friends, head judge Tom Colicchio, Lakshmi and occasional judge Emeril Lagasse. Cookbook author LaBelle is wearing her best Sophia Loren Collection wig, and promises to serve fried chicken and mac-and-cheese to Tom and Emeril if they ever come to her house. “We’ll be there with bells on,” Tom says. “LA-Belles,” LaBelle says. The hits just keep on coming on this show!

When Heather serves up her beef stroganoff with ribeye, Emeril says he’s unsure of even what kind of meat it is. “It’s Bigfoot,” LaBelle deadpans.

And now, some fun with homoeroticism!

Emeril: “I feel like I’m at a banquet at one of those hotels you would drag me to.”
Tom: “Me?”
Padma: “I don’t even wanna know the rest of that story.”

Oh, har, har, har! Please, get the unemployed writers from the canceled NBC comedy “Community” up in this piece! These people need some material!

The judges choose the bottom three: Heather, Chris C. and Grayson Schmitz, who served up monstrous steaks and defends the decision by saying that’s how everyone eats in Wisconsin. Chris’s salmon was seared too fast so ended up leaching out some sort of white mucus (yum!). And Heather’s dumplings were dry, chewy and overcooked while the meat was “so gristly, I couldn’t cut it,” LaBelle says. Shadenfreude-Schmitz smiles.

The top three: Beverly’s Korean braised short rib with edamame scallion puree; Sarah Grueneberg’s pork sausage, cabbage and spinach; and Edward’s modern take on bibimbap with lemon chili sauce, which works for LaBelle’s friend even though she’s allergic to the dish’s key ingredient (egg).

Sarah wins, inspiring more tears. Even LaBelle looks ready to bawl. Heather, who at the credits will be described by Padma as “the queen of mean,” is announced as the loser. “She reaped her own karma,” Beverly says. “There is a personal satisfaction with that.”

Next week: A monster barbecue, and Sarah gets dizzy, huffs oxygen, gets sent to the hospital and gets no sympathy from Edward: “I would’ve pushed through it. What is she, dead?”

Top Chef 9.7 recap: Tears of a chef

Poor, poor, teary-eyed, slow-prepping, oft-maligned Beverly Kim. The chef de cuisine at Aria Restaurant in Chicago takes quite a drubbing on this week’s episode of Top Chef: Texas. To the point where she loosely compares her Elimination Challenge partnership with Heather Terhune (executive chef at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago) to a previous abusive relationship. Yikes! But more on these two crazy kids later.

This week’s edition begins with a Quickfire Challenge in which the cheftestants must prepare dishes that pair well with (obvious sponsor) Don Julio tequilas. “Tequila sounds like a great way to spend the morning,” says Edward Lee, the teeth-grinding executive chef and partner at Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky.

Personally I can think of better ways to spend a morning than by sipping tequila with every one of the “dirty dozen’s” dishes (because I don’t much like barfing to start off my day), but host and judge Padma Lakshmi and guest judge/Top Chef Masters’ alum Tim Love of Forth Worth’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro approach the task with gusto.

“Padma looks like a banana stuffed into a sari,” my viewing companion notes. Maybe so, but you gotta give the girl credit for drinking that much tequila first thing in the morning and still stringing together sensible sentences when clearly she hasn’t bothered to put down a base of greasy eggs (or any food in a long while, for that matter). Love, for his part, offers less to the judging process, mostly calling dishes “interesting” or “pretty good.”

Among the dishes to get panned: Sarah Grueneberg’s fennel risotto with glazed scallops (“reeee-zo-tho,” as the executive chef of Chicago’s Spiaggia says it. Yes, we know you lived and trained in Italy. Congratulations. Your reeeee-zo-tho is still undercooked.) and Terhune’s rock shrimp with the reposado is deemed the new special at a new chain restaurant (“ouch,” another contestant utters).

Ty-Lor Boring, whose name never fails to amuse me and who spent most of the prep talk prattling on about “a dish I fabricated while I was on the beach in Thailand,” wins for his steamed clams in Thai-style fish caramel sauce paired with the 1942 tequila. So he gets $5,000, but no immunity.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are paired and tasked with preparing different game meats for a dinner party hosted by Love that will be attended by other notable chefs, including our own occasional judge Hugh Acheson of Empire State South. It’s a double elimination, there’s a $200 budget, and the winners will split $10,000.

The food will go through final prep in Love’s kitchen, which appears to double as a hot-yoga room. The chefs’ sweat rains down on the counters.

The two finger-slicers from previous episodes, Boring and Lee (a good name for an ineffective crime-fighting duo, maybe, or a couple of accountants) are partners, as are Chris Jones of Chicago’s Moto Restaurant (enough with the sumo top-knot, dude!) and Grayson Schmitz of Olivier Chen Catering and Events. And then there’s the ungodly duo of Kim and Terhune.

“I just want to make sure it isn’t too Asian,” Terhune says, then later: “I don’t want it to appear to be like a completely Asian dish.” So yeah, you don’t like Asian food? Or your Asian partner? Pan over to one of the only other Asian contestants, Lee, who summarizes the scene for us: “Heather’s being a complete bitch.”

Meanwhile, Schmitz and Jones are struggling. Jones wanted to do some sort of twisty ladder whatever-the-hell with his sweet potatoes and fails miserably, instead cutting them into odd squares.

“I really f—– us here,” he says. “I should’ve nailed this.” Schmitz, by way of response: “These look like bleeeeeeeeeeep.” And when he starts to tell the judges how he messed up the taters? “Don’t bleep tell them bleeeep like that.”

Back to Terhune and Kim’s dysfunction junction. “Part of this is my rustic style, so we’re gonna have to compromise,” Heather snaps at Beverly, who meekly continues working on her part of the five-spice duck breast with creamy polenta and pickled cherries.

The judges include many an esteemed chef, but all I see at the table is a bunch of homeless-looking guys, one an unshaven Mr. Bean and another like David Cross with a giant beard. He’s talking about how he hunts and jumped on top of gators or some other such nonsense. Head judge Tom Colicchio nearly rolls his eyes, but maybe that’s because he can taste the contestants’ briny sweat in the food.

In addition to getting feedback from the chefs and our usual judges (with Padma channeling Janet Jackson in her “If” video, with that bone and feather choker), the contestants will also be judged by their peers this time, a twist that has everyone on edge as they await their fates in the kitchen. Sweaty Terhune continues her rant about Kim and argues with Schmitz while Dakota Weiss of Choice Hospitality and W Los Angeles and Grueneberg cry over their failures (Weiss’s venison is so rare it’s maroon, and Grueneberg’s sausage sucked).

Boring and Lee win for their sorghum quail with pickled cherries and eggplant. “The quail shines,” a judge says. Yeah, maybe because it’s coated in Lee’s face juice!

The bottom three pairs are: Weiss and Nyesha Arrington, executive chef of Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica; Jones and Grayson; and Terhune and Kim, who argue in front of the judges (well, Terhune goes to town on Kim’s work ethic and inability to trust herself; Kim mostly just cries).

“Heather was holding it against Beverly for something that happened in previous challenges,” Acheson says. “This is Top Chef. Every day is new.”

For the final verdict, Tom Colicchio adds his typically painful, punny line: “It was a tough challenge. Game is very, very difficult to cook. Unfortunately for two of you, the game will be over.” (There goes my tequila breakfast.)

Weiss and Arrington are asked to pack their knives and go. Next week: the gang hits the road to Austin, Patti LaBelle sings for them, and everyone sweats all over the food—again!

Top Chef 9.5 recap: “Don’t Be Tardy for the Dinner Party”

A finger spewing blood in the kitchen, a pig carcass attacked with a hacksaw, a mysterious bagel-related accident, tears at a rodeo, and a scream of “nobody take my breast milk!”—welcome to the in-progress ninth season of Top Chef on Bravo.

This time the show—set in Texas and featuring Atlanta/Athens chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Hugh Acheson as one of the new judges—begins with a showdown at the Alamo among twenty-nine chefs, broken into three groups, to be whittled down to the official starting sixteen. Among the contestants vying for a coat: Whitney Otawka, who was sous chef under Acheson at 5&10 and now serves as executive chef of Farm 255 in Athens, and Janine Falvo, the executive chef at Briza Restaurant at the Renaissance Atlanta Midtown Hotel.

Falvo tells us that she’s had a rough go lately. Her long-time girlfriend recently dumped her over the phone. Sorry, Debbie Downer, but Acheson and his m-dash of an eyebrow will show no mercy to your seared scallops. She’s sent packing.

Now we’ll fast-forward, past the snake-cooking challenge (which prompted the world’s lamest take on Samuel L. Jackson’s f-bombs from the movie Snakes on a Plane from our fembot host and judge, Padma Lakshmi), the team challenge with the requisite bus-related reference (instead of the usual “she threw me under the bus,” a contestant yells at another: “You love driving the bus, hitting people!”), a quinceanera, and a chili cookoff appropriately brought to you by Prilosec.

This week’s episode, “Don’t be Tardy for the Dinner Party”—way to cross-promote your mind-numbing reality shows, Bravo!—has the chefs moving from San Antonio to Dallas (“Dolly Parton—isn’t she from Dallas?” chef Beverly Kim asks. C’mon, now!). They’re first sent into a muddy and crappy field to make meals out of emergency kits, and the sardines, Vienna sausages, and canned meat they throw together look as bad as that field probably smells. “It smells like holy s—t,” Chris Jones of Moto in Chicago says wisely.

Acheson is absent this week, and the guest judge is . . . Tommy Hilfiger? No, wait, sorry—I was blinded by those giant white chompers for a minute—it’s Louisiana restaurateur John Besh. He picks Lindsay Autry of Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and her Saltine cracker sandwich.

From here the chefs are split into teams to provide the appetizers, entrees, and desserts for a progressive dinner party in a tony Dallas ‘burb, hosted by short, rich men and the tall, tawny ladies who clearly love them for what’s on the inside.

These ladies have lots of requests (they like pink, hate cilantro, and obviously aren’t going to eat anything anyway), most of which inspire fake heh-heh-hehs from the female chefs and later prompt serious eye-rolling from Besh and head judge Tom Colicchio. Um, Tom? You lost all cred when, in talking about a cigar-inspired dish, you say: “Close, but no cigar.” Heh-heh-heh. Bleh.

Chef Chris Crary of Whist Restaurant in Los Angeles is on the dessert team, which he thinks is a good fit, since the host for that part of the party wants the cooks to channel their inner fat kids. Crary’s fat kid was on full display until two years ago, when his pals taunted him for being chunky. You too can lose 70 pounds with the help of ceaseless mockery!

In the end, Paul Qui of Uchiko in Austin, Texas, wins for his brussels sprouts and Chuy Valencia of Chicago’s Chilam Balam gets dismissed for his overcooked salmon slathered in goat cheese and wrapped in scorched corn husks.

Tune in next week for more steaks, more sweaty chefs, a trip to the hospital, Kim’s “f-ing slow” shrimp prep, and more of Chris Jones’s sumo-style topknot!

Amelia Island, FL

Rob Hicks is sweating, his breath at a light pant, as he points out the Fairbanks House. The four-story, twenty-room residence, built in 1885 in Amelia Island’s Fernandina Beach by historian and citrus producer Major George R. Fairbanks, now serves as a bed-and-breakfast.
“And over here is the Amelia Island Museum of History,” he says, picking up his pace past the redbrick building. “And this is the dentist’s office where Paul McCartney went to deal with a tooth emergency during the Super Bowl.” Then Hicks notices that this tourist, who overindulged at dinner the previous night, has fallen a few paces behind. “You okay?”
Hicks, a young guidance counselor who also coaches girls flag football at the local high school, is the owner of Peg Leg Running Tours of Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, and on this sunny Sunday the avid runner is leading me on a 3.25-mile jog through downtown Fernandina, past the historic churches, the stately homes, the brick storefronts, the boats shored at the waterfront, the painting of the eight flags that have flown over Amelia since 1562, and a statue of a pirate in the main business district on this thirteen-mile-long island just off the coast of northeast Florida.
Though Peg Leg presents a quick method of seeing Fernandina Beach—including Florida’s oldest continually operating bar, Palace Saloon—you don’t necessarily need a guide to get a good sense of this small town set up on a sensible grid. The same cannot be said, however, for the tranquil but sprawling property a few miles away at Amelia Island Plantation.
“Yeah, this place is confusing. Turn the map upside down; it will make more sense,” the woman at the gatehouse said when I asked for directions. But really, there are worse places to get lost. The quiet roads take you under a lovely canopy of 200-year-old live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, and blue heron fly over the salt marsh. There are many lodging options on the 1,350-acre property, though most require a bicycle or shuttle to reach the 3.5-mile stretch of private, shelly beach. If you want easy access, the best bet is Omni Amelia Island Plantation, which also gets you closest to the resort’s two pools and on-site restaurants.
For lunch, try the hotel’s country-clubby Sunrise Cafe, with a view of the ocean, attentive service, and a solid menu of sandwiches, salads, crab cakes, and bruschetta. Or, if you plan to get a massage at the small but peaceful Spa at Amelia Island Plantation (try the unique eighty-minute Lomi Lomi, with strokes inspired by the Hawaiian hula, for $170), pick up light fare at the adorable French-influenced market, Marché Burette, just a few steps away.
For dinner, head nearby to Salt, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. A variety of exotic salts arrives with meat entrees, though servers caution that the food has already been properly seasoned. The Big Eye tuna carpaccio ($16) is like a delicious treasure map, with curled edges and bits of purple potato and tiny quail eggs. The generous portion of Painted Hills filet mignon ($42) doesn’t need the pure ocean horseradish salt that accompanies it. And go ahead and indulge in subtly sweet apple tarte Tatin with caramel sauce, apple foam, and vanilla bean ice cream ($12). If you ran with Hicks, you’ve earned it.

Photograph courtesy of Amelia Island CVB

Mob Rule

One day in February, a salesman met with Barbara O’Neill and promised to dramatically increase her business. As the owner of the Cookie Studio, set in a Decatur strip mall down the street from the Waffle House Museum, O’Neill has spent the last four years baking cookies, cupcakes, and dessert bars in a white-walled space barely big enough to fit ten customers. The chalkboard menu is limited mostly to what’s baked fresh: Cherry Ginger Explosion cookies, Key lime cupcakes, toffee pecan bars, and chocolate brownies. On the counter sits a tip jar, the proceeds of which go to the day shelter for women and children where O’Neill volunteered after leaving her job at a New York law firm to live a more family-focused life in the South.
Michael Tavani, left, and Dave Payne;
Photograph by Ryan Gibson
The man with the promises, Evan Pease, explained that he worked for Scoutmob. O’Neill had heard the name before. If you live in metro Atlanta and have a smartphone, you probably have, too. Launched in January 2010, Scoutmob is a website and mobile application that provides discounts at restaurants, boutiques, and other businesses. Unlike big competitor Groupon, which requires users to purchase a coupon in advance, Scoutmob doesn’t cost customers a thing. They simply flash the deal to their server or cashier and presto—the bill is reduced by as much as half.
The pitch to O’Neill was simple: Sign up with Scoutmob for no cost up front and we’ll drive thousands of customers to your business over a three-month period. In return you’ll pay us a small fee every time someone clicks on or claims the deal.
By virtually any measure, the Cookie Studio had been a success since it opened; revenues were growing by as much as 50 percent a year, and O’Neill had customers she knew by name. Still, she was eager to bring in new business. She didn’t have the money to advertise in the newspaper or on television, which can cost upwards of $3,200 to $6,000 a month. Scoutmob sounded like a cheaper, easier way to spread the word. Without giving too much thought to what would happen next, she signed on.
At 6:30 a.m. on May 17, more than 250,000 people in the Atlanta area received an e-mail with a coupon from Scoutmob that read, “Everyone has their own version of a pick-me-up: a long walk on the beach, quiet meditation, perhaps a few bad reality show reruns. But no number of beachy strolls or Flavor [Flav] can equal the healing power of the homemade cookie.”
The tease was vintage Scoutmob—conversational, youthful, nostalgic—and the offer to its members was tempting: 50 percent off at the Cookie Studio, for a maximum $10 discount.
At the moment the deal went live, O’Neill was in the shower. Two workers were already at the bakery, preparing dozens of cupcakes and 800 cookies, about 200 more than usual. The shop opened at 9 a.m. By 2:30 that afternoon, the racks were empty and O’Neill and her team were back to baking.
By closing time at 6 p.m., about 3,654 people had claimed the deal via text or e-mail, reserving for them the right to use the coupon at some point in the next three months. For each of these, O’Neill was charged fifty cents. That meant she was going to owe Scoutmob a minimum of $1,827 for that day alone. That didn’t take into account the number of times the coupon was redeemed via smartphone, which would cost her $3 a pop. And the number was only going to rise, because the smartphone deal wouldn’t expire for three months. (By the end of May, 172 smartphone users had redeemed the deal.)
“I didn’t think about the repercussions,” she says.
She didn’t realize that in less than two years, Scoutmob had gone from a two-man operation in Castleberry Hill to a juggernaut in thirteen cities. Along the way, the deal maker helped transform the relationship between business owner and customer with its message: Bargains are your birthright! And the message to merchants is just as crystalline: Sign up with us for free and we’ll boost your business. But what some merchants are learning is that when Scoutmob takes them from slow to slammed, it’s for better and for worse.

>> GALLERY: Check out Scoutmob’s ten most popular deals

It’s never been so cool to be cheap. Companies like Scoutmob are built on the notion that as Americans we need never pay full price for anything. Deal hunting even qualifies as entertainment now; TLC’s Extreme Couponing spotlights compulsive savers, some willing to Dumpster dive for a discount. Where once a bargain could be found only by clipping coupons for products you really needed, companies like Scoutmob have changed the definition of what a coupon is. It’s not fifty cents off shaving cream; it’s $20 off your dinner of tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and Parmigiano at La Pietra Cucina.

According to a recent study from Bing and Impulse Research, 74 percent of respondents claimed to search multiple coupon sites every week. Groupon is the pioneer, starting in Chicago in 2008 and growing to more than 83 million subscribers in forty-three countries as of June. After turning down a $6 billion offer from Google last year, Groupon announced plans to go public two months ago, and the company’s value was put between $15 billion and $20 billion. Groupon works like this: A minimum number of customers must purchase a deal for it to be activated, and the coupons carry an expiration date. So let’s say you spend $25 for a coupon that gives you $50 off. In general, half of your $25 goes to Groupon and half goes to the merchant, so the merchant loses $37.50 on the transaction.
Groupon’s cash-up-front approach is the most common in this increasingly crowded marketplace, which now includes Amazon-backed LivingSocial, Google, Facebook, Daily Candy, OpenTable, upstarts like DealMoms and ScoopMama, and Half Off Depot (an Atlanta-based site and app that got $7 million in funding but hasn’t quite established the buzz of Scoutmob).
More than 400 writers and editors are employed to hone what Groupon calls “the Voice,” which, in a recent Atlanta coupon for a photo booth rental, sounded like this: “A picture is worth a thousand words, which is why the Oxford English Dictionary consists of only eighteen pages of English nobles spilling tea on their knickerbockers. Visually express your long-winded sentiments with today’s Groupon . . . Photobooth Phun’s booth creates pictorial evidence of celebration shenanigans while adding flair to any party.”
Scoutmob tends to be more personal, and specific. Here’s the text from a recent Scoutmob deal for a Persian restaurant in Sandy Springs: “Hookahs, belly dancers, and kabobs. Need we say more? No? Well, we will . . . because that’s how we do . . . One thing that sets Fanoos apart from other fine belly dancing establishments around town is the stage where the dancers start their sets; you can fully observe their sexy talents while you dine . . . Owner Jalal will most likely stop by your table during his rounds to make sure you’re enjoying yourself and your meal.”
You get the sense that the Scoutmob writers have been to the places they’re recommending and that you’re getting a heads-up from a friend who talks like Tina Fey and skims McSweeney’s. It’s a tone inspired by Liza Dunning, Scoutmob’s twenty-nine-year-old founding writer, who named her dog after caustic cousin Maeby from the cult favorite TV show Arrested Development. Then there’s the look of the site, with a rubber stamp logo (its top curved and peaked like a mustache), the Revel club for frequent users, and the hidden jokes (drag your cursor over the staff pictures and each gets decorated with tattoos, eye patches, cat burglar masks, and the like).
“Scoutmob began because of the locally owned businesses we love,” the site says. “We figured by giving other like-minded folks the incentive to scout these spots for themselves . . . that we—maybe, just maybe—could create a community of even better locals.”
The message has resonated. More than 600,000 people are now part of the ’Mob, allowing the start-up to do something almost unthinkable in the post-dot-com-boom era: turn a profit in its first year.

The two men behind Scoutmob wear tight, gray turtlenecks, and sweater-vests in red and putrid yellow. Christmas lights bounce off their identically thick glasses. One man is seated, while the other stands behind with his hands clasped over his friend’s shoulder in an awkwardly intimate Sears studio pose. Dave Payne and Michael Tavani scoured used-clothing stores to find these outfits for Scoutmob’s holiday gathering. Even though it wasn’t a dress-up party, they donned the kitschy costumes to re-create the movie poster from the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers for Scoutmob’s first official holiday card.

Payne, a former New York investment banker and San Francisco software entrepreneur, moved to Atlanta to work at EarthLink, then started his own company to manage wireless hot spots for businesses.
Tavani thought he wanted to be a filmmaker, then a journalist, then a sports executive, before settling on law school. After graduation he married his high school sweetheart. On the way home from their honeymoon, he came up with a company called Peachtree360.com, which would e-mail a daily digest of Atlanta happenings to subscribers.
In 2008 Payne saw Tavani’s website and sent a two-line e-mail inviting him to a Panera to discuss content ideas for his hot spot company, SkyBlox. Tavani said yes, mostly because nobody had ever contacted him about his business. They brainstormed over cappuccino and bagels. Once Tavani realized Payne wasn’t just trying to steal his ideas, the two decided to work together.
Both men were similar in temperament—friendly but soft-spoken, driven but calm to the point of seeming almost lethargic—but neither was a web developer, so they brought on a wireless aficionado and built SkyBlox into a network of 150 hot spots in Atlanta, then began to expand into Denver and Chicago. When the business faltered, Payne and Tavani left it in the hands of the tech guy and spent six months holed up behind door number seven in the redbrick Swift & Co. building in Castleberry Hill. There, in Payne’s 1,000-square-foot bachelor pad, they tried to think of an idea that would allow them to tap their current customer base. Then they noticed that other businesses, like Groupon, were doing just that.
“We realized that if we could do what they were doing, but do it for free for consumers and charge businesses in a healthier way and attach a strong brand, then we should be successful,” Payne, now thirty-nine, says.
With $100,000 in funds from their savings, angel investors, family, and friends, Tavani and Payne started Scoutmob. They paid consultants to build a website and smartphone app, then reached out to SkyBlox customers and began assembling a list of deals. Their approach turned Groupon’s on its head. Rather than getting people to pay $25 for a coupon worth $50, Scoutmob would not ask for money up front. Instead, the consumer would get the coupon for free—by smartphone, text, or e-mail. Each time a deal was claimed, Scoutmob would get a piece of the action.
It caught on. Groupon users have to worry about using their coupons before they expire. Scoutmob users don’t; if a deal expires, it’s at no cost to the customer. (Though Groupon merchants get paid either way, Scoutmob merchants may pay for coupons claimed by people who never visit.)
When the work became too much for the duo, they started hiring and moved the kitchen table and couch out of the apartment to make space for cubicles. Downstairs, the closet became a conference room, and the bed was removed so that desks, laptops, metal shelving, and many, many mustaches—on a sailor-suited mannequin; hanging from the ceiling; askew on the baby’s face in the Nirvana Nevermind poster—could move in.
Fifteen months later, on a Wednesday in April, twenty-eight staffers and one sleepy female mutt named Willy are packed inside Payne’s former apartment. This is Launch Day, Scoutmob’s most important day since its first, and many of the employees have been here for almost twenty-four hours. Others shuffle in throughout the morning, bleary-eyed and beelining for the giant blue can of Maxwell House and the picked-over plate of banana bread and quiche.
Scoutmob began with the three cities of Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco. On this day, thanks to a $1.5 million injection from a venture capital fund, the company will add ten more: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Nashville, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The expansion has been in the works for months, requiring hours of web development, troubleshooting, hiring, flying cross-country, making sales calls to wary merchants, calming nerves, editing, blogging, and tweeting.
Somehow the 15.2-ounce orange juice, with two bottles of Skyy Vodka taped to it and a sign that says “Break When Stressed,” remains intact on Tavani’s desk. It’s nearly knocked over as Dunning says “beep beep” while trying to squeeze between two work spaces. Loren Norman, the in-house web developer who actually has an impressively curlicue mustache that he twirls with one hand, doesn’t look up from his laptop.
There’s a bit of a hipster vibe here, with the mustaches and skinny jeans, but there are also pressed button-downs and Dockers in the mix. When the office playlist lands on Sister Hazel, nobody winces. Dunning, in a silver knuckle ring and oxford shoes, even sings along. The black acoustical foam tacked haphazardly to the walls does nothing to keep the sound from floating through the office; it can’t even muffle a cell phone’s vibration in the next room, and it certainly doesn’t allow a purple-sneakered salesman any privacy while he’s giving his best pitch to a barbecue roadhouse in Brooklyn called the Smoke Joint.
This is, hands down, the most measurable form of advertising that’s ever existed . . . Well, yes, but . . . We’re cheaper than Groupon . . . We drive a customer in and you pay for that customer . . . Let me put it this way: If I went out right now and grabbed a person off the street and sat them in your restaurant, would you pay me $3 for that? . . . Right, I understand. Sure, think it over. Thanks so much.
Though Scoutmob is a favorite app on Atlantans’ phones, it’s a tougher sell in other markets, where the company has only three salesmen. There are more than 275,000 users signed up in Atlanta, but there are just 65,000 in New York, a city of 8 million. And it will take six weeks for the newly launched Washington, D.C., mob to reach 12,000.
The salesman clicks off the phone.
“That Smoke Joint place is pretty rad,” a coworker calls over the cubicle wall, offering feeble encouragement.
“Yeah,” the salesman sighs.

“How long do we have, since this table is now somebody’s desk?”

It’s 8:30 a.m., six days after Launch Day, and the Scoutmob management team of seven is crowded around an Ikea table, hurrying through their agenda before the rest of the staff arrive at the Castleberry Hill loft.
“An hour,” Tavani tells Paul Heerin, the CFO.
The agenda at today’s meeting includes discussion of the upcoming move to their new Westside office: a 7,000-square-foot, one-floor space on Means Street. First, though, the executive team does a postmortem of Launch Day, deemed a success given the more than fifty subscribers signing up daily in each new city. Then they turn their attentions back to their hometown market. As the leadership team tosses around business jargon like “bandwidth” and “reducing ramp time,” Andy Meeks also uses the word “shit” a lot, particularly when recounting his recent experience at Wisteria restaurant. Meeks, a Scoutmob salesman and a part-time actor, went to the Virginia-Highland bistro on the first night of its deal. The chef-owner, Jason Hill, stomped over and gave Meeks the what-for, grumbling that Scoutmob was too expensive, that Groupon pays better, and why did I sign up for this?
“Sometimes restaurants don’t understand how this really works,” Payne says to the group. “Sometimes they’ve had literally thirty minutes of explanation and say, ‘Sure, let’s do this,’ but they don’t really understand. That’s unacceptable. We need to make sure we’re really clear, because we’ve got a great business model.”
There are several reasons why businesses struggle with the Scoutmob model. First, Groupon sends merchants a check every month for the amount they’ve made on the transactions, while Scoutmob sends a bill. But the cost to merchants is actually lower with Scoutmob. Remember how Groupon splits the $25 you spent for a $50 coupon down the middle with the merchant? That’s $12.50 for Groupon and $12.50 for the merchant. Scoutmob is different. Each time a user redeems a deal on his smartphone, Scoutmob’s cut is just $3.
Some Scoutmob deals attract as many as 5,000 subscribers. If all of them get the deal via text or e-mail, the business will owe $2,500. If all of them redeem in person via smartphone, the bill will be a whopping $15,000. Of course, some Scouts spend even more when using a coupon, a boon for businesses. But sometimes the customers who have claimed the coupons by text or e-mail never show up at all, and that still costs the merchant fifty cents a pop. “In some cases, we pay for people who never step through our doors,” says Laura Corliss, a bartender and server at the Shed at Glenwood, which offered one of the earliest Scoutmob deals.
Some merchants get overwhelmed. One restaurant put up a sign that said “no meat” because the Scouts tapped them out. The servers at Babette’s Cafe in Virginia-Highland had to soak their feet after a Scoutmob-related shift.
“The first day was off the charts,” says Ria Pell, owner of Ria’s Bluebird in Grant Park and Sauced, an Inman Park restaurant that did a deal in January. “We were actually ready for the added traffic, but immediately had to hire a host to deal with seating and reservations.”
Another difficulty is how Scoutmob affects waitstaff. “For every Scout who tips a little extra because she’s using a coupon, we get one who tips on the discounted total of the check,” Corliss says. Merchants have the option to build in a tip, but some opt not to. For it to be an automatic part of the deal is contrary to what the company stands for.
The ultimate goal for merchants is for a Scoutmob deal to attract new customers—customers who come back again and again long after the deal has expired. But those metrics are difficult to track. While the company does offer a 25 percent discount to returning customers, there’s no other way to tell how many repeat customers a restaurant gains from Scoutmob. La Pietra Cucina, an upscale Italian spot on Peachtree, counted twenty-seven returning Scout tables during the first month after the restaurant’s deal ended.
Says the Shed’s Corliss, “We got lots of new faces in the door—which is a big deal for us, because we’re in a neighborhood that really isn’t a destination yet—and have made regulars out of quite a few of those Scouts. We had three straight months of busier-than-usual shifts.”
But the boom was followed by a lull for Sauced. “It’s kind of hard to shift gears,” says Pell, who won’t do another deal with a discounter due to the stress. “I believe our customers would rather it not be so crowded, have more time with their server, and enjoy the laid-back ambiance.
“Unfortunately, the more restaurants that sign up for Scoutmob or the forty other incentive providers, the more choices a consumer has for a deal literally anywhere in the city,” she says. “It takes away from the organic thought process of choosing dining options based on previous experiences, versus checking your smartphone for the closest deal or coupon.”
So far, none of these concerns have managed to slow Scoutmob down. By May the company had moved into its sprawling new Westside office on Means Street.
“Shh, don’t tell anyone,” Heerin says, pulling a key from a planter outside the frosted-glass door. He steps inside and taps out a text as he passes the reception desk, manned by the upper half of the mustachioed mannequin, and the conference room with its glossy wood table and high-tech acoustic paneling. He peers over the cluster of sales cubicles, then makes his way through the galley kitchen into the wide-open room where Tavani, Payne, and the rest of the staff have set up their Ikea desks, laptops, lava lamps, and many mustaches.
The $7,000-a-month rent is chipping away at the venture capital investment from Thanasis Delistathis and the other partners at the Virginia- and Massachusetts-based New Atlantic Ventures, who liked Scoutmob’s fresh approach to discounts in large markets. The investors plan to pump money into the company, Delistathis says, with the goal of eventually going public or selling Scoutmob. (The company has fielded several offers, Payne says, but none tempting. “They’re not Zuckerberg numbers.”)

Chris Humphries is a Scout in the truest sense and represents the yin and yang of the Scoutmob story. The twenty-eight-year-old engineering consultant and MBA student lives in Inman Park. When Scoutmob first launched here, he was drawn to it for its quirky brand and no-fee structure.

“My wife had the idea of using as many Scoutmob deals as possible as a cool way to have fun touring around the city,” he says.
So one day in the spring, the couple and a friend started with brunch at Cafe di Sol on North Highland Avenue (deal: 50 percent off, up to $20). Then they hit the nearby San Francisco Coffee for a boost of caffeine (50 percent off, up to $15). They went up the street to Meringue Clothing, where his wife got a good deal on a shirt and their friend bought some earrings (50 percent off, up to $50). From there they went to Fab’rik boutique on West Peachtree in Midtown for more shopping (50 percent off, up to $50). They headed to Publik Draft House near the Fox Theatre for midday drinks and snacks (50 percent off, up to $15). Then it was on to Sublime Doughnuts on Tenth Street for the first time (50 percent off, up to $10). Then, to shake off their sugar and carbs coma, they went to JavaVino Coffee & Wine House (50 percent off, up to $10). And Humphries wrapped up the night with a glass of Scotch and a stogie at Highland Cigar Co. (50 percent off, up to $30). That’s eight Scoutmob deals in one day, the current record.
This isn’t to say that Humphries will go only where he can get a discount. But like so many Scouts, he gets satisfaction, personally and financially, from chasing deals.
“I’m a huge fan, obviously,” he says. “You should see the look I give people when they say they’ve never heard of Scoutmob.”
That community of the unaware is diminishing; in Atlanta alone, Scoutmob is getting 600 to 800 new subscribers a day. But in this fiercely competitive industry, the pool of new merchants to tap for deals is getting smaller, too. It’s crucial that Scoutmob persuades merchants to come back and do deals again and again. And that won’t happen if the Scouts haven’t come back, postdeal, and paid full price.
O’Neill will have to wait to see whether the Scouts return after the Cookie Studio coupon expires. For now, she keeps baking extra chocolate-chip cookies to meet the needs of the deal-hungry customers. She’s trying not to think about the bill that’s sitting on her desk: $2,100 owed to Scoutmob for the period of May 17 to May 31.
“People are telling me they’ll come back, and they’re spreading the word, so maybe we’ll get an even wider benefit,” she says.
She isn’t sure whether she’ll do a Scoutmob deal again. She’s already fielded repeated, pleading calls from Groupon and LivingSocial, but she won’t even entertain their proposals until she sees whether Scoutmob hurts or helps her bakery over the longer term.
“If I can get a lot of return business,” she says, “then every penny will have been well spent.”

St. Simons Island, GA

No one would ever say it’s particularly sophisticated to serenade patrons with kazoos at a fine-dining establishment. But that tradition, performed for birthdays at St. Simons’s Blackwater Grill, says a lot about what to expect from a trip to the island: a laid-back beachside experience that’s just shy of upscale and winningly unpretentious.
Consider the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, a yellow-hued cluster of buildings with terra-cotta roofs along a peaceful stretch of hard-packed sand. This historic oceanfront property has long been known as a relaxing retreat, but given that the place could use a few updates—more upscale showers, higher-quality linens, a better-equipped gym—it’s not quite as luxurious a destination as what you’d find on nearby Sea Island.
But the King and Prince, like St. Simons itself, has its special charms. There’s the white-picket walkway above the beach, perfect for a palm-shaded stroll or a breather in one of the porch swings. And there’s the beach itself, private and quiet, despite being surrounded by public areas. A tip: Bring your own beach chair and umbrella. When the tide rises—quickly covering all the sand and splashing the rocks behind—gear is stowed until the water recedes again, making the rentals not worth the daily fee of $28. Head over to the pool at high tide and grab a simple sandwich from the grill, or visit the new Royal Treatment Cottage for a massage (from $95).
Rent a bike to travel the island’s twenty-seven miles of paths, or join spunky guide Bunny Marshall—who introduces herself by handing out peach candy and saying, “First I sweeten you up, and then I take your money”—on the St. Simons Trolley Tour, which will take you past such sites as the St. Simons Island Lighthouse; the 125-plus-year-old Christ Church, Frederica & St. Ignatius Chapel; and Fort Frederica, the ruins of a fort built by English troops in the mid-1730s.
The dining options on St. Simons are mostly variations on the beachside, seafood-shack theme, with fried popcorn shrimp a specialty at Mullet Bay and the Blackwater Sundae—a parfait glass with layers of Brunswick stew, cornbread, and coleslaw—a favorite at the aforementioned Blackwater Grill. The restaurant’s Grouper Daufuskie (a fillet on a bed of caramelized onions and mushrooms, topped with a kicky, mayonnaise-based sauce) was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network. Nearby is the Catch 228 Oyster Bar & Grill, where you can grab a seat on the patio and enjoy cocktails while listening to a funk band. For a more elegant setting, head over to the marina for Coastal Kitchen’s lobster nachos appetizer—a mountain of tortilla chips, onions, avocado, and lumps of lobster—followed by rotating specials such as scallops over cheese grits and garlicky spinach. Despite the white-tablecloth atmosphere, the bar television is visible (and sometimes audible) from the dining room—a detail that’s in keeping with St. Simons’s easygoing personality.
Photograph courtesy of the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau

Acts of Culture: The Fox

In 2009, an eighty-three-year-old pipe organ was sitting in an Illinois attic belonging to John Near’s parents—a bit of a miracle, given that the instrument’s thirteen-ton weight should have sent it crashing to the basement.
Near had owned the organ—called a Barton Theatre Pipe Organ, for its manufacturer—since 1964, when the then fourteen-year-old’s family scraped together $1,000 to save it from a nearby theater threatened with demolition. He loved the organ’s sound and persuaded his parents to fortify the attic so he could move the instrument there, piece by piece.
Now he was ready to donate it to the right person. Around the same time, the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald, south of Macon, needed a pipe organ. Manager Jon Durkovic believed the Grand, an art deco movie theater and auditorium built in 1911, was the perfect match for Near’s Barton. There was just one problem: The Grand didn’t have the $225,000 to restore the organ.
Enter the Fox Theatre Institute, a program launched in 2008 to offer assistance and restoration grants to historic theaters around Georgia. (One of its recent projects helped restore fifty-eight original windows in Brunswick’s Ritz Theatre.) The Fitzgerald undertaking is the institute’s first organ restoration, involving a $30,000 grant. A local corporation has chipped in another $75,000, and other donations have raised the total to almost $150,000.
“Our program was launched to think outside the Fox,” says Adina Erwin, assistant general manager for the Fox Theatre. (The Fox’s own pipe organ, called “Mighty Mo,” is the second-largest in the world and was restored in 1963.) “Over the years, we’ve garnered a lot of knowledge and expertise, and we have a responsibility to share it.”
Since the Fitzgerald project began in December 2009, more than 150 people have been involved in the Barton’s restoration, from cleaning pipes and rebuilding keyboards to repairing chests, removing old glue, and fixing consoles. The instrument will debut in a concert on March 26.
Photograph by John Near

“Wait, Are You in My Yoga Class?”

There’s a starlet in my car. She pulled open the pollen-dusted door and slid into the dog-hair-covered front seat, her delicate, sandaled feet resting in the mess of caramel crème wrappers, lipstick-blotted napkins, and newspaper delivery bags on the floor mat. Said detritus was not removed from my car prior to serving as actress chariot. That’s not because said actress is unimpressive, though the fact that she had second billing under Paris Hilton—and wore prosthetic brown teeth, a fake mole, and rotting toenails—in a 2008 film called The Hottie and the Nottie might lead you to think otherwise. Christine Lakin is on the cusp.

Photograph by Aaron Fallon
Photograph by Aaron Fallon

The thirty-two-year-old Roswell native has been a supporting cast member in several major film releases, including 2010’s Valentine’s Day with Julia Roberts and Jamie Foxx and You Again with Jamie Lee Curtis, Betty White, Kristen Bell, and Sigourney Weaver. She’s playing a young stepmom-to-be on the CW’s Hellcats and did an episode of Melissa & Joey for ABC Family. She was chosen to voice news anchor Joyce Kinney, a new and recurring character on Family Guy, after a mutual friend brought creator Seth MacFarlane to one of her plays. She’s part of a pilot for MTV from Bert Royal, who wrote the 2010 Emma Stone film Easy A. And she’s in the staged musical version of the 1988 cult favorite film Heathers—as Heather Duke, originally played by Shannen Doherty—which has performed to sold-out crowds at New York’s famed Joe’s Pub.

So really, she’s poised to show you big things. Limousine-worthy things, perhaps. But for now, my beat-up Honda Civic—in this state because I ran out of time to clean it—is serving as humble transport as I tag along on Lakin’s recent visit home.

First, we call on her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, Helen Niedwick, who lives in a tidy little Roswell condo where paintings of Jesus feature almost as prominently as Lakin’s promotional stills. Next to the fireplace sits a basket of magazines—including the issue of Jezebel with Lakin on the cover and the issue of Vanity Fair with Lindsay Lohan’s bloated lips on the cover—as well as a periodical on the culture of the Czech Republic.

Though Lakin’s sense of humor can veer toward the dark and ironic—she gleefully participated in a live Hollywood reading of a banned Family Guy episode that focused on abortion—she enjoys the more G-rated banter she shares with her beloved granny.

“Can you read that Czech magazine, Grandma?” Lakin asks.

“No, I can’t read Czech. I speak it, but like a twelve-year-old kid,” says Grandma, whose brothers and sisters were born there. “Remember when we went to Prague, nine years ago?”

“When we visited your cousin in the country? They had been baking for us for two days, and they had chickens out back, and beautiful gardens,” Lakin says. “And then we’re going into the side bedroom, and I trip on something, and I look down and I think, ‘Oh, a bearskin rug.’ But . . . no . . . floppy ears . . .”

“It was their dog.” Grandma laughs. “They turned it into a rug. We have a picture of it, don’t we, Christine?”

“Maybe they thought he had such a nice coat, they shouldn’t waste it?”

Grandma shrugs.

Lakin was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1979 but moved to Roswell when she was six. Her parents still live in the contemporary four-bedroom house where she grew up, and her room remains the same, all pink carpeting and floral bedding (though her parents finally bagged up her stuffed animals and old school uniforms). She’d often stand on the step of the living room’s stone fireplace and perform karaoke, once staging her own version of the Jerry Lewis telethon. At her own urging, her parents put her in acting classes at Atlanta Workshop Players in Alpharetta.

Lakin’s first professional audition came at age seven, a “Got milk?” commercial she didn’t get. At age eleven, she was cast as “young Rose,” the daughter of a Confederate spy, in The Rose and the Jackal with Christopher Reeve. It was a speaking part—and a crying one.

“Chris Reeve was such a nice man,” she remembers. “He was very tall and thin, and I remember he met me at the pool of the hotel while I was waiting to do my costume fitting. His hulking hand grabbed my little paw and shook it as he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I couldn’t believe Superman kissed me. I vowed never to wash my cheek again.”

Then Lakin got the role of tomboyish daughter Alicia “Al” Lambert on the 1991 network television show Step by Step, which was on the air for about seven years. While Lakin’s father worked as an executive for the technology and cable company Arris, she and her mother moved part-time to Los Angeles, returning to Georgia one week a month, with Lakin attending the Lovett School in order to maintain some sense of normalcy—a stipulation her mom built into the contract. Lovett faxed and overnighted lesson plans to Lakin’s Los Angeles tutors so she could keep up with her classmates.

“I don’t have siblings, which is probably the biggest reason why my parents were able to give the attention to my career that they did,” she says.

The cast of Step by Step, which included Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers, became like an extended family.

“They are some of the most wonderful, graceful, kind people; I’m still in touch with them,” she says of the stars. “And it was exciting and cool to suddenly be surrounded by all these new brothers and sisters. We’d tease and play and laugh and cry. But it also felt like a dream world. I suddenly had school in a trailer with a tutor. I didn’t have many friends my age, other than the kids from the show, so it was wonderful being at work but obviously a big transition for me and my family the first few years.”

The show made Lakin famous for a time, making it difficult to go to malls and skating rinks in Atlanta without being recognized and crowded by fans, and stamped her with the bittersweet label of “child star,” one that’s taken years to shed.

“I’ve seen all your movies,” Grandma says as we sit for a spell in her living room. “But I didn’t like all of them.”

Lakin laughs. “Which ones didn’t you like?”

“Of course I didn’t care for, um, uh . . . the one where you had your face so—”

The Hottie and the Nottie?”

Grandma’s nose wrinkles up like she’s smelled something bad.

“You could have done so much better,” she says. “They didn’t have to make you look so ugly.”

“That was part of the experience, I guess,” Lakin says.

One role that was a challenge for her was Grace Cunningham in 2007’s Georgia Rule, the Garry Marshall movie that also costarred Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman, and Lindsay Lohan. Lakin has nothing but love for Marshall—he’s since cast her in several projects, including a stage version of Happy Days—and no problem with Huffman or Fonda.

“Lindsay, her troubles had come to a peak,” Lakin says, glancing at the cover of Vanity Fair by the fireplace. “She’s a very young girl with a lot of money and not a lot of guidance. It’s frustrating. It’s not like I haven’t seen it happen before. We all have. But when you’re someone like me who has gone so far out of my way not to become that—it’s just frustrating to see that she has a lot of opportunities and she squanders them.”

As the film’s producer noted in a letter to Lohan (which was later leaked online), the actress was chronically late to set, complaining of exhaustion. “We are well aware that your ongoing all-night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called ‘exhaustion,’” the letter said. “We refuse to accept bogus excuses for your behavior.”

She would regularly show up nine hours late, Lakin says. “That was every day. Jane Fonda tried to help her and give her some real tough love. People were genuinely trying to help her.”

Lakin has a sort of weary, old-soul outlook on the perils of child stardom. She wasn’t trolling clubs as a preteen, berating bouncers with a “Don’t you know who I am? I’m on a TGIF sitcom, dammit!” attitude. Her parents were present during her formative years and kept her out of trouble.

“It’s not like I was a perfect kid. I did my fair share of stupid stuff in high school, like anyone,” she says. “I had a healthy fear of my parents, and I certainly never wanted to disappoint them. That would be the worst thing I could ever do. Thankfully, the Internet then wasn’t what it is now. So I could make mistakes and learn from them instead of having them glorified, positively or negatively, by the world.

“I’ve been around for a long time, but I had to reinvent myself as an adult,” she says. “A lot of people still wanted to see me as a kid actor, and it was surprising to me how long it takes to get them to take you seriously in another way. You almost have to work harder than someone who is brand-new.”

Grandma grabs a pair of two-pound dumbbells and starts doing curls. “I can’t waste time,” she says, then looks earnestly at Lakin. “Your visits are always so short.”

“I know, Grandma.” Lakin smiles.

With just one more night left before her return to Los Angeles, Lakin has plans for lunch and then a visit with a friend she’s known since third grade. The actress needs a ride—she never thinks to rent a car when she’s “home”—so my car will have to do.

“Sometimes people stop me when I’m out. They say, ‘I know you. I know that I know you,’” Lakin says. “Then they say, ‘Wait, are you in my yoga class?’”

For now, that’s fine—Lakin isn’t striving for paparazzi-stalked uberstardom. She lives in Los Angeles, where she likes to watch The Office and Survivor with her longtime boyfriend. And while she enjoys working in film and television, she gets the most satisfaction out of live theater and would love to do a big Broadway musical.

“Coming from a place like this, my parents are very down-to-earth and keep me honest. Everybody needs that. If you’re in it for the long haul, the best thing you can do is not think about it in the short term. It’s a super-fickle business. I’m so appreciative for every job I get.”

Photograph by Aaron Fallon

I Heart a Sugar Daddy

“Can we line up and slap you?” That was the reaction I got from my closest friends when I told them about my new adventure in online dating. They were appalled.
Now, at first glance my profile reveals nothing slap-worthy: “I’m considerate and sweet yet independent and am looking for the same. I’m open-minded . . . I take good care of myself mentally and physically and try to focus on the good in life.”
It’s the site itself, and what it stands for, that has inspired such disgust from my friends and led me to keep all this a secret from my family, and to stay anonymous here. The dating site is called sugardaddyforme.com, and it connects wealthy men with women who want to be financially cared for. I know what it sounds like, and why my friends were so grossed out: It seems seedy, like prostitution.
On some level I agree with the doubters, because I’ve always thought it was shallow to want someone with money. If you’d told me five years ago I’d be doing this, I would have laughed in your face. I would’ve imagined nothing but gender role stereotypes and gross expectations on both sides. I’m the kind of person who has always been fiercely independent and paid her own way.
But I’m also the kind of person who is broke, and tired of it. I grew up with no money, the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preacher who put my needs second to those of his flock. We were a family of five who got by on $20,000 a year, eating government cheese. I went to college on a grant and eventually cofounded a fairly successful business in Atlanta. Despite that success, my financial situation has never improved much. I still can’t really afford to go to the doctor or the dentist, and when I’m thirsty at the gas station, I do some silent accounting to decide whether I should buy a fountain soda. Unfortunately, the men I’ve dated over the years have been just as strapped as me. One guy had legal issues, and we’d fight all the time about them. I’d want to talk about it, and he’d run out. It drove me up the wall and made me insecure, but I kept trying. Another lied to me, mostly about whether he was spending time with an ex-girlfriend. I’d give him the benefit of a doubt, even going to therapy with him so we could work out those differences. But he kept lying about who he was, and eventually I just had to walk away.
So I found myself, at thirty-five, single and exhausted and yearning for something casual and simple and comfortable. That’s when I heard about sugardaddyforme.com and signed up on a lark. The offers came fast. One guy invited me for a weekend away in Chicago. Another, a fifty-something retiree, said he wanted to go on a date but never followed up. Eventually I connected with a guy I’ll call Kevin. In the photos on his profile he was hot: a young-looking forty-something with bulging biceps visible through the sleeves of his button-down shirt. He was a rich executive in Atlanta, and we started by e-mailing and then talking on the phone. We both wanted something casual but very honest, and he said he wanted to pamper me.
We planned to meet for our first date at my house, but he changed his mind and asked me to meet at the Best Buy parking lot on Moreland Avenue. Sitting in my beat-up car, waiting for him to pull into the lot, I didn’t feel scared. I was excited to be trying on a new persona and dipping a toe into a mysterious dating practice far outside my comfort zone of hipster bars, galleries, and setups by friends.
When he pulled up I realized why he wanted to meet here instead of on my narrow street: He was driving a gigantic blue Hummer. He threw open the door. The stereo was blaring Lil Wayne, and as soon as I hopped in he handed me a blunt. “Let’s skip all the awkward small talk,” he said, flashing a great smile. “Let’s pretend like we’ve known each other forever. So how was your day?”
I was at ease immediately. We talked about our professional roles, his at a big-name corporation and mine at my small business. I was attracted to him, and appreciated that he understood what I wanted: fun and financial support. No apologies.
Then the bubble burst: He told me he was married with kids. He explained that he and his wife had an “arrangement”: She knew he was unhappy, and she stuck around for the financial stability; divorce was unnecessary. I felt really uneasy about this at first—it clashed with my formerly staunch sisters-watch-out-for-each-other stance—but I admired that they were being real with each other and not faking it like a lot of married people do. A lot of the so-called rules for happiness don’t work out in the real world. I could relate to a woman who wanted the security of the marriage but liked an open arrangement. So I moved past it.
We spent most of the night at a club in Midtown where he was a VIP, and he held my hand and it felt good to be his arm candy. Maybe I was role-playing, and maybe it was cheesy when he called me “baby” and “honey” and fed me Patrón shots, but I liked it. When he dropped me off at my car at the end of the night, he insisted that I call and check in on my way home. He wanted to make sure I was safe. I liked this. So many of my boyfriends had never really seemed to care that much. It was nice to be coddled and protected.
It was after this first date that I decided to tell my closest friends during a dinner party. And really, I understood their misgivings. It makes sense that you might assume that with this kind of dating, the “sugar baby” should expect to offer sex. That it’s a transaction, and that sex is the return on the sugar daddy’s investment. I don’t view it that way. I don’t know if I’d have a different take if, say, my date had given me a diamond necklace or a wad of cash. But let’s be real here: All dating is transactional. Maybe the guy expects just closeness or gratitude, but maybe he expects sex. The transaction just isn’t discussed explicitly, because that’s not romantic. But with sugar daddy dating, there’s no coy behavior or uncertain terms. Everything is out on the table.
This explanation doesn’t placate some of my friends. None would admit during the dinner that they, too, fantasize about being taken care of and being involved in something simple and straightforward. Though later, one-on-one, a few told me that they do—they were just too ashamed to admit it to the group.
But not long after telling them I was happy as a sugar baby, I met someone outside the site, in the normal world. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s the best guy I’ve ever gone out with. He’s hot, a manly man who works with his hands. He’s also artistic, and we have an amazing intellectual and spiritual connection. He’s caring and considerate, and every time we get together he brings me a thoughtful gift, usually something he’s made.
But I’m not ready for this kind of connection. And I’ve realized that even though he’s the best guy I’ve met so far, I have higher standards. I can and should shoot for the moon. Every small detail about a guy matters now, and I can’t excuse things that don’t measure up to my expectations.
In this case, the greatest guy in the world is broke. So I cut it off, telling him I wasn’t ready for a relationship, not telling him why he wasn’t right and who else I’ve been seeing, and how I meet them. He said he’d wait, but I have to move on. —Anonymous, as told to Christine Van Dusen

Deep Freeze: Reproductive Biology Associates

Allison Frank keeps coloring books in her office, a tiny onesie in her dresser drawer, and a syringe in her kitchen because she wants to be a mother. All she’s missing is a baby.

This is why, for twelve mornings in a row in January, she sat on her black leather couch and hunched over the coffee table to mix her injection: saline solution plus Bravelle, a highly purified form of a hormone that stimulates egg growth. Then she loaded the syringe, flicked the tip, pushed the plunger gently to release any air bubbles, lifted her shirt, and injected herself in the abdomen. Then she left for work.

Allison Frank
Photograph by Alex Martinez

In her job as a salesperson at Mercedes-Benz of Buckhead, Frank kept up her more typical routines—extolling the virtues of luxury cars to Atlanta’s elite, sweeping in when a colleague was overwhelmed by a buyer with pesky toddlers in tow, remembering to get cakes for her coworkers’ birthdays—but all the while she was preoccupied with what was going on inside her body. Her eggs were growing. She had the ultrasound pictures on her phone to prove it.

On days thirteen through sixteen Frank shifted to once-daily shots of Ganirelix to control her hormones. And on day seventeen she was injected with Ovidrel to trigger the release of the mature eggs from her ovaries. Thirty-six hours later, her mother drove her to Reproductive Biology Associates in Sandy Springs. There Frank changed into a hospital gown and warm socks with rubber pads on the bottom and was sedated. Ten minutes later she woke up, went into the recovery room, and then went home.

The fourteen eggs that the doctors extracted from her body are now frozen in a drum that looks like a propane tank. More than 700 eggs exist in similarly suspended animation here in the lab at Reproductive Biology Associates. Many were preserved over the last decade using a slow-freeze technique that can create ice crystals on the cell and damage the egg, making survival after thaw more difficult. That’s the chief reason fewer than 600 frozen-egg births have been reported worldwide and that the procedure is still classified as experimental.

Frank’s eggs are different. When they were frozen in January, RBA used a new method called vitrification—a technology, pioneered at this clinic, that its architects say will revolutionize the world of assisted reproduction, making the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) less costly and more efficient than ever before.

Frank’s eggs are different for another reason. Unlike the vast majority of the eggs in the bank at RBA, they’re not waiting to be picked out of a line-up for use by a couple who cannot conceive on their own. She’s part of a small but growing number of women who are taking advantage of egg freezing as a means to preserve their own fertility. RBA is one of the few clinics to offer this service to women thirty-eight and younger as part of a new “egg bank” program, launched in 2008.

At thirty-seven, Frank has met plenty of Mr. Rights, but never at the right time. In recent years she has come to realize that fertility is precious and fades steadily. So she paid about $10,000 for medication, the retrieval procedure, and the storage of her eggs in RBA’s bank. “I’m still optimistic I’ll be able to start a family the old-fashioned way,” Frank says. “But just in case it doesn’t happen soon or happen at all, I have a little insurance policy.”

Fertility treatment is big business, spawned by the sometimes all-consuming human desire to have children and the biological reality that some bodies just can’t do it or need help in the endeavor. RBA has been pushing the limits of this branch of medical treatment since 1983. The private company was cofounded that year by Dr. Hilton I. Kort, who studied with Sir Patrick Steptoe, the doctor who in 1978 carried out the world’s first successful human IVF birth. In that case, the mother’s egg was removed, put in a petri dish, fertilized with the father’s sperm, then implanted back in the mother’s uterus. The resulting baby, Louise Brown, made big headlines and kicked off significant controversy over whether doctors were playing God by introducing science into reproduction.

The controversy has grown and shifted with every advance in assisted-reproductive technology. In 1984, when Georgia’s first baby from a frozen embryo was born, concerns arose that these fertilized eggs—which many people believe are living beings—might end up “abandoned” if a couple no longer needed them. In fact, there are now more than 400,000 such embryos in clinics around the country. (RBA says it has “very few” but did not give an exact tally.)

Researchers and doctors realized that a solution to these ethical and moral conundrums was to focus on the eggs alone, since most people don’t view eggs on their own as “life” (they “die” every month when a woman has her menstrual period, the way skin cells die when they slough off). Clinics already stored anonymous sperm for later use; why not do the same with eggs? RBA created an anonymous egg donation program in 1992, the first such program in Georgia; within five years the clinic reported the first births in the Western Hemisphere from frozen donor eggs.

Egg donation has its share of critics, who say young and naive women are treated like fertility factories, pumped full of damaging chemicals without being informed of the risks. And while using eggs instead of embryos does erase some moral issues, there are still some subtler concerns. “The issue is not the egg-freezing itself,” says Paul Root Wolpe, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics and director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. “It’s that the freezing is one of the steps on the way to IVF and the creation of an embryo. Eventually you’ll still be faced with the same ethical concerns.”

Dr. Andrew A. Toledo is a religious man, so the way he grapples with these dilemmas in his work as RBA’s medical director is to remind himself that this is the patient’s choice—he doesn’t push IVF, but he provides it. And he uses it, too; his second wife recently gave birth to a child conceived through IVF at RBA, using her own “fresh,” or unfrozen, eggs. There’s a photo of the happy family in his office, along with a framed four-leaf clover and a stone engraved with the message “Miracles Do Happen.”

Toledo would probably put a P.S. on the back of that rock: Miracles do happen, but for women with advancing maternal age, those miracles often require a lot of scientific and medical help. Women are waiting longer and longer to have children, and for that they pay a price with their fertility. Though a female fetus is born with 2 million potential egg cells, the number drops to 300,000 by puberty, and a total of only 500 will be ovulated at a rate of once a month. To illustrate the result of this continual egg loss, Toledo pulls out a chart and points to the bars that go from tall to short across the page. “By age thirty-five a woman’s chances of conceiving per month is decreased by half,” Toledo says. “The downward slope continues until, by age forty-five, the natural fertility rate per month is approximately 1 percent. That’s what a lot of women don’t realize. They think they look very healthy and don’t look their age, but the eggs act their real age.”

Like so many patients who get that speech in Toledo’s office, Allison Frank hadn’t really known her fertility could run out so quickly. The where-did-I-come-from filmstrips she watched in grade school health class didn’t discuss this, and the after-school specials about teen pregnancy sent one message loud and clear: If you have unprotected sex you will get pregnant, no matter what, no matter when. As an adult, she saw the magazine covers featuring stars in their forties and fifties who were pregnant or gave birth to healthy babies—Cheryl Tiegs, at fifty-two, insisted her surrogate-born twins came from her own eggs—and continued to buy into the fertility myth.

It was only after Frank saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that she realized time might be running out. Featured on the program was Martha Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, who at forty-two was spending an average of $28,000 a month on fertility treatments and high-tech procedures and getting nowhere.

Frank went to her gynecologist, Dr. Michael D. Randell in Atlanta, and explained her situation: I’m single, I want to have a family the conventional way, but at almost thirty-seven I’m afraid that by the time all the stars align my eggs will be no good. So he suggested she visit RBA. There, in January, she met with Dr. Daniel B. Shapiro, RBA’s former medical director and now the head of its new egg bank. He told her about a way she could stop her biological clock cold.

Picture a flock of penguins toddling to a hole in the ice and flopping one at a time into the frigid water. Now picture one brave penguin dive-bombing off an ice cliff into the freezing pool below. This,
Shapiro says, helps illustrate the difference between the slow-freezing method that’s been in practice since 1986—with limited success—and the new technology called vitrification.

With the old, slower method, the freezing process takes place in stepwise fashion over a period of about ninety-eight minutes. If there’s any water left in the egg at all, the slow process makes it possible for ice crystals to form. “Ice crystals act like little knives on the inside of the cell, stabbing the cell from the inside out, possibly cracking the egg, making it nonviable,” Shapiro says.

The vitrification method takes about sixty minutes from start to finish, though the actual “freezing” of the eggs takes less than a second. “It’s actually not true freezing,” Toledo explains. “It’s supercooling and does not promote ice crystal formation.” The survival rate for slow-frozen eggs is 84.1 percent. For vitrified eggs, it’s 93.1 percent. The rate of pregnancy with slow-frozen eggs is between 24 and 42 percent, according to some reports. With vitrified eggs at RBA the pregnancy rate is about 70 percent—similar to the rate with “fresh” eggs.

Another difference between fresh, slow-frozen, and vitrified egg IVF is cost. With fresh eggs—those harvested from a donor, fertilized, then implanted in the mother without any freezing involved—there’s a monetary cost of about $25,000 (lower if a donor is not used). There’s also another, softer cost: Mother and donor must synch their schedules, creating logistical hassles and delaying the process. That softer cost is erased with IVF with slow-frozen eggs, but the financial cost is about the same. With fast-frozen eggs at RBA, a round of IVF is priced much lower: about $16,500. The main reason for the price difference is that vitrified eggs have higher survival and success rates than slow-frozen eggs, and unlike fresh eggs can be stored and used whenever.

That price tag already is catching the eyes of infertile couples not just from Atlanta but from across the country and abroad. “The majority of patients who are coming in to do this are couples using donor eggs,” Toledo says. Another market for this service is among women who are preparing to undergo medical treatments like chemotherapy that may leave them infertile. Finally, there are women like Frank, freezing their eggs as a means to stop the biological clock.

“We’re now just starting to see young women come in from all over, specifically to freeze their eggs before it’s too late. That typically costs around $7,000 for the freezing and for storage in the bank for two years. After that there’s a nominal fee for keeping them here,” Toledo says.

In some ways, it may seem like this procedure should be a no-brainer for financially secure women in their twenties and early thirties who want children but aren’t ready to have them yet. But psychologists caution against taking such a casual approach. “Doing this doesn’t mean you can set your own biological clock. You can put a snooze on it and you’ll know that when you come back in your forties you’ll have eggs to use, but you still may not be able to get pregnant exactly when you want to be,” says Marjorie Blum, an Atlanta-based psychologist who has been working with issues of fertility for twenty-five years. “This does give a greater amount of independence—you don’t have to rush into a relationship or be a parent before you’re ready, just to have a child—but there’s still no guarantee.”

It’s true; RBA makes no guarantees. But the clinic is proud of its success rate so far. RBA’s first successful slow-freeze IVF birth took place in 1997. As of February 2009, there have been ninety-four transfers and thirty-two deliveries, and there were thirty-three ongoing pregnancies.

So far there hasn’t been a significant increase in abnormality reported among babies born from this form of IVF. Certainly with all kinds of IVF there often is a higher incidence of multiple births, as with the controversial California woman known as “Octo-mom,” who gave birth to octuplets after six frozen embryos were implanted. (In response, some Georgia legislators have introduced a bill that would limit the number of embryos created in a cycle and allow a maximum of two implanted in patients under forty and three in those forty and older.) But some studies, including one published in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are beginning to suggest that IVF babies of all kinds—fresh embryo, frozen embryo, fresh egg or frozen—could have a higher likelihood of defects such as a hole in the heart, a cleft lip, or an improperly formed esophagus. IVF also has been associated with rare imprinting disorders such as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which can increase the risk of childhood cancer. And some researchers believe that IVF babies are more likely to develop autism, though some experts point to a different link: Autism often occurs in the offspring of highly intelligent parents, and it’s those kinds of parents—older, wealthier, well-educated—that often seek IVF for infertility. These findings are considered preliminary, and researchers say they believe IVF does not carry excessive risks.

At RBA, one set of triplets from vitrified IVF was born early, but all three children are now healthy. In another instance there was a major complication during delivery that was unrelated to RBA. Really, it’s too soon to say whether babies born from vitrified eggs will have more problems; the technology is too new. “Three percent of all deliveries have a major abnormality. That hasn’t changed in more than 100 years,” Shapiro says. “Will there be a problem with [vitrified-egg IVF]? I don’t think so. But there might be. I have to concede that.”

Other clinics aren’t waiting to see what happens. They’re trying to jump on this trend before a company like RBA can go nationwide (something the clinic is considering now). But at this point, very few clinics use vitrification technology. It takes a very delicate hand and precise timing not only to freeze the eggs but to warm them and inseminate them properly. Very few practitioners in the world have mastered the processes. “Although we are not the only practice freezing eggs, we have become the only one in the world to make egg-freezing routine,” Shapiro says.

After hearing all of this from Shapiro, Frank was sold. She decided she would dig into her savings and ask her mother for a loan to cover the cost of getting her eggs vitrified and stored in RBA’s egg bank, where they’d reside until she was ready to use them.

“Look at that little thing. It’s my ladybug.” Frank was lounging on the couch in her cozy Inman Park condo, gently stroking her ultrasound photo with one finger, almost cooing over the cluster of cells that did indeed look like the insect. In just a few days she would be heading into the lab at RBA to get these eggs removed for freezing.

She once thought life started much later than this—maybe when the baby’s heart began to beat? But looking at the fuzzy black-and-white picture, she saw the eggs as something tangible, emotional, important and alive. “They’re delicate little things,” she says. They contain her genetic material and will be meshed with the genetic material of a beloved partner to create a beautiful baby. That’s always been her hope, anyway. She’s wanted to be a mother ever since she was diapering and babysitting her four younger siblings while growing up in Rochester, New York.

The night before her egg-retrieval procedure, Frank woke up again and again. She wasn’t scared of going into the operating room. She was thinking about the fact that having the eggs frozen would create so many questions she couldn’t yet answer: If I date a guy and tell him I’ve frozen my eggs, will he think I’m weird and desperate? What if I fall in love with a man and we’re able to conceive children on our own—what will happen to the eggs? Will I be okay with donating them to infertile couples, and knowing there could be a child out there who is, biologically, partly mine? Would I donate them to close friends, like the one who was recently diagnosed with cancer and now can’t conceive? If I don’t find the right partner for myself, when will be the right time to go ahead and do this on my own?

If Frank doesn’t get married, she assumes she’ll have some of her eggs artificially inseminated with specially selected donor sperm and implanted into her uterus. If she gets a successful pregnancy, she’ll move to Florida to be with her mother and her mother’s partner and create a new, improvised kind of family. If somehow Frank’s frozen eggs don’t survive to become viable embryos that she’s able to carry to term, her plan B will most likely involve donated embryos. She hasn’t ruled out adoption, but deep down she wants most to carry a child. The gestational connection is more important than the genetic.

At 7:30 on a January morning, Frank got in the car with her mother and headed to RBA. In the operating room, she changed into her hospital gown and was sedated. A doctor inserted a wand-like ultrasound probe into her vagina to locate her eggs, then passed a needle through the vaginal wall and into her ovary to remove fourteen. Ten minutes later the procedure was over, and Frank was in recovery, her abdomen just a little bit sore, as though she’d done too many crunches or been punched. Soon after, she was sent home to rest.

That’s when the embryologists went to work in the lab. In this white-walled room, a silent scientist in scrubs and a paper bonnet placed one of Frank’s eggs in a petri dish and carefully carried it to a metal table with a plastic hood, then set a simple kitchen timer to thirty minutes. Under the watchful eye of Dr. Zzolt Peter Nagy, the lab’s director and the scientist who helped pioneer the vitrification technique, she waited. When the timer beeped, she turned her attention back to the dish and, using an enzyme found in the head of sperm, gently rubbed off the cells that surrounded the egg. The egg was left for two hours, and then vitrification began.

The scientist withdrew all of the water in the cell and replaced the fluid with a series of solutions designed to protect the egg during the fast freeze, each round of solution stronger than the last. She removed the egg from the petri dish and placed it inside a skinny tube that looks like a plastic cocktail stirrer, then put that tube inside a larger tube and placed it on a hook. Then she opened a metal drum. White fog poured out like the smoke from a witch’s cauldron. The scientist lowered the hooked tube through the clouds of liquid nitrogen and into the drum. She shut its lid and wheeled the drum toward the wall.

When the day comes that Frank is ready to use her eggs, the tube will be removed from the drum and the eggs thawed. Then they’ll be placed in a dish next to Nagy’s $40,000 microscope. Through the lenses he’ll watch as sperm—maybe from Frank’s husband, maybe from a donor—squiggle in another dish. He’ll isolate one sperm, then turn a dial that controls a pin-thin stick and gently roll the stick over the sperm’s tail to temporarily immobilize it. Using another dial, he’ll suck the sperm into a syringe. Then he’ll bring one of Frank’s thawed eggs into the frame. Using his dials he’ll maneuver a needle to the edge of the egg, ever-so-carefully pierce its skin, and inject the sperm inside. Then he’ll coax the embryo out of the frame and repeat the process with several more eggs.

Frank hasn’t had dreams about this process, or about frozen babies or thefts or power outages at the clinic and unintentional thaws. She sleeps the sleep of the calm and prepared. “I’m glad I did it. I have no regrets. I’m not as pressured, which may help me to find the man I’m supposed to meet,” she says. “My biological clock is ticking, just not so loud.”

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