Paradise in a Bun

By: Lyra Spang

“Everything tastes better in Paradise” boldly claims the Cheeseburger in Paradise website homepage. While the menu boasts Cuban sandwiches and Louisiana gumbo along with its cheeseburgers and fries, my research indicates that ethnic cuisine and culinary authenticity, as defined by Molz in the context of culinary tourism, are not important here (Molz 2004). Instead, as the name of the restaurant suggests, the dream of being able to escape to an imaginary tropical paradise through a dining experience is the key concept behind this national chain of 33 locations spread across the lower 48#.

This tropical utopia fantasy has been researched and discussed in tourism literature around the world (a few examples are Clancy 2001; Stonich 2000 and Waitt 1997). Foreigners and tourism industries have created images of vacation destinations such as the Caribbean that fetishize certain aspects of the region, such as climate, the beach and the purported friendliness and laid-back attitude of locals, while ignoring other, often less appealing realities such as poverty, crime and inequality (Patullo 1996). Paradise, as it is conceived of within the tourism industry, is a commodity that can be bought and sold, protected, exported, and even sent to hell (Clancy 2001; Stonich 2000; Taylor 1993).

It is in this commoditized, exaggerated form that paradise is represented in the dining experience offered by the American Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant chain. The company was founded by Chris Sullivan of Outback Steakhouse and musical legend Jimmy Buffett, famed for his songs about seaside tropical and subtropical places from Bali to Antigua and the sailing, womanizing, fishing, beaches, and drinking that he and many tourists associate with them. Corporate lore has it that the two men, good friends outside of the business world, came up with the idea over a few beers of peddling paradise to the masses through a unique dining experience.  In Bloomington, Indiana the local Cheeseburger in Paradise is located in a commercial strip near the largest mall in Southeastern Indiana, offering lunch, dinner and an escape to paradise in a decidedly un-tropical location.

To achieve a perfect and consistent island paradise atmosphere the corporation is tightly managed. All restaurants are company owned. There are no franchises. Each restaurant conforms to company guidelines that ensure that ambiance, menu and music are practically the same in each location. Managers of each restaurant communicate with headquarters via email and through quarterly in-person meetings. Like many restaurant chains, everything from the music played to the food served helps to convey a certain feeling to the customer which is repeated at each location. While managers have some leeway in how their operation is run, the tropical paradise concept is the driving force behind the management of each location and its achievement requires close adherence to company policy. Paradise, in a word, is generic.

This conformity is expressed in many ways. A woman in corporate headquarters compiles the musical playlist used in all 33 restaurants based on a formula: 20 percent Jimmy Buffett songs, with the flagship song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” played on an hourly rotation and “Its 5 o’clock somewhere” played at 12:30 PM and 5PM. The remaining 80 percent of songs are selected from 80’s tunes and contemporary hits meant to appeal to a broad range of listeners, young and old alike. The manager at the Bloomington restaurant has cut out several songs that he felt weren’t “appropriate” to the more family friendly environment of his particular tropical paradise, but generally speaking the same music is heard at all 33 locations. Similarly, a chef originally from Outback Steakhouse designed the menu and seasonal specialties with American tastes in mind, and the same recipes are followed in every Cheeseburger in Paradise kitchen across the country. According to the manager at the Bloomington location, none of the dishes are too spicy and they appeal to a broad range of customers, so there has been little need for menu adaptations at the individual restaurant level. There is a feedback loop for restaurant level input. Customer favorites get mentioned at quarterly meetings, in fact, the manager at the Bloomington location helped to bring back crab cakes, a great favorite at his restaurant, to the company wide menu in the form of an appetizer. However, attempts at local culinary innovation are not supported by the corporate structure, which ensures uniform “island-themed” menus across the country.

This tight corporate management style ensures that regardless of actual location, the visitor to a Cheeseburger in Paradise will experience the same thing no matter where they are: a carefully crafted experience meant to simulate a generic tropical island vacation. “Welcome to your local Island get-away!” invites the website. “We all need an occasional dose of paradise. An oasis where we can leave the stress of everyday life behind and let the relaxing rhythms of the island soothe our senses.” Warm Caribbean colors, murals of ocean-side sunsets, tiki-bar style thatched roofs over the bar, fun fruity drinks, palm tree logos, carvings of happy tropical fish and the occasional surfboard help transport the customer to an imaginary pan-tropical vacation paradise, “Where the food is awesome, the cocktails are cool and the locals are friendly. Welcome to Cheeseburger in Paradise” (Cheeseburger in Paradise Website).

As the manager of Bloomington Indiana’s Cheeseburger in Paradise put it “this is a place to relax, to forget about what’s out there” as he gestured towards the strip mall parking lot stretching behind the restaurant’s location. The tropical beach vacation concept has a broad appeal, and it was because of that idea that this particular manager got involved in the company, starting out at one of the other locations from the moment of the chain’s establishment in 2002 and opening the Bloomington restaurant in 2005. The association with Jimmy Buffet also provides a draw.  As the manager noted, “there are a lot of parrot-heads# out there.” While the warm island get-away evoked by the restaurant does not point to a specific mapped location (menu offerings use names and highlight ingredients that range from islands of the South Seas to those of the Caribbean, juxtaposing Bali with Jamaica, jerk chicken with “Thai” hot wings), geography certainly does tell a story about the demand for paradise across mainland America. The majority of the restaurants are located in regions far from the Caribbean. Five are located in landlocked Indiana, with many found in New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and also in Kansas, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Delaware and New York. Only two are found in Florida, the point closest to the actual paradise of Buffett’s songs. The island paradise appeal of the restaurant chain, it seems, is most successful in the places where direct comparison with a real tropical environment is difficult to achieve.

Originally the founders intended for all of the restaurants in the chain to have live music every night of the week. In the Bloomington location this idea only lasted the first year, as many customers complained that it was too loud to enjoy conversation while eating. Unlike at some other locations, the main profit for this Cheeseburger in Paradise is not the bar, but the food. People come to enjoy a meal with friends or family and like to be able to hear each other talk while doing so. For this reason the manager now only has live music on special occasions. In some other locations, however, the live music tradition has continued. Because the menu and décor, as well as piped in music, are relatively inflexible, the Bloomington manager exercises his creativity in the area of entertainment. Catering to a wide range of customers, from “fraternities and sororities” to “local citizens”, the manager has reached out with a karaoke night and a popular Monday night Texas Hold’em tournament. Everyone, it seems, wants an escape to an island paradise, and the manager is happy that there is a good mix of people, both from Indiana University and the town.

Although in Bloomington Indiana the profit comes more from food than alcohol sales, when I interviewed the manager he was excited about the bar menu and the effort that the company invested in the fun details of the fruity drinks. He specifically mentioned the “garnimals” or fruit cocktail garnish made to look like different tropical birds and animals, some complete with little sunglasses, created by a bartender consulting company hired by the Cheeseburger in Paradise Corporation. The company also designed the bar menu used at all the Paradise locations. These fun images seem to epitomize the vacation escapism appeal of the restaurant, emphasizing the exotic through their depiction of tropical animals carved out of tropical fruits, and reinforcing the stereotype of frozen, sweet and heavily garnished alcoholic beverages that appear to be associated with beach tourism from the Maya Riviera of Mexico to the resorts of Waikiki, Hawaii.

These themes of beach, the tropics and animals are also expressed in the decoration of the restaurant interior. Painted wooden cut-outs of tropical fish decorate the entranceway and walls of the restaurant and paintings of fish adorn the walls of the bathrooms. A large wall mural of the sunset over a tropical beach with silhouettes of palm trees graces one of the interior walls of the establishment while the paraphernalia of beach sports: life jackets, paddles and so on, hang from the ceiling. Ceiling fans, bamboo strips and a fake thatch roof around the bar along with fake palm trees complete the visual aspects of the tropical dining experience.

The fun escape from what’s “out there” that the manager described as being the main appeal of his restaurant is the raison d’être of the entire company. Valerie Smith’s definition of a tourist as “a temporarily leisured person who voluntarily visited a place away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change” applies just as easily to a Cheeseburger in Paradise customer as it does to an international jetsetter (Smith 1989:1). An escape to an island vacation oasis is guaranteed just by walking in the door of any Cheeseburger in Paradise.  Apart from the soothing tropical colors, the seaside décor and the Jimmy Buffet accented playlist; the menus and food play a big role in establishing this overtly vacation atmosphere. The main menu makes the link between food and tropical fun clear from the very first page. On the cover, the letter I in the word Paradise is a palm tree. The main image is of a man surfing a wave that turns into lettuce. In the foreground sits a burger, with a pink cocktail umbrella stuck in the top, while in the lower right hand corner is a “snapshot” of a man in swim trunks jumping into a glass full of cold beer, with the ocean in the background. The constant, playful juxtaposition of food and beachside vacation activities that is established here runs throughout the menu.

The main menu is divided into sections, and every section has an image near it that reinforces the chain’s message of a tropical vacation escape. The food items themselves can be roughly divided into three main groups. They are either typical mainstream American chain restaurant food, sometimes presented with a name meant to evoke the tropics, or are slightly dressed up with a special key ingredient or flavor (such as coconut or ginger) that transforms the food item from American to Asian or Caribbean. A “Jamaican” apple crisp, for example, claims island identity through the addition of ginger. Finally, a couple foods that are rarely found in American chains, such as conch fritters, appear in the appetizers section.

The starters section of the Cheeseburger in Paradise menu has a snapshot picture of fried pickles with an ocean background next to it. Appetizers like popcorn shrimp could be found on any chain restaurant menu, but Cruzan (rum) shrimp, spicy queso and chips, Guacamole and chips and “bayou” crab and shrimp dip not only use “tropical” or “beachside” ingredients, they are also described in a way that enhances the exotic tropical feel of the food. The use of foreign words like “queso” instead of cheese evoke far off warm Latin lands, brand names like Cruzan rum convey thoughts of tropical drinks, and adjectives such as “bayou” bring Louisiana to the dinner table in a direct and visceral fashion. Mini-cheeseburgers, fried pickles, chicken wings and deep fried onions, among other offerings, may not be tropical in flavor but they have broad appeal across the lower 48 where the restaurant chain is located, thus ensuring that the average customer will be satisfied that the food at any Cheeseburger in Paradise is indeed “awesome”. The chain’s hot wings come in a range of flavors including “Jamaican jerk”, but this traditionally fiery and complex grilling marinade is significantly toned down for American palettes. The newest starters offering, and also the least mainstream American, are conch fritters, billed as “straight from the Islands”, and prepared “with fresh marinated Caribbean conch meat”.

The soups and salads section continues the formula of fun, vacation themed graphics; island flavored names and twists on American meal favorites. An image of a man happily kayaking in a pickle wedge dresses up this portion of the menu. Gumbo and N’awlins shrimp salad raise the specter of Louisiana (not coincidentally a state featured in some of Jimmy Buffett’s songs), while “calypso” chicken salad and “Costa Rican” steak salad use evocative adjectives to transport the diner even further south. The food items themselves, however, contain no ingredients that are particularly Costa Rican or Caribbean in nature, except, perhaps for the inclusion of pineapple in the calypso chicken salad.  With the Son of a Sailor Salad the menu takes another tack, appealing to parrot heads by naming a mixed vegetable salad after a famous Jimmy Buffett song.

The centerpiece of the menu is three main sections: Cheeseburgers in Paradise (and sides), Island Specialties, and Surfside Sandwiches. All three use words that evoke the tropical island get-away that the chain is known for. The page listing cheeseburgers and sides has a snapshot picture of a burger and fries with the blue ocean in the background, and at the bottom of the page, an image of a cheeseburger with a smiling woman in a white bikini sunbathing on top of it. This section reflects the name of the restaurant, which is also the title of one of Jimmy Buffet’s most famous songs. “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is about a leisure sailor in the Caribbean subsisting on stale bread and “health food” such as bulgur and carrots while dreaming of the cheeseburger, the “big hunk of meat” that he is going to eat the minute he gets to port. It must be served; the song goes on to claim, with onion, lettuce and tomato, fries, and a big pickle accompanied by a cold glass of beer. This quintessential American meal is in no way representative of food normally associated with the Caribbean, but it represents the sensual fantasy of this beef starved sailor. This appearance of an all-American middle class dish in the midst of the tropical seas perfectly represents the dining experience found at all Cheeseburger in Paradise locations, where reassuringly familiar American comfort food appears in an exotic context, perhaps garnished with a touch of the tropics.

In keeping with this theme, the burgers on offer at the Bloomington location do not stray far from American tastes. The burger section of the menu is divided into two sections: “Classic Burgers” and “Heaven on Earth Burgers”. The first burger listed in the “Classic” section is called “the beach burger”. According to the menu description, this burger exactly replicates the requirements laid out by Jimmy Buffet in his famous song: the patty is served with onion, lettuce and tomato, accompanied by fries and “a big kosher dill pickle on the side”. The menu even suggests that a “Paradise Beach Ale” would go perfectly with this meal. The most “island oriented” burger on the menu is a new addition to the “Heaven on Earth” section and is called “The West Indies Burger”. This burger is made out of same beef patty found in the other burgers, and is served on an onion ciabbata roll with goat cheese and spring salad mix. The “West Indies” aspect of the burger appears to be restricted to the “banana jerk chutney” and “coconut mango mayo” condiments that top the sandwich. This “add tropics and stir” approach is found throughout the menu in the form of condiments, sauces and garnishes that top what are otherwise standard American dishes. In some cases even such superficial culinary decoration is discarded in favor of the mere addition of “exotic” adjectives to the name of the dish, as in the case of the calypso chicken salad.

After the central “Cheeseburger in Paradise” section of the menu is the Island Specialties and Surfside Sandwiches and Wraps page, which features a smiling man waterskiing on two perfectly seasoned French fries. Again, the constant juxtaposition of food from the menu with vacation imagery continues the Cheeseburger in Paradise theme of a temporary island escape…if only for lunch. The tropical garnish approach continues to fulfill the company goal of providing familiar food with an exotic, but structurally minor, twist. Fish tacos, Miami-style pressed burgers, crab burgers, and Cuban sandwiches utilize tropical or beach associated ingredients and techniques to render the menu exotic while remaining well within the parameters of American tastes. Names like “Island” quesadilla, “Parrot beach” salmon, “Kingston” pork and “Caribbean” chicken sandwich bring to mind both specific and general locations where a tropical paradise might be found. In the “Surfside” Sandwiches section another nod to the parrot-heads is made with the “Which way do I steer” combo: a soup or house salad and small entrée option named after a famous Buffett song. The desserts section, Sensuous Treats, is named after another Jimmy Buffet song, and features more Island themed foods: a “Jamaican” apple crisp, a Copa Banana pudding parfait, “cocoa rica” cake, chocolate nachos and of course, key lime pie.

The “Cheeseburger in Paradise Tiki Bar Menu” continues the overall Cheeseburger in Paradise theme, claiming that “we all need an occasional dose of paradise” and inviting the potential drinker to “enter the paradise state of mind”.  The menu seems to offer every tropical fruity vacation drink known in the USA, from a signature piña colada featuring coconut, pineapple and papaya and mango puree to mojitos, margaritas, and daiquiris. Scattered across the pages are images of girls with snorkels popping out of milkshakes or diving into margaritas, descriptions of “Jamaican” root beer floats (with coconut flavor added), and other such recipes, and photos of the chain’s famous tropical animal-shaped garnishes like Penelope parrot (an apparently integral part of the signature piña colada).

The manager’s description of the Cheeseburger in Paradise mantra, and the mission of his particular location in Bloomington as an escape from the ordinary is reinforced by the way the food is presented in the menus, the décor, music and overall ambiance, and even with the vacation paradise feel of the company website. In this temporary tourist zone an impression of authenticity is not the goal: the objective is to have fun. Unlike certain ethnic restaurants that try to create an atmosphere where diners feel they are literally transported to a specific country, (Thailand, China, Mexico) here the recreation is diffuse and generalized (Long 2004). The diner is not attempting a culinary voyage to Cuba or Indonesia. Instead, they are being invited to take a trip to an imaginary destination: a generic “island get-away”, a “tropical vacation paradise” where the food is always delicious, the drinks are cold and the friendly locals are there to serve you. The paradise recreated at Cheeseburger in Paradise locations is not meant to evoke a specific island or country. It is a generalized vacation fantasy, the same utopian tropical oasis and even the same generic tourist foods found in vacation resorts across the warmer regions of the world (Patullo 1996). The escape that Cheeseburger in Paradise offers is not to a specific tropical destination. Diners are not here to taste “real” Jamaican, Cuban, Indonesian or Mexican cuisine, but rather are looking for a tropical resort experience, complete with frozen drinks and paper umbrellas. For this reason there is no need to try for authentic representation of Caribbean food at the restaurant chain: that kind of effort is not necessary and might even drive away customers who do not want to deal with new and unusual foods.

Like Molz’ diversionary tourists, Cheeseburger in Paradise clientele are not concerned with the authenticity of the food they eat: whether the jerk chicken would be considered such by a Jamaican is not the point of the experience (2004). The evocative and fun-filled pictures and names that fill the Cheeseburger in Paradise menus help the diner “forget about what’s out there” as our manager put it, and focus on what’s in here: a temporary pass to a relaxed, tropically themed vacation spot with good food that sounds and tastes exotic, without being so unusual as to frighten anyone away. As the website claims, “Jimmy Buffett’s famous song comes to life at Cheeseburger in Paradise as guests wave goodbye to the real world and escape to paradise”. It’s a step out of the ordinary that can be taken without giving up any of the tastes (or comforts) of home, the culinary equivalent of a ten day tropical beach resort vacation.

Sources:

Cheeseburger in Paradise website. URL: http://cheeseburgerinparadise.com/ Accessed December 2009, November 2010.

Clancy, Michael. 2001. Exporting Paradise: Tourism and Development in Mexico. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd.

Long, Lucy. 2004. “Introduction” in Culinary Tourism. Lucy Long ed. University Press of Kentucky

Molz, Jennie Germann.  2004. “Tasting an Imagined Thailand: Authenticity and Culinary Tourism in Thai Restaurants” in Culinary Tourism. Lucy Long ed. University Press of Kentucky

Patullo, Polly. 1996. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. London: Cassell

Smith, Valene L., ed. 1989. “Introduction.” in Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stonich, Susan C. 2000. The Other Side of Paradise: Tourism, Conservation and Development in the Bay Islands. Cognizant Communication Corporation.

Taylor, Frank Fonda. 1993. To Hell with Paradise: A History of The Jamaican Tourist Industry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Waitt, Gordon. 1997. Selling Paradise and Adventure: Representations of Landscape in Tourist Advertising. Australian Geographical Studies. 35:1 47-60.

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