Wednesday, February 10, 2010

At Chipotle, the Wooden Nickel Lives On: These Days It’s Worth 6 Bucks.

At last month’s AMAHouston Interactive SIG event, Chipotle Mexican Grill was not only a sponsor. Iliana Rodriguez, the eatery’s Houston marketing consultant, handed out hefty metal coins – each one good for high-quality burrito.

This promotion has the class I’ve come to associate with the Denver-based fast-food chain which is, at the same time, one of the stars in the world of ethical food producers. The branding thread of Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” manifesto weaves its way all through the company’s online presence; it’s also clearly marked right on the metal coin (which plays an active role on the landing page). Nice weight in the hand, too.

So I’m standing there at the sponsor’s table with Rodriguez and Freeman-Leonard’s Steven Leeper, who’s on the Interactive SIG’s steering committee, and I point out that there’s really nothing new under the sun: This promo-coin thing’s been around for years and years, starting with the old wooden nickel. I managed to cram that together with a (prayerfully) short tale about the “old days” and the 5-cent lunch offers by bars and taverns.

I screwed it up – though I’m hopeful Rodriguez and Leeper will forgive me. First glance, wooden nickels don’t have anything to do with old-timey bar lunches. It is true that some histories identify the wooden nickel with the bank failures of the 1930s; in ’33, Blaine, WA issued round wooden coins when its bank failed. Commemorative nickels are then supposed to be an outgrowth of these legitimate wooden nickels. More accurately, though, collectible wooden nickels have been mentioned in print since at least 1888.

The famous tracer of lost catchphrases, Eric Partridge, puts “Don’t take any wooden nickels” back at least as far as the early 1900s. It’s a warning to be watchful for shady practices or goods. (And for mature ad guys with faulty memories.)

To add to the confusion, I also mixed up the free-lunch-with-a-5¢-beer and the nickel lunch…two different but historically accurate things. The free lunch helped win the 1890s beer wars for Adolphus Busch: With beer at five cents a glass, it was a luxury within the reach of everyone, however humble. The nickel, moreover, included a free lunch.

The nickel lunch was itself a common saloon promotion and quite a wonderful deal depending, I note, on which bar or café you favored with your custom.

Can you believe it? I’ve come full circle. Mangled history can’t keep a good promotion idea down. Here’s Chipotle putting the “nickel lunch” idea back to work not with a paper coupon (too easy to ignore) but with a weighty coin. It not only weighs more than today’s nickel. It’s worth more* at Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

*The “rare” 2001 Chipotle coin is selling for $20 on eBay. Thanks to Chipotle Mexican Grill and Iliana Rodriguez for participating in AMAHouston. “New York Bowery lunch counter c. 1910,” 8x10 glass negative, GG Bain Collection, see Shorpy for all the details.


Steven Leeper said...

Hi Richard, great article about the wooden coin. I just read some of your other blog posts and really enjoyed them too.

I was especially intrigued with the “stop-corn-syrup-bashing-without-knowing-what-you’re-talking-about“ commercial and your commentary. Thanks for spreading the burrito love.

Iliana Rodriguez said...

Richard--I had a lot of fun reading your post and sharing it with my Chipotle team! Thanks for taking the time to recognize some good old-fashioned creativity:). We sure appreciate your burrito love! Hope all is great and may you have a wonderful weekend!