Friday, May 13, 2011

A Beginner's Guide To The Yogurt Mill

The tower of yogurt
If you live in East County, chances are that you not only know of The Yogurt Mill, but you are also probably a fan. For those of you not familiar with the Mill, I took some pictures last night that I will use to illustrate an beginner's guide to this El Cajon standby.

1. Finding Yogurt Mill - If you're coming by freeway, just take Interstate 8 to the Mollison Avenue exit. Head north to the corner of Mollison and Broadway and look for the unique leaning tower tucked back a little between Rodeo Market and a dentist's office. You'll know you're in the right place if you see a Starbucks, Panda Rice, and Subway since they share the same parking lot.

The line from our son's point of view
2. Expect a line - If you go during the day, you may often avoid the crowds, but if you go in the evening, you will likely end up waiting in a long line. Last night was an ordinary Wednesday in May that didn't coincide with school vacations nor particularly hot weather. Still, at 8:30 pm, we faced a twenty minute wait. Though our son was the one who originally requested we go to "Yo-gurt Miiiiiiill," the longer we waited, the more squirrely he became. I explained to him that in life we have to wait for a lot of things, but luckily, in this case, the wait is worth it. He agreed.

3. The line forms to the left - If you happen to get in line right when the line is just starting to spill outside, do not stand so that it heads straight out into the parking lot. This is dangerous! That is why there is a sign on the door with instructions to form the line to the left. You may not think this is a big deal when if the line is just a few people deep outside, but it is common that before you know it, there will be twenty or more. Don’t be surprised if you see the end of the line reach the dentist’s office! This brings me to the next point: Read the signs!

4. Read the signs - As mentioned above, there is a sign about forming the line to the left, and yet people don’t seem to read signs, because we will occasionally arrive to find the end of the line in the middle of the parking lot. We sigh, “Rookies,” and the staff also seems to sigh as they end up having to come outside to redirect the line. The staff is obviously trying to get a few important points across to customers, because there are a lot of signs and most of them repeat the same thing. I can just picture a weary employee muttering, “There is a sign that says we do not accept cash. Why did that customer go ballistic that we won’t take their credit card? I guess it’s time to make another sign...”


5. Bring cash - There are in fact several signs inside the Mill that spell out that cash is king, but just so you know before you go there, I’m writing it here: BRING CASH! I admit that it is jolting to go places these days that don’t accept plastic, but this is one of those places, so just make sure to stop by the ATM on your way.
6. Check Facebook for daily flavors - Yogurt Mill always has about ten flavors to pick from. There are five flavors that they offer daily: chocolate, vanilla, coconut, strawberry, and peanut butter. The other flavors, which include no lactose and nutrasweet options, rotate each day. In the past, we’d hear people call in to see what flavors were being offered on a particular day, because regulars definitely end up waiting for their favorite ones to come into rotation. Now, though, it’s easy to see what flavors are up by checking Yogurt Mill’s Facebook page. I’m personally waiting for York Peppermint Patty’s turn.

This lady came prepared with a coupon.
7. Bring coupons - Plan your visit ahead of time and save yourself a little money. There are always current coupons available for Yogurt Mill, whether you find them in local circulars or if you simply do a search online and print them out. The staff is so used to taking coupons that they do not blink when you present them. Just make sure the coupons have not already expired and that they are actually printed out. I’m guessing that is a rampant enough problem, since there are plenty of signs posted about proper coupon use.

Child size on left; Baby size on right
8. Expect large portions - If you’re on a diet, then you might like how you can control your portion size at self-serve frozen yogurt shops. This is not the case at Yogurt Mill. You don’t serve yourself, and the portions are huge. If you used to frequent the Mill in the past, you’ll remember the insider lingo of getting your sizes “dropped.” I think the logic was that they piled yogurt so precariously high that it was necessary to drop whatever size you ordered into a larger cup. Thus, if you ordered a “Child” size, it ended up in effect being a “Junior” and so forth. It was a fun thought, but perhaps in an effort to save our environment from the doubling up of Styrofoam containers, dropping is now a thing of the past. You’ll see that the new size options simply assume the larger size cups, forgoing the internal layer of smaller cups altogether. Thus, today’s “Child” size is now yesterday’s starting “Junior.” As it is, the smallest size available—the “Baby”—is so generous that this is the size I get for myself and my son. As filling as it is, the name pressures my son into thinking that it’s not enough: “I don’t want a Baby size. I’m not a baby!” I have to tell him, “Too bad. I know you’re not a baby. But, at Yogurt Mill, Baby is what you get.” (Just so you know, out of all of the times we’ve been to Yogurt Mill, I have yet to see anyone ever order a cone!)

Our daughter's frozen yogurt mustache
9. The toppings won't disappoint - In recent years, self-serve frozen yogurt shops have popped up all over the place. My husband I have gone to some of them, thinking that it’s fun to be able to add a whole assortment of different toppings. But, having been to these novel newer shops, I have to say that there is something to be said for sticking to the classics. I think that sometimes having too many options is not always the best thing in terms of quality. At other shops, I may end up piling on ten different toppings, but is it really more satisfying than when I get one topping at Yogurt Mill? Not in my experience. The staff at Yogurt Mill somehow seems to add toppings in just the perfect way. They layer toppings throughout the yogurt--except for the baby size, which just has a single layer on top--so that you are able to enjoy toppings with each bite the whole way through. As someone who is prone to worrying about ridiculous things like budgeting toppings as I eat, this is a detail that I appreciate.

The police cars of the officers waiting in line
10. You might find yourself in the midst of local heroes - When you have young children, you learn that firefighters and police officers are akin to major celebrities. In popular culture, people may make jokes about how police like to frequent donut shops, but in El Cajon, it is much more likely you’ll find them at Yogurt Mill. It is actually quite common that you will see a fire truck or police car parked outside of the Mill, but luckily, the only emergency is usually just one involving a yogurt craving. The exception is that one time when we were in line, there was a girl who actually collapsed and had a seizure. While no rescue workers happened to be present then, they did arrive in record time. And, after the girl was safely carried away by ambulance, the remaining rescuers decided that they may as well make the best of it and stay to enjoy some yogurt before heading out. I couldn’t think of a better reward for a job well done.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Three Simple Lessons From An Evening At Peter Piper

Tonight, my husband and I took our kids on their class field trip to Peter Piper Pizza in Rancho San Diego. We used to frequent this location often with my husband's family since my father-in-law is a big fan of their lunch buffet and he used to treat us to it whenever we could coordinate our schedules.

Last year, though, my husband suffered gallstone pancreatitis and had to get his gall bladder removed. This whole ordeal not only inspired my husband to improve his eating habits in general, but it caused him to give up dairy almost entirely. Not fitting into his new diet, we've pretty much sworn off pizza and so our former Peter Piper dates have gone by the wayside.

The field trip tonight was the first time that we've taken our son back to Peter Piper since he's been old enough to actually enjoy the arcade games. Through the critical lens of an adult, the place is not overly impressive. The games seem overpriced and many of them don't seem like they are working all that well.

But, from the viewpoint of my son and his peers, the place is amazing. I have to toss aside my cynicism when seeing the joy in their faces, and open myself up to the lessons these preschoolers have to offer.

Lesson #1: Keep it simple
Our son "making" his own pizza

When our son's teacher mentioned that the kids would get to make their own pizzas, I imagined--in the least--them rolling out their own dough, ladling out sauce, and sprinkling on cheese. As it turns out, the sweet Peter Piper staff member assigned to be our guide brought out pre-rolled dough with sauce already spread. The only "making" necessary was to disperse the cheese that was pre-piled in the middle of the sauce to the edges. (There was also a cupful of pepperoni that kids could add to their pizzas, but our son didn't want any.)

To my delight, our son was not disappointed in the least by the simplicity of the cooking activity. He seemed to take pride in spreading out the cheese before the raw pizzas were whisked away back into the kitchen to be baked. And, ten minutes later, when the hot pizzas were returned to our table, my son glowed as he announced, "I made that!"

As someone who is often guilty of overdoing things, the pizza was a good lesson that all that is necessary is often the most simple.

Lesson #2: Enjoy the game

Even not being that into tickets, our son still came home with these goodies.
Even as a kid, I was kind of a spoilsport. When my parents would take our family to an arcade or carnival, they would give my brother and me each some money. My brother would always spend his money on games, but I always saved mine. I think that fiscal responsibility is important, but seeing my son enjoying games tonight makes me feel bad that I couldn't allow myself to let loose even when I was young.

I am particularly impressed with the way that my son selects the games that he plays. Perhaps his tastes will change as he grows older, but for now, he seems to care more about enjoying the actual gameplay than in winning. Even when he knows that certain games yield more tickets in return, he would rather experience a variety of different games than simply play the same one just to win more tickets.

Lesson #3: Let go of your inhibitions

This last lesson of the night doesn't come from my son, but from one of his classmates. It's a lesson that my son could stand to learn from, too, because he is often shy like me. As evidence of my son's reserve, when the Peter Piper worker was giving the kids a tour of the arcade area, she allowed the children to play some games for free. When she got to the Skeeball section, she asked for volunteers to play, and some kids quickly ran up as fast as she could put tokens into the machines.

With one empty machine left, the worker encouraged my son to play, but as much as I know he likes Skeeball, he just hid behind me and looked at the ground. I can hardly blame him, though, because I have never been the kind of person to raise my hand when a volunteer from the crowd is solicited.

This is where the classmate enters the scene. Not only was this kid happily one of the Skeeball volunteers, he was also the first to step up when the Peter Piper guide brought us to the grand finale of the arcade "tour," which consisted of a brand new game machine that she was quite proud to show off: Deal or No Deal.

To start with, I couldn't believe that this four-year-old kid seemed to understand the concept behind the game, because having only seen the original television show once long ago myself, I am barely familiar with it. The whole experience was surreal. Watching this boy play was like seeing some seasoned adult contestant on a real-life game show. He was so confident, scanning the briefcases with a look indicating he understood that he had to pick the right ones, yet never looking intimidated in the least that a whole crowd had gathered to watch him.

After each round, he kept pressing his luck without hesitation, confidently choosing "No Deal." I know that if I had switched places with him, at thirty years his senior, I would have been nervous having all of these people watch me, and I definitely would have been guilty of being indecisively slow when picking suitcases.

In the end, the kid won the grand prize of 1000 tickets. Just as on a television game show, he didn't disappoint the crowd as he started jumping around with his arms raised in victory. While the game is obviously a matter of luck, I swear that it was his complete lack of inhibition that opened up the gates to fortune.

I don't feel too bad that my son and I are more restrained, because I see the practical benefits of being cautious. All the same, I am inspired that a child so young can have the confidence to stand out in the crowd without the slightest hint of embarrassment and just go for the win.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Announcement: El Cajon Mama Moonlighting For La Mesa Patch

This week, I noticed a tweet from the community news website La Mesa Patch iniviting bloggers to join in the launch of a Local Voices section.

I am honored that I have had the opportunity to provide La Mesa Patch's very first blog entry out of the gate. Check it out: "Joining La Mesa Patch After Having Admired it From the Other Side."

I will continue to maintain El Cajon Mama, particularly when I write about anything El Cajon. I am and will always be proud to represent the city where I live, but I am now happy to claim a second home in La Mesa, even if it is only virtual.

If you are reading this--whether you may live in El Cajon, La Mesa, another part of East County, another region of San Diego County, or else somewhere entirely different altogether--El Cajon Mama welcomes you to this neighborhood hangout on the Web. Please, won't you be my neighbor?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Redbox Exits Downtown El Cajon

The ground at the Broadway 7-Eleven where a Redbox once stood
My husband took the kids on a walk a couple of nights ago and noticed that Redbox machines at two locations that we've used in the past are both now missing: the 7-Eleven at 895 Broadway and the Food 4 Less down the street at 444 Broadway. He had his eye out for these boxes, because he thought it would be fun to check out Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster for our Scooby-Doo fanatic son.

The outdoor Redbox at Food 4 Less has left its mark.

While I don't have much time to do in-depth investigation, I had my interest piqued, and so I have done a little poking around since then. Yesterday, I purposely stopped for coffee before work so that I could I ask a clerk at the Broadway 7-Eleven what happened to the Redbox machine. He said the reason for its removal was "vandalism." According to the clerk, the machine had had its screen smashed in three times since it was installed, and so one day, a Redbox employee just drove up, started emptying the movies from the machine, and then took the whole kiosk itself.

After being dismayed by this story, I checked the Redbox website to verify that both the Browadway 7-Eleven and Food 4 Less locations were no longer showing up as available. I am pretty sure that both establishments were indeed absent from the Redbox locator map, and my next step was to contact Redbox customer service online to inquire about the removal of these locations. Within a few hours, I received a generic response of: "Thank you for your e-mail. Your comments, suggestions & business are important to us. I will share the information you have provided with the appropriate parties."

The reason why I say that "I am pretty sure" that both locations were removed is because this morning when I checked the map again, I was surprised to find that today there is a listing for Food 4 Less on Broadway that indicates "Indoor." I either missed that yesterday--which is entirely possible--or it is lucky timing that I noticed the change. Or, perhaps the Redbox customer service was super quick to respond to my inquiry!

Whatever the case may be, the fact that the Redbox at Food 4 Less, which was once outside the store, is now inside does support a theory that Redbox is trying to find ways to avert vandals. But, if this is the case, is all of El Cajon's downtown really that bad? This morning, to do a little extra research, I went to the 7-Eleven at the corner of Main and Avocado. At this location, too, you can see an outline in the cement where a Redbox used to stand.

No Redbox locations in Downtown El Cajon: Confirmed
Expecting to hear another story about vandalism, I asked the clerk at this 7-Eleven what happened to the Redbox, but she had a different answer. According to her, Redboxes have been removed from "all of Downtown El Cajon." She heard it had something to do with the company not having the correct license or permit. Is this perhaps the case, then? If so, I would feel a lot better knowing that the machines have been removed because of legal restrictions, and not because of rampant vandalism.

The whole idea that a profit-minded company would flee my hometown because the area is deemed too rough is a scary prospect. After all, even though the 7-Eleven on Broadway may have had its screen smashed in several times, I'm sure that it still had to have made money. Whenever driving by, we'd often notice a line of people in front of the kiosk. Even my own my own family enjoys using Redbox, despite the fact that we also subscribe to Netflix.

We are self-admittedly big suckers for any kind of vending machine, and Redbox vends out new release DVDs when we need to fulfill our on-a-whim, movie-watching itch. The movies are well-priced at just a dollar since we always return movies after one night, and we love the convenience of being able to pick-up and drop-off videos at any location. Of course, for whatever the reason may be, the whole convenience factor now has to be amended to read, "pick-up and drop-off at any location outside of Downtown El Cajon."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My Love Letter To Trader Joe's La Mesa

To Trader Joe's La Mesa,

I feel like I have to lay my life on the line just to get some time with you.
After seeing you again yesterday, I am reminded of my conflicted feelings about our relationship. I love you, but at the same time, I also kind of hate you. I feel bad saying this, because I know I'm not being entirely fair to you. After all, the things that I can't stand about you are really not your fault. You have always personally treated me well--I just can't stand the crowd that you seem to attract.

You spice up my life...everyday.

Maybe I just have bad timing. But, it seems like every single time I come to see you, there are countless others who either stop me in my tracks, or else are willing to run me over, seemingly to keep me away from you. Then, as if building up the courage to approach you is not stressful enough, when I finally do manage to meet up with you, there are always more people who keep cutting me off or stopping me in my tracks.

I know that you are popular, and I can completely understand why, but sometimes all of these other people in your life make me question whether or not I should keep on seeing you. In the end, though, I always end up crawling back to you because there is no one else around who has what you have to offer. Believe me. I've been around the block, and in comparison, what you promise is truly one-of-a-kind. Even after a most stressful meeting with you, and no matter how much I may end up cursing your name, I never do leave empty-handed.

I love what you bring to the table.
I guess I just need to step back, take a few deep breaths, and accept that there will always be others in your life. Our relationship has never been an exclusive one, as you know that I am just as guilty of seeing others myself. Having admitted that, you must trust that I am telling the truth when I say that by the end of the day, you leave me feeling quite satisfied. 

So, since I understand that I can't change others--that I can only change myself--maybe what I need to work on is finding better times to come and visit you, when perhaps you are not so busy. And, worst case, I will put up with all of the other people in your life, just as I always have in the past. Don't worry. No matter how worked up I may get, I can't stop coming back for more. You won't get rid of me that easily.

Your hot and cold love,
El Cajon Mama

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Alien Sighting In El Cajon...And Recycling Taking Place

BREAKING NEWS: Alien spotted in Downtown El Cajon!
Before a War of the Worlds frenzy breaks out, let me assure you that while an alien was indeed spotted in El Cajon, it is made out of plastic and belongs to my son. The alien picture was taken today on our drive over to American Recycling.

It's a good thing we went today--the trunk barely closed.
Today, all the stars aligned for my family to cash in our recyclables. We had a rare day off together with no other pressing engagements, and miraculously, our trunk also happened to be clutter-free for once. Ready to head out on some shopping errands, I asked my husband if he would be game for taking in our recycling. Gauging the mountain of empty cans and bottles that had amassed in our back patio over many months, we both agreed that it was time.

We filled my husband's trunk to the max with our bags of containers and headed over to American Recycling, located on El Cajon Boulevard. I am sure that there are other worthy recycling places to try out, but this is our usual spot, and it is a popular one. I'd even wager that there aren't a whole lot of other places besides churches and coffee shops that are as busy on a Sunday before noon.

The lady next to us was busy sorting, too.
If you've never been to American Recycling, here is the drill. You park your car (or walk up, as the case may be) and then go to the area by the office to retrieve some wheeled receptacles, getting a separate bin for each type of material (e.g., aluminum cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles).

This is the office where you exchange your bins for money.
Sort your recyclables, and then wheel the bins back to the office area and wait in line. When it is your turn, one worker will weigh your various bins, and then the office worker will calculate your earnings based on the going price for each material type. You will be given a receipt to sign, and then you'll be handed cash. Once it's your turn, the whole interchange only takes a matter of minutes.

For some reason, the whole process feels like the closest I'll ever get to participating in some sort of shady, back alley operation. We just try to lay low, push our goods forward, wait quietly, take our money, and then bolt. Part of what adds to the mystique is that the workers can seem a little intimidating. This is quite easily an unfair assumption that we could someday debunk if engaging them in conversation. But, whenever we've been there, they are much too busy for idle chatting. Besides, we figure that it takes some tough-looking people to work there, because of the mixed-looking clientele that they serve.

Recyclable blocks
It's also got to be a very messy job. I feel sticky and smelly enough just sorting through our own personal drop-offs. I can't imagine handling these materials for many hours a day. These workers must go home covered with a layer of sticky grime and smelling like a mix of old soda, beer, and mildew. It is definitely not a glamourous or enviable job, but I believe it is an admirable one.

Today's earnings amounted to nearly forty dollars!
While my husband was busy taking care of business with the office, I waited in the car with our kids. I tried to explain the process of recycling to my son, but all that he could focus on were some bales of pressed containers that were stacked on top of a building. Since some of his favorite toys are Legos, perhaps these giant blocks appear from a distance to be like good candidates for play. And, who knows? Maybe someday, these bottles will end up in their next life as part of some child's building block set. Or, perhaps they will even come back as an alien!