October 8th, 2009
"Some people want world peace," says Reed Fish. "Others want to photograph every Sizzler in the USA.
"A dream is a dream..."
Reed and his wife Liz are raising money on the internet to fund a tour of every Sizzler restaurant in America — which they'll photograph. And then self-publish the photos in a book. Called "Every Sizzler in the United States of America."
"Just as there's beauty in every person, there's beauty in every Sizzler," they explain on their fundraising page. "We make the photographs blurry to help bring this out..."
"Hopefully, a gallery show will follow."
And within a few weeks they'd attracted over $2,000. Kodak even donated film. The average donation size was over $50. And they'd proved something important. "We had the guts to do this," Liz wrote on their blog, "and no matter what happens, I'm proud of that."
Image via Google Maps street view
But why Sizzler's steakhouses? "Sizzler is Americana..." their page explains, grasping at the ghost behind this peculiar fascination. "If there isn't one in your town, there probably used to be..." In their web video, the couple fumbles to explain their quest's strange power.
REED: We really feel that chains, and especially Sizzler, tells us a lot about who we are as a culture.
Or, as they suggest in another part of the video.
LIZ: We're doing this so you don't have to.
REED: We're taking one for the team.
So who are these people? Reed Fish is that Reed fish — the screenwriter behind the quirky 2006 romantic comedy I'm Reed Fish, which Variety described as a "Charming, rural version of a pre-wedding panic." Two years ago the real Reed Fish married Liz, a professional photographer. And that's when the weirdness began...
Their Sizzler-rific quest is now 16 percent complete. Reed announces in their video that "We've already shot 34 of the 206..." While there's still 172 restaurants left to photograph, at least they're down to just 150 cities, Liz adds in a blog post. And she provides a glimpse of life on the Sizzler-photographing road.
"Our record so far is six Sizzlers in one day. The six-Sizzler day is actually kind of a rough day — because of navigating, traffic and, honestly — burnout."
It's not the first time someone has tried this. Thirteen years ago, when the web was young, Jason Alan Pfaff launched "Project: Denny's, attempting to visit as many of the chain's 2,500 franchises as possible.
But Reed wants to hit all the Sizzlers — so they're turning to the internet for support. So far "the Fishes" have attracted 38 backers — and three comments. ("Don't forget the menus!") — on the fundraising site Kickstarter. "If our project gets funded on Kickstarter, we're definitely going to try to get it all done before the end of the year," says Reed. ("It would be a mandate," adds Liz.) They've drawn $2025 in pledges, but with just six days left to raise the remaining $10,000 needed.
"But hey — a few weeks ago, if someone had told you 34 people would back The Fishes for almost $1700 (so far) to go photograph every Sizzler in America, would you have believed it?"
I interviewed Liz and Reed Fish about the weirdness, the art, and the secret American passion — and how it all led them on a collision course with a corporation named Sizzler.
10Z: Have you talked to Sizzler?
REED: We have. Essentially, giving them a head's up, because I didn't want them to hear about it from someone else who wasn't me. We had a good conversation — they thought it was a fun idea, and they were excited that it was their brand being promoted. But our strategy is, we're not doing an ad for Sizzler. We don't want to have an adversarial relationship, but we...
LIZ: You're half afraid someone's going to claim offense with it and say, "Okay, I'm going to sue you and prevent you from doing this."
REED: Obviously, this isn't Fast Food Nation! We're not taking a stance about whether Sizzler is good or bad. In a way, it's more of a documentary project.
10Z: "Hi. I'm planning an art installation with photos of all your franchises." So how'd Sizzler react?
REED: The thing is, I'd left a message — I just said what I was doing so they'd call me back, so I didn't get to hear their first response. I didn't get to hear, "You want to do what?!"
And I did most of the talking... I wanted to let them know that we didn't really want them to — we weren't asking them for money. And I think I did say, "But if you want to give us a gift card so that we can have dinner on the road, that'd be great."
10Z: How'd he respond?
REED: He just kind of laughed. And didn't send me a gift card. They thought I was a little crazy.
Honestly, they loved the idea. I think they just thought, "Wow, this is great this guy wants to do this..." And they thought it was funny.
10Z: On your web page, someone demanded "Where's the disclaimer that says this project was underwritten by Sizzlers?" And Reed responded: "Okay, here's the disclaimer: Sizzler is in no way affiliated with this project. That's why we're on Kickstarter trying to raise funds!"
LIZ: I've also had people say, "Why are you putting this on Kickstarter? That's the dummest thing, because you should just have Sizzler pay for this." And it's like, "No. It's an art project, and we want to have control over it. It's not an ad." Its genesis was completely different from anything that Sizzler would create.
REED: And we also — if it was a campaign from Sizzler, we wouldn't be trying to raise money. We'd just be doing it, and trying to get press as we're doing it. The whole trying to raise money — it's just counterintuitive, in a way. Especially considering that we're pretty far from our goal right now. Sizzler can be a tough sell. Especially when you're pitching it as a serious art project.
LIZ: I think we've had a hard time figuring out how to promote, because I think we feel like if we're trying to promote it as an art project, people don't think of it as super-serious, even though we really do. But we're presenting it in sort of a light way to bring people in.
REED: We feel like it's a populist art project.
REED: It's not just for the hoity-toity crowd in New York. We love those people, but ...
LIZ: Maybe we're between crowds...
10Z: But how do you really feel about Sizzler?
REED: I swear, when we tell people, for the most part their face lights up. "Oh, I love Sizzler."
LIZ: It's kind of nostalgic.
REED: And at the same time, our friends don't go to Sizzler at this point. It's almost if you — it's almost ironically, if you're in the hipster/L.A. crowd or whatever. It's not something that people go to quite a lot. But it's one of those things — it's actually good.
10Z: I think we're approaching an answer to the biggest question. Why Sizzler?
REED: Because it was Americana. If you say "Sizzler", everyone's like, "Oh, god, I used to love it when I was a kid." Everyone.
It really evokes a reaction to anyone who grew up in the United States... They have a feeling about Sizzler. I believe a lot of the ones that have closed were in places like Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin... What I've heard from people is "Oh, I grew up in Connecticut. There used to be one there, but it's gone."
That's one of the other reasons why we think it's really great. It's kind of emblematic of the change in the culture. It's like your bankruptcies and closings — we've actually, in our travels so far, gone to two Sizzlers that were closed that were on the web site. So we drove over there, and it's kind of like the scene in Vacation where they drive to Walley World and it's closed. We drove from Los Angeles to New York, and the Sizzler was closed.
LIZ: But there were other Sizzlers in New York, and it was okay. And at the same time, we've seen new Sizzlers go up. And the development is different now. They'll be in mall parking lots — there'll be a Home Depot and the anchor store, and then there's the Sizzler.
REED: Sizzler itself is aspirational. It's a very middle class — middle to lower-class chain. Those are the people that go there. And I remember — it was a special occasion to go to Sizzler when you're a kid. It's like, "Oh yeah! We're going to Sizzler." And it's all you can eat, which is — nothing more American than that.
LIZ: Yeah, it's value. I think all those things are very much things that we seek as Americans. It's something that maybe we don't think about being quintessentially American, but I think it represents a lot of things throughout the years that, from the 1950s... It's one of the original chains.
REED: I think there's things that are specifically Sizzler, and also things about it that are just more general, in terms of the way Americans embrace chains and chain restaurants and stores.
10Z: And yet neither of you has childhood memories of Sizzler?
LIZ: But when Reed told me — when we initially talked about this project, I immediately was like, "Yes." I didn't have to explain — because you just get it. Because my family used to go to Shakey's and Pizza Hut, and that for us was a very similar experience. It was a way that a family could go out, and it felt nice. At the time, they used to wait on you. I'm the youngest of nine, so the fact that we could all go out was such a big deal.
REED: I actually had the idea in college, 15 years ago. And I think — like, I don't know if it was our first date...
LIZ: One of our first dates. "What are your dreams? What do you really want out of life?" And Reed said: "I want to photograph all the Sizzlers."
REED: If you tell a girl that, and she smiles and thinks it's great, you pretty much know then that that's who you should be with. It just made so much sense for us to do it together, because I think it's something we both felt a passion for. And it was a great opportunity to do this kind of epic thing together — with your best friend and the person you have trust in and you believe in and trust artistically. It's been fantastic.
10Z: So what's it like photographing Sizzlers?
REED: Sometimes you have to drive for hours, and sometimes it's a few minutes. But invariably we'll be driving up to one and right before we see it, or when we see it, Liz will say something along the lines of: "Now that's a beautiful Sizzler..." Such a genuine excitement from her at seeing the next Sizzler and seeing what it's going to look like.
LIZ: There's definitely a variety of Sizzler styles. And I find a lot of the architecture interesting. I mean, we saw in — where was that? The flat Sizzler. In New York — in Massapequa, there's one Sizzler that it's just — it has a flat roof. It's just a box. When you pull up to it, there was just something about the Sizzler that looks like a box that....
REED: It was the world's saddest Sizzler.
LIZ: And I hate to say that, but ...
REED: But one of them had to be the saddest.
LIZ: And we noticed it had a "For Lease" sign. So once its lease is up, it'll probably be out of there. It was sort of like this weird, sad Sizzler...
And it's also about the neighborhood and the atmosphere.
REED: One of the larger themes about the project is the sameness of the American experience, of how wherever you are in the country, you can eat the same food at the same restaurants and shop at the same stores. That for me was one of the central ideas about it. But then in the execution about it, you go and find that maybe they do serve the same steak, but in different buildings, in different neighborhoods. And all the people who work there bring their own unique experience to the place. So no two are exactly alike.
Sizzlers are like snowflakes.
LIZ: It's true, actually.
REED: And then also, you meet the people there, who are real people, nice people — people just trying to make a living. What I think it has done for me is humanize this chain. Where you were kind of going in thinking this chain is emblematic of the United States and the sameness everywhere — but there's humans behind it, and kind of an endearing human experience. I relish the differences in all of them. And they're not exactly the same.
10Z: So what's the most dangerous Sizzler you've been too?
REED: I think Sizzler is a very non-dangerous place. I think Sizzler, to me, is — like, it's safe. Sizzler is what it is, and it's not necessarily full of exciting stories, but it's beautiful nonetheless.
LIZ: We did take Reed's dad with us and photographed some of the Sizzler's around San Diego... And he was just like, "I just don't understand why anyone would give you money for this." And he kept saying that, over and over. We went to two or three with him, and he just kind of stood around.
REED: Taking your dad to — that's the scariest moment of all. And that's my other favorite quote: "I just don't get why the photographs have to be blurry."
10Z: I know it's a conceptual art project, but why do the photographs have to be blurry?
REED: Well, a few reasons. I think it kind of enhances the beauty of the Sizzlers. And it gives them also a sense of nostalgia. It enhances the feeling you have. You have these kind of memories, and it's a subtle reference to that.
And then the other theme we were talking about, in terms of the sameness of the chains — if you blur it, the actual specificity of the site kind of melts away a little bit, so you don't know if you're looking at the Sizzler in Flagstaff or Barstow or Orlando.
10Z: So what was it like photographing the Sizzler in Barstow?
REED: I have no comment.
I don't know if Barstow is renowned for being the most awesome place in the world — you stop to go to the bathroom on the way from Las Vegas to L.A. — but I believe that the photo we took of the Barstow Sizzler is really beautiful. So there is beauty in these places that we overlook.
10Z: How's photographing in New York City?
LIZ: It was hard to do them all in one day. It felt like an epic day. I mean — I think it's Smithtown. You really feel like you're in a small town, in a way. It's just so much different than, let's say, the Queen's Sizzler in New York.
We really experienced some traffic and that New York driving where — and then we ended up having to go back to Brooklyn and drive across. It was one of those days where it's just like — you can't wait to get out of the car, because it was just such a difficult driving day.
REED: One of the great details is in Orlando. The Sizzlers there... they actually serve breakfast in Orlando! But in Orlando, they really cater to British tourists for breakfast. So you go in there, and it's all these British families in leisure soccer gear hitting the buffet. And in the buffet they have beans and stewed tomatoes and all this British food. And it's really the weirdest, oddest thing.
LIZ: I think a lot of people would say, "Oh, I wouldn't be able to spend that much time with my spouse." Or my girlfriend or boyfriend. It has a lot to do with our relationship... We inspire each other, in a way. And we do want to spend the time together. And it has been a really great experience, for that reason.
REED: And so it's maybe a quest to find the most romantic Sizzler. You get to do it with your best friend and the person you love the most — who gets you the most. I mean, geez, real honestly, does it get better? I don't think so. Photographing Sizzlers with your wife? I mean — wow.
10Z: What's the reaction you're getting to this project?
REED: It runs the gamut from people thinking this is the greatest thing ever to people saying, "You guys are idiots." One guy said, "This is either the most brilliant thing I've ever seen or the stupidest thing I've ever seen." That to me is just about as big a complement as you can give. We're really serious about it, but I kind of like that people maybe don't know if we're serious
10Z: When I first heard about this, I just assumed Sizzler was funding you as a viral marketing campaign (like that stealthy paid placement in a real high school graduation speech for the movie "I Love You, Beth Cooper".) The big question is: How can we be sure Sizzler isn't paying you?
REED: In our video — and this interview — hopefully we come across genuine enough. We had been wondering that, and it's kind of too bad that it's gotten to that point, and that's the first thing that people think. I'd do the same thing — I'd wonder, too.
The fact also is, I'm a really bad liar (both Liz and I are)... The projects we choose may sometimes be wacky, but that doesn't mean we're not serious about them.
10Z: Seriously — it's the culmination of a year's-long dream?
REED: I would say, 15 years.
10Z: Ironically, Sizzler declared bankruptcy during that time, in 1996.
REED: That was a dark day for me. I remember where I was when I heard the news. No, no, I'm just kidding. But it's been a long time coming.
10Z: So how exactly will you pull off this nationwide road trip?
LIZ: We took all of the Sizzlers off the web site, because they do list all the addresses. So we printed that out...
REED: They're all listed on the web site, and then we just went through and Googled all of them and where they are. Because Sizzler doesn't have a map.
LIZ: If there are multiple Sizzlers in a town, we just sort of map them out as we go...
10Z: And then after you've visited a Sizzler, you get to change the color of its pin on Google's map?
REED: It's a great moment — just to get it off your to-do list. Sometimes you want to get to the end of the list. And that will feel good, when we change that last pin's color. That will feel like an accomplishment. That will feel like the culmination of a year's-long dream.
10Z: What about all the Sizzlers in foreign countries? There's 81 Sizzlers outside the U.S. — scattered throughout Australia, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore.
REED: That would be, I think, the sequel.