Mini-Stories: Volume 17

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Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s mini-stories season. Gather the kids around the fire because we have a year-end mix of short stories about a rogue architect, spooky kitchens, a 100-year-old music streaming service, and the crazy way the French try to make telling time less crazy. Let’s go. So, we are here with producer Chris Berube. Hey, Chris!

Chris Berube: Hello, Roman. 

Roman Mars: What do you have for us? 

Chris Berube: Okay, so I’ve been very into the French Revolution recently. I know there’s been these online trends of people reading up about the Roman Empire, but, uh, you know, I’m a little different. I’m kind of zigging where other people are zagging. I don’t know if you knew this about me. 

Roman Mars: I didn’t. I didn’t know this. I mean, why exactly are you reading about the French Revolution? 

Chris Berube: I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been on a bit of a history kick, and, uh, the French Revolution is interesting. I mean, the French revolutionaries–they saw themselves as the beginning of history, right? Like, this is a whole new way of doing things. They’re just trying lots of new things, like a new system of government, a reign of terror… Just new everything. 

Don Norman: A new country with new laws and new ways of working that was very rational. 

Chris Berube: Roman, that is Don Norman, the author of a book called The Design of Everyday Things and a favorite of 99% Invisible. 

Roman Mars: Absolutely. I mean, my friend in college giving me a copy of The Design of Everyday Things is probably one of the reasons why this show exists. I mean, he’s that pivotal. He’s like our spiritual godfather. 

Chris Berube: Totally. And Dot actually talks about the French Revolution in that book because as part of this new rational society they’re rebuilding, the French introduced an idea called “decimalization,” which is a system of measurements that uses ten as the base number. 

Don Norman: So, they switched everything. That’s where grams and kilograms come from–and meters. 

Chris Berube: So, the idea behind that is when things are divisible by ten, it’s just easier to do math. 

Don Norman: Guess what? I have ten fingers. 

Chris Berube: So, this base system of ten decimalization is where the metric system comes in. They also had this idea for something called “decimal time.” So Roman, in a standard day, like we have now, we have 24 hours. Each hour has 60 minutes. And each minute has 60 seconds. 

Roman Mars: Correct. I am familiar with that one. Yes. 

Chris Berube: Right. So, we’ve had that for a really long time. However, after the French Revolution, the legislative body–the convention–they wanted to try this new system of time that was based on decimalization. They’re like, “This is a new idea,” ignoring the fact China had something similar to this up until the 17th century. But ignore that. Ignore that. This is the French. You know, they’re saying, “This is our new idea.” And this whole system–everything had a base of ten. So basically, everything could be divided by ten. 

Don Norman: They tried to say, “Well, let’s see. There should be ten days in the week, right? And there should be ten hours in a day.”

Roman Mars: Okay. Well, there’s a lot to sort of, like, figure out all the repercussions of that. 

Chris Berube: Yeah. 

Roman Mars: Okay. So, ten-day weeks. 

Chris Berube: Yeah. So, ten days a week. And actually, it wasn’t called a “week” in the system. It was called a “decade” just to make everything a little more confusing. And the biggest challenge is this idea of the ten-hour day. So, ten-hour days–each hour would have 100 minutes. Each minute would have 100 seconds. And you might have noticed that doesn’t quite add up to the same length of a day that we have right now. 

Roman Mars: Ten-hour days. 100 minutes. Okay. That’s… 

Chris Berube: I can see you doing the math. I could see you struggling with the math.

Roman Mars: What is that going to be? Is that close to what we have now or longer? Longer. It’d be longer. 

Chris Berube: Yeah. The day would be longer in that situation. But the way to make it work so the length of the day doesn’t change is actually you could change the length of a second. So instead of a second being one steamboat, it could be one steambo– So, like, you have a shorter second, and that would make the math work so the day would be the same length. 

Roman Mars: Wow. Okay. Okay. Okay, so the French developed this new, more rational way of keeping time. But how did they get people to accept one steambo– as the length of a second? Like, how did you implement this? 

Chris Berube: Well, the French introduced this new calendar with, like, ten-day weeks and this new timekeeping system of ten-hour days in 1793. And it didn’t go great right away, to be honest. I should say they kind of half introduced it. Like, officially France switched over to this new system. But according to accounts from the time, only some people were half using it. People were just getting adjusted to it. And to help ease the transition, they actually made up these special clocks that had both the systems of time on the clock face. So Roman, take a look at this. 

Roman Mars: So, the interface has 100 seconds to a minute. And then it also has the 60 seconds in an hour on the outside ring, so it helps you with the conversion. That’s really nice. 

Chris Berube: Yeah. So, it’s like the inside you have Roman numerals one through ten and one through 100. And then the outside you have, you know, up to 24. So, you have the 24-hour clock on the outside and the ten-hour clock on the inside. And the idea was you can look at it and see both at the same time. So, it’s kind of this nicely designed object. It’s very elegant, I think. 

Don Norman: It’s clever. It’s complex, but the complexity is for a reason. So, it’s a transitional piece.

Roman Mars: So, given that you had these nice little clocks sent out to people to help them convert, what was the resistance like? 

Chris Berube: Yeah. I mean, just imagine completely switching your understanding of time in a day. I mean, the issues are kind of exactly what you’d expect. Like, there’s international trade, so you can’t really sync up with other countries. They’re using a completely different way of timekeeping, right? Second, it’s annoying. You know, it’s expensive to replace all the clocks, even if you have these nice, elegant two-faced clocks. And I mean, the biggest thing is, like, people are stubborn about it, right? Like, in this system, a decimal hour would be the equivalent of two hours and 24 minutes. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, that does not feel natural. I mean, it’s like the length of a new Hollywood movie these days. Like, the shortest Marvel movie would be an hour. 

Chris Berube: It would be one hour long. The way I like to think about it sits somewhere between Barbie and Oppenheimer–almost the difference between the two films. But that’s a huge shift, right? Like, it’s going to be this expensive, time-consuming thing–just a really big pain in the ass. And also, there were no obvious benefits to changing it. Like, the 12-hour, 24-hour system worked just fine. So, people were not eager to try a new thing just for the sake of it. 

Roman Mars: So, when did the French abandon it? 

Chris Berube: So, they had the calendar, right? They had the calendar with ten-day weeks and all that. That actually lasted into the 19th century. That lasted for a few years. But the ten-hour day–that did not really take off, and that was actually abandoned after less than two years. 

Roman Mars: And so, did that kill the whole idea of decimal time? It seems like we always have these sort of moments where people reassess and try to have a more rational, like, counting system and measurement system and even time system. 

Chris Berube: So there have been proposals over the years to reintroduce decimal time. You know, at a conference, a mathematician will be like, “Oh, this is an interesting idea. Let’s think about it.” But the most high-profile version of this was by the Swiss company Swatch in 1998. So as a publicity stunt, they introduced an idea they called “Internet Time” that would divide up the day into 1,000 Swatch beats–so, you know, decimalization divided by ten. And this was actually to promote a digital watch that they were rolling out. And, like, it wasn’t a serious proposal, but it’s actually still up on their website if you look for it. Ultimately, like, I have been thinking a lot about this, and maybe there is a good argument for using base ten for timekeeping. Ten hours–100 minutes–it’s very clean. It’s very rational. But I don’t think this proposal takes into account how stubborn people are and also the fact that, like, humans just don’t work that way. We are not clean and rational beings. 

Don Norman: “We’re going to force our world of mechanics and digitalization and logical thinking upon poor little humans who are illogical. They don’t think logically. They have emotions and all that.” And no wonder it didn’t catch on because logic is wonderful for the intellectuals who live in their little towers but not for the everyday person. Come on. When I go to France, do they behave logically? No! “We have these wonderful breakfasts.” They know what’s important and what’s not important. They enjoy life!

Roman Mars: Yes, that sounds very true. Our experience with design is, like, you can have big lofty ideas, but in the end, when it sort of grafted on our silly and capricious world, it just does not work. 

Chris Berube: Yeah. Exactly right. 

Roman Mars: Thank you for always bringing us silly and kind of profound ideas all in one package. 

Chris Berube: Of course. Thanks, Roman. And it’s my pleasure. I just wanted to say, before we go, a big thank you to Don Norman. He has a new book that just came out earlier this year called Design for a Better World. And I will say it is very much worth… your time. 

Roman Mars: Okay. I’ll allow it. Sounds good. Thanks, Chris. 

Chris Berube: Thanks, Roman.

Roman Mars: So, I’m in the studio with digital director and 99% Invisible City coauthor Kurt Kohlstedt. Hey, Kurt!

Kurt Kohlstedt: Hey, Roman. How’s it going? 

Roman Mars: It’s good. It’s our favorite time of the year. It’s mini-stories time. What mini-story do you have for us? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: So, as you know, I got my graduate degree in architecture. But I have something for you that you might not know in common with some of the most famous architects in modern history, including Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, which is that even with my degree, I was never qualified to actually, strictly speaking, be a practicing architect. 

Roman Mars: I would probably hope that for you, you wouldn’t be a practicing architect without maybe some licensing or qualifications beyond your degree. But I did not know that about Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah, right? There’s accreditation and tests you have to take. But neither Wright nor Corbusier sat for their exam. 

Roman Mars: Okay. So, they didn’t take the test or whatever. But, like, did they actually study architecture? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Not exactly so much that either because Le Corbusier studied decorative arts and Wright did take some engineering classes. But that was about it. 

Roman Mars: Wow. I mean, I guess I read that about Frank Lloyd Wright, but I just cannot believe that he wasn’t, you know, technically qualified to be an architect. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah, right? I mean, he’s a guy who even the AIA said, like, is the greatest American architect. And here he is not really qualified to be an architect. And that wasn’t that uncommon. Some designers don’t want to study for that test or get the prerequisite work requirements or meet those continuing ed requirements. And learning on the job as an apprentice used to be a much more common path into architectural design. But to legally call yourself an architect, you have to jump through the legal hoops. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, and that makes sense to me because you can’t have just unlicensed nonarchitects out there designing buildings. Like, it would make me never want to go into a building again if I thought about this too deeply. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Totally. Right? And there are workarounds. For one thing, if a building is small enough, it might not need an architect. Most houses don’t. But big buildings–they do. And in some cases, like this one firm I worked at out of college, there may be only a few licensed architects on staff. And part of their job is to look at it and sign off on official drawings made by other designers. But there is this one famous architect–well, non-architect–who is a personal favorite designer of mine, who also didn’t have a degree. And on top of that, he eventually got into trouble for practicing without one. And his name was Carlo Scarpa, and he was a 20th century Italian designer who, despite his lack of credentials, nonetheless worked in one of the richest historical urban environments in the world: his hometown of Venice. 

Roman Mars: Oh, I love Venice. I just went to Venice for the first time. It’s amazing. It does look like maybe non-architects put Venice together… 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Totally, right? Yeah. Yeah, very much accreted over time. And he’s sort of like this Alvar Aalto or Louis Kahn figure who was a modernist but more of a regional modernist. And he wasn’t a modernist in the sense of white walls and, you know, flat surfaces that you think of when you think of that era of design. He was known for adding his own creative and often quite bold and eccentric design details to this rich historical context. And his work on historical buildings was arguably very subjective. It was loaded with his own personal style–his own interpretations. 

Roman Mars: Okay, so describe a little bit more of what that looks like. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Well, Scarpa was known for taking a lot of creative liberties. Like, he’d peel back parts of walls and floors to create these virtual windows into the past. And in something like a museum renovation, for example, he wouldn’t just put up blank, white walls like you might picture in a normal museum. He’d take, say, a sculpture and say, “Hey, let’s put this on a ten-foot pedestal. And I’ll design that, too. Oh, and then I’ll paint the wall behind it in this particular color, which I’ll pick. And it’ll face in this direction with the sunlight coming in this way. And so on.” So, he really, like, controlled that experience. And much like our friends Le Corbusier and Wright, this guy–with all of his creativity and all of his great ideas–didn’t have a license. But he was at least a little closer than they were in some ways, for what it’s worth. 

Roman Mars: What do you mean by that? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Well, he was educated in architecture at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts. But then he, like me, stopped short of actually taking the exam–the one that would have secured him a license to become a legally practicing architect. So, despite at least having some kind of the right degree, he managed to run afoul of the law. And at one point, after he’d been designing buildings for years, he was sued by the Venice Order of Architects for practicing architecture without a license. 

Roman Mars: Wow. Okay. That seems like a big deal. Like, presumably he wouldn’t be able to build buildings anymore he was found guilty or something like that. His professional life was on the line. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah. Pretty high stakes, right? 

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: But then something remarkable happened. As the story goes, when the case wound up in front of the judge, it was in the courtroom that Scarpa himself had designed. And, you know, it sounds really far-fetched. But if you think about it, I mean, Venice isn’t that big of a city, right? 

Roman Mars: Not at all. No. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: So, it’s possible. 

Roman Mars: So, okay, describe this courtroom to me. This is amazing. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: The thing is, it wasn’t grand or ostentatious. But it was executed with a lot of care for details, which is really what Scarpa was all about. Here. Check it out. 

Roman Mars: Okay, let me take a look at this thing. Yes. Okay. So, what I see here is that it is pretty modern. It doesn’t have, like, the high ceilings that a lot of Italian architecture does. It’s lots of wood–lots of straight lines. It looks like the office of a mid-century modern building. It’s lovely. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s all about… It’s not too over the top, right? Yeah. It is pretty elegant and simple overall with these laminated wood seats and desks with expressive joinery. But it’s the little things, as usual, where his designs stand out, like the doorknobs at the entryway, which are geometric and complex–sort of like ornate, little, modernist sculptures. And like, say, Alvar Aalto, a lot of attention is paid to where people will touch the design, like the wood where you run your fingers along the chair or the banister. 

Roman Mars: So, set the scene for me. He’s in court trying to defend himself for practicing architecture without a license. He ends up being tried in a room that he designed, sitting there with the judge. He’s sitting in a chair he designed with its nice joinery and all. What happens? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Well, apparently, he didn’t have to do a lot of work to defend himself because the judge sort of sat there and looked around the room and reckoned that Scarpa seemed like a pretty good architect, as far as he could tell. And so, he dismissed the case. 

Roman Mars: That’s amazing. He’s like, “Exhibit A.” And then he gestures broadly.

Kurt Kohlstedt: Totally. And to add to that, I read that the lawyer who was representing Scarpa was also so impressed that he ended up hiring Scarpa to design his own house, too. 

Roman Mars: That’s amazing. Okay, so he wins because of the great example that he’s sitting in. And he keeps practicing architecture. What does he end up doing after that? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: So, he kept up this sort of signature creativity in this orientation towards detail and this kind of quirky charm, even up until he died at the age of 72–and kind of after as well. 

Roman Mars: Even after he died? Oh. What do you mean by after he died? 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Well, he designed his own burial plot, for example. And he incorporated this kind of drainage hole into the lid of the coffin cover. And visitors were encouraged to come share a glass of wine with him after he had passed away by basically pouring one down into this drain and giving him a drink and then having their own drink. And in any case, I just think it’s really charming how he was really creative up to and through the end. 

Roman Mars: That’s amazing. I like this guy. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah, he is fantastic. I mean, if you’re ever in Venice, you should really go and pour one out for the guy. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Or pour one on him, I guess. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah. Pour one on him, as it were. 

Roman Mars: That’s amazing. I love it. I love it. Well, this is such a great story. Thank you so much, Kurt. 

Kurt Kohlstedt: Thank you. Roman. 

Roman Mars: So, I’m here with Delaney Hall. Hey, Delaney. What’s your mini-story? 

Delaney Hall: Hey, Roman. So recently, Kurt was telling me about a phenomenon called “ghost kitchens.” I had never heard of this before, and it kind of exploded my whole idea about what a restaurant even is in this time. And it was a very confusing experience researching these things. And so that’s what I’d like to talk with you about today. 

Roman Mars: Okay. Okay. Let’s start with what you found. Like, what is a ghost kitchen? 

Delaney Hall: So, ghost kitchens have a few names. They’re sometimes known as “dark kitchens” or “virtual kitchens.” “Cloud kitchens.” And they’re a relatively new trend in the restaurant industry that seemed to really take off during the pandemic. That was because of the popularity of delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. And the basic idea is that they are kitchens that specialize in delivery only. They do not have a storefront. They do not have servers. They do not have a place you can walk in and sit down. They only sell food through delivery apps. 

Roman Mars: And I can totally see why this cropped up during the pandemic because the first, like, hardest thing to do in this world is to run a restaurant with a storefront. And then all of a sudden, your crowds are gone because you can’t pack them in there because of COVID. But still, people need to eat. And so, they are only doing delivery. And if you’re being delivered food, who cares if it’s from a restaurant with a storefront or not? 

Delaney Hall: Yeah, there is totally an economic logic to it. 

Roman Mars: But how do they work? Like, how do you set one up? 

Delaney Hall: So, there are a few different types of ghost kitchens. One type is a kitchen that makes food for a bunch of different, you know, quote-unquote, “restaurants” that all have different identities and names. And those restaurants are basically hanging their digital shingle out on services like DoorDash or Uber Eats. And they might appear to be different restaurants, but the reality is that all of their food is cooked in the same ghost kitchen. And it’s pretty interesting; there can be a lot of delivery only restaurants that are all actually part of the same ghost kitchen operation. So as an example, I watched this video by Eddie Burback. He’s a comedian and a YouTuber who did–I have to say–this surprisingly deep dive investigation into ghost kitchens. And he basically scanned delivery apps looking for restaurants in LA that all listed the same address. And he found that there were a whopping 44 different restaurants that all shared the same location, which is a real tip off that you’re dealing with the ghost kitchen. 

Roman Mars: Wow. 

Delaney Hall: And there was this other curious thing that Eddie Burback discovered, which is that these delivery apps often give the feeling of a lot of variety. Like, there’s lots of different logos and restaurant names. But the funny thing is that sometimes those places all seem to be making the same food. And the way he discovered this is that Eddie started looking at the menu items from supposedly different restaurants that were all based at the same location, and he found that they all seemed to have the exact same beer battered cod sandwich. It’s all the same picture, it’s all the same price–the exact same description–which is a “beer battered North Atlantic cod, slaw, red and white cabbage, lemon herb aioli, and a brioche bun.” 

Eddie Burback “And a brioche bun.” So, I looked at another obvious choice at the same address at Sunset Beach Fish & Chips. And would you look at that? There’s a beer battered cod sandwich for $16.95 that is a beer battered North Atlantic cod, slaw, red and white cabbage, lemon herb aioli, and a brioche bun. Interesting. Two separate restaurants on Uber Eats, appearing to be completely separate businesses, selling the same item with the same description for the same price. So, I looked at another place that had a beer battered cod for $16.95. Same description. And I looked at another place and another…

Delaney Hall: And he finds that, like, again and again. And so, Eddie ends up ordering nine seemingly identical cod sandwiches from supposedly nine different restaurants. But they’re all based at the same locations. 

Roman Mars: That is very weird. 

Delaney Hall: It’s so weird! And it makes you wonder why a single ghost kitchen would market the exact same sandwich but make it appear to come from all these different restaurants, right? 

Roman Mars: The way that it makes sense to me is that the way you use those apps–you sort of go into a restaurant and you explore it. It’s not like you’re necessarily looking for a cod sandwich and then you’re comparing across restaurants. It’s almost like you’re in a restaurant itself, trying to decide. And so, if they want to sell that cod sandwich and they have lots of cod sandwiches available to be sold, it makes sense to put them in, you know, as many restaurants as it seems appropriate. Nine seems excessive. 

Delaney Hall: Yeah, I think the whole thing has a kind of “flood the zone” feeling to me. Like, if someone’s wanting a cod sandwich, the chance of them picking a cod sandwich from your kitchen goes up if you’re offering the same sandwich but nine times. And so–yeah–there’s just a quality of these restaurants that feels like it has sort of tech optimization vibes. It’s like they’re trying to SEO hack these delivery apps. And, you know, that’s not surprising because many of these ghost kitchens are owned by tech startups. 

Roman Mars: Oh, okay. They’re not actually like some new form of restaurant. They really are just another form of tech. 

Delaney Hall: Yeah. And in a lot of ways, like, I think you can find an individual owner of ghost kitchens, but there are big players involved with deep connections to the tech industry. So, Travis Kalanick, the former chief executive of Uber, has been working on CloudKitchens, which is a ghost kitchen startup. Or there’s also REEF Technology–a startup that includes multi-brand kitchens. This is very much a world where restaurants meet tech. And this trend is also intersecting with traditional brick and mortar restaurants in interesting ways. So, there’s another type of ghost kitchen I’ll tell you about, and it actually runs out of existing restaurants. 

Roman Mars: Okay. Tell me more about those. 

Delaney Hall: So, what’s happened is that some of the most popular chain restaurants out there, and these are places with actual restaurants you can eat in. Um, they’ve decided to cash in on this trend. And what some of them have done is they’ve created new delivery only restaurant brands that they are running out of their existing chain kitchen. 

Roman Mars: Okay. 

Delaney Hall: But it is not always clear to consumers that the delivery only brand is affiliated with that chain. So, I thought, to show you, like, how confusing this can be, that it might be fun to give you a little quiz. Are you down for that? 

Roman Mars: Totally.

Delaney Hall: Okay. So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to name the ghost kitchen identity. And then I want you to try and guess which major restaurant chain runs it. 

Roman Mars: Okay. 

Delaney Hall: Okay. So, the first ghost kitchen brand is Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings. Which major chain do you think runs it? 

Roman Mars: I’m going to say… Domino’s?

Delaney Hall: Good guess. That is not the answer. That was a good guess. The answer is Chuck E. Cheese. 

Roman Mars: Oh no! Oh my. 

Delaney Hall: Isn’t that so clever? If you went on a delivery app–you, Romans Mars–and you were looking for pizza, would you order it from Chuck E. Cheese? 

Roman Mars: No way. 

Delaney Hall: Would you perhaps order it from Pasqually’s?

Roman Mars: It’s certainly infinitely more possible than me ordering from Chuck E. Cheese. Oh, this is great. Oh, this is fun. You have another one? 

Delaney Hall: Yes. Yes, I do. Okay, so the next ghost kitchen brand is called Pardon My Cheesesteak. Which major chain runs Pardon My Cheesesteak. 

Roman Mars: Pardon My Cheesesteak? I don’t know of any major chain that sells cheesesteaks. This must be, like, a… Wow. Like, Arby’s?

Delaney Hall: No, it is actually IHOP, the International House of Pancakes. 

Roman Mars: Whoa! Okay. Wow.

Delaney Hall: And it is not the only Ghost Kitchen brand that IHOP runs. They also do Thrilled Cheese, Super Mega Dilla, and TenderFix. 

Roman Mars: Wow. I am totally shocked by all of this. This is amazing to me. 

Delaney Hall: It’s, like, this opportunity for chain restaurants that have a very fixed identity–it allows them to kind of come up with these surprising alter egos. It’s a chance to reach radically different markets than the ones that you might actually reach through your brick-and-mortar restaurants, so you can essentially disguise who’s behind a certain operation and all the connotations of a place like IHOP. You know?

Roman Mars: And all the animatronic robots. You can hide those behind the curtain. 

Delaney Hall: Yeah. Okay, so, so far, we’ve covered ghost kitchens operating multiple delivery only brands out of one commercial space. And we’ve covered big restaurant chains who’ve developed these delivery only alter egos. But there’s one last example of the ghost kitchen that I wanted to share with you because this is the one that sort of, like, broke my brain. I learned about this one from that Eddie Burback video I mentioned. And are you familiar with MrBeast, the YouTuber? 

Roman Mars: I’m familiar with the name MrBeast. I’ve never seen a MrBeast video. But I mentioned to my kids at some point something about MrBeast, and they were completely just jaw on the floor that I’d never really heard of or seen MrBeast or what MrBeast was about. 

Delaney Hall: For those who aren’t aware, he is a hugely popular YouTuber. He’s known for doing over-the-top stunts and charity stuff. He’ll get, like, 200 million views on a video called I Ate the World’s Largest Slice of Pizza. 

MrBeast: This is the largest slice of pizza in the entire world! Look how long it is! This pizza is literally six feet–! 

Roman Mars: Oh, that’s so loud. 

Delaney Hall: That’s the basic volume of, like, 99% of it. 

Roman Mars: Okay. 

Delaney Hall: And a few years back, he got into the ghost kitchen game. So, he teamed up with Virtual Dining Concepts, which is a company in the ghost kitchen space. And they launched a virtual restaurant brand called MrBeast Burger. 

Roman Mars: And so, was this a traditional, like, ghost kitchen operation? 

Delaney Hall: Yeah, it is. And I’ll get into how it actually works. But first there was this interesting thing, which is that to drum up support for MrBeast Burger and to get his millions of subscribers excited about it, MrBeast launched the concept with an actual brick and mortar restaurant that he set up in Wilson, North Carolina. So, it had signs, it had branding, and it looked like a traditional fast-food restaurant. 

MrBeast: I opened up the world’s first free restaurant. And if that wasn’t enough, I also paid people to eat at my restaurant. We haven’t even opened yet, and the police just told us they had to shut down a mile of traffic and there’s a thousand cars…

Delaney Hall: And this was a total stunt just to get attention, which seemed to work. But the interesting thing about this popup restaurant that he created is that it is not at all indicative of how MrBeast Burgers actually work as a business because MrBeast Burger is actually a ghost operation. So, it’s a delivery only restaurant chain which operates out of partner kitchens. 

Roman Mars: Okay, so how does a partner kitchen relate to a ghost kitchen? 

Delaney Hall: So as an example, I searched for MrBeast Burger in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is the nearest big city to me. And I found one. It was listed at an address. And when I searched for that address, it appeared to be a Buca Di Beppo Italian chain. 

Roman Mars: Wow. So, Buca Di Beppo–they partnered with MrBeast to provide the MrBeast Burger experience to the fine people of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Delaney Hall: Absolutely. Yeah. So, this is, like, another subtle twist on how these things work. And the pitch that MrBeast Burger made when it launched in 2020–again, it was the height of the pandemic and restaurants were struggling–and the idea was basically, “Here. We are going to hand you another revenue stream. This wildly popular YouTuber has all of these fans. They want MrBeast Burgers. And you can sign up to be one of the providers making those burgers in your already established restaurant kitchen.” And MrBeast tried to make the menu simple so that it would suit lots of different kinds of restaurant kitchens. They wouldn’t need new equipment. They wouldn’t need special training. And so, all these partnering restaurants have to do is make the burgers and then share the profits with MrBeast and Virtual Dining Concepts, his partner in setting up the business. 

Roman Mars: Right. Right. And did this business overall work out for MrBeast?

Delaney Hall: It’s interesting because there are more than a thousand locations listed on the MrBeast Burger website. But I think this example highlights one of the tricky elements of being a virtual restaurant. And it’s the fact that because MrBeast has outsourced all of the food buying and making to partner restaurants, quality control has been an issue. Some customers have had really good experiences with their burgers, but other people have had bad experiences. So, I’ve seen that people have complained about the presentation being bad about burgers arriving in random packaging, like it doesn’t look like a MrBeast Burger. And then there’s worse stuff, too. Like, some people have said that they were delivered uncooked food or burgers on moldy buns. And this has actually escalated into MrBeast suing Virtual Dining Concepts and then them suing him back. 

Roman Mars: Oh, my God. Okay. Wow. That’s fascinating. 

Delaney Hall: Yeah. It’s still an evolving realm. You know, there’s some kinks to be worked out.

Roman Mars: Well, I mean, there’s something about the accountability of a place in physical space that is important, especially when you’re talking about something that’s sort of fundamental as food. 

Delaney Hall: Yeah. I think what’s interesting about it is that there does seem to be something deceptive about the whole ghost kitchen concept. Like, my old-fashioned expectation of a restaurant is that it is a place staffed by people who are trained to create a particular kind of food–that there’s just this single integrated entity responsible for the quality of what I’m about to eat. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Delaney Hall: With ghost kitchens, it’s just different. Like, it might be a commercial kitchen appearing to be lots of different, quote-unquote, “restaurants.” It might be a Chuck E. Cheese masquerading as a Pasqually’s. It might be an Italian chain making my burger and slapping a MrBeast sticker on it. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, it’s very unusual. 

Delaney Hall: It’s just a strange new world. 

Roman Mars: Well, I’ll be on the lookout because now I’m really curious as to what I’m actually ordering from. And is it an actual restaurant or not? Thank you so much, Delaney. I appreciate it.

Delaney Hall: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. And we’ll make sure to post some of the videos we mentioned in our conversation on the website. 

Roman Mars: Absolutely. We are indebted to Eddie Burback. Thanks for taking this on. After the break, LeVar Burton tells us about the original streaming music service–from 1906. I am mostly on board with the holiday season, but one part that stresses me out is getting gifts for people, especially the type of people who are very hard to get gifts for. But if you’re a business owner and you need to grow your team, your perfect gift is simple. You want a smart hiring solution, so look no further than ZipRecruiter. And right now, we’re gifting it to you for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter uses smart-matching technology to identify the most qualified people for a wide range of roles. ZipRecruiter lets top candidates know that they’re a great match for your job to encourage them to apply. And the bow on top? If you see a candidate who’s a great match for your job, ZipRecruiter makes it easy to send them a personal invite so they’re more likely to apply. So, get your hiring wrapped up quickly with ZipRecruiter. Four out of five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Just go to this exclusive web address right now to try ZipRecruiter for free. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that’s ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire. Our next story is from friend of the show, LeVar Burton. He’s got a new fiction podcast for kids and families called Sound Detectives. In it, he plays an inventor who helps an unlikely pair of detectives return stolen sounds to the world. But today, he’s here with a true story about a lost sound. Here’s LeVar. 

LeVar Burton: I have a rather intriguing story to share about an enormous archaic instrument called the Telharmonium. For a monthly fee, you could simply pick up your phone and hear an entire orchestral performance. Only there wasn’t an orchestra. It was a single instrument doing its best impression of an orchestra. Sadly, this marvel was never recorded, and its sound has been lost to history. It all begins with the Telharmonium inventor, the ever-curious Thaddeus Cahill. Cahill was reserved, studious, and incredibly smart. As early as 13, he was experimenting with music sent over telephone wires–an idea that would later become the Telharmonium. When he was just 18 years old, he filed his first patent. Many more would follow as he worked to improve devices like typewriters and pipe organs. This was just the start for Cahill. He soon set his ambitions higher to develop a machine that could meticulously control the very shape of a sound wave. While other instruments used air or strings to produce their tones, Cahill turned to something new: electricity. He began working on the ultimate instrument, which Cahill patented in 1897, when he was 30 years old. This instrument would be able to perfectly replicate any other sound on Earth. The Telharmonium was massive. It looked less like a grand piano or a cello, and more like a power plant with 200 tons of large steel boxes and wires. It was a machine designed to play with the building blocks of sound. You can think of it like a painter’s palette. The fundamental note is like a primary color. Think red, blue, or yellow. Overtones are much quieter notes that play alongside the fundamental. These are the subtle shades that give depth and complexity. Each instrument accentuates different overtones, giving you different sounds. This is part of why a piano sounds different than the violin, even if they’re playing the same note. Cahill wanted to choose and shape exactly which overtones we were hearing, allowing him to recreate any musical instrument he desired. He started with sine waves–the absolute purest form of sound. They contain no overtones, just the fundamental note. The Telharmonium used tonewheels–massive cogs that spin at the frequency of the pitch–to create these sine waves. Each note of the Telharmonium had a tonewheel for the fundamental note and up to 20 more for the overtones. This was all made a few years before the amplifier, meaning the Telharmonium had to create an electrical current so strong that it wouldn’t need to be amplified. To make that many notes that loudly required a large and expensive machine. Cahill built a prototype and organized a demonstration. He played Handel’s Largo for an audience of potential investors. While we can’t play you an actual recording, we imagine it sounded something like this. The businessmen were amazed. With his project funded, Cahill constructed a full-scale Telharmonium at his factory in Holyoke, New Jersey. It cost around $200,000–over 7 million when adjusted for inflation. After its completion, the Telharmonium was shipped from Cahill’s New Jersey factory to its new home in Manhattan. It was set up in a building across from the Metropolitan Opera House called Telharmonic Hall. The machine’s mechanics were housed in the basement, connected by wires to keyboards in the auditorium. The debut of Telharmonic Hall in 1906 was a roaring success. Demand was so high they doubled their daily shows and had to open up the basement to fit more visitors. One notable fan of the Telharmonium was author Mark Twain, who wrote, “Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this, I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn’t possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again.” Part of Cahill’s plan was a bold new idea: a musical subscription service. Telharmonic wires were strung up alongside telephone wires. And subscribers could pay a monthly fee to listen at home on their phones. And at least one hotel was constructed with Telharmonic service available in every room. However, despite its novelty, there were a number of problems that plagued the Telharmonium. While some described it as “pure of pitch” and “with a soothing quality,” others complained that it was rather crude and lacking in variety. It was also hard to play, requiring two people to operate keyboards that were completely different from a piano or an organ. The business was impossible to scale. Each new subscriber required more electrical power. Eventually, the only way to keep up with demand would be to build an even bigger machine. The phone companies weren’t too happy either. The Telharmonic music and regular phone calls ran on neighboring wires. And the much stronger Telharmonium signal would loudly bleed over and provide unexpected background music. In one anecdote, a woman suspected her husband was lying and calling from some concert hall instead of his office. All of these challenges were made even worse by the financial crisis of 1907. Subscriptions fell. And the attendance was so low that the Telharmonic Hall dropped performances to just once a day. The final show at Telharmonic Hall was on February 16th, 1908–its bright but brief time in the spotlight lasting not quite two years. Cahill tore down the Telharmonium and retreated back to Holyoke. He began working on a cheaper and more efficient third model. In 1911, Cahill spent five months disassembling, transporting, and reconstructing this third Telharmonium in New York–this time connecting it to Carnegie Hall. It received little fanfare. Both the press and the public were no longer interested in dial-up music, thanks to a new invention: the radio. A few years later, Cahill’s company filed for bankruptcy with over $100,000 in debt–nearly $3 million today. All three Telharmoniums were eventually sold for scrap. Cahill died in 1934. That same year, the Hammond organ was invented, which used tonewheels coupled with newly developed amplifiers to make a similar and much more manageable instrument. It also used overtones to imitate pipe organs, but at a fraction of the size. It was intended for churches, but then broke out as a staple of rock, soul, and blues music. While the sound of the Telharmonium may have disappeared, its influence can still be seen today. Synthesizers and other electronic instruments have made it easy to have an entire orchestra at your fingertips. Still, I can’t help but imagine the enchanting sound of the Telharmonium.

Roman Mars: If you and your kids want to help LeVar find missing sounds, be sure to check out his new podcast, Sound Detectives. You’ll meet Detective Hunch and Audie–a literal walking and talking human ear–and you may also hear a familiar voice. Let’s just say I think I’d be a pretty good flight attendant. The first season of Sound Detectives is out now wherever you get your podcasts. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube, Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt and Talon Stradley. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real and Martín Gonzalez. Editing by Kelly Prime. Additional production by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina and Sarah Baik. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. The rest of the team includes Christopher Johnson, Emmet FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks to LeVar Burton, Julia Smith, Isabelle Redman Dolce, and Josephine Martorana. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You know what’s really beautiful about Oakland right now? The Oakland Roots Soccer Club. Other teams come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first–always. We’re on all the usual social media sites, but why spend your time doomscrolling there when you could visit somewhere good instead? 99pi.org. See you next year. 

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