Friday, January 30, 2015

Kindergarten: Not Too Soon Edition

When the kids are old enough to start kindergarten*, usually the parents are like, "It's WAY TOO SOON for my baby to be starting school already!!" Not us. We'll be prepared.

(* - The word "kindergarten" is long, and hard to type, so for the rest of the post I'm just going to use the letter "K".)

Marla turned 3½ yesterday, and so she's still 19 months away from her first day of K. Too soon to be looking into what we'll need to do this time next year to get her in a good school? Nope. Not at all. Like I said, we're going to be prepared.

I went into this knowing virtually nothing about the logistics of sending our kid to K in Durham, other than that there's an elementary school in our neighborhood, and that there are also these things called "charter schools" and "magnet schools". Here's basically what I think I've learned about how it works in the Durham Public Schools:

- By default, your kid will go to your neighborhood school.
- You can apply to send your kid to a magnet school instead. Entry into magnet schools is 100% lottery based. There is one central lottery encompassing all of Durham Public Schools' magnet schools. Magnet schools are either tailored to a specific subject (e.g. science), or a style of teaching (e.g. Montessori), or are "regular" schools that just happen to be on a year-round calendar, if that's your thing.
- Durham also has free-to-attend charter schools, which might do things a little bit differently than the regular public schools do, I guess. Just like with the magnet schools, admission to charter schools is lottery-based, except that each charter school has its own lottery that you need to apply to separately.

First question: is our neighborhood school any good? Well...I've heard that it's "good enough", but it's not one of the best elementary schools, either, and that some of the magnet schools and charter schools are better options, if we're lucky enough to win their respective lotteries.

Speaking of the lotteries...this year's Durham magnet school lottery (for the 2015-16 school year) closes at the end of January, with results announced in March, and at least one of the charter school lotteries closes at the end of February, with results announced soon thereafter. K registration at neighborhood schools opens in March, so we can wait until after the lottery results before registering at the neighborhood school. (This is the main thing I wanted to look into right away: the deadlines. Don't want to be caught with our pants down this time next year.)

And actually, two of the Durham magnet schools have a pre-K program, which we could send Marla to, for free...if we win the lottery. We applied for those schools this year, although my understanding is that our chances of being selected are next to nothing. May as well apply, though, right? And if even Marla is selected, that doesn't commit us; we can decline the spot for whatever reason.

So, now we already know what we're going to do this time next year when it comes to K registration for Marla. We know which magnet schools, and at least one charter school, we're going to apply to this time next year, and we know when we need to do it. And, we're satisfied "enough" with the local neighborhood school, we won't panic if we don't win any of the lotteries.

And by the way, private schools are too expensive,


If you ask me, this is all kind of silly. But this is what happens with neighborhood-based school systems: schools become segregated, and certain schools end up with a disproportionate number of students from low-income families. Those students typically perform worse on tests, so those schools end up looking bad by all of the various metrics, no matter how "good" the actual school itself is, or the teachers at that school are. The result is a few schools in the district for which the parents are like, "No way I'm sending my kids to that school!" And once a school is stigmatized that way, it is a very, very difficult label to shake, and it only gets worse as time goes on.

The workaround for this problem, so that parents in certain neighborhoods don't get "stuck" sending their kids to "bad" schools? Some districts move kids around in a kind of "hybrid neighborhood" approach, such that each school ends up with similar demographics. Not only does this desegregate the schools, but it also means that there aren't really any "bad" schools in the district. This is what Wake County used to do, to much acclaim...until a few school board members thought that the kids shouldn't be spending so much time on the bus, so they reverted back to neighborhood schools. (That's my understanding, anyway. I don't exactly know what kind of system they use now, or how many magnet / charter schools are in Wake County.)

What most school systems, do, though, is give parents a "choice"...sort of. First, there are magnet schools, often which are located in the poorest areas of town (i.e. the would-be "bad" schools), designed to attract students from all over the county. In cases where that isn't enough, "charter schools" pop up, which are basically the same thing as magnet schools, except that they're independent and not run by the county school system, but are still taxpayer funded and free to attend. But low-income families deserve a "choice", too, so you can't really make attendance at these schools merit-based (i.e. for smart kids only). But since the demand for these alternative schools is, no doubt, overwhelming...lottery it is! So, while it seems like we have options, it really comes down to luck of the draw. As someone who likes to plan ahead - for example, thinking about schools 19 months before either of our children will start attending them - that's a bit disconcerting.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Curling Night In America: The Debut

Even though it's not an Olympic year, it's never been a better time to be a curling fan in the United States. All major Canadian curling championships are available on ESPN3, and now we also have NBCSN's "Curling Night in America", which debuted last Friday night.

What is "Curling Night in America"? It's a made-for-TV tournament that USA Curling hosted back in December, featuring top American teams plus teams from China, Japan, and New Zealand. NBCSN taped the event over a few days with plans to broadcast the curling as part of "Curling Night in America", a six non-consecutive-week series of curling broadcasts airing late night on Friday.

11 PM is waaaaay to late for me to be awake these days, so I DVRed the CNIA debut and watched it the next morning with my kids. (Marla: "I wanna watch 'Mickey Mouse'! Dad: "Sorry, Marla, Mommy and Daddy are watching curling!")

(Actually, in all seriousness, curling grabs Marla's attention more than any other sport I watch on TV. Perhaps because she's actually seen her parents do it? Or, it's just because curling is awesome.)

This is a USA Curling production, so obviously, the goal is to promote USA Curling, particularly the top teams selected to be part of the "High Performance Program" (HPP), aimed at improving our results at the Olympics. The HPP curlers could prove to be very good in another three years, but given that the majority of the curlers in the HPP have zero experience at Olympic or World Championships, they're not there yet. This is a four-year-plan, not a one-year-plan. So, the foreign teams that were invited to participate in CNIA...they aren't the best of the best, exactly. At best, they're comparable in skill level to the USA teams. At worst, they're here just to make USA Curling look good.

Game #1 featured a women's team from the HPP, skipped by Nina Roth (née Spatola), defending national champion. (Roth/Spatola won the national championship last year with a slightly different team.) The opponent was a Chinese team I wasn't familiar with. (It wasn't the top Chinese women's team.) The US team mostly played well, but China won, mostly because of a strategy error by the US in the 4th end in which the US mistakenly gave China an opportunity for three points, which they took. In my limited experience playing Skip on real curling ice, I've had plenty of "Oops, I didn't know that I left them that shot for three" moments. (Except that it was usually for four or five.) That's the sort of thing you learn through experience, and that's one benefit to the HPP program.

"Curling Night in America" is great, but how can it be even better? I've got some ideas:

- It needs to be on every week. One reason the NFL is so popular is because it has consistent timeslots. For example, everyone knows that if it's Monday night, there's football on. (During the season, at least.) Not that curling will ever be the NFL, but the best way to build an audience is to have a consistent weekly timeslot. For next year, double the length of the CNIA series and have it on every week from mid-January through early April.

- More spectators, louder spectators. Watching the Canadian events with large audiences, you can definitely feel the buzz and the excitement from the crowd. The site of the CNIA broadcasts, the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, Minnesota, seemed awfully quiet. (Maybe this was the 9 AM draw?) Since this is a made-for-TV event, they should have done what they could to fill the bleachers to the max and encourage the spectators to CHEER! Don't just clap politely when the USA makes a nice shot. Go nuts! They still should not cheer for opponent misses, though.

- A better time slot...maybe. Friday at 11 PM doesn't sound like a great time slot,'s why I'm actually warming up to it. Curling has a "cult following", right? I think it makes perfect sense to broadcast a "cult following" sport at this hour. Curling fans are dedicated, and they'll find it whenever it's on. And there's little competition to speak of at that hour, so CNIA has the potential to take over the timeslot, if you will. It's Friday night? TIME FOR CURLING! Although, while there has been plenty of social media buzz in the days/weeks leading up to Curling Night, there was very little buzz during the broadcast, even among all of the curling people I follow on Twitter and Facebook.

- Broadcast some non-US events. It was logistically easiest to film the entire six-week series in one weekend, sure. But CNIA would be better if it featured games from different tournaments. It doesn't have to feature a US team all the time, either. Maybe feature something international, either from Canada or the World Championships? Maybe find the Norwegian men's team - you know, the one with the pants - and film whatever tournament they happen to be playing in next weekend? Even casual curling fans would recognize the Norwegians. Of course, that would have to be up to NBCSN, not USA Curling, and CNIA is as much a product of USA Curling as it is NBCSN, if not more so.

Curling Night In America continues...not this week (see what I mean?), but the following Friday, February 6, at 11 PM Eastern.

By the way...I MISS CURLING SOOOOO MUCH. I have played a total of two games in the last six months, and it's killing me. All this curling on television and whatnot is great, but it's making me miss playing that much more. The new Triangle Curling Club building can't open soon enough.

Fun Fusion Indoor Playground

I don't do playground reviews anymore because by now, I've seen it all. INDOOR playgrounds, however...

So, it's Saturday, and it's raining. You want to get out of the house, ideally somewhere where your child(ren) can play. But you don't really feel like going to the usual children's museums like Marbles or the Museum of Life and Science, either, because you've already been to each of those places, like, a lot. (But not so often that it's worth getting a membership, either.) Where to?

Locally, two places come mind: Defy Gravity, an indoor trampoline park of sorts, and Monkey Joe's, which has a bunch of inflatable castles and slides and stuff. (I think. Their website isn't particularly detailed as far as exactly what they have there.) We've never been to either of them because we just assume that, like Marbles, they're always insanely crowded on rainy Saturdays. According to the online reviews, Monkey Joe's is an absolute mad house. As for Defy Gravity, it seems a little too "big kid" for a 3-year-old.

We're no strangers to driving out of town to smaller attractions because they're likely to be less crowded than anything in Raleigh or Durham. So, we drove to a place called "Fun Fusion" in Mebane, 30 minutes from our house. (By our standards, that's pretty close.) There you'll find inflatable castles and slides and trampolines and stuff.

Marla loved it! Big win for us, and it wasn't crowded at all, at least at first. It started to fill up later in the afternoon.

Fun Fusion is relatively new business, such that if you look it up on Google Street View, you'll see a sign that says "Opening Summer 2013!"

The pricing is very affordable: parents are free, infants are free (not much for old Bruce to do there yet), and Marla was $8.50. So between that and the (lack of) crowds, and this place's "newness", and the fact that it's hidden in a nondescript office building in downtown Mebane, it makes me wonder: can they stay in business? I hope so, because we really liked it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Snow Day Forecasts: 1/7/15 - 1/15/15

Back in November, I said that I would try my hand at predicting when Triangle-area schools would delay or close due to the weather, with a focus on the following public school systems: Wake County, Durham County, Orange County, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro. The last couple of weeks gave me some opportunities, so let's see how we did:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Synopsis: It's cold! The forecast low was 11°F with wind chills below 0°F, and a Wind Chill Advisory was issued for the entire area. But is that enough to prompt schools to delay? ... Well, maybe. Last winter, there were Wind Chill Advisories on two separate days: one delayed all schools two hours (1/7/14), and one did not (1/24/14). I thought this would be cold enough to prompt delays.

What actually happened: Many rural school districts delayed schools by two hours, but Wake County and Durham County did not delay. Wind chills never actually got below zero in the Triangle, but they got close.

Bottom line: That 1/7/14 cold snap was especially unique, giving the Triangle its coldest temperatures / wind chills in over a decade. Plus, everyone was panicking about the "polar vortex". (1/7/14 was basically "peak polar vortex panic".) So, maybe that was an exceptional case, and that it takes the kind of cold snap that only happens once every few years to close the largest area school systems (Wake and Durham counties). Most everyone else in the area, though, including Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro, did post a two hour delay. Haven't yet figured out exactly what amount of "cold" it takes to delay schools, but it's clear that a Wind Chill Advisory is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

(By the way...I'm not taking it upon myself to judge whether the schools' decisions are "right" or "wrong", or whether schools should have been delayed or closed or whatever. All I'm trying to do is analyze and predict what they do, not whether that's what they should have done.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Synopsis: Freezing rain was a near certainty, much, and where? Throughout the week the forecasts went everywhere from "nuisance event affecting only bridges and elevated surfaces" to "possible 1/4-inch of ice resulting in scattered power outages". While we were under a Winter Storm Watch for a time, the final forecast was closer to the "nuisance event" side of things: Winter Weather Advisory for around 0.10" of ice, with higher amounts east of the Triangle along I-95. I figured school delays were all but certain, and that closings would depend on the impacts, with closings more likely east.

What actually happened: Tuesday night, all schools announced a two-hour delay. Ice totals underperformed the forecast region-wide (I think), and RDU only reported 0.02" of freezing rain. But that was still enough to cause icy roads and several accidents Wednesday morning, and that prompted all local schools to close for the entire day...except Wake County, which kept the two-hour delay intact. Because ice amounts were light everywhere, roads were actually worse north/west (Durham / Orange) than they were east (Wake), due to colder temperatures.

Bottom line: It doesn't take much ice to close schools for the day. Basically, the threat of freezing rain - any freezing rain worthy of a Winter Weather Advisory or more - will, at minimum, delay schools. Then, schools usually wait until the morning to decide whether or not to close for the day. Generally speaking, lots of weather-related accidents = closed for the day, although larger school districts like Wake have a larger threshold for that. Although, being a large school district, Wake County also has to consider conditions in the entire county, which can vary greatly. See how complicated this is? Still, I thought I had a pretty good feel for what would happen here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Synopsis: So, the "ice storm" is over. We're out of the woods now, right? ... Nope! Temperatures will drop back below freezing overnight, so any remaining puddles / wet spots will refreeze, resulting in a new black ice threat. Although, the NWS technical discussion (my primary source for weather forecast info) only said the threat would be "isolated" or "patchy" - I forget the exact word they used, but the black ice threat wasn't enough to prompt a new Winter Weather Advisory, only a less severe "Special Weather Statement".

What actually happened: Most schools delayed two hours (Chapel Hill-Carrboro a notable exception), citing conditions on untreated secondary roads. Temperatures largely stayed at or above freezing across the Triangle, and roads were mostly fine - certainly nothing like the day before.

Bottom line: Even after a small ice or snow event, it sometimes takes longer than it seems it should for schools to return to normal schedule. That's because secondary roads are low on NCDOT's winter maintenance priority list, meaning they won't return to "normal" until they melt/dry on their own. That can sometimes take a couple of days, especially in January. Thus, depending on how quickly temperatures moderate, public school delays/closures tend to linger after ice/snow events, even if everything looks fine at your house. This is more true in county-wide schools districts than it is in a city school district such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which saw fit to open on schedule Thursday morning. These kinds of "residual" storm-related delays are very hard to predict more than a day in advance, I'm finding. I honestly thought we'd all be back to normal schedule by today, but "no Winter Weather Advisory" does not mean "all clear".

Snow day totals for the season

Wake County: 0 closed, 2 delayed, 0 closed early
Durham County: 1 closed, 1 delayed, 0 closed early
Orange County: 1 closed, 2 delayed, 0 closed early
Chapel Hill-Carrboro: 1 closed, 1 delayed, 0 closed early

Still have a long way to go to match last season's totals.

The week ahead

No more weather-related delays/closures are expected for at least the next week. But, the medium and long range folks are saying that the end of January / early February could be quite interesting. If so, hopefully it will be more "snow" than "ice".

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Frontier DSL

We've gotten our internet through Time Warner for the last six years. I've been reasonably happy with it, because it's more reliable and consistent than our old BellSouth/AT&T DSL was. But, one thing that's bothered me about Time Warner is that we don't have access to ESPN3. If you get both television and internet from Time Warner, then you do get ESPN3. But, if you're an internet-only Time Warner customer like me, then ESPN3 is blocked. Like Time Warner, Comcast also takes a lot of crap for being an awful telecom provider, but even they give their internet-only customers access to ESPN3. (This is sort of separate from WatchESPN, which does require a TV subscription, no matter who your provider is. This only concerns ESPN3's online exclusives.)

ESPN3 airs a lot of low-grade college football and basketball, and also the CFL, among other things. I've always figured I could live without all of that in the name of better internet service. UNTIL NOW:

ESPN today announced it has acquired the rights from the Canadian Curling Association to deliver more than 300 hours of live action from the Seasons of Champions curling events on ESPN platforms [i.e. ESPN3] in the U.S. through March 2015.

First off, what took so long? If you ask me, the Canadian curling events - specifically, the women's and men's championships (a.k.a. the "Scotties" and the "Brier") - are as good as it gets. Given how many other obscure sports ESPN3 has in their catalog, why did it take them so long to add Canadian curling? Surely, the broadcast rights for the Canadian curling events couldn't have cost ESPN that much.

In any case, now I have a choice to make: downgrade my internet back to DSL so that I can watch ALL THE CURLING? Well, good news: DSL technology is better than it used to be, and the company offering DSL in my current neighborhood - Frontier - is (supposedly) better than AT&T. And, Frontier offers the same (advertised) internet speed that I currently get through Time Warner, but for $20/month cheaper.

We actually switched to Frontier three weeks ago. So far so good, and today we get to watch curling!

(Side note: Literally less than a week after we switched to Frontier primarily so we could access ESPN3, DirecTV/ESPN announced a new agreement that would offer authenticated WatchESPN + ESPN3 access to its television subscribers, including us. But, it sounds like that won't be implemented until later this year, likely after curling season is over. So, we made the right move, plus we're saving a good deal of money on a seemingly - so far - equivalent product.)

(Side note #2: Everyone says that Time Warner likes to make it hard to cancel your service, but the guy I talked to on the phone wasn't difficult at all. Still, I'm half-expecting them to keep sending me bills.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Publix and Sheetz Convergence

This is an under construction Sheetz located in western Cary, at the intersection of Highway 55 and Kit Creek Road. I snapped that picture in October, so the Sheetz is actually much closer to opening than the picture would indicate. When it does open, it will become the closest Sheetz to our house, which is exciting for me, even if Sheetzes (sp?) come more in handy for us on road trips than they do at home. I'd actually relocate this new Sheetz to somewhere along I-95 in South Carolina if I could. (Walterboro, maybe?) Of all the gas stations that are out there, Sheetzes are my favorite, and we actively seek them out on our road trips.

Once this Sheetz opens, it will make Cary, NC the first city in the world with both a Publix and a Sheetz. Or, to put it another way:

Pennsylvania-based Sheetz moved into North Carolina from the north, opening many locations along I-40 between Winston-Salem and Raleigh, but as of yet, nothing in the Charlotte metro. (That is, unless you include Statesville and Salisbury in "the Charlotte metro". I personally don't. I guess that's a separate debate.) There are several Sheetz locations in the Triangle - have been for years - but this new Sheetz will be the first with a Cary address.

Meanwhile, Florida-based Publix more recently moved into North Carolina from the south, and in terms of North Carolina expansion, has done nearly the opposite of Sheetz: opening a bunch of locations around Charlotte, but not much elsewhere in the state. There are plans to open many more locations across North Carolina, but so far, the Cary Publix is the only North Carolina location outside the Charlotte metro.

So, it's happened: Pennsylvania-based Sheetz and Florida-based Publix have finally expanded far enough towards each other such that Cary, NC, is the official "Sheetz/Publix convergence point". Pretty neat! At least if you're a dork like me.

Cary won't hold this exclusive honor forever, though. Other North Carolina cities which already have a Sheetz will also have their own Publix within the next two years, including Winston-Salem (end of 2015) and, according to "media reports", Wake Forest (2016?). (And, Raleigh, of course...maybe.) As for whether Sheetz plans to expand farther south along I-77 and I-85 and into the immediate Charlotte area, I know of no such plans, and neither does Google. Then again, a Google search for "Cary Sheetz" also comes up empty, so who knows. (That is, until I hit "publish" on this blog post, perhaps.) Apparently, new Sheetz locations in this state don't make the same waves in the business news media as new Publix locations do.

I don't know when the new Cary Sheetz will open, but when it time in Cary!

In related news, Wegmans - my second favorite grocery store - is creeping ever further south in Virginia, opening two new locations in the Richmond area. Will there ever be a city with both a Wegmans and a Publix? I seriously doubt it, because I don't see either chain expanding into a market where the other already exists, kind of like how Sheetz and Wawa, for the most part, have avoided each other's territory. If Wegmans and Publix ever did go head-to-head, that would just be too much for me to handle! And if it ever did happen, it could very well happen in Cary.

Monday, January 05, 2015

License Plate Registration Stickers: 2016 Edition

It's that time again: time to talk about license plate registration stickers!

I blog about this every year - and recently I've stooped to copying/pasting last year's post (feel free to compare and contrast) - but to recap: In North Carolina, the license plate registration stickers are a different color every year. Other than the fact that colors are never used twice in a three-year span, and that red/green/blue are the most commonly used colors, I haven't detected a pattern yet. And that's what makes this so exciting!

Going back as far as I have data, the sticker colors in North Carolina have been as follows:

2001: black
2002: red
2003: green
2004: orange
2005: blue
2006: red
2007: green
2008: blue
2009: purple
2010: green (darker green than other green years)
2011: goldenrod
2012: red
2013: blue
2014: green
2015: pink

Let's go back and check my prediction for the 2016 color: "Since 2000, North Carolina has never gone consecutive years using colors other than red/blue/green. So normally I would think 2016 will feature a return to red, which is the least-recently-used of the red/blue/green trio. and pink are too close to each other to use them in back-to-back years, since the point of using a different color every year is to make it easier for law enforcement to spot expired registrations. (Right?) Green was the 2014 color, so it shouldn't surface again until at least 2017. So...back to blue?"

WRONG! Your 2016 registration stickers

(Photo credit Brian LeBlanc)

I like it. Two pleasant surprises in consecutive years! Black was last used in 2001, and I had wondered why they hadn't gone back to it since. Whoever is making these decisions at NC DMV deserves a raise.

For 2017, they have to go back to one of the boring standard colors (red/blue/green), right? Either that, or maybe "goldenrod" (or some other variation of yellow) might resurface.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Restaurant Serving Times: 2014 Review

Kind of a sad day for me, personally. I've stopped maintaining my long standing "By the Numbers" Google Doc filled with personal life statistics. "By the Numbers" actually dates all the way back to my profile on AOL Instant Messenger over 10 years ago, and I continued it here via a Google Doc linked over there on the right under "The Good Stuff". (That link is now gone.)

In case you were wondering if being the parent of two young children would interfere with all of my obsessive stat-keeping, the answer is...well, yes and no. I still have plenty of interest in tracking my travel, bicycling distance, driving habits, curling games, and so on. But, I've moved most of that out of "By the Numbers" and into separate Google Spreadsheets, most of which I'd rather not publish on the web. (Having kids + our house getting robbed last year = me being less willing to personal stuff on the web, even meaningless statistics.) For most of its life, "By the Numbers" was the primary location where I stored a lot of my statistics, but after I started moving things into separate Google Spreadsheets, that made "By the Numbers" just another additional page for me to maintain, one that I assumed nobody really looked at regularly anymore anyway, plus the fact that I'm perpetually tired and don't really feel like it anymore, so I cleaned up the remnants of "By the Numbers" and then nuked it.

But, one long standing statistical practice I'm NOT stopping any time soon is restaurant serving times. When it comes to traditional "sit down" restaurants, from "what's your order" to "here's your food", how long does each restaurant take? I've been doing this for over 20 years now, and I'm going to keep timing restaurants for the rest of my life, darn it. Even if we don't go out to eat as much as we used to. (Only 21 times in 2014, the lowest in any year since I started the spreadsheet in 2004.) And, I am still sharing my restaurant serving times to the world, linked from the "Good Stuff" menu over there on the right. (Also, here.) 2014 just came to an end, so let's see who won!

It was Lexington Barbecue, again. 2 minutes, 41 seconds. That follows a time of 2:53 in 2013, also best of the year, and gives Lexington Barbecue two of the top three spots all-time. I kind of have to make it a point to go there every year as long as they keep serving fast, so there's no end to Lexington Barbecue's dominance in sight, right?

Well...maybe. You see, each of the two times I've gone to Lexington Barbecue, it was with friends, not with Amber and the family. Like me, my friends always order barbecue. But barbecue pork isn't Amber's thing as much, so when she goes to a barbecue restaurant, she usually orders chicken fingers. If you ask me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with ordering chicken fingers at any restaurant - any restaurant - but the thing is, chicken fingers take longer to serve than barbecue, and that basically ruins the barbecue restaurant's chance at a top time. (This is why Stamey's has been unable to even come close to their record time of 1:35 each of the times we've returned. I don't remember what Amber ordered when we went in 2008, but it couldn't have been chicken fingers, right? All I know is, when we went this year, it was chicken fingers.)

So, this year, I'm giving Lexington Barbecue their stiffest challenge yet: I'm bringing my family with me, and Amber is ordering chicken fingers. (Yes, it's on the menu.) And God only knows what Marla will end up ordering. So if Lexington Barbecue is going to three-peat in 2015, they'll have to earn it. Good luck, suckers!

At the other end of the speed spectrum, we have the slowest time of 2014: 34 minutes, 9 seconds, at Wild Wing Cafe in Wilmington, NC. This was a rather large party (20+), and that's usually what happens when you have a large party. The next slowest time of 2014 was under 25 minutes.

Other fast notables: Two-time champion Ideal Hot Dog of Toledo finished second in 2014, with a time of 7:44. All-time leader Stamey's also went below 10 minutes (8:02), as did breakfast joint Brigs (8:15), and Bob Evans in Durham (8:46). Out of the 38 documented times I've been to Bob Evans (by far the most out of any restaurant), that time was 3rd fastest. Bob Evans of Winchester, VA also posted an 18:08 earlier in the year.