FLAVORTOWN, Calif. — Most Americans have heard of this small community in northern California. Famous for its diners, drive-ins, dives, and other Americana nostalgia, Flavortown has won people’s hearts as the flavor capital of the United States.
But every flavor has its secrets.
Behind the double cheeseburgers and jumbo chili dogs, this city has a dark past, a past cloaked in backstabbing and deceit.
For the first time ever, our team of investigative reporters travelled to Flavortown to interview residents and try to expose its corrupt history.
“Flavor Will Be the Death of Us”
For decades, Flavortown was known as an idyllic local tourist attraction. Couples, families, and food enthusiasts from the surrounding towns would come here to enjoy its plethora of dining options.
But with the growth of the internet and mass media, many residents worried the town would have to adjust to the times or be put out of business by larger corporate restaurant chains.
A political battle ensued. The Local Flavors Party, with former Mayor Frank Berger at its head, eventually won out over those advocating for bigger, better flavors. In over 20 years in office, Mayor Berger worked hard to maintain the town’s local vibe.
But just as flavor was the town’s main attraction, it was also its downfall. Mayor Berger died suddenly in 2010 from diabetes-related complications. Some suspected foul play, but nothing was ever proven. In the ensuing special election, it was a completely different character who won the town’s hearts, one who vowed to put Flavortown on the global map.
There’s a New Mayor in Town
Guy Fieri was born to humble roots on the outskirts of Flavortown. From a young age residents recall he could be seen at the local eateries at all hours of the day sampling their fare.
“Yep. From the time that boy could walk you knew he was gonna dedicate his life to flavor,” said local fry cook Harland Wills. “He’d come into my diner two, three times a day just to critique the reuben.”
When he came of age, Fieri took his intimate knowledge of flavor to the major markets of New York City and Las Vegas. Sources close to Fieri say that it was his goal to learn the business end of flavor development from these experiences.
“He always said that one day he was going to put Flavortown on the map,” said a former employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “New York, Las Vegas, these were just side shows. Experiments. Every day he was learning. His knowledge of flavors was growing stronger.”
After a few years doing business in New York and Las Vegas, Fieri took his worldly knowledge back home to Flavortown. He opened a diner on main street and it was immediately a hit. Some say the first dish served at his new restaurant was the first in history to be deemed “bomb-dot-com” delicious.
But within months, Fieri began butting heads with local politicians. Labor and zoning laws prevented his business from realizing the rapid growth he imagined. In a famous protest in July 2009, Fieri lit an innocent pulled pork sandwich on fire on the street in front of his establishment.
“Wake up people!” Fieri shouts in the video that later went viral. “Our flavors are dying out here!”
In the ensuing months, diners owned by allies of Mayor Berger began receiving negative reviews in the local papers, all written anonymously. Mayor Berger’s family-owned joint, the Berger Barn, saw its Yelp score drop from 4.5 stars to 2 almost overnight.
“What we were looking at was a strategic political and economic campaign to bring down Mayor Berger,” said detective Brad Corona, who investigated the case after foul play was suspected in Mayor Berger’s death. “Unfortunately, Fieri covered his tracks, and we were never able to tie him to anything.”
By the time Mayor Berger died less than a year after Fieri’s return to Flavortown, the town was on the brink of revolution. Fieri had fomented enough chaos and polarization in the town that he was able to narrowly defeat Berger’s former vice mayor Robert Flay in a special cook-off election.
The Iron Fist of Flavor
Once he took office, Mayor Fieri got right to work. He began enacting laws more favorable to big, robust flavors, often at the expense of the town’s classic, local flavors. Locals say Fieri’s taxes and regulations began running any flavors he didn’t like out of town.
“My family owned Linda’s Diner for 40 years before Fieri was elected. But our most popular dishes were omelettes, and everyone knows Mayor Fieri hates eggs,” said Joe Desanto. “His egg tax hit us hard and forced us to close shop.”
Fieri’s policies further polarized the town, with many strongly supporting his Big Flavor initiatives. Even some localists supported him at first.
“Mayor Fieri did take our flavors to the next level of funkalicious,” said one resident, “but at what cost?”
By 2013, any restaurants that Fieri did not officially deem “off the hook” or “the real deal” were forced to close. Even those restaurants rated as merely “gangster” would have to re-certify with Fieri’s Flavors Board each year.
Fieri narrowly won reelection again in 2014, giving him a chance to consolidate his flavor gains and appoint his lackeys to the city council. By the time he was up for reelection again in 2016, he had already abolished term limits and run most of his opposition out of town. Under his “Shut the Front Door” initiative, all restaurants that couldn’t produce a shama lama ding dong dish within a week had their business licenses revoked. Opponents say Fieri specifically targeted localist restaurants and judged the dishes himself, effectively crushing the last remaining resistance to his reign.
Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner?
Flash forward to 2019 and Flavortown is a dramatically different place than it was a decade ago.
Gone are the small-time mom and pop joints and the local vibe. The GDP has risen dramatically, but so has inequality. Most of the money has gone to Big Flavor, controlled by Fieri and his allies. Some former small business owners are out on the street begging for leftover au jus drippings just to survive. Others have left completely.
And what about the flavors?
The flavors, no doubt, are bigger and better than ever. But — as many residents have asked — at what cost?