Schizophrenic Nation

They're healthy; they're indulgent. They're cynical; they're hopeful. They're having fun; they're working like maniacs. Are today's consumers nuts--or just trying to have it all?

At gourmet takeout haven Urban Epicuria, patrons scarf down a whopping 200 pounds of grilled chicken breasts each week. That's no surprise in fitness-obsessed West Hollywood, California. But Wayne Davis, co-owner of Urban Epicuria along with Alan and Gail Baral, lets us in on a dirty little secret: The beef tenderloin is also a hot seller. And the chocolate cake--customers can't get enough. "When we were putting this business together, our investors were skeptical [about us selling rich pastries and other indulgences]," says Davis. "But I told them, `You watch.' People talk about eating healthy--but behind closed doors, it's another story."

Sometimes it's another story in public, too. Allentown, Pennsylvania, restaurateur Iris Konia packs in the local bon vivants at her Federal Grill & Cigar Bar. According to Konia, public indulgence in cigars, premium martinis and aged Angus steaks is not a sign of nutritional Armageddon. "Times are good, and people are feeling expansive," says Konia. "I think it's a reaction to not [indulging] for so long. People are having fun; that's what we're seeing."

Yet, it's not the kind of orgiastic free-for-all we saw in the 1980s. Barbara Caplan, a partner at consumer research firm Yankelovich Partners, puts it this way: "In the '80s, there was no shame; in the '90s, it's no apologies." Indeed, today's consumers are curious and conflicted characters--attracted by luxury but driven by value, knowledgeable about fitness but susceptible to caloric sins. This is the culture that spawned Martha (Stewart) by Mail, a service that packages all the pillowy comforts of gracious living in a no-commitment, hassle-free format.

We are individuals who defy categorization. Los Angeles entrepreneur Erica Courtney, 42, founder of a jewelry company bearing her name, is a good example of the new nonconformity. "I might buy myself a Chanel suit," says Courtney, "but I'd wear the jacket with blue jeans and the skirt with a T-shirt. I do what I like, not what I'm supposed to like."

Attitudes like Courtney's may spell good times for rugged individualists, but what about for entrepreneurs? In a universe where roasted sea bass and crème brûlée are equally desirable--and where paradox reigns supreme--how does the entrepreneur stake a claim? And how did we get ourselves into this strange state of affairs in the first place?

Gayle Sato Stodder is co-author of Young Millionaires Reveal Their Secrets (Entrepreneur Media Inc.).

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Schizophrenic Nation.

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