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Tattoo You 

The latest price for a free lunch

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
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It wasn't necessarily odd for a young man to walk into Mom's tattoo parlor on Haight Street carrying a bag of tortilla chips. Nor was it completely loony when the customer said he wanted his arm tattooed with the logo on the tortilla bag -- a cartoon of a little mariachi man riding a corn cob rocket.

Hey, tattoo artist Barnaby Williams was once asked to ink the image of a horse copied from a condom wrapper. Not much raises his eyebrows anymore. But Williams began to wonder when a second, a third, and then a half-dozen customers came in carrying bags of chips. Each pointed to the "Jimmy the Corn Man" logo, and rolled up their sleeves.

"I realized, 'Wow, something's going on here,' " Williams says.
Indeed.
It seems a Mission taqueria, Casa Sanchez, has hit on a novel promotion, asking customers to affirm their devotion to the shop's delectable burritos in indelible ink. The restaurant is offering free lunch -- every day, for life -- to anyone willing to have the company's Corn Man logo tattooed anywhere on his body.

Since the promotion started last November, 15 people have taken up the offer.

The tattoo has become so popular that Williams entered into a cross-marketing deal with the restaurant. Now, Casa Sanchez tells customers they can get the logo inked at Mom's Body Shop at a discount. Instead of the usual $120, Williams charges just $80 for the hourlong, full-color etching of Jimmy. Burritos go for $4.50, and the free-lunch deal includes any beverage, even beer, so the tattoo will pay for itself after just a dozen visits.

Since most takers will probably carry the tattoo with them to the grave, however, they do ask questions before making the commitment.

"Some people interrogate us," says Marty Sanchez, one of five siblings who helps run the family restaurant. "How long have we been in business? Will we be closing soon? How can we guarantee they'll get their free lunch for years to come?"

Considering Casa Sanchez's history, and current success, tattoo holders seem assured of many burritos in their lifetimes. Besides running the taqueria, which has been on 24th Street between York and Hampshire for the past 30 years, the family also has a lucrative business selling its brand of corn chips and salsa in area supermarkets.

But Sanchez concedes the family members who do the books are starting to get nervous. The tattoo promotion may be working too well. There's talk of putting a cap on the number of lifetime lunchers, maybe creating an elite tattoo club of 30. But for now, anyone sporting the Sanchez logo on his body -- any size, anywhere -- is welcome. Just place an order, and show the cashier.

"If it's on your butt, you have to show your butt," says Sanchez. "Of course, if you're a good-looking guy, you have to show it every time. If not, show it once, and we'll remember."

Greg Tietz wandered into Casa Sanchez thinking it was just another Mission taqueria, no different than any of the others he frequents. But he was particularly pleased with his burrito. "I thought, 'Gosh, that was really good. I need to remember this place,' " Tietz recalls. "So when I walked out, I looked at the name in the window."

That's when he saw a flier advertising the tattoo promotion. Tietz says he'd been thinking for some time about getting a tattoo, but hadn't been able to settle on an image. When he saw Jimmy the Corn Man -- and the deal that went with it -- he was hooked.

Days later, the sombrero-wearing rocket rider sat proudly on Tietz's right shoulder. "I waited 35 years for my first tattoo," Tietz says. "I guess I wouldn't have done it without the free lunch. I don't like the logo that much. But I do like the burritos."

So does Guido Brenner. When he heard about the promotion he went to Casa Sanchez to check out the food. He liked what he ate, and decided to get the tattoo.

But Brenner's body was already almost completely covered in designs, so he faced two problems: figuring out where to fit another tattoo, and not upsetting the traditional Japanese theme that cloaks the rest of his body.

True, a mariachi man riding a corn cob rocket isn't that different from a ghost riding a giant carp through a wave. But the clash in cultures would be noticeable.

Keen on those burritos, Brenner went for it anyway. He put Corn Man in an out-of-the-way place -- just below the armpit, at the top of the rib cage.

"It was a good little spot that didn't mess up any of my other art," Brenner says. "But it was a rough place to tattoo. That's a very sensitive area."

Unlike Tietz, Brenner actually likes the logo. He'd noticed the design on bags of chips at Safeway before he ever ate at Casa Sanchez. "They have a cool logo," he says. "But the food is what made we want to do it. That's what won me over."

At Mom's Body Shop, tattoo artist Williams has done about a dozen of the Corn Man logos so far, on arms, hips, and stomachs, but no "butts or boobs" -- yet. It's starting to grow on him, and now he's thinking of getting the tattoo himself. Probably on his calf. And he hasn't even eaten at Casa Sanchez -- he just likes the rocket man, and will go on people's word that the food is good.

When it comes to tattoos, Williams says people shouldn't be compelled to take it too seriously, thinking they must formulate some great statement or create an entire body-art concept.

"Yes, it's something that will be on your body for life, but when you're dead the worms will eat it. It's not going to hang in the Louvre. It won't matter," Williams says. "Tattoos don't all have to be about skulls and biomechanical warriors. They should be fun."

As for the wave in Jimmy the Corn Man popularity, Williams figures the free lunch has something to do with it, but he says there's a certain draw to the character, too.

"It's so dorky, therefore it becomes cool," he explains. "Like how Lyle Lovett is considered attractive."

Still, the owners of Casa Sanchez are amazed that so many people have taken their almost tongue-in-cheek promotion seriously.

"We were just joking around, and boom, all of a sudden all these people started coming in with their tattoos," says Liz Sanchez, another sibling who helps run the restaurant.

Some of the tattoo holders have begun to express pangs of guilt over all the free food they've been able to eat, Liz says, and try to leave big tips, or even pay every once in a while. She won't let them.

"They feel guilty, but it almost should be the other way around," Liz says. "We're amazed anyone would put our logo on their body -- this is no little heart or flower. We're proud, too. It's like they've married into the family. We're going to be part of their lives forever."

And why stop with Corn Man?
On Valentine's Day, Black Star beer, a Montana-based company, will give away a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the person with the largest Black Star logo tattooed on his body. Last year, three men had giant bucking broncos inked on their backs in hopes of winning a bike. This year, Black Star expects 20 people to show up at its brewery headquarters in Whitefish, Mont., to vie for the Harley.

Although he went for the Corn Man promotion, Brenner is less inclined to get a Black Star tattoo as well -- even though a lifetime of burritos may never equal the value of a free Harley.

"I'd be afraid of losing the Black Star contest, and then you're stuck with a big logo on your back," Brenner says. "At least at Casa Sanchez, everyone is a winner."

But Black Star spokesperson Kate Greenlee begs to differ.
"Last year's third-place guy comes by the brewery every once in a while and we slip him a six-pack," Greenlee says. "And any contestant who wants to come back to Whitefish, Montana, every day to get a free beer for life, we'll give it to them -- except Sundays when the brewery's closed."

Tietz says he'll stick with the Corn Man tattoo as well. And he's preparing himself in case the unthinkable happens.

"If the restaurant closes, I'll be sad. But I don't place all the importance on the free lunch," Tietz says. "What matters is the funny story I'll carry on my shoulder for the rest of my life. And the little corn cob rocket guy is kind of charming. Clever, really.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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