In a fragrant, well-lit restaurant in Virginia Beach's Town Center, Tidewater Log met with former "Best Of Hampton Roads" public relations coordinator and co-editor, "Mr. X", to discuss the dark side of the Virginia-Pilot's seemingly innocent and genuine annual contest. (No, "Mr. X" is not the real name of our informant...in fact there isn't an "x" anywhere in his name. Actually, it's a woman, but she made us guarantee that we'd conceal her identity as much as we could. Why she agreed to pose for a photograph, we'll never know. She may have been a little confused by the camera - thought it was a tape recorder or a phone or something.)
TL: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us.
Mr. X: My pleasure. I'm tired of keeping these secrets. I'm old and can do what I want. (laughs)
TL: Okay - plain and simple...how does one get the "Best of Hampton Roads" distinction?
Mr. X: Money.
TL: The public has nothing to do with the outcome?
Mr. X: Nothing at all. The winner paid for everything - the banner, the little plaques, the mention in the paper. You know, it even costs to get on the ballott in the first place! That alone should tell you it's crooked. The public just doesn't...they don't see how things really are.
TL: What happens to the ballots? The online ones?
Mr. X: They're absolutely meaningless. It's just something to drive web traffic up for the newspaper's website. You know, on average just about 40 people go there a day...and most of them are members of the newspaper staff leaving angry, rambling comments their own and each other's stories.
TL: How about the old mail-in ballots? What happened to those?
Mr. X: Dumped 'em in the Bay myself. Unread. Hell - unopened!
TL: So, are we talking about the winners paying for their awards with money...or products and services?
Mr. X: Back when it started, 15 years ago, we'd do it for free oil changes, pizza, patio chairs, and such...but nowadays it's plain ol' money, honey (laughs).
TL: How much?
Mr. X: Depends. A frozen yogurt place or shoe repair place doesn't have to pay as much as a law firm, a private school - or one of them big ol' seafood buffets.
TL: On average?
Mr. X: Oooooooooh....I'd say...'bout twenty thousand for a high roller...three thou for a small fry. And that was back in 2004, before I quit.
TL: What happened? Why did you leave?
Mr. X: I can honestly say that the people I worked with in the "Best of" division were the greediest, most mean-spirited, downright cruel people I'd ever worked with...and I used to work in a slaughter room up in Smithfield in my younger days.
TL: Wow. Gross.
Mr. X: Yep. Pig brains being squeezed outta their lil' ears! Squeeeeeeeeaaaawwww!!! (bugs out her eyes and sticks out her tongue)
TL: Eeeeeeeew! SERIOUSLY - that's GROSS. No more.
Mr. X: Aw, I'm sorry. (laughs) I'd see business owners really do a great job of campaigning - getting their customers to vote and spread the word and such. Some had just opened their restaurants or whatever and really thought that one of those banners hanging out front would bring in more customers.
TL: Well, they do...don't they?
Mr. X: Not at all. Tell me, do you know anyone with any sense that frequents a business because of some cheap banner flapping in the wind out front?
TL: (thinking) Hmmmmmmmmmm.
Mr. X: NO! Only an idiot would. Towards the end, I told some real nice folks to just print up their own if they feel the need to. Print one up and hang it yourself. (laughs)
TL: So, the cruelty you saw? What happened?
Mr. X: The public doesn't know about the team of about sixty "Best of" employees going all over Hampton Roads all year long intimidating and threatening business owners. I've seen 'em trash places because they thought the owners were hiding money. They'd smash windows after hours. They'd release bags of roaches or termites WHILE health inspectors watched. They're in on the whole thing, too, you know.
TL: That's horrible.
Mr.X: Yep. And remember, these were families - with babies or kids in colleges. Their lives were ruined. In some cases of immigrant owned restaurants - the authorities were called, a raid took place, and they were forced to leave the country. Immediately.
TL: All because of some dumb banner? or a sign?
Mr. X: Yeah. People think it's really important...mostly the "Best of" staff. They don't mess around.
TL: I guess it's their livelihood. They have to pretend it's important.
Mr. X: Bingo. It's everyone at the newspaper's livelihood. We're talking about ALL the major regions of Hampton Roads - Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, and Williamsburg. You do the math.
TL: Dear God, we're talking about...
Mr. X: It's a multi-million dollar operation.
Mr. X: For nothing at all. Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it? (laughs)
Mr. X: (bugs out her eyes and sticks out her tongue again)
TL: AAAAAAGH! That's it - this interview's OVER!