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First, a little history. I was a young wife with an old car that had four bald tires. And that winter, I drove those tires a few months past what I knew was safe. I knew if I could hold out until February, I could buy new tires — and get a free steak dinner, too.

Everyone in the West knew that: February was Free Beef month at Les Schwab Tires, and it had been for decades. Les Schwab himself started the promo in 1964 as a way to give a boost to central and eastern Oregon cattle ranchers.

Like his business, it was straightforward and fair: When you bought your tires, the salesman reached into a freezer and, depending on how much you’d spent, handed you either steaks or ground beef or — more recently — pepperoni sausages.

Forty-eight years later, and the familiar promo has undergone a big makeover. I learned about it when I received a press release last month from Will Outland of the Les Schwab stores in Corvallis.

Seems that the South Corvallis Les Schwab gave a $500 gift card to four people who had entered a drawing for $500 worth of free beef or just the cash. Four lucky people at the North Corvallis Les Schwab also received the same deal for having entered the promotional drawing. A release from Les Schwab’s headquarters in Bend explained:

“This week, our managers drew entry forms for awards to 1,500 lucky customers representing $750,000 in Free Beef and cash prizes.”

Brian Capp, the vice president for marketing at Les Schwab Tire Centers, said, “This program enables every store manager to show customers how much we appreciate their business.”

But, I groused to a patient Will Outland, did this mean that customers no longer got free beef? Well, some lucky ones do. Others get cash. Some just get road-safe tires at a fair price.

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And this change wasn’t because Les Schwab abandoned its tradition or the ranchers. It’s because customers no longer waited for the promotion to come in for new tires in February. In other words, the allure of free beef with each February tire purchase had run its course with consumers.

I’m not all that surprised. I don’t delay buying tires, and maybe that’s the better way to go. Safer. And I can’t remember the last time I ate red meat, either. Or most other kinds.

But I remember how I grilled those steaks in butter, served them with mushrooms and savored every single bite. A chance at free beef or cash won’t be the same.

Theresa Novak is city editor and opinion page editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

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