Asked where he discovered the models for his unusual characters, eccentric author Kurt Von-negut always used to quip, "Cincinnati."

No big surprise there. The city has been known for decades for its unusual range of oddball characters, from Jerry Springer to Larry Flynt to Marge Schott.

Now, however, the city is getting a reputation for being usual, not unusual. Average, not subpar. Plain vanilla, if you want to be frank about it.

Test marketers have discovered our town, and they apparently like our demographics. The population is not too spicy, not too sassy. We're seen as in the middle ground. An extremely reliable slice of population. Producing results that will accurately and scientifically serve as a predictor of how America at large will take to any new consumer offering. Large corporations and small companies alike, of course, have always desperately sought just such a universal demographic, a single city that can represent the country as a whole.

Take pancakes, for instance. When it comes to IHOP's cutting-edge menu, residents of the Tristate will see it before anyone else in the nation, beginning this year.

Talk to Julia Stewart, and she sees Greater Cincinnati as a unique testing ground. So unique, in fact, that Stewart "” the president and CEO of International House of Pancakes "” has personally chosen the Tristate as the first area in the country to roll out a deluge of IHOP restaurants for the 21st century.

These won't be your grandfather's IHOPs. Under the company's old business model, individual franchisees ran the restaurants. Beginning with Cincinnati, the company will actually own the 15 to 20 IHOPs it plans to open here in the coming year. The market blitz is an experiment, as is a new look for the restaurant, new menu items (think low-carb, and espressos, and smoothies), new uniforms and the concept that the International House of Pancakes is not just a breakfast destination.

"We made the decision to test in one market, Cincinnati. This is the evolution of IHOP, the future for us, all wrapped up into one place," Stewart explains as she sits at the construction site where the first IHOP will be built, in Milford right off the I-275 exit. Eventually, the IHOPs will employ close to 2,000 people in this region, at locations in Oakley, Anderson, Forest Park, and eventually across the river into Northern Kentucky.

"We have no intention of franchising this. This is my company's new direction. We'll be getting involved in the community, that's the vision. Unlike when we just had one operator operating in Memphis or two in Oregon."

Stewart says the old IHOP looks were "sort of sterile" and that the new, company-owned designs will be warm, inviting, rich in color and lighting. "We're not just trying to serve breakfast," she adds of the new concept for the restaurant chain. "We're trying to serve lunch and dinner." All the Cincy restaurants, in fact, will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Cincinnati is perfect for us because of the demographics. This is a family-values town, and we are a family-values company," Stewart observes.

And, frankly, she says, Cincinnati is perfect because there is so much competition: Homegrown restaurant chains such as Frisch's and First Watch add to the fray of the Perkins and Bob Evans. "We know Wall Street is watching [this market]. If we can succeed here, we can succeed anywhere." The competitive market is what has drawn any number of companies to test market their products here in recent times. Consider:

"¢ Shell Oil offered a super-high-octane grade of gasoline called V-Power, which purported to make engines yield more power. Mobil's vice president of retail, Russell Caplan, called Greater Cincinnati the ideal test market because the local petroleum market is highly competitive and the media environment is "contained," which allowed the company to evaluate marketing concepts and closely monitor consumer purchase behavior.

"¢ Delta Air Lines launched a test to sell food at boarding gates before flights at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a hub in its flight network. Cincinnati's airport was the lone test market for the sandwich sales.

"¢ Pepperball Technologies launched its new protective weapon, a nonlethal pepperball gun called The Neutralizer, in only two markets, here and Omaha, Neb. Working along the lines of a paintball gun, the $280 weapon delivers a Mace-like spray, but allows users to remain at a distance from the person they believe is threatening them.

"¢ The Coca-Cola Co. tested a new citrus soft drink called Citra in the Tristate, rather than its hot-hot-hot hometown of Atlanta.

"¢ And the Goddard Schools, the franchised system of early childhood education centers and preschools, first began by "getting the kinks worked out ... in Cincinnati, which turned out to be a great test market," according to national Goddard president Phil Schumacher.

All along, Columbus has somehow kept a grip on the title of "Test Market USA," proclaiming itself the scientifically accurate microcosm of the country's population. But a new study by a Little Rock, Ark., database-services company, Acxiom Corp., ranks the Columbus metropolitan area as the No. 65 test market in the nation. Cincinnati ranks significantly higher, at No. 20. Take that, Cow Town.

Is there good reason to shout out the fact we've somehow become guinea pigs extraordinaire? Why not? From a business perspective, it certainly can't hurt the economics of the region, when company CEO after company CEO describes Greater Cincinnati as competitive, its demographics desirable, its populace in demand.

However, if you're a consumer, you should find yourself watching the new developments at the grocery aisles, department store windows, and restaurant menus carefully. Guinea pigs eat well, especially in a town called Porkopolis. But sooner or later, every guinea pig is fed a final indignity.