Sunday, December 20, 2009

What do fake hamsters have in common with food sales?



I ran across this article today and thought it was worth sharing. It's about Toys 'R Us and their approach during the economic downturn. While they're certainly much different than ZMO in many ways, their CEO's take on managing during the downturn dovetailed with a lot of what I think is important.

The merchandise is what people want. If it's fun and interesting and good, people will buy it. Focus on that.

Don't get lured into fighting price battles. That's a zero sum game.

Innovate. Be exciting. Do things your customers don't expect. When things are bad, try to figure out how to give more service, not less.

Don't be dour and constantly tout "recession special" bunk. It's depressing. No one wants to buy anything from someone who's depressing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

ZMO Alumni: Robert Johnson



Robert Johnson probably hates that I used this as his picture.

The holiday rush is here, like it is every year. It always brings a surge of amazing, unexpected people to our business. I’ve met some of you this year and it’s no different—what a cool bunch of folks you are. There have been so many fabulous people come work for us during the holiday it’s hard to even comprehend. Many have stayed. Jackie and Brad, for example. They were some of our first holiday staff. I remember that I was late to Jackie’s interview. I remember that because she never lets me forget it. Brad — I never remember interviewing. It’s like Brad was always here.

I thought I would share a little ZMO history with at least one alumni profile this holiday. It may seem a little personal for the biz blog but I think it shares a sense of the spirit we’ve always had. Plus it’s a peek back in history at a company that, not long ago, was much more tiny and fragile than it is now. 

ZMO ALUMNI PROFILE
Robert Johnson
on the phones circa 1995-6


When I hired Robert everyone called him Bob. It was 1995. It was near Christmas. In the dark basement of my brain I knew that I needed help to run Mail Order for the holiday. At that time we were a staff of two. We would need two or three more—at least! It wasn’t until late November that the light turned on and I realized I needed to post, interview, hire, train...you know, that kind of stuff. Frankly I’ve never been a terrific planner.

I called Bob because I knew him as a friend of a friend. More importantly, I knew he’d worked in phone sales. Being an, ahem, business man, I calculated his experience would help cut my training expenses (which were also unplanned for). His experience came from a previous company, name unknown. To call it phone sales might have been a stretch. Bob’s employer wasn’t exactly a legitimate organization. Telemarketing of some sort, positioned as "donations." It was basically one of those companies that the national Do Not Call registry was created for. I remember a line he used to give  little old ladies who asked him if he worked for the fire department: “Well, I’m sure not a policeman!” I knew Bob was recently unemployed. He had told me recently that he was walking to work in Ypsilanti, coffee in hand, saw a newspaper with a headline announcing a police raid on his employer, turned around and headed home.

Bob worked two holidays at ZMO. In between he sold cheese at the deli with Debra Dickerson. At the holiday, equipment-wise, we were pathetic. We had two ten dollar touch tone phones from K Mart. Our voice mail system consisted of three fifteen dollar answering machines from someplace worse. No 1-800 number. The fax was at Zingerman’s deli, across the street, and it was always running out of paper. We’d forget it was there for a day or two.

All I remember from those two seasons was my phone plastered to my ear all day, non-stop. Never a break, almost nothing to eat. Bob and I were the entire sales office. When we caught our breath and were off the phone at the same time we'd be in a daze and couldn’t think straight. Our conversation was childlike and profane, like a dirty Dr Seuss book. “Mo, Did you get the fax from Fox?” “No, but I just got the shit from Mr Schatz!”

When we closed at 5pm we hit play on the boom box, took a 10 minute break, then rang back all the voice mails. By 7 or 8 it was all over. Oh, except for the pick sheets. We wrote those by hand and it took half the night. 

Like many of the folks working in the service center now Bob had a fan club. He has a deeper voice than I do and I think there were people who called just to listen. Before he left he gave me advice about working the phones that I’ve never forgotten, but, for obvious reasons, hasn’t made it into our training manual. “Mo, the secret to great service is just talk to everyone like you want to have sex with them. Woman or man, doesn’t matter. Everyone.”

In 1997, Bob moved to New York. He worked at Murray’s Cheese in the Village and walked quarter wheels of Parmigiano around the corner to a young chef named Mario Batali, who was really starting to make it at a restaurant named Pó. After that he worked in one of those atrociously-named internet start-ups circa 2000. His stock shares went in the shitter, like everyone else’s.

Soon afterwards Bob got into the music business and he’s stayed there ever since. For years he worked at The Knitting Factory, a great little 3-stage club in lower Manhattan. At this point I should probably say I love rock and roll and everything about it so it has been awesome to stay in touch with Bob and, once in a while, get a chance to sneak into some great sold-out shows.

For the last three years Bob has worked with a partner in his own company called Scenic. He books rock shows for clubs in New York, mainly in Brooklyn. Some cute tiny shows like the Trachtenberg Family Slide Show Players. Some old punk bands like Fear. Some unknown heavy metal bands with moody names like Unearthly Trance. Some up and coming stars like Kurt Vile. And once in a while, some bonafide stars like Andrew W.K. and Big Star. (Andrew W.K. is from Ann Arbor and played a recent Scenic show in a Fleetwood Diner shirt.)

Whenever I see Bob, I try to remember to bring him a brownie. He still says Zingerman’s was the best job he ever had. (I barely believe him, but it was fun.) Now he is his own boss, which is something I hope everyone gets to try one day. If nothing else, for meeting awesome people like him.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Moonlight Oil


Daphne and Amalia

After Thanksgiving expired I spent the following morning at a café with Daphne and Amalia Zepos, the two sisters behind our exclusive Kokoraki olive oil from the island of Zakynthos, Greece. Amalia was in from Athens, visiting Daphne in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving.

It'd been two weeks since the olive harvest finished. Amalia shared details. All the olives were picked and pressed from October 27 to November 13. It's a blend of one part dopia (Greek for "local") and five parts Koroneiki olives. Yields were slightly lower than last year, which to her is a good sign for the flavor. She brought a bottle, the color was electric. She says that's typical for oil from Zakynthos. A minty phosphorescent green that surprises people from elsewhere in Greece, where oil is almost always yellow. 

It's the first time I met Amalia. She is poised, calm, relentlessly precise. She's new to oil making, having taken a seminar with author Judy Ridgway last year and learning otherwise by trial and error and constant discussion with the farmers. She keeps a notebook with each day's pressing notes. Kilos picked, olive oil pressed, rain or sun, temperature, and so on. This year she sourced a special filter tray from Crete to remove stems and leaves on the farm because the machine at the olive press doesn't work well enough for her standards. She's adamant about pressing without the addition of heat (cold pressed) so she waits at the local olive press until all the other farmers are finished and the press is washed and cooled. That often means pressing at 2 in the morning, by moonlight.
 
If pressing olive oil by moonlight sounds enchanting it's worth noting that it's just the latest chapter in the romantic history of this particular olive grove. Amalia holds a letter that details the ownership of the small farm since 1820. At that point it was bequeathed as a marriage dowry. Even then it was considered valuable, worth enough to win a lifetime commitment between two lovers. Many of the two hundred eight trees are from that period — or older. The newlywed family of two centuries ago would have had oil that's very similar to what we have today. Since then the grove has had four owners, the last being the family of Amalia's husband.

We currently offer 2008's harvest, the first bottled for sale outside Greece. It's a rare example of an estate bottled Greek olive oil. (Almost all Greek oil is made for personal consumption or sold to co-ops and blended.) The flavor is vibrant and bright, like the color. The 2009 harvest will be with us in late spring. The flavor now, intense and green since it was just pressed, promises to be delicious. Both harvests are certified organic.

Amalia is a documentary filmmaker. Here's a short piece she created during 2008's harvest.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why doesn't the post office deliver on Sundays?

NPR aired a piece about the woes of the U.S. Post Office today. Sales are down, they're in the red, etc etc. It seems like we hear a report like this every year. A hundred years ago the phone was going to kill direct mail. After that it was UPS. Then FedEx. Now it's the internet. Or something.

The post office has marched out the usual ideas to save themselves. The oldest, most decrepit idea stood up first: stop delivering mail on Saturday. Saves cost, right? Who in America cares if they get mail on Saturday?

Before I go there, let me point out that this is wrongheaded from the start. You can't save your way out of a sales problem. So with that in mind, here's an idea for you Mr. Post Office.

How about Sunday delivery?

I tell you I'm one customer who's dying for someone to offer full weekend delivery. It would be an incredible service improvement to our customers. We could level our weekly shipments since we would no longer have to restrict 2 Business Day shipments to Monday through Wednesday. If someone would offer full weekend shipping, I'd sign up ZMO lickety split. Every year I tell this to our UPS rep, Forrest, resplendent in his perma-tan, over a blueberry donut in our break room. Forrest laughs. Yet, the post office is halfway there. Just add one more day. Come on.

I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bagna Cauda



In northern Italy, where bagna cauda is a common dish,
every Italian man over a certain age owns a pair of pants in this color.


The New York Times has an article today about bagna cauda. It's basically a lament that bagna cauda, (pronounced banya kowda), the Piedmont dipping sauce with olive oil and anchovies, never caught on stateside even though the Times "broke" it to Americans in 1960.

I don't know why it hasn't caught on either. Americans usually love foods that are dipped in other foods. Maybe it's the anchovies? Maybe it's because you dip vegetables? Maybe it's because one of them is a cardoon and who knows what a cardoon is? I don't know. Still, it seems that if, as a nation, we can  embrace dipping chicken wings in blue cheese or scooping corn chips through refried beans, we could get into this.

In the Piedmont, fall begins bagna cauda season. It's a natural for cool weather. The dipping vegetables, mostly roots like carrots, are in season. We have a few jars and warmers for sale. If the Times is right, you might be alone in eating it, but that doesn't mean it's not really tasty.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some Cherries are from Mars



I'm writing about maraschino cherries for a future catalog tonight. I've got a jar from the bodega around the corner and the one I'm writing about, an Italian brand called Luxardo. There's a big difference in the taste. But I think this picture tells most of the story. That's a whole lot of RED#40, baby.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

In the latest Zingerman's catalog I wrote a piece about traditional uses of corn syurp in candy making. The full article is below.

If you'd like to learn more about the chemistry of sugars, here's a piece by Marion Nestle. Among many other things, she is the author of What to Eat, a book in that caught my eye for the simple but insightful observation that food around the edges of supermarkets is much less processed than that in the middle aisles.

How did it come to be that American companies find it profitable to turn corn into sugar instead of using actual sugar? I wrote some basics about the crazy economics in this post.

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

Poor corn.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the vegetable. It’s been the subject of exposés putting it at the center of America’s industrial food problems, including obesity and diabetes. In Michael Pollan’s (highly recommended) Omnivore’s Dilemma and the movie it inspired, King Corn, it’s nearly criminal.

Corn-derived products have also felt the bad rap, in particular corn syrup. Does it deserve it? Like most food villains, there's some truth to the complaints. But, like in a lot of debates, things are never quite as black and white as they seem.

On the negative side, corn has benefitted from specific agricultural subsidies encouraging its production and others that restricted trade on substitutes, most importantly cane sugar. The limits raised the price—up to the point where it makes sense to create the more expensive industrial high fructose corn syrup on a large scale. Most aspects of industrial corn syrup—from growing to refining—are fossil fuel intensive.

On the positive side, though, corn syrup has been a part of American culinary history since at least around the time of the Civil War. It’s been used in moderate amounts in all kinds of dishes. Most important to us, candy makers have long used the special properties of corn syrup to control sugar crystallization. If you want to keep a candy soft and gooey, corn syrup is great.

For example, corn syrup gives caramel its texture. The other sugars and dairy give the caramel its flavor. The chemical reaction that breaks down corn’s polysaccharide carbohydrate into sugar’s monosaccharide glucose is relatively simple. The main ingredient is water. Once made, corn syrup is not as sweet as refined sugar (though the high fructose version is much sweeter).

Larger concerns aside, at Zingerman’s, we don’t think corn syrup is entirely evil. Corn syrup is not the primary sweetener at Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory but it is used. Charlie, the candy maker, also sweetens his candy bars with raw honey, traditional muscovado brown sugar, maple sugar and regular old granulated cane sugar. Each one contributes to the texture and flavor of his finished candy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flaming Lips Eat The Reuben

It's a banner day at the old testimonial factory. These just in.

"People make pilgrimages to a town in the middle of fucking Michigan
to get a corned beef sandwich."

David Sax, in the Village Voice.

David is on the PR circuit for his new book Save the Deli. You can read the full interview here. You can also catch his interview on NPR. Our customers will be talking about this book so it's a good idea to brush up on it. I ordered a copy for the office. I read it in about an hour — not because it's bad, it's quick and fun.

And, not to dis David Sax because that's a hell of a quote, but I was really excited by this one.

"Now that's a Sandwich!!!!"
Michael Ivins, The Flaming Lips

He ordered our Reuben Kit, made the sandwich (pretty damn well I might add) and took pictures.

In case you don't know who The Flaming Lips are, well, you can watch them on Conan O'Brien tonight. Or here's a video of one of my favorite songs, where the band is eating — not reubens.


Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Ryan|MySpace Videos

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meet your Maker: Justin Rashid

Justin Rashid, Preserve Maker
By Pattie Shaffer

Justin Rashid is the founding partner of American Spoon in Petoskey, Michigan. His company, started in 1982, continues to make what many consider the best fruit jams in America.

Below is a brief interview I did with Justin in August, 2009.

Pattie: What made you locate American Spoon in Petoskey?

Justin: Petoskey is twelve miles east of the hundred acre homestead and berry farm my parents purchased in 1956. I spent my childhood summers there from the age of five, and fell in love with Northern Michigan. My wife and I lived in New York City for several years while involved in the performing arts, then decided to move back to the place where I’d been happiest.

You began your company with partner Chef Larry Forgione. How did you meet him?

A customer of ours at The Whole Foods Store, Roberta Kirn, became a friend, and the next year moved to NYC to pursue a dance career. When she came back the following summer she remarked that the chef at the restaurant where she worked made her promise to find someone in Michigan to supply him with morel mushrooms. I volunteered. The restaurant was the River Cafe, the chef was Larry Forgione, and he liked the morels so much he asked what else we had in Northern Michigan that I could send him. The rest is history.

Serendipitous indeed! How did you shift your mindset from morels and menus to Spoon Fruit and salsas?

I guess opening our first retail store. Meeting directly with so many of our customers in our Northern Michigan stores keeps us tuned in to what they are thinking. Sometimes we are following our own instincts about products that we wish we could buy, and in those cases are trying to anticipate where customers are headed. At other times we are trying to keep up with or respond to them. Preserving the special fruits of summer is an ancient practice, and many product ideas emerge from the desire to use a newly discovered fruit variety. When our customers' lifestyles left them more likely to put out salsa than preserves, we wanted to provide them with a truly fruitful salsa. And when we thought some of our customers would like an alternative to preserves that was lower in total sugars, we developed Spoon Fruit.

The James Beard Award is a huge accomplishment. What was your reaction when you heard you had received this award?

It was a very long time ago — 1984! At that time, there were a few of us doing interesting things that we would now call: "artisanal" all over the country. We were doing these things primarily in cooperation with dedicated chefs who wanted to cook with fresh, local and regionally authentic ingredients from all over the country. What Larry and I were doing together to bring Michigan and Midwestern ingredients into his restaurant and to a wider audience was just a lot of fun. It was exciting and rewarding in itself. So the award was a bonus and pretty unexpected.

What's been your biggest source of pride since starting American Spoon?

I'm most proud that we have been pioneers in bringing a lot of wonderful foods that had been ignored, forgotten, or undiscovered to a wider audience by doing the work and by telling their stories in a compelling way. I'm also proud that we are still doing that, and that we've held to our original principles and maintained a standard for all of these years.

What is the biggest change you have made for American Spoon since you began?

Deciding to build our company on a foundation of direct relationships with our customers, and our growers, rather than relying on the traditional food distribution system.

Has there been any product idea that sounded great but when you put it together was a definite "no"?

Happens quite regularly! Most recently we failed in a strenuous, long-term attempt to make mostarda with our special fruit varieties. They were spectacularly delicious! But, the exquisite mustard heat and the fruit flavors and aromas dissipated very rapidly in the jar and we had to abandon that project — with regret.

Of all your products, which is your favorite? (Mine is a tie between the Cherry Berry Spoon Fruit and the Raw Honey.)

They are all my children, but the products currently in my fridge are Fruit Perfect Sour Cherries and Blueberries, Red Haven Peach Preserves, Early Glow Strawberry Preserves, Wild Elderberry Jelly and Apricot Butter. The Creamed Raw Honey is an indispensable staple in our kitchen too.

What is your vision for the future at American Spoon?

After almost thirty years, I'd like American Spoon to evolve into an institution that represents something of great value to its customers and the local communities were we do business. We should be a company that sets a standard, that has shown that you don't have to sell out to a bigger company or compromise your principles by cheapening your products with junk food ingredients to be successful. I'd like American Spoon to be an example that proves that you can build a profitable company that delivers real value to customers, provides a workplace than enhances people's lives and that nurtures long term, sustainable relationships with growers and suppliers.

We want each American Spoon retail store to be a place customers want to go, not just to taste and purchase deliciously preserved fruit products, but to discover the connections between our products, their sources and the people who grow and process them. We want them to leave our stores with new ideas about food that enhance their lives

Mo On the Radio


This Sunday I was interviewed by Patrick Martins and Katy Keiffer on the Q-Report for Heritage Radio Network. It's about how to make a mail order food business work.

Heritage online radio segmented the interview into three parts. Look for the episode on 10/4 starting "Mo Frechette puts the M and O in Mail Order (7:29)"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is dolphin safe tuna better for the sea?

Here’s an interesting article about dolphin-safe tuna fishing. It throws into relief the unintended consequences of fixing the surface of a problem without addressing the root cause. It turns out that no matter how you lure tuna, whether it's safe for dolphins or not, if you’re fishing in a mass-attack style you’re going to kill a lot of other fish “unintentionally”.

Read the article through to the comments at the end. You’ll see the writer is restricting his conversation to one kind of fishing method. It’s not the only way to fish for tuna.

I checked in with Iker Fernandez, one of the folks behind our tuna from Ortiz. I thought his response was funny because the kind of tuna that Ortiz buys are fished traditionally. As much as we might be desensitized to expect these acts of aquatic carnage, he’s surprised, almost incredulous. He wrote, “I can assure 100% that our tunas are fished by line, one by one. I’d like to know what kind of tuna this writer is talking about!”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Meet your Maker: Alan Benton

Allan Benton, Bacon Maker
by Jen Konieczki

From the moment I tasted Benton’s Bacon I was in love with his bacon. I have never in my whole life had bacon taste that amazing. The smoky flavor, the thick cut of meat that doesn’t shrivel when you cook it, and, ohhh boy—does it flavor a pot of beans like no other bacon I know of.

Allan Benton is one America's most lauded bacon makers. He's been curing and smoking ham in Madisonville, TN since 1973. Southern food writer John T Edge called it "the country's best bacon." His bacon is dry cured—a rare practice among modern bacon makers—and has a very intense flavor.

Below is a brief, casual interview I conducted with Mr. Benton in August 2009.

Jen: How do you like to eat your bacon?

Allan: Either pan fried or on a BBLT (Benton’s Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwich).

Do you have a favorite recipe?

Not really sure. I would say wrapped around a Lamb Chop and grilled, or draped across the top of a turkey. I also like it for breakfast in Red Eye Gravy over high quality grits. My favorite grits are either Anson Mills or Falls Mills from Belvidere, Tennessee.

What other types of bacon or cured meats do you enjoy?

Hickory Smoked bacon and unsmoked bacon, dry cured, close to pancetta. I love country hams that have been cured at least twelve to eighteen months.

Do you ever get tired of eating your own bacon?

No. [Chuckles] I have been eating it my entire life. I have had to cut down a bit because I take cholesterol medication but I still eat it a couple times a week.

If you weren’t making bacon what would you do?

I’d give Obama a run for his money! [laughs] I’m just pulling your leg, I have been making bacon since I was very young and plan on doing it forever!

If you were going to eat someone else’s bacon, who’s would it be and why.

I seldom if ever travel. If I were to eat another, it would need to be a top quality dry cured bacon. I was a senior in college before I ever tried “store brand” bacon. I was living in a dorm and purchased the meal plan. The first time I tried that kind of bacon I only finished it because I was paying for it.

Does everyone like your bacon?

You either love it or hate it. There is not a big in between.

What are your favorite restaurants in Tennessee?

Foothills Mills in Maryville, Rouxbarb and The Orangery in Knoxville, and the Blackberry Farm Inn in Walland.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Virgin Voyages



One girl. Three days.
A first time purchaser’s trip to the Fancy Food Show.
By Susan Ederer

The Javits Center is two full levels jam-packed with a thousand or more vendor booths. Some are organized by country or state and other aisles put a packaging vendor between a ham distributor and a chocolatier. Traveling companions: Brad and Eric. Also there: Ari plus folks from the Deli and Bakehouse.

Day One
10:30 a.m. Attavola, one of our import vendors who represents a host of producers themselves. We sampled (pretty much in this order): food allergy friendly biscotti, fruit spreads, preserves, lemon blossom, sulla, rosemary and thyme honeys, more preserves (sweet and savory), roasted mushrooms, artichokes, balsamic onions, rolled eggplant and tomato, pesto rosso, and olives.

Zuercher, one of our cheese wholesalers. I meet Jason Hinds, our Neal’s Yard Dairy contact. We sample Ticklemore, Stratham Blue and Ogleshield. Then Landoff, Crawford and Cabot cloth-bound cheddar aged by Jasper Hill.

Kitty Keller, whom I can only describe as a sort of Julia Child of food importing. She’s outspoken, passionate and infectiously funny. We sample flavored salts, mustards, hard candy caramels, olive oil banyuls vermouth vinegar and vin agrodolce.

Nueske’s is next, where I meet Tanya Nueske. We taste bacon and talk about the bacon book. Brad heads off for a meeting with Grace and the Italian Trade Commission while Eric and I keep walking the aisles.

Manicaretti, another importer of Italian products. Eric & I sample some new sauces being produced by the woman who makes our Mugolio. While they’re all green, the flavors are disparate and delicate. Problem is, these have not yet gotten through the USDA approval process.

3 p.m. We meet with Jason Hinds to talk about our Neal’s Yard order process to gear up for the holiday. It seems a little strange to talk about Mail Order’s holiday cheese needs in the middle of a convention hall in New York City at the end of June, but there we are anyway. Since we’re sitting in the Larkin booth (they’re a big importer and warehouser), their staff keep slipping us samples of cheeses. We call it a good day’s work at about 4:30 p.m.

Day Two
10 a.m. Essex Street Cheese Company. Daphne, who you may have met on one of her regular visits to Ann Arbor, meets us at the booth. While we talk about holiday cheese volumes, we sample our way through a 2-year aged Gouda, an 18-month Comte and a 2-year Parmigiano Reggiano.

Licorice is next, at Gerrit Verburg’s booth. Gerrit talks to Brad about how he thinks we should market licorice while Gerrit’s wife is plying me with tastes. Anise is not my favorite flavor, but I can’t say no. Into my mouth go sample after sample of soft and hard, chewy and sticky licorice bites.

I spot Herb Eckhouse form La Quercia next. We talk about his new pre-sliced packaging while I sample some prosciutto Americano and speck.

12:15 p.m. William Wallo from the Deli introduces me to Thibaut from Euroco. They’re another one of our importers, this one French. After chatting a bit, we taste some preserves, including a cashew one. Immediately followed by Corsican goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Next up, a meeting with Grafton Cheese folks, the Deli and me. We talk about some staffing changes at Grafton and new packaging opportunities for the 1, 2, 4 & 5 year cheeses we sell.

2:30 p.m. At the Hammonds Candies booth, I talk with an eager staffer about how they’d like to do private labeling for us. I look around the booth for a possible substitute for the lollipops we buy.

Vosges. I can’t help myself, I have to sample a little of a bacon chocolate bar while I’m chatting with them. Wait until you see the cool containers the chocolate dipped tortilla chips will be in come fall.

French Farm. I try the caramel sauce Giselle offers (don’t worry, Beth, it isn’t as good as dulce de leche) while we talk about honey forecasts for the holiday. I follow that up with a salt taste.

Virginia Diner tells me how much they love our new private label while I sneak a peanut or two.

At the Edwards booth, I meet Sabra, our sales rep, who reaches beneath a table draping to offer me a sample of the surry-ano ham (think really good American prosciutto from Surrey pigs) we’ll be buying starting in the fall.

Rick’s Picks is next. I’m plied with pickled products a-plenty.

Peeled Snacks is in the adjacent booth. We already carry their mango, but I taste my way through three of their five other flavors.

4:30 p.m. Cheeseworks. Raymond Hook, our new sales rep, offers up a really great blue cheese.

We finish the day back at Kitty Keller’s booth, where she is pouring cava and has assembled a little spread.

Day Three
10 a.m. Creminelli’s wild boar salami is the first thing I taste. Brad and I talk with Scott Frank about their plan to distribute this product nationally in mid-November. They’d like to work with Zingerman’s on an early launch.

Back to Manicaretti with Brad, who wasn’t there with Eric & me on Sunday. He samples the Primitivizo sauces and then we both try a hazelnut oil plus the hazelnuts. We end this visit with olive oil and chocolate-hazelnut biscotti by Mattei, who makes our blue-bagged biscotti.

We reconnect with Raymond Hook at the Cheeseworks booth and taste our way through membrillo, a sugarplum and walnut log, Morello cherries in syrup, and boquerones from Ortiz. At the Seitenbacher booth, I meet Debbie Roberts while we taste a few new flavors (raspberry jets, peach chicks, green apples) plus a chocolate-nut spread they’re now carrying.

Aaron at the Forever Cheese booth offers us samples of buffalo and goat milk cheese. Some harder, some softer. In between cheeses, we comparatively taste a couple varieties of almonds.

Askinosie, where I meet Shawn Askinosie in person (we talk by phone every time I order) and get a sneak sample preview of their holiday peppermint bark. It is the perfect mix of white and dark chocolate – and won’t disappoint!

The gastronomic and introduction tour ends at the Ritrovo booth, where I meet Catie. After sampling a pomegranate confit, she introduces us to a man who makes confetti. Confetti are a candy coating (some were lustrous like pearls while others were bright and shiny) covering delicious chocolate, which enrobes a center made of a nut, raisin, bit of orange peel or some other bite of flavor.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

TV & Caffeine

The TV show Top Chef started last night. If you didn't know this already, there's an Ann Arbor restaurateur in the group: Eve Aranoff, of Eve restaurant in Kerrytown. She just avoided the axe. If you don't know what Top Chef is you can probably move on and not lose much sleep. Instead, I suggest you stop by Eve on a Thursday evening when the restaurant turns into something more and Aaron Lindell and his partner spin good music late into the evening.

And a not too serious graphic on caffeine vs calories for your refrigerator, sent by a loyal reader. Thanks, Tom!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Italian Coffee: Truths & Myths

Café at the Rome airport.


I first went to Italy almost two decades ago. Back then there was only one café in Ann Arbor, Espresso Royale on State Street. It was half the size. As students we all called it Café Pretentious and you could smoke there. This made it an instant substitute for the library. It was always busy.


Things are a lot different now. Yet while cafés have become a fixture across America, there’s still an aura surrounding Italian cafés and, along with it, a lot of myths and legends. It got me thinking and observing on my last visit as I made the trip to an espresso counter three or four times a day. Since American cafés have basically copied a lot of Italy’s espresso style and culture I thought it’s worth it to check in on some typical myths — and truths.


Myth or Truth: Italians only drink cappuccino in the morning, after that it’s espresso only.

Myth! Italians order every coffee drink every time of the day. At the end of dinner, though, espresso is definitely the norm.



Myth or Truth: Italians never order coffee To Go.

Truth. I’ve seen it once, maybe twice in a thousand coffees. There are no paper cups at an Italian cafe.



Myth or Truth: Italians drink coffee really fast.

Truth. I sipped a cappuccino at normal speed and the counter turned over three times. Once I was on a bus that made a stop at a red light and — no shit — the driver got out, bought and drank an espresso, and got back on the bus before the light turned green. The whole bus burst into applause. In Italy this is considered an act of athleticism.



Myth or Truth: Italians drink their coffee standing up.

Truth. Most cafés have no seats. If they have them, no one is sitting at them. (The coffee costs more when you’re seated.)



Truth or Myth: Italian coffee is affordable.

Truth. A shot of espresso runs about a euro ($1.40). A cappuccino, 1.40 ($2).



Myth or Truth: Italian espresso drinks are the best in the world.

Myth. This may have been true twenty years ago. Perhaps even ten years ago. But in the last few years I’ve had better coffee in London (Monmouth), Portland (Stumptown), Chicago (Intelligentsia), New York (Gimme!) and Ann Arbor (Zingerman’s). I would say, on average, you can get a better espresso drink in Italy than America. But the best cafés in America beat the best in Italy. And I hear New Zealand beats all of us, though I’ve never been there.


Truth or Myth: Italians don’t order coffee at a restaurant. They go hit a café after dinner.

Myth. Six Romans ordered espresso at a pizza joint next to me. Then three more next to them. They’re ordering coffee all over the place, all the time, restaurant or not. That said, an Italian may still hit a café on the way home for a post-espresso espresso. The shots are all singles.



Truth or Myth: Italians don’t drink drip brewed coffee.

Truth. In restaurants and cafes it’s not available. If an Italian doesn’t have an espresso machine at home they have one or two of the ubiquitous silver Mokha makers.



Truth or Myth: the foam on an Italian cappuccino is different.

Truth. They don’t heat the foam as much. It’s lighter and cooler than ours. Because of this and the fact that they use less milk overall, coffee lines in Italy move super fast. You never wait more than a couple minutes.








Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's a Pasta Factory Like? Inside Morelli.

Nested racks of pasta in the drying room.

Morelli’s factory is a connected series of five rooms. The pasta comes in as raw grain in the first and leaves as case packs of pasta in the fifth.

The durum grain, primarily from Italy with supplemental grain from Canada when necessary, is held in three silos in the warehouse. Vacuum hoses pull it to room two.


Room two. Here the durum semolina is mixed with water and, for the pasta we buy, wheat germ. The germ is perishable and held in their coffin freezer, which looks just like the one we have on the pick and pack line. When I visited there was one man mixing chiles for a spicy pasta. He’s one of only two men I see in the factory, both doing heavy jobs. The rest, about twenty more, are women.


Room three is very hot. It feels like the Bakehouse bread side. The pasta is coming through the machine in cut pieces of penne, red from the chiles that were mixed in. I can see the big bronze die that forms them. It looks about ten inches across, a couple inches thick. The bronze die is traditional and key to the pasta’s exterior texture. Feel a piece of Morelli pasta and its surface is rough, not slick like the pasta you get from newer Teflon dies that are widely used. Its more pleasant in the mouth and holds sauce better. My understanding is bronze dies cost more, need to be replaced more often, and produce pasta more slowly, hence their demise.


The penne falls already cut out of the machine onto drying screens. They’re about the size of half a screen door, wood-rimmed, with a nylon screen. They stack on top of each other like bread racks. Two people do the stacking and one — the other man in the building — wheels them away. It takes more people when they’re making a long shape, like linguine, because they have to cut that kind of pasta by hand.


I quickly learned the heat comes from the drying chambers which line one side of the room. They look like walk-ins, silver with big doors, colorful buttons, blinking lights, inscrutable numbers. There are about six of them, each eight feet square.


The dryers are the other key to the pasta’s interior texture. They are set at 44 Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pasta spends 24-36 hours there. It can be dried faster if the temperatures were higher. The slow drying enhances the texture and flavor, though, to be honest, I’m not quite sure how yet. Our Italian and English translation wasn’t doing the job there. More to come.


The fourth room is full of people, twelve women, all packing pasta. No big machines or anything. Just trays, scoops and bags. Each bag is filled, weighed, and riveted shut. This was pretty remarkable to me. I mean, this business has been around 150 years. These guys are obviously smart business folks to stay around for that long. Giovanna told me the great grandfather moved the factory to this location in 1907 in part to be close to the rail line — it’s across the street — to save on costs. Pretty savvy move. All that time and smarts, though, and they still haven’t found a better way to package pasta than a person working by hand. It reminds me of what lean guru Eduardo told me early on when we were working together. “Mo, the most flexible machine in the world is a human being.”


The last room is, you guessed it, inventory. Cases of pasta stacked everywhere, though in reality it was probably only a few hundred cases and they looked to be leaving soon. From here it’s out the door to the loading zone, which is so tiny it makes the back dock of the deli look luxurious. The door opens on an alley about a dozen feet wide with tiny Fiats parked on one side against a wall. It’s Italy, though. That's a huge amount of space, so of course a giant eighteen wheeler delivering grain has found a way to wedge itself between the door and the cars.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Visit to Morelli Pasta


I took a trip to San Romano last week to visit the small pasta facory of Morelli. It’s about an hour due west of Florence in western Tuscany. They’ve been making pasta there for about a hundred years — and that’s their second location! They moved here after a fifty year run in a small village nearby. Now if a hundred year old factory has you thinking cobwebs and cobble stones, you can scratch that image from your mind. While not exactly high tech — they still bag everything by hand, as you can see in the picture — it’s bright and shockingly clean, with a glossy green floor.

Even though the Morellis have been making pasta for almost 150 years we just started carrying them this summer, in the current catalog. I was especially excited about their pasta with wheat germ. It’s the only one of its kind that I’m aware of. Most pastas are made from fully refined flour where the germ is removed. In other words, most pasta is kind of like white bread. For a few of their pastas the Morellis add germ back in. The quantities of germ are relatively small — 3.2% for the tacconi and over double that for the ricciolina, which also has bran — so it is not overwhelmingly wheaty. You can catch wafts of wheat aroma when you boil it. The flavor is what I might call “gently rustic,” something you don’t want to cover up with too many other flavors .

Morelli is collectively run by siblings Antonio, Marco and Lucia, the fifth generation to have the honors. They are in their 40’s and 50’s, slim and trim (take that, Atkins diet). They split up roles. Marco handles the wheat buying side of the business. Antonio, the pasta making and sales. Antonio’s wife, Giovanna, manages all the export. Their father is still involved — he popped his head in and said hello — and there was even a teenage regazzo (boy) hanging around. Pretty solidly a family business.

I take it as a good sign that the family totally loves their pasta and eats it, as Giovanna told me, “every single day, often twice.” How do they like to serve it? I wasn’t surprised that the recipes were very simple, usually the case with folks who make foods with a lot of flavor on their own.

Antonio likes the ricciolina best, tossed with a bit of grated pecorino, olive oil and black pepper. Kind of like the Roman dish, cacio e pepe (sheep cheese and pepper), which is something I make a lot. Giovanna likes the paccheri (available at deli) with cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. She tosses the pasta in the olive oil that’s been cooked with a clove of garlic that then gets tossed out. She also really likes the tacconi simply with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the factory for a quick tour.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Non-required Reading

In the last couple weeks I read two articles I felt were worth sharing.

The first — and most pertinent to ZMO — is How David Beats Goliath. Malcolm Gladwell describes how underdogs can even their chances when they're fighting the big guy. It's mostly about sports but the lessons can easily apply to, say, a small food company in the Midwest. He also manages to squeeze in an interesting diversion about batch vs flow that's kind of interesting. If you like what you read I'd be happy to share some more things penned by Gladwell, who is a damn compelling writer.

The second isn't related to ZMO but affects us all. It's an article called The Cost Conundrum. The author compares two towns in Texas, one of which has the highest health care bills of any city in America but doesn't seem to get any better health care. I read a lot of this kind of stuff and this is the best article I've ever read on America's health care system by far. It's so good Obama made it required reading in the Oval Office. I'm not requiring it at ZMO of course, but if you're interested in the subject I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Harissa, Lemon, Olives & Olive Oil

When Majid Mahjoub was here last week, I asked him what's the simplest way he likes to eat harissa. He made a little picture. It's a dish with some harissa in the middle, surrounded by some sliced preserved lemons and olives, all swimming in some of his olive oil. Serve at room temperature, eat with a bit of bread.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Visiting Ortiz in Spain

Packing tuna tins by hand at Ortiz

I caught this quote last week in a review of a New York restaurant: Spain is "perhaps the only country in the world where it is desirable to serve food that comes in a can." The author was talking about tuna and kind of poking fun at the restaurant where, in her mind, the chef should be more ambitious about cooking than being a good shopper. Well, be that as it may, chances are the chef couldn't make tuna better than what you get in a tin from Ortiz. If you've had Spanish tinned tuna before, you'll know it's something very special. It's not a poor substitute for fresh tuna. It's got it's own thing going on. For me, it is more rewarding and interesting than the fresh stuff. Given the choice, I'd eat from a tin of Ortiz's tuna instead of taking a bite of tuna sushi any day.

It may be hard to think of tuna in a tin being worth eight or nine bucks when you see them at the supermarket for a buck. I think we should all be a bit more weirded out by the dollar tins, though. After all, fresh tuna is expensive. They're only caught wild (we haven't domesticated them yet) and tuna goes for $20-$30 a pound and more. It's almost always one of the most expensive fish in the case. Why should it be the cheapest food on the shelf?

Vanessa Sly just spent some time in Spain visiting food makers. One of her stops was at Ortiz, the tinners of our excellent Spanish tuna armada (for what it's worth, the Ortiz folks tell me we're the biggest seller of their tuna in America). Vanessa is taking her turn as guest blogger with some notes she made from her visit. Take it away, Ms Sly.

----------------------------------

Ortiz is a Basque company of 5 generations. They have several small factories along the northern coast of Spain near San Sebastian, as well as one in near Barcelona.

In Ondarroa there is a tuna factory in the oldest building they inhabit, circa 1891. Very nearby is the victim of the most recent bombing in Basque country, the Ondarroa Police station. The bombers called to inform them of their intentions, so the building was evacuated before the explosion, but it blew out the windows on the nearby buildings (including a school). It is currently being rebuilt- much progress made in the 6 months since the occurrence.

The tuna factory, unmarked from the exterior, is a multi story building. The foreman, a stern but good man, lives on one of the upper floors. One of the owners of the company was there, and elder woman. She greeted me with a smile and stated in Euskera that their goal was to have a tin of Ortiz tuna in the house of everyone in the world.

At street level the tuna are unloaded via truck from the Cantabrian sea's main port, Getaria. First they’re cut with a table saw, removing the heads, tails and separating the ventresca, the belly section, which is the finest cut of the entire fish. Yellowfin tuna can grow to upwards of 150k, but the smaller the fish, the closer the meat is to the ventresca, the better the overall quality is. They were working with yellowfins that were about 20-22k. The Ventresca is separated out and sent into a separate, quieter room for special processing by woman who skillfully clean each piece. The quiet is to facilitate their focus. It’s very detailed work. It’s one of the top tier jobs because of the value of the meat and the skill required.

The remaining fish bodies are first steamed and scraped to remove the skin, than sent via conveyor belt up to the second floor. They’re cut into sections with a guitar that is adjustable for varied sizes of chunk. From there, an assembly line of women pack tins and jars by hand, (pictured) discarding the flake for food service packaging. All waste is collected and sold to another company to make ‘farina’, flour, that serves various different purposes. Once hand packed, the jars are placed on a series of machines that fill them with oil and affixes the lids. They’re washed and the lots are recorded on the jars/tins just as before. From there they’re cauterized in a large steam chamber, and moved into an area for 40 days of quarantine to make sure the canning is up to standard. Labels are applied only when the orders are placed, to allow for the various different languages (Spanish, English, French, Italian, German) in the packaging.

Additional information:
• The yellowfin in oil jars come either kosher or not.
• Txakoli (cho-col-li) is a young white wine native to the San Sebastian region.
• There are about 2 million Basque in this region.
• There is a large Basque population in Boise Idaho, former sheep herders that came over 100 years ago. The mayor of Boise is Basque.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Signs: Visual vs Verbal


In a previous post I laid out different ways to communicate with signs, from fastest to slowest. Signs using images are faster to process than signs made with words. Said a different way, a good image can convey information more quickly than a set of written instructions. That might make intuitive sense, but here's a quick experiment to prove the case.

Take in this image. I have no idea what it would be a sign for. Maybe one that shows how awesome white pants and docksiders are. Anyway, look and count to ten, then turn your head away and start describing what you saw.

Did you draw the full picture with words in ten seconds? How about fifty seconds? Think about more details you saw. Can you keep talking about it for five minutes?

While the image isn't exactly a sign, it makes the point. What took ten seconds to soak in with your eyes took much longer to describe with your mouth. It also shows another thing about pictures: they display information densely. A thousand words, that's cake. Pictures can hold way more data than that, gobs of information that our brains process faster — and often more clearly — than words. When we untangle an image with language, the process is slow and prone to error.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gelato

With ice cream season getting into high gear and our last gelato shipment of the year coming for Father's Day, I'll hand the reins over to guest blogger Tim Miller who recently made gelato with our resident ice cream maker, Josh. Here are some excerpts from his visit plus photos. Take it away, Tim.

The history of gelato dates back to the 16th century. As most stories go, it is credited to Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, who delighted the court of Caterina dei Medici with his creation. Italians are certainly credited with introducing gelato to the rest of Europe. Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli was one of the first to sell it to the public. Summoned to Paris in 1686, he opened a café named after himself called Café Procope which quickly became one of the most celebrated haunts of literary France. In Italy meanwhile, the art of traditional gelato making was passed on from father to son, improved and perfected right up to the 20th century, when many gelato makers began to emigrate, taking their know-how to the rest of Europe.

The “mix” that Josh uses for each flavor was made prior to my arrival with fresh milk, cream and sugar. I learned that different mixes are used depending on the flavor of gelato that will be made. Fruit flavors such as strawberry are made with a mix that includes more fat since fruit is naturally fat free. Flavors like nocciola (hazelnut) and peanut butter are made with a mix that has less fat since nuts contain more fat.

I start my shift by helping label the many pint cups that will be used for selling gelato to some of the Creamery’s guests. The cups are dated on the bottom with an expiration of two months out. The Creamery also makes tubs of Gelato and “trays”. The trays are used by stores that sell Gelato from cases and are dated a month out expiration since they are exposed to higher temperatures while sitting in the cases. Josh has a spreadsheet he uses to determine how much Gelato of each flavor he needs to make today.

As the machine is churning and freezing the gelato, Josh starts breaking up pieces of burnt sugar that will be mixed in as it comes out of the machine. Josh says that he makes the burnt sugar next door at the Bakehouse. He puts a mix of sugar and water in a kettle, and cooks off the water to make burnt sugar syrup that will be blended into the mix before freezing. He also cooks sugar into dark pieces that almost look like smoked glass. This is his favorite because of its depth of flavor and because it's not too sweet. There’s almost a coffee flavor, due to the bitterness of the burnt sugar.

I soon get the opportunity to get my hands dirty scooping Gelato into the pint cups that I was labeling earlier. I start with Dulce de Leche that was made earlier. It looks SO delicious that I just want to scoop it out of the container with my hands and shovel it in my mouth!! Instead, I try to get it into the cups. Josh explains that I need to be careful to not overfill the cups and to use a paper towel if there is spillage (more on this later). After filling a sheet tray with some cups, I take them into the freezer where we rotate the old stock to the front and place the new stock behind. The freezer reminds me of that episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy gets stuck in a freezer and finally comes out with icicles hanging from her nose. Every time I step in, I get a little bit of panic, thinking “What if this time, I can't get out?"

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sliding Scales: Is Bigger Worse?

Two Buck Chuck is a wine you can buy at Trader Joe's for about two bucks. It's made by Bronco wines, an outfit operating out of California's central valley. They started bottling the wine less than a decade ago. Just recently they sold their four hundred millionth bottle.

The absurdly low price, the incredibly high volume. In the wine industry the numbers that Bronco posts are freakish on both ends of the spectrum. They were the cause of a major uproar when the wine debuted and thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled on stories about them since. But are they the sign of something good or something bad? Is Two Buck Chuck the work of a populist making wine more democratic? Is it a shark's errand that screws grape growers and workers? Is it plain vanilla capitalism, the output of an opportunist profiting on all the hard work others have put into creating California's wine reputation? Or is it a sign of the apocalypse? I can't tell you for sure, but from a distance, it kind of looks like all that and a bag of chips.

The question it raises is: can a food company be big and be good? In our corner of the food industry it's attractive to make small a kind of fetish. The smaller the business, the smaller the output, it can appear more authentic. We get caught up in the romance of the story. Does that make the food taste better? But if Two Buck Chuck is bad — I'm not saying it is, but let's say for argument's sake — is it bad because it's big?

I've been in the caves of Fort Saint Antoine where they store sixty thousand wheels of Comté at a time. Barracks for soldiers who waited out the Prussian wars, now filled with shelf after shelf of identical cheese. The operation is immense. The cheese is amazing. You'd experience the same thing if you visit the aging halls for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Gigantic operation, incredible cheese. Take Zingerman's itself. We used to be ten people. Now we're four hundred fifty. Did we get worse as we grew? Does the food taste better? Is one route inevitable? Must growth be a route to mediocrity? Can companies avoid it? How?

I've got a bottle of Two Buck Chuck here and I'll try some soon. After all, that's one good thing about food. While there are loads of considerations to take into account in deciding to support one kind of business or another, in the end, when the wine splashes across your tongue, if it doesn't taste good it's over.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cane sugar is a "throwback."

Today NPR had a piece on the new "throwback" Pepsi and Mountain Dew sodas. They're soft drinks made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. Supposedly they taste better — a little less sweet.

Cane sugar sodas have been a cult thing for some time. I think it was six or seven years ago the first time I heard someone say "I buy  imported Mexican Coke in glass bottles," Mexico being a place where they still make soft drinks with cane sugar. In fact, I'm pretty sure the entire world makes soft drinks with cane sugar. The U.S. did, too, up until the 1970's.

What happened then?

In the 1970s, as part of a new agricultural policy, the federal government placed tariffs on imported sugar and subsidies on corn. Since most of our cane sugar was imported, it promptly got very expsnive. Corn, now subsidized, got cheap. Corn can be turned into sugar, but it's usually a lot more expensive than just buying cane sugar. That's why the rest of the world uses cane. But when corn syrup became cheaper in the U.S., soda makers — along with lots of other food manufacturers — switched. (While we use cane sugar in most of our foods, you'll often find others baking with corn syrup because it's cheaper.)

That simple market distortion — a tariff here, a subsidy there — has created a lot of strange effects. We now grow corn across the Midwest, much of it for sugar production. Compared to cane sugar, manufacturing sugar from corn creates a lot more pollution and uses more oil. Meanwhile, the countries that grow cane sugar — primarily poor economies in Central America and Africa — can't sell us what they make. Their sugar would travel further, but it would be made with far less pollution. It would also taste better. (This is a good example of how going "local" can get very complex very quickly.)

If you're interested in the strange tale of corn in America I highly recommend Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary it inspired, King Corn.
 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sign Fail

I learn as much from bad design -- probably more! -- than I do from the good. Following my post on signs and signals, here's a common mistake we all make when we create signs whose information is incomplete.



Where is the designated area?



Not here...



Hey Bikes!
But no sign that says it's a designated area
(that glowing blob above says "Loading Zone")
Hmmm...



Monday, April 6, 2009

Unexpected Acts of Service

A new coffee shop opened up around the corner from me a couple weeks ago. It's a little like what people are calling a "Coffee 2.0" shop. These are the post-Starbucks coffee houses usually staffed by very intense, lean, bearded dudes and tattooed women who park their fixed gear bikes behind the counter and work their shift with their pant legs still pegged. The menus are sparse. Five drinks maybe, often no food, certainly no CD's or insulated mugs. The foam is poured seriously into exacting patterns: hearts, Christmas trees, apples, friendly lions.

While I like the monastic attention to that's given to the coffee drinks, the experience is often marked by a total lack of humor and, more often than I wish, poor service. Want a smile? Not today. Want a custom drink? Good luck. I've seen a sign at one place that basically said "We don't customize in order to respect the integrity of the drink." Huh?

This new place has been getting its bearings for the past couple weeks. Service has been up and down. But today I stopped in, grabbed a pound of beans and was walloped with a couple surprises.

"Hey, thanks for coming in. How are you going to brew those?"
I make espresso.
"Good -- they're great for that. What kind of machine?"
I told her.
"Nice. We're using that blend to brew our espresso right now. Same roast date even. I like it a lot, it's pulling awesome right now. Would you like a shot on the house?"
Hell yes!

The interaction was quick. The shot cost the cafe almost nothing. The attention and questions she offered were free. The experience was something I won't forget. Guess where I'll buy my next bag?

I was reminded of our kind of service. These small, thoughtful extra miles are what we do really well. They're not easy to invent on the spot, customized for every different customer, but they don't have to be. It was obvious that she'd offered people shots for buying a bag of coffee before. She had her own system that let her give service that felt fresh and personal and not contrived at all.