Thursday, July 22, 2010

Things That Should Be Invented

A few weeks ago Microsoft announced a new invention. They patented a special cartridge for batteries. It allows you to load batteries into a device either direction. No more — What the hell!?! — figuring out which side is positive, which side is negative. You put the batteries in either way and the power works. Microsoft is licensing this, which means if you want to use this invention you pay royalties.

Besides the obvious question — Why is Microsoft in the business of inventing and licensing battery cartridges? — there's an even more immediate reaction I had. You mean this was always possible?  What the hell? Why did it take this long to invent?

In that spirit, here are a few inventions I've been waiting for. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Microsoft.

Credit card swipe machines that don't care what side the magnetic strip is on. I always end up swiping it the wrong way the first time. And those helpful images that tell you which way to swipe — undecipherable! How much more expensive can it be to make a machine that swipes a credit card on either side?

An alarm clock that I can program the duration of the snooze. Every alarm clock I've had is either a  five minute snooze (too short!) or a nine minute snooze (too much math!). Let me program my own snooze. For your information, I want fifteen fat, luxurious minutes.

Better beeps. Almost any time you interact with some electronic gadget there are beeps. They register something happened. They're necessary to give feedback but they are painful. You swipe your card at the subway, the turnstile beeps. You punch in your pin at the ATM, beep beep beep beep. You work at a cash register, you get beeps all damn day, every time you punch a key. If you start listening to the beeps you'll realize that they are the most annoying pitch and tone imaginable. Contrast them to bells on old cash registers. Why did going digital mean we had to lose rich, interesting sounds? I know early computers might not have been able to handle great sound. But my ATM today can read  handwriting on a check — a brilliant invention that I didn't expect this year, thanks Chase! — so I know they can make a sweeter sounding beep.

Untangle-able power cords. Or how about power with no cords whatsoever?

Also: flying cars? They are a long expired promise that leaves many of us waiting for closure. Just say it GM. Or Tesla. Yes or no. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Choosing Less Choice


 Customers “are paying us to make these choices." 
   - Steve Jobs

Sometimes Steve Jobs succinctly says shit that just make sense. With this quote, specifically, he's talking about the choice Apple made to not offer Adobe Flash on the iPad and iPhone. What's Adobe Flash, you ask? Who knows — it doesn't matter. The point he is making is more general. He's saying Apple's job is to make choices for customers. The task of the company is to edit, to select things for you instead of you selecting them for yourself. In other words, he's saying it's Apple's job to give you less choice.

How many times have you heard that logic? — If you want to be a successful company, learn how to give your customers fewer options?

My guess is approximately never. It's not popular business wisdom. Take the business we're in, retailing. There are successful companies like Wal-Mart,  Dell and Zappos, who are lauded for giving endless choices. One of the most successful in the last ten years is Amazon, the ultimate choice pornographer. Jeff Bezos even chose the name for its evocation of immense abundance. 

The endless choice strategy has its strong points. To be honest, I shop at Amazon a lot. But I think the strategy fails in many ways, too. Shops with lots of choices have critical product gaps. There are many companies — often ones making very interesting products — who don't want to sell to Amazon and Wal-Mart. 

Also, when a shop has "everything" you need help to decide what to buy. Most endless choice companies help by crowd-sourcing opinions, letting previous customers review products. But who do you trust more: hundreds of pseudo experts you don't know, one expert who's trained and whose tastes and values are clear?

In the end, besides shopping at Amazon for things I already know I want, I shop at many places to find something I didn't know I wanted. I look for shops that have finely edited collections. Shops that are designed and curated by someone with a strong set of tastes. It's there I find surprise.

The point of business isn't that one strategy is better than another. It's just that you can't have conflicting strategies. You can go broad and shallow and offer loads of choices and be successful.You can also choose less choice and succeed. Apple chose. So have we.

Here other retailers who have chosen less choice. They are some of my favorite shops, curated by a very strong vision. Online they might not be much, some are too small they can't afford great websites. Go visit if you can.

Erie Basin
Paul Smith
Moon River Chattel
826 Valencia

Post links to your favorite  shops if you'd like.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Scenes from a Food Show

Ortiz, the great Spanish tuna firm, got this display idea for the Fancy Food Show display from Brooklyn's Diner,  one of the founding members of the Unfancy Food Show

The Fancy Food Show has almost no competition. If you run an American specialty food shop or website you're essentially obligated to go. If for no other reason than there's no place else you can find as many decent foods as this. If you're located on the west coast you might skip the summer show in New York. If you're east coast you might skip the winter show in San Francisco. But more often than not you go to one of them.

That's not to say that all the food here is decent. Some of it dips below that bar,  not qualifying as "Fancy Food" at all, a word which makes nearly no sense to me but sounds delightful in the twenty-first century, doesn't it? 

Every food trend comes here to roost and, eventually, die. Hot sauces. Low fat. No fat. High fiber. Energy drinks. Flavored water (still going strong!). No carb (dead as a doornail). This year, welcome to Gluten Free America. And several other food sensitivities I didn't know existed. "Local" has even come to the Fancy Food Show, albeit in the form of a competing show in Brooklyn called the Unfancy Food Show. It featured local NYC food makers, including Rick's Picks. Appropriately, it was held at a bar.

It's at the Fancy Food Show that the fantasy and the reality of the retail food business come to one of their most spectacular collisions. The fantasy people have about the food biz — that we find our treasures by roving the world, eating fabulous dinners, meeting earthy yet sophisticated farmers — butts up against the reality: we  go to trade shows. We don't find all of what we offer at trade shows, but we find some. 

In New York I walked the trade show for three days, tasting and talking. Afterwards, samples will come for more tasting. Working as a team we will cull, curate, make a lot of decisions. about which products we'll sell, which products we won't. (More on that idea — that our job is to make decisions like these — in my next post.) In the end if all this results in a couple dozen new foods I consider it a good show.

On the other hand we do find some new foods by traveling. Just not all of them. So keep your fantasy  alive. The fantasy of renting gleaming silver Fiats, of wearing extravagant scarves, of touring the European countryside, of eating five hour meals under Cypress trees. That does sound fun, doesn't it? I have to do that some time.

This year's food show happened during the World Cup. There were giant TV's in the Javits Center. This meant, for hours at a time, you couldn't find a European working anywhere.

Acres of luggage checked on the final day of the show.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Crisper Box Pasta

This is an easy dish I make to use up leftovers. Scour your fridge for vegetables. It doesn't matter what condition they're in. If they're edible they can make it into this dish.

The version I made today had

Leftover blanched asparagus, cut into two inch pieces
Leftover blanched broccolini, cut into two inch pieces
Half a nasty old carrot, chopped into dime size pieces
Half a limp stick of celery, chopped into thick fingernail wedges
Corn, cut straight off the cob
Fresh peas
A pickled artichoke, cut into small pieces, stem and all

You get the idea — anything works. 

The basic technique

Boil pasta in heavily salted water (see my pasta cooking tips here) till it's almost done — you'll finish it later in the skillet. What shape of pasta? As a general rule, if you have chunky pasta sauce like this, short shaped pasta is best, but don't worry. Here I've cooked it with Rustichella Spaghetti that I broke in three parts.

Meanwhile, sweat some finely chopped onion and garlic in extra virgin olive oil in a big skillet.

Add all the chopped vegetables to the skillet and warm them. Season with salt, black pepper, and some red pepper like Marash Turkish red pepper flakes.

When the pasta is done save a glass of pasta water then strain the noodles.

Dump the strained pasta into the pan with vegetables.

Add the pasta water, about a cup or so for two people, stir. Don't worry if you add to much, it will evaporate. 

Add some grated cheese like Comté or Parmigiano-Reggiano or a few dollops of fresh cheese like Zingerman's cream cheese.

Serve topped with some fresh parsley or cilantro leaves if you have them, a grinding of black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon for sure.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cheesemonger Invitational

The first Cheesemonger's Invitational was held in Queens last Saturday. It felt like a culinary early 90's rave throwback, in part because it was Saturday and I was with hundreds of people in a remote warehouse. Also it was hosted by a former DJ (Adam Moskowitz), one of the judges was a former DJ (Jason Hinds) and at least one cheesemonger is a current DJ (our own Carlos Souffront). Plus there was music — from a DJ. (DJs seem to infest the cheese business like bike people do coffee.)

Ann Arbor did represent. I counted three of the nine cheesemongers with A2 connections. Anthea from Bi-Rite worked at Zingerman's. Matt from Rubiner's went to school in Ann Arbor. And Carlos is Zingerman's current and longstanding ace cheesemonger.

The competition ranged from cutting pieces to weight without a scale to identifying cheeses by taste.  Congratulations to our man Carlos who pulled off third place.