Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Water Signs

A short bike ride takes me to Valentino pier in Red Hook, the western edge of Brooklyn. From there I can look across Buttermilk Channel into the belly of New York harbor and, on the hazy opposite shore, New Jersey. The coast of Jersey is littered with port cranes, the four legged monsters George Lucas imagined into AT-AT walkers.

Today there were a dozen container ships paused in port waiting to relieve their cargo.  They're off in the distance in my photo, island shaped blips on the horizon. They don't really look like boats in the photo—or in real life. More like boxes, inside of which are more boxes, the metal shipping containers that carry ninety percent of ocean trade today, including our food imports. The boats will sit silent and still for hours or days. At some unseen signal one will start to edge toward shore.

Like San Francisco who forfeited her port traffic to Oakland, New York City's boats have also left for the opposite harbor. Brooklyn and Manhattan's piers are now being converted to parks. Last year I remember the water a lot emptier, far fewer boats waiting for port. Maybe it's a sign the economy is looking up?

Monday, June 27, 2011

We have a land yacht

We've been hunting for an old airstream trailer for months. (Well, really, our Chief Junk Hunter Kristie has.) Today we bought one. It is undeniably awesome. Look for it outside our buiding in a matter of hours, provided Kristie and Jay have a successful haul. 

 It's a 1970s model with a sweet action stripe.

Our plan is to rip out the guts and replace it with new birch paneling and a patently offbeat office. They did the first part for us—the walls are gone.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alfajores in Exile


We started selling dulce de leche alfajores cookies of the indomitable Maite Zubia last fall. In two weeks she moves back to Chile. I've met some expats who fell in love with Ann Arbor before—nothing quite like this. That's her new tattoo. 

(Don't worry, kids. She found another Ann Arbor-based Chilean expat who will continue to make the alfajores for us. Look for them in September.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vintage Fruitcake


The official start of summer is still days away and Robert Lambert just started making our holiday fruit cake order. We ordered a few hundred. They'll arrive in early fall. 

Besides the new season's cake we're also going to have fifty cakes he made last year and cellared for us. Vintage fruit cakes. It's kind of a play on the joke that no one ever buys a fruit cake — we just keep regifting them. Jokes aside, aging fruit cake is not a sign of latent madness. The British have aged fruitcakes for, well, ages. Robert has aged them too, for fun, not profit. It was a taste of a cake he'd aged for seven years old that made me decide to do this. The results should be rather awesome. Like with aged wine, all kinds of new flavors erupt. Plus the texture changes, getting denser but also more moist, like gravity is turning the cake into a new material.

Above: a picture of Robert taken in the early 1970s. He'd just arrived in Southern California from Wisconsin. It was winter in Hollywood. I love it. It made me think: I totally have to get this on the vintage fruit cake packaging. I think we'll make it the cover of the box.

Below: this year's fruit cake garnish. Candied seville orange slices, cut with a mold, paired with fresh bay leaf.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fall cover, first draft

Ryan's first draft is quite fetching.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why aren't you on Facebook?

Internet Week festival is on in New York. I took part in a panel of entrepreneurs speaking about technology and its impact on small business. 

The room was full of mild mannered media and IT types. At one point someone asked how we were using social media. The other panelists were all over it. They posted on this, streamed that and in general had it going on. I told the room that my mail order business didn't have a Facebook page, had no real blog to speak of and I didn't Twitter. Sweet Jesus, was that the wrong answer. It was like I claimed the internet was a series of tubes and farted in the church punchbowl at the same time. There was a collective choking sound. Some laughed because they thought I was joking. Others barked in disbelief. Everyone else just stared. The panelist next to me took the microphone away from me.

I guess telling internet week that my business didn't use social media was like being invited to a convention of dairy farmers and admitting I avoided milk. I wasn't trying to be a contrarian for its own sake, though. My feeling was — and is — that the long term vision of your company and a new opportunity need to meet, hold hands, and fit with each other. If they are not in sync then you should pass. After all, in small business we have incredibly limited resources. Managing is a constant case of editing, of choosing one thing and not another, of saying No.

For a long time I didn't think Facebook and ZMO were right for each other. I told Facebook "No." While many opportunities are simple and quick to test, this wasn't one of them. I knew it would take time to do well. I knew we'd need to devote people and resources to it. We'd need to learn a new way to talk to Friends that honors our high level of service. We would need to solve problems in a new way since everything is aired in public. We would need to learn how to fold it into our day-to-day work. To do this we would need a champion and a vision of success that works with other Zingerman's Facebook pages. We would need a way for us to measure whether we're doing well. 

I saw all those things but it wasn't clear what Facebook would add that synced with our vision of selling food at a profit. It wasn't that I was against social media. We just had to weigh the real costs and service issues it would create with the benefits — and put all of that under the light of the vision of our business. When I said all this I got some nods. One person silently mouthed, "Thank you." Several who'd gasped earlier said they wished more businesses had such a long-term strategic approach. I'm sure many still thought I was hopelessly out of touch and just making excuses.

Later, after the ruckus died down, I admitted that we're starting a Facebook page this summer. We have a vision, we posted for the champion position, we're going to hold hands with social media and see if we can be with each other. The room sighed in relief.