Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Drank No. 2: Balthazar

"Bartenders should not . . . have a toothpick in their mouth, clean their fingernails while on duty, smoke, spit on the floor, or have other disgusting habits . . . The swaggering air some bartenders have, and by which they think they impress the customers with their importance, should be studiously avoided."
New and Improved Bartender's Manual
Harry Johnson, 1900
A couple weeks ago I stopped into Balthazar for a plate of oysters and a champagne cocktail, as a man should do from time to time, if for nothing other than to keep in shape.

I could go on and on about this restaurant, the gem in Keith McNally’s crown. It's gorgeous to look at, very professionally run, and impossibly busy, even now, a dozen years after opening. And while I'm not one to put a lot of energy into promoting restaurant reviews I tend to agree with Andrew Knowlton at Bon Appetit who recently dubbed it "a case study for the perfect restaurant." But Drank is about drinking so here are my notes about the bar.

The bartenders are relentlessly professional, greeting everyone and asking what they'd like before they have their coats on hooks (which are mounted below the bar, the best place for lots of reasons).

Soon-to-be-used glasses are upside down on ice.

Oysters are delivered with the usual garnishes—mignonette (my favorite), cocktail sauce, lemon wedge—on very finely crushed ice (the oysters don’t teeter that way) with a slither of seaweed for contrasting color. They are bone-chilling cold, key with oysters since it improves their texture.

The glassware ice basin is rimmed by silver ramekins of freshly ground horseradish. After the oysters are delivered the bartender asks if you'd like some. This is not something they bring to your table if you're having dinner.

Early in the evening free snacks line the bar. Hard-boiled eggs on an egg tree and thin crisps of a bread that is kind of like Zingeramn’s chile cheddar.

The taps, like those in many New York bars and restaurants, are unnamed. They don't have the cheap plastic beer handles with the name of the beer. The taps are black enamel or stainless steel, period. No names, no brands. The base is thick, round, gleaming brass, very beautiful.

I completely support the non-smoking ordinance in bars and restaurants. I never regret coming home without having to wash my clothes and take a shower. But when I was finishing my oysters I had a fond memory of others smoking at Balthazar. The bartenders had a glorious sense of service about it. If a woman brought out a cigarette the bartenders would light it for her. I never saw them fail to beat any woman to a match, regardless of what they were doing at the time. It stopped most guests in their tracks and time stood still.

80 Spring Street

Monday, April 22, 2013

Drank No. 3: Henry Public

There's a certain bar and restaurant aesthetic that has emerged in New York in the last half decade. Its epicenter is Brooklyn, but it drifts north to lower Manhattan, too. I've even spotted it as far west as San Francisco, but it was foreign, like a lost expat.

It's a pre-20th century look, urban America circa 1860 to 1890. The same era when Jerry Thomas published the Bar-tenders Guide, the volume most consider the world's first book devoted to cocktails. If you've seen Gangs of New York or Lincoln you wouldn't be far off on how things look. It’s candles and dim lights. If electricity is absolutely necessary, it’s bare Edison bulbs or milk glass fixtures. Zinc counters and mirrors with faded silver. Wallpaper and taxidermy. Bartenders with waxed mustaches. I am not making this up; there are guys here waxing their mustaches.

Sometimes it's shtick. But sometimes, like at the latest bar to open in my neighborhood, Henry Public, it feels contemporary, normal, of the moment.

At Henry Public, they stir drinks. Besides creating silkier drinks and being a nice way to see the drink change color — they use glass pitchers — it has another benefit. You can talk to your bartender while they stir. Shaking a drink is loud, it interrupts everything.

They taste drinks before serving. This is common practice at most serious bars these days, or at least the ones who take themselves seriously (maybe too seriously). The bartender dips a straw in, tops it with their finger to reserve some, pulls it out and slips it in their mouth, sips, throws the straw away. They nod and give you your drink, or furrow their brow and remake it.

On the bar: shot glasses filled with fruit peels and matches to light them and tooth picks, 

On the bar: covered glass jars with sugar, olives, etc and whole fresh fruit in enameled tin bowls. You can see the ingredients.

Like at many bars, the beer taps are black enamel, unnamed, on top of a gorgeous mottled brass.

Besides a couple small recessed lights, the bottles behind the bar are lit with candles. They're tucked in among the bottles. In front of a bottle, behind a bottle, two at a time at the edge of a shelf. Their light makes the glass look shapely and beautiful. But as much as anything else, they make you feel lost in time, forgetful, ready to order another.

I wrote this originally three years ago, in 2010, and since then the Civil War look and feel, honed in Brooklyn, has become very national and, to some extent, a cliche. Some of the practices have passed (mercifully, waxed mustaches). Some, like tasting drinks before serving and putting ingredients on display, have thankfully become more common.

329 Henry St

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Drank No. 4: Two styles of gin and which one is best for a gin and tonic

Outside of the Netherlands nearly all gin is made in what's called the "London style." Within the London style, though, there are two major distinctions, what I call stewed and steamed. 

Stewed gins are made by boiling the botanicals—juniper, clove, and so on— along with the alcohol mash. Tanqueray is a stewed gin.

Steamed gins are made by hanging the botanicals above the alcohol mash so only the vapors, the stuff that's condensed to become gin, pass through them. Bombay Sapphire is a steamed gin.

Steamed gin is much milder than stewed gin, an observation that's easy to confirm if you taste Sapphire and Tanqueray side by side. 

It's desperately close to Gin & Tonic Season in case you haven't noticed. (Like the seasons for white pants and skirts, seersucker and chilled rosé, I abide by a personal rule that all of them kick off on Memorial Day.) In a standard gin and tonic I nearly always opt for stewed gins like Tanqueray. Sapphire, so much milder, gets completely lost.

10 Awesome Effects Single Face Racks Will Have

Last week we got our first single facing rack for picking. Where we used to have whole cases now we have single bottles. On its face this seems like one of those operational improvements that only an operational nerd would like. Well, that's probably true. It also seems rather incremental. We used to put whole cases in a rack, now we put a single bottle, big whoop. It doesn't seem like that much. That's not the case. This is huge.

This is one of those rare incremental lean improvements that will have tremendous and far-reaching effects. You don't get big leaps like this often in operations. When you kick off a lean transformation you get major improvements by going from batch to flow and implementing pull systems like marketplaces with kanbans. Those usually have huge space-savings and labor-cost improvements. Jaw-dropping numbers, like our first year labor savings of over 30%. From then on the changes have smaller bottom line effects. Sometimes they feel nonexistent. (We've had years after our initial lean transformation where our labor cost as a percent of sales went up, not down.) Sometimes it can feel like two steps forward one step back. This, on the other hand, is like twenty steps forward.

We can't single face every product—yet. Maybe 150 of our 800 items to start with. That number will go up over time, though, as we figure out how to make more jars flow and not break in the rack, unprotected by their case.

10 Effects Single Face Racks Will Have

1. Cases are usually 3 products wide. That was the width of a pick slot. Now a pick slot is one product wide. We just cut our floor space for this section by two thirds.

2. Since pickers only need to pick the first product and never have to reach back into a case we don't need to size the racks to have reach-in space. The vertical space between shelves can shrink. We can fit more shelves in, perhaps up to 25% more. We just cut our floor space by another 25%.

3. Combine the above effects and this section's pickers will walk 75% less.

4. We can add hundreds of new foods to the pick line without moving to a new building (we still have back stock space to work out first).

5. Pickers won't have to sort in the box (visually) for the next product.

6. Pickers can grab a product out of this rack more easily and quickly than out of a case.

7. Pickers can get visual cues about address slots since the products have color and shape variation, unlike cardboard boxes.

8. Pickers can spot problems like dents and leaks more easily.

9. Pickers won't have to manage the recycling of cardboard boxes.

10. The rack is faster to adjust so we can add items, delete items, and move items more cheaply. Now a fast mover can move to an easier pick location quickly. We can re-locate a super fast mover to the front of the pick line so it's picked and done and doesn't pass through all the pick stations. Or we can spread fast movers in the holiday so we even the workload at pick.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Clothespin Beer Tap List

Many bars in New York don't have branded beer taps, the pulls are plain black. Here's a clever solution to the problem of the menu.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Drank No. 5: What's so bad about 1980s cocktails?

 While cocktails from the 1860s, 1890s, 1920s and 1960s inspired the last decade's cocktail revolution we should look to expand the repertoire. Not just into new inventions, but into new decades.

The 1970s won't lie down forever. I mean, how fun are disco drinks? They’re before my time but I remember all those fabulous names from Three's Company reruns: Harvey Wallbanger, Blue Hawaii, Tequila Sunrise. 

In the midst of the current 80's revival (Cyndi Lauper has a show on Broadway!) the time is ripe for someone to reconnect with that decade's drinks. Peach was the flavor of the time: Sex on the Beach, the fuzzy navel, peach wine coolers—there were even loads of straight wines flavored with peach. My mom was particularly partial to Peach Riunite, which I was partial to "borrowing". The cheap version of all those things stunk but there’s no reason they have to. If you’ve ever had an in-season peach Bellini at Harry’s Bar you know how good it can be.  It's easy to make, why it only exists in Venice is a mystery.

Most of the drinks from the 1980s sucked of course. But that's true for most drinks from the 1920s too. Read a cocktail book from that period and you’ll see what I mean. The number of drinks with eggs, cream, sherry or all three—positively foul. By my count at least half the concoctions in any vintage cocktail book are undrinkable. The trick is to find the gems and then do them right, with good liqueur, fresh juice, a sense of proportion and a minimum of hair gel.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Whatever happened to peak oil?

Remember when the phrase "peak oil" was everywhere and we were supposed be in a terminal decline in oil supplies, imminent doom approaching? A funny thing happened on the way to that catastrophe. It didn’t happen. 

The reason was a little bit of economic slowdown and a whole lot of fracking. It seems like fracking came out of nowhere in the last few years but it turns out it was invented in 1947 and has been used commercially ever since 1949. So sixty years in why is it such a big deal now?

The main reason is fracking costs a lot more than traditional oil recovery so you need guaranteed need high oil prices before you invest millions to do it. There are no guarantees in life, of course, but energy companies are pretty good at making long term zillion dollar bets. I don’t have any special insight into the board rooms of places like Exxon but my guess is the beancounter brigade ran their business models and said “If gas stays above $3 a gallon we can make money fracking.” It took them a little while to get confident with the $3 assumption. Once they did all frack broke loose. The U.S. is now on its way to be a net oil exporter thanks to fracking. It turns out this country had a lot of oil after all, it was just hidden.

Econ 101 predicts that, as the price of oil risese, new oil or substitutes enter the market. It’s the upward sloping supply curve you learn in class. Economists— and envirnomentalists, especially — however, thought that the new supply was going to be a substitute, hence the term peak oil. Everyone thought oil was over, they thought it would be bio-fuel or some other renewable resource. It wasn’t. The crummy thing about $3 a gallon gas is that, in spite of being a hisorically high average price, it's still not high enough to fund environmentally sustainable energy. Whatever you feel about fracking and its environmental effects there’s really no argument against the fact that burning gas to run cars is an environmental bad. I’m not sure where the price floor is for fuel cells or other clean car energy sources but I’m pretty sure it’s not $3 a gallon. It’s still way cheaper to buy a gas car, drive it for its lifetime, then bury it in the ground than it is to go hybrid or electric, let alone invent something new.

One more note about gas prices here at ZMO.

Last year at Zingerman’s Mail Order we spent over $4 million on food that we turned around and sold to our customers. Of that $4 million we paid less than $100K, or 2.5%, on direct freight to get it to us. Some freight was included in costs, too—some companies deliver for “free”—so that $100K doesn’t include all freight, just the ones who itemize it on their bill (which is most of them). But think about how low a  percent of the total 2.5% is. Even if it doubled it’d still count for less than a nickel of what we spend on food, let alone what we charged for it. Food is relatively heavy and relatively cheap, which means, overall, it has a high percent-of-total freight cost compared to things like computers or clothing.

The upshot is for many—and I’d say most—businesses in America, freight is no longer a huge part of our cost structure. The supply side oil shocks of the 1970’s woke up the logistics industry which rapidly adopted containerization. Technology improvements in trucking GPS and cell phones have kept trucks full, further lowering per pound charges. And freight trains are packed more than ever (that’s why Warren Buffet owns lots of them). Freight has become less of a cost for business over time, not more. That’s part of what makes the “buy local to save gas” argument fall apart. And it’s part of why peak oil didn’t stand a chance.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Drank No. 6.5: The problems of waxed citrus

In my last post I wrote how lighting a waxed citrus peel makes a cocktail smell like a tire fire. Robert Lambert caught my post and wrote a note worth sharing:
Thanks for the note on waxed citrus in your recent post, one reason I avoid commercially prepared citrus whenever I can. I know it prevents dry-down, loss of moisture, which decreases weight and therefore profit. But it also destroys one of the salient features of fresh-from-the-tree citrus, a faint dusty film of must, like that on grapes, that is very fragrant and carries notes of the blossom that produced the fruit. With even minimal handling this rubs off, and obviously with waxing, completely disappears. When using the peel of waxed citrus, it is important not only to wash, but to use warm water, which makes it much easier to dislodge. When you soak it in a tub you’ll see it come to the surface. 
For those of you who don't know the name, Robert makes fruit marmalades, syrups and cakes in Northern California that we carry. He picks a lot of the citrus himself so he's super knowledgeable about the agriculture not just the processing. I have a story about the amazing grove of 700 rare citrus trees I visited with him here.)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Drank No. 6: Brooklyn Social, or Curved Bars and The Buyback

The Brooklyn Social is my neighborhood bar. As far as neighborhood bars go it’s no Del Rio, God rest its soul, but it earns high marks.

In Brooklyn a neighborhood bar means there are two busy periods on weekdays. One is right after work—6 to 8pm—when the F subway line empties the bankers from Wall Street and publishers from Midtown. You spot a lot of wingtips, a few loose ties, women in heeled boots. The second period is after 10pm. Writers, musicians and anyone else who doesn’t have to wake up early arrives then.

The name Brooklyn Social is a reference to the Italian social clubs that litter my neighborhood. This used to be one of those clubs. Members’ portraits still hang on the walls. Sometimes family come in and reminisce. There’s a framed portrait of JFK too, who, I guess, being Catholic, is an honorary Italian. For me, this helps place the bar and all good bars have a sense of place, a feeling that you could be nowhere else but here.

The bar top is curved, a soft “L” shape. If any of you are going to build a bar some day remember this: make it curve. It’s a key to making a bar work its magic. The reason is people go to bars to look at each other. You can’t do that when the bar is laid in a straight line. (Mirrors help, too.)

There is an old fashioned cash register, not digital, the one that clanks, standard issue for most bars in New York.

There are fresh herbs and citrus on the bar.

Citrus peels get lit for several drinks. This is where the Brooklyn Social makes one of its few mistakes. Folks, if you’re going to do pyrotechnics—I like it, it makes great bar theater—make sure to remove the wax from the peel first. All citrus is waxed these days. You light it without washing and your customer’s drink will smell like a tire fire.

Neighborhood bars in Brooklyn also have a wonderful tradition: the buyback. It works like this. You come in now and then. You buy a couple drinks. You tip well. You don’t be a douche. Once in a while, when you order a third, the bartender says, “I got this one.” You tip extra well and say thank you—you just got a free drink. Buybacks are probably illegal for all I know. But they do create regulars.

This is the kind of place where bartenders are a fixture, part of the reason you come. You don’t know their names but they say, “Hello,” and “It’s nice to see you again” if you’re a regular. The one I see most often, Ivan, is a bit of a lothario, but he’s also the kind of guy who recognizes when you’re reading The Savage Detectives and tells you how much he liked it.

The bar menu is the size of an index card. It lists ten drinks, all nine bucks each. I appreciate the brevity. It says what they’re about quickly (cocktails with an Italian edge). You can hold it to a candle and read it all in a minute and make up your mind quick because, hey, this is a neighborhood bar, the lothario is going to take your order now, there are girls to talk to.