Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tasting at Ortiz

We spent today tasting 19 batches of tuna and—bonus!—6 batches of sardines. The first question, "Will we be able to taste a distinction?" was answered as soon as we tried the second batch. It was a quite a bit different. They all were. We were able to pretty much agree on what we liked most and selected a batch caught in mid summer for the bonito oval tins and another batch for belly cut ventresca and loins in a jar (something new for us). Then we went to a restaurant to eat some fish. More to come. 

Pays Basque

Bay of Biscay



Getaria's boats won't go out again till January or February when mackerel season starts.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What do cheese and tuna have in common?

When I visited Spain last fall I had lunch with the brothers who own Ortiz, the source for our amazing tuna. They represent the fifth generation of the family running the company and they both grew up in the business. We ate at a seafood restaurant (naturally) and I remember the hake cheeks (!) we're really good, cooked in olive oil, scattered on a wide platter. The restaurant edged up to a walled, brackish tidal inlet that snakes through the town of Ondarroa, along the Bay of Biscay. Fishing boats were parallel parked along it. Across the water we could see the back side of the plant we'd just visited. It's Ortiz's oldest fish factory (they now have seven) and it's still downtown, right in the village, squeezed on main street between cell phone shops and cafes and hanging laundry. The family still maintains an apartment on the top floor.

Lunch was a bit rushed because we had to get to La Mancha that evening. We were going to see the cheese making at Finca La Solana, the farm that Essex Street Cheese Co. gets its Manchego. We were also going to taste batches of cheese to select for export. Batch selection is a process that was pioneered in its modern form by Neal's Yard Dairy in England. The idea is that, since cheese is made every day, every day is like a different vintage of cheese. Every vintage tastes different so you want to pick the best days. There differences result from different weather conditions, different food for the animals, a different starter and so on. With farmhouse cheese that's made naturally, all the variations add up to enough of an impact on flavor so that anyone can taste the difference between batches. I'm not exaggerating; I could bring you two different days of Manchego and no matter how much experience you've had tasting cheese I guarantee you would be able to taste a big difference between them. Companies like Neal's Yard Diary and Essex taste many batches of cheese and select certain days (called "makes") for their customers. In doing so they catch the high peaks of flavor when they come once in a while and avoid the off-flavor wheels. The results are cheeses that are more consistently better tasting.

When I described the cheese selection we were going to do one of the brothers lifted an eyebrow. He spoke some Basque to his brother (totally incomprehensible) and then told me that what we were doing sounded a lot like what chefs used to do with their tuna. When he was a young man he remembered them visiting the Ortiz factory to taste with his father and select a particular batch of tinned tuna they liked most. All the following year, whenever the restaurant ordered, only tins from that batch of tuna were delivered.

I asked them, "Does anyone do this any longer?" "No." "Could we do it?" "Sure." 

I said, "See you next year!" as we bolted for the car. I've been excited about the trip ever since. Tomorrow I fly to Spain to taste this summer's and fall's tuna batches. More to come.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Let them have books on Sunday

Three years ago the Postal Service was threatening to cut Saturday mail. Just last week they announced they'll start delivering packages on Sunday. What's going on?

For one, it appears they've woken up to the fact that they can't save their way out of a revenue problem. It's a concept I claim no credit for inventing, but I will take a moment to tactfully clear my throat and point to a 2009 post titled "Why doesn't the post office deliver on Sundays?" Maybe someone at the USPS was reading?

Probably not. I'm sure something far more powerful happened: Amazon.com came calling. Right now Sunday deliveries are only for Amazon packages (sorry every other business in the country). It's also limited to LA and NYC for now, but if it works for those two cities that will surely change.

(Despite the recent holiday we've all had razzing the federal government for its roll-outs it's worth noting the USPS announced this on a Monday and that weekend I got two boxes delivered on Sunday. Delivering things—that's one roll-out the USPS does really well. )

So what's in it for Amazon? So far people have focused on how Amazon is giving customers a service that no one else competes on. That's true, and in the century-old business of mail order where there are very few new tricks for us old dogs, it's a big one. Amazon will get more orders. It also earns Amazon some good will since they look like they're helping out a grand old American institution that's been having a hard time.

Few have written how it benefits Amazon logistically, though, and that's where I think the more interesting story lies. Without USPS, Amazon is limited to just two suppliers for what is one of its most critical business needs: delivering the stuff it sells. It's UPS or FedEx or go home. Between the two, UPS is a much stronger competitor and does the lion's share of Amazon's deliveries. In my experience UPS and FedEx work as a tacitly cooperating duopoly, though, which is to say they don't really compete with each other. Their rates are nearly identical and, strangely, seem to go up 5% each year in lock step. Neither offers services the other doesn't. Think about Sunday delivery. FedEx could have started that at any time to steal business from UPS, but it didn't.

The USPS can be a real competitor to this two member cartel. Presumably, if Sunday delivery goes nationwide, it could take one seventh (14%) of Amazon's business by doing nothing more than opening its doors one more day a week than its competitors do. It's got all the infrastructure: people, trucks, plains, trains, offices. All it needs is the will to make it happen. Speaking for a business that spends 25% of our revenue on a UPS that only works five days a week, I welcome a competitive USPS into the mix. Now let the rest of us get in on the Sunday action, please.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Messin with Sasquatch

Hat tip to Jackie.

What did we expect? The not-very-shocking failures of healthcare.gov

So healthcare.gov's launch was a customer service disaster. As a merchant, I'm less surprised by it's failure than the fact that people are surprised it's a failure. The theater of mock astonishment that the media have acted out in the last month has reminded me of the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault comes into Rick's gambling hall—where he had been gambling himself, the day before—to declare, "I'm shocked—shocked!—to find that gambling is going on in here." 

Think about your experience with healthcare and government websites. Have you ever dealt with any doctor through their website? How many times have you seen your health records as an electronic file? Ever looked up your itemized insurance bill online? How about the federal government—ever filled out your taxes at irs.gov? When is the last time you checked the balance in your account at socialsecurity.com? Arranged to ship a package at usps.com?

Doctors, insurance companies and most parts of the federal government live in a nearly a web-free world. They don't use the internet for much of anything, let alone working with customers. Why is it a surprise that when they had to build a consumer website it failed? Why is anyone shocked—shocked!—to find that healthcare.gov is a pile of crap?

Even if the contractors were brilliant, and I don't doubt many were, the deck was stacked against them. I've read what the site must do and it's very complex. Take the act of verifying that a person is who they say they are, a central part of determining their eligibility for aid. If you're like me, there have been plenty of times you've had trouble logging into a website that you've already logged into before. Now imagine that the website has to find out who you are before it can log you in for the first time. Then imagine the website contains 350 million people like you in the database. Then imagine the database doesn't really exist, it's a compilation of multiple databases. That's healthcare.gov.

Apple spoiled us. Before them software always broke. (It's worth reading this amazing piece, though, to see how broke the iPhone was just a week before Steve Jobs made his groundbreaking presentation.) All this isn't to say that healthcare.gov shouldn't work—it should. And because it was always going to have launch trouble they should have had a Plan B and Plan C ready to go. Backups to help the roll-out, like a longer period between launch and required sign-up, local sign-up offices for in-person guidance, and more advertising that customers can sign up on the phone. But all that aside, it's just good to remember that making software work correctly is hard. It's not shocking when it fails.

The Worst Run Industry In America is my look at the American health care industry, its service, prices and promises, from my view as a merchant.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Drank Journal No. 20: Recent reading

"Interviewer: What makes you happy when you pick up a restaurant wine list? Lynch: I can tell you what makes me unhappy is when it weighs 40 pounds. I just don’t get that. Make the selection for us"
An interview with Kermit Lynch, my favorite wine importer.

You're preaching to the choir: why canned beer is better than bottled.

Weird choice of words and images

Nothing says homegrown thanksgiving  like a bluetooth iPhone temperature probe.