Sunday, December 7, 2014

Recent reading, chicken edition


First the depressing story. A farmer that opened up their farm to reporters and was transparent about how he raises chickens. Now his only customer, Perdue, will probably shut him down for it.

But not all chicken stories end badly.  People complain about pricey food being elitist and out-of-touch. Being a merchant of that kind of food I know that can be the case (hopefully not the case with much of what I sell, since there should be a good reason for the expense). But here's an example of how higher prices have made chickens live better lives—and helped prevent antibiotic resistant organisms from growing. The story is the government asked chicken farmers to go antibiotic free. But because antibiotic-free chicken sales grew 34% last year many did it before the deadline.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Recent Reading on Poverty and Wealth in America

How do you think wealth is distributed in America? Hint: it's not even close to being as fair as you think it is. (Caveat: the speaker sometimes uses the words "income" and "wealth" interchangeable but they're very different. Income is the money you make. It's a flow. Income comes in this year, and some of it leaves as expenses. Wealth is what you own. You can make a million dollars this year but have zero wealth. Conversely, a good saver — or a person who inherits wealth — can have little income but lots of wealth.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Who are our oldest food makers?

Sam Edwards' ham house in Virginia peanut country.
I've been working on a spread for next spring's catalog about the oldest companies we work with. Some have been around for decades, some for centuries. We even have one that's a millennium old this year. It's been an interesting experience to think about them more deeply, bringing up lots of questions. Like, why are they still around? More importantly, how are they still around and making great food? How much did they have to change along the way? Who decided what to change and what not to change? How did they transition when their founder left the business? I ran across this article about why there are so many old companies in Japan that explains how traditional firms like Nintendo manage succession (these days it's often done by the owner adopting an adult into the family to run the business—a surprise to me).

Some of our venerable food makers and the year they got in business:

1731 Amarelli licorice in Cosenza
1880 Usinger liverwurst in Milwaukee Wisconsin 
1898 Rizzoli anchovies in Parma Italy
1900 Cope's corn in Rheems Pennsylvania
1900 Roi olive oil and sauces in Badalucco Italy
1903 Raye's mustard in Eastport Maine
1909 Broadbent cured meats in Kuttawa Kentucky
1925 Koeze peanut butter in Grand Rapids Michigan
1926 Martelli pasta in Lari Italy
1926 Edwards cured meats in Surry Virginia
1947 Benton's cured meats in Madisonville, Tennessee


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why aren't we as critical of design as we are of food?

"If you tasted some food that you didn’t think tasted right, you would assume that the food was wrong. But for some reason, it’s part of the human condition that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us.”
Jony Ive, Apple's chief designer
( iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iWatch)


Recent reading (and watching).

Look how big chickens have gotten in the last sixty years.

A typical cow in the European Union gets a government subsidy of $2.20 a day which is more than the daily wage of 1.2 billion of the world’s poorest people.

Have you been eating sushi wrong (video)?

Jaques Pépin's omelet (video) totally changed how I cook eggs.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Following Comté from Fromagerie No. 25 to Fort St. Antoine

Sebastian Muller
Fromagerie No. 25
Frutière a Comté des Hospitaux Vieux
Place de la Marie

The truck leaves at 3 am to collect milk from ten producers across three villages. Each farmer has about forty Montbeliard cows. This pickup run is called Ramassage. The old method, called La Coulée, where producers delivered their own milk, is practiced by at just a few frutières of the thirty-four in the area. By AOC rules, the milk must be processed within twenty-four hours. May is the big milk month.

Fromagerie No. 25, built in 1920, is run by one man, Sebastian Muller. He makes twelve wheels a day seven days a week, using 1.6 million liters of milk per year. It’s about average for a cheese maker that delivers to Marcel Petite, but small in the scheme of things. A big Comté fruitiere makes 5 times as much. The work for the cheese maker, like that for cheese makers everywhere, is endless. Sebastian can arrange for a few days off only if he reroutes his milk to another fromagerie, or gets another cheese maker to substitute for him. He extended his wet arm for us to shake. He works very fast, with few words to us. He’s probably not used to company.

The milk truck is hooked up outside in the small parking lot on the hill overlooking the valley. It has a long hose and the milk is pumped in. Inside, where things are wet and smell sweetly ammoniated, the milk is heated by a radiator and delivered to one of two big copper vats. Rennet is added, curds form, and Sebastian cuts them with a rectangular wire mesh, kind of like a big hard boiled egg slicer. This releases water. The temperature raises to 55 C, drying and cooking the curd. When the curd passes the test—the cheesemaker puts his hand in and no curd sticks to it—it's ready to pump overhead into the cheese molds. 

Comté cheese press

Until now the curds have been treated gently. The next process is brutal. A big vacuum hose lifts the curds ten feet in the air and shoots them fifteen feet across the arched ceiling, unceremoniously plopping them in one of four mold machines. Pressed for eight hours, held in their mold until the next morning, they’re ulimately brought to “The nursery” where they practice being cheese for three to four weeks, washed daily with morge, a brine made of water and the scraped crust of older cheese. It’s the mother culture of the cheese maker, like a bread starter is to a baker, one of the things that gives a cheese from a single fromagerie its unique flavor. The baby cheeses are—ironically bigger now then they'll be when they "grow up", since they lose water—are stored on spruce shelves, which the skin of comté enjoys as it turns to rind. The shelves are rough cut, harvested when the sap has drained from them. You can see thick, raw grains across the boards. That lets a little bit of air pass under the cheese as it rests; wheels don’t stick.

Marcel Petite’s trucks visit every month to pick up young wheels.

Fort St. Antoine

Marcel Petite
Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine
“You feel like you’re coming to the center of the cheese world: of industry, quantity, quality.”
Jason Hinds, Essex St. Comté

The road leads up through the village, past some hills and a small forest. The fort is built underground, alone and invisible, marked only by a ten foot tall door built into a hill. You park and enter by walking across a moat. The smell is warm butter and pine. You’re ushered up to the lunch room first, for espresso, the cheese halls flash by on your left. A few of the staff are reading papers, eating cheese, drinking a 1998 Cotes du Jura, part of which has found its way into a plastic water bottle. Windows open onto the Mont d’Or, leaves umber and rust, but the grass is still very green. It’ll be that way until first snow in December. 

Cheeses arrive from the fruitières regularly, 80% of which are in the mountains, along the Swiss border. The hills were forested ten centuries ago, now cows graze on them. First stop is the top level, La Maternelle, another nursery. Wheels are doused with sea salt to draw out more water, washed with cool water to keep the “wrong” bacteria from being active. Today there are about 25,000 wheels. They’ll stay there for 6 months when they’ll come down and join the 35,000 wheels in the lower rooms. 

Fort St. Antoine's main room, the Church of Cheese
Lights, camera—but nothing prepares you for entering the Church of Cheese. The main room of the fort, once a covered garden, holds 9,000 wheels of comté, each three feet across, seventy pounds, rising twenty feet high under a cathedral ceiling. The wheels look like rounds of wood or stone, in various stages of growth, their surfaces sometimes smooth, other times mottled, molded, warty, covered in patterns that look like lichen, rust, sandstone or bird shit. Absolute silence, once in a while broken by the whir of little electric hand carts. Or the lonely cheese washing robot that haunts the aisles. Little rooms are off to the side. They used to hold 52 soldiers each, now they store 900 wheels of comté.

I'm escorted by the affineur, called the chef de cave Claude, and his other half, Phillipe Goux, head of sales. Claude is dressed in white jacket and white hat, with nothing more than a note pad and cheese iron as tools. Mr Goux, born in Jura, eats comté two or times a day. He prefers younger cheese.

The fort has its own micro climates. There are no heaters or humidifiers, just the bricks and the earth outside them. Grass grows in some areas. Claude taps, touches, tastes. He’s trying to figure out where to send the cheese next. To the dryer room? The warmer one? Much of his life is devoted to deciding what’s best for a wheel, 60,000 decisions, one kind of cheese, endlessly repeated. Each wheel will only be with him for a year or so but more will come. He’s developed a strange coding system to keep track of each wheel’s journey. He scratches it the edge of the wheel with his iron. A little window. A cross. Codes for him alone.

We taste thirteen cheeses. The routine is always the same. Claude walks along the aisle, guided by the codes. He picks one wheel, tilts it out of its cubby, rubs its top quickly, in circles. Tap tap tap the top, insert the iron on the edge of the wheel, turn, remove. Smell. Pause. Take a piece, between thumb and forefinger, pass around. Everyone follows, on cue. Take a bit of paste, warm it, replug the whole, use the paste as a cement to seal it.

Dominic Coyte, Essex Street Comté’s selector, grades cheeses 1 to 5 for flavor, texture, longevity. Anything above 3 is fair game for him to buy. Sometimes a cheese that was asleep a month ago comes alive. FIFO doesn’t work, sometimes a November cheese is ready before an August. We don’t touch the cheese, only taste. If Dom chooses a wheel Claude marks “ESSEX” on the side with his iron.

The conversation is spare and clear. “I like it. It’s not as dry.” Maybe it seems that way because of the language barrier; we’re English speakers, they’re French. Maybe it’s because I’m with a bunch of Brits.

No 25. August 2005. Sweet. Full. Sour. Vegetal. Spicy at the end. Meat. Roasted, especially onions. Cream. Nut. Cocoa powder. Caramel. Wet.

No 4, Oct 2005 Lovely. Nutty. Full mouth.

No. 7. September 2005.  Dried prune. chocolate. Long flavor. Made by Christophe Parent in Narbief, Frutiere 747.

Marcel Petite, the man, started aging "just" 2,500 cheeses in 1966. He waged an uphill battle trying to change local cheese tastes from warm, fast-matured cheeses with big holes inside (like Swiss Cheese) to longer-aged cheeses with no holes, aged in cooler climates. Today Marcel Petite, the company, houses 60,000 wheels in Fort St Antoine, 80,000 wheels in another facility in Grenoble. Fort St Antoine, built in the late 1800s for the Franco Prussian wars, failed spectacularly when it deployed as part of the Maginot line in World War II. The French government sold it off, now it matures the country's best cheeses, most from the Jura's top fifteen mountain fruitières. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drank Bar Journal No. 22: Blue Bottle Coffee's Menus

Blue Bottle Coffee took gobs of investor money and is expanding nationally and creating shelf-stable coffee drinks like this chicory milk iced coffee.

They have a few locations in New York City which, thankfully, share none of the twee sluggishness of their Bay Area origins, where it can take you fifteen minutes to get a cappuccino when you're fourth in line.

At each location they do a nice job of making a big menu feel manageable by turning it into two menus.

The first menu lists standards and it's posted big, in permanent metal, on the wall.

The second is the daily or weekly specials and it's posted small, on paper, on a clipboard.

The classics seem permanent. The specials, printed on a laserjet, seem like they're just here for the moment. It keeps things clean and organized, which, if you've ever visited a Blue Bottle shop, seems totally in sync with their semi-OCD look and feel. All in all, I thought it was a good way to differentiate a shop and organize what's offered—and price different coffees differently. Zoom in and you can read the prices for the different drip cups and espressos.

The Dean Street location in my neighborhood also has a sweet upholstery espresso machine cozy.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Recent Reading

In the seven years of bike share programs in American big cities people have taken 23 million trips and experienced zero fatalities. Turns out that, unlike adding more cars to roads which causes more deadly accidents, adding more bikes causes fewer.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Silicon Valley wants to deliver your food

Restaurants and small food shops have always been flustered by delivery. On the one hand they could help customers—and find more of them—if they took orders online and delivered. On the other hand there's the problem of how to price delivery, the logistics of delivery and the problem of setting up an online order system and making sure its inventory is accurate.

In the last year there's been a wave of new Silicon valley start-ups that try to help with the last part—the online order system. 

The most prominet are Grubhub and Seamless. They take orders for restaurants. The restaurants figure out how to make the food and deliver it. Grubhub and Seamless take a cut that's probably around 20%. Speaking personally, I've used Seamless a lot in Brooklyn and it's very good. The benefit to a restaurant here is that they only have to figure out the logistics part of delivery. They can put all or just part of their menu online—and make it available at times that make sense to them.  Take Prime Meats in my neighborhood, a fancy restaurant that's full almost every night. They are on Seamless but in order to prevent overburdening their kitchen they initially showed up on Seamless only between 5 and 7pm, when they were slow.

In the novelty arena, you can also order pizza on a smartphone, albeit in a ridiculous way. There's a one button app that, when you push it, delivers pizza in 30 minutes. From somewhere. Anywhere.

In a more interesting twist, Square, the payment processing software company, is buying a food delivery company called Caviar. This is the only Silicon Valley firm I know trying to do the delivery part of the delivery business. Presumably the idea here is that a restaurant can buy their POS system from Square and the delivery software—and delivery logistics team—will come along with it.

This is happening with grocery, too. I just spent time at Bi-Rite and talked with the GM Patrick (ex-Zingerman's Deli manager) and learned about Instacart, which Bi-Rite just joined. With Instacart you place your grocery order online and they find someone to go get it from you. It's not an employee of the grocery store, it's not an employee of Instacart, it's just some shmo who signed up to be a grocery store picker. (They call them pickers, just like we do for people who pick items for boxes on our production line). Like with Grubhub and Seamless, Instacart takes a cut.

How these all play out will be interesting. Short-sighted merchants, or ones that do their own order and delivery, may look at the cut these companies take and say they don't need to pay someone else for something they can do on their own. The problem there is they will be shut out of network effects. The more merchants sign on to Seamless the more common it'll be for customers to shop there. If you're a merchant and you're not there, you'll loose out. Merchants will be saving cost to give up sales, which is rarely a good move.

What's the downside for the customer? On the restaurant side there seem to be very few negatives. Seamless doesn't mark up for delivery so why not order online and get the same food you could have driven to pick up brought to you for free? On the grocery side, I can see inventory being a hard nut to crack. Right now Instacart has no database connection between what's for sale online and what's in stock at the merchant. If something is sold out, the merchant has to remember to go to Instacart's website and mark it sold out. Will that happen? Sometimes, but not always. That will mean upset customers. Instacart gives leeway to their pickers to choose subs or call the customer to see what they'd like, but either answer is a flawed fix, one that will frustrate customers and hurt sales.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Disrupt yourself or be disrupted

You've probably heard of Uber, the car service that works like a cab—except better. You hail an Uber car from an app on your phone. On the app you can see how long the car will take to get to you. When the car arrives Uber texts you (so if you're inside finishing a conversation inside you walk outside and voila!, there's the car—I've used it a lot and it really does work this smoothly). You can select the size of your car (big SUV if you need to haul the family to the airport). You don't need cash and you don't tip. When you reach your destination you walk out the door and Uber automatically charges your card.

Uber is launching in city after city all over the planet and almost everywhere people are having a fit. Well, not most people, just people who drive cabs for a living. Cabbies are angry, ostensibly, that these "untrained," unlicensed Uber drivers are scooping up their business. I get why that sucks if it's true (in Boston, cab medallion prices, which are basically proxies for how valuable being a cabbie is, have gone up, not down, since Uber came to town which suggests it might not be true.) I think their anger is misplaced, though. They shouldn't be angry at Uber. They should be angry at their employers, the cab companies.

After all, there's no reason why cab companies couldn't do this. Uber's technology is not all that complicated. Any cab company could have done this for their customers years ago and can still do it now. I'm sure someone—or lots of someones—who worked at cab companies has thought of it; I'm sure it was brought up in meetings in cities across the world. All these things Uber does are clearly benefits for customers. So why haven't any cab company on the planet made their own app?

Well, it turns out instead of griping, one finally is. Seoul's cab agency is going to make its own Uber-style app. 

The DNA of Uber is, in practice, very simple. Its power lies in the fact that a huge number of people on the planet now carry a computer connected to the internet in their pockets all day long (we happen to call it a phone). When you use something like Uber for the first time it can seem so obvious you wonder, "Why hasn't this existed before?" The elegance and utility of Uber makes the cabbies argument against it seem archaic. Sorry cabbies, you don't stand a chance on this one. And there are dozens of businesses just like you that are next.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Recent Reading

What if UPS and FedEx were like Uber and Lyft, where regular people do the deliveries, not employees? She started a company to see if that can work. 

A 40 fruit tree. Hat tip to Spike. 

Ever wonder what a camel broker eats each day? Hat tip to Val.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Recent Reading

Dry aged burger map of New York City.

Same kind of map, this time for Prime Rib. Bonus: lots of useful butcher information on the cut itself.

You've been slicing cake all wrong. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recent Reading

Do you order fresh peas online? Not yet, but maybe soon. The online grocery business is booming.

This is the kind of talk about food you don't hear very often; the real business side of the good food business. Patrick Martins, our pork man, talks about meat, farming, food, and the praise of real craft.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Recent Reading

Microlending, meet micropayments. Square is starting a business loan program where you pay off the loan pennies at a time—with each customer credit card transaction.

There's no such thing as cheap food without consequences. The scary story of slave labor shrimp at Costco.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What do lean operations and New York bodegas have in common?

New York sometimes gets a bad rap for a mythical, brusque, who-cares kind of service, but speaking personally, I've almost never experienced it. What I've had instead usually combines professionalism (on-time, accurate, everyone says "sir" a lot) with individual customization. Take this instance.

Recently I stopped by the closest bodega to my house for a couple cans of beer as I do from time to time. They have a big selection and I always hope they'll have Heineken in a can but they almost never do. So I chatted with the guy who appears to be kind of like an owner — you know, he was the kind of person who acted like one whether he was or not —and asked if he'd take suggestions for beers. "Of course!" he said and agreed with me, "Heineken in a can is so much better!" He got the attention of the other guy in the shop and told him, "Let's get a couple cases tomorrow." This is 10pm at night. Next day, they were there.

That's what a corner store used to feel like. Or so I imagine. Frankly, I've' never experienced many corner shops in Michigan. In one way it's weird that there's this level of personalization in the biggest city in America. On the other hand, there are a lot of factors about shopping in New York that, when thought through, make its personal service seem not so odd.

In New York, everyone shops in the immediate vicinity of where they live because it's a pain to travel long distances hauling stuff on foot. You don't have a car and you have to carry everything yourself so you shop in small batches. This is a key factor that, like small batches in lean operations elsewhere, leads to beneficial and unexpected results. Because you shop in small batches you'll often be in the same shop several times a week.

The shops are different than many other cities, too—smaller, often run by adults, not the teenagers and college students you see working in big box stores elswhere America. The staffs don't turn over very much. I'm not a guy who is super chummy with everyone when I shop but it's telling that I know the names of the person who runs the laundromat, the florist, the wine shop, the cafe, several restaurants, the bodega owner and probably a few others I'm forgetting. In Ann Arbor I knew maybe two of the names of the people who ran their shops—Bob Sparrow the butcher and Mike Monahan the fishmonger. (They were there when I shopped.) Ann Arbor is a town a fraction of the size of New York but, to me, felt far more anonymous

Anyway, this is not meant to be a plug for New York. I wanted to point out a couple things. One is that smaller shopping batch sizes, one of the principles of lean, lead in this case to greater personal contact. That personal contact ultimately, in my case (and I know I'm not alone), led to better and more customized service. That service was not administered by a survey or a some other process. It was a question, an answer, and and act—all done immediately, just in time, on demand. It's a powerful way to run a business. These are great lean skills, hard to replicate and some of the reasons that, in spite of CVS and Rite Aid and other national chains trying to make a dent in the commerce here, small owner-operated bodegas in New York thrive.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Recent Reading

A gal walks into a restaurant wearing Google Glass, the new computer eyeglasses from Google. Restaurant says take them off, that's our policy. Gal says no. Thirteen Glass fans write nasty reviews of said restaurant. Then 500 more reviewers lash out against gal and Google Glass. Another reason wearable technology is going to have a rough go of it.

Electronic eyes may have a tough time, but illustrated eyes are just fine. Turns out if you put eyes on your packaging, it makes people buy your stuff. Makes me wonder what would happen if the eyes on the packaging wore Google Glass.

Fourteen great points about mass transit that you might want to know.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Should Zingerman's fear same day delivery?

Another day, another article about how someone is launching a same day delivery service. This time it's Google. They're going to compete with Amazon. Who's now also competing with eBay. And so on.

Should we be worried about any of this at Zingerman's Mail Order?

In general, it pays to be worried about Amazon. They understand retail, they have good service (as long as you don't want to talk to anyone) and they have the cash—and willingness to spend it—for experiments like no other company on earth. And I don't mean experiments like drone delivery. That was an emperors-new-clothes idea that won't happen, a PR stunt that, for some reason, the press fell for. Amazon may experiment in other difficult-to-copy ways, though, like creating local (human) delivery forces that directly compete with UPS and FedEx.

On the other hand, I have zero concerns about Google competing with us. Whatever is in their company DNA, giving good service to customers ain't it. Their adventures in retail have been mostly disasters, I don't expect this to be any different.

But thinking more generally, should a small online shopping company like ours be afraid of these experiments in same-day shipping? Should we be worried about all these super-fast delivery services since everything we ship takes a day or two to get anywhere? 

In the short term, no. Why? The answer lies is in how these companies make same-day delivery work.

To do same-day delivery you need very short lead times on the stuff you sell. The way you get very short lead times—I'm talking hours, not days—is by having all your final inventory on hand within a short drive of your customers, or making it to order, like a pizza shop makes pizzas to order. Make to order is out of the question for Amazon so they need inventory.

Same-day inventory must be reliable. When customers ask for it you need to have it on hand at that moment, you can't wait for it to be delivered to your warehouse tomorrow. To ensure reliable inventory without stocking gazillions of units of every item you need to be able to forecast demand very accurately. To do that you need demand to be steady. What kind of items are demanded steadily? Things people use all the time, like milk and toilet paper. And the greater number of people that use them, the more steady the demand becomes since it's averaged over a larger population. So the way to get really steady, forecastable demand, is to sell staple items to lots of people. In practice, that means Amazon is going to park a huge warehouses of paper towels next to huge cities like Chicago.

That tells you what sort of business they're out to compete against. They're going after grocery stores and smallware retailers. This is about saving people the hassle of driving, parking, finding, paying for and hauling their own essentials. If you're a small company that sells mostly commodity off-the-shelf items in a big city, you should be worried. But for those of us whose primary business is shipping hard-to-find gifts to suburbs it's not very relevant.

What about the long term, should we worry about that? Well, as they say in economics, in the long term we're all dead, so there's that. But generally speaking, anything that reduces barriers to buying online helps online sales. One of the biggest barriers to online sales is time. You can go get something at a nearby store faster than you can get it from an online store. To the extent that barrier is reduced—or removed—the more people will shop online. If some companies can offer it and we can't then we're in a worse position. That's a lot of ifs, and that's a lot of time—a lot can happen before they're answered. I'm happy to watch companies with deeper pockets than ours fight it out and figure it out first.

It's interesting to watch this version of retail history repeat itself. Delivering staple items is essentially a very old business model brought back to life. We used to have all kinds of everyday needs delivered like ice, milk, eggs and coal. Some companies, perhaps unaware that the 20th Century was happening, never stopped.

This kind of delivery used to exist primarily because people lacked personal transportation (which is why they're still around in some cities where many people don't have cars, like New York). Today, deliveries are returning mostly because the biggest, best retailers like Amazon don't have physical stores and, frankly, don't want to build them. We used to think of these internet retailers as national, then global. They still are. But with same-day delivery, Google and Amazon are now going deep local.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Recent Reading

Hormone free. Antibiotic free. How about mafia-free? A new way to label food.

Let me explain. No, there is not time, let me sum up: the mind boggling problems of the standard meat industry in 1,000 words. (Spoiler alert: you can avoid all this by eating no meat or paying more for it.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Recent Reading

 Pigs in space! Bacon went up with the first astronauts. Hat tip to Joe Cap.

From the annals of "Things that Only Exists in New York City." Rich people pay this guy to sit in line and buy them donuts. Sorry, excuse me, Cro-nuts.

My upper peninsula, too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A lesson in lean visual management from Michelangelo

The artist's visual grocery shopping list, circa 16th Century. Hat tip to Spike.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Food waste, guest opinion

I recently posted an article about Doug Rauch who's creating a restaurant based on "expired food." Robert Lambert, our source for marmalades, fruitcake and fruit syrups wrote a note I thought was worth sharing. Plus I love Robert and a good rant now and then, especially when it's true.
The piece about using expired food hit a lot of buttons for me, and forced me to comment. I’ve read that as much as 1/3 of our food is wasted because of those damn expiration dates. I was at my local market last week when the woman who’d been checked out before me came back into the store and said her bag of potato chips was expired. What the fuck could possibly happen to a potato chip?

At home I actually prefer expired cream, as it thickens and gets more like clotted cream. I rarely use eggs and can keep a carton for weeks, with no ill effect. I grew up in a time before dated foods—as the man says, you simply smelled it. People now seem to think "Best if used before ____. Use after ____ and it will kill you." An English friend says she only refrigerates her ketchup and mustard in America, because her friends here would be horrified if they saw it in her pantry, but she’d never do that in England. What on earth do they think is going to happen to ketchup and mustard?

The one question I’m asked by customers more than any other is, “How long will it last?” I never know what to say—it’s like, well, it’s preserved, that’s the whole point, it will last indefinitely, that’s the function of the process. It will be good for a very long time, probably years, until it isn’t any more, and at that point anyone with any brains should be able to tell. Nothing is going to suddenly turn into poison and kill you without warning. And as the man said, all cases of food poisoning are from unexpired foods.

It really is a case of overly zealous bureaucratic safeguards making people stupider. Nature builds in all the warnings you need, and it is our responsibility to be able to recognize them. I used to make a Coconut Dark Chocolate Sauce, stopped about 4 years ago, but kept a couple of jars in the closet. I opened one the other night, and while I know you might dispute that it was ever any good to begin with, it was unchanged, and delicious, and we had it for dessert. Had it been covered in mold and smelled bad, we probably wouldn’t have.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pricing madness in health care, the worst run industry in America


I've written about how health care providers have two sets of books. There's one book with the prices for insured patients. And there's a second book with prices for uninsured patients.

I was wrong about that. Heath care providers don't have two sets of books. They have dozens. They set different prices for all kinds of different customers: insurance company A, insurance company B, Medicare, Medicaid, uninsured patients and so on. On top of that they have so many different prices for so many different procedures that no one can keep track of them all unless they're a billing specialist.

This has led to a couple bizarre outcomes. One is that there is a particular job for an expert billing specialist. It's called a coder. The entire job of a coder is to translate the procedure a doctor did into a code used to bill the insurance company. It is a full time job for thousands of people. People with this job get paid enough to own a house and raise a child. (I know this because my niece has this job.) Can you imagine another industry where this kind of cost waste would be allowed to exist? Can you imagine Apple hiring thousands of people who, after you ordered and received an iPhone, sat at home and checked the code on your order—only the code, not whether you ordered the correct phone, not whether it worked well, not whether you liked it, not anything at all other than making sure the correct code was billed? It's like a scene from Brazil, except it's real and it's how we run what's arguably one of the most important industries in our country.

Another outcome from this pricing madness is that there is no way for you and I to find out how much a medical procedure costs until we get the bill. You can't find out beforehand. Try it, ask someone. The nurse won't know, the doctor won't know, the administrator who charges your co-pay won't know, your insurance company won't know. Even my niece won't know; coders only know codes, not costs, and they're not on any Contact Us list anyway. None of these people will even know who to call to find out—I've tried, I've asked. So who knows? Actually, I have no idea, I've never figured it out. There's no other business I can think of where you can't find out what something costs before you buy it.

More reading on the terrifying inscrutability of American healthcare pricing:

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.