America’s Most Exciting Bank

The Wall Street Journal: “To Michael Daly, who runs Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc., BHLB -1.22% banking is too often blasé. So Mr. Daly has adapted an unconventional rulebook meant to energize and empower his 1,900 employees. Suits are not allowed. Rock music must be played at every meeting. And ziplines are an acceptable form of transportation: Mr. Daly once arrived at an employee town hall on one, slinging $100 bills to the crowd below … In an industry built on numbers, Mr. Daly believes in emotions and that employees who feel good will do good work. He started calling his company ‘America’s Most Exciting Bank’ years ago, because workers told him they wanted jobs they enjoyed.”

“Since he became chief executive in 2002, the bank has grown to $11.5 billion in assets as of the first quarter, from about $1 billion. During acquisitions and their accompanying job cuts, Mr. Daly hands out his cellphone number freely and encourages employees whose jobs are on the line to ‘come get in my face.’ The ones that do call often prove worth keeping. ‘You would be shocked at how many high performers we find through that,’ he says.”

“Mr. Daly often hires from outside the banking industry, valuing scrappiness over pedigree. He likes to tell the story of two customers that he struck up a conversation with at a branch in Albany, N.Y. He liked their energy, and hired them away from the clothing store where they worked to do customer service for the bank … For all his swagger, Mr. Daly also likes to play the part of a small-town banker. He said he sends a couple hundred handwritten notes to employees every month, and replies to just as many employee emails.”

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Fast Casual Picks Up The Pace

The Wall Street Journal: “TGI Fridays, a 53-year-old brand that came under new management last summer, is working to improve the dining experience for people who eat at the restaurants … The privately held company has redesigned about half of its 440 U.S. restaurants, some of which now have open kitchens. It switched to a blend of chuck and brisket for its burgers, from ground sirloin and chuck; launched a meatless burger; and moved to meatier ribs. The chain has seen a 15% sales increase from menu items that have been improved since October 2017.”

“Red Lobster had declining sales when it was owned by Darden, but it has been gaining back customers, opening new restaurants and growing its takeout business since being acquired by Golden Gate Capital in 2014 … The company added smaller tasting plates with more urbane dishes like tuna poke. It began offering online ordering in January and is experimenting with new store designs that include a dedicated takeout area. The 749-unit chain also is delivering food.”

“Private-equity firm NRD Capital Management bought the struggling Ruby Tuesday chain last year, after it closed 100 restaurants … developing healthier dishes and returning to its Southern roots with new menu items such as the Smoky Mountain chicken sandwich and Hickory Bourbon salmon.” Aziz Hashim of NRD comments: “Casual dining is not going anywhere, it just has to be reinvented.”

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Slow Sizzle: Raising The Peak Steak

The Wall Street Journal: “There are cows that eat only grass and roam free. There are Kobe cattle, whose muscles are massaged for months to tenderize the meat they eventually produce. And then there are José Gordon’s oxen. An animal lucky enough to be part of the restaurateur/rancher’s herd in northwestern Spain gets to laze about in mountain pastures redolent of thyme and other fragrant herbs. It is stroked with metal brushes. It might even get a pedicure … the cattle in Mr. Gordon’s herd are allowed to live for years, sometimes close to their life spans of nearly two decades, before being turned into steaks for his restaurant.”

“Mr. Gordon, proprietor of Bodega El Capricho in Spain’s Castille-Leon region, believes he knows when an animal in his herd has finally reached its peak condition and is ready for the abattoir. He decides this by the look and feel of the animal. It’s a matter of instinct, Mr. Gordon says. A few weeks too long or too short can mean less-than-perfect meat … The current king of Mr. Gordon’s herd is 16-year-old Divino, a majestic animal of 3,700 pounds, nearly triple the weight at which most beef cattle go to market. Mr. Gordon has nicknamed him El gran jefe—the big boss—for his haughty manner.”

“Such care doesn’t come cheap. Mr. Gordon estimates each animal costs nearly $3,000 a year, in a combination of its feed, hoof care and vet bills, which is at least twice the cost of traditional ranching. A steer like Divino, who will probably go to slaughter this year, will have cost more than $30,000 to raise. Mr. Gordon says he breaks even on most animals, charging €120 a kilo (about $63.50 a pound) for a premium chuleta steak that he says is more delicate than regular beef … Mr. Gordon admits he loses money with some of the animals he keeps longest.” He comments: “I believe that what I do is mystical, magical. It goes beyond profitability. This is my work and my world. I would never change it.”

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Lucky’s: Like a Hardware Store for Groceries

The Wall Street Journal: “Lowes Foods, a chain in North and South Carolina, introduced gourmet sausage stations and “beer dens,” where customers can drink while they shop or get a half-gallon jug filled with a craft beer, in 14 locations four years ago. After they were launched, ‘there was an immediate, noticeable increase in the number of men shopping in our stores,’ says Heather George, senior vice president of brand strategy. The male-focused amenities are now featured in 61 stores.”

“Hy-Vee Inc., a Midwest chain of more than 240 supermarkets, revamped its store recipe magazines this year to include sports stars on covers and weightlifting spreads … Mega Meat sales, where customers earn gas discounts, are particularly popular, Hy-Vee says … At Alfalfa’s Market, a Boulder, Colo.-based grocery-store retailer, the percentage of men shopping has risen to 40% from 30% while the share of female customers has declined, says co-owner Tripp Wall. He is currently expanding the company to 10 stores from its current two, and working with architects to incorporate more of a male point of view into designs.”

“Based on his observations of customers, Mr. Wall says, men like when they can see the exit, even when they are deep in the middle of the store. … The meat department offers butchery classes. Stores have even had requests for more-masculine floral arrangements.” Jonathan Schoenberg, a 50-year-old dad who shops at Lucky’s in Boulder, Colorado, comments: “Most supermarkets are pastel colors and sell tons of flowers, and the language is merry-merry, happy-happy … Lucky’s feels like a hardware store with groceries.”

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Stout Sells Out: How Big Beer ‘Goosed’ Sales

The Wall Street Journal: “The popular image of the brewing industry is of a war between Craft and Big Beer. It’s small, independently owned breweries facing off against multi-billion-dollar corporations hawking bland-tasting beer with outsize control over the global market. These terms are useful for drawing battle lines in the beer world, but as Josh Noel explains in ‘Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out,’ the reality is slightly more complicated … Mr. Noel’s book recounts the rise of Chicago-based Goose Island Brewery, a vanguard name in craft brewing that was purchased in 2011 by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the biggest and baddest beer maker on the planet.”

Goose Island was founded in 1988 by John Hall, a box-company executive with a taste for European beers … Big Beer could not afford to ignore upstarts like Goose. Anheuser responded to the craft-beer boom by developing its own artisanal styles and buying stakes in a number of small breweries. But the threat to Big Beer seemingly abated when craft’s swift advance suddenly skidded to a halt … That downturn was one factor that led it to agree, in 2006, to the sale of a large minority stake—to a brewing company partially owned by Anheuser.”

“Goose sales spiked 60% within a year. In 2004 Goose had produced 50,000 barrels of beer; in 2011 that number had tripled. But its success became its own obstacle: Goose couldn’t brew enough beer to meet insatiable demand. So it ‘sold out’—agreeing in March 2011 to a 100% sale to Anheuser for $38.8 million … There’s a contradiction at play in the relationship between craft beer and big business. On the one hand, as Mr. Noel spells out, craft won the war by forcing the world’s largest brewer to change. On the other, it lost by being commandeered by that very same company.”

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Walmart Engages in Retail Politics

The Wall Street Journal: “Political divide in the country is creating a new landscape for business, in which fierce debates often lead consumers and employees to demand that corporations and chief executives take positions on big issues. That is increasingly pulling Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and largest private employer, into weighing in on issues such as immigration, the Confederate flag and gay rights—generally after other companies or politicians have done the same.”

“Under its 51-year-old chief executive, Doug McMillon, Walmart has often taken a more liberal stance on issues in recent years—a gamble for a company based in Red State Arkansas. But executives see its approach as part of its mission to let potential shoppers and employees know the company aims to be socially engaged. It’s a big change for a company that built itself as a ruthlessly efficient business focused on affordable shopping and that generally avoided taking a stand on political issues.”

“Today, around 72% of Walmart shoppers want the company to ‘take a stand on important social issues’ and 85% want the retailer to ‘make it clear what values you stand for,’ said Walmart’s chief marketing officer, Tony Rogers, in a June presentation to reporters, citing a survey by research firm Kantar. Increasingly, the perception of a company’s views and deeds are linked to its brand, he said … Yet with its political stances, Walmart, with 2.3 million workers, especially risks alienating its core customers, who often live in more conservative-leaning rural and suburban communities.”

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Why America Screams for Ice Cream

Boston Globe: “From the tables of European royalty to a bag of 10 Hoodsies for $2.98 at Market Basket, the story of ice cream echoes that of the American experiment — democratization, fueled by technology, ingenuity, and mass marketing. In the three centuries since the first ice cream recipe was published in English, this frozen food has become an integral part of American identity. Ice cream forms the slushy bedrock of our childhood nostalgia; it’s what people are supposed to eat after a break up because it makes you feel better; it’s the thing that Americans replaced drinking with during Prohibition. It looks great on social media (31 million #icecream photos on Instagram and counting), and, of course, it tastes really good.”

“Ice cream is now a nearly $60 billion a year global industry, expected to grow to nearly $75 billion by 2024. Americans are no longer the world’s top consumers of ice cream — that crown goes to China — nor do we consume the most per capita (that would be Norway, that dark horse). But although we are eating less of it than we did even five years ago, Americans still love ice cream, consuming 13 pounds of the stuff per capita in 2016 and spending $6.6 billion on it in 2017. The ice cream industry in the United States has remained stable in large part because we’re willing to pay more for it when we perceive it as ‘premium’.”

Margaret Visser “writing in ‘Much Depends on Dinner,’ noted that ice cream has become ‘invested, in European and American cultures, with what amounts to mythic power.’ Though ice cream has become cheap, it has never been quite cheapened. It remains ‘a sound and tasteful alternative to the empty vulgarities of junk food,’ Visser wrote. It exerts a pleasant nostalgic pull, for that lost childhood, for an old-fashioned time past, for a golden era that doesn’t exist now and probably never really existed, for what Visser describes simply as ‘elsewhere,’ — the country, the holiday, the seaside. Or to put it another way, as Vora said, ‘Ice cream is just fun’.”

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Alibaba Puts Tech in ‘FashionAI’ Boutique

Axios: “Everything is automated and powered by artificial intelligence — or soon will be — in a new fashion shop opening tomorrow in Hong Kong. From the time you enter, using an app to open an electronically locked sliding glass door, to the time you leave, you may never see another human apart from other shoppers …the objective is to merge e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail — to make shoppers see them as one organism.”

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The Future of French Fries

The New York Times: “A new type of fry starts in the ground. At its farm in Paterson, Wash., Lamb Weston grows half a dozen potato varieties on 20,000 irrigated acres, tracking even the most minute differences in hydration, temperature and other environmental factors. Potatoes with less water make for crispier fries. Too much water can make them limp … Workers monitor the fields from the Pentagon of potatoes, a room filled with computers that monitor soil conditions, crop maturity and irrigation. The plants are tested every week to measure their nutrients, a sort of blood test for plants. Using those results, workers can adjust how much water they give the crops.”

“Lamb Weston started testing a longer-lasting fry two years ago. Employees on a visit to China noticed dozens of delivery scooters outside a McDonald’s. They figured the trend would go global, and wanted to be ready … Lamb Weston had already developed a French fry batter that could keep fries crispy for 12 minutes. So food scientists at the company’s laboratory in Richland began tinkering with the recipe to extend a fry’s life even longer. When the fries drop into the hot oil, the batter, made mostly of uncooked starch, cooks instantaneously to form the crispy outer layer.”

“To protect the fries during delivery, the team created new packaging to keep out moisture while allowing for the right amount of ventilation … Plastic bags or tightly sealed containers turn into little saunas, making French fries soggy quickly. A paper bag, lightly folded over, is a better option … Back at the laboratory, food scientists duplicate different hazards, packing French fries in white paper bags next to cold milkshakes or moist hamburgers. Bags are left alone for 15 minutes, others for 30 or 45. Their heat is measured using infrared cameras … Testers check how they fare. They take bites of chocolate, crackers and other foods, using them as benchmarks to rate the fries’ crunch, sweetness and other attributes.”

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