The Caviar Sandwich is Back!

The Wall Street Journal: “The caviar sandwich at the Grand Central Oyster Bar is back … the under-$15 sandwich, a novelty item that served as a kind of low-rent riff on the luxury lifestyle, disappeared from the menu several months ago. The reason? The cost of the bowfin caviar, a cheaper variety of fish eggs used for the sandwich, had suddenly soared. That left the restaurant with two options: Increase the price for the sandwich threefold or nix it from the menu altogether. Given that the whole point of the sandwich was the caviar-on-the-cheap aspect, the Oyster Bar chose the latter.”

“And Oyster Bar executive chef Sandy Ingber figured the situation would remain that way because he wasn’t finding any caviar purveyors cutting deals … The menu item, a fixture for more than 15 years, had never been a huge seller, as a typical day saw up to 10 orders. But those who liked it really seemed to like it, Mr. Ingber said. The appeal went beyond the novelty aspect, he added. The dish, with the caviar served on plain white toast and paired with chopped egg with a dollop of sour cream on the side, is a perfect study in contrasting textures and flavors: salty, creamy and crispy.”

“But Mr. Ingber still needed to find a source for low-cost bowfin caviar. Fortunately, one turned up at a trade show in Boston last month. The product is the same quality, he said, and only a tad more expensive when factoring in shipping. Mr. Ingber was able to reinstate the sandwich to the menu two weeks ago, raising the price by only a dollar to $13.95.”

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7-Eleven: When Convenience Is Not Enough

The Wall Street Journal: “For 7-Eleven, Big Gulps and Slurpees are no longer enough. The convenience-store pioneer is falling behind rivals that are gleaning more sales from healthier snacks and freshly cooked meals … The company’s executives said they are working to come up with better foods to sell in their 9,700 North American stores. ‘Simply being open longer than the competitor … is not enough,’ said Raj Kapoor, referring to the stores’ extended hours. Mr. Kapoor, a 23-year veteran of 7-Eleven, is head of fresh food and proprietary beverages.”

“The effort to freshen up 7-Eleven’s business has run into resistance from the chain’s franchisees. Eight out of 10 7-Eleven stores are owned by franchisees, most of whom own fewer than five stores. Many say it is too expensive to maintain new equipment like ovens, and that 7-Eleven needs to pay to remodel their stores if they want them to sell more fresh and hot food. ‘Our stores don’t look like we are in the food business,’ said Hashim Sayed, who sold his store in Chicago back to 7-Eleven this week after 25 years as a franchisee.”

“7-Eleven says it has been addressing the shift in tastes for several years. But competitors have done more to sell fresh—and more profitable—foods, analysts said. Regional convenience chains Wawa Inc. and Sheetz Inc. make custom salads and hot meals at on-site kitchens. Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores Inc. is now one of the largest sellers of pizza in the U.S. CVS Health Corp. has reorganized its drugstores to display healthy food more prominently.”

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Waiting in Line: There’s No App For That

The Wall Street Journal: “Every day, Mitchell Burton orders and pays for an Italian B.M.T. sandwich on his Subway mobile app, so the sandwich is waiting at the counter. When he arrives, the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., parks and recreation worker frequently heads to the back of the line, to avoid seeming rude to less tech-savvy fellow customers. Line skippers sometimes ‘get the stink eye,’ he says, because fellow patrons don’t understand that there’s an app to order ahead.”

“Various ways to skip lines have gained momentum in recent years, as businesses ranging from retailers to movie theaters have come up with ways for customers to avoid a wait, often with mobile apps and ordering kiosks … In theory, order-ahead technology should appeal to everyone.” But: “Some line lovers say technology gets in the way of the personal touch. That’s why Al DiSalvatore sometimes puts his phone down and lines up the old fashioned way at coffee shops in Philadelphia. He likes when the baristas remember his name and order—something that reminds him of his time living in smaller cities.”

“Lining up is part of a gauzy nostalgia for the days before smartphones, which also includes professors banning laptops in class, people stopping at the register to write checks and shoppers skipping shopping online … Erik Fairleigh, 38, who works in communications at Amazon, also has a simple reason for sometimes joining the line. ‘I like to pay in cash,’ he says … Ashleigh Azzaria, a 34-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., event designer, typically chooses to wait in line for coffee at Starbucks, even though she has the mobile app installed and skips the line for bigger orders. ‘It’s my break,’ she says. ‘It’s my time to just kind of decompress, to not be on the phone’.”

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Hotel Shampoo: Losing its Lather?

The Wall Street Journal: “Those little bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash in hotels—icons of travel—are disappearing, replaced by bulk dispensers mounted on shower walls. And some travelers are in a lather … some road warriors say wall-mounted racks look low-class. They’re steamed that removing their prized individual bottles looks like just another in a long string of amenity cuts from hotels, like mouthwash, stationery, sewing kits and pens.” David Lennox, a frequent traveler, comments: “What’s next, getting rid of the packs of coffee and making us scoop out of a can? I think it’s cheap, incredibly cheap.”

“Marriott says its change allows it to offer higher-quality bath products at lower cost and reduce waste … And the landfill waste can be significant, says Liam Brown, who is responsible for Marriott brands like Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn and Springhill Suites in the Americas. Little bottles are never refilled and rarely recycled. The initial 450 properties where Marriott will make the change use 10.3 million little bottles a year, or 113,000 pounds of plastic, he says. When the change reaches 1,500 hotels it means 34.5 million bottles, or 375,000 pounds of plastic a year.”

“Noelle Nicolai, who leads marketing for Wyndham Hotel Group’s upscale brands, likens bath products to bread at restaurants. If it’s mediocre, you forget it. ‘If done right, it can be one of the top drivers of delight and guest satisfaction,’ she says.
Wyndham did extensive research and decided to increase the size of some of its bottles from 30 milliliters to 50 milliliters to encourage guests to take them home. ‘Maintaining that bottle experience…was really important to us,’ Ms. Nicolai says. Wyndham and most other large hotel companies send leftover soap that’s been sanitized and repackaged to a charity called Clean the World for recycling.”

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Airport Lounges: From Perk to Pathetic?

The Wall Street Journal: “Airport lounges were once a perk for business travelers and high spenders, a haven from the chaos of modern travel. Then more rewards credit cards started offering lounge access. And what was once an oasis now is more like a mall food court. Losing that ‘1%’ feeling has been jarring. Grousers say gourmet meals once on offer are now finger foods, and beverages are more likely to be guzzled than sipped. Overcrowding means seats often aren’t available.”

“Travelers say a turning point came in 2016 when JPMorgan Chase & Co. launched its Sapphire Reserve credit card. It became a huge hit, offering big rewards to offset a $450 annual fee. One of those was a Priority Pass membership that provides entry for the cardholder to around 60 lounges at U.S. airports and around 1,200 world-wide—with as many guests as desired.”

“Lounges are trying to rein things in. Following complaints from cardholders, AmEx is expanding some of its Centurion lounges and restricting access to holders of Platinum and Centurion cards, which carry annual fees of $550 and $2,500, respectively, and some business cardholders. Priority Pass, meanwhile, is dealing with the crowds in a new way. It’s offering food and booze credits of around $28 per person, with one catch: People have to leave the lounge to use them at restaurants in the airport.”

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E-urope: Amazon Struggles With Apparel

The Wall Street Journal: “Amazon.com Inc. might look like it’s taking over the world. But it hasn’t conquered Europe. Two decades after the internet behemoth’s first international foray into the region, it’s still working to gain traction selling apparel and footwear. That weakness in a major, growing market illustrates Amazon’s challenge as it expands abroad and tries to replicate its U.S. dominance of e-commerce.”

“To explain Amazon’s struggles in conquering apparel in Europe, retail executives and analysts point to an absence of top fashion brands, a website they say isn’t conducive to browsing for clothes and a fragmented market full of plucky competitors.”

“They say Amazon is like a chaotic, online department store where there is little control over brand presentation. By contrast, Zalando, ASOS and other specialty apparel sites are like an upscale online mall where brands are given more control and presentation is sleek, retail executives say … Amazon’s philosophy is that a large customer base attracts brands, while executives at Zalando and other competitors try to attract brands that will bring customers, said Barbara E. Kahn, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.”

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Short Staff + Long Lines = Retail Meltdown

The Wall Street Journal: “Over the past 12 months, 86% of U.S. consumers say they have left a store due to long lines, according to a survey conducted by Adyen, a credit-card processor and payment system. That has resulted in $37.7 billion in lost sales for retailers, Adyen estimates.”

“Retailers typically set staffing as a percent of sales, but a growing body of research suggests it should be based on foot traffic. The problem is twofold: Many retailers don’t track traffic and even if they do, they are reluctant to add labor, which is already among their biggest costs.”

“After installing cameras last year, Cycle Gear Inc., a 130-store chain that sells motorcycle apparel and accessories, noticed sales dipped during the afternoon at its Orlando, Fla., store even though it was packed with shoppers. ‘That told us the salespeople were overwhelmed,’ said Rodger O’Keefe, a vice president. ‘We added two more salespeople during those hours, and sales have been up since then’.”

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The Costco Pizza Sauce Robot

Reader’s Digest: “Costco works hard to make sure their pizza is practically perfect every time, and it’s all thanks to a secret pizza robot. This magical machine evenly distributes their sauce on the pizza dough… The gourmet gadget is actually pretty mesmerizing to watch in action.”

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The New ‘Choice’ in Convenience Stores

The Wall Street Journal: “In 2,700 square feet, about the size of a Chipotle, Choice is open 24 hours a day and sells staples like pasta, milk and yogurt, specialty items like quinoa, and an array of fruits and vegetables. You’ll also find beer and kombucha on tap, and snacks that skew toward multigrain chips and seaweed but also include Doritos. The interior sports white subway tile, reclaimed wood and other design codes that telegraph hip sustainability. What is Choice? A restaurant? A grocery store? Neither, said founder Mike Fogarty. It’s a convenience store.”

“Choice Market, Green Zebra Grocery in Portland, Ore., Foxtrot in Chicago, the Goods Mart in Los Angeles and Amazon Go in Seattle are open long hours (if not 24) and use the same small spaces to offer a wider range of options. You could meet a friend for coffee, pick up a few reasonably wholesome items for dinner or even fill up a growler of beer … Traditional players, too, are adding hardwood floors and more attractive lighting. Wawa, the mid-Atlantic chain famous for its hoagies, is rolling out customizable salads across their 790 stores and testing delivery.”

Lisa Sedlar, the founder of Green Zebra Grocery, comments: “People will come in and say this isn’t a convenience store, And I say, ‘Of course it is.’ We are redefining what it means to be a convenience store in America.”

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Heaven’s Door Whiskey: Don’t Knock It

The New York Times: “In late 2015, an unexpected name popped up in the liquor industry press: Bob Dylan. A trademark application for the term ‘bootleg whiskey’ had been filed under Mr. Dylan’s name. Among those who noticed the news was Marc Bushala, 52, a lifelong fan and a liquor entrepreneur … So he reached out, and after being vetted by Mr. Dylan’s representatives, Mr. Bushala … talked to Mr. Dylan by phone, and proposed working together on a portfolio of small-batch whiskeys.”

“Next month, he and Mr. Dylan will introduce Heaven’s Door, a collection of three whiskeys — a straight rye, a straight bourbon and a “double-barreled” whiskey. They are Mr. Dylan’s entry into the booming celebrity-branded spirits market, the latest career twist for an artist who has spent five decades confounding expectations … Heaven’s Door is meant to conjure a broader idea of Mr. Dylan that is part Renaissance man, part nighthawk. The label design is derived from his ironwork sculptures, with rural iconography — crows, wagon wheels — in silhouette. And in promotional photos lighted like classic movie stills, a tuxedo-clad Mr. Dylan, 76, gazes off in a dark cocktail lounge or lonely diner, glass in hand.”

“Mr. Bushala and Ryan Perry, the chief operating officer, struggled to interpret Mr. Dylan’s wishes. Often they came in the form of enigmatic comments or simply glances … He and Mr. Perry recalled Mr. Dylan’s tasting a sample of the double-barreled whiskey and saying that something was missing. ‘It should feel like being in a wood structure,’ he said … Months later, the men returned with a sample that they felt embodied ‘that sweet, musty smell of a barn,’ Mr. Bushala said, and presented it to Mr. Dylan, who commented approvingly.”

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