Seltzer Hackers Pop SodaStream’s Bubble

The Wall Street Journal: “SodaStream’s popular countertop machines helped lower the cost of sparkling water by allowing users to make their own. For a hard-core group of fizzy-water fans, it’s still not cheap enough … In an effort to save more on each pour, these customers are hacking into their SodaStream machines by attaching their own canisters of carbon dioxide, often purchased at welding-supply or paintball stores … These gambits allow the hackers to avoid the roughly $15 fee the company charges for refill gas canisters—which fit into the back of the machine and can carbonate 60 1-liter bottles of water.”

“The practice of SodaStream hacking has become so popular that a small cottage industry has sprung up to support it. Vendors sell special adapters to support unofficial carbon dioxide canisters on the SodaStream, while others offer to refill the SodaStream canisters in ads on Craigslist and Facebook … In one popular video, the poster points to a 5-pound aluminum carbon dioxide tank and says, ‘You can steal these from landfills pretty much anywhere’… Israel-based SodaStream International Ltd. discourages the hacking and said tampering with the gas canisters violates its terms of service. It added it isn’t responsible for any ‘bodily harm that could be caused by misuse’.”

“Deviant Ollam, 42, of Seattle, said he bought a special adapter that allows him to attach a 20-pound carbon dioxide tank directly to his SodaStream machine … He said he purchased ‘food grade’ carbon dioxide from his local gas-supply store, which some SodaStream customers consider to be safer than the grade of carbon dioxide welders use. For him, the appeal is less about saving a few cents than using his wits to get ahead. His family is drinking far more sparkling water than they did before, just because they can, he said. ‘Why drink regular water again when you can have the ‘I’m sticking it to the man’ feeling?’ Mr. Ollam said.”

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RH Negative: A Restoration of Excess

The New York Times: “On the second Saturday in September, the new RH Gallery opened its doors to the Meatpacking District, looking just as you’d expect: a glowering, 90,000-square-foot landscape of poured concrete flecked with bronze, stone and glass, through which sails a flotilla of enormous gray velvet and white linen sofas … Welcome to the latest iteration of what began as Restoration Hardware, a chain of home goods that in recent years has become best-known less for dependable fixtures than its cumbersome catalog mailings, once reaching 17 pounds.”

“This is RH’s 85th store, and its biggest. It is architecturally quite lovely, the low-slung, hundred-year-old brick building erupting into a tough, industrial-looking glass and steel three-story structure with a rooftop garden and restaurant … It opened the same week the parent company of Henri Bendel announced the closing of all its stores, marking both another death spasm of a certain kind of retail experience, and the unlikely success of a brand that has placed the same Belgian linen sofas, French caned beds and reproduction African objects in houses across the country.”

“The new RH store was seven years in the making. It opened with a flashy party that had caviar bars and dewy-faced models, Martha Stewart and Ryan Seacrest.”

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Bar Moxy Debuts Soft-Serve Vending Machine

The Wall Street Journal: “Make way for soft-serve vending machines … Bar Moxy, an all-day dining and drinking spot located in Midtown’s Moxy Times Square hotel, is unveiling such a machine this week—the first of its kind in New York City, according to the hospitality company Tao Group, which manages the hotel’s food and beverage operations.”

“The vending machine, which accepts credit cards, cash and Apple Pay, offers two flavors: vanilla with a spicy boost from Mike’s Hot Honey, a chile-infused sweetener, and dairy-free chocolate … The technology for dispensing soft-serve from a vending machine is fairly straightforward: Users make their selections from a video display, then wait less than a minute for the order to be processed and delivered through a small opening at the front of the machine. A spoon pops out of another opening.”

“Tao Group managing partner Matt Strauss won’t say how much the company spent for the ice-cream machine. But Rich Koehl, vice president of Stoelting Foodservice, the device’s Wisconsin-based manufacturer, said its list price is $68,000 .. Tao Group must sell a few hundred servings each month to cover costs, including for the ice cream, which it makes using its own recipe, Mr. Strauss said. The machine’s real value, he added, could come from the buzz it generates, potentially driving more customer traffic to Bar Moxy as a result.”

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How Patagonia Patches Together Loyalty

The Washington Post: “’If it’s broke, fix it!’ is a Patagonia company motto, and the company takes the motto seriously. It has operated a recycling and repair program, Worn Wear, in various permutations since 2005. In its Reno, Nev., service center, Patagonia operates the country’s largest outdoor gear-repair shop. During the 2017 fiscal year, it made 50,295 clothing repairs.”

“Fourteen employees are deployed to replace zippers, which accounted for 30,000 of last year’s repairs … Stores send up to 600 items a week. Others are mailed directly by customers. The company receives items that have been chewed by dogs (dogs have a thing about the plastic snaps at the back of ball caps, it turns out), faded by sunlight, burned by campfires and ripped by sharp rocks or sticks. Even after years of wear, garments get fixed, no questions asked. Items have been returned that are nearly a half-century old, dating to the infancy of the company founded by Yvon Chouinard in the mid-1970s.”

“Patagonia also has a small fleet of repair rigs that travel to dozens of college campuses and ski resorts, advertising these excursions much like band tours. Patagonia staffers offer to make free repairs (even to non-Patagonia items) and teach students and skiers how to make their own fixes. In addition to putting on learn-to-sew clinics, staffers organize events where students learn how to repair an item and then get to keep it for free. They also promote campus clothing swaps … If items returned by customers are too damaged to be resold, they are designated for reuse. Patagonia works with several entrepreneurs who ‘upcycle’ old garments into purses, scarves or other items.”

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Lego is Letting Go of Plastics

The New York Times: “Lego faces a more complex problem than other consumer businesses — for this Danish company, plastics are not the packaging, they are the product …. Lego emits about a million tons of carbon dioxide each year, about three-quarters of which comes from the raw materials that go into its factories, according to Tim Brooks, the company’s vice president for environmental responsibility.”

“Lego is taking a two-pronged approach to reducing the amount of pollution it causes. For one, it wants to keep all of its packaging out of landfills by 2025 by eliminating things like plastic bags inside its cardboard packaging … It is also pushing for the plastic in its toys to come from sources like plant fibers or recycled bottles by 2030. The problem with that target, though, is that virtually all of the plastic used worldwide — including that molded by Lego into toy bricks — is created from petroleum.”

“Company researchers have already experimented with around 200 alternatives … Most test materials, both bio-based and recycled, have so far fallen short. Some bricks made with the new materials have broken, leaving sharp edges that could injure a child, or have popped out with ugly, muddied colors. Others have on occasion produced misshapen or pockmarked bricks … The search for a substitute for petroleum-based plastic could yet take years of work … Still, executives argue that, as a company that models itself as a de facto educator as much as a profitable enterprise, it has little option but to keep trying.”

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FAO Flagship To Return to NYC

The Wall Street Journal: “A dominant presence in Midtown Manhattan for decades before its closure in 2015, FAO Schwarz is coming to life again with a new, 20,000-square-foot Rockefeller Center location, set to open in November. ThreeSixty Group Inc., a California-based firm, acquired the retail brand from Toys ‘R’ Us in October 2016 for an undisclosed price … But in an era when bricks-and-mortar retailers struggle to stay competitive as consumers increasingly go online for their shopping needs, FAO is making its Rockefeller Center location as much about the experience as the buying.”

“That means the store won’t just be staffed with traditional sales clerks, but also product demonstrators, magicians and men and women playing various costumed roles, including toy soldiers … the company is going so far as to hold auditions, rather than just the standard interviews, for retail staff.”

“Ultimately, ThreeSixty Brands may not be looking to make a profit on the Rockefeller Center store so much as use it to promote the FAO name, said Jed Wexler, a retail expert who runs 818 Agency, a New York firm. ‘It feels like an advertising play,’ he said. In any case, the New York store, which will be considered the FAO flagship, is part of a larger push. ThreeSixty Brands is also launching a smaller store at LaGuardia Airport this fall and one in China in 2019.”

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Wigle Room: ‘Terroirist’ Whiskey

The New York Times: Wigle Whiskey is “a craft distillery with a reputation for off-the-wall experimentation. On a recent afternoon, Meredith Meyer Grelli, one of its owners, showed off its latest offering: three small flasks of rye whiskey, identical save for the words Saskatchewan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania — the sources of the grain used to make it.”

“Other than the grains, each whiskey is made the same way. And yet each tastes subtly different: The Saskatchewan whiskey is smooth and nutty, the Minnesota a bit earthy, the Pennsylvania fiery and fruity. Initial chemical analysis, Ms. Grelli said, supports those impressions: The Pennsylvania rye, for example, had elevated levels of ethyl acetate, which imparts flavors like pear and bananas. Those differences, Ms. Grelli said, indicate that spirits like whiskey can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow and the whiskey is made — in other words, terroir.”

“Wigle’s whiskey trio, called the Terroir Project, goes on sale this fall in select markets and is among the first in a wave of place-specific spirits — whiskey, vodka, rum and others — coming out over the next few years. The producers range from small, regional distillers to global names like Belvedere, the Polish vodka owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The new spirits are part of an international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded, agricultural roots.”

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The A5 Ozaki: Lunch as $180 Sandwich Caper

Jason Gay: A $180 steak sandwich is an indefensible purchase. It is a foodstuff strictly for vulgarians, a decadent symbol of 21st-century gluttony and the over-luxurification of everything. To buy it is to wallow in one’s privilege, one’s shameless indifference to the plight of humankind. Other than that, it’s pretty tasty … This $180 Katsu sandwich can be found in lower Manhattan, around the corner from Wall Street, at a hole-in-the-wall establishment called Don Wagyu. Don Wagyu is a spartan place with a small bar counter, a partly-open kitchen and a half-dozen stools. It is visible from the outside thanks to a red neon sign of a cow smoking a cigarette, a nod to the vaguely-illicit goings-on inside.”

“How could a sandwich cost as much as a plane ticket to Florida? This is, after all, the type of thing that makes the rest of the planet think New Yorkers are out of their minds. Was the $180 sandwich (aka the A5 Ozaki) a legitimate food experience or some kind of commentary on late-stage capitalism? … Ordering the A5 Ozaki is not a showy experience. The lights do not dim, the kitchen does not clap; it does not require much more of a wait than a turkey club at a diner. A slice of beef is encrusted with panko, fried, placed on toasted white bread and served quartered, like a preschooler’s PB&J. Nori-sprinkled french fries and a pickle spear are the only accompaniments.”

“But the A5 Ozaki was light and buttery to the point of being almost ethereal, as if the sandwich knew the pressure of delivering on its comical price. Which, of course, it does not. There is no sandwich that is possibly worth $180. But that’s the thrill (and the crime) of extravagance, is it not? Eating this thing felt right and completely wrong—more like a caper than a lunch.”

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Craft Beer Lightens Up

The Wall Street Journal: “While mega breweries flaunt puny carb counts, microbrew fans tend to assume that ‘lite’ means flavorless. Lately, however, craft brewing has been quietly losing weight, squeezing into macro-brew territory with beers as low in alcohol and calories as mass-made lagers—only deceptively, defiantly flavorful. Small-scale breweries have, historically, produced big, bold brews … But a strange thing happened in 2007 when Dogfish Head Brewery released Festina Peche, a slightly sour, peach-infused wheat that barely tipped the scales at 4.5% ABV and 8 IBUs (International Bittering Units): It sold.”

“While Dogfish still sells truckloads of crushers such as 120 Minute IPA, the brewery’s SeaQuench Ale, a 4.9% gose released in 2016, has been the fastest-growing beer in the company’s history … Lagunitas and other breweries like them are retooling accordingly. Yes, Lagunitas, makers of boozy bruisers like aptly named Maximus (8.1% ABV) and Hop Stoopid (8% ABV) is releasing light beer … Tuning down their brews shifted Dogfish Head‘s source of inspiration, too, from American hop fields to the European grain belt.”

For “Dogfish Head’s latest light beer, Grisette About It! (3.5% ABV and under 100 calories) … the brewers chose grisette, an old-timey French wheat-beer style. To emphasize its grainy character without carb-loading, they used a low-sugar, 17th-century oat variety from Columbia, S.C., granary Anson Mills, along with malted wheat and a little honey.”

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How Text & Chat Gets Satisfaction

The Washington Post: “The biggest shift in customer service since the 1-800 number is underway. Some 20 million businesses now use Facebook Messenger each month to talk with customers. Apple is leading companies as diverse as Lowe’s, Marriott and Wells Fargo into taking service queries, scheduling deliveries and even paying for purchases over iMessage. And Facebook’s WhatsApp, already used by 3 million businesses, including many outside the United States, is building a business around charging companies to better serve us over chats.”

“Business messaging isn’t the same as chatbots, which are programs that try — and often fail — to provide automatic answers to questions. This is about talking to real people, though some companies blend both automation and humans. Messaging a business can bring new kinds of frustrations. Not every company is prepared for 21st-century customer service; some put the newbie employees on chat duty — others rely too much on robots.”

“LivePerson, a company that makes support software used by 18,000 companies, says when given the option, 70 percent of people chose a “message us” button over a “call us” button on a company website or app. And it says customer satisfaction rates are 25 percent higher for chatting and messaging than for calling.”

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