Jen Yee: The Architecture of Dessert

The New York Times: Jen Yee “who oversees pastry for all the restaurants in the Resurgens Hospitality Group, used to be an architect, and she designs desserts the way she once did building interiors: meticulously sketching every element, testing many prototypes. And these days she has plenty of company: Many of the country’s top pastry chefs have practiced or studied architecture.”

“Tired of having to abide by mundane building codes and regulations, and wanting something more creative, she began studying pastry in 2002 at Le Cordon Bleu in London, while working as a pastry assistant at the Connaught hotel for the chefs Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett. She found that her architectural training applied in the pastry kitchen as well.”

She comments: “Being an architect is not all about the structure. It’s about the intent. How will this improve someone’s life? Desserts are also about thoughtfulness. What are the ways I can manipulate this apple? What will highlight what’s grown here? It’s about looking at your environment and seeing what will be functional and beautiful in that space.”


Hot Chocolate: Lap Up Luxury

The Wall Street Journal: “Gotham Bar and Grill is celebrated for its fancy fare, from foie gras to Dover sole. Starting this weekend, the Michelin-starred restaurant will spotlight a childhood treat: hot chocolate. The Manhattan restaurant will offer a $14 cup of steaming cocoa made with a chocolate sourced from Costa Rica … Dozens of restaurants, bakeries and chocolate shops throughout New York City are offering gourmet versions of hot chocolate. And they say they are seeing strong demand.”

“At Tetsu, the new Tribeca restaurant from sushi chef Masa Takayama of Masa fame, the $8 hot chocolate is flavored with a spices, including cardamom, cloves and star anise, and topped with a ‘toasted rice’ whipped cream. Customers can add a shot of exotic booze—chili-pepper liqueur, anyone?—for $4-$6.”

“By most accounts, the current New York City craze for gourmet hot chocolate was sparked by City Bakery, a fixture in the Union Square area that began offering a high-end version of the beverage when it opened in the early ‘90s, at the then seemingly outrageous price of $2.50 a cup … Restaurant-industry insiders and observers say the hot-chocolate trend speaks to a growing fascination with retro comfort foods done with a contemporary nod: Think artisanal mac ‘n’ cheese. It also dovetails with the gourmet-coffee movement that shows no signs of stopping.”


Fast Shopping: Making Convenience ‘Better for You’

The Washington Post: “As sales of gas, cigarettes and soda plummet, many stores are vying for consumers with fresh produce and other ‘better-for-you’ products that would have once looked out of place in the land of Big Gulps … That could make a difference in the diets of millions, experts say, especially those who rely on convenience stores as a primary source of food.”

“At 7-Eleven, the world’s largest convenience store chain, with 10,500 U.S. locations, the company has aggressively developed ‘better-for-you’ products under the Go!Smart banner, pushing low-sugar herbal teas, fruit-and-nut bars and rice crackers. At Kwik Trip, the Midwestern chain seen by many in the industry as the leader of the healthy stores movement, executives hired an in-house dietitian, Erica Flint, to help introduce new products and reformulate old ones.”

“In the past year and a half, four of the country’s largest convenience store distributors have committed to initiatives with Partnership for a Healthier America, which is allied with former first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! project. With PHA, the companies have promised to make it easier for convenience stores to source produce and other healthy foods — and to market those products.”


Tsukiji Fish Market: The Wall Street of Seafood

Business Insider: “The Tsukiji Fish Market is located in the Tsukiji district in central Tokyo. It is bordered by the swanky shopping district Ginza and the Sumida River … The market has become one of the top tourist attractions in Japan, but it wasn’t intended that way. It’s a place for business. Restaurant and market owners come every day to pick the choicest pieces of seafood for their business.”

“More fish passes through Tsukiji than any other market in the world. Some estimates suggest that the market does more than $4 billion in business a year … The market sells over 480 different types of seafood each day, as well as 270 different types of produce. Harvard anthropology professor Ted Bestor, who studies Japanese sushi culture, has called it ‘the nerve center of a global fishing industry’.”

“The tuna in the market is delivered from all over the world frozen or on ice less than 24 hours after being caught. Then the fishmongers have to clean and defrost the giant fish … The wholesalers then cut the tuna into sellable pieces for the top sushi restaurants in the city. Some wholesalers will even massage the fish or have conversations with it as they cut … After you’re done touring, head to any of the sushi joints in the main market for a kaisendon, or sushi-rice bowl. Unless you’ve been to 3-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro, it will likely be the best you’ve ever had.”


Chickens Rule The Retail Roost

The Wall Street Journal: Rotisserie chickens “emerged as a supermarket staple in the 1990s, paving the way for the array of prepared foods that grocery stores sell today. Now they are many grocery stores’ best-selling hot food item and a rare bright spot in an industry struggling to adapt to a shift away from packaged foods … To continue selling them for $5 to $7 each, executives are working to trim supply-chain costs, cook chickens more efficiently and throw fewer of them away unsold.”

“One reason executives say it is so important to hold down rotisserie prices is that shoppers often buy higher-margin side dishes and beverages to round out a meal … Grocers also are tweaking their marketing strategy to make their chickens stand out. Some have introduced lemon pepper and barbecue flavors, as well as organic and antibiotic-free chickens. Others are placing stocked chicken warmers in checkout aisles to inspire last-minute purchases.”

“While Kroger and Mariano’s display their chickens near the front of the store, Costco puts them at the back, hoping people will add to their carts on their way to getting a chicken. Costco has sold rotisserie chickens for $4.99 since 2009. When a bird flu outbreak prompted higher prices for ready-to-cook chickens in 2015, Costco took a $30 million to $40 million profit hit to keep its rotisserie prices steady … Some stores sell deboned rotisserie-chicken meat at a higher price.”


How Big Data Disrupts Big Brands

The Washington Post: “Launched in 2015, ZX Ventures is charged with ‘disrupting’ the beer industry by developing and investing in businesses that will provide value and improve user experiences — and make more money for AB InBev — somewhere down the road. They’ve invested in e-commerce delivery systems, beer-rating applications and home-brew suppliers, all of which provide data points that can tell them about trends and help them get ahead of the market.”

“According to its mission statement, ‘ZX Ventures is hopelessly dedicated to creating and analyzing the data necessary for determining our ideal strategies, products and technologies. We believe that the more we know and learn about our consumers and products, the better chance we have of anticipating their needs in the future.’ Translation: They want to know everything about purchasing patterns and decisions. What are customers looking for? What are influencers thinking? How can they make it easier to get AB InBev’s products into the hands of people who might want beer?”

“The ZX Ventures team is interested in access to a large number of data points: The most popular and trending beers, styles and search terms in any region around the world. Are more people giving high ratings to saisons in London than Los Angeles? Are Bavarians searching for IPAs available to them? What are the most highly rated beer bars in the Southeast? Which beer styles have grown the most in the last year, in terms of average ratings or the number of searches, and where? If certain cities are rating sour beers higher than the norm, for example, Elysian’s sour pineapple seasonal or a new wild saison from Wicked Weed could be given extra promotional play in those markets.”


How ‘Ankle-Biters’ Nip Big Brands

The Wall Street Journal: “Consumers in rich countries once embraced the consistency, convenience and affordability of their offerings, from disposable razors to ready-to-boil ravioli. In other parts of the world, a growing middle class clamored for many of the same trusted, Western brands.”

“Today, that isn’t good enough. Shoppers have gravitated in droves toward smaller, niche or locally made products. In many cases, they are seeking out healthy alternatives and more natural ingredients. Manufacturing costs have fallen, allowing small players to seize quickly on trends. Social media and e-commerce have made marketing and distribution easier.”

RBC analyst James Edwardes Jones comments: “We think big incumbents—however well managed—are going to continue to struggle against the depredations of the ‘ankle-biters’.”


City Girl Coffee: The Experience is the Message

The New York Times: “City Girl is bold and risky, from its bright-pink logo and packaging to its business plan’s central tenet: fighting gender inequity in the coffee industry. On average, according to the International Trade Center, women do 70 percent of the work in getting coffee to market but regularly cede or are barred from financial control, so City Girl gets its beans exclusively from farms and cooperatives that are owned or managed by women. In addition, the company donates 5 percent of all profit to organizations that support women in the industry.”

“Sales — principally through City Girl’s online store and in the Twin Cities’ high-end retailers, including Kowalski’s Markets and Lunds & Byerlys — are up 300 percent year over year. City Girl aims to break into other Midwest markets, including Chicago, St. Louis and Des Moines, and then to select cities on the East Coast … chief competitors have argued that City Girl’s female-empowerment message is little more than a marketing ploy.” However, founder Alyza Bohbot says “in this day and age, you can’t have a good product without having a good marketing story.”


Fang Gourmet Tea: Steeped in Obsession

The New York Times: Fang Gourmet Tea: “For 15 years, it has been the de facto gathering place for the New York region’s most serious tea enthusiasts. And this season brings its premier event, for connoisseurs and novices alike: the annual Tea Tasting Expo. For the expo, which began in 2009 and runs this year from Dec. 9 through Jan. 7, the normally serene shop bustles as the staff trots out limited releases of Chinese and Taiwanese teas and teaware that draw drinkers from as far as California.”

“The costly teas and pottery are often unobtainable anywhere else in the United States, even for seasoned drinkers with connections of their own … But the expo is more than an opportunity to share rare and newly available teas. It also gives tea devotees, many of whom see one another only once a year, a space to obsess together … the expo is more about education and community than about profit. The shop is not a big moneymaker.”

“And unlike blockbuster conventions like the World Tea Expo (to be held next June in Las Vegas) and the Coffee & Tea Festival NYC (scheduled for March at the Brooklyn Expo Center), the Fang gathering is deliberately intimate. There are no keynote addresses, swag bags or sponsors … What brings drinkers back year after year is the promise of exceptional teas and conversation with kindred spirits.”