Cake Ladies: Inside The Box Thinking

The New York Times: “Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.”

“The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts, at two and three times the price. Food journeys in via jet, small plane and barge. Milk and eggs spoil fast. Produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam and soda, cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that require actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a ‘cake lady’ with her signature twist. Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket.”

“In America’s northernmost town, Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), the baker Mary Patkotak is an expert at gaming cake economics. She uses Betty Crocker triple chocolate fudge mix for her famous cherry-chocolate cake. In the village store, it costs $4.59 a box. On Amazon, where Ms. Patkotak orders it, it’s $1.29. Alaska’s many weather delays mean the mix never shows up on time, but she doesn’t care because it qualifies her for partial refunds on her annual Prime membership.
‘I can’t remember the last time I paid the Amazon Prime fee,’ she said.”

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Strategic Selection: Less is More for Aldi

The Wall Street Journal: “German discounter Aldi, is betting billions it can win over spoiled American shoppers. How? By offering them fewer choices—way fewer—than rival retailers. The unlikely proposition has worked nearly everywhere Aldi has set foot … It offers a deliberately pared-down selection, sometimes a tiny fraction of the number of items sold by rivals, which helps Aldi cut costs to levels U.S. grocers can only dream of. Among other benefits, fewer items means faster turnover, smaller stores, less rent, lower energy costs and fewer staff to stock the shelves.”

“About 70 years ago, brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht, fresh from military service in World War II, took over their family’s store in Schonnebeck, a mining neighborhood of the bombed-out industrial city of Essen. In the early 1950s, they began rolling out their ascetic concept to other branches throughout the region. Back then, their stores offered just 250 items, the essentials miners’ and steelworkers’ families needed to survive—flour, sugar, coffee, butter, bacon, peas and condensed milk. In the 1950s and ’60s, Germany’s economic miracle took off, and a wave of glitzy supermarkets selling thousands of items sprouted up to serve the newly affluent middle class. Aldi didn’t flinch.”

Today: “Aldi is gambling it is more in tune with the American tastes, rolling out small, nimble stores instead of sprawling warehouses and supermarkets that take longer to navigate … One of Aldi’s strengths that has eluded many discounters is its ability to draw middle-class shoppers—those with more money to spend—despite its limited array of goods. It did this by cultivating the image of a company focused on quality rather than pinching pennies … There too, executives say, the limited assortment played a central role. The small number of items ensured that staff could carefully choose, taste-test and quality-control each item.”

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Quote of the Day: Paul Misener

“At Amazon, we have a lot of experience with failure. We have failed many times — some very public, colossal ones, some private. But we are failing and we will continue to fail. Many times we will fail going forward, I’m confident of that.” ~ Paul Misener, vice president for global innovation policy and communications, Amazon.

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Bodega: The Future of Convenience?

Fast Company: “Paul McDonald, who spent 13 years as a product manager at Google, wants to make this corner store a thing of the past … launching a new concept called Bodega with his cofounder Ashwath Rajan, another Google veteran. Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store’.”

“The idea is to preempt what people might need, then use machine learning to constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community. In a sorority house, for instance, young women might regularly purchase pretzels, makeup remover, and tampons. Meanwhile, in an apartment block, residents might regularly buy toilet paper, pasta, and sugar. When an item is bought, Bodega gets a note to replace it, and regularly sends people out to restock the boxes.”

“In most cases, Bodega doesn’t pay for the retail space, but pitches itself as an amenity or a convenience to property managers. At gyms for instance, McDonald makes the case that having a Bodega stocked with power bars and protein powder might make the facility more attractive to members … The major downside to this concept–should it take off–is that it would put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business.”

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Late & Great: Lotfi Zadeh

The New York Times: “Lotfi Zadeh, the computer scientist and electrical engineer whose theories of “fuzzy logic” rippled across academia and industry, influencing everything from linguistics, economics and medicine to air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners and rice cookers, died on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96 … Emerging from an academic paper Mr. Zadeh published in 1965 as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘fuzzy logic,’ as he called it, was an ambitious effort to close the gap between mathematics and the intuitive way that humans talk, think and interact with the world.”

“If someone asks you to identify ‘a very tall man,’ for instance, you can easily do so — even if you are not given a specific height. Similarly, you can balance a broom handle on your finger without calculating how far it can lean in one direction without toppling over … Rather than creating strict boundaries for real world concepts, he made the boundaries ‘fuzzy.’ Something was not in or out, for example. It sat somewhere on the continuum between in and out, and at any given moment a set of more complex rules defined inclusion.”

Fuzzy logic “could provide a way for insurance companies to assess damage after an earthquake, for instance. Is the damage serious, moderate or minimal under company rules? Fuzzy sets could help … The method could also help build machinery and electronics that gradually move from one state to another, like an automobile transmission, which shifts smoothly from first gear to second, or a thermostat, which flows just as smoothly from hot to cold. Hot and cold need not be precisely defined. They could exist on a continuum.”

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Vivaldi & Creativity: Music is the Muse

Pacific Standard: “Crank up the music. Not just any music—something upbeat and stimulating, such as the opening movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. In a study published in the online journal PLoS One, participants proved more skillful at generating creative ideas if that cheerful, chirpy concerto was playing in the background.”

“Their study featured 155 people recruited online, the majority of whom were college students. All performed a series of creativity-related tests, including the well-known Alternative Uses Task, in which they were given three minutes to list as many “different and creative uses” they could come up with for a common object—in this case, a brick … Additional tests measured ‘convergent thinking,’ the part of the creative process in which all those crazy ideas are narrowed down to find the optimal solution to a problem.”

“The key result: Compared to working in silence, listening to the uplifting Vivaldi was ‘associated with an increase in divergent thinking.’ Convergent thinking, on the other hand, was not significantly affected by background music.”

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The Bagelwich: Bagels & Ice Cream?

The Wall Street Journal: “New York may have a new viral-food contender: the bagelwich. It’s a bagel stuffed with ice cream, a novelty concocted by Bagel Shop, a store at East 93rd Street and Third Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Store owner Paul Dimino, Sr. , believes the bagelwich has the potential to wow New Yorkers in the same way as such novelties as the Cronut, a croissant-doughnut hybrid, or the rainbow bagel.”

“The offerings range from the Pina Colada bagelwich, with vanilla ice cream, grilled pineapple and bits of coconut macaroons, to the Chocoholic, with chocolate ice cream, chocolate icing and chocolate chips.”

Mr. Dimino “admits, however, that the item, priced starting at $7.50, hasn’t been in demand in the few weeks since its debut. Bagel Shop is selling only about a dozen each day.” He admits: “The hardest part is getting people to try it.”

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Ruby Chocolate: Neither Bitter, Milky nor Sweet

The Wall Street Journal: “Barry Callebaut Group … has produced a type of chocolate extracted from the Ruby cocoa bean, resulting in a chocolate that is reddish, a hue usually associated with lipstick, not chocolate … The company described the taste as ‘not bitter, milky or sweet, but a tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness.’ No berries, berry flavor or colors are added, it said.”

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The Future of Toys: Dual Play

The Wall Street Journal: “Digital offerings aren’t threatening to wipe out physical toys anytime soon. Kids ‘are still reading books, still using Legos, people are making a place for physical toys,’ said Judy Ishayik, owner of Mary Arnold Toys, an independent toy shop in Manhattan. But, she said, ‘there’s more dual play,’ where physical toys are paired with a digital component. She pointed to Crayola, owned by Hallmark Cards Inc., which rolled out an app that turns coloring-book creations into animated online representations. Hasbro Inc.’s Love2Learn Elmo app provides children with a way of interacting verbally with their Elmo dolls.”

“Play on touch-screen devices outranks all other kinds of play in frequency—including with blocks, board games and puzzles—according to a 2014 survey by New York research firm Michael Cohen Group of 350 parents with children age 12 and under.”

“Some of Lego’s recent woes are because toys tied to movies have underperformed retailers’ and manufacturers’ expectations. Lego products tied to last year’s ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘Rogue One,’ didn’t generate the same excitement as had the prior installment, ‘The Force Awakens,’ which was the first ‘Star Wars’ movie in a decade … Another big bet that didn’t fully deliver: the company’s second movie based on its toys, called ‘Lego Batman. Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. said toys tied to the movie missed sales goals, even though Lego spent heavily to try to boost interest.”

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Amy’s Drive-Thru: Meat-Free Fast Food

Fast Company: “Amy’s Drive Thru is America’s first vegetarian, organic, gluten-free-optional fast-food restaurant, and much to the surprise of the owners, it’s doing more than holding its own against its greasy competitors … Business has been so booming at Amy’s Drive Thru in its two years of operation that it’s beginning a chain.”

“For 29 years, the Petaluma, California-based Amy’s Kitchen has gained a cult following as a purveyor of family-style, vegetarian frozen meals, from macaroni and cheese to burritos, all handmade fresh in three operating facilities across California, Oregon, and Idaho, and shipped nationwide … The drive-through is powered by solar panels, and the tableware is recyclable. Using mostly organic and local produce for ingredients is more expensive, but it’s what customers expect from the company.”

“Whereas a standard fast-food restaurant has around 15 employees per outpost, Amy’s Drive Thru employs over 90 because it takes many more people to prepare the food … A true cross-country empire of Amy’s locations is still far off … The company wants to expand slowly, to ensure that they can partner with local farmers and producers around each location … and to understand where the drive-throughs could have the greatest effect in breaking up health-food deserts.”

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