Puy du Fou: Something to ‘Crow’ About

The New York Times: “Puy du Fou, a historical theme park in the Loire region about four hours from Paris, has trained six crows to pick up cigarette butts and bits of trash and dump them in a box … The theme park’s owners would rather have humans properly dispose of their own candy wrappers and cigarettes. The crows are part of an educational campaign to prompt the ecologically minded to take their rubbish with them. ‘We want to educate people not to throw their garbage on the ground,’ said Nicolas de Villiers, the president of Puy du Fou.”

“Christophe Gaborit, who manages the theme park’s Academy of Falconry, trained the six rooks, which are members of the crow family and were raised at Puy du Fou, the second-largest theme park in France. (Disneyland Paris is No. 1.) … Each morning, he brings his crows and a set of wooden boxes to the park’s entrance so visitors can see the feathered creatures in action, Mr. de Villiers said. The crow’s task is simple. Each box has two compartments, and when a crow deposits a piece of paper or trash in a slot, a drawer is opened to reveal a treat — bird food, mostly.”

“But while it may seem like work to humans, the birds are at play. Crows are intelligent and need mental puzzles to stay alert and well adjusted, said John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington … the experiment at Puy du Fou raises the question: Could Mr. de Villiers’s staff of 40 falconers teach pigeons to tidy up Paris and New York? No, he said. ‘Pigeons are not very smart’.”

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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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Branching Out: Former Banks = Cool Stores

The New York Times: “Former bank branches have been reincarnated as pizza parlors, fast-food outlets, health care sites, massage chains, credit unions, educational institutions, churches and mobile phone stores. Some serve as locations for Starbucks, CityMD Urgent Care, CVS and other chains.”

“Attributes that were attractive to banks in the first place are now selling points for the converted properties. Many occupy corner locations on busy streets with heavy retail traffic. The buildings are often free-standing and well maintained, with sturdy brick construction. Depending on municipal zoning restrictions, canopied drive-throughs can be converted to other uses, such as fast-food pickup, side entrances or patios.”

“Part of an Apple Bank in Manhattan was converted to condos in 2006, and CVS moved into at least two banks in New York with high ceilings and marble columns … In the small tourist community of Lake Tomahawk, Wis., Tina Rydzik saw a marketing opportunity after she found it impossible to remove the vault from a former bank she took over and converted into a pizza house. She christened the enterprise Pizza Vault, and named nearly all the entrees after famous bank robbers.”

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Canada Dry: A Promise Uprooted

The Washington Post: “Julie Fletcher filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of Canada Dry ginger ale alleging the beverage does not contain ginger, the Buffalo News reports. Canada Dry’s listed ingredients are carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sodium benzoate, natural flavors and caramel colors … It’s not the first lawsuit to hold the ginger ale company to task for its ingredient list.”

“Law 360 reported that a similar suit in Missouri against Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc., which produces Canada Dry, was dismissed in June. In that suit, lab tests revealed that the beverage did not contain ginger. But the company argued that ginger is used to make the ‘natural flavoring’ in the drink and contested the methodology of the lab test.”

“As for Fletcher, the Buffalo News says that one factor in her confusion about the product was a 2011 commercial where a hunky ‘ginger farmer’ pulled a root out of the ground — and was pulled up through a woman’s cooler of Canada Dry. Which, to clear up any confusion for future litigation, is physically impossible.”

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16 Handles: Frozen Yogurt Gone Wild

The Wall Street Journal: “At the New York-based frozen-yogurt chain 16 Handles, the main draw has always been the self-serve aspect: Customers are free to mix and match flavors and toppings at will, paying a per-ounce price, varying by store, for their creations. But this summer, patrons at the 10-year-old chain’s East Village location may be surprised to find a soft-serve machine positioned behind the counter. It is reserved for a special new line of frozen treats, dubbed Sugalips, that employees are charged with making.”

“Included in the offerings: an outer space-inspired Galaxy Cone, priced at $8.95, that combines frozen yogurt, cotton candy and rock candy, a colorful dessert designed with the food-on-social-media era in mind … it comes as 16 Handles has seen its same-store sales decline in each of the past three years, following an initial period of consistent growth.”

“For starters, the concept of self-serve frozen yogurt is no longer seen as novel. But even more important: Frozen yogurt isn’t the trendy dessert it once was. Artisan ice-cream companies, offering a wave of creative and even vegan flavors, are commanding increased attention. So, too, are makers of multicultural frozen treats, such as Thai-style rolled ice cream … While such changes might help bring frozen-yogurt chains a broader clientele, experts warn there is a risk of alienating the regular customer base if a company goes too far.”

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Late & Great: Jonathan Gold

The New York Times: “In more than a thousand reviews published since the 1980s, Jonathan Gold chronicled his city’s pupuserias, bistros, diners, nomadic taco trucks, soot-caked outdoor rib and brisket smokers, sweaty indoor xiao long bao steamers, postmodern pizzerias, vintage delicatessens, strictly omakase sushi-yas, Roman gelaterias, Korean porridge parlors, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle vendors, Iranian tongue-sandwich shops, vegan hot dog griddles, cloistered French-leaning hyper-seasonal tasting counters and wood-paneled Hollywood grills with chicken potpie and martinis on every other table.”

“Unlike some critics, Mr. Gold never saw expensive, rarefied restaurants as the peak of the terrain he surveyed, although he reviewed his share of them. Shiki Beverly Hills, Noma and Alinea all took turns under his critical loupe. He was in his element, though, when he championed small, family-run establishments where publicists and wine lists were unheard-of and English was often a second language, if it was spoken at all.”

He explained: “I’m not a cultural anthropologist. I write about taco stands and fancy French restaurants to try to get people less afraid of their neighbors and to live in their entire city instead of sticking to their one part of town.” Jonathan Gold was 57.

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Bowl Food: Comfort in Troubled Times?

The Wall Street Journal: “A good rule for modern eating seems to be: When in doubt, put it in a bowl. Gone are the days when bowls were used only for soup or cereal. These days, we put all manner of things in bowls that once had no place there, from poached eggs to smoothies. Even Prince Harry and Megan Markle chose to offer breakfast food to guests at their wedding in bowls rather than on plates … Capacious bowls feel like the right container for the Asian-oriented dishes that many of us now prefer, not to mention pasta.”

“A ‘wellness bowl,’ also known as a Buddha bowl, reassures the eater that they have all their nutritional bases covered. The ingredients are all visible, one after another, like bullet points on a to-do list: tofu, green vegetables, quinoa, some kind of obscure seeds … Our abandonment of plates for bowls suggests that we are reverting to the simpler times of one-pot cookery, liberating ourselves once and for all from fork anxiety. Today, the thing that we are most short of in the kitchen is not necessarily money but time. Sales of bowls have climbed in tandem with the rise of the Instant Pot and the pressure cooker, time-saving gadgets that produce tasty dishes too sloppy for a plate.”

“Both bowls and spoons have always been associated with children; spoons are the most benign utensils, lacking the sharp edges of a knife or the spikes of a fork. It is from a bowl that most of us take our first gummy mouthfuls of solid food. The rise of the bowl in our lives suggests that many eaters are in a permanently fragile state, treating every meal as comfort food. In a world of alarming news, maybe we all need something to cradle.”

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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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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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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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