The Hamptons: Where Filling Up is a Gas

The Wall Street Journal: “Stuart Markus is a full-time musician with one of the wackiest gigs around. Most summer weekends, he plays for the Maserati and Ferrari crowd at Gas Hampton … owner Sergio Celikoyar hired the musician as part of an effort to pry people out of their cars and over to his convenience store to spend a little more money. His aim is to create an aesthetic that screams Hamptons, not roadside pit stop.”

“Mr. Markus … gets paid by the owner about $150 for a three-hour performance, plus tips. Those can be as much as $20 a car. His filling-station set list includes Jackson Browne’s ‘Running on Empty,’ America’s ‘Ventura Highway,’ Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America,’ and—not surprisingly, given the crowd— Jimmy Buffett. One woman walked up to him recently on her way to the convenience store and asked if he played any ‘Jesus music.’ He played the first song that came to mind, ‘Amazing Grace.’ She tipped him $20.”

Celikoyar also “hired a local muralist to decorate the store as a beach, with surfboards, palm trees, sailboats and a lighthouse. Painted circus tents lead to the bathroom, which is so clean it drew praise from reality-television star Bethenny Frankel. She tweeted it was the ‘nicest gas station bathroom I’ve ever seen’ … On some summer weekends, when Mr. Markus isn’t singing, the owner pays a local magician to do card, coin and rope tricks. ”

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When Small Grocers Get Big Ideas

The New York Times: “DMG Foods, a bright, 7,000-square-foot, nonprofit grocery store … is one of a growing number of experimental grocery stores that have emerged as traditional supermarkets confront a crisis that industry analysts say could surpass the retail apocalypse that pounded shopping malls a decade ago … some of the most radical reinvention is happening at the local level, in both cities and small towns, where a new breed of small community stores use the grocery aisles to fill cultural niches and address social needs.”

“At Nada, everything, including toothpaste and chocolate, is sold package-free. Shoppers can buy scoops of frozen berries, a handful of crackers and just one egg, if that’s all they need. There’s no plastic wrap or paper at the deli counter. Customers bring their own containers, buy reusable ones at the store or take some from a stack that have been cleaned and sanitized, using a digital scale to weigh and tag them before they start shopping … There’s a similar store, Zero Market, in Denver, and one called the Fillery planned for Brooklyn. No-waste stores are already popular in parts of Europe, and are popping up in other Canadian cities.”

“Two thousand miles away in New Prague, Minn., population around 7,600, Kendra and Paul Rasmusson have been inundated with inquiries from people equally enamored with their grocery concept: a store that is largely unstaffed … inspired by a nearby 24-hour fitness center, they had an idea: Why not create a store that didn’t need staff, for shoppers who wanted organic ketchup, gluten-free crackers and vegetables from local farmers? Members pay $99 a year and use a key card to open the door. They can shop anytime they want. Lights are motion-activated, and checkout is done on an iPad. Members can use a space upstairs for community meetings, or hold classes on making kombucha or Spanish for children.”

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Yes, The Cow Had a Name: Dinner

The Wall Street Journal: “The menu at chef José Andrés’s Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas notes that its Vaca Vieja steak is made from a “hand-selected working cow.” The beef comes from a meat company called Mindful Meats, where, on the cow’s ‘final day,’ employees ‘look each cow in the eye and say thank you as they load onto the trailer,’ its website explains. Welcome to the final frontier in the discussion about transparency in food: meat … The challenge for restaurants and food providers is to give information without turning stomachs.”

“It’s a fine line between transparency and oversharing. At Blackbelly Restaurant in Boulder, Colo., servers are coached to let customers take the lead in discussing the provenance of the meat, says chef and owner Hosea Rosenberg. On a typical evening, about one-third of customers will want to order without much discussion, says Mr. Rosenberg. Another third is interested in more specifics—like cuts of meat, or particular breeds of animals—before their eyes glaze over, he says. The last third is interested in even more details, such as types of grasses or grains the cow was fed, what it weighed, and what farm it was from. Sometimes they ask if it had a name. (‘We named it Dinner,’ he says).”

“Randy Golding, a retired chemical engineer in Cedar City, Utah, orders steaks, chicken and ground beef every three months from Firefly Farms in North Stonington, Conn. He says he has spoken directly with the farm manager, Dugan Tillman-Brown, for at least an hour, asking questions such as how the animals were treated (‘They have names. They have personalities,’ says Mr. Tillman-Brown) to how they are slaughtered (a quick shot to the head with a steel bolt) … Mr. Golding says those details help him and his wife, Lisa, feel better about eating meat knowing the animal wasn’t mistreated. “

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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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Meal Kits: The Complexity of Simplicity

The Wall Street Journal: “Meal kits may make cooking easier, but getting a box of pre-portioned ingredients and instructions to a customer’s door is one of the most complicated logistics riddles in the food business. Companies have poured millions of dollars into solving such questions as how to stack fish and fennel in boxes. They’re also investing in systems to reroute shipments during snowstorms and algorithms to predict what customers want to eat during the summer months.”

“Meal-kit spending by consumers has grown three times as fast as spending in established food sectors such as restaurants and grocery stores since 2015, according to Nielsen … But companies that sprang up in garages or test kitchens are getting a close look at just how expensive and complicated it can be to deliver millions of boxes a month to customers’ homes or to supermarkets. Startups have had to devise workarounds for everything from heavy weather to diverting trucks around highway accidents, and company founders have lots of war stories, especially from the early days of their operations.”

“To help keep a lid on costs, Sun Basket, whose meal kits target health-conscious consumers, has gone so far as to set up a Midwestern distribution center in a converted limestone cave—a cheaper way to keep its products cold than spending millions to convert a conventional warehouse in the region for refrigeration. The temperature inside the underground facility remains stable regardless of whether it’s hot or cold outside, so the company spends less on electricity.”

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CVS Music Has Hold on Customers

The Wall Street Journal: “One of the most polarizing pieces of music in America isn’t being performed at any of the nation’s concert halls. Anyone can hear it by calling CVS … The composition is a keyboard song that flows through gentle valleys and builds to dramatic peaks, and has been played by thousands of CVS stores for almost two decades.”

“The CVS song has become a prescription for annoyance among some frequent callers, many of whom are irritated by poor sound quality … A change.org petition, which has about 30 supporters, suggests ‘Scandinavian thrash metal or nature sounds of whales mating’ as an alternative … On-hold experts recommend switching up phone music periodically to avoid irritating customers, but CVS isn’t the only company playing the long game.”

“Cisco Systems Inc. has sold systems with an ethereal, electronic hold tune—called “Opus No. 1”—since 2001. The company, which estimates millions of people hear the song every day, has never considered changing it, a spokeswoman said.”

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Store Check: Kitchen Arts and Letters

The New York Times: “Kitchen Arts and Letters doesn’t present as one of the world’s great bookshops. It has no library ladders or espresso bar, no smell of bookworm or brass polish, and nowhere to sit. It has only slightly more bookish allure than the nail salons and hardware stores that surround it on a commercial block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side … What the small storefront does house is a very deep knowledge of a very narrow subject: books about food. And that knowledge is rewarded by the kind of loyalty that induces customers to drop thousands of dollars at a clip, mostly based on the recommendations of Nach Waxman, its founder, and Matt Sartwell, the managing partner.”

“Rarely crowded, the store sees a constant stream of seasoned home cooks who know what they want … Curious culinary novices find their way in, and are tenderly guided through a series of diagnostic questions to a suitable starter book … those who have simple taste and want to cook for sustenance; those who already love to eat but never learned to cook; and those who are recipe-resistant but believe in mastering the kitchen through science.”

“But most of the store’s customers, though not present in the flesh, are the professional and aspiring chefs who routinely order whatever new volumes the owners are stocking, whether from Catalonia or the Carolinas. If they actually use the books, or even read them, is not pertinent; they act as a window into how the world’s most influential chefs are thinking, dreaming and plating … By determining which cookbooks to pull from the torrent of global publishing and send into our kitchens, they might be the most quietly influential figures in American cuisine.”

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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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Comfort Check: Airlines Fly By The Seat of Their Pants

The Wall Street Journal: “The seat bottom is one of the most crucial elements in seat comfort, and one of the most carefully studied. Longer is better: You get more support under your thighs. But some airlines scrimp. Some reduce seat length to save weight … Another airline choice that affects your comfort: how high the seat is off the floor. About 18 inches is standard, but some European airlines with generally tall clientele want seats constructed higher, so long legs rest more naturally. Some Asian airlines order seats at 17 inches cushion height.”

“Seat makers say many factors influence seat comfort far beyond their control. The length of the flight affects how comfortable passengers think a seat is. So do cabin temperature and lighting. The temperament of passengers when they get on the plane also affects comfort assessments—if you’re frazzled from the hassles and frustrated by TSA, you’re more likely to think the seat is uncomfortable. Friendliness of flight attendants can help or hurt seat-comfort surveys, too.”

“The cleanliness of the airplane is a big factor in seating comfort scores. In addition, studies show more attractive color combinations score higher … Airlines get all kinds of options on aircraft seats. Foot and calf rests are options rarely used by U.S. airlines but more common overseas. A one-piece food tray is more robust than a bi-fold. Coach seats can have reading lights, USB ports, 13.3-inch monitors, dual water bottle holders and under-seat boxes for entertainment gear so there’s no box on the floor blocking under-seat storage and foot space. Many airlines, of course, choose not to provide those conveniences.”

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