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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How FreshDirect Lives Up To Its Name

The Wall Street Journal: “FreshDirect launched its online-only service in 2002 in New York. Its green and orange trucks now provide next-day delivery to customers across the New York-New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas, with plans to expand into Boston next … Amazon, Target Corp. and other large companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand food delivery and build out their grocery e-commerce operations. Supermarket chain owner Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV’s Peapod unit, the longest-running online grocery service in the U.S., has expanded to 24 markets and is investing in technology to cut its handling and delivery costs.”

“The grocers are trying to solve one of the toughest problems in home delivery: Getting food to doorsteps in the same condition consumers would expect if they went to the store themselves … FreshDirect’s logistic hurdles start well before delivery. It must get products from its suppliers to the building, process the food, then pick, pack and ship orders before the quality degrades. That is why its new facility has 15 different temperature zones … Software determines the most efficient route for each order, and tells workers which items to pick … The site has shaved the time it takes to fulfill an order by 75%, according to FreshDirect, and doubled the number of items picked per hour, compared with the pace at its old facility in Long Island City, Queens.”

“The stakes in getting the technology right are high. FreshDirect is competing with grocery chains that often fill online orders through their stores, using a mix of staff and third-party services like Instacart Inc .. Online-only operations with centralized warehouses tend to be more efficient than logistics run out of stores, because they use fewer workers and can position goods for faster fulfillment, said Judah Frommer, a food retail analyst with Credit Suisse … FreshDirect says its relatively small scale also can be an advantage since it doesn’t have to be all things for all shoppers.” FreshDirect Chief Executive Jason Ackerman comments: “We focus on being the best local food, fresh food retailer. And a lot of the tech is to support that.”

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UK Grocer Intros ‘Quiet Hour’

Quartz: “One of Britain’s largest supermarket chains has introduced a weekly quiet hour for customers who struggle with the noise associated with grocery shopping, like those on the autism spectrum.”

“Every Saturday morning from 9 to 10, each of Morrisons’ nearly 500 stores will dim the lights and shut off music. They’ll also try and deaden the cacophony of sounds that pervade supermarkets across the world—checkout beeps and the clangs of carts and baskets will be minimized as much as possible, and public-address announcements will be eliminated.”

“Around 700,000 people are on the autism spectrum in the UK. Grocery behemoth Tesco has conducted a six-week quiet hour trial, and many businesses across the UK had a one-off awareness-raising quiet hour in October. Morrisons is the first chain to roll out a weekly initiative in all of its stores.”

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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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Fast Casual Picks Up The Pace

The Wall Street Journal: “TGI Fridays, a 53-year-old brand that came under new management last summer, is working to improve the dining experience for people who eat at the restaurants … The privately held company has redesigned about half of its 440 U.S. restaurants, some of which now have open kitchens. It switched to a blend of chuck and brisket for its burgers, from ground sirloin and chuck; launched a meatless burger; and moved to meatier ribs. The chain has seen a 15% sales increase from menu items that have been improved since October 2017.”

“Red Lobster had declining sales when it was owned by Darden, but it has been gaining back customers, opening new restaurants and growing its takeout business since being acquired by Golden Gate Capital in 2014 … The company added smaller tasting plates with more urbane dishes like tuna poke. It began offering online ordering in January and is experimenting with new store designs that include a dedicated takeout area. The 749-unit chain also is delivering food.”

“Private-equity firm NRD Capital Management bought the struggling Ruby Tuesday chain last year, after it closed 100 restaurants … developing healthier dishes and returning to its Southern roots with new menu items such as the Smoky Mountain chicken sandwich and Hickory Bourbon salmon.” Aziz Hashim of NRD comments: “Casual dining is not going anywhere, it just has to be reinvented.”

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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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Lucky’s: Like a Hardware Store for Groceries

The Wall Street Journal: “Lowes Foods, a chain in North and South Carolina, introduced gourmet sausage stations and “beer dens,” where customers can drink while they shop or get a half-gallon jug filled with a craft beer, in 14 locations four years ago. After they were launched, ‘there was an immediate, noticeable increase in the number of men shopping in our stores,’ says Heather George, senior vice president of brand strategy. The male-focused amenities are now featured in 61 stores.”

“Hy-Vee Inc., a Midwest chain of more than 240 supermarkets, revamped its store recipe magazines this year to include sports stars on covers and weightlifting spreads … Mega Meat sales, where customers earn gas discounts, are particularly popular, Hy-Vee says … At Alfalfa’s Market, a Boulder, Colo.-based grocery-store retailer, the percentage of men shopping has risen to 40% from 30% while the share of female customers has declined, says co-owner Tripp Wall. He is currently expanding the company to 10 stores from its current two, and working with architects to incorporate more of a male point of view into designs.”

“Based on his observations of customers, Mr. Wall says, men like when they can see the exit, even when they are deep in the middle of the store. … The meat department offers butchery classes. Stores have even had requests for more-masculine floral arrangements.” Jonathan Schoenberg, a 50-year-old dad who shops at Lucky’s in Boulder, Colorado, comments: “Most supermarkets are pastel colors and sell tons of flowers, and the language is merry-merry, happy-happy … Lucky’s feels like a hardware store with groceries.”

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