The Hub Cool News

Sierra Clorox

Green marketing can make strange bedfellows, at least in the case of Clorox and the Sierra Club, as reported by Felicity Barringer in The New York Times (3/26/08). Sierra Club’s executive director, Carl Pope, certainly was skeptical when approached by Clorox about co-branding a new cleaning product called Green Works. But he soon saw the potential in it: "One of the reasons green home cleaning products haven’t achieved much market penetration is if they came from an environmental brand, people had the sense they won’t work … And if it came from someone with a cleaning reputation the reaction was: They can’t be green."

And so, starting in April, the Green Works brand, which has already been on sale for a couple of months now, will be emblazoned with both the Clorox and Sierra Club logos. That rollout will join Clorox’s other green-related moves, such as its acquisition of Burt’s Bees and Brita water filters. It also steps up Clorox’s emerging role as a competitor in the "$150 million market dominated by names like Seventh Generation and Method." For Sierra Club, it will mark the 116-year-old organization’s first foray into product endorsements — "and it will receive an undisclosed portion of the proceeds." None of this is without its controversy, which is okay with Carl Pope.

"I won’t pretend it’s not internally controversial; it is," he says, "But we decided it was more important to try to create this marketplace." Before adding its stamp to the Green Works brand, Sierra Club made sure that most of the ingredients came "from plant sources … with virtually no petroleum-derived ingredients." Carl admits that the ethanol "might be made with genetically engineered corn," but says that’s okay: "There aren’t any products without any environmental consequences," he says. Greenpeace says it’s "agnostic" about Green Works, while Clorox says it is getting enthusiastic responses from "Wal-Mart and other retailers." Whether shoppers buy it (it costs about 50 cents more than an equivalent bottle of Fantastik) remains to be seen. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Casa Diablo

tattoo girl

At Johnny Diablo’s club in Portland, Oregon, the girls wear pleather while the guys eat vegan chimichangas, reports Kara Jesella in The New York Times (3/27/08). The club is called Casa Diablo, and, as Johnny explains: "My sole purpose in this universe is to save every possible creature from pain and suffering." It’s just that his idea of accomplishing this is to feature girls who dance starkers and food made with soy protein. Johnny thinks this is a great way to get more guys to go vegan, but of course that’s polarizing, to put it mildly.

"As a feminist, I’m not keen on the idea of using women’s bodies to sell vegetarianism, and I’m not into the idea of using vegetarianism to sell women’s bodies," says Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of Veganomicon, a cookbook. Carol J. Adams, author of The … Politics of Meat, meanwhile notes "that women’s rights and the rights of animals have often been aligned," going back to the 1890s. "A lot of feminist suffragists also became vegetarian," she says, adding: "Back in the ’70s, lots of women were saying, ‘I don’t want to be a piece of meat. I’m not going to eat a piece of meat." Others, however are taking the opposite point of view.

A music combo called The Vegan Vixens is dedicated to getting more guys to give up meat, and claim the approach works. "We’ve gotten a lot of men eating vegetarian, if not vegan," says Sky Valencia, the group’s founder. The Suicide Girls, an online community of tattooed alt-girl models, meantime has joined with peta2 in an anti-fur campaign called, "Ink, Not Mink" (which actually features men, too). Founder Missy Suicide says the campaign is "both pro-animal and pro-woman," commenting: "We’re re-defining beauty." No such luck for Johnny Diablo, though. He is selling his club, apparently because it’s just not doing very well. BTW, just 2.3 percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Food Schwa

At Momofuku Ko, “chefs are not only cooking and plating the food, but also serving it, taking coats, recommending wine and confirming reservations,” reports Julia Moskin in The New York Times (3/12/08). It’s a similar situation at Schwa, in Chicago. “Everyone who works here is a chef and everyone is also a dishwasher,” says chef Michael Carlson, who is not only also a dishwasher, but also a waiter. The idea of “cutting out the middleman” between chef and diner is said to find its inspiration in sushi bars and its model in a Paris restaurant called L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, “where a counter surrounds an open kitchen.”

The concept is also said to be a piece of “a sensibility about food that also drives modern eaters to seek direct contact with farmers and fishers, fromagers and foragers.” The idea is to create a bit more intimacy. “We wanted it to be more like coming to our house for dinner,” says Jean-Phillippe St-Denis of Kitchen Galerie (514-315-8994) in Montreal. Jean-Phillippe not only takes coats, seats guests, brings wine and does the cooking — he does the shopping, too. “Sure, everyone wants the chef to come to their table, everyone likes the idea of the chef cooking just for them,” says Christopher Russell of the Union Square Cafe, which has a service staff of up to 18 people on Saturday nights.

Christopher also suggests that if the service is done right, it creates “the illusion of direct contact between the diner and cook.” But what it doesn’t do is put any more money in the cook’s pocket — or the dishwasher’s. They get paid the same whether the number of customers is 300 or 30: “The result is that in many restaurants, waiters earn significantly more than cooks, which can create some bad feelings. As Christopher points out, “at the end of a busy night when the kitchen was slammed, cooks are still making their $10 an hour and the waiters are walking out with $425 in cash.” And yet some chefs accept this, realizing they just aren’t cut out to deal with the public. “In the kitchen,” says Christopher,” each table is represented by a ticket. Most chefs would rather talk to the ticket.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Dollar Chefs

toblerone

Making gourmet meals from items purchased from a 99-cent store is not without its challenges, but Henry Alford gave it a try, as he reports in The New York Times (3/26/08). Henry’s store-of-choice for his culinary experiment was Jack’s 99-Cent Store, of which there are three in Manhattan, and which he calls “an off-brand oasis” — albeit one without any “butter, no good olive oil, no flour, very limited cheese and no fresh vegetables.” He writes: “My first few meals mined the wealth of Jack’s staples, … I made rice and beans one night, which we zested up with 99-cent canned jalepenos and sofrito (like enchilada sauce, with a slight burned taste).”

Henry’s other creations included “penne with cream” with pancetta from Jack’s gourmet section. He continues: “Another night, after amassing some brown rice and cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and baby corn at Jack’s, I bought some Chinese broccoli off-site (cheater) for a big stir fry. For dessert each night we turned to the slightly wanton charms of the Little Debbie product line, particularly young Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, whose velvety filling so perfectly captures an imagined marriage between butter-cream frosting and Noxzema.” Some of his other creations involved frozen peas (for soup) and Oscar Meyer sliced chicken breast (for sandwiches).

But Henry’s real test came when he prepared a 99-Cent meal for friends. For this, he expanded his foraging to include a total of 21 99-cent stores across Manhattan. In addition to discovering that you can buy star anise, cinnamon sticks, capers, pecans or white balsamic vinegar for 99 cents, Henry says he “fell hardest for Goya’s delicate dulce de leche wafers and their golden, slightly salty filling.” His menu included a “chilled pear soup — nothing more than a mixture of Goya and Kern’s pear nectars” topped with star anise, a “penne with peas and turkey bacon in a light cream sauce” and for dessert, “a flourless pecan torte” … and a small Toblerone bar. Henry says he plans to keep at it, explaining: “As I’m sure the folks at Jack’s know, bargain-hunting can be addictive.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

La Familia Goya

“We are the nostalgia,” says Bob Unanue, ceo of Goya Foods, in a USA Today piece by Barbara De Lollis (3/24/08). He adds: “We welcome the immigrants into the country with food.” Goya Foods has been playing that role in America for 72 years now, when Prudencio Unanue started the company so that Spanish immigrants could have “authentic ingredients.” At first, he “sold Spanish condiments in New York,” but was left high and dry when “the Spanish Civil War cut off his supplies.” So he started importing sardines from a Moroccan cannery, and later bought its name — Goya — “because it was easier to pronounce than his own name.” He paid just one dollar for it.

Today, Goya remains a family-run business — a rarity in that it is among just 10 percent of family enterprises that survive to a third generation. The business has had its family feuds along the way, but under Bob Unanue’s leadership, it is now “the USA’s largest Hispanic foods company” with 3,000 employees and “more than $1 billion in sales per year … To meet divergent needs, Goya sells 1,600 products ranging from bags of rice to ready-to-eat frozen empanadas, up from 1,100 five years ago. The mix includes 38 varieties of beans alone, including the ‘powerhouse’ frijoles negros favored by Cubans and the recently added mayacobas favored by Peruvians.” For Goya, success is largely in its distribution.

"Almost daily, Goya drivers deliver cases of products to tens of thousands of U.S. food stores, from supermarket chains in Texas to independent mom-and-pop bodegas in New York City to the Wal-Mart chain. It’s a more costly method than dropping off jumbo shipments once a week and letting stores warehouse goods, but it lets Goya offer greater variety and ensure that products match each store’s demographics." But success is also wrapped up in a family business that extends the familial feel to its employees. At the company’s modest, 70s-era headquarters, employee desks are "cluttered" with family photos and festooned with "flags that declare their background." As Bob Unanue says: "We try to keep a family environment where there’s a pride to being a part of this … and you can feel it." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Soul Food Museum

soul food museum

Dr. Kenneth Willhoite wears a black bow-tie, a nine-inch-tall toque and undying pride in American soul food, reports Shaila Dewan in The New York Times (2/14/08). Dr. Willhoite is a former caterer and current curator of the Soul Food Museum in Atlanta, “a curiosity cabinet in the form of a convenience store, filled with relics like a cast-iron stove and an old ice-box … and shelves full of products marketed by African-Americans — products that are often found only in mom-and-pop groceries, gas stations, truck stops or street festivals.” These would include items from the Lawdy Miss Claudy line, made by Lloyd Price Icon Food Brands, for example.

There’s also Smokey Robinson’s seafood gumbo mix (“The Soul is in the Bowl”) and Allen’s Blunt chocolate-scented shea butter (“It’s just like butter, baby”). And then there’s “a tin of Lucille Ball ‘Predic-a-mints,'” which may seem an unlikely artifact, but not to Dr. Willhoite: “Soul is the essence of who we are. And she had it,” he explains. “We all love Lucy. I wouldn’t think of having a soul food museum without Lucy.” His collection also includes some less inclusive concepts, such as a bag of “Original White Trash” — “a snack mix coated in white chocolate,” as well as “figurines of blacks in ingratiating poses.”

Dr. Willhoite is currently working on a book about “400 years of culinary contributions by blacks,” and his museum is part of “a revitalization that has ushered in coffeehouses, hip restaurants, boutiques and loft apartments” in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born. “Dr. Willhoite’s museum is one of the great things that has happened to this street recently, says Charles Johnson, director of a neighborhood group. “He’s told us things we didn’t know … I didn’t know a black man invented the potato chip. I didn’t know there was such a thing as collard green ice cream.” Not to mention Gladys Knight’s Georgia Peach Butter, and James Brown’s Cookeez ("It’s Heavy"). ~ Tim Manners, editor

Photomaton

“When it first opened, there were people standing all the way around the block,” says Nakki Goranin, author of “American Photobooth,” in The New York Times (3/14/08). That was about 80 years ago, when a fellow named Anatol Josepho, opened the first Photomaton, at 1659 Broadway in New York’s Times Square. Anatol hailed from Siberia, and grew up “dreaming of the Wild West and learning to use a Brownie camera, which Eastman Kodak introduced in 1900.” He got the idea for an automated photo studio, drew up the schematics, and after hitchhiking across America, assembled a team of engineers an mechanics and built one.

During the first six months after unveiling it, some 280,000 people spent 25 cents each to enter the Photomaton, pose, and then “wait the eight minutes it took to process a strip of eight small photos.” It was quite the experience: “At Photomaton, attendants in white smocks and gloves took patrons’ money, suggested poses, cut the strips into individual photos and sold extras like frames and color tinting. Curtains were added later, inviting romantic and sometimes risque behavior.” After its first year, Anatol Josepho sold the American rights for his sensational invention to a business consortium led by Henry Morgenthau Sr. for one million dollars.

Various competitors cropped up — Photomovette, Photomatic, Auto-Photo, etc. — including some that “weren’t as automated as they seemed,” in which “a hidden employee would quickly develop the strips and push them out the slot to unsuspecting patrons.” While the photo booth has evolved into the digital era, via distributors such as Apple Industries, at least one vintage chemical booth can still be found at the Lakeside Lounge in N.Y.C., next to the test-your-grip and fortune-telling machines. Meanwhile, back in Times Square, where it all started, a digital booth at Chashama gallery will snap your portrait and then project it on a giant “Lumacom display screen, 48 stories up, atop the Conde Nast building.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Kiddie Rides

kiddie rides

Those coin-operated, fiberglass kiddie rides that used to be outside corner stores are finding nostalgia and novelty among baby boomers and their kids, reports Raymund Flandez in The Wall Street Journal (3/25/08). Damon Carson is there to cash in on the nostalgia. As founder of Kiddie Rides USA, he acquires the old rides, restores — and sometimes customizes — them for individuals, small-business owners, and even some big brands. Keith DeWitt paid $2,000 for a kiddie ride because he thought his grandchildren would enjoy it, installing it in “his trophy room above the garage.”

Scott Innes, who has been the voice of Scooby Doo, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, “bought four rides — a Jetson car, a Flintstones car, a Batmobile and a tusked razorback” adding them to Scoop ‘N Doos, his chain of Hollywood-themed ice-cream parlors. This was more than just a nice touch — Damon says the kiddie rides have attracted customers and figures he’s “quadrupled his investment of $8,000 in about two years.” Says Scott: “They’re an instant throwback from your older days … I couldn’t keep the adults out of them.”

Wells Fargo, meanwhile, ordered up five stagecoach rides, re-painted in the brand’s colors and with the company name on them, too. The rides now grace “the company’s corporate museums, which explore Wells Fargo’s role in shaping of the American West.” The rides typically cost somewhere between two and six grand, “as much as 60 percent less than the cost of a new ride.” These days, a turn can be had for a quarter or two, although they are often “re-tooled run at the push of a button.” After all, “their real earning power is in the goodwill they engender with both kids and their parents.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

GoodBelly

Steve Demos, who took the “weirdness” out of soy, now wants to put the good bacteria back into your digestive system, reports Gwendolyn Bounds in The Wall Street Journal (3/18/08). Steve was the founder of WhiteWave, makers of Silk soy milk, now owned by Dean Foods. In a career he describes as “20 years of hell and eight years of heaven,” he figured out that the way to put soy into the American diet was to serve it up as milk. He says one of his key insights along the way is that people “don’t need a plethora of offerings,” explaining: “You need the right benefit in the right configuration.” For example, he says, you only ate one kind of Milky Way bar as a kid because that’s all you needed.

Now that his non-compete with Dean has expired, Steve has a new company called NextFood and is rolling out a new product called GoodBelly, a line of probiotic juices aimed primarily at baby boomers. He says that GoodBelly meets his definition of a new product because it solves a problem: “The definition of a business is a customer who is willing to give you money for something you have. And the only reason that a customer is going to give you money is because you solved some problem or offered them something they don’t already have. And if you can get to a biological need, you are going to have a continual supply of customers coming toward you.”

Steve says GoodBelly accomplishes this by licensing a “strain of bacteria that aids digestion” and packaging it up as “a 2.7-ounce ‘shot’ of juice.” He elaborates: “There is some very deep legitimate science on this bug … If you re-establish these bugs in your gut, you will notice a digestive change.” And perhaps most important he “owns” this particular probiotic, giving GoodBelly a chance “to gain the first-mover advantage with the consumer.” He says he favors “guerilla marketing,” such as sampling, versus advertising: “The market will always look for somebody who is willing to take the risk and put out something different,” he says. So far, GoodBelly is available at Whole Foods, and will soon be on the shelf at Safeway and H.E. Butt Grocery. ~ Tim Manners, editor

UglyDolls

moxy

“It wasn’t deliberate … it just happened,” says Alita Friedman of the Pretty Ugly Company, commenting on the one-millionth sale of an UglyDoll, reports Donald G. McNeil, Jr., in The New York Times (3/23/08). What happened was, a former art-student and aspiring toymaker named David Horvath sketched a little character at the bottom of a love letter to his then-girlfriend (and now wife), Sun-Min Kim, who turned the image into a plush doll as a Christmas present for him. A friend who was opening a retail store dedicated to Asian pop culture saw the doll and asked Sun-Min to make 20. The dolls sold out instantly, and 1,500 UglyDolls later, she and David realized they needed to find a factory.

Twist is, the primary consumer of UglyDolls is not girls — it’s boys. But Gary Cross of Penn State says this really shouldn’t be all that surprising: “Boys need figures to play with … You see that going back to the Egyptians,” he says. “But they become uber-male when they reach the 5-7-year-old range. It’s O.K. to hug something, but it may not be to have a little teddy bear.” UglyDolls, which “don’t smile, but some show teeth or stick out tongues,” are attractive to boys because “getting away with being naughty is a boy’s way of proving himself lovable,” Gary suggests, “citing the Katzenjammer Kids, Buster Brown, Curious George and Dennis the Menace” as examples.

It’s certainly no accident that “all but three” of the 25 UglyDoll creatures “are male, with names like OX, Wedgehead and Chuckanucka. (The description tags say ‘he.’) And most are naughty little guys who steal (or “borrow”), “embark on a ‘ninja-type mystery adventure’ or liberate all snack food.” The girl UglyDolls meanwhile also relate to boys on some level — like little sisters that “must be suffered,” for example. The UglyDoll appeal is also attributed to the lack of a companion TV show — “the only back-story a buyer gets is a tag with a few sentences on it.” And even though they are now mass-produced, each face is still hand-sewn, so each is slightly different, with “off-center eyes and crooked grins.” UglyDolls are sold everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to Barney’s and F.A.O. Schwarz. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Going Chinese

With the Beijing Olympic Games coming up, Nike and Adidas are trying to get a handle on the Chinese sense of style, reports Sky Canaves in The Wall Street Journal (3/20/08). Adidas is offering up some 2,400 new product designs this year — including “a women’s hoodie featuring a Chinese tree design … and a hot-pink men’s windbreaker with purple and white highlights.” Mark Colin-Thome, who heads the Adidas design center in Shanghai, says Chinese have a sense of color that’s “generally more flamboyant.” These and other Adidas styles will be sold through some 5,000 retail stores the brand intends to open across the country by the time the Games start on August 8th.

Nike, meanwhile, is introducing “sportswear with a new slogan in Chinese that translates as ‘arise and advance.'” As it happens, the word “arise” in Mandarin is “qilai” which “is part of the chorus of China’s national anthem.” Nike is also turning out apparel branded after “Liu Xiang, who set an Olympic record in the 110-meter hurdles at the Athens Games.” The line features the athlete’s “date of birth, gold medals, and a picture of a star he drew as a child.” This is a departure from Nike’s past efforts in China, which touted U.S. sports stars and turned “Michael Jordan into a hero among young Chinese.” But now the focus is on China’s own stars.

While many Chinese are enthusiastic about this, others are not. One blogger says the Adidas and Nike designs “are not bad for display in an exhibition” but not something he’d wear himself in public. Then there are those who prefer “Li Ning, the biggest domestic sportswear brand, founded by the Olympic gymnast of the same name, who won three gold medals for China in 1984.” And some may be turned off by the inevitable design gaffes, such as an Adidas “sports bag decorated with the Chinese flag.” Adidas withdrew the item after realizing that it’s not legal to use the Chinese flag for commercial purposes. But so far, this year alone, the two sportswear giants “will each surpass sales of $1 billion in China,” making it “their biggest market after the U.S.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Vietnam Escalation

pho 24

After the fall of Saigon 33 years ago, Paul Tan was ordered to go to work at a state-run bakery, but today he sits atop one of Vietnam’s “biggest consumer companies,” reports James Hookway in The Wall Street Journal (3/12/08). Paul’s company, Kinh Do Foods, is publicly traded and backed by the likes of Citigroup and Prudential Insurance, and has a “market capitalization of around $400 million.” Founded in 1993 with about $125,000 from family and a local bank, “Kihn Do’s distinctive red and yellow stores — which sell specialities like dried-squid buns — have become iconic symbols of the commercialization of everyday life in modern Vietnam.”

This success tracks with the Vietnamese economy, which “has expanded by an average of 7.5 percent” over the past eight years or so, “making it one of the fastest-growing in the world.” That growth is largely driven by “recent migrants who have left farms to work in new manufacturing industries,” swelling Ho Chi Minh City to a population of “about 10 million, from roughly six million in 2000.” Paul Tan (whose birth name is Tran Kim Thanh) says this new city lifestyle means people need places where they can both shop and eat. “We hope to cater to this new urban population by building shopping malls, food courts and everything they need for life in the city,” he says.

One thing Paul doesn’t have to worry about is competition from McDonald’s or Starbucks — they aren’t yet thinking about escalation in Vietnam, although KFC is there already with 44 stores in Vietnam and another 306 in Thailand. However, Ly Quy Trung, “founder of a noodle soup chain named Pho 24 … says he was influenced by McDonalds … The Pho 24 outlets, designed in brushed concrete and steel, attract both businesspeople having informal lunch meetings and teenagers spending their parents’ cash.” And with the average per capita income of Vietnam’s 84 million people rising “to almost $900 last year from $600 in 2005,” it’s probably just a matter of time before “the titans of Western consumer culture … find their way to Vietnam.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Temple of Pain

There is no air conditioning in the Temple of Pain, an open-air gym where the “free weights … are made from the lead from batteries, and people have to stand on a chrome fender salvaged from a wrecked car to reach the pull-up bar,” reports Marc Lacey in The New York Times (3/18/08). At only about $8 a month for membership, Temple of Pain is still too expensive for most of the people who live in its neighborhood, which is in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. But it is a world away from its chief competitor, Gold’s Gym, “where aid workers, diplomats, peacekeepers and elite entrepreneurs exercise and hobnob.” No one is more aware of this class divide than Julien Spencer.

Julien used to work at Gold’s but was fired after arguing with management about his salary. Julien recently came in fourth in a Haitian bodybuilding competition, but he says that won him no respect either from management or clientele. “Rich people think they know more than me about everything,” he says. “They’ll get mad if you point out that they are holding their elbows wrong.” And yet he manages to summon a certain level of dignity from such disrespect. “You can have all the money in the world but you can’t buy a body,” he says. “That makes me feel good. If the rich guys could buy fitness, they would buy it. They’d leave us with nothing.”

Instead, they’ve left him with the Temple of Pain, “which used to be a rat-infested garbage dump before Harres Desire, a local bodybuilder cleaned it up,” and forged “bits and pieces of salvaged metal … into machines that do the work of the ones Gold’s purchases at a premium from Cybex International, an American manufacturer of treadmills, steppers, cross-trainers and other exercise machines.” Julien says he used to be impressed with all the technology, but notes they wouldn’t work in his neighborhood anyway because the electricity pops off all the time. “Those machines are great there,” he says. “But I feel more comfortable here. I like the vibe. My muscles prefer these homemade machines.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Homeboy Industries

homeboy enterprises

About 20 years ago, the Rev. Gregory Boyle “decided to try employment as a way to break the cycle of gangs, crime and imprisonment,” reports James Flanigan in The New York Times (3/20/08). Father Greg is a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles, and “assigned to Dolores Mission Church, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.” At first he tried to get local businesses “to hire reforming gang members,” but the breakthrough came when, in 1992, “he bought an abandoned bakery with a contribution from Ray Stark, the Hollywood producer.” Father Greg put about a half dozen “former gang members — ‘homeboys’ in street parlance — to work cleaning up the bakery and producing tortillas for sale.”

Before long, the tortilla business led to a bread-baking business, and today, Homeboy Bakery has 25 homeboys using $3 million worth of ovens, and “is close to signing a big order for bread and pastries from a chain of coffeehouse restaurants.” The Homeboy Bakery is doing so well it could afford to buy an automatic dough mixer — but Father Greg didn’t do that because, he says, the point is knead the dough by hand so the bakery can employ — and rehabilitate — more homeboys. Besides, the kneading itself is considered therapeutic. “You knead the dough by hand and all of the tensions and the spirit you are feeling go into the bread,” says master baker Alvaro Ocegeuda, who teaches the homeboys “the mystical tradition of baking.”

Anyway, the bakery isn’t the only success at Homeboy Industries, which also runs a silkscreen business, a maintenance business and a retail store. There’s also a Homegirl Cafe, with “a staff of 27 girls who were ‘gang impacted’ either as auxiliary gang members or as residents of neighborhoods under gang influence.” And in addition to learning skills and getting paid, Homeboy employees are also offered mental health services, housing assistance, job development counseling and tattoo removal” (because gang tattoos mark rivalries). The LAPD says there are 26,000 gang members across 250 gangs, believed to be responsible for more than 30,000 crimes over the past five years. Father Greg, who is currently working on a book, hopes to take Homeboy Industries nationwide. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Lord & Elfers

“People are looking for a store to call their own,” says Jane Elfers, ceo of Lord & Taylor, explaining the 182-year-old retailer’s improbable revival in a New York Times piece by Michael Barbaro (3/19/08). Most folks assumed Lord & Taylor was a goner when it was bought by financier Richard A. Baker in 2006. “The store had become a dump,” says Jane, and the assumption was that Richard would sell the store for parts, for maybe $600 million. “But what happened, literally days after signing the purchase agreement is that the business started to perform better than we expected,” say Richard.

In fact, sales were up about 10 percent on a monthly basis. The reasons were both internal and external. Internally, Jane, who had been ceo since 2000, sold off 32 underperforming stores, dumped its Liz Claiborne mid-priced clothing and “recruited more than 200 new upscale brands.” Externally, “Macy’s decision to eliminate century-old local brands, like Marshall Field’s in Chicago, pushed shoppers into Lord & Taylor,” where, for the first time, they experienced Jane’s makeover. Shoppers were pretty surprised that the 47-store chain wasn’t as “frumpy and middle-aged” as they thought it was.

“Once-dowdy floors are now lined with up-to-the-minute fashions. Cheap plastic shopping bags have given way to hefty, luxurious ones. And formerly empty stores are bustling with shoppers, giving the chain its best sales figures in 15 years.” It seems the “over-consolidation” of retail has “left many Americans rejecting the coast-to-coast sameness of Macy’s in favor of something different.” And both Robert and Jane are in it for the long haul, currently plowing another $500 million into the store that refused to die. “What else could be done to this brand?” says Jane. “The more barriers that are thrown in front of it, the more people believe in it.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

roberta's pizza

“It was like a sign from God,” says Chris Parachini, explaining how he came to open a pizza place called Roberta’s at 261 Moore Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, reports Peter Meehan in The New York Times (3/19/08). Chris had originally moved to Bushwick because he is an artist and a musician: “The rents are reasonable and neighbors aren’t much of a problem unless they play in a noisier band than you do.” But then one night, while chowing down on pizza and beer at the legendary Pepe’s Pizzeria in New Haven, Conn., he had an epiphany.

“We were having a great time,” Chris recalls. “So I was like, we should open a pizzeria!” His tablemates loved the idea, which pretty much disappeared with the pizza and beer. That is, until Mauro Soggiu, one of the other guys who had been at the table, heard about a pizzeria in Fossano, Italy that was closing and wanted to sell its fixtures. So Chris, Mauro and two other partners bought the pizza oven and over the next year or so converted “warehouse space” into Roberta’s: “The place has a D.I.Y. feel, like a Bushwick loft … The ceilings are high, with beams exposed, and the floor is poured concrete” (pictures here).

The only thing missing was … the oven. “At one point, the Italian shipping company told us the boat with our oven in it had been lost at sea,” says Chris. False alarm. The “handsome red oven,” now sits “out in the open, the visual focal point of the room.” It turns out “heretically creative pies, such as “Guanciale and Egg … a mozzarella pizza strewn with crisp-cooked pieces of housemade guanciale … and an egg cooked to a slightly runny doneness.” They make calzones there too, and a few other items (cooking on hot plates and the pizza oven because they don’t have gas yet). So who’s Roberta? “Roberta’s my mom,” says Chris. “I had to do right by her just once.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Blissful Ignorance

According to Dhananjay Nayakankuppam, “people who have more ambiguous information about a product expect to be happier with what they have bought than those who have more specific details,” reports Alina Tugend in The New York Times (3/15/08). Dhananjay is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Iowa, and published a study about this last month called, “The Blissful Ignorance Effect” (news release only). In one experiment, one group of consumers was given more information about various products than a second group. In another test, the first group was exposed to a manufacturer’s claims about a product and the second group wasn’t.

The result: “In each instance, those who had less precise and vaguer information expected the product to be better.” The study also found “a shift in buyers’ goals before and after purchasing something,” which Dhananjay describes as a transition from “accuracy goals” to “directional goals.” The “accuracy goal” is the shopper’s desire to have enough information to make an informed purchasing decision. But after the purchase, the consumer basically needs to reconcile the decision, which is the “directional goal.” Or, as Dhananjay explains it, “once we’ve committed to something, we want to be happy about the decision, and that drives our perceptions about it.”

Thing is, “the less we know about something, the easier it is to persuade ourselves we like it.” Elliott Aronson of UCSC and author of “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me),” says people are “cognitive misers” who aren’t much interested in doing a lot of research or thinking about the products they buy. He says that’s why brands and slogans are so attractive to people. He also points out that we usually don’t experience as much buyer’s remorse as we think we will because we tend to rationalize things (and again, this is easier to do if you have less information to worry about). And of course it makes a difference if the purchase is big or small. But all in all, it seems less is more, if happiness is the goal. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Predictably Irrational

predictably irrational

Dan Ariely of M.I.T. says “life with fewer market norms and more social norms would be more satisfying, creative fulfilling and fun,” reports David Berreby in The New York Times (3/16/08). Dan arrived at that insight not during his day job as an analyst for the Federal Reserve, but while hanging out “at Burning Man, the annual anarchist conclave where clothes are optional and money is banned.” Dan says that Burning Man is “the most accepting, social and caring place I had ever been.” If that sounds crazy, well, Dan might admit that it is — or at least that it’s irrational, which leads directly to his point.

As David Berreby summarizes it, Dan’s point is this: “We aren’t cool calculators of self-interest who sometimes go crazy; we’re crazies who are, under special circumstances, sometimes rational.” That idea is at the center of Dan’s new book, “Predictably Irrational,” in which he takes on the notion of the fundamental assumption of free markets — that is, that they “produce the best solution to any problem.” Dan’s argument is that the ideology of free markets is flawed because they depend on rational behavior.

The problem, says Dan, is that people really are not rational in their decision-making most of the time. For example, Dan notes that the offer of a “free” gift with purchase makes us think something is more valuable than it actually is. Your decision in such cases is far more predictable than it is rational. As one solution, Dan proposes a credit card that would set quotas on certain kinds of purchases and automatically decline excessive, irrational transactions. For some strange reason, the major bank to which he proposed this concept weighed the potential loss of interest revenue on the excessive purchases and “irrationally” passed on the idea. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Star Bucks

Its grande plan to become the arbiter of all good things in new music appears to be coming to a grinding halt for Starbucks, reports Jeff Leeds in The New York Times (3/17/08). Originally, the thought was that Starbucks could be “at the vanguard of a new class of unconventional sales outlets that could keep the CD alive in an age of digital downloads.” And that thought was looking good with the successes of pop-jazz artists like Madeleine Peyroux, for instance. It might even be deemed a smashing success, given that Starbucks “reports selling 4.4 million CDs in North America last year, up some 22 percent from the year before.”

But you’ve also got to factor in that, during the same period, Starbucks “opened hundreds of stores … increasing stores in the United States by 18 percent.” Even more important, Starbucks generated those sales with more in the way of Paul McCartney (fun video here) if not less in the way of Madeleine Peyroux. Starbucks has also increased the number of CDs it introduces — from “5 to 20 CDs over the course of a year” to as many as 20 CDs at a time, adding six to eight new ones each month or so.” And the reality is, according to some reports, each Starbucks store sells just two CDs a day, on average.

Starbucks denies that, but they can’t deny that their once-promising foray into the music business has left some customers cold: “I want to come in and be surprised,” says Hazel Delgado, adding: “If they do get more mainstream, why bother?” And it bugs some industry bigwigs too: “They’ve lost that ‘event’ thing … It would be like Oprah’s Book Club having 15 books a week,” says one record executive. And with Starbucks claiming “up to 50 percent of the total profit” of sales by emerging artists, promoter Gary Borman, says it just isn’t worth it. But he adds: “To this day, I see it as a great way of reaching a certain customer,” albeit “not the panacea that a lot of people considered it to be.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Face Books

cereal boxes

George Jones is taking what he learned about merchandising dresses at Dillards and applying it to the merchandising of books at Borders, reports Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in The Wall Street Journal (3/12/08). What George learned was “that dresses sell better when the entire garment is show rather than hung sleeve-out.” This actually isn’t anything that a supermarket merchandiser doesn’t also understand. “Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,” observes John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. “It’s a little bizarre that it’s taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.”

Maybe that’s why Wal-Mart has been merchandising its books face-out for some time already. But for Borders, a face-out merchandising plan is radical stuff, given that it means reducing its number of titles by 5- to 10-percent — dropping anywhere from 4,675 to 9,350 of the roughly 93,500 titles in its superstores. This move could leave it vulnerable to archrival Barnes & Noble, whose superstores stock as many as 150,000 titles, and actively promotes its outsized selection. However, Borders has tested the concept in its Ann Arbor store and “after the first two weeks … sales of individual titles were 9 percent higher than at similar Borders stores.”

So, now, the new merchandising plan will be moved out to every Borders store over the next six weeks, with “as many as three times the titles as in the past … shelved with covers showing.” This will be more evident in some categories (food, cooking, travel, art, photography and children’s) than in others (fiction will have fewer face-outs). Borders says that, in part, the reduced selection makes the shopping experience less intimidating. “People don’t want choice, they want what they want,” says John Deighton, noting that too much choice can lead to indecision. Even more intriguing, Borders reports that its customers have said the new approach gives the impression of a larger selection. ~ Tim Manners, editor