Art & Science

This Foodie Friday I’d like to spend a moment thinking about what one commentator on this blog called the “cult” of Kenji. Kenji, of course, is noted food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt. He got his start working in food under some noted chefs in the Boston area, having graduated from MIT with a degree in, of course, architecture. That’s right, and to me, that makes perfect sense given his place in the food world. More about that in a second.

Kenji went on to work for Cooks Illustrated. I’ve written about Cooks before and I’m a huge fan. The way Cooks does things is very much reflected in Kenji’s work, especially in his book The Food Lab. The magazine and Kenji’s work are the result of applying the scientific method to cooking. Come up with a hypothesis and then test rigorously with skepticism about what you’re seeing until you either prove or disprove your theory. Now I realize that figuring out if you need to brown meat before you put it in a slow cooker isn’t the same sort of science as finding a cure for the coronavirus, but the process is sort of the same.

I’m a fan of this. If you’ve read more than a few of these screeds you know that I’m very much into a fact-based world. Most of Kenji’s work doesn’t involve preference although obviously when it comes to “what tastes better” it’s impossible not to be subjective. Objectivity, however, should be our goal, both in food and in life and in business. That’s why Kenji’s background in architecture makes sense to me. It combines the science of what’s “buildable” with the art of what’s beautiful. Great food is like that. It’s the art of combining flavors with the science of cooking ingredients to perfection.

Your business needs to be the same way. You can’t rely on opinions when there are facts available. You may think the pasta water needs to be salted “like the sea” until you test ziti cooked in varying levels of salinity for taste and texture. The facts say that’s too much salt, no matter what the opinion of your Italian grandmother might be. The opinion of your marketing director that a campaign is terrific is not as good as the results of A/B testing that shows what moves the needle.

We do, however, eat with our eyes and taste with our mouths. Art counts. What Kenji and his compatriots have done for cooking – combining art and science – is what you need to be doing in your business every day. You with me?

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Census Day

Did you know that today is Census Day? Yes, I’m aware that it’s also April Fool’s Day although I would propose to you that not many people are in a pranksterish sort of mood at the moment. Most of the usual suspects – Google, for example – have foregone their annual pranks in recognition of the times we’re in. Good job, folks, especially since if last year you had sent around pieces describing how in a year we’re all locked up at home with most businesses either closed or severely affected, you’d be accused of going beyond what’s believable for a joke.

Anyway, have you filled out your census? It is actually the law, you know. More than that, it’s massively important since the census determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress and is used by the federal government to decide how much money to spend on key infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, and schools. You can do it online for the first time. It takes about 5 minutes. If you’ve not completed your form, go ahead and do so.  I’ll wait.

The census is one of the smart things the Founders did when the wrote out the rules by which this country was going to be governed. I look at it as a reality check combined with forced planning. When you think about it, having to adjust reality based on facts is critical to any organization, especially one that claims to represent each and every one of us. It’s not just the government that needs to stop, count, and rethink either.

If there is one silver lining to the current pandemic, it’s that it’s allowing many of us to take a deep breath (6 feet from anyone, please), think about where we are in our professional lives and where we want to go. I’ve spoken with many people over the last month who are looking into business ownership. Some of them are doing so because they’ve lost their jobs and don’t want to be in that situation again. Others are evaluating it because they see an opportunity. Personally, while I think divorce lawyers and midwives will do very well when this is all over, those businesses aren’t exactly something you can jump into (nor are they franchised). I also think businesses involving cleaning, home repair, and remodeling will all do even better than they did when things were sailing along smoothly. You CAN jump into those and they ARE franchised.

My point here isn’t to get you interested in a franchise. It is to get you to use the time you’ve been given to conduct your own personal census. Heck, even if you’re working a full day from home, you’re not commuting to the office as you might have done. Use that time to take stock of what you want to be doing and how you’re going to get there if it’s not what you’re doing now. If this virus has shown us anything it’s that the world can change in a flash and the more we can control our own situation, the better off we’ll be. Make sense?

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It’s Time For Comfort Food

It’s Foodie Friday and I can’t think of a more appropriate topic for these times than comfort food. I suppose that what’s considered comfort food varies from person to person. Generally speaking, I always think of it as some food that brings back wonderful memories. It’s the stuff we eat when we’re stressed, and if you’re not stressed even a little bit at the moment you’ve obviously not been paying attention.

I wrote about comfort food way back in 2008, even before Foodie Friday became a thing. I’d actually forgotten that I had done so until I saved the first draft of today’s post and WordPress attached a “2” to the title, to let me know there was already a post of the same name somewhere on the screed. 

Anyway, here is what I wrote then. Enjoy it. Please stay home and cook something comforting this weekend.

Everyone has something they eat that evokes happy memories.  Something that makes you feel warm and safe even if you don’t quite know why.  It could be something your Mom cooked for you when you were sick or down.  It could be something you associate with a meaningful experience.  But everyone has one or two or maybe more.

One of mine is beef flanken – I know – you never heard of it.  Basically, it’s short ribs cut across the ribs instead of in between the ribs and cooked in a mushroom vegetable soup.  Butchers would call this “English cut” and it’s also how the Argentines cut their short ribs.  One eats the soup and meat separately – I love to slather the boiled meat with horseradish.  Hey!  I didn’t say YOU had to enjoy it or find it comforting.  That’s kind of the point – the unique memories and feelings each of us associate with the item.

Given all the positive feelings evoked by comfort food, the question for me is always how can I get my clients or business partners to feel about me as they do their favorite comfort food?  If each of us can click with someone that deeply, we must be doing something right.  Implicit in that is that a “one dish fits all” approach won’t work.  Every partner is unique.  Each one needs to be dealt with on an individual basis according to their tastes.  It may not be easy to figure that out, but once you do it’s incredibly rewarding.

What’s your favorite comfort food?  Do you have any idea how to become someones?  Leave a comment!

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Vividly Dumb

Last week I wrote about my feeling that companies should quit selling as we all deal with the fallout from the Corona Virus. This morning I received an email from Vivid Seats, a ticket reseller. They apparently purchased another reseller from which I’d bought tickets. Here is part of the text:

As a welcome to Vivid Seats, we are giving you $30 off your next purchase!* Grab tickets to your next heart-racing concert or edge-of-your-seat game. Either way, here’s $30 to get you started — let’s get you cheering again!

Notice the asterisk. The offer expires next Tuesday. So where to begin?

First, can any of you say with any certainty when, or if, concerts, shows, or sporting events will resume? Why in the world would you go out and buy tickets to anything at this point? Vivid has a full refund policy if the show or event is canceled, but with this much uncertainty, are you seriously going to lock up your money until that happens? And what if the date changes and you can’t go? Of course, they’ll help you sell your seats, but is that without the 10% fee normally charged to sell? That’s not stated anywhere.

Second, it’s highly unlikely the situation will have changed a heck of a lot by next Tuesday. If you really want my business, why not make it open-ended?

Third, how freaking tone-deaf. We’re all being urged to stay home. Tours are being canceled. I’ve already had two shows for which I have tickets postponed and I’ve got more shows coming up in May that I’m thinking won’t happen. This is a reminder that our lives are different now. Hopefully, not for long, but there are no sports or shows or concerts happening. Why rub it in?

Ok, I believe in giving people hope and this WILL end. That said, it has just as much a chance to crush spirits if the events don’t happen and you bought tickets. This is why these different times call for different approaches, don’t you think?

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Quit Selling

What the heck do you do when everything changes in a couple of weeks? I fell behind reading my daily newspapers and as I was catching up it dawned on me that nearly everything I was reading related to a world that really didn’t exist a week later. The sports sections were previewing games and events that will never take place. Forget the numbers and analysis on the financial pages. Even the front pages dealt with topics that now seem so unimportant.

People can’t travel. You can’t really go out to eat or hang out with friends. Who could ever have imagined that the bars would be closed on St. Patrick’s Day as they were here and in many other places. Those are just a few examples of the devastating impact this pandemic has caused and the businesses that can survive this will be badly damaged. Many others won’t survive at all.

So If you’re a businessperson what can you do? May I offer a radical thought?

Quit selling. I’ve received many emails from companies that are behaving as if nothing is different. They’ve not changed their tactics or messaging at all. Others have done even worse by trying to capitalize on this global tragedy. Not only do I find these messages offensive but I’m making mental notes never to buy from those businesses again.

Everyone is suffering losses of some sort. Some folks are out of work completely with no income at all. Others are trying to work from home while schooling or at least amusing their kids. My parents who are in an assisted living facility can’t leave their room. Meals are sent up and there is no socialization. I think it’s the right course of action but I feel horrible for them and the other residents. People have had to cancel vacations and weddings. Others can’t attend funerals of loved ones. Everything has changed.

So quit selling. Recognize that now isn’t the time. If you give any sort of credence to the notion that you need to love your customers, love them now by asking how you can be helpful. Ask what you can do for them and not what you can sell them. There will be plenty of time for that when things return to whatever normal will become.

Maybe it’s a radical thought but these are times that call for radical thinking, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Last Night’s Lesson

It’s Foodie Friday. We went out for a bite last night to one of the places that’s in the usual rotation. On most Thursday nights the bar is crowded and there’s often a wait to grab a table. Last night we pretty much had the bar to ourselves and there were tables available without any delay.

My buddy Tina the bartender said that business wasn’t great and I think we all know it’s due to the fear of the coronavirus. It’s hard to keep a safe distance from folks in a crowded bar or when tables are close together. While you expect your servers and cooks to have clean hands, it’s not a great time to find out otherwise. Apparently, my little microcosm isn’t much different from what’s been going on around the country and, I suspect, around the world.

What a number of food businesses (this one included) are doing is a great lesson for those of us in other businesses with respect to how to behave when the proverbial pandemic hits the fan. I’ve seen Facebook posts and received several emails from places I patronize and most of them have the same message. First, they aren’t minimizing the situation with any kind of casual joking (“Hey! Come on out and play! It’s just a little flu!”). Second, they all talk about both their normal cleaning process as well as the enhanced measures they’re taking during the crisis. This includes more frequent cleaning using higher-strength disinfectants and retraining of staff.

It’s the big guys too. Starbucks, which markets itself as a gathering spot (not something we’re being encouraged to do these days) has actually taken to limiting seating, spacing seats further apart, and even closed a store temporarily after a worker fell ill. The message is loud and clear: we place our customers and their health above the short-term profit hit we’ll take. Well, duh, people. Dead customers don’t buy things, so helping to prevent the spread of this virus is smart business no matter the cost.

Some places have amped up their delivery service. I’ve heard of other places that will bring your food to the curb so you don’t have to get out of your car if they don’t deliver. Who knows – maybe those services will become a normal part of their business going forward – we all know how delivery services’ menu of menus has grown over the last year or so. Acknowledging that not everyone is comfortable or able to go out for dinner at this time and not attempting to persuade them otherwise is being supportive and adult. That’s what any of our businesses need to be.

We overtipped last night (50%). Why? These are our friends and they might be hurting for the next month or so. If you get out, do the same. Buy a gift card at your favorite place, restaurant or otherwise, and use it down the road when you go back. We’re all in this together, right?

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South Bye Bye

These are odd times indeed and it’s when we’re under stress that our true nature often shows. That same is true of organizations and that’s often to their detriment because that true nature is often anti-customer. There is an excellent example of this in what’s going on with the SXSW Festival.

If you’re unfamiliar with the South By Southwest festival, or South By as it’s commonly known, this is how it describes itself:

The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas.

It’s sort of a spring break for the tech, marketing, film, and music communities and it attracts thousands of people who attend for the connections they might make, for the music they’ll hear, and for the learnings they’ll take away. It’s become a huge deal and passes to the event cost about $1,400 per person for mid-priced interactive badges that last the length of the 9-day festival. It’s an investment, obviously, and that doesn’t include all the spending by agencies and sponsors.

Here is the problem. They canceled the festival over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and won’t refund attendees and vendors. They’re offering to defer your ticket to 2021, 2022, or 2023, but they won’t give you back the money. Is this in accordance with their stated policies? Yes, it is, but as we began the piece, these are odd times and maybe, just maybe, it’s time for this business to have another think about alienating their customers.

Many agencies have been cutting back their spending as the festival has become too big and unwieldy. I suspect this might anger those who haven’t been cutting back. Airlines have been refunding tickets and Airbnb recently announced that some coronavirus-related cancellations will qualify for refunds under its “extenuating circumstances” policy.  Many of the attendees are small business people looking to promote themselves or artists they represent. Tying up this money for at least a year can be a big hit, one that just might put them out of business by the next festival.

On top of all this, the festival company fired 30% of its employees. Insurance won’t cover enough to maintain the full-time staff where it was.

Should a cancellation something that should have been in the disaster plan? You would think so. This didn’t happen overnight. Companies and artists began pulling out of the festival weeks ago. Should the decisions that seem to have been taken about how to handle the aftermath of a cancellation been more consumer and business partner-friendly? Based on the extreme negative responses in both sectors, definitely so. Will SXSW ever recover from this? Time will tell, but the lessons we can learn will be the same. Be customer-centric. The short-term pain leads to long-term gain most of the time.

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