Tag Archives: Food

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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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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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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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, What's Going On

Stocking Up

It’s Foodie Friday and the big news this week is the coronavirus. Besides the presidential election here in the US, nothing else seems to be getting nearly as much news coverage and rightly so. It’s a very serious thing, one that could require you to “self-quarantine” for 10 days to two weeks.

One of the more interesting effects that the spread of the virus has caused is people stocking up. It’s impossible to find hand sanitizer, either in a store or online and some enterprising folks are selling $5 bottles of the stuff for hundreds of dollars. Nothing like a little price-gouging, right? In Australia, it’s apparently hard to find toilet paper as Aussies have been stockpiling toilet paper in response to the coronavirus.

I did my regular weekly shop yesterday and the shelves were full of everything except the aforementioned hand sanitizer. It’s interesting. Every time there’s been a mention of a spell of really bad weather, bread, water, and eggs are hard to find as people stock up in case they can’t get out for several days. In this case, several days will extend for much longer and yet as I looked over other carts in the store, nothing seemed different. Maybe they’re not thinking yet about how to make three meals a day with limited access to the outside world.

It got me thinking. Most people don’t have a well-stocked pantry. I’m willing to bet most also don’t have a large, stand-alone freezer. I happen to have both, not because I’m a hoarder but because I like to have a lot of ingredients on hand to be able to deal with whatever meal situation arises. One study estimated that 80% of households don’t make dinner plans until 4pm that day. I try to plan ahead but the reality of work and energy sometimes sets in and those plans get changed. It’s good to have the ability to change up and having the pantry and freezer stocked up make that possible.

There’s a business point to be made here. I’ve worked in places where there was no “stocking up.” Budgets were locked and inflexible. There wasn’t any training system in place to help employees grow their skill sets. There was THE PLAN and that’s what was going to be executed regardless of changing conditions. As businesspeople, we need to think ahead. Not hoard nor overspend on solutions to problems that are highly unlikely to occur. But when there are warning signs, or as in this case, very clear examples, of a situation developing that could impact the business, we need to plan and move quickly. Think about how many businesses’ supply chains from China have been interrupted and you’ll get what I mean. For example, investing in training means that when some folks are absent and unable to work from home you’re covered.

How serious is the coronavirus problem? Watch the news for a few minutes and you’ll see that it’s quite serious. Stock your pantry with staples that will keep – pasta, canned goods, etc. Stock your freezer with frozen veggies and maybe some proteins. Hopefully, this passes quickly. Do the same for your business. Invest in stocking up and you’ll be prepared for any eventuality.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, What's Going On

One More Chance

Foodie Friday at last! I live in a smallish town. For a town its size, there are actually a lot of dining options and many good examples of different cuisines. Still, it’s always disappointing when one of the places here goes way downhill.

That happened to a place we used to frequent. They arguably had the best burger in town. It was ground in-house and always cooked perfectly (mid-rare, and only because they grind the meat themselves). They had wonderful parmesan truffle fries. When I wrote about this place two years ago I said

They grind the burgers themselves out of a combination of several cuts of beef and they cook it nicely. It’s perfectly seasoned and is served on a bun that absorbs the juices without falling apart. I order mine with bacon and a runny fried egg (why not have breakfast with your burger?) but they offer many other options. It’s a work of art: the Mona Lisa of burgers.

Unfortunately, shortly after I wrote that, things began going downhill. First, our favorite bartender (we always eat at the bar) departed for parts unknown and even texting him didn’t help since he must have got a new phone number (people generally don’t change their numbers just to avoid me). Then something changed in the kitchen. The burger wasn’t the same and it was never cooked right. The fries left the menu. Soon, we left too and haven’t returned.

A few weeks ago, signs went up outside the place that new management was coming. Their Facebook page went into more detail. So the other night, we decided to give it a second chance and went back. We sat at our usual places at the bar and the new owners were sitting there having dinner. We talked about what had changed and they talked a lot about how they were going to make it better. And it was better! The burger was a little different but was ground in house and cooked well. It was back and it was joined by a really good fried chicken sandwich that was new. Woo hoo!

My point today is about second chances. Some people think that there are no second chances in life. As managers, they operate the same way. One employee screw-up and the relationship is never the same. That’s wrong. Giving someone a second chance is giving them the opportunity to improve. Mistakes are learning opportunities.  In general, the only mistakes I wouldn’t tolerate were errors that resulted in destroying trust (you lied to me) or multiple repetitions of the same mistake. That’s either willful or demonstrates that you can’t – or won’t – learn.

Maya Angelou said something that’s always resonated with me on this subject. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” That’s what I think we all should be after, whether it’s as managers or as people looking for a great burger. Things can change, people can do better. When you see that those changes have happened, I think it’s incumbent on us to give a second chance to see if things have improved. Don’t you?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Fried Chicken

It’s Fried Chicken this Foodie Friday. What comes to mind when I mention that dish? Is it the stuff you get from The Colonel or Bojo’s or Popeyes? Maybe it’s a plate of true “southern fried chicken” which is generally on offer at most of the classic BBQ joints here in the South. Whatever you’re thinking, let’s see if we can get you to think a little differently about it today as well as about your business.

At its core, fried chicken is juicy meat surrounded by a crispy coating. From that point, all roads seem to diverge. Is the bird marinated in buttermilk or some other seasoning? Is the coating full of herbs and spices or relatively plain? Is it thick or thin? Are we deep-frying or shallow-frying and in what oil or fat? I vaguely recall my mom making some sort of cornflake encrusted “fried” chicken and I’ll admit we had Shake-N-Bake on many a night. Does that count as fried chicken?

Decisions, decisions, right? But the choices we make can result in a completely different product even if it’s still “fried chicken”. Not many people would mistake Japanese karaage for traditional southern chicken nor Korean Fried Chicken for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even within the south, Maryland Fried Chicken, which is breaded in just seasoned flour, shallow-fried and served with a cream gravy is very different from what’s generally served throughout the South – marinated bird, deep-fried, coated in flour and often cornstarch and/or baking powder.

All of this is a way to get you to think about your business. First, how is your product different? If you’re promoting “fried chicken,” is there a gap between what the common perception of that product is and what you’re actually marketing? Second, given that your fried chicken is different from most, why is it better than any types that are similar? KFC, Bojangles’, and Popeyes all sell the same product on the surface but it isn’t hard to tell the three of them apart when you try them side by side (I’m a Popeyes guy myself). I’m not sure, however, that you should need to do that comparison if each of their marketing clearly differentiates why their product is different (and better).

Many products fall under broad umbrellas even though there may be substantial differences, just as there are with the types of fried chicken. Our job is to stand out and to make consumers aware of how we’re different and why we’re better. How are you doing that with your fried chicken?

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Eating At The Bar

It’s Foodie Friday! As on most Friday nights, I’ll probably go out to dinner this evening, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll go early to make sure I get seated before the love birds on their twice a year dinner out clutter up one of my favorite restaurants.

I usually sit at the bar to eat at this place. Actually, I generally do that at most places since I find the service to be better. It’s also a lot more social and I’ve met some interesting characters who’ve become friends of a sort. At this place, I know the bartenders quite well and they make sure my glass is filled and the food is right. Truth be told, other than the burger, which is terrific, the food in this place is really nothing special. It’s all good but there are rarely specials and it’s sometimes a challenge to find something appealing on a very familiar menu. So why am I there so often? As it turns out, there’s a business point.

It comes down to the discussion between great customer experience vs. great product. I think CX, which you can interpret as service, wins much of the time. When I was in the corporate world, we worked with, among others, two very large tech companies. One provided superior products but their account people were dreadful. The other’s technology was good but not as good. Their account people, on the other hand, were the best. They anticipated our needs and addressed every issue we raised immediately. Do you want to guess which company was our favorite?

We found out that the first company paid their people bonuses based on sales while the second company paid based largely on customer satisfaction. This alignment of customer interests with company interests is exactly where any business needs to be. There is a famous Bain study that says 80% of companies think they provide superior customer experience, yet only 8% of those same companies’ customers think they get a great experience. Getting everyone’s interests aligned can help mitigate that.

I think we’re at the point where price and product mean way less than service and experience. Obviously, I wouldn’t let my love for the bartenders make up for inedible food or prices that were too expensive for the product delivered but the food is as good as any nearby competitor’s food, a meal costs about the same, and that’s good enough for me. Where do you come out on this?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Reality checks