Category: Food and Drink

My excellent Conversation with Seth Godin

Here is the audio, video, and transcript from a very good session.  Here is part of the episode summary:

Seth joined Tyler to discuss why direct marketing works at all, the marketing success of Trader Joe’s vs Whole Foods, why you can’t reverse engineer Taylor Swift’s success, how Seth would fix baseball, the brilliant marketing in ChatGPT’s design, the most underrated American visual artist, the problem with online education, approaching public talks as a team process, what makes him a good cook, his updated advice for aspiring young authors, how growing up in Buffalo shaped him, what he’ll work on next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you were called in as a consultant to professional baseball, what would you tell them to do to keep the game alive?

GODIN: [laughs] I am so glad I never was a consultant.

What is baseball? In most of the world, no one wants to watch one minute of baseball. Why do we want to watch baseball? Why do the songs and the Cracker Jack and the sounds matter to some people and not to others? The answer is that professional sports in any country that are beloved, are beloved because they remind us of our parents. They remind us of a different time in our lives. They are comfortable but also challenging. They let us exchange status roles in a safe way without extraordinary division.

Baseball was that for a very long time, but then things changed. One of the things that changed is that football was built for television and baseball is not. By leaning into television, which completely terraformed American society for 40 years, football advanced in a lot of ways.

Baseball is in a jam because, on one hand, like Coke and New Coke, you need to remind people of the old days. On the other hand, people have too many choices now.

And another:

COWEN: What is the detail you have become most increasingly pessimistic about?

GODIN: I think that our ability to rationalize our lazy, convenient, selfish, immoral, bad behavior is unbounded, and people will find a reason to justify the thing that they used to do because that’s how we evolved. One would hope that in the face of a real challenge or actual useful data, people would say, “Oh, I was wrong. I just changed my mind.” It’s really hard to do that.

There was a piece in The Times just the other day about the bibs that long-distance runners wear at races. There is no reason left for them to wear bibs. It’s not a big issue. Everyone should say, “Oh, yeah, great, done.” But the bib defenders coming out of the woodwork, explaining, each in their own way, why we need bibs for people who are running in races — that’s just a microcosm of the human problem, which is, culture sticks around because it’s good at sticking around. But sometimes we need to change the culture, and we should wake up and say, “This is a good day to change the culture.”

COWEN: So, we’re all bib defenders in our own special ways.

GODIN: Correct! Well said. Bib Defenders. That’s the name of the next book. Love that.

COWEN: What is, for you, the bib?

GODIN: I think that I have probably held onto this 62-year-old’s perception of content and books and thoughtful output longer than the culture wants to embrace, the same way lots of artists have held onto the album as opposed to the single. But my goal isn’t to be more popular, and so I’m really comfortable with the repercussions of what I’ve held onto.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And here is Seth’s new book The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams.

Free Insurance for Everyone!

President Biden says “We’re planning to make it mandatory for airlines to compensate travelers with meals, hotels, taxis, and cash, miles, or travel vouchers when your flight is delayed or cancelled because of their mistake.”

A classic example of the Happy Meal Fallacy:

Some restaurants offer burgers without fries and a drink. These restaurants cater to low-income people who enjoy fries and drinks but can’t always afford them. To rectify this sad situation a presidential candidate proposes The Happy Meal Act. Under the Act, burgers must be sold with fries and a drink. “Burgers by themselves are not a complete, nutritious meal,” the politician argues, concluding with the uplifting campaign slogan, “Everyone deserves a Happy Meal!”

But will the Happy Meal Act make people happy? If burgers must come with fries and a drink, restaurants will increase the price of a “burger.” Even though everyone likes fries and a drink they may not like the added benefits by as much as the increase in the price of the meal. Indeed, this must be the case since consumers could have bought the meal before the Act but chose not to. Requiring firms to sell benefits that customers value less than their cost makes both firms and customers worse off.

Almost everyone understands this when it comes to burgers and fries but make it burgers, fries and air miles and some people will think this is a good idea. To recap, requiring firms to sell benefits that customers value less than their cost makes both firms and customers worse off. And if customers value the benefits at more than the cost then that’s a profit opportunity and there is no need for a mandate.

Alaska food notes

There is salmon, halibut, and crab, the latter usually priced at $125 for the meal.  The salmon I liked but did not love, so the halibut is the standout order in Anchorage, noting that even fish and chips may cost you $45.  The vegetables were somewhat better than expected.  Many quite good restaurants (at least if you order halibut) look like they are somewhat less than quite good, so the usual visual cues do not apply.  Prices seem determined by ingredients, rather than restaurant location or status of the restaurant.  I enjoyed my reindeer bibimbap.  Chinese restaurants are not common, you will find many more Japanese and sushi places, which based on n = 2 are pretty good.  Namaste Shangri-La was excellent, it is one of three (!) Nepalese places in town.  The Mexican food I did not try.  There are several Polynesian locales.  Fresh blueberry and lingonberry jams are not to be neglected.  Lower your expectations for the supermarkets, not just the fruit but also the cheese.

The economics of insuring quality and consistency in a Chinese restaurant

Different as they are, the sundry Chang restaurants, including NiHao in Baltimore and Mama Chang in Fairfax, share a common thread: consistency. I figure part of this is explained in the training cooks get from The Man Himself at the upscale Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, the owner’s home base. Lydia Chang, the star chef’s daughter and spokesperson, says her family also “always over-staffs” in preparation for future restaurants and as a way to advance loyal employees. A case in point is Yabin He, who has known Peter Chang since the 1990s, when they cooked together in their native China on Yangtze River cruises. I’ve never seen the owner here, but He makes it taste as if the leader were ever-present.

Here is more from the Tom Sietsema Washington Post review of the new Peter Chang restaurant in Columbia, MD.

Singaporean hawker centre in Manhattan

Urban Hawker, On 135 W.50th, 17 vendors  Here is a NYT review, good photos of the key dishes.  The Hainanese chicken rice was amazing, worthy of Singapore, get it poached of course.  Condiments!  The Malaysian lontong was quite good, the beef rendang decent.  The lamb biryani I enjoyed, with a thick sauce than you would not find in Hyderabad, laden with cloves and cinnamon.  Most of the people there are not Singaporean, but many have “that Singaporean look,” so it feels fairly authentic, except for the prices, which run about $20 a course.  Ordering your meal and finding/keeping a table can be difficult, also making it authentic.  (Choping needed!)  Ordering a meal and getting a drink of water on the same trip can be difficult, making it more authentic yet.  Overall, not as good as it could be but better than you might be expecting.  Some of the vendors verge on Pan-Asian rather than Singaporean proper, but ultimately Singapore itself is headed in that direction.  So I will go again, though I can’t imagine the chili crab is worth the price.  Most of all, you need to go early rather than at peak times.

And if you are wondering what “that Singaporean look” means, I suppose it refers to looking down a bit, earnest, and seeming not entirely happy, all the while focused on getting some excellent food.

“Authorities Reinstate Alcohol Ban for Aboriginal Australians”

Geoff Shaw cracked open a beer, savoring the simple freedom of having a drink on his porch on a sweltering Saturday morning in mid-February in Australia’s remote Northern Territory.

“For 15 years, I couldn’t buy a beer,” said Mr. Shaw, a 77-year-old Aboriginal elder in Alice Springs, the territory’s third-largest town. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I couldn’t even buy a beer.”

Mr. Shaw lives in what the government has deemed a “prescribed area,” an Aboriginal town camp where from 2007 until last year it was illegal to possess alcohol, part of a set of extraordinary race-based interventions into the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Last July, the Northern Territory let the alcohol ban expire for hundreds of Aboriginal communities, calling it racist. But little had been done in the intervening years to address the communities’ severe underlying disadvantage. Once alcohol flowed again, there was an explosion of crime in Alice Springs widely attributed to Aboriginal people.

Here is more from Yan Zhuang at the New York Times.  Via Rich Dewey.

Better predicting food crises

Anticipating food crisis outbreaks is crucial to efficiently allocate emergency relief and reduce human suffering. However, existing predictive models rely on risk measures that are often delayed, outdated, or incomplete. Using the text of 11.2 million news articles focused on food-insecure countries and published between 1980 and 2020, we leverage recent advances in deep learning to extract high-frequency precursors to food crises that are both interpretable and validated by traditional risk indicators. We demonstrate that over the period from July 2009 to July 2020 and across 21 food-insecure countries, news indicators substantially improve the district-level predictions of food insecurity up to 12 months ahead relative to baseline models that do not include text information. These results could have profound implications on how humanitarian aid gets allocated and open previously unexplored avenues for machine learning to improve decision-making in data-scarce environments.

Here is more from Ananth Balashankar, Lakshminarayanan Subramanian, and Samuel P. Fraiberger.

Scalping Girl Scout cookies?

Samoas, Trefoils and Thin Mints, move over. A new Girl Scout cookie flavor, Raspberry Rally, is in such high demand that, after swiftly selling out online, boxes are now being peddled for far higher prices on resale websites.

Single boxes of the cookies, which have a crispy raspberry-flavored center coated in chocolate, cost from $4 to $7, but they are selling for as much as five times the usual price on the secondary market.

Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. has expressed dismay over the situation. The organization said in a statement that most local Girl Scout troops had sold out of the “extremely popular” Raspberry Rally cookies for the season and emphasized that it was “disappointed” to see unauthorized resales of the flavor…

The Raspberry Rally cookies, which first became available late last month, can be bought only online. The cookie is considered a “sister” to the Thin Mint, the top-selling Girl Scout cookie, according to the Girl Scouts website.

Here is more from the NYT, via a loyal MR reader.  How about teaching Girl Scouts how to raise the price?

The decline of Michelin-starred restaurants

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

And then there is the spread of the Michelin brand. There are now Michelin guides for many US cities, which has caused the brand to lose some exclusivity. Michelin has awarded stars to 24 restaurants in the Washington area, for instance. I like many of these places, but I suspect Michelin is grading on a curve.

Social media are another part of the market evolution. Instagramming your meal is a popular pastime, and it suits some restaurants better than others. A lot of people, understandably, are reluctant to pull out their camera phones in a haute Parisian establishment, whereas they will gladly do so in a creative and more casual spot for Indian nouvelle cuisine in London or Singapore. El Bulli (now closed) and Noma have been amazingly good at attracting publicity and inducing pilgrimages, but apart from the very top of the market, Michelin-starred restaurants are operating at a publicity disadvantage.

Another factor working against Michelin is growing time pressure — especially among its well-to-do customer base. Many Michelin-starred dining experiences are slow, and the fixed-price menus often are designed to take up the entire evening, especially if paired with wine. But people are increasingly busy, and the smart phone’s pull of texts and posts and tweets is only getting stronger. And maybe, because of the pandemic, we all want to stretch our legs more often. Speaking for myself, I am much less interested in the three-hour meal than I used to be.

The decline of alcohol consumption in many parts of the world may also be bad for the Michelin experience. Marijuana use, by contrast, is up, and that of course encourages snacking at home.

Here are some related remarks by Air Genius Gary Leff: “In Many Cities, The Michelin Guide Is Now Paid For By The Local Tourism Authority.”

Jiwa Singapura

The new restaurant at Tysons II, top floor near the movie theatre, currently there is no meaningful address or phone number.  Open dinner five days a week, soon lunch as well.

I take Singaporean food very seriously, and I have been numerous times, including a one-week trip where all I did was take the Singaporean “red book” around to hawker centres for the best dishes.  So my standards are high, but essentially this place delivered.  The highlights were the shrimp with salted duck egg sauce and the mackerel fish cake.  But everything else was somewhere between very good and excellent, including the carrot cake, the nasi lemak (you do need to mix it together properly), and a surprisingly soulful seafood laksa.

The prices are entirely reasonable, and currently this has to stand as one of northern Virginia’s best restaurants.  My primary complaint is simply that the music was too loud.

Here is a bit of their backstory, here is their home page, still evolving as you might say.

The economics of why Noma is closing

Here is the take of yours truly:

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a devoted restaurant-goer, says that people are misinterpreting Redzepi’s intentions with the closure. Cowen doesn’t think the chef is arguing that he can’t make money with Noma and its grand artistic ambitions. It’s just that he can make more money doing other, perhaps less stressful, things.

“He’s so well-known now, he can just do private events, cook for billionaires, special weddings and work two months a year or whatever and make more than he’s making in the restaurant,” Cowen says. “He’s the one who’s going to earn from here on out. Why slave every night till like 2 a.m. in a restaurant when you can set your own schedule and price discriminate, charging the super wealthy?”

Here is the longer WaPo article by Emily Heil and Tim Carman, presenting other views as well.

Open Sesame!

The excellent Alec Stapp points us to an absolute classic in the law of unintended consequences:

APNews: A new federal law requiring that sesame be listed as an allergen on food labels is having unintended consequences — increasing the number of products with the ingredient.

Food industry experts said the requirements are so stringent that many manufacturers, especially bakers, find it simpler and less expensive to add sesame to a product — and to label it — than to try to keep it away from other foods or equipment with sesame.

As a result, several companies — including national restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A and bread makers that stock grocery shelves and serve schools — are adding sesame to products that didn’t have it before. While the practice is legal, consumers and advocates say it violates the spirit of the law aimed at making foods safer for people with allergies.

Canine Coaseanism

We are for a while caretakers for a dog, and so I have started thinking what kind of trades I might make with the beast.  Of course for Darwinian reasons dogs have co-evolved with humans to be fairly cooperative, at least for some breeds (and this is a very smart, easily trained breed, namely an Australian shepherd).  So the dog’s behavior (my behavior?) already mirrors some built-in trades, such as affection for food.  But what kinds of additional trades might one seek at the margin?

One thought comes to mind.  I would like to signal to the canine that, when I get up from the sofa, he does not need to follow me because there is no chance I will offer him a food treat.  It would be better if he would just stay sleeping.  And yet this equilibrium is impossible to achieve.  Nor does rising from the sofa quietly succeed in fooling him, he follows me nonetheless.

Overall, though, I conclude that the current (spayed) version of the dog is already fairly Coasean in his basic programming.