With Halloween festivities more or less underway this weekend, the holiday season is just around the corner and shopping aside, I imagine most of us are anticipating yet another stretch of eating, drinking and making merry. Here, we'll look at several stories related to the former. Service and packaging notwithstanding, some of these news items aren't explicitly related to design, but they certainly hold lessons for designers of all stripes.
First up, a couple of articles that examine food as a 'manufactured' product; not so much the industrial food complex but rather the entrepreneurial, product-driven side of how and what we eat. In contrast to, say, the riveting true stories behind Apple or Twitter—tech companies whose success is precisely why they remain compelling to the general public—food may seem an unlikely area of innovation. Yet it's an interesting topic for almost the exact opposite reason as bleeding-edge technology: Although food is essential to our continued existence in a way that iPhones and followers are not, we remain (at times blissfully) unaware of where, exactly, it comes from. From prepping potatoes by the pallet-load to harvesting hundreds of hectares of jalapeños, we got a closer look at the unsung line cooks and idiosyncratic entrepreneur behind New York City's Balthazar and Southern California-based Huy Fong Foods (of Sri Racha fame), respectively.
Photo by Marvin Orellana for the New York Times
I'll spare you the NYC-insider take (the restaurant is around the corner from Core HQ), but Willy Staley does well to establish the context of Balthazar's 'downtown-ness,' setting the scene with Soho's manufacturing heritage before diving into the details, which might apply to any major restaurant operation. Of course, this being Lower Manhattan, the stakes (cue rimshot) are higher, and restauranteur Keith McNally's iconic brasserie would not have become a veritable institution if not for its quality and consistency. "During the busy season—roughly fall Fashion Week to Memorial Day—the restaurant spends $90,000 a week on food to feed some 10,000 guests."
I highly recommend the custom-styled/art-directed Times Magazine feature "22 Hours in Balthazar" to non-NYCers and non-foodies alike: local flavor and jargon aside, it's a fascinating case study in both service design and how things are made.
Roughly one in 10 people who enter Balthazar orders the steak frites. It is far and away the restaurant's best-selling dish, and Balthazar can sell as many as 200 on a busy day. A plate of steak and potatoes requires a tremendous input of labor if you're going to charge $38 for it. At a smaller restaurant, cooks are typically responsible for setting up their own mise-en-place—preparing food for their stations—before each service begins, but at Balthazar, things are necessarily more atomized. The fries, for example, go through numerous steps of prep, done by a few different people, before they wind up on a plate.
Photo by Amit Dave / Reuters, via Quartz
Sri Racha, on the other hand, should need no introduction, though a bit a backstory is in order. Roberto Ferdman of Quartz reports that David Tran founded Huy Fong foods shortly after he landed in Los Angeles in 1980. Longing for the signature spice of his native Vietnam, made his own hot sauce (the ingredients read "Chilis, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar," plus a few less savory preservatives) and started selling it in the now-iconic squeeze bottle with the green cap as a community service. The rest, of course, is history: Rooster sauce, as one of my friends calls it, is now a staple in all variety of Asian eatery and beyond.
The story is as piquant as its subject matter as it shifts its focus on the famously reclusive Tran, who seems humble to the point of obliviousness. "The only hope he ever harbored was to provide Vietnamese immigrants with a hot sauce worthy of their pho soup," Ferdman writes. "Growing a bona fide business wasn't an afterthought—it wasn't a thought at all. 'I started the business with my eyes closed. There were no expectations at all,' he said." The challenge, then, is not so much a matter of developing new products but simply figuring out how to scale up production... but you'll have to read the article to find out what "separates [Sri Racha] from the competition."
Left: Photo by Sally Ryan for the New York Times
Scaling up, of course, requires diligence and savoir-faire at all levels. If the kitchen also remains the closest thing to a laboratory that most of us have access to, it comes as no surprise that the proverbial heart of their home is the site of all variety of outsider innovation... as we witness every year at the International Home + Housewares Show. And although we tend to covet kitchen gadgets that are expressly deemed to be designed objects, such as Crucial Detail's Porthole cocktail infuser (see also: our Afterschool podcast with designer Martin Kastner), it's easy to overlook the utility of objects that just plain work—we missed Mary's Marinating Stick at the IHHS this year (maybe I walked by thinking it was another take on the Corkcicle).
But considering that Mrs. Hunter of Gary, Indiana, spent just under two decades bringing her eponymous product to market, it's worth reading the chronicle of a hapless home inventor who has finally realized her delicious dream. Along the way, 73-year-old Hunter hired I.D.'er David Smith to refine the design, which looks something like a cross between a baster syringe and a tea infuser, and had fellow churchgoers spread the word as chefs declared the marinating stick to be superior to injection-based alternatives... which led to a reality TV pitch and finally distribution by Target this holiday season.
Where Mary arrived at her insight through experimentation and a stroke of (perhaps divine) inspiration, this week also saw news of a breakthrough in 3D printing food: Barcelona-based Natural Machines (placeholder site as of press time) can extrude up to six materials in a single job, with a heated build platform to boot. Frankly, I don't necessarily find it unappetizing—I'd rather be 'processing' foods myself than buying them from shelves—but I don't really see the point. Nor does Wall Street Journal's Ben Rooney, who wasn't particularly impressed by the portrait that Natural Machines produced in ketchup in his video report:
In a rather more lighthearted look at postmodern foodways (PMFW), The Atlantic identifies a baker's dozen delivery diners, from the Introvert to the Dinosaur, citing an AM New York clipping about Gothamites' web-enabled dining habits. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway message (pun intended) is an insight from a related New York Times article, also linked in the "Taxonomy of Food Delivery Diners," from a couple of weeks ago. It turns out that Fast Food, Not Fine Dining, Tops Expense Account List—business travelers on the company dime are more inclined to simply sustain themselves in transit than to charge boozy client dinners for accounting to sort out later.
...the latest quarterly report from a major expense-account software-management firm called Certify [ranks restaurants] by the frequency with which they turn up on expense accounts. Certify says that the rankings are based on analysis of "millions of business receipts from the past three months" from its corporate clients...
No. 1 in most-expensed restaurants was Starbucks, followed by McDonald's and Subway... in the report's top-rated restaurants, a category where restaurants are ranked aspirationally rather than just on frequency of purchases, the top five are Jimmy John's, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, and (ready for this one?) Dunkin' Donuts.
Shrinking per diems and austerity measures are obviously a factor, but I was also interested to learn about another criteria for discerning diners: "The availability of Wi-Fi. That always is a driver. A lot of people say, If I have to choose between a restaurant that has Wi-Fi and one that doesn't, I'm going to go with the Wi-Fi." It's a weird, imperfect feedback loop of our tech-enhanced (or addled) age: we're equally inclined to order food online as we are to seek Internet connectivity in harshly-lit, sweet-n-sour-smeared environs.
Meanwhile, yet another fast food phenomenon was duly noted in the Times, though it might be foreign to non-motorists: "paying it forward" refers to footing the bill for the folks behind you in a drive-through.
You could chalk it up to Southern hospitality or small town charm. But it's just as likely the preceding car will pick up your tab at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through in Detroit or a McDonald's drive-through in Fargo, N.D. Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them...
Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav'nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.
I guess I've been missing out on an uncanny slice of Americana... though somehow I doubt that the McDonald's at the corner of Atlantic and Vanderbilt sees many Big Mac benefactors. Author Kate Murphy speculates that anonymity is paramount, and as much as the concept of the drive-through speaks to American car culture, it's certainly a delightful twist on an otherwise transactional interaction.
Lastly, in an unexpected case of innovation in a resource-constrained context, rapper Ja Rule is apparently penning a 'microwave cookbook'; his newfound expertise thanks to a 20-month stint in prison (no word on whether he's continued to hone his craft since he was released in May). But given the breadth of variation between microwave ovens—each with its own power scale and dead spots—I suspect that the equipment matters as much as the technique.