Bon Vivance: France’s fight over factory food

Posted in Uncategorized on July 16, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

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A few years back at an airport management conference, I was checking out the various vendors for everything from runway lights to bathroom fixtures and I came across one selling franchises for Indian restaurants. I thought this was kind of interesting, since not having a restaurant specializing in cuisine from India is something that is pointed out to me from time to time as a glaring amenity that is missing in Wausau. I didn’t think this particular offering would really fill the bill for us, since one of the virtues being touted about the brand was that nobody operating the restaurant would have to know how to cook.

I thought about that for a minute, since it sounded odd that somebody would find it to be strong selling point — that nobody in the restaurant would have to know how to prepare food. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that having restaurants where nobody knows how to cook may be more of a rule than an exception these days.
Think about it. We regularly go into restaurants and bars where there is a full menu offered consisting of items that take hours to prepare and we expect things to arrive piping hot on our plates in about 20 minutes, never thinking much about what is really involved in making that happen. (I make great baby back ribs, but if you want them for dinner tonight, you’re going to have to let me know by noon, at the very latest. I would need to find some shortcuts to make something like that work on a restaurant menu.) When it comes to franchises, we expect a consistent quality and uniformity to prevail in a way that would not be possible if anyone along the way was exercising even a modicum of creativity.

Simply put, a lot of our food is made in factories. General Tso’s chicken – a “Chinese” dish that was invented in North America and is essentially unheard of in China – is pretty much the same at any Chinese buffet around the country, just like the individually wrapped fortune cookies. We know that nobody is making hamburger patties at McDonald’s or cutting up potatoes in the back room. We pass Sysco, Rheinhart and Asian Foods trucks every day and we don’t think much about what it all means, but the fact is that a lot of “restaurants” are simply retailers of fully-prepared foods. The value that they add often consists almost entirely of keeping the place clean, creating some ambiance, plating the food, serving it and washing the dishes. Food factories enjoy an economy of scale in procuring their ingredients and the savings allow them to maintain competitive prices on products that significantly reduce labor costs at the heat-and-serve restaurant level.

I’m not necessarily knocking it, but once you start thinking about many restaurants as simply retail outlets for factory-produced food, you realize why you might get a quizzical look when you try to faithfully answer the question, “How was everything?” There is a good chance that anything you might mention is completely beyond the control of anyone in the building, since their role in preparing your meal is extremely limited. It would be like having a discussion about the finer points of seasoning with the guy handing you a hot dog from the concession stand window at the ball park or expecting the person who rings up your Twinkies at the C-store to be a pastry chef.

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It is against this backdrop that France has begun a simple program to let people know if their food is actually being prepared in-house. France’s chefs are a very picky lot who live – and sometimes even die – by their Michelin Stars. Restaurants in France will now be able to add an official logo next to menu items that are made in-house. The “fait maison” logo was approved by the French government ‘to reign in the amount of processed foods used and to preserve France’s high gastronomical standing.’

Restaurants can label dishes as “homemade” even if the raw products have been frozen, refrigerated, cut up, ground, smoked, or peeled before being delivered to the restaurant. (The exception is potatoes and some have already complained that to meet the requirements, they will have to hire more staff to peel potatoes that they previously bought peeled and frozen. This being food and this being France, that is likely to be one of the more minor points (or small potatoes) in what is sure to be a continuing controversy over the initiative.) Pasta, bread, cheese and wine can also be used in “homemade” dishes.

It remains to be seen how all of this will play out on the plate, but if you’re going to have a food fight, you couldn’t pick a more appropriate battleground for it than France.

JR

The Hmong: arriving again, with Yee Leng Xiong.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 10, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

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“The torch has been passed to a new generation…”

I had an interesting experience Saturday and it was a very big deal – but let me start at the beginning.

Last year, one of our University of Wisconsin-Marathon County students told me he wanted to run for the D.C. Everest School Board. At 19 years old, Yee Leng Xiong had an unusual combination of intelligence, humility and a desire to make a difference by serving. We went through the paperwork required to get on the ballot and he put together a campaign committee. I told him that almost everyone who ran for local offices such as city council, village board, county board, school board or township offices in our area ran “exempt” campaigns, meaning that they would spend less than $1,000 annually on getting elected. It was pretty much about dropping literature, knocking on doors and getting the word out.

If anything, I thought that a low-cost candidacy would be all the more likely for a college student, but I was wrong. Yee’s candidacy quickly gained legs within the Hmong community and soon, he needed to file campaign finance reports. Literature was printed and passed. He made a television ad:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpaCnnFb6QI

To make a long story short, Yee won a seat on the school board, edging out a 27-year incumbent by 81 votes. Many more than just Hmong people voted for him to make that happen. Of nearly 31,000 people living in the D.C. Everest District, only around 1,500 are Hmong.

The Hmong are a people and a culture, but they are not a nationality. They began arriving in the Wausau area in the late 1970s as refugees. Hmong had aided the U.S. in Southeast Asia during what is known as “The Secret War,” which was conducted in Laos and involved some 30,000 Hmong fighters under the command of Royal Lao Army General Vang Pao. The Hmong essentially faced extermination in Laos after the war for their collaboration with the U.S.; communists took over there at almost the exact same time as the fall of Saigon. A few were evacuated, but many more made a long and dangerous trek to Thailand on their own, often spending time in refugee camps until eventually being granted status to immigrate.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. took some time and there were growing pains for everyone involved. In April 1994, an article titled “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau” in the Atlantic magazine by Roy Beck – who would become executive director of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA just a few years later in 1997 – put the Wausau areas struggles into the national spotlight:

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/politics/immigrat/beckf.htm

It was followed by a segment on the CBS news magazine program 60 Minutes. About the time all of this was going on, Yee Leng Xiong was born.

Today, 20 years after the turmoil described in The Atlantic and on 60 Minutes, things are much different. There had been a Hmong member of the Wausau City Council a few years back, but it had been a while. Yee is from a different generation that comprises primarily Hmong young people who have spent their entire lives in the United States. Getting started so young, he has plenty of time to grow into a larger role in the future, but it’s bigger than Yee. He is a paving a path not only for himself, but for others in the Hmong community going forward – and it’s something that was not lost on the people in attendance at Saturday’s celebration. A number of them had been refugees themselves. They long for their children and grandchildren to be successful and to flourish in the land that they suffered so many challenges and personal hardships to come to and make a life. Yee’s election is a powerful symbol of these deeply-held aspirations and because of that, he might as well have been elected governor.  As his accomplishment was feted Saturday, hundreds showed up at the Wausau Labor Temple to mark the occasion, from elderly to children.

I can tell you two things that apply to the Hmong celebrations that I am familiar with: they are long and it is not possible to overdress.

The doors opened at 1 p.m. and the event began an hour later. There were speakers, including Sen. Jerry Petrowski, County Administrator Brad Karger, D.C. Everest School Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore and Phil Salamone, a fellow who had filed to run for school board, but then met Yee and told people they should vote for Yee – literally getting out of the way to help make Yee’s election more likely.  There were leaders of the Hmong community. There were performers and gifts. Tears of joy were shed. Yee was given an honorary membership in the United States Special Guerilla Unit by Major General Charle Hang, complete with a commemorative medal.

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As dinner approached, it was time for the Basi Khe Tes ceremony; the tying of the hands. Led by a shaman, the ritual included white strings which were part of large centerpiece of fruits, eggs and flowers. People took these and one by one, they tied them on to Yee’s wrists as they gave him their personal well wishes, blessings and advice. We ate some fruit kabobs and an elaborately prepared pig was removed from the head table following the ceremony so that it could be served for dinner, which had been carefully prepared and brought to the event. The night party followed.

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In all, it was more than 10 hours of celebration and ceremony, effectively forming a profound and poignant bridge between the past and the future. I’m not sure if anyone winning a seat on a school board has ever experienced a greater show of support and honor than Yee Leng Xiong did on Saturday, but it was bigger than politics and Yee or anyone else who was there. After beginning to arrive here more than three decades ago, the Hmong were beginning to arrive here in another way. The Hmong community’s decision to underline the significance of this and mark its historic nature was something that I was happy to be able to take in and to be a small part of. In the context of all that has preceded it, it was a very good idea to make a big deal out of it; good for them, good for Yee and good for all of us.

JR

What’s the ROI for waiving Wausau Center Mall fees?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

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This from the April 9 edition of the Wausau Daily Herald:

“WAUSAU — The city is considering waiving rental and other fees totaling $146,000 for the owners of the struggling Wausau Center mall.

The city’s Finance and Economic Development committees unanimously recommended Tuesday that the city allow mall owner CBL & Associates Properties to forgo rent for one year, totaling $76,000, and another $70,000 in additional cash flow that would go to the city under terms of the lease between Wausau and CBL.

The full City Council will vote on the measure April 22.

CBL, which has leased property from the city since 1980, asked the city to waive the fees after learning JC Penney would be closing its doors in the mall as JC Penney’s corporate parent shutters 32 other stores across the country.

The agreement would require the company to pay $1 in rent for one year starting May 1.”

In other coverage in the Wausau Daily Herald, CBL, Sears, Younkers and J.C. Penney pay property taxes at the mall totaling about $992,000 annually, according to Economic Development Manager (and former Wausau Center mall manager) Megan Lawrence. They also have a parking lease for the ramps, for which they will pay $144,000 in 2014.

There is no question that the loss of an anchor tenant likes Penney’s in the Wausau Center mall is a big deal. On the other hand, I have no idea where that leaves CBL in the big picture with the Wausau Center mall. Does it mean they’re losing money — or just making less? But $1 in rent sounds pretty cheap and a year looks pretty long, (although filling or repurposing that much floor space is certainly a tall order and it could take even longer.)

“The risk of failure for a mall increases dramatically once you see anchor closures,” said Cedric Lachance, managing director of Green Street Advisors in a January article in Business Insider. “Their health is very important … and most of them are highly likely to continue closing stores.”

http://www.businessinsider.com/shopping-malls-are-going-extinct-2014-1#ixzz2yfTuOQBq

So does an agreement like the one being contemplated by the City of Wausau make sense in a dynamic environment, where some of the writing may already be on the mall wall?  Should taxpayers be

providing an operating subsidy to a $3.1 billion corporation to commence at the moment that Penney’s moves out? Without some offsetting consideration, it just looks like another attempt by a business to socialize some lost income, while continuing to assure that profits are unfailingly privatized. Heads, they win and tails, you lose.

What might a counteroffer look like? Well, if you’re anybody else investing in CBL Properties, you get something for your money besides the knowledge that you’re doing what you can to keep a huge presence in your downtown from failing.  CBL & Associates Properties Inc. is a Real Estate Investment Trust for which between two and three million shares trade daily on the New York Stock Exchange. It pays a dividend of nearly five and a half percent; fairly lofty — but it also sells for 66 times earnings, which is really lofty. It’s a company with substantial assets and more than $1 billion in annual revenue.  Of 18 analysts rating the stock, four said to buy it, 12 said to hold it and two recommended selling it. The accommodation being requested by CBL from the City of Wausau is around one-fourth of the annual base salary of the company’s CEO, whose family owns many millions of shares. Besides his father, the chairman of the board, other big investors include Vanguard, T. Rowe Price and BlackRock. These are not charities.

And by the way, this is nothing against CBL, which appears to be an extremely solid and ethical operator. As they say in the Godfather, this is just business – but that doesn’t mean CBL’s offer is one that we can’t refuse, (or modify.)

If the city is putting up money for CBL, then the city needs to honor its fiduciary responsibility to its citizens and not just give funds to a corporate entity with no hope or mechanism for a tangible return because somebody happened to have the audacity to ask for it.

 

Here are some things to think about:

  1.  Do not enter into a one-year agreement for $1. If there is to be a waiver, a better approach would be a shorter agreement – say, six months — that can be extended and modified, as necessary. The city is planning to hire a consultant to deal with the Wausau Center Mall issue. Why bring that expert advisor on board AFTER cutting a one-year deal, when all of the leverage has already been deferred until May 2015? If we don’t have anything for our consultant to do, then let’s not get one until we do.

 

  1. We need more than talk about how important the mall is to our city, how everyone enjoys indirect benefits from its presence, or how the city’s relationship with the mall is unique. At present value, the city’s contribution to CBL over the coming 12 months would be an amount equal to 8,150 shares of CBL stock. While it involves risk, it’s far superior to just kissing the money goodbye in a giveaway. Having the city receive an equity stake equal to the average cost for each month of the waiver treats taxpayers fairly and gives them an opportunity for a direct return on their investment. It also sets up a far more defensible precedent for the activity and that is important, since CBL isn’t the only distressed property owner out there.  It requires city leaders to treat the city’s investment as exactly that: an investment; not a donation. Make no mistake that the money being waived will be coming directly out of the city’s general fund and that it was already committed to other things in the current budget before this topic came up. The benefits to taxpayers should have the possibility of being just as direct, substantial and measurable as they are to CBL. A city-underwritten micro Troubled Asset Relief Plan for the mall with no prospect for recoupment and no strings attached doesn’t do that. (By the way, when the federal government became involved in saving automakers, banks and insurers, the feds took equity stakes that enabled recovery of a lot of that outlay for the taxpayers.)

 

  1. Providing an operating subsidy via fee waivers inherently reduces pressure on CBL to fill the space. Yes, vacant space of this magnitude can be pretty toxic – but if you’re an accountant in Chattanooga, it may not seem nearly as toxic to you, so long as the money is green. Perhaps if the city wants to reinvest this money in the Wausau Center operation, the funds should continue to be collected and set aside in a separate fund administered for that purpose so that there is some oversight over these public dollars, some criteria for its use and some delineation of expected outcomes. I’m not seeing that with this deal. Instead, I’m seeing what are now public dollars in a revenue stream being waived and essentially turning them into private dollars (by altering the agreement and never letting them become public dollars.) Once the city stops collecting the fees, then that is the status quo.

 

  1. Understand that regardless of what we do, the end game may well be eventual redevelopment of mall. If that occurs, it will almost certainly be the result of a combination of factors extending far beyond prevailing economic conditions in Wausau and some local fee waivers for CBL.

Port Plaza demolition

(Above: Opened in 1977, Green Bay’s Port Plaza Mall, later known as Washington Commons, was demolished in April 2012.)

Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Milwaukee City Council voted to provide a $1.2 million subsidy to its downtown Boston Store, which is losing about $600,000 annually. In return, Bon-Ton Stores Inc. will keep the department store, with about 100 jobs, open through at least January 2018, extending the existing lease by three years. The company also will maintain its downtown Milwaukee corporate offices, with about 650 jobs, through January 2018. All told, the company operates 270 stores in 25 states, but only nine of them are downtown stores. The company lost $3.6 million last year, following a loss of $21.6 million in 2012.

Ald. Bob Bauman, whose district includes downtown, said he supported the proposal in part because it’s important to keep the Bon-Ton corporate jobs. But Bauman also said he had reservations about the financing plan.

“We’ve never subsidized operating losses before. Now, we are,” Bauman said.

JR

UPDATE:  Wausau Center Mall owner CBL to sell 21 properties:

http://timesfreepress.com/news/2014/apr/12/chattanooga-based-cbl-to-sell-21-shopping-centers/

Motley Fool on CBL stock:

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/04/18/3-dividend-paying-stocks-lets-go-shopping-for-mall.aspx

UPDATE: City agrees to $755K package for CBL over 5 years, with conditions:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20140527/WDH01/305270385/Updated-City-gives-mall-755-000-relief-incentives

 

 

 

Wausau School Board race: Vote for Leigh, Henning and Trollop

Posted in Uncategorized on March 13, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

People are always asking me who I’m planning to vote for, so I’m going to tell you. When I was in Madison, I appreciated the no-nonsense, homespun campaign literature that I received at my door. No long, wordy, policy statements. No “kind to animals and a member of the safety patrol.” No testimonials. Just a straight up or down recommendation from whoever was making it and you could judge it by the source. So here is my take for Wausau School Board.

There are three candidates that you should vote for. They understand and support quality public education:

- Jeff Leigh

- Yvonne Vonnie Henning

- Lance R. Trollop

There are three candidates being supported by the far right, a point of view that is already well-represented on the Wausau School Board. You may even get another Americans for Prosperity mailing supporting these folks, but regardless, they have been formally endorsed by the Wausau Tea Party.

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- Chad Dennis

- A.J. Gordon

- Mary Kowatch

The election is Tuesday, April 1. You need to vote.

JR

UPDATE: Leigh, Henning and Trollop all won election and the Tea Party slate lost by a large margin.

 

Poor man’s lobster: Nova Scotia offers a laid-back east coast destination

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

ImageThis week is City Pages’ annual “Get Outta Town” issue. Since they don’t post their content online, here’s my feature on Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

My first trip to Nova Scotia came by a roundabout way, since I drove from Montreal. It’s a pretty route through Quebec City, up the St. Lawrence Seaway, across a slice of French Canada and down through New Brunswick to Halifax. It’s about the same distance as driving from Wausau to the Black Hills and one of those excursions where unlimited mileage is an important aspect of your car rental.  Of course, you still have to pay Canadian prices for your gasoline and it’s something I notice when I’m in the true north strong and free.  I didn’t care as much 15 years ago, when a U.S. dollar would buy $1.50 Canadian, but those days are gone.

Also gone are those wonderful zone fare coupons with Northwest Airlines that would fly you into Halifax for $300 or less. It’s never a cheap ticket and any time you can get it for $500, you should probably consider it a steal, since the mid-$700 range is more typical these days.

But there are still award tickets, for the persistent – and once you’re there, life is pretty reasonable; really no more expensive than back home in Wausau, with some unusually luxurious extras thrown into the mix. I reflected on this fact as we dined on whole lobsters in the Caledonia Curling Club; something they do as a fundraiser during the Pictou Lobster Carnival. Back home, we might have spaghetti, chili or pancakes at a fundraiser. Here, $20 gets you a lobster dinner and they’ll toss in an extra lobster for $10, if that’s what you’d like. It’s something that we didn’t have room for after the standard dinner, which was topped off with homemade strawberry shortcake made with peak season local berries. It wasn’t crowded at all because it was 1:40 p.m. – a bit late for lunch for the locals, but just right for us, since the Atlantic Time Zone is two hours ahead of the Central Time Zone.

“How many of these dinners do you sell,” I asked one of the volunteers staffing the event.  “We get about 120 people for lunch and 240 for supper each day over four days or until we sell out,” he said. Not bad for a community of less than 3,500 that’s well off the beaten track on the shores of the Northumberland Straight between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, (or P.E.I., as everyone calls it here.) But they do their lobster carnival up right with bed races, a parade, bands, a princess and more.

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We walk a little of our lunch off on the streets of this quaint harbor town filled with buildings from the 1800s before heading back to Halifax for a tattoo. Normally, I’m not much for collecting body art, but this tattoo is something entirely different.

The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is billed as the world’s largest annual indoor show and it is hard to imagine how they could make it any bigger. More than two hours of bagpipes, bands, dancers, singers, Mounties, military units, drums, drama, lights and acrobats from a half dozen countries and Canada stage the spectacle during the first week of July, after opening with a parade on Canada Day, July 1. It’s fast-moving, with each act running from three to six minutes. Now in its 35th year, it’s part historical pageant, part variety show, part drama and a signature event in a city that is long on international heritage, as the Ellis Island of Canada. Tickets cost from $24.50 to $80, depending on location and they pack the 11,000 seat house for eight performances of the tattoo during its annual run.

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After catching the evening performance of the tattoo at Metro Center, which is located just below the crest of Citadel Hill, we walk down through historic Halifax toward the harbor through the downtown, which it teeming with nightlife in this bustling provincial capital city of around 300,000. Our destination is the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse, a wonderful pub that features a funky menu with everything from burgers to lamb and fresh seafood, along with live music every night of the week. We’ve heard some wonderful Celtic music here in several visits over the years and the place has played host to names as big in the business as the Irish Rovers, Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac.

The Maritimes have never lost their immigrant roots and their love of traditional music. Fiddles, pipes and step-dancing never went out of style here and while it may be interesting to see in a concert hall, it’s that much better in a front of an appreciative, participative audience in an Irish pub with glasses of beer to lubricate the experience and drive off any inhibitions about getting into the music. There is a reason this place is “New Scotland” and it harkens to the old, with its connection to the sea and the culture of Europe.

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The Loyalists fled to Canada as part of the fallout of the American Revolution and the country was part of the British Empire for many decades following, when it was known as the Dominion of Canada. It is an independent nation today, but Canada still has a governor general from the United Kingdom to perform official and ceremonial duties of the British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth is still on the country’s money and British spellings for words like colour and neighbour are retained. In addition to its strong connection to the English, Canada has another nod to Europe in that it retains French as its other official language and there are pockets in the Maritime Provinces where French is still the primary language of the residents. 

Leaving the Old Triangle, we walk down to the harbor, which is lined with boats on the pier side and offers a wide variety of restaurants, shops, buskers, food vendors and the Casino Nova Scotia. The Halifax waterfront is a bustle of activity all day long and late into the evening, with people walking the miles of wooden piers, shopping at the Halifax Seaport Market, jogging, biking, taking tall ship and whale watching excursions, catching bagpipe solos from kilted virtuosos and enjoying the broad views.

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Halifax Harbor is North America’s northernmost ice-free port and it’s a busy shipping center for eastern Canada, as well as being the port of entry during the waves of European immigration that took place in the 19th and 20th Centuries. There are dozens of shipwrecks in the inner and outer harbors, include some that were sunk by German U boats near the beginning of World War II. You could take a tour boat, but our preference is simply to take the ferry back and forth from Dartmouth, directly across the harbor from Halifax, where our hotel is located with our room’s balcony overlooking the entire scene – even including Canada Day fireworks over the harbor. As part of the municipal transit system, it’s cheap and you can also take a transfer for a ride on the bus. The other way across the harbor is via one of two large suspension bridges, the McKay and the MacDonald, spanning the narrows in the harbor.

In the morning, we take a drive up the eastern shore on the Atlantic side in search of one of those mom & pop seafood shacks, where you can get fresh scallops, fish, crab and lobster to enjoy on picnic tables on a deck with an umbrella for shade a cold beer to wash it all down with.  Within 30 miles or so of driving the rugged coastline past the occasional piles of lobster traps and the workhorse boats that set them in season, we hit pay dirt; a little red building with a dirt parking lot in Musquodoboit Harbour with a big deck. We turn in and in a few minutes, we’re enjoying lobster rolls, scallops, cool salads, French fries and cold beers. This is living and in addition to being fabulously fresh and delicious, it’s cheap. But for dinner, I had something different in mind. After an afternoon back in the city and a failed attempt to spot some whales, we set out for the Bay of Fundy side.

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The Bay of Fundy, which separates Nova Scotia from New Brunswick and Maine, has the highest tides in the world. After consulting a tide schedule, I figured we could hit what looked like nice, but campy lobster restaurant in Hall’s Harbour, a tiny fishing village on the bay. As we drive through the last hairpin turn to the lobster pound, we see the boats grounded along the empty inlet. It is definitely low tide.

Like a lot of the other seafood places along the bay, the process is pretty simple. You go into the gift shop, pick out a lobster from the tank, drop it in a plastic tub and take it to the cash register, where it is weighed. Then you march your lobster to a window in the back, where a fellow in charge of cooking it takes it off your hands and you carry a number back to your picnic table. You order a salad, a side and a beverage and in a short while, your lobster arrives, hot and fresh.  Big view, beer and great food – it just doesn’t get any better. 

I don’t know if a person can get tired of fresh seafood, but it has never happened to me. Just to make sure that we were really in heaven, we stopped by the Masstown Seafood Market near Truro the next day.  It was $8.99 for 5 lbs. of mussels, $10.99 for 5 lbs. of clams, $7.99 per pound for live lobsters (or giant scallops, if you preferred them.) Yes, we were definitely there.

While everyone likes to think of Canada as being “up north,” Halifax is essentially directly east of us and it enjoys a maritime climate that is moderated by its proximity to the sea. The people are friendly, the atmosphere is casual, the history is rich – and then there’s always the lobster. 

JR

Are the Green Bay Packers really puzzled about their playoff ticket sales problem?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

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The Green Bay Packers are surveying their season ticket holders to try to figure out why they had 40,000 tickets left to sell and were flirting with a television blackout, just days before they dropped a 23-20 game to the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau in the first round of the NFC playoffs. What is surprising to me is not so much that it was a struggle to sell out – (and actually, they didn’t, in a traditional sense. Some white knights bought blocks of tickets after the NFL extended the deadline) – but that they don’t clearly understand why that happened. We’re not talking about rocket science here. We’re talking about economics and customer value.

First, the Packers sent out their invoices for the tickets at a time when it didn’t look like the team had a snowball’s chance in hell of hosting a game.  It seemed very likely that the Pack would probably finish third in the NFC North and it was only thanks to a late season collapse by the Detroit Lions and a 2-4 finish by the Chicago Bears that Green Bay ended up as a division champion with an 8-7-1 record. What was pretty clear was that in the unlikely event that a game would be hosted by Green Bay, the visiting team would be the one to bet on. The NFC North stunk this year, but somebody still had to win it.

The Packers didn’t have much choice about the timing of playoff ticket invoices, but then there was a cavalier little change they made in their playoff ticket purchase policy: If you bought these tickets for games that would probably not be played, you would pay immediately and there would be no refund. The payment could only be applied to next year’s season ticket invoice. This is the kind of stuff that sounds fine at the country club, but can go over poorly elsewhere, as it did:

Remaining Credit Balance *** REVISED THIS YEAR*** 

  • In the event one or both games are not played at Lambeau Field, and/or the Wild Card game is played instead of the Divisional Playoff game, your remaining credit balance (less the $3 handling fee) will be automatically applied to your 2014 season invoice, to be sent in early February. This change is being implemented in an effort to simplify the refunding process, to be consistent with other NFL teams, and because there is minimal time between the end of the playoffs and the onset of invoicing for the next season.

Actually, the change was being implemented as yet another manner in which the Packers would like to use their fans’ money for free, which is something they are pretty good at doing already. The Packers said they didn’t think this was a big deal, since half of their season ticketholders did that anyway. (What about the OTHER half, one might ask? Well, that apparently didn’t occur to the organization, since the policy change was made to benefit the PACKERS – not their customers.)

Contrast the Green Bay Packers’ policy with that of the Seattle Seahawks – the team that is going to the Super Bowl to represent the NFC:

“Season ticket holders have first right of refusal to purchase their same season ticket location for all potential playoff games. Our “Pay as we Play” plan allows you to reserve your seats without making a payment until each Playoff game is confirmed. Simply go to My Account Manager, select your Playoff tickets and enter the credit card you would like to use.”

That is a CUSTOMER-FOCUSED policy and it comes from a team with a far stronger record this year in a much more populous metro with an annual household income that is almost $18,000 higher, with private team ownership.

Now, I will be the first one to tell you that you couldn’t have paid me $115 to cart myself over to Green Bay and freeze my butt off watching the Packers end their mediocre season in a playoff game that never should have happened – and that is without the distraction of having to pre-pay for next year’s season. But let’s keep in mind that the weather was not as much of a factor when the season ticket holders balked on a December 4 purchase deadline.

I don’t have season tickets to the Packers and I’m not on the waiting list, either. But I did hold season tickets to the Minnesota Vikings for more than a decade and so I’ve purchased hundreds of NFL tickets over the years, including some for the Packers on an individual game basis in Green Bay and others as part of the Minnesota Vikings season ticket package. And I’ve also heard all of the snarky comments about the Vikings never winning a Super Bowl and how if the team isn’t winning, there will be empty seats in Minnesota, both of which are absolutely true. Because unlike the situation in Green Bay, the deal in Minnesota — and for a lot of other professional sports franchises — is that it is a performance-based system. There is a real cost for a team not performing well and really, there are worse things than that.

While most of Wisconsin glories in the fact that the Green Bay Packers are practically a religion, what has finally happened in Packerland is that the team may have to figure out that it truly can go too far in taking their crazed fan base for granted.  After years of jacking up their ticket prices, charging seat licensing fees that that essentially amount to an interest-free loan to the team, flogging worthless stock upon which a profit can never be made, a state income tax check-off for donations, vanity license plates and assuming that they can blow off any inconvenience to their many blue collar fans who know that having season tickets makes them some of the chosen few, they’ve finally found the tipping point. It’s not cold weather, it’s not the ticket price and it’s not even having the weakest playoff team in the field.

It’s the resale value, stupid.

For many Packer fans, their willingness to cough up thousands of dollars every year for season tickets – because they are bought in groups of tickets, not single tickets for single games — is based on the knowledge that even if it’s pretty pricey entertainment for a modest household budget, buyers can invariably recover and even profit by turning some of their tickets. Those holding the 7-game or 3-game packages could generally count on getting face for pre-season and a decent margin for regular season games. Sell off a game or several at a profit and you’re a long way toward going to a few games for free every season or at the very least, making the cost a whole lot more manageable.  But combine 40,000 tickets for a playoff game coming on the market with a week to move them to anyone who will buy, a miserable weather forecast, a likely loss — and the chances for hedging the bet with a resale opportunity being lower than the icy temperatures — and it’s an entirely different matter.  All of the sudden, the ticket selling function isn’t the occupational equivalent of working as a tree surgeon in Death Valley. You’re back to a classic market that moves on fear and greed.

“In announcing the sellout on Jan. 3, Packers president Mark Murphy spoke of the team’s intent to follow up with a survey to determine why fans stayed away from Lambeau Field.

As for why fans didn’t go to the game, the survey gave choices of cost of tickets, playoff fatigue, quality of TV broadcast and the weather forecast. Kickoff temperature for the game was 5 degrees.”

My take is that the Packers can survey their fans all they want, but the 800 pound gorilla in this year’s rebuff of playoff tickets by the club’s most ardent fans starts and ends with people understanding that the secondary market is critical to the success of the primary market. There were already storm clouds gathering with falling ticket resale prices after Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone Nov. 4 – a full month before the deadline for the Pack’s season ticket holders to pay up for playoff games, which the team led up to with three more losses and a tie. The secondary market for playoff tickets was essentially gone a month before the game. The Green Bay Packers knew it and even more importantly, their fans knew it. The Packers also knew weeks earlier that they would have a ton of playoff tickets to sell into an unrestricted market if they ended up hosting a game. That would have given other potentially interested fans a chance to plan for the possibility of a game, but why make a big deal out of the soft sales to season ticket holders when there was a very good chance it could end up being a moot point?

Adopting a fan-friendly policy would mean not holding up fans a few weeks before Christmas to pay early for next year’s games and it would have gone a long way toward preventing the need to sell 40,000 tickets to a poor matchup on a lousy day under the threat of a television blackout. And if they want to go even further, they could cut the price of pre-season games and spread the cost of the discount over the eight regular season games to make it revenue neutral, but a far more honest pricing model. (The Badgers already did this in 2013 with $45, $55 and $65 tickets for the very same seats at games, with the price varying based on the quality of the opponent.)

When I was in the utility business, I tried to advocate for customer policies that presumed customers had a choice, even though they may not realistically have had one. The Green Bay Packers would do well to consider the same, since it is just about the time you begin thinking you’re invincible that you tend to find out you’re not.

JR

Semi-related: Ticket prices to the cold weather Super Bowl are dropping:

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/super-bowl-ticket-seekers-snow-article-1.1593428

Wausau’s new public bird art project has people squawking

Posted in Uncategorized on October 30, 2013 by Jim Rosenberg

Image

This from the Oct. 28 Wausau Daily Herald, under the headline “Hwy. 52 median bill hits $112,000.”

WAUSAU — A controversial plan to spruce up the city’s west-side entrance with bird sculptures and other improvements will come with $112,000 price tag when it concludes this week.

City leaders approved last month the project to beautify the Highway 52-Highway 51 interchange area by adding 18 decorative metal birds, trees, boulders, LED lighting and sprinklers.”

***

This is the kind of stuff that really gets the feathers flying around here. One Facebook discussion attracted over 250 comments. More than 1,050 people voted in an online newspaper poll, with the bird project getting a 69 percent negative vote, 23 percent giving it a thumbs up and 7 percent undecided. We haven’t had this much fun around here since the school holiday concert brouhaha a few weeks ago.

I’m not going to offer an opinion on the project or its Tax Increment Financing District funding, but I will say that one great quality of public art is that it tends to draw plenty of passion, one way or another. During the heated discussion over the past week, I tossed out that the Eiffel Tower was regarded as hideous by many Parisians back in the day. It was eventually only allowed to be constructed with the understanding that it would be temporary and it could be demolished after 20 years.

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

That’s fairly straightforward criticism, I would say. French author Guy de Maupassant had lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day, it is said, because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. But the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, so it should have been gone more than a century ago already. Instead, it remains as one of the world’s most recognizable icons. Of course, I’m not going to tell you that these birds are comparable to the Eiffel Tower, but it’s weird how something unique can tend to grow on people after a while. Like it or not, these birds have now come here to roost. Perhaps it would be just as well to wait a bit before having a bird or flipping too many over it.

http://www.wsaw.com/home/headlines/Wausaus-Bird-Art-Display–229177941.html

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013310280343

http://www.waow.com/story/23824120/2013/10/29/city-spends-100k-on-median-with-birds

Meet the (unfairly maligned) artsists:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20131031/WDH0101/310310362/Bird-sculptures-draw-praise-criticism-now-video-?nclick_check=1

JR

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