June 25, 2006
Fluff Kerfuffle — 'I'm going to fight to the death for Fluff'
So said Massachusetts state representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, quoted in Andrew Ryan's June 23 Associated Press story about an uproar just unleashed by state senator Jarrett Barrios's proposal to ban the serving of Fluff in school lunchrooms and cafeterias.
For those who may not be familiar with Fluff (somehow I doubt it's very big in India — but I could be wrong), it's a spreadable combination of corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white and vanilla.
Why the brouhaha?
Perhaps because Fluff was invented in Massachusetts (by Archibald Query, who sold it door-to-door before World War I) and has been made at Durkee-Mower Inc. headquarters in Lynn, Massachusetts since the 1920s.
They're on track to sell seven million pounds of the stuff this year, an all-time record.
Representative Reinstein has jumped to Fluff's defense and introduced legislation which would make the Fluffernutter — peanut butter and Fluff on bread —
"the official sandwich of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
And the talking heads continue to cluck in wonderment at why young people don't find the political arena of any interest or consequence.
Here's the AP story.
- Mass. Company Just Wants to Make Fluff
Much of Don Durkee's 80-year life has been Fluff. His father first began peddling Marshmallow Fluff — a gooey, spreadable, sticky delight — door-to-door in 1920 and later founded a family business to make it. Ever since, New England schoolchildren have grown up on Fluffernutter sandwiches — peanut butter and a layer of marshmallow on bread. Now, in its home state of Massachusetts, Fluff has come under fire.
A state senator proposed limiting its availability in school lunchrooms to once a week, horrified at the prospect of it being a daily staple of kids' diets. Another lawmaker jumped to Fluff's defense, nominating the Fluffernutter as the official state sandwich.
Durkee, who now leads his family's company and churns out Fluff by the ton inside the Durkee-Mower Inc. headquarters in Lynn, isn't one for the spotlight. He's content to make Fluff and nothing else — in fact, this year, the company is on the brink of selling 7 million pounds for the first time in its history.
Ever since the controversy broke out, he's shunned calls from reporters.
"Like most people, I think it is a little frivolous to bring it to the attention of our governing bodies," Durkee said during a recent interview with The Associated Press as he sat in his office and fidgeted with his reading glasses. "I think obesity is a problem, but I don't think it can be legislated."
The kerfuffle has stirred passions in generations of New Englanders who fondly associate Fluff with their childhood, while others question its place in an increasingly obese world.
Fluff's allure isn't up for debate. Even state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, the lawmaker who proposed limiting Fluffernutter sandwiches in schools, says he has it at home.
"He loves Fluff as much as the next legislator," said Barrios aide Colin Durrant.
State Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein announced her own legislation designating the Fluffernutter as the official state sandwich. Barrios insisted he isn't anti-Fluff and said he plans to co-sponsor Reinstein's bill, but still supports schools rationing Fluff in school lunches.
"I'm going to fight to the death for Fluff," Reinstein said.
Fluff was invented in the Somerville kitchen of Archibald Query, who sold it door-to-door just before World War I.
In 1920, two Infantry veterans of the war — H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower — bought the recipe from Query for $500. With a barrel of sugar and a secondhand Ford, the pair began driving around looking for customers. Back then, a gallon of the stuff sold for about $1; these days, a 16-oz. jar goes for a little more than $2.
Fluff has always been just four ingredients: corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white and vanilla. The corn syrup and sugar are cooked and poured into 13 mixing bowls that stand 6 feet tall. One person measures the egg whites and vanilla for every batch by hand.
"I can't tell you how long we whip it for," Durkee said without smiling. "That's about the only part of the trade secret. You could almost invent it by accident."
While most other companies start with one product and then branch out, Durkee-Mower just makes Fluff. About as diverse as it has gotten is making different flavors, such as raspberry and strawberry.
"While it looks like it's old-fashioned, they are not so dumb," said Roberta Clarke, a marketing professor at Boston University. "There is no other word for Fluff. They own the category."
The privately held company says it can be used in fruit salads, cheesecakes, lemon meringue pies, fruit flavored shakes and dessert bars. Dollops of Fluff can go in hot chocolate or be used as the base for cake frosting. The Yummy Book, a Fluff cookbook, includes recipes for Sweet Potato Souffle, Never Fail Fudge and Popcorn Fluff Puffs.
"It makes great Whoopie Pies," Durkee added.
Durkee-Mower does have some competition in the spreadable marshmallow market, including Kraft Food Inc., which makes Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme. Kraft would not disclose sales figures or poundage.
More than 50 percent of the Fluff sold is in New England and upstate New York, said Durkee, who wouldn't disclose exact figures. However, as Northeasterners move west and south — and supermarket chains merge — Fluff has followed.
"Fluff has gone through so many generations — parents, children — so many people grew up on it," Durkee said. "It's convenient. And kids like it."
Yeah, I figured that right about now you'd be wondering exactly how Fluff could cause such strong emotions to erupt.
You want to try it but they don't have it where you shop.
No problema — that's why we're here.
Three 16 oz. plastic tubs of Fluff — enough to determine definitively whether or not it's for you, it would seem to me — will set you back $14.50.
Official bookofjoe Microfiber Car Polishing Mitt
From the website:
- A Super-Soft Microfiber Wash Mitt That's Gentle On Your Paint
By now you've read about the benefits of microfiber and what a great material it is around your fine automotive finishes.
But what's really nice is the amount of water this mitt can hold onto to give your paint that extra lubricity and less trips to the wash bucket.
Hundreds of tightly, twisted strands are super soft.
Plus it's machine-washable!
Two colors so you can use one on the dirty parts of the car and one for the hood and glass and roof. (Or one for real dirty SUVs, and one for your prized possession.)
Nice elastic cuff, and no thumb area so it rotates in your hand letting you use both sides.
8-1/2" wide by 11" long.
Cleaning tip from the catalog:
- When cleaning, it's best to work from the top down.
You won't contaminate clean areas and it will leave the dirtiest part of the vehicle for last.
Use a separate wash mitt on the top part of the vehicle where smaller dirt particles collect and a different mitt on the bottom for heavier dirt and road grime.
Set of two mitts — one in green and one in orange — is $9.99.
What's your Hawaiian name?
Don't you think it's past time you found out?
Stacked Black Cooling Rack
From the catalog and website:
- Baker's Mate Shelving
Quadruple your counter space instantly!
Our sturdy, black-enameled steel cooling rack plants itself firmly to hold four large cooking sheets (and their cooling cookies) at once.
• Shelves are spaced widely to hold cooling cakes or rolls too
• Sturdy, black-enameled steel wipes clean in a jiffy
• Plenty of clearance for better airflow
• Folds flat for easy storage
• Imported from Sweden
'Best of Bowie' — Not good enough
I figured what with "Space Oddity" being one of my very most favorite songs, spending time with 38 of David Bowie's greatest hits would be endless fun.
The only other song at all interesting to me (read play repeatedly 10, 20, 30 times or more) was "Let's Dance."
And even then it's on the second of two CD's, so I'm limited to one decent song when I'm out running with my CD player.
Sure, there're lots of famous songs on this album: "Ziggy Stardust," "The Jean Genie," "Rebel Rebel," "Golden Years," "China Girl," and "Absolute Beginners" were all huge hits.
Sure, there are all sorts of funky sound effects, percussion up the wazoo, electronica and what-not, but give me The Who's "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hands" any day of the week.
What a waste of $22.98 (at Amazon).
Rock 'n' Roll Mega Bowl Surf Rider
From the website:
- Big Bowl Towable
This boat-towable water ride has a curved bowl shape that allows you to rock back and forth and roll side-to-side as it speeds across the water, leaning sharply through turns.
Up to four of the units can be connected together, allowing an entire family to trail behind a boat like a giant waterborne game of crack-the-whip.
The sturdy bowl has a heavy-gauge inflatable PVC core surrounded by a double-stitched nylon cover with zipper and a fabric coating that resists the elements for a lifetime of durable use.
The bottom of the bowl has a drainage vent and the spacious interior easily accommodates a single adult rider up to 250 lbs. for exhilarating rides or relaxed jaunts on fresh or salt water.
A reinforced tow system connects to a 2,000-lb. tow line (4,000-lb. tow line required for towing more than two connected bowls).
Inflates in two minutes with an electric pump (not included) and deflates for easy storage.
Inflated dimensions: 26"H x 58"W x 68"L.
Best article of the month — Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster confounds Brian Carney of the Wall Street Journal
Carney, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, ventured out to San Francisco to interview Buckmaster to try and better understand how and why Craigslist leaves at least half a billion dollars a year on the table by refusing to carry advertising.
Even so, the company took in $25 million last year, chump change considering it's the seventh most popular website in the world and others in the top ten are raking in billions annually.
I was laughing so hard at Carney's bafflement as Buckmaster explained, patiently and repeatedly, that the only thing Craigslist cares about is user wants and needs.
That's why the company can function with 21 employees.
Here's the interview, which appeared June 17.
Zen and the Art of Classified Advertising
By almost any measure, Craigslist is a phenomenal success. It is the seventh-most-popular Web site in the world, according to the people who measure these things. The free online-classifieds site has become the nightmare of newspaper executives everywhere it launches a list. While it does not release financial statements, no one doubts -- and its chief executive does not dispute -- that it is comfortably profitable and has been so since 1999, about the time most other children of the dot-com boom started running out of cash.
All the same, no one really questions that Craigslist could be bigger -- much, much bigger. The company took in a relatively paltry $25 million or so in revenue last year, while its peers among the Internet's top 10 raked in billions. Since its founding, Craigslist has been aggressively passive (newspapermen might say passively aggressive) about monetizing its huge audience and user base.
There are no banner ads on Craigslist, just the postings of its users, most of which are put online free of charge. CEO Jim Buckmaster takes some pleasure in calling Craigslist a "trailing edge" technology company. Its Web site is stubbornly minimalist and text-heavy, with row after row of blue underlined hyperlinks and nary another color or graphic in sight. One industry analyst has estimated that Craigslist could generate 20 times that $25 million just by posting a couple of ads on each of its pages. If the estimate is to be believed, that's half a billion dollars a year being left on the table. What kind of company turns up its nose at $500 million? That's what I'm here to find out.
Mr. Buckmaster greets me at the door of his Spanish-style townhouse in San Francisco, where he and his better half, Susan Best, offer me a home-cooked lunch -- mostly leftovers, I'm informed -- and Sunday-afternoon Bloody Marys. The Bloody Marys are excellent and their rented home relaxed and inviting. I put the question to Mr. Buckmaster: Google has turned unobtrusive text ads into a multibillion-dollar revenue stream. And posting a Google-type ad or two next to its search results wouldn't cost Craigslist users one thin dime. So why not cash in?
"In the big Internet boom, thousands of companies were set up," explains Mr. Buckmaster, who also counts himself as CFO and COO of the company. "With the exception of us, pretty much all of them were set up with the primary objective being to make a lot of money." And yet, he continues, "Almost all of those businesses went under and never made any money. Even businesses like Amazon still haven't made any money. They are still, over their entire lifetime, net negative. Here we are, we've been in the black since 1999 -- six or seven years."
Although Mr. Buckmaster is a man who speaks sparingly -- even reluctantly -- he is given to occasional, and somewhat turbid, outbreaks of jargon-laden speech. Such as this, offered here merely as a sample: "I do think that the Internet is a spectacular tool for any information business -- newsgathering and other journalistic enterprises are essentially in the information business. Another aspect to it that gets reported on is drawing the lines within the Internet itself with respect to content generators and various kinds of aggregation and search tools.
"Where does the revenue end up in those kinds of scenarios over time? I think you'll see the lines will move from side to side in terms of where the revenue lands among the various players in the information economy, which is still very young."
But then, perhaps sensing he's opened the spigot too wide, he stops as suddenly as he started, lapsing back into a laconic state with a self-deprecating, "If that makes any sense."
Mr. Buckmaster figures that Craigslist employs 21 people, and starts to count them on his fingers. It never brought in venture capitalists with their grand designs and exit strategies. "We didn't want to have those voices at the table," he says. So Craigslist has remained beholden to no one -- except, as Mr. Buckmaster constantly intones, its "users," who pay nothing for the privilege of posting or searching the millions of pages of apartment listings, moving sales and personal ads that make up the Craigslist ecosystem. "If it's not something that users are asking for," he says, "we don't consider it." The money that does come in comes from businesses posting in just two categories of classifieds in three cities -- job listings in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles and, this week for the first time, brokered apartment rentals in New York.
Craigslist's obstinate insistence on giving away what newspapers have made their bread and butter has gotten the company a lot of media attention. Many newspaper executives see something sinister in Craigslist's near-total lack of avariciousness -- Are those guys communists? Do they hate newspapers? These critics would prefer to see Craigslist try to make an honest buck off the ads its users post. If the company charged something, after all, it might be possible to compete with them on price. But it's hard to compete with free when you have reporters to pay and printing presses to run.
But allowing most users to post without charge is an easy call in Mr. Buckmaster's book. "We're much more comfortable charging companies than charging individuals," Mr. Buckmaster says. "Businesses are better equipped to afford a small fee and businesses can pay for fees out of pre-tax dollars where on average users are less able to pay a fee and they have to pay in post-tax dollars." Giving users something free and denying money to the government at the same time? This man is no commie. What's more, he runs a lean outfit. "There are big advantages to focusing exclusively on user wants and needs as we do, and blocking out everything else. That's one of the ways we keep our staff small and our operations simple."
As for the banner ads, "It's not something our users have asked us for," Mr. Buckmaster deadpans, his 6-foot-8-inch frame slumped in a leather chair in his living room and his eyes fixed on some distant point out the window. It turns out this is something of a mantra for Mr. Buckmaster; what Craigslist's users want, they tend to get. No more and no less.
The decision to charge for apartment listings from brokers in New York City is illustrative of the company's approach. The New York site gets hundreds of thousands of apartment postings every month. Many of these are duplicates, posted over and over again to keep them at the top of an ever-growing pile. The search results on Craigslist are generally displayed in reverse chronological order, so the most-recent listings, the theory goes, get looked at first. This has created a never-ending and accelerating pile-on, to no one's benefit.
A fair number of the remaining ads are baits-and-switches -- bogus listings that attempt to draw in potential clients with promises of what pass, in New York at least, for obscenely low rents. (In most of the rest of the country, these "teaser" rents would more likely be viewed as usurious.) No other city in the country, according to Mr. Buckmaster, has anything like this kind of problem with its rental ads, although Boston is a distant second. So two years ago, Craigslist's eponymous founder and self-styled "customer-service representative" Craig Newmark initiated an online discussion about how to improve the quality of apartment listings in New York City.
After much debate, the solution that was settled upon was to charge $10 per listing, with a discount for high-volume customers -- although at least some Craigslist users suggested the reverse, namely that the price go up on a sliding scale, rather than down, given that the highest-volume posters are also, presumably, the biggest trouble-makers. Craigslist expects the fee to cut the number of listings by 90%. I quickly run through the numbers in my head and offer Mr. Buckmaster the results. Even if the average price, after discounts, turns out to be $5, that's still $2.5 million a year in extra revenue, a 10% bump that represents nearly pure profit. Not too shabby, right?
"Well, the revenue aspect is really an afterthought," Mr. Buckmaster insists, with a Zen-like calm. A seven-figure afterthought. I'd like to have that kind of afterthought, I think to myself. Mr. Buckmaster appears, at times, to be almost queasy about "revenue." Later in the interview, he said: "If I look across the Internet at the big Internet companies, there's a large proportion of their staff that are devoted in various ways to trying to maximize revenue. Those employees I don't think are delivering much bang for the buck to the end user."
This week, Craigslist increased the number of cities it serves in the U.S. by 50%, to 300. More than 10 million users visit its sites every month, looking for housing, furniture, romance and "missed connections" -- a feature that allows users a second chance when they suspect they just missed meeting that special someone.
In "Missed Connections," users post messages for people they may have seen from afar, hoping for a second chance at striking up a conversation, or even a relationship. One recent example read: "You were heading east -- crossed over 5th, I was walking south on 5th, we were somewhere in the 40s . . . maybe 44th? Anyway, it was 7 p.m. and I never do this, and you probably will never see, but if you think you are the guy i'm talking about send a msg . . . let me know what you were wearing . . ." They're longshots, but as Mr. Buckmaster points out, "Americans love longshots." And unlike a lottery ticket, the ads are free.
This week's expansion means newspapers in 100 more cities will be looking over their shoulders, waiting to see whether Craigslist is about to eat their lunch and get nothing in return beyond the satisfaction of serving its ever-growing community of users. So, what about the newspaper industry, Mr. Buckmaster? Is Craigslist out to destroy it or not?
"The Internet at large, and free classifieds in particular -- and even beyond that, Craigslist free classifieds in particular -- certainly pose challenges to the newspaper industry as far as being able to raise their profitability over time." Many in newspaper publishing would consider that an understatement. But Mr. Buckmaster is sanguine: "The demise of the newspaper has been overstated." Phew. I expel a nervous chuckle of relief. In Mr. Buckmaster's view, newspapers would be better off being a little more Craigslist-like: Go private, eschew Wall Street's demands for continually "goosing profitability" and give your readers what they want. Much trouble in the world comes, in Mr. Buckmaster's view, from losing sight of that essential goal.
After we've retired back to the living room for coffee, Mr. Buckmaster allows that the world is perhaps not quite that simple. When asked whether there's a Craigslist model that other companies could emulate, the unflappable Mr. Buckmaster, his eyes once more fixed firmly on the horizon out the window, waxes lyrical for a moment: "It's unrealistic to say, but -- imagine our entire U.S. workforce deployed in units of 20. Each unit of 20 is running a business that tens of millions of people are getting enormous amounts of value out of each month. What kind of world would that be?"
Before I have time to object, Mr. Buckmaster comes back to our world. "Now, there's something wrong in the reasoning there," he admits. "You can't run a steel company in the same way that you run an Internet company" -- more points for understatement. "But still, it's a nice kind of fantasy that there are more and more businesses where huge amounts of value can flow to the user for free. I like the idea, just as an end-user, of there being as many businesses like that as possible." As an end-user, I suppose I do, too. But there are no free lunches, even if Craigslist -- and the meal Mr. Buckmaster and Ms. Best provided for me -- sometimes seem to come close.
Having taken advantage of their hospitality for the better part of an afternoon, I stand to take my leave, but my hosts insist on driving me back to my hotel. Once there, we say our good-byes and, belatedly, a thought occurs to me -- an afterthought, perhaps. If Craigslist does what its users ask of it, and Craigslist doesn't need or seem to want all the ad revenue it declines to collect, maybe we, as end-users, should ask them to post some banner ads and give us the money instead.
There's something wrong, I suppose, in that reasoning. But I like the idea.
Martin Pierce — Woodcarver, sculptor and furniture maker extraordinaire
A native of Worcester, England, he lives and works in Los Angeles.
Katherine Salant of the Washington Post found his work (above and below) the single most interesting thing she saw at the annual spring trade show of the kitchen and bath industry.
Here's what she wrote in her June 17 article.
- Architectural Delights
Of all the things I saw at the kitchen and bath show, however, the most interesting was the wonderfully un-categorical work of Martin Pierce, a Los Angeles woodcarver, sculptor and furniture maker.
Pierce does not create pieces targeted at the kitchen and bath, although they would be a happy addition to either room. Instead he creates the kind of "environments" that were common a 100 years ago when elaborate craftsmanship was central to architectural design. Architects not only designed the house itself; they also designed all the furniture, floor tiles, door handles, window latches, cabinets, doors and leaded glass windows. It was possible because they could tap a huge work force of craftsmen who could execute almost any type of architectural design -- whether it was somewhat spare and linear a la Frank Lloyd Wright or the wildly curvilinear, stylized trees, leaves and animals that characterized art nouveau design.
Although many architects today design complete interiors, very few have access to skilled artisans who could create anything close to the exuberant celebration of nature that characterizes Pierce's door handle and drawer and cabinet pulls. For example, his ergonomically comfortable door latch, on closer inspection, is a curved tree branch, the surface that your hand grasps its leaves. There is also whimsy -- a door latch is a lizard eyeing a moth below for lunch; the moth is actually a door bolt The lizard reappears on a rounded doorknob; this time it's crouching on a lettuce leaf. Or, you could find yourself clasping a bunny rabbit that is reminiscent of Beatrix Potter, whose children's books have been staples of childhood for a century.
That his customers might make this association is not surprising, Pierce said, because Potter was part of his own childhood. The Worcester, England, native said Potter ceramics, child-size plates and bowls with decals of her most famous characters, "are everywhere in England."
For most people, Pierce's work will seem very familiar, like a lost link to childhood. For designers, it offers aesthetic possibilities considered impossible to achieve today because it has long been thought that the craftsmen who could produce them had passed from the scene.
Pierce's metal pieces are either cast bronze or stainless steel with an antiqued patina. Each piece is individually cast, using a somewhat laborious, multistep lost wax process that allows him to produce a startling level of detail. For example, the lizard that is wrapped around the door handle has realistic-looking skin scales. The lettuce leaf on which it sits has veins.
Pierce's furniture is not as detailed as his door hardware, but it is squarely in the vein of the Arts and Crafts style. For example, a single, round, 24-inch-diameter base that is carved to simulate a tree trunk supports his 60-inch round dining table. The table surface is burled myrtle and walnut, edged with a three-inch carved walnut lattice that resembles a stylized cross section of a hedge. The same motif is repeated in the dining chair backs.
The intensive hand labor of Pierce's work makes it expensive. The retail price of the dining table is $10,000 and the chairs are $2,000 apiece. The prices for the door and cabinet hardware were not available at the show, but the firm's press materials indicate that a single handle and latch plate is several hundred dollars.