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    Published on: May 22, 2015

    A guest column by Chelsea Ware

    Content Guy's Note: I met Chelsea Ware last week when I was out at Portland State University for the Center for Retail Leadership's annual executive conference. She's a student in the program, and when I found out she was a blogger, I invited her to write a piece for MNB ... and she responded with a column offering some insight into how her generation thinks and acts. It tells you something about her that she refers to herself as being a "a kid in the 90s," which is sobering to people like me, who were kids in the 50s and 60s.


    If I think hard enough, I can still smell the scent of greasy, salty, hot French fries that would fill my nostrils when my Grandma took me to the McDonald’s drive through window on Saturday afternoons. When I was a kid in the 90’s, McDonald’s was successful because they understood that the average American family was composed of parents who worked part or full time. McDonald’s was a place where one could grab a meal to go or eat inside while their kids entertained themselves on the play structures provided. The toys that they gave with the kid’s meals corresponded to movies and television shows that we found popular. As a result, we found McDonald’s to be cool and relevant.

    But a few things have changed since those days. Movies like Super-Size Me and a general shift towards more health conscious behavior have weakened McDonald’s value proposition. Additionally, as millennials have matured we have brought a wave of change in our consumption patterns. We value food chains that are healthful, mindful, and transparent while also being affordable and convenient.

    McDonald’s new CEO Steve Easterbrook’s strategy to modernize the brand involves simplifying the menu, phasing out chicken treated with antibiotics, and increasing employee wages. However, McDonald’s has still recognized steeper declines in their stock and sales even after their restructuring plan has begun to hit stores. So why is McDonald’s still struggling?

    The answer is that they are stuck at the intersection of trendy and unpleasant due to not fully implementing what millennials find valuable. While they now have hip items like kale on the menu, we still don’t want to go there because they fail to exude the “cool” factor that millennials seek. In fact, it seems as though its cooler to diss on McDonald’s then actually eat there.

    Chains like Chipotle and Starbucks get it right. For instance, when in line at Chipotle one can see the employee’s sautéing chicken, peppers and the other tasty ingredients that they use in their entrees. The lighting is soft and upbeat music gives the establishment an energetic vibe. The clean wooden tables make it a convenient place to study or meet friends. Their to-go bags often feature amusing quotes from relevant comedians and actors like Aziz Ansari.

    Lastly, it takes them about three minutes to make a burrito and ring a customer up. This all makes for a chain that millennials get excited to flock to. Starbucks is similar in the fact that they offer clean spaces to socialize, unique drinks, and a warm and buzzing atmosphere. They have also added healthier options to their lunch and snack assortment. Although Starbucks is a large chain, people feel comfortable there because community posters tacked to bulletin boards and the friendliness of the baristas makes for a unique experience.

    So what can McDonald’s learn from these two brands? In addition to healthier eating options, millennials want a place to go that doesn’t seem sterile and institutionalized. While McDonald’s built their empire on a model that valued these qualities, it’s now in their best interest to break from these bonds and be a bit more eccentric.

    So McDonald’s, please ditch the clown, turn on the Spotify playlist and start sending us promotions on Sriracha french-fries via Twitter. There are 80 million millennials out there and many of us are looking for an affordable burger place to bring our friends.

    With a little innovation and rejuvenation, it could be you.

    Chelsea Ware is a senior at Portland State University who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in business marketing in addition to a food industry leadership certificate. When not researching food industry trends, you can find her at Whole Foods in search of ingredients for the perfect pasta recipe.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    The Associated Press reports that Amazon is working with local food retailers in New York City - including D'Agostino's, Gourmet Garage, and Eataly - to offer one-hour delivery of products from those stores in an effort that seems clearly designed to blunt the impact of smaller disruptive delivery services such as Instacart, Uber and Postmates.

    According to the story, "The service is only available via for members of its $99 annual loyalty program and via Amazon's Prime Now app. It's free for two-hour delivery and $7.99 for one-hour delivery ... Prime Now, which offers one-hour delivery on some of Amazon's own products, is available in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, New York City and Miami."
    KC's View:
    I think this is a very smart move by Amazon. Less so by the retailers, though I am conflicted.

    Amazon's motivation is simple. It wants to generate more sales and profits, expand its ecosystem, and can do so by essentially growing the Marketplace portion of its business that provides e-commerce services to third parties. No downside here.

    As for the retailers ... well, I would remind them that Borders once outsourced its e-commerce business to Amazon, and it now is dead. Toys R Us did the same thing, and I'm not sure it has ever recovered. I understand why this seems appealing, especially to a company like D'Agostino's which is casting about for ways to achieve relevance in a very tough marketplace. But outsourcing fulfillment to Amazon is every bit as dangerous - or even more so - as jumping into bed with Instacart.

    Except, of course, some companies may think that they have no choice, that they cannot afford an e-commerce strategy on their own. Tough choice to make, and I'm not sure there is a good one.

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    The Wall Street Journal has a story about Staples CIO Tom Conophy, in which he concedes that the retailer "roasted and lost our way and didn’t see the onslaught coming from Amazon,” and now is looking to reverse a trend that had it losing sales and market share.

    The story says that Conophy has "prioritized the development of custom software and hired IT professionals with the 'killer instinct' to expand its online and mobile channels. He’s betting these investments will offer the best return. And he communicates the potential outcomes of investing in such technologies to the business."

    And, the Journal writes, "Staples is analyzing how its dynamic pricing, in which varies product pricing based on geography, works for the hundreds of transactions that happen on the website each hour." Conophy says that these transactions produce an enormous amount of data, which he says is the "amino acid of the tech ecosystem."
    KC's View:
    I love that line about data being the "amino acid of the tech ecosystem." Like I always say here, the successful companies are the ones that actually act on actionable data.

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    USA Today reports that as protesters press McDonald's franchisees to increase wages, an examination of top corporate executives' salaries reveals that they "were paid an average of $1,220 an hour last year, with the highest paid hitting $1,397 a hour, based on a USA TODAY review of executive compensation in 2014 based on a 40-hour work week."

    The story goes on: "No one is suggesting workers in McDonald’s stores should be paid the same as the people running the massive multinational corporation. But investors are keenly watching the development as higher wages could turn into lower profits. Walmart (WMT) this week said that higher wages were cutting into its profit margins.

    "It’s also important to point out McDonald’s CEOs have made much less than the CEOs of other large companies – including the very top-paid executives at other restaurants and retailers."
    KC's View:
    So if a person makes $10 an hour working for McDonald's during a 40-hour work week, that adds up to $400 a week, or $20,800 a year. That's gross, before taxes. And it assumes that the person works 52 weeks a year.

    Now, compare that to one of McDonald's top execs. it apparently takes them about 17 hours to make that much money. (If my math is correct.)

    Now, I'm not suggesting equivalence here. But I am suggesting that these are numbers that create a negative perception, and that executives need to be sensitive to this enormous gap between what they make and the salaries generated on the front lines. I understand that the minimum wage debate is complicated, that there are no easy answers ... but the contrast here, I think, points to a societal/cultural/economic problem that is not going to go away.

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    • The Associated Press reports that Walmart has announced that "it is expanding its original plan to hire 100,000 veterans by 2018 to hire a total of 250,000 recently discharged veterans by 2020.

    The company started the program two years ago, and already has hired 92,000 veterans - 8,000 of whom have already been promoted.

    "Veterans work," says Chris Sultemeier, executive vice president for logistics at Wal-Mart, himself an Army veteran. "They're disciplined; they're teamwork focused. They have a hard work ethic. They're typically committed and loyal. What we are looking for in an associate and what the military teaches them... It just matches."

    • The Associated Press reports this morning that Walmart "is urging its thousands of U.S. suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals and improve treatment of them. That means asking meat producers, eggs suppliers and others to use antibiotics only for disease prevention or treatment, not to fatten their animals, a common industry practice.

    "The guidelines also aim to get suppliers to stop using sow gestation crates and other housing that doesn't give animals enough space. They're also being asked to avoid painful procedures like de-horning or castration without proper pain management."
    KC's View:
    I've always felt that the key to dehorning and castration is effective pain management, so thank goodness Walmart is getting on board...

    In all seriousness, when companies as big as Walmart start to enlist in the broader mission of allowing people to know more about their food and where it comes from, it suggests that the trend actually is gaining traction.

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    • The New York Times reports that avian flu is having a huge impact on the nation's food industry, as manufacturers, retailers and restaurants are "bracing for shortages and scouting the country to find alternative supply sources." The Times writes that "as of Thursday, the flu is forcing farmers to kill more than 38 million infected birds, 33 million of which are laying hens. Last year, laying hens produced 7.3 billion dozen eggs, about a third of which were broken and turned into various liquid egg products, which include yolks, whites and only albumin."

    • CVS Health announced yesterday that it is acquiring Omnicare, a pharmacy services company that distributes prescriptions to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The New York Times writes that "the deal is expected to extend CVS Health’s operations in dispensing prescription drugs to assisted-living and other long-term care centers, and to broaden its presence in the specialty pharmacy business."

    Cost of the deal: about $12.7 billion.

    • The Associated Press reports that Ohio-based Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams is back in business after a listeria scare, "making ice cream again and reopening shops on Friday after intensive cleaning."

    The story notes that a government investigation "found inadequate testing and cleaning in its Columbus plant before listeria was discovered in some ice cream pints." No illnesses have been reported connected to the company's products.

    The Jeni recall came shortly after an ever broader recall by Blue Bell Creameries after listeria traced back to its facilities was connected to multiple illnesses and three deaths.

    • Haggen has announced that has part of its transformation from an 18-store Pacific Northwest chain into a west coast region chain with more than 160 stores - which has been accomplished through the acquisition of units being divested post-merger by Safeway and Albertsons - it is "donating 1 million pounds of food to local food banks and $100,000 to 100 charity partners as part of the 100 new Haggen stores opening in 100 days throughout California, Arizona and Nevada."
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    We had a story the other day about how the Singapore postal system has totally changed its business model in order to be relevant to modern needs, which led MNB reader Laura Amick to write:

    Funny story.  I was in my local post office last week to buy stamps for a special event (normally just use the kiosk during off hours).  The huge ad over the counter had a message about holiday shipping with snow and snowmen.  In May.  Turns out the ads were from last year.  Was told that “They won’t send me any replacements.  Nothing I can do.”

    Talk about being relevant!

    From another reader:

    Regarding the Singapore Post Office changes Kevin: I went to the largest USPS in my state on Friday, where they were protesting and did not seem to know why other than fear of units closing. The workers and union representatives blamed everything on the retirement payment mandates. While that is a financial burden, I do wonder if they will ever get it?

    After questioning them, I think not. They handed out post cards that can be mailed to the Postmaster General. I briefly thought of mailing it and enclosing a letter questioning if they will ever understand the changes not just for the future, but today. Then I thought, why waste those precious minutes, I had already wasted some on people that thought they worked for the Union and not the PO. Odd thing is there are more packages available for delivery then in the past due to on-line shopping, seems simple, change the darn business model.

    I recently questioned a survey's conclusion that Trader Joe's is one of America's best supermarkets ... I like Trader Joe's and shop there often, but I find it hard to accept that particular designation.

    One MNB user responded:

    I love their friendly customer service and the chatty cashier, but that's not the primary reason I go there. I am a Trader Joe's loyalist due to their combination of low prices and food "adventures". And how about that 2 buck chuck? They're also a convenient place to get wine and beer. I even find their produce to be ok, but maybe it's because I live on the West Coast. My grocery spend is split between Costco and TJ, I rarely go to another store for grocery despite the coupons!

    Okay. That's the thing about opinions. It is okay if we differ.

    From another reader:

    To respond to your post on Trader Joe's I agree that they have cluttered stores, but they are able to stock a relatively small store that is easy to get in-get out of on a weekday, with a large selection of items for a really great price. Trader Joe's has the highest square foot sales in the industry, double that of Whole Foods despite higher prices at Whole Foods. It's pretty clear that they make a lot of money from those tiny, tiny stores.

    Have you ever been to a Trader Joe's that's not very busy? I haven't.

    They're loved by Millennials and Gen X alike. And also some seniors. They also attract all income levels - from low budget students or inner city dwellers to higher income families. Perhaps, the only group that may not frequent Trader Joe's is lower income (below 65-70K) larger families as they don't meet the primary needs for that demographic.

    The reason is organic foods, smaller packaging suited to smaller families or even for larger families where everyone has individual dietary needs and food preferences, lower prices and ever changing variety. Each trip to Trader Joe's is an adventure and even children don't mind going there as they love the samples and the fun games set up for them in the store. It's also small and very easy to navigate - convenient when you're picking up stuff after work and don't want to go through a large store or fight the crowds at Costco just to get milk.

    Trader Joe's has $1723 sales PSF vs. Whole Foods at $937 and Kroger at $496. Given that they sell all private label their ROI isn't too shabby either.

    Like I said, we all have different opinions.

    On another subject, one MNB user wrote:

    A reader made a comment on the differences between the Haggen  and the Mariano's conversions of old Safeway stores.

    I would make one comment.  MOST of the old Dominick stores in Chicago were in excellent condition and recently remodeled in the past 3-5 years.  There was really NOTHING wrong with the physical facilities of most of the stores.  Safeway had alienated Chicagoland customers to the point that most did not shop there anymore.  As I had lived in Chicagoland only 14 years, I did not remember the "Dominick's Finer Foods" days, but most of my coworkers thought that Safeway destroyed it.

    Since I have moved to Arizona, I have yet to see one Safeway store that was anywhere as well designed or as clean as the shuttered Dominick's stores.

    Yesterday we took note of comments by the editor of USA Today that it may only be a few years before the print edition is shuttered in favor of an all-digital strategy.

    One MNB user wrote:

    Interesting take on the decline of newspapers and the estimated end of the print edition of USA Today. Obviously technology is the major driver of this occurrence. But I also think that papers no longer deliver the same qualities to the consumer base that they once did(not keeping up with the times). Papers used to "report" facts. Reporters would dig into facts surrounding a story and verify the truth and validity. As they have drifted more and more to the left, they have tended to just pass along any information given to them by the politicians and political consultants. So as their consumer base moved more to the right and got older, they moved to the left and lost the business.

    I think that the problems with newspapers has more to do with technology than politics, but we're all entitled to our own opinions.

    MNB user Rich Heiland chimed in:

    As a former newspaper publisher I do try to notice little things. For years I have felt hotels were keeping USAToday numbers up. I am starting to notice now that some hotels are dropping USAToday and subbing in a local paper or the Wall Street Journal. Not sure what that dynamic is because as a road warrior I use USAToday as it was intended - to stay in touch across the board on a surface level. I used to work for Belo in Dallas and we printed USAToday and I can tell you if the hotel numbers start dropping, so will the circulation figures.

    Not surprisingly, we got a lot of emails about the minimum wage issue, responding in part to my disagreeing with the fellow who maintains that a mandated $15/hour minimum wage in Los Angeles will lead to wildly expensive hamburgers.

    One MNB user wrote:

    You are right about In & Out burger, their prices may go up slightly, but they already pay above the minimum wage and promote from within which builds loyalty and passion. You have to be flexible and understand the economic realities around you. Companies are paying more than minimum wage in most part because it is now a economic reality that you will have to pay more to get qualified people. Change is not only certain, but ongoing!

    From another:

    I finally have to respond to your position on increasing the minimum wage after your comments on Weis Markets' pledge to not increase prices being evidence that increasing wages will not increase prices.

    I am confident that many retail operations professionals are users of your site, and am surprised more have not responded on this issue.  There is no question that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation, and for that reason I support an increase that is many years overdue.  I also support the idea that the wage difference between executives and front line workers has grown, and that front line workers who are performing well deserve to be well compensated for the important contribution they make to the success of the company.

    What I do not support is the idea that increasing what is often the largest cost in retail and food service—labor—will not result in significant pressure to raise pricing.  While a small increase to $9 per hour may be managed by cutting expenses in other areas in the short run, the reality is that any increase in costs must be offset by either an increase in productivity or revenue.  In other words, fewer worker hours must produce as much revenue or prices must be raised to increase revenue.

    I also question your suggestion that increasing wages results in a more engaged work force—it may or may not.  It depends on the company culture and if employee feels supported in his or her role, and wage rate is just one factor.  I understand we live in a world of sound bites, but these are very complicated issues with many moving parts, so while things like “living wage” and $15 per hour sound great, implementing them without creating unexpected negative consequences will require more than a simple law increasing the wages of the lowest paid members of the workforce.  Having said all that, a living wage for all is a goal worth working toward, but it will come from better education and training, increases in productivity and economic growth.

    MNB reader Tom Herman wanted to elaborate on a position he took earlier this week:

    I would really like someone who favors large increases in the minimum wage to sincerely answer the question.  Why not $30?  I think it is a fair question that deserves a serious response.  I think that everybody deserves to have the opportunity to live the American dream.  The minimum wage increase has some advantages and it also has some disadvantages.  A serious debate is needed.  Most liberals just dismiss the other side as “hating the poor” of “being in the pocket of big business”, when in fact neither of those things are true.  It is just a lazy and disingenuous way of shutting down the debate.

    It is a known fact that when labor becomes more expensive, businesses will find other ways to address it and lower costs.  Cutting back on staff, finding technology to replace the labor, or moving to a more favorable local are just of few things they can do.  This is how the market works in the real world.  Most businesses will stay and find ways to mitigate the costs probably through technology, reduced hours, more reliance on part-time workers and raising prices.  Probably a combination of many different approaches.  The biggest issue will be companies that decide not to be located in LA in the first place.  The combination of higher regulatory costs and higher labor cost make moving your business to LA very disadvantageous.  Who does this hurt, the very same people who will benefit from the minimum wage increase and countless others who are not currently in the labor market. 

    Most people currently in the labor market have upward mobility and only stay at the minimum wage for a shorter period of time.  The problem being that you can’t move up the economic ladder without being on that ladder in the first place.  We are seeing that today in many large metro areas like LA.  Higher levels of poverty and higher levels of unemployment.  It is not just one decision made by politicians that probably feel they are doing the right thing, it is the combination of all of these regulations, rules and laws that have put these large metro areas in dire shape we are seeing today.

    Big business will survive in this environment, and a lot of these things actually help big business to keep out newer small businesses that may compete with them.  Business formation and new small businesses are the love blood of communities.  They are being driven elsewhere, and there will be long term consequences of this flight away from larger metro areas.  Just my two cents on this.

    The thing is, I agree with a lot of what you say ... and I think that the debate on the issue is far from over, and we're going to learn a lot from what happens in communities where wages are being increased.

    One quick point. You are absolutely correct that a lot of liberals like to shut down the discussion by dismissing the other side as “hating the poor” of “being in the pocket of big business." But there also are a lot of other people who like to shut down the argument by saying that these folks want something for nothing, that they have a lousy work ethic, and should just get a second job. Which I don't think is a fair characterization, either.

    MNB user Gregg Raffensperger wrote:

    I tried to stay out of this but can't after reading some of the responses. It's real simple, higher labor costs equals higher cost for products.

    Also consumers magically don't buy the same amount or more products when they cost more.

    Therefore if the "cost of a hamburger" stays the same or slightly higher you will have less people doing more work.

    Question to your "motivated worker" dreamer.  How motivated do you think people are when their work load is increased? They grumble and moan.

    This is a typical short sighted governmental bandaid.  Stop taking a socialist approach to everything.  Why is it the responsibility of the government and not the individual to support themselves. 

    If one job isn't enough, get another.  Hard word and strong work ethics built this country.  Let's never forget that as we move into the future.

    MNB user Virginia Berman wrote:

    Equal Exchange has been around 29 years and we support wholeheartedly increasing the minimum wage.  We source, roast and sell organic, fair trade coffee beans, and source and sell organic tea and chocolate and olive oil ... It’s absolutely possible to run a profitable business, give fair prices to consumers and pay people enough to live on.  Thanks for highlighting that and still the minimum needs to be higher.

    And from another:

    I have a philosophy that there is fair profit and obscene profit. If raising the minimum wage drops a business from the latter to the former, I am fine with that. And, if it pinches a business, those who survive will be the ones who take what may be a long overdue look at processes and systems, as well as missed revenue opportunities and do what businesses always should do - innovate and improve. Thus it always has been and should be....

    MNB reader Michael Phelan wrote:

    McDonalds has served as the premier example of a successful and at least one time,  innovative, franchise business model for decades, instituting a network of 30,000 stores worldwide. The consistency insisted upon in franchisee contracts is extensive and applies to many areas, many at the franchisee’s expense.

    The suggestion that McDonalds corporate couldn’t insist upon and improve wages for the tens of thousands of employees who represent their brand every day almost made me laugh out loud and spill my coffee on myself. Really adorable.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    Every year, at just about this time, a book arrives at my home. For years, the author of the series of books was Robert B. Parker; for the last few years, it has been Ace Atkins, who picked up Parker's mantle after the iconic writer passed away.

    That's what happened this week. The book was "Robert B. Parker's Kickback." I opened it lovingly, cracked open a beer, put my feet up, and read the following opening paragraph:

    On the first day of February, the coldest day of the year so far, I took it as a very good omen that a woman I'd never met brought me a sandwich. I had my pair of steel-toed Red Wings kicked up on the corner of my desk, thawing out, when she arrived. My morning coffee and two corn muffins were a distant memory.

    It is spring, and all is right with the world because Spenser is on the case yet again.

    I am happy to report that "Kickback" is the best of Atkins' four Spenser books; they've all been worthy successors to the Parker canon, but with each book he seems to gain confidence and familiarity, adopting the Boston PI's first person narration with increasing ease.

    "Kickback" has all the elements that one would like from a Spenser novel. Our hero finds himself facing off against authority figures of surpassing arrogance - in this case, corrupt Massachusetts judges who are sending teenagers guilty of minor crimes off to an Alcatraz-like detention center without benefit of counsel or trial. The judges have managed to convince the municipality that this is the kind of requisite tough love that will return the teens to the straight and narrow, but Spenser is smart enough - in part because he probably would've been one of those teenagers - to know exploitation and corruption when he sees it.

    One of the things that is interesting about "Kickback" is that Atkins is allowing his protagonist to age a bit, to show some vulnerability. He's just come off knee surgery: "A life's work of busting heads and kicking butts could be hard on the joints," he says at one point. And he seems to be comfortable with some level of diminished capacity: "I was still able to leap medium-size buildings in a single bound, but my X-ray vision was a bit iffy."

    But even slightly diminished Spenser is worth a visit, because in the end, as important as physicality is to the character, his moral center is far more critical to how he approaches his work and environment. One of the great things about the classic American detective novel is that, when it works, it balances two genres. On the one hand, most of them are, at their heart, westerns - the main character is trying to tame a hostile town. But they also are morality plays, as the detective serves as a kind of personification of ethical behavior, trying to put things as they should be.

    Raymond Chandler put it this way about his detective hero, Philip Marlowe:

    Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it ... The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

    The good news about Ace Atkins, and "Kickback," is that he makes it work with a specific sense of the place about which he is writing, the characters who embody this world (especially Hawk, one of the best literary sidekicks ever invented), and a plot that moves forward though the mean streets of Boston (with a side and very entertaining detour to Tampa), relentlessly, compellingly, and with plenty of style and irony.

    If you're a Spenser fan, you'll enjoy it immensely. If you've yet to crack open one of these entertaining yarns, well, it's time ... because this novel works on its own terms, even without the enormous history of its main characters.

    Which leads me to the business lesson. (You knew there would be one, right?)

    I had a chance to sit down with Ace Atkins this week as he started his publicity tour for "Kickback." (This has become a nice little tradition for the past several years. Ace probably doesn't enjoy it as much as I do, but for me, it is a rite of spring.)

    One of the things we talked about was the nature of writing characters that were invented by another writer, and Ace said that he brings to the table an ability to "find great stories for Spenser and Hawk to star in. It is almost like they are actors who are in my company, and I need a vehicle for these guys that's a damned good story for them to be in ... I'm looking for new, modern stories for them to have something good to do." It wouldn't be hard to find a writer who could simply imitate the rhythms of Parker's prose, find some familiar scenarios, and cash in on the name ... but Ace is after something more profound than that.

    As a former journalist, he 's looking for fresh ways into the characters and stories, for different angles. He may be playing jazz, just like Parker did, but he's riffing on the melody, creating a unique backbeat, finding chords with a different progression.

    That's a great business lesson. Companies that think they've found the formula, think they've identified the magic sauce, and try to replicate that over and over, almost certainly are going to lose any sense of authenticity, of discovery, of a unique connection to the customer. I'm impressed by how Atkins is nurturing the tradition without being trapped by it, and I'm already looking forward to his next Spenser novel.

    Spring 2016 cannot come fast enough.

    (Though, to be fair, Ace Atkins also has another series going - the Quinn Colson novels, the latest of which, 'The Redeemers," is due out in late July. The Colson books capture the modern deep South with a unique voice and yet all the narrative expertise that he's brought to the Spenser series. So I don't have to wait until next spring for my Ace Atkins fix ... just until July 21. Yippee.)

    By the way, the sandwich referred to in the opening passage of "Kickback" is an Italian grinder from Coppa, in Boston's South End, "with extra provolone and pickled cherry peppers."

    Be still my heart.

    Speaking of food, I had a wonderful beer while in Boston this week: a Notch Left of the Dial IPA, which was hoppy and delicious ... and perfect with the Shrimp and Crab Étouffée that I had at Legal Test Kitchen on Boston's waterfront.

    And speaking of beverages, I have a couple of wines to recommend to you this week.

    First, the 2011 Stringtown Pinot Noir, from Oregon ... which is a great example of why Oregon Pinot Noirs soothe the soul and salve the spirit.

    And, there is the 2014 Carlton Cellars Pinot Gris, also from Oregon. (This is one of my favorite vineyards, and I only get to drink their wines while I'm in Connecticut because I belong to their wine club. You should join, too.)

    The Pinot Gris was great ... and perfect with a scallops-peppers-onions and brown rice concoction I invented last night, cooked in a citrus-Latin marinade that was pretty good for my soul and spirit as well.

    It's also been a good week because I knocked one more baseball stadium off my list, as I look to visit and see a game in every major league ballpark.

    This one was Minute Maid Park in Houston, which I'd somehow missed over the years. (I'd been to the old Astrodome years ago.) I'm not usually big on covered stadiums, but in this case, I was happy for the roof since it was raining outside ... and there is an enormous glass wall across the outfield that creates the illusion that you are connected to the outdoors. And thanks to the wonderful folks at Minute Maid for giving me a great seat to the game ...

    I just have two stadiums left on my list (at least until Atlanta opens the new stadium for the Braves, Sun Trust Park, in 2017). Sometime this year, I hope, I'll manage to visit Marlins Park in Miami and Tropicana Field in Tampa.

    Then, once that's done, I'll have to rank them. Stay tuned.

    A guy's gotta have goals.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 22, 2015

    Monday, May 25, is the annual Memorial Day national holiday here in the US, a day upon which we remember the sacrifices of our Armed Forces, as well as celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer.

    MNB will be taking the day off, and will return on Tuesday morning.

    Have a great weekend.

    KC's View: