Saturday, August 31, 2013

Greek to Me

Chobani has a problem, but you wouldn't know it on these shores. Chobani, in case you've unfamiliar, is a wunderkind of a company, growing from nothing to over $1 billion in revenue and an industry leading position in just over five years. But unlike most recent business success stories, we're not talking here about mobile phones or websites or apps that tell you where to find the cheapest socks. We're talking yogurt, specifically Greek yogurt, a subset of the market that in those same five years went from 1% of all yogurt sold to 35%.

Until recently, most yogurt consumed on these shores was of a thinner variety. Plain or flavored, it was your basic fermented milk product, with your biggest decision as to whether you wanted fruit on the bottom or top. But throughout the Middle East, and eventually gaining the modifier "Greek style" and then later just "Greek," that same yogurt was hung in bags from which the whey drained. The result was a more concentrated product which gained a toehold in the US, and then quickly started stepping on the toes of such industry leaders as Dannon, Yoplait and Stonyfield Farm, purveyors of the traditional style.  

All well and good in the US of A. Not so much in England and Wales, however, where Greek yogurt was, well Greek. In a suit brought by FAGE, one of Chobani's chief competitors, and who until recently had 95% of the market, they protested that Chobani was importing product made in upstate New York, while calling themselves Hellenic. Or as written in documents filed in the High Court of Justice in London, "It is not seriously in dispute that, with one modest exception, all yoghurt sold to the public in the UK during the 25 years or so before September 2012 with descriptions including ‘Greek yoghurt' in the labels on the pots was strained yoghurt made in Greece." Not that there was anything wrong with the product itself, or even non-strained yogurt, as court documents take pains to point out: "It is common ground that both FAGE's and Chobani 's yoghurt is of the general type which may loosely be described as ‘thick and creamy', by comparison with other yoghurt, to which I will refer without intending to be pejorative as ‘ordinary yoghurt.'"

Still, if you can't sell yourself as "Greek," what do you do? It's the inverse of a similar story from more than a decade ago. Back in 2000, the folks at the California Prune Board had a problem. Their product was seen as old and stodgy, and better known for its laxative properties than for its yumminess. And so after ten years of falling sales, they came to the conclusion that perhaps Juliet was right, and a rose by another name might smell, or in this case, taste just as sweet. The got approval to change the label, enabling their produce to join the small club of "foods-formerly-known-as" (the Chinese gooseberry became the kiwi, while chickpeas became garbanzos). And today Americans recognize those shriveled looking things not as prunes, but as dried plums. (One exception: prune juice is still prune juice. The FDA decided that "dried prune juice" was a contradiction in terms.)

As for Chobani, they had the opposite problem, going from an attractive label to one that is less so. Her Majesty's court ruled against them this spring, concluding that "the use of Greek yoghurt to describe yoghurt not made in Greece plainly involves a material misrepresentation." They are appealing the decision, taking the position that "Greek" refers to the style and not the country of origin. But in the meantime they have to refer to their product as "strained yoghurt." And they have to hope that consumers get it, for, as spokesperson Christine Fung says, "The UK yoghurt market is one of the most sophisticated in the world."

But don't count Chobani out just yet. Greek yogurt is continuing to gain popularity, and like many things, popular acceptance could tip the tide in the UK. It's probably only matter of time. After all, they like ice cream, and Ben and Jerry's has a new flavor sure to be a hit: Pineapple Passionfruit Greek Frozen Yogurt. And then even the Brits will be forced to agree with the ads that it's "Really Greekin' Good."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes Greek yogurt, but doesn't quite get what all the fuss is about. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Over Their Shoulder

Pity the poor baseball umpire. For years his word was law. Strikes/balls, fair/foul, safe/out: the call was his. In a snap, the decision was made, and the ump lived with the consequences. Sure, fans might call him names, and managers might kick dirt onto his pants. But the bottom line was that it didn't matter. Even if the outcome of the game hung in the balance, when it came to the individual call itself, umpires, right or wrong, were like the pope: infallible and unchallengeable.

Then, with the advent of multiple camera angles and high definition video, even the casual watcher could see what they couldn't. Maybe you didn't have the training and instincts to see if the runner beat the throw, or if the ball landed this side or that of the line. But given the benefit of all that technology, 20-20 hindsight became 20-10. Viewers and commentators could scrutinize any call, followed by an accusatory close-up of the offending official. How could you not see that, ump?  Don't your eyes have a 76-times zoom lens and super slo-mo like mine?

Officials saw that the veracity of the game was in question, and so followed other major sports in instituting instant replay. In 2008, they allowed a limited version, whereby managers could question a home run call. In that instance, the officials left the field, huddled together to watch the tapes, after which they came out and informed the crowd of their decision. Perhaps the papal analogy was still apt: they conducted their deliberations in a secret room, then emerged with nary a word but the white or black smoke of a once-around-the-bases sign signifying a score.

Now they have taken the next step. Assuming it's approved, starting in 2014 managers will be able to appeal a large variety of calls. And they can do so by going over the facemasks of the offending crew. Allowed one challenge in the first 6 innings, and 2 in the remaining frames, managers will be able to say, "I dunno about that." They will then tell local officials, who will pick up a "secure phone" to call a SWAT team in New York that is just sitting there waiting. They will jump up, watch the tapes, issue a ruling and call down from the mountain, and all the folks standing around on the field will be allowed to go on about their business.

Couple of things.

First, the obvious mechanics. Football coaches throw out a red challenge flag. What will baseball mangers do, try and bean the ump with a red ball? What if they do hit him? Isn't that a penalty by itself? And what about that committee in New York? What if they're working on a ruling for a game in Detroit, and a call from Baltimore comes in. Do you tell Baltimore, "Guys go out for coffee, we're working here!" Or do they say, "Detroit, we'll get back to you. Why don't you guys take a bathroom break." And what if the guys in New York just ordered a pizza and one guy is downstairs getting it. After all, they'll be sitting around a lot doing nothing, and a guy's gotta eat. Do they start? Do they wait? Do you keep a whole ballpark hanging because Charlie is trying to figure out what to tip for an extra large with pepperoni and a six pack of Diet Cokes?  

Finally, how do you think the fans will react, when a ruling comes down from those New Yorkers as to how their game should be scored? Just wait till the word goes out in Fenway that the guys in Manhattan just disallowed the third out that would have ended a Yankees-Bo Sox game with the Sox ahead. It'll make Egypt look like a picnic.

As much as perfection is a laudable goal, maybe things are better left as is. Sure, replays by a committee of wise men back at headquarters might right a few wrongs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you could say that about almost anything: stock trades, first dates, having children. But there's something to be said for living in the moment, making a call and accepting the consequences, whatever they are. After all, who really knows what the right call is? Or as Yogi put it best, "In baseball, you don't know nothing."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to watch the occasional game, but doesn't care who wins. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet

All I wanted to do was get from here to there. And so it would seem a relatively straightforward calculation: figure out that it takes this much fuel and that much labor to go from A to B, divide that by the number of people you can carry, factor in capital costs and overhead, tack on some profit, and before you can say Wilbur and Orville, you have a price for a plane ticket. But as anyone knows who has ever bought one, it's nowhere near that simple. From a simple one-price-includes- all model, the airline industry has evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) to an a la carte approach that is as complex as it is unfriendly. 

Let's say you want to go from Philadelphia to the San Francisco area, a distance of 2500 miles and change. Even a cursory glance at the options available shows a dizzying array of possibilities. Peak costs more than off peak, direct more than indirect, last minute more than advance purchase, major airports more than minor. Sometimes, that is; other times not so much. If you look out a few weeks, there's a fare that gets you to San Jose, 30 minutes away from SFO, in a bit more than 7 hours including one stop. The price? Just $187, a seeming bargain to go coast to coast. However, later that day the same trip can cost you $667 and take more than 10 hours including two stops. Move it up a week, and the spread changes from $258 to nearly $1000. And let's be clear: all get you from the City of Brotherly Love to the City By The Bay. You would need a PhD in logic to understand the reasoning as why one costs more than another. 

And that's just the basic bill of passage. You have to figure out the seating, and not just window or aisle (has here ever been anyone who willing asked for a middle seat?). Because all sets of 17 inches of space at 30,000 feet are not created equal, you can select from the increasingly limited offerings toward the back, or opt for something more specific. Want something towards the front? That's an extra $19 in row 20, $25 if it's in row 12. Perhaps the bulkhead is more your style; $39 on the window, $59 if it's the aisle. And if you want the best seat in a bad neighborhood, the exit aisle? That's $79 for row 25 (limited recline: 1 inch) or $89 for row 26 (full recline: 1.7 inches). The only thing missing is a real estate agent telling you which schools your kids will go to if you sit there.  

It hardly ends there. Assuming you need a few personal items, you likely have a bag. You can try and bring it on, since that costs nothing. But you have to hope it fits overhead or under the seat in front of you AND you're in boarding group one, two or three AND the crew hasn't put their bags in your space. So maybe it's better to check it ahead of time. That will be $25, please. A second bag? Well, that's $35. Unless you're going to Mexico, then it's $40 Brazil? $70. Europe? That's $100. It's almost cheaper to just buy new stuff when you get there.  

Hungry? Because if you are, it'll cost you: $8.39 for a cheese platter, a dime or two more for a wrap or salad. That is assuming they still have something by the time they get to you in row 23. To play it safe, on some airlines, you can now pre-order your "fresh" premade sandwich or salad three days before you take off, to be delivered to you once you hit cruising altitude. No charge for stewardess service. Yet.  

So, if I'm doing the math correctly, depending on the flight you select, the seat you choose, the luggage you take and food you order, you can easily double the price of passage. Or looked at another way, the last three together can cost more than the trip itself. And none of that factors in the time you spend getting to the airport, going through security, waiting in line, and the same at the far end when you return.  

Maybe next time I'll just drive.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has frequent flyer accounts on too many airlines. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Star Sightings

If you walk down the street in New York City, you keep your eyes wide open to see the sights. Sure, there is the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. But the real sights are the residents. Or more specifically the residents whose names are just as likely to be in The New York Times headlines as opposed to those reading them. Wander through certain neighborhoods and you might see Norah Jones going out for coffee in Brooklyn, or Hugh Jackman grabbing a paper in the West Village, or Tina Fey out for stroll on the Upper West Side.

To be fair, you have probably as good or even better chance of achieving the same kind of sightings in LA, the home of the entertainment business. But this being the Big Apple, you might just as easily see celebrities of another type. Countless CEO's and financial types of every level have a pad in the city. The only thing is that their exploits are more well know than their faces. So while you might know that John Paulson makes millions, even billions a year from his hedge fund, you could be standing next to him in an Upper East Side Starbucks and not even know it. Likewise for Tilman Fertitta, the Texas billionaire who leads Landry's Restaurants, parent to such chains as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Morton's The Steakhouse and the Rainforest Cafe. You could see him strolling from his Tribeca apartment to Whole Foods and walk right on by with nary a gawk.

Of course, New York and LA are not the only places that boldface names call home. Almost every city has well known locals of whom they are justifiably proud, and whom out-of-towners would recognize, albeit with a little help. Such was the story when I was recently in San Jose. When I went out for a walk, I passed a number of banners touting famous people from the city (San Jose-ans?). They include Dave Righetti, who started as a pitcher with the New York Yankees and was Rookie of the Year in 1981, and Peggy Fleming who won the Gold Medal in figure skating in 1968. And it's not just sports: turns out Frank Feranna Jr. was born there as well, but you more likely know him by his stage name of Nikki Sixx, the drummer for Motley Crue.

But these days San Jose is known less for its people than for one particular industry. For if Washington is about government and Houston about energy, San Jose is about technology. As the de facto capital of Silicon Valley, it is the original center of that industry that so dominates everything we see and do every day. To that end there is The Tech, a museum devoted to technology, and Woz Way, a street named after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. It is also where, when I went running in the morning, I passed a homeless man reading a Kindle, though to be fair it was an older model.

In San Jo', the boldface names are less the people than the companies whose products we use hundreds of times every day. As you walk or drive around the area, you see buildings sporting logos that feel like stars in their own right: "Look, there's Adobe!" And the parade continues: Cisco, Evernote, PayPal and Ebay. Not far away you have Sunnyvale, with Yahoo and Advanced Micro Devices. North in Mountain View is Google and its headquarters, known as the Googleplex. And just to west lies Cuppertino and Apple, whose address is the inside gag of 1 Infinite Loop Drive.  

Yes, they are just buildings with nameplates. And with the passing of Steve Jobs, you would be hard pressed to pick the heads of any of them out of a lineup. But just going by the buildings themselves makes you feel like you are in the in the presence of something special. Since their products are the labor of countless hours of work by the collective geeks inside, I guess you could stand by the door and ask any employee going in or out to autograph your smartphone, and you wouldn't really be wrong. And it's true that for most it wouldn't be the same cachet as having a tee shirt signed by Angelina Jolie. But in the circles I travel, if I had a Nexus Tablet with a scribble that read "Sergey" on it, I would be the coolest kid in my class.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves traveling and looking around. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Rating the Ratings

The popcorn was hot and the soda was cold. We found seats, and only had to switch one time for my wife to get a better view of the screen when the inevitable tall person sat down in front of her. We timed our pre-show rest room breaks in our usual alternating manner to enable us to defend our seats from the encroaching hordes (though to be fair, it was 530PM on a Friday night, so the hordes were at a minimum). We watched the preshow slide show, checked our phones for any last minute emails before going off the grid, and scanned the other incoming viewers for those to avoid. Finally, the lights dipped and it was showtime.

Of course, the film we came to see was a ways away. First came the feast of what they used to call coming attractions, but now go by the name of trailers. A mini-art form in and of themselves, they capsulize the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments of a 2 hour show in 2 minutes or less, usually doing it so effectively that when you finally see the movie you know the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments so well that the film itself is a letdown.

Stapled to the front of each trailer was the usual title card announcing the rating as bestowed on the film by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. Since being instituted in 1968 under the legendary Jack Valenti, the letter codes of "G" for General, "M" for Mature (later replaced by "PG" for Parental Guidance), "R" for Restricted and "X" for Adult have provided parents with a handy guide as to what they would let their kids see, while providing kids with a handy guide as to what films they should sneak into that their parents wouldn't want them to see.

Over time the ratings have been tweaked a bit, with 1984 introducing PG-13 as bridge between PG and R, and 1990 seeing the sunsetting of X in favor of NC-17 for No Children under 17 (kind of a reverse version of "No Child Left Behind"). While a voluntary system for film makers, in practice they have become so widely accepted that that the last independent censor board, the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board, shut its doors in 1993, leaving it up to Texans to make up their own minds. About movies, anyways.

Along the way, the MPAA has toyed with the design of the ratings notifications, as well as the information they contain. This spring saw yet another upgrade under the campaign name "Check the Box." As we sat there in the theatre we saw the results in the new green card that started each trailer. In addition to the rating for the movie itself, it also showed the reason for that rating ("Rated R for violence and gore, pervasive language and drug use." Hmm. Maybe I'll skip "Self Storage"). And it tweaks the introductory language from "The following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences" to "The following feature has been approved to accompany this feature."

In short, they are matching trailers to movies. Not just in content, which is what the studios have always done. That is, if you go to see an action movie, odds are you will see trailers for other shoot-em-ups. Go see a sensitive family drama, and you will likely see previews for other angsty films. But now the MPAA is assuring that the trailers match the feature in tone as well as rating. So when you go to see "Care Bears 7: The Great Cotton Candy Caper" you won't be hit with a sanitized trailer for "Hatchet Wars," even if they have removed all the bad words and shots of its signature "Merry-Go-Round-of-Death" sequence.

And our Friday evening out? I counted 6 trailers, though I couldn't remember any of them now. About half looked good, about half I'll pass on. As always, I think I saw the best parts of each, as well as enough to allow me to fake my way through any water cooler talk should I miss the breakout hit of the summer. And oh, yeah: we saw a movie, too.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes going to the 530 show, the dinner after. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.