Saturday, June 28, 2014

Not-So-Secret Society

They're gonna have TANG at the GNR Row Party! And not just regular TANG, but two different varieties: Earth TANG and Out of this World TANG. And it seems my wife and I are donating all the alcohol to go with them. Loggie made the motion, and Terry seconded it.

Now, if none of that makes any sense to you, trust me, it didn't to me either. But that's what it said in the minutes from the April meeting of the Winnie-Mo-Tascas. And no, I had no idea of what that meant either. However, It seems that I was accidentally included in the workings of a secret society that really wasn't so secret, all because of the mistyping of an email address. But I had to find out more: after all, they were having TANG! Two types!

Turns out that the name is the moniker of a state club of RV enthusiasts in the Midwest. It comes from a combination of the nicknames of two of the most popular recreational vehicles in circulation, Winnebago ("Winnie") and Itasca ("Tasca"), which are joined by the state abbreviation where this particular chapter is based, Missouri ("MO"). Put it all together, and you get, well, Winnie-Mo-Tasca. The organization's current president is a guy named Bob Wollin, who sent out the minutes of their April meeting, tried to include his own email on the mailing list and missed a few letters. And before you could say hitch weight, I got the rundown.

Now, before you laugh (as did I) and assume this is all a quaint vestige of a particular subset of the American experience, you might want to hang on. That's because RV ownership is on an upswing in the US. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, more than nine million American households now own one — the highest level ever recorded — a 16% increase since 2001 and a 64% gain since 1980. All in, more than 11% of US Households headed by 25 to 54 year olds owns an RV.

That's right. It's not just retirees who buy a Winnebago Aspect or Itasca Suncruiser and park it in Winter Haven, Florida to spend the cold months playing shuffleboard. The aforementioned RVIA says that today's typical RV owner is 48 years old, married, with an annual household income of $62,000. In fact, a University of Michigan study found that the largest segment of RV owners is not over 75, but aged 35 to 54. All of which means that for every metrosexual and city grrrl with a pied-à-terre in the Village, there's a Bob and Marie in a Winnebago Adventurer on I-35.

But back to the GNR Row Party. GNR stands for Grand National Rally, and it's a gathering of RV enthusiasts at the cradle of the movement, Forest City, Iowa. That particular location was chosen because, among other things, Forrest City is the home of the Winnebago and Itasca factories. (They used to be separate companies, with Itasca manufactured by GM. GM eventually farmed out production to Winnebago, which subsequently bought the company and kept the name as a separate line. Today they're kind of like the Pontiac and Buick of the RV world.) Last year's GNR brought together almost 1,000 vehicles and 2500 people for 5 days of workshops, celebrations, factory tours, BBQ's and entertainment. And this year's rally, being held the week of July 16, promises to be even bigger, with the final night headliner being rock legend Jefferson Starship.

And the Row Party? Well, it seems that at the GNR you can opt to park near your fellow chapter mates, the better to socialize. That way there are also multiple opportunities to eat together. In the case of the Winnie-Mo-Tascas, there's a pot luck dinner on Tuesday, and a group breakfast on Friday (The Ozark chapter is doing pancakes, while Gateway has been assigned butter and syrup).

As for the party itself, since the theme of this year's GNR is "Out of this World," linking the 45th year for this gathering with the 45th anniversary of man's first journey to the moon, a party featuring the "Official Drink of Astronauts" seems fitting. After all, it matches up perfectly, since the closing day of the Rally is 45 years to day after that first landing. Hence the two types of TANG. Neil and Buzz would be jealous.  

I wanna go, but I need a Winnie


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers his accommodations not to have wheels on them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Shouting from the Virtual Rooftops

I'm not a big "living out loud" guy. Other than this column, I generally don't post on Facebook, Instagram, GooglePlus, Tumblr or subscribe to other social media platforms missing strategic letters in their names. Not that there's anything wrong with those that do; it's just in my nature to be more private. Besides, if I told everyone everything over there, what would I write about in this forum?

Still, sometimes it's necessary. And perhaps because I don't do it all the time, sometimes it actually "works." By works I mean make an impact, force a ripple. Such was the case in a recent tussle with the Marriott Corporation. In the old days (circa three years ago) I would have had endless phone calls and emails to resolve the issue in question. But if it worked to cause an Arab Spring in Cairo, I thought there was a chance it could do the same for me in Washington DC. And while it was a capital city, I wasn't trying to overthrow the government, just resolve my hotel problems.

It started when I arrived with 2 other associates late on a Saturday night. Weeks before I had made reservations for 4 rooms under my name. Once I knew who was actually going, I called Marriott HQ and gave them the correct occupants. Since I was paying for all the rooms, the rep said she would put my name on the reservations as well, so all would match my card. Seemed like a plan.

When we got there at 1AM, one guy from the west coast had already checked in, and indeed, it was posted correctly. But as the desk agent started to process our arrival, I saw the look on his face go from puzzled to concerned. He kept a tight grin as he told us that while he did have our reservations, they had read the dual names as meaning double occupancy. As such, they were holding only 2 more rooms, not 3. And they were sold out, with no more space at the inn.

Not happy is a polite way to describe how I felt. I gave the other guys the rooms, while the desk clerk, to his credit, quickly called a sister hotel a few blocks away and found one for me. He offered cab fare to get me there, but I opted for the short walk to cool off. The manager there was equally efficient, quickly checked me in, and off I went to catch a few hours of sleep. Insult was added to injury when I got my card statement: I had been charged for 3 rooms at the first hotel, the one at the new hotel, as well as a cancellation charge for the one they didn't have at the first.

I wrote an email to the manager, and called as well. No response. A second email went unanswered as well. So I decided to start shouting from the virtual rooftops via Twitter: "@Marriott Major reservation snafu at Courtyard Convention Center in DC. No room, ignored by GM, no response to phone calls. Do you care?" You bet they did: within minutes I got an apology as well as a request to send them details privately. Once received, they promised a response within 48 hours. My comeback? You're on the clock.

By hour 50, nothing had happened. I repeated my earlier tweet. Again, a quick apology and a request to talk privately. My tweet: "We'll stay here in public, keep score for all to see." Suddenly, it didn't take so long. Within the hour, my phone rang from the hotel. The Ops manager apologized, spent time explaining why things went awry, adjusted my account, and gave me a bucket of extra points amounting to a free night for my troubles. Figuring if I yelled "fire" I should also yell "it's out," I tweeted "Good to go! Just got call from Ops Mgr Zaw Oo at the Courtyard CC DC. Resolved all. Kudos for making it right! THAT's cust svs!"

And so it goes; sometimes it pays to yell. But as for me, I will do it sparingly. Not to mix metaphors, but you usually get more with honey and a smile than you do with a bat. Still, there are times. Or as Ian Faith put it in Spinal Tap, "Having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful."


Marc Wollin of Bedford tweets this column, but little else. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Trader Joe

Alumni of Goldman Sachs have had to deal with a wide variety of issues in their next careers. There's the future of the banking system (former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson) and the control of interest rates in Europe (President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi). Others have had to grapple with the intrigues of the White House (former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton), as well as the running of the state of New Jersey (former Governor Jon Corzine). But probably not many have had to deal with the fact the stuffed clams have too many breadcrumbs. Then again, they're not Joe Mazzella.

Joe had a twenty year career trading commodities at the flagship Wall Street firm. But when his daughter had her sixteenth birthday, and introduced him at the candle lighting by saying "This is my dad, and I never get to see him," he knew it was time to leave. So he cashed in his chips, and started to trade for himself. Then one night his softball team stopped by a local watering hole 5 minutes from his house, a place that wasn't really making the grade. It turned out it was for sale, and Joe had always wanted to own a restaurant. He knew nothing about the business, but had a childhood friend who did, and who agreed to supply the knowhow if Joe supplied the cash. And before you could say truffle mac n' cheese, Somers 202 was born.

Joe figured it would be fun; after all, how hard could it be? You sell a steak for $10, you make $2, and you have a place that always has a table for you and your wife. "I was hoping to generate a little income, just pay the bills on the place," he told me. But he quickly found out that wasn't the case. "Because I live in this town, I had to throw that out the window. You can't cut corners. Every stoplight, every corner, I'm getting honked at. I can't go low end. Plus I eat here myself."

Joe wanted a place he could be proud of, one that had legs and built a following. But he's not a cook: "There's a swinging door into kitchen; when I go in, I'm a tourist." So he looked at the place the way a customer would. "People who come here know they're always going to see the owners. We don't tell people, but by the end of the night you know." Joe walks the room, checking on the tables, making sure everyone is happy. "There's an old Italian custom that you never come to visit empty handed. So I'm always giving out desserts." He laughs: "The staff says 'You're the reason we're not making any money!'"

He also approaches it like a business, using some of the skills he gained on Wall Street. He still trades commodities, and if he sees a spike in the price of pork or beef or propane, he adjusts his restaurant purchases accordingly. He created two separate areas inside, a bar and a dining room that play to different crowds. He's very tied into the community, hosting gatherings of Girl Scouts and sports teams. And he notes that the restaurant business, like the financial world, is all about paying attention to the margins. "That's what makes the difference," he said. I asked for an example. "Take vodka. Most places will buy 4 or 6 bottles a week. We just bought 100 cases, and got a great price, like 60 cents on the dollar. In the long run, that will pay off."

Still, he acknowledges that to do it right is hard work. "It's much more stressful than trading commodities. It's an open mirror, a huge reflection of yourself, and that means you're obliged to do everything the right way." And he's not just sitting still. This year they added a deck, have plans to put in a raw bar for seafood, and he's excited about a deal he just struck with a local farm to use their produce.  But even after a successful four years, he's going slowly; while he'd like to open another place, he doesn't want to sacrifice the quality and control he has at the one location. Still, for all the headaches, it does have its upside: "It really is a lot fun. And when people walk out with a smile, it really is worth it."


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

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Bigger Stick

"I have always been fond of the West African proverb, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'" So wrote Teddy Roosevelt in a letter to Henry Sprague of the Union League Club in 1900. While he actually used it in reference to the New York Republican party pulling support from a corrupt financial advisor, it became more well known as his approach to foreign policy. It was perhaps best demonstrated in his sending a naval task force of 16 battle cruisers on a circumnavigation of the globe as a peaceful show of force, the so called "Great White Fleet." Now, that's a big stick indeed.

Roosevelt's pronouncement comes to mind as we watch the struggles of the current administration as it copes with a gaggle of overseas challenges in virtually every corner of the globe. (Sidebar: Always wondered about that phrase. After all, how can a globe have corners? But let's not get sidetracked.) Whether you like or dislike the President, it's kind of hard to figure out just how big a stick he actually has. Or more correctly, the question is not how big it is, but how can he can swing it without smashing all the china. After all we have arguably the most professional and efficient military on the planet, yet almost no one wants to commit American troops to any of the world's hot spots. Likewise, our arsenal of frightening weapons is second to none, but nuclear bombs are not known for their pinpoint accuracy.  

So if you take physical force off the table, what else have you got? The current approach centers on the threat and imposition of economic hammers to force others to heel. It seemed to work in Iran, where sanctions resulted in the government finally allowing in nuclear inspectors, and at least saying that they will curtail their uranium enrichment activities. That said, there is still a fair amount of skepticism as to whether they are playing a shell game, and allowing oversight of some areas while hiding others. Only time, and hopefully no mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv, will tell.

But the limits of the economic whip can easily be seen in the current tussle in Eastern Europe. While we have imposed limited sanctions against Russian businesses as well as Putin's buddies, we never had a whole lot invested there to begin with. Or put another way, in the immortal words of Billy Preston, "Nothing from nothing leaves nothing." That was driven home even more so when Russia signed a 30-year-deal with China to sell them natural gas, a deal valued at about $400 billion. In that light, preventing a few oligarchs from visiting their condos at Disney World seems, how shall we say, underwhelming.

The question then becomes this: what do we have that they want? What can we possibly use as a bigger stick, one that gives us leverage when we need it? They've got gas, so that won't work. They've got food, so nix that angle. They've got computers, cars and smartphones, perhaps not as slick as ours, but workable models for sure. And if they have all of those, threatening to withhold ours will mean nothing.  

But what we do have is Pharrell Williams.

And Angelina Jolie. And "Mad Men." And "Grand Theft Auto." American pop culture is without peer in the world. Sure, they have Pussy Riot, but even they aren't known for their music, just for not being allowed to play it. If we treat our movies, music, TV shows and video games the same way we treat our F15's, just think of the leverage we'd have. We'd have to retool them all to work on a limited release, and only with an unlock code that expires every 60 days or so. Toe our line, and you can be in "X-Men" for life. Cross us, and just as you're getting to the chorus of the latest Lady GaGa single, it shuts down hard. Let's see how long they'll last.

Need proof? In Iran, 6 people were willing to get arrested just for dancing to Williams' number one hit. The mullahs go their way this time, and caused all six to recant on state-run TV. The government has drawn the line that you can't dance publicly, just listen in private. But shut that down even that slender thread? Try it, and then we'll see who's "Happy."


Marc Wollin of Bedford dislikes our TV shows, but appreciates their power. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.