Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Blogs You Should Read and Things You Should Eat

Very Sexy Italian Espresso Machine That May Soon Be Living at
Zalesky Und Horvath Market Cafe

posted by chicago pop

Now that the break in geological time known as Labor Day has passed, and the boat pond in Harold Washington Park has managed to be full of water for half the summer, though not full of boats, I'd like to direct your attention to some of the following developments in the greater Hyde Park/Southside, both in and out of the blogosphere:

Woodlawn Wonder, the dynamic and quite entertaining voice of I Hate my Developer, describes being too close for comfort to the insane spate of gunshots in mid-August, some of which were directed at CTA buses on Stony Island and 65th Street, down the street from her ranch and the future south campus U of C dormitories.

I am appropriately horrified, even from the distance of 47th Street. And the tragic gunfire continues.

Looks like you can have firearms and mayhem even without a decrepit elevated spur along 63rd Street.

You might also read her narration of our first face-to-face meeting, in which we observed her handling table service for at least two successive tables of families with kids, all with impeccable aplomb. From our conversation that evening, it sounds like things are looking up for Woodlawn Wonder. You can cheer for her when you check out her blog.

Meanwhile, another little shop appears poised to enter the local retail landscape: Open Produce, at 1635 E. 55th Street, tells me that they're in the last stages of their build-out, and hope to win their last duel with City inspectors in the next few weeks, which you can read about on their blog.

They have some remodeling pics on the blog, which like the shots J/Tati put up of his shop when his ceiling collapsed earlier this year, remind us how crappy a lot of the lead-paint death-trap retail space in Hyde Park really is. (We note that Tati's old basement shop at 55th and Cornell is still vacant. Low rent with free lead poisoning, anyone?)

Back on topic, here's what the Open Produce folks say about themselves:

Open Produce ... will provide as many fruits and vegetables (conventional, organic, local, really local) and dry goods as we can fit in our storefront. In addition to providing good food at good prices, we also want to push the envelope in terms of transparency and accountability to the community -- all of our bank statements, wholesale prices, contractor payments, employee wages, etc. will be made available for everyone to scrutinize.

"Social entrepreneurialism" it's called, and it looks like the next generation of Hyde Park innovation with some interesting bells and whistles. We'll see if it marks an improvement over what came before when it comes to the bottom line: quality goods, quality service, and reliable operation. Our fingers are crossed.

Meanwhile, of course, our favorite "Zig and Lou" has been blogging about the long-awaited arrival of the Zaleski & Horvath Market Cafe at 1126 E. 47th Street, undoubtedly named after the well-known Polish-Hungarian retail merchants who bring their business acumen, and taste in finer imported foods, here from the Old Country.

Can't wait to meet them and tell dirty jokes in Yiddish.

Read about blogger Z&L's meetings with "cheese reps," the joys of having ComEd inspectors come over, the punctuality of City inspectors, and the super hot technology that is going to make Z&H the hippest Polish-Hungarian outpost in the neighborhood. There's more to learn here about opening a small business in Chicago than I've found anywhere else.

You know we've been cheering for this one for a long time. With Z&H and Open Produce hopefully here this fall, we could be eating very well indeed. Stay tuned.

Companion to the Other Very Sexy Italian Espresso Machine Above


Famac said...

People don't understand much about Hyde Parkers if they think publishing wages will be positively recieved: too much or too little? Let's debate, and picket and meddle.

We already have too many people telling us how to live around here - why invite it?

I won't shop at a store that doesn't honor the privacy of their employees.

Next thing they'll want is YOUR wages so they can charge you an "appropriate" price.

Zig and Lou said...

Thank you for the kind words about Z&H. The photo you pasted at the top of the post is the actual espresso machine we have in the MarketCafe, spooky. We also have a Clover coffee device and are excited to fire it up. We are a few weeks out from opening Z&H. ComEd has assured us that the 11th of September is the latest that we will have to wait for a pole-to-building connection, then the city inspections, then we open our doors. In the mean time, we are working in the space fine tuning and we welcome anyone who would like to sick their head in the door and say hello or give us a tip on an interesting product. Finally, we are at the 45th & Cottage Community Market each Sunday, from 10-3. Beginning this Sunday we will have an edited selection of the cut-to-order cheeses that we will be offering in the MarketCafe. Thanks again and we look forward to seeing everyone in the MarketCafe and at the Community Market.

herrandrew said...

Andrew from Open Produce here.

I think the majority of Hyde Parkers couldn't care less how much employees are paid. Those who do are welcome to "picket and meddle," and we will listen to them. In fact, we hope they do.

I do not see how disclosing wages "fails to honor the privacy of [..] employees." The wages of most (all?) government employees are a matter of public record, accessible by FOIA request and often published in the media. All compensation paid to executives of publicly traded companies is similarly posted on the web in yearly SEC 10-K filings.

We simply want our business to function with the same level of transparency. If employees do not like that, they should not work as executives for a publicly traded company, nor should they accept any job with the federal government, the City of Chicago, or Open Produce.

I assure you we will not seek to learn the finances of our customers, and we certainly won't price our inventory on a sliding scale.

Moreover, I think there is a difference between publishing the actions of a company, and publishing personal data of its employees. We will try to do the former but not the latter. To this effect, we do not intend to share much employee-specific information.

chicago pop said...

Andrew: Thanks for checking in. It's great to learn that something new is coming to the neighborhood, and so soon. More sources of good, fresh, and hyper-local/organic food is only a good thing.

It sounds like your mission goes beyond that, and I for one am interested in the rationale behind the transparency that Open Produce is embracing. Certainly, a shop selling slightly more expensive food, because it's organic, say, might have an interest in communicating to customers that the food is comparitively more expensive because your costs are higher, not because you're bilking a captive neighborhood market. It's a way of achieving information symmetry in the marketplace, perhaps.

Those are just my guesses; you may have completely other reasons for adopting transparency of your inner financial working and payroll.

David Farley said...

Andrew, with the exception of Open Produce, all the other kinds of organizations you list are legally compelled to release salary information and, as you state, there are some hurdles you have to go through to get that info. In almost all cases, once that information is acquired it tends to be used for negative reasons. So yes, unless one is compelled to release salary information, most reasonable people regard salary as private information. And when salary information isn't private, it isn't made casually available (for instance, by posting it on your store's blog). The majority of Hyde Parkers may not care what you pay your employees, but I suspect the ones that do care will only use it as an extra little dig at the person behind the counter when they don't like something at your store, and you will learn this the hard way.

Did you really tell your new employees that if they didn't want their salaries posted they shouldn't accept work as executives of publicly-traded companies? Is this an employment choice they actually have?

Anonymous said...

all the other kinds of organizations you list are legally compelled to release salary information and, as you state, there are some hurdles you have to go through to get that info. In almost all cases, once that information is acquired it tends to be used for negative reasons.

What does legal obligation have to do with anything? Red herring.

You're totally wrong on both of your points above. My father was a policeman in a northern suburb for many years. His annual salary (along with that of all village employees) was published in the local newspaper once per year. Turning to page 6 of a newspaper isn't much of a "hurdle".

And how is this public salary information used negatively? How, for example, would someone be able to negatively use information from a 10-K that the CEO of publicly traded XYZ Corp made 6 million dollars last year?

Keeping wages secret only protects people interested in preserving wage disparity.

Elizabeth said...

I am an employee of Open Produce with years of experience in food service and experience struggling to 'make ends meet' and support myself in other entry-level situations.

People whose qualifications end at and thus, work at entry-level positions in the service industry are not rich, and everyone knows it regardless of whether their employer discloses the information. Very few people have any real control over how much they're paid--in an industry where labor is easily replaceable, employees are rarely, if ever, in a position to argue with low wages. Making public the wages paid to employees creates greater accountability for the employer--it's unpleasant to think about the people serving you struggling, employers want their customers to not be uncomfortable, and have incentive to pay employees a living wage. Plus, acknowledging the amount paid begins a conversation between customer-employer-employed about the situation, discourages resent (THIS IS HUGE!), fosters actual relationships, and humanizes everyone involved. No one feels forgotten.

Open Produce is making a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between employer and employee. People with entry-level skills don't need secrecy about their wages, they need respect.

edj said...

If Open Produce wants to publish its financia information, that is fine. As long as they don't mind if I don't care. It's really up to them. I do't think it's going to be a factor in its success or failure either way in the long run. Some people might be drawn to the store because of that openess. I think most peple won't care.

If nothing else, it brings attention to the store. Case in point: I know they exist where before I do not. Will I go there? Probably not. I live within waling distance of Hyde Park Produce.

Still, good luck. And congratulations on the terrific marketing ploy/stunt/approach. It does get the attention.

Famac said...

Hate to say it, but the price of the tomato is going to be what decides whether Open Produce stays open, or closes.

This is America, and competing on price is the name of the game. Free markets decide the prices of goods and labor.

It will be interesting to see how long the owners of Open Produce entertain a dialogue about wages when the register doesn't cover the rent.

But I welcome this experiment in socialism so we can have yet another example of how liberal Hyde Parkers do a lot of talking, until its time to pay the bill.

Elizabeth - your email seemed thoughtful. I would encourage you to contact temporary employment agencies who service downtown businesses. It often pays far better than local employment, and gets your foot in the door to a better job.

David Farley said...

I think it's nice that, in addition to Elizabeth's reply here, this discussion apparently prompted a thoughtful entry on Open Produce's blog from Steven Lucy.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Famac, there are shoppers who will pay higher prices for organic or locally grown items, so low prices aren't the only way to win customers in Hyde Park. It's just a matter of how many customers there are like that, or how many will travel from other neighborhoods to shop that way, which brings us back to the age-old Hyde Park Progress topic of how we can increase density and visibility in this area.

chicago pop said...

Since it answers some of the questions that have arisen in this discussion, I'll post Steven Lucy's comments on Open Produce's mission here (from Friday, Sept. 5 blog entry):

Why is our store called “Open Produce” instead of, say, “Cornell Produce”? We are, after all, renting from Cornell Properties and located between Cornell Dollar and Cornell Florist.

One day, Andrew and I were discussing how we would change the world if we could. One thing that came up was that we wish corporations were more transparent. We think this would increase accountability and lead to more ethical behavior. We already see this approach being taken with the government: the Freedom of Information Act shines sunlight on the inner workings of government with the goal of decreasing unethical activity. Why isn’t the same approach taken with corporations?

This can be done, we think, without compromising the privacy of the individuals involved. A corporation can disclose its bank account balance, where it buys its merchandise, and the agenda of its board meeting, without also exposing private conversations between employees, social security numbers, or other information that would invade the privacy of individuals.

We also think this can be done without losing the ability to compete in the market. In fact, we think being open with our customers will give us a competitive advantage, and pressure other businesses to become more open as well. I hope we do. I guess we’ll see.

herrandrew said...

Famac: You are wrong to imply that we are socialist. My most recent job (which I mostly enjoyed) was at a trading firm downtown, where I helped move around private property to maximize profit for a privately held firm. Gabi has worked for the past 6 months as an economic consultant. Steven has worked as an independent web contractor and e-commerce consultant.

We are a member-managed limited liability company. Subject to a few ethical constraints (transparency, sustainability, etc), we intend to maximize profit just like any other firm. There will be no pictures of Che Guevara on the wall.

The point of our enterprise is to make capitalism work better, not to start some socialist microcosm.

chicago pop said...

Yeah, I don't see any of the mechanisms of socialism in what Open Produce is proposing. It's just information they're talking about, and if there are any fundamentals to economics so far as I'm aware, it's that individuals have preferences and need information to act on them, and that's all Open Produce seems to be talking about. It seems like a primarily ethical approach to, in the case of wages, the labor question. It may or may not work, people may or may not care. If it really is a violation of privacy that is widely felt, Open Produce won't be able to keep their staff, and will have to change their policy.

If anything, it seems to be an innovation along the lines of "scorecards" that certain corporations use to maintain labor and safety standards at overseas plants(voluntary), or the food content labels mandated by the Consumer Protection Act.

If something has transfats, you can still buy it, and may not care, but you can't say you didn't know.

The question is, if competition becomes fierce enough in this sector, could open access to contractors, sources, etc., diminish Open Source's competitive advantage?

Not all privacy is sinister; competition thrives in part on the basis of knowing where and how to get your inventory a little better and a little cheaper; if everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, you're out of luck.

J/tati said...

Like any startup small business launched by young idealists, Open Produce will face many challenges, and the odds are admittedly stacked against long term success. Months ago, I spoke with Andrew about this project and it's fantastic to see it materialize. It will be really interesting to see whether the team takes a high-volume, low margin approach like the little produce markets in Chinatown and Pilsen... or a low volume, high margin artisinal strategy. I think both could work here.

Just don't borrow a page from my book, Andrew: my whole low volume, low margin and yet artisinal thing *does* prompt folks to label me a socialist.

chicago pop said...

I always thought of you as more of a philanthropist.

Some guy was working late this past Saturday night in your old space, right after I linked to those pics on your site.


Elizabeth said...


There are many factors that go into determining what a 'good' job is and all are highly personal--you don't know my scheduling constraints, educational background, personal goals, or familial obligations, among other things, and you don't know how Open Produce's administrative staff accommodates them or not, so please do not assume that a 'temp' job is a 'better' job.

The world needs people to stock shelves and clean floors. The implication that these are 'bad' jobs opens up opportunity for cementing people within their social class (quite antithetical to our purported capitalist American Dream) and creates pools of resent or hatred that create divisions which spiral into larger, very tangible social problems. The work is good, honest, hard work, and deserves the respect traditionally accorded to it.

Work downtown in an office probably would provide more financial compensation than work locally in a produce store. But there are many different kinds of compensation, and a positive community and social resources are invaluable--for starters, people get actually stuck in poverty when they don't have other people they can rely on because they feel like they have a lack of options. Second, I personally believe that fostering openness and responsibility within a community creates an environment where people are respected. Both of these things are very interpersonal and begin at the local community, and have a stabilizing and pleasant effect on the area as a whole.

I feel honored to be part of the Open Produce team, and, to me, encouraging the possibility of this worldview is a (I hesitate to say cause, but for lack of a better word) cause worth taking a pay cut.

Please note, above opinions are my own and don't necessarily reflect that of Open Produce as a whole.