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Friday, 31 January 2014

Parable of the Pizza Shop

Based on a True Story  

   42nd Street in New York has no less than 37 Pizza Takeaways. Some were big chains and some were what American's would call Mom and Pop operations. Some had been there since the days when Panhandlers would make their grimy way up from the Bowery to search the nearby trash cans for scraps, others had only hung their shingle out the year before. Some were non-descript, whilst others trumpeted facts like they had once been visited by James Caan and Marlon Brando when they had some downtime from filming the famous Wedding Scene in The Godfather. Some made their corporate owners very rich whereas some barely scraped together enough to keep electricity flowing to their sad, old neon signage.

   The store Pedro stood in was definitely in the latter financial bracket. When his father had passed away he had left the store to Pedro, his only child. As a child Pedro had helped his father in the shop. He loved the hustle and bustle. The noise and the smells. They were great days. Times were different now though. Now the shop was not the only kid on the block. The revellers had more choice. Why would they come to his place when there were 36 other Pizza Shops within 2 blocks. Pedro couldn't really blame people for going elsewhere. He probably would have himself. You see Pedro wasn't really cut out for the Pizza business. He had got on really well at High School. Maths came very naturally to him. He stood out as a star pupil, college was a natural progression. He won a Scholarship to Stanford University, way out in California. He took to College life with gusto. At the time he thought there was something very old fashioned, even Old World about the life he had left behind, and the crummy old Pizza shop at the tatty end of 42nd Street.

   Pedro graduated from College and went on to a great career in Silicon Valley. Things don't always go to plan though.

   His start-up specialised in creating timetabling software for Train Companies. The US market was stagnant so Pedro targeted South America, where new lines were still being built at a considerable rate. Brazil was a major customer. The domestic IT Houses just weren't up to scratch. They were unimaginative and lazy. The just wanted to divvy up government contracts between them. They didn't seem to have the desire to go out and win the business themselves. When Pedro's product reached the Brazilian Railway pioneers they were universally impressed. There was a universal take-up. Pedro gave a great product, provided excellent service and was always happy to go the extra mile. Times were good. More and more private rail companies came his way. Eventually some government contracts landed on his desk. This rankled the Brazilian IT Houses. "Why does this Yankee not leave us alone?" they thought. The biggest Brazilian companies got together and hatched a plan. They started to get more and more vociferous with their whining to state officials. The used arguments like "Viva Brazil" and "Keep the jobs in Brazil". They even took out a full page ad in Folha spelling out how much public money was going to an "American" company. Never one to miss a bandwagon, the slick politician Diogo Cardoso took up the mantle. He used his influence so that a "First Refusal" Act passed through the legislature in Brasilia. No government money would pass to a foreign company if a Brazilian company could fulfil the contract.

   Overnight Pedro was finished. The other South American governments followed suit. Within a year Pedro had to file for Chapter 11. His wife, once a goddess in his eyes, quickly turned to a sallow witch when the expensive holidays had dried up. She was long gone - along with half of his savings. In fact, he didn't have much left at all now - other than the Pizza place. His dad, having loved his only son so much, had named it Pedro's Pizzas back in 1978.

   When his father had passed away and left him the shop it had therefore been a bit of a poisoned chalice. Pedro was very grateful for the chance, but on the over hand the odds of success were against him. His place was one small slot on a twisted game of roulette where many of the slots were wide and cavernous.

   Six months passed and Pedro's worst fears were about to be realised. Sales were poor and the bills were mounting up. Pedro wasn't even convinced that his product was any good. He couldn't afford rent on his apartment any more so had to sleep on the floor at the shop. He washed at the Y with the Hobo's. For a good number of weeks the only food Pedro ate was his own stock. Pizza began to taste like sand to him. When a tramp stole his sneakers from the locker at Y he knew he had reached rock bottom.

   There was some glimmer of light still burning in Pedro's mind though. He couldn't take the step off the George Washington Bridge like so many others in his position had did in the past. He reached out to the only person in the World who still knew him as Pedro rather than the shabby guy with the shitty Pizza store: his cousin, Rosscoe.

   Rosscoe had never went to Stanford. He had never went to College. His parents, Pedro's Uncle and Aunt, had died years back. After a few years of inevitable rage against the machine Rosscoe had settled down into an entry level job at the Central Park Zoo. He loved his job. He was a living embodiment of the maxim that if you find a job you love then you'll never work a day in your life.

   When Pedro met with him he wasn't without his own problems though. The Zoo budget was under pressure and some of the animals had to go. People don't understand the heartbreak that "Animal People" feel when there beloved creatures need to be put to sleep. It effected Rosscoe more than others for some reason. He had heard the word "empathy" being used whilst a boss was describing him one day. He was not really sure what that meant.


   Three years had passed by so quickly. Like toilet roll, life goes faster the closer you get to the end. With the sun shining, Pedro pressed the button for the roof of his convertible to draw back and allow the nourishing rays to hit Pedro's tanned face. He was on his way to the airport with Rosscoe for a well deserved break in the Bahamas. The Pizza shop (the one on 42nd Street - not the sister store off Times Square) was in safe hands. Pedro had found a great manager with a similar outlook on life to himself. Having got the 42nd store flying, Pedro had taken the magic recipe and applied it again. The money was now rolling in. The customers were happy, the staff were happy and Pedro was happy. Rosscoe was happy. Life was good. The only people who weren't happy were the family of Diogo Cardoso. He'd been caught taking bribes. Without the kickbacks and backhanders he no longer had the cash coming in to satisfy his Hulk-like appetite for Coke. With an empty bank account, and a six figure narcotics debt, it only took weeks for the Knights Templar cartel to satisfy their dues in red blood.

   So what had changed? How had Pedro gone from rock bottom to rock star? Pure and simply, Pedro had made a decision. He had decided that he refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by the Bigshots. Only one man controlled his destiny and that was himself. After all, he resolved, "I am not a Communist". Pedro told Rosscoe of his decision. They sat for an hour thinking of ideas. Then another hour and then another hour. There was no light bulb moment. Their conversation turned from the Pizza business to Rosscoe's troubles at the Zoo. Dexter the Baby Alligator would soon be going and this made Rosscoe sad. Pedro pondered the situation. He found out that rather than being destroyed, the animals could be leased to local individuals or businesses so long as a care bond was paid and animal welfare could be guaranteed.

   "Wouldn't it be cool if we took Dexter to Pedro's and put him in a tank behind the counter?" They both agreed that a gimmick like this would draw in some trade at least in the short term.

   Rosscoe sorted out all the paperwork - he was so happy that a home, even if temporary, could be found for Dex.

   The cousins were right. Trade did pick up. "Are you the crazy guy with the Croc?" People would ask. Somehow Japanese tourists got to hear about it. One time a busload of Japs pulled up right at his front door. They didn't buy much pie but the incident did lead to a small article about Pedro's appearing in the Post.

   As time passed Dex began to outgrow his tank. Pedro didn't want to lose the very small niche that he had found himself in. He had continued sleeping in the store even though business had picked up. By saving on rent he had managed to put aside a few thousand dollars. He put an Ad on Craigslist looking for any aspiring Architects and Builders who were looking to make a name for themselves with an unusual project. After interviewing dozens of timewasters he eventually met a couple of guys who could help him fulfil his plan. And what a plan it was.

   Pedro lowered the floor of the customer side of his place by 20ft. With the blessing of Central Park Zoo he took surplus Alligator fixtures and fittings from their reptile house and used them to kit out the pit. A wide platform was built immediately inside the door of the shop. Another platform was built at the counter. Between the two a rackety-looking rope bridge was constructed. The final amendment was that the sign for Pedro's Pizza was replaced by a gleaming new sign - "World Famous Alligator Pizza". The store reopened after a short closure on the 31st July 2014. 1600 pizzas were sold that day - more than Pedro used to sell in a month.

   When the space at St. Mary's, off Times Square had came up Pedro saw the opportunity to naturally grow his business. That lot had been a Domino's but for some reason those guy insisted on hiring the dumbest, no-mark teenagers you could ever find. Maybe it was because those guys were cheap? How did they expect those guys to ever deliver good service for their customers? Needless to say the store did not thrive.

   Pedro signed a mutually beneficial deal with the Zoo whereby surplus animals were loaned out to him. In exchange a percentage of all his profits went to Animal Welfare charities.


 The moral of this story is that the Invisible Hand (if not tethered by governmental influence) will always work towards a beneficial outcome for a community. If Pedro's competitors had been more fast-moving or had hired half decent staff then perhaps Alligator Pizza would never have taken off. Pedro realised that he was in control of his own destiny. If he had failed it would've been his fault NOT the fault of any of the other 36 shops on the street.



Friday, 17 January 2014

Complaining to Harvester

   If you have never heard of them, Harvester are a chain of snidey restaurants in England. Like most chains they suffer by insisting on employing 18 year olds to do an Adult's job, thereby keeping their wage bill at an absolute minimum. This therefore tells you straight away that they are more interested in the bottom line than providing you with any level of service whatsoever.

   My wife insisted on getting grub from there last week. I was duly disappointed. Here is my complaint letter to them:


I had a bad experience at this restaurant on Sunday 11th January. I had called in a Takeaway. On arrival at the restaurant, despite leaving a suitable preparation period, I was told I would need to wait for 20mins. This became 30mins. When I returned back to my house I found that some items were missing, and the food was very cold.

   This was an altogether unsatisfactory performance. I would please like to be compensated. The Z number on my receipt was ZA189901-POS-01. Receipt number 16/6492.

Kind regards,

Ross Taylor.

Monday, 13 January 2014

From Forbes Magazine: The Secret Life Of An Online Book Reviewer

The Secret Life Of An Online Book Reviewer

Over the last seven years, Donald Mitchell, a 60-year-old strategy consultant in Boston, has made $20,000 writing book reviews on He’s so good, and so prolific–with 2,923 reviews to date–that Amazon customers have consistently voted him among the top five reviewers on the site. (The top reviewer, a former librarian from Pennsylvania named Harriet Klausner, has reviewed 12,753 books. Skeptics doubt that she actually exists.)
Mitchell is part of an online subculture that has helped democratize the reviewing process and cemented Amazon’s significance in the publishing world. Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times can elevate an obscure debut novelist to a best seller, but Amazon provides the shortest path between a good review and an actual sale: The two are just a click away.
The publishing world–as well as the top brass at Amazon–understands this connection. In 2004 Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos Jeff Bezos invited top reviewers to a company retreat. Best-selling authors like John Rechy, who wrote City of Night, have been caught pseudonymously giving themselves favorable Amazon reviews. Meanwhile, everyman types like Mitchell have become minor celebrities among book buyers and writers alike.
Mitchell started writing reviews in 1999, when he was about to publish his first book, a business manual called The 2,000 Percent Solution. He reads a book a day and writes a review “whenever it feels like it needs to come out”–usually about five a week. He gravitates toward business books. “But I also like memoirs,” he says. “I read a lot of mystery stories. Also, photography. And art–I’m an art collector. And thrillers, and pop culture. I also review self-help books. I do a lot of books about psychiatry. And children’s books.”
Mitchell tries to write reviews as if he’s talking to someone, and he knows how to please his audience. “In novels, they want to know how much is action versus how much is the thought process,” he says. “I have a mental template that I use.” Something about Mitchell’s prose inspires people to contact him. He receives a handful of e-mails a day, most often from people who want to learn to read faster or start their own businesses. “A lot of people will contact me about advising their children: how they can get into Harvard, what they should do for their careers.” He also hears from women who want to divorce their husbands. “I try to send them information and resources,” he says. “They never explain why they pick me out.” He tries to respond to everyone.
Reviewing has its perks. “People are always inviting me to go on trips with them,” he says. “If I have reviewed a travel book, they’ll invite me to go to that place with them.” He gets frequent dinner offers (which he accepts “occasionally”), and after mentioning in a review that he had never played on the Yale golf course, a reader invited him to play there. He accepted.
Writers regularly court Mitchell. He receives up to 40 books a day and hears directly from the author “80% of the time.” He says that Jamie Lee Curtis sends him notes when he reviews her children’s books, and Jack Canfield–of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame–contacts him before releasing a new book. After he reviewed Spencer Johnson’s book Who Moved My Cheese?, Mitchell says, Johnson called him to discuss his criticism and incorporated his suggestions in later editions.
Mitchell has parlayed his reviews into a profitable enterprise. For authors who write books that Mitchell wouldn’t typically review, he’ll ask them to make a $600 donation to Habitat for Humanity. The donation doesn’t guarantee a favorable review, although Mitchell concedes that he’ll try to make it longer. He originally charged $25 and has since bumped up the price. “I’m probably not charging enough,” he says. “A friend told me I should ask for $2,000.” Mitchell has donated his $20,000 in review earnings to Habitat.
Mitchell’s experience as a reviewer jump-started his career as a writer. When he started looking for a literary agent two years ago, he says he found 14 who were willing to represent him. He has 50 blurbs for his upcoming book, which he publicizes on a separate blog run by Amazon. “I found that people were quite helpful,” Mitchell says. “Many people have offered to review it.”