business news in context, analysis with attitude

I want to be fuel efficient and free of my addiction to foreign oil. Really I do.

But I’m not so sure I’m willing to go as far as the Prince of Wales or the US Democratic Party.

Prince Charles reportedly has begun running his 38-year-old Aston Martin on bioethanol made entirely from wine.

And the official vehicles at the Democratic Convention in Denver this August reportedly will be running on fuel made from beer supplied by MolsonCoors.

Kinda makes me want to cry…

Call it a victory for modern journalism.

The Wall Street Journal the other day did a 1,200-word piece saying that there was yet another victim of economic hard times.

Lunch. Not that people have stopped eating lunch altogether – though there may be more than a few former employees of stock brokerages, automakers and airlines that may have to make that life choice.

No, this story was about the fact that people are making different lunchtime choices, either picking restaurants or fast food that are less pricey, or brown-bagging it from home. In part, they are doing so because of rising prices that are turning expensive lunches into less attractive choices, and in part it is because people are being more careful with their money; this week’s valued employee could be filing for unemployment next week.

Seems to me that if you are in the food marketing business – especially the supermarket industry – this can be an opportunity. Not just to sell more pre-assembled bagged lunches, though that certainly is a possibility. No, I’m thinking bigger than that.

Wouldn’t it make sense for retailers to start talking to local businesses about how they can help solve this lunchtime dilemma? In other words, not waiting for customers to find them, but actually going out, hunting and gathering new customers?

The Journal piece notes that “in some cases, employers who didn't offer much in the way of lunch fare are stepping in to alleviate rising food costs.” This is partly out of compassion, partly because they see it as a way of strengthening the sense of teamwork and building productivity. Either way, any food retailer with a healthy ambition to build sales ought to take advantage of the moment and see if it can use this behavior shift to move some lunch dollars into its cash registers.

By the way, I practice what I preach here. When I’m not traveling, I eat lunch at home every day. Sometimes it is leftovers, sometimes just a yogurt, and other times it is cut fruit or a simple sandwich or soup. But I can't even begin to imagine how much money I’ve saved over the past decade or so.

There’s been a lot of discussion about customer service and employee quality the last week or so, and I have to tell you that this is a concept with which I have become extremely familiar over the past couple of weeks. We live in a 60-year-old house with plumbing that may be about that old…and at the moment we have an upstairs bathroom that may be about to collapse into the downstairs bathroom. (I keep waiting to be upstairs taking care of business and suddenly find myself downstairs taking care of business…) Which means that both have to be redone, which in turn means that we’ve been spending a lot of time picking out tile, toilets and sinks. (This was most of my vacation last week.)

But what has really made the process frustrating is the inability to get contractors to return a simple phone call; apparently they haven't heard that we are heading into a recession. And beyond that, I can’t tell you how many stores we went into where the people who worked there apparently didn’t care whether or not they made a sale. (Also not reading the papers, I’d guess.)

What this does, however, is really make you appreciate the stores where people are genuinely interested and helpful, who make the process go quickly and smoothly. Before we met such people, it seemed like this was going to be one of the hardest things we’d done in 25 years of marriage. (Which gives you an idea of how easy we’ve had it.) But once we found the right people and the right stores, it was actually a pleasure to take care of business. It makes me think about the conventional retailing experience, and how unusual it is to find pleasant, authentically helpful people.

Now all we have to do is live through construction…

(Don't think of the following statement as political commentary. Think of it as a reflection on the state of satire.)

I thought the Obama cover on The New Yorker this week was pretty funny. And I think that the people who found it offensive need to relax a bit and learn to laugh more.

I do think it is a shame that so many people could look at the cover and think that The New Yorker actually was trying to say that Obama is a Muslim terrorist. I think it says more about them than it does about the magazine.

But…what has really interested me is the fact that so many pundits have suggested that because so many people didn’t “get” the joke, the satire was wrong-headed and shouldn’t have been done.

Which is nonsense. Sometimes people don't get the joke. Which doesn’t mean the joke isn’t funny, or shouldn't have been told. It just means that it didn’t connect with the audience. (I have some experience with humor that some people don't find funny. Happens here frequently. I keep going however, figuring that they’ll get the next one…)

Humorists and satirists are supposed to push the envelope. If they don't, they might as well get a job scooping vanilla ice cream.

Good news from the researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina, who say that their studies show that now matter how far into middle age you happen to be, it isn’t too late to have a significant impact on your health and longevity – just by adopting smarter eating habits and getting more exercise.

And the facts seem to be clear. Get more exercise – at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week – and eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fish and chicken, and it is extremely likely that you can help fight off the likelihood of heart disease and other maladies.

And it almost doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s never too late.

The other good news on the personal health front his week came from Japan, where a study revealed that the more physically active you are, the less likely it is that you’ll get cancer. If you are sedentary…well, the news isn’t so good.

During a month in which it seemed that a number of well-known people roughly my age were dying either of heart problems or cancer, I have to say that these two studies are…well, heartening.

Which is why when I’m done here, I’m going for a run.

Just finished reading Robert Crais’ new Elvis Cole mystery, “Chasing Darkness,” and it proves yet again that the author is a worthy successor to the Raymond Chandler tradition – Cole is a tough private eye for the 21st century (though maybe I just like him because he wanders around in Hawaiian shirts and jeans and drives an aging convertible), and he is ably assisted by Joe Pike (think “Hawk” from the Spenser novels) as he attempts to solve an old murder mystery that he may have misjudged years before, setting the wrong man free. In my personal rankings of LA crime novelists, Crais is right up there – not as good as Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch novels, but very good.

I have a wonderful beer and four wines to recommend to you this week…

The red wines…

• 2006 Zero Manipulation Meritage from Sonoma’s Peterson Winery, great with a nice spicy pizza.
• 2003 Mosaic Meritage, also from Sonoma, perfect with everything from steak to hamburgers.

The white wines…

• 2006 Conundrum White Table Wine, still the perfect white wine for almost any occasion.
• 2006 Girard Sauvignon Blanc, from Napa, which is terrific on a hot summer night.

And the beer…Toasted Lager, from the Blue Point Brewing Company of Patchogue, Long Island – an excellent and rich beer that is very, very good.

Only saw one movie during my vacation – “Hancock,” which I didn’t love. I planned to see more, but then the Mets went on that terrific winning streak and it was just too compelling to miss. (It went to 10 straight wins last night, by the way.) I wish I had some flicks to recommend, but I don't.

But I’m seeing “The Dark Knight” in just a few hours. So that should change.

Good news for summer television – “Burn Notice” is back…and we get treated to more entertaining capers by “burned” spy Michael Westen, played to the hilt by Jeffrey Donovan. Great stuff, as always.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, stay cool, and I’ll see you Monday.

KC's View: