Tag Archives: Syracuse

Laci’s Lunchbox, Syracuse, N.Y.

2014-11-06 at 12-18-22NOTE: I visited Laci’s Lunchbox and wrote this piece before going to Laci’s Tapas Bar and writing my piece on Nov. 9.

Is it lunch box or lunchbox? I tend to go with the singular word, as if the box’s sole purpose was to carry lunch. But, I think most people would go with two words, as in a box that happens to have lunch inside of it.

The lunchbox in question during Thursday’s midday forage for sustenance was one that belongs to Laci, or Laura and Cindy, the duo behind the raucously popular Laci’s Tapas Bar on Hawley Avenue. These ladies have earned a reputation as more than mere entrepreneurs and businesswomen, but as community leaders. Laci’s Lunchbox, their newest endeavor, is located near the Tapas Bar where Hawley Avenue and Green Street meet. Continue reading Laci’s Lunchbox, Syracuse, N.Y.

Grocery List: November 9, 2014

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Whether or not I write a full-on review of last night’s dinner at Laci’s Tapas Bar (I’ve written about it in the past), it’s worth noting that restaurant’s importance within the dining fabric of Syracuse.

The vast majority of restaurants fail, regardless of how good the food is. A restaurant built into a Victorian home in a gentrifying city neighborhood seems like a dicey venture. Yet, there is Laci’s, packed to the gills on a Saturday night in November.

The phrase “labor of love” seems trite, but I’m not sure what else one would use to describe Laci’s. We went with some friends that had never been before, and found ourselves discussing the importance of a restaurant like Laci’s while waiting for dessert. Each serving hits its mark, but is distinctly different from the other delivery to the table. Very little of the flavors are repeated from dish to dish. Things you wouldn’t expect to like envelope you when you try them. You push yourself to try them, and then find yourself wanting another order. For instance, The Wife ate bacon-wrapped jalepeños last night. Jalepeños. Most days, I can’t get her to eat anything hotter than cayenne pepper, but there she was chowing down. The kitchen is first-rate and that should be noted.

But, it’s not just the back of house that carries a restaurant. Everyone there has a personality. Jordan, our waiter, spent the evening joking with us, and periodically one of the owners (Laura, the La of Laci’s) stopped by to give us a hard time. And, as is so difficult to find in restaurants, there is a very apparent symbiosis between the front and back of house.

As we drove away, The Wife said to me, “We spent $100 on dinner tonight, but I don’t mind that. I feel like I got something for my money. We can’t do that all of the time, but I felt okay signing the slip because, I don’t care if I spent $20 or $60 or $100, I want to feel like I got what I paid for.”

It has me thinking about what is important in our communities as far as food goes. I think the local food thinkers and writers (myself included) talk about about the importance of using local ingredients and supporting local agriculture, but maybe we need to look at things from a more macro level. What is important to Syracuse and Central New York’s food palate? Who are the people shaping that palate? Why is what they are doing important? I would argue that Laura Serway and Cindy Seymour have done more in these areas since Laci’s opened its doors — as entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and community leaders — than some have in their lifetime.

I think it goes beyond a list of what foods or places make Syracuse a good food town, and making people feel good about living and eating here. It’s about the Syracuse’s food legacy and future, and those that hold the key to what’s next.

That is the discussion that we should focus on in this community. People, not actions, dictate the future of any subject or area. Let’s draw the spotlights their way so we can better understand our community, its needs and those that are fulfilling them.

Social Media Breakfast Syracuse Program Featuring Me and Three People Who Have Never Been In My Kitchen

ALERT: Shameless Plug Ahead
ALERT II: The three people who have never been in my kitchen reference is from one of the best episodes of Cheers ever filmed

In addition to my day job, chasing The Kid, serving The Wife, and providing quality food writing to you, dear reader, I serve on the advisory committee for something called Social Media Breakfast Syracuse. It’s a group of Syracuse-area professionals that get together on a monthly basis to discuss social media during breakfast. The group is nothing if not cleverly named. It’s part-learning, part-noshing, and part-networking.

On June 26, I will be leading a panel discussion on Social Media and Food. It’s the first of a series on the topic, and this one focuses on food bloggers. I will be joined by:

  • Margaret McCormick of Eat First, formerly of The Post-Standard and fellow St. Bonaventure University alum.
  • Sunny Hernandez of For Your Pies Only, who pays her bills as the community engagement lead for Syracuse Media Group
  • Zainab Mansaray of Blahnik Baker, who spends her free time studying neuroscience

We’re going to talk about some food-related things, but generally these discussions have transferrable themes. What applies to food may apply to your brand or business. I know I sound biased, but if you are in Syracuse I would encourage you to attend. If nothing else, you get to see if I can go 90 whole excruciating minutes without swearing.

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Off-Topic: On Service

Let’s go off-topic for a few hundred words.

Someone, and I honestly cannot remember who, recently said that Syracuse’s economy is rapidly becoming one where people make a living by serving cheeseburgers to one another. I don’t have any data to back me up, but let’s say that 20 to 25 percent of the jobs in this area are in the retail or food-service industries (just under 20 percent are education- or health-related while another fifth are government jobs; retail isn’t specifically listed as an industry by the New York State Department of Labor). This means that a quarter of the local population spends its time selling food, t-shirts, or sneakers to the other 75 percent.

That’s looking directly past real estate agents, car dealers and other professional salespeople, all of whom provide service to someone in order to remain gainfully employed. It does not count the professional firms who bid on jobs, selling their services to a willing buyer. Hell, even The Wife is in the service industry. Yes, she is a teacher, but the Common Core, standardized testing, prescriptive lessons and educational snake oil merchants have put the exclamation point on the argument that Americans that schools are glorified day care and teachers are nothing more than crowd control (Thanks Obama!).

So, where am I going with this? Like it or not, we’re a service economy. We all want what we want and we don’t want to pay a lot for it. It’s why we don’t manufacture things in America anymore. It’s why we throw things out rather than fix them. It’s why Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the nation. We all have our moral high ground about Wal-Mart, but at the end of the day, we will sacrifice it to save 15 cents on a bottle of Windex. We live in a world where we serve one another. And we do it badly. I’m not just talking about the high school dropout who works at Dunkin Donuts and messed up my order this morning, either.

Today, I made my weekly grocery shopping trip. I won’t say where, but regular readers of Al Dente should not have trouble guessing. I was looking for the ripest lemon in the bin, when I glanced up to the grocery store version of a 12-car pileup: a manager chewing out an employee on the sales floor.

I was close enough to pick up 80 percent or so of the conversation. The employee, a nice gentleman who usually spends his shift sauteing vegetables at a little cooking station, had apparently left his work area multiple times that day to help people find things.

Now, he wasn’t slinging dope behind the store. He wasn’t groping anyone. He didn’t do anything to compromise the health or wellbeing of any customers. He walked away from his space, after turning off the cooking appliances, to help people find produce. I know this because I heard him attempt to defend his actions. The manager in question didn’t care, and continued to dress him down. I doubt anyone else saw this but me. Most people tunnel vision while shopping, but I was child-free so I watched and listened. I listened as she said things like “I don’t want to see you leave this station again” and “Three times today I’ve walked by and you weren’t here.” She went as far as to threaten disciplinary action if he left the booth again.

The produce section is probably the most trafficked area in this store. It is positioned at the entrance and this person’s perch is 15-20 paces from the front door. The department changes its configuration regularly based on what’s in season, so tomatillos might be in one space one week, and another spot a few days later. Since there never seems to be anyone in this department to ask for help, he gets the questions. And, because this company drills servce into its employees’ heads, he helps the customer.

Never mind that there is no one else from the produce department to ask. Never mind that the produce department looks like Toys R Us after Black Friday and without anyone around to stock the shelves. This manager decided to shit on a subordinate in full view of customers and other staff because he was helping others.

There is plenty of research showing that if you treat your staff like garbage, your staff will produce garbage. Worse than all of that, stores like this are very concerned with their reputations. This chain (and others) considers itself the best in its field, but bouts of unprofessional behavior by a manager damage both the store and its perceived excellence. After all, this company identified this person as “management material,” gave her a portable phone and told her that she could wear “street clothes” and not the standard-issue uniform. The made her a manager and empowered her to act like the stereotypical asshole retail manager. She didn’t let them down.

As any marketing or communications professional will tell you, companies do not own their brand. The frontline staff member has more impact on a brand’s reach than any middle manager, CEO, charitable contribution or sports sponsorship combined. Especially in a retail or food service enterprise, an attentive waiter or staff person does more to enhance a brand than the vice president or director charged with “brand management.” Because we are an economy that spends its time serving cheeseburgers to one another, customer service is first and foremost. To see a manager ridicule and threaten a staff member in a public setting is unnerving and unprofessional. That the staff member was in trouble for providing service to customers undermines the brand.

It takes some shine off the apple.

It makes me question why I continue to be a customer.

After all, I can always get a cheeseburger somewhere else.

Grocery List: March 30, 2014

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I wore a short-sleeved t-shirt outside yesterday. It was 60 at one point in Syracuse.This morning when I woke up (or, more accurately, when The Kid came in the room and tickled my ears), there was snow on the ground. Hmm.

The Wife continues to deride this winter and its length. To her credit, it has been brutally cold and very snowy, but we’ve been spoiled recently. After a series of relatively mild winters, we were whacked upside the head by Mother Nature’s cold-weather fury. Frankly, I don’t think it’s much worse than some of the winters from my childhood. That hasn’t stopped others who live in this town from living in complete and total surprise that winter in Syracuse might be, you know, cold and snowy. These, of course, are the same people who drive 15 MPH on local interstates at the first sign of a flurry each fall.

My aunt Carolyn finally had enough of Syracuse winters and moved west. She lives in Las Vegas and deals with snow once every other year. Aunt Carolyn might be the only person I know to get so fed up with winter that she blew out and permanently moved. The In-Laws return this week from a month of snowbirding to Myrtle Beach. That doesn’t count. They are hiding; my aunt escaped. In my nearly 37 years of living in Western and Central New York, I am at peace with winter. The season is annoying, but I have four-wheel drive and it gives me an excuse to cook more soup (soup in the summer feels unnatural) and drink heavy beer.

So, I’m sick of the endless conversation that I wander by at Wegmans, in Starbucks or online about being sick of winter. Those conversations will soon wane, though. They’ll be replaced by the ones that sound like this: “Eww. It’s so hot and humid outside.”

Guh.

**

On another note, I’ll be vacating the Greater Syracuse area next weekend for a conference in Washington, D.C. There will be no grocery list, but definitely recipes and other goodness. And, with the return of The In-Laws, there is likely to be a restaurant review or two in the near future.

Off-Topic: Coffee at the Airport ** UPDATED (3/26)**

UPDATES AT THE END

My coffee preferences, in no particular order:

  • Iced coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco: It’s perfect
  • Homemade cold brew: It’s like an acid-free coffee concentrate
  • Starbucks iced coffee: It’s reliable and the same all over the country
  • Cafe Kubal‘s iced pour-over

I would drink Kubal exclusively if it were closer to my office or if the Downtown location were a  little easier to get to. Admittedly, I’m late to Cafe Kubal. Others had sung its praises for years before I had my first pour-over and experienced mana over ice. But this isn’t necessarily about coffee. It’s about the Syracuse Hancock International Airport.

Syracuse’s sad little airport.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s wrong to think we should have some Eero Saarinen-designed masterpiece in Syracuse, but as the brilliant Patrick Smith writes at AskThePilot.com, American airports are terrible. Air travel, an American industry if there ever was one, has been mangled by its own greed. The explosion of airports in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s has led to outdated buildings that no one in 2000, 2010 or 2014 wants to spend money in renovating (not unlike the rest of our infrastructure). Syracuse’s current airport renovation has been LONG overdue.

In February, while headed to New Orleans, I got my first glimpse of the new security area. Bright and wide open, it looked like the security area in a larger city’s airport. And beyond the security gate was the best thing a traveler could find at 4 a.m.: an open and operational Cafe Kubal kiosk. Not only could I get a well-deserved iced red eye, I was certain that it would be good. It wasn’t. It was better than good. It tasted like the coffee beans had been roasted sometime that century; like the coffee had been brewed at some point that week; and it was presented by a person that did not need the instructions for constructing a “red eye” recited to them. To me, this was a first step in making Syracuse’s airport something more than a sterilized necessity for travel. It said — brighter than the big neon sign on the outside of the terminal — Syracuse.

And then I read this on Twitter last night:

It turns out that the airport, which is operated by the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority — a group of government and business leaders appointed by the Mayor of Syracuse and Onondaga County’s County Executive — recently selected a concessionaire for the airport that is not interested in keeping Cafe Kubal around. There were “discussions” of a “potential” landing spot for Kubal in one of the terminals, but that apparently will not happen. Creative Food Group, the hospitality company now running the food and beverage show at the airport, has opted for America’s largest purveyor of stale donuts and coffee strained through a sweaty sports bra. Yep, you guessed it:

Dunkin Effin Donuts.

So, let’s reset here: Local airport managed by local businessleaders that often complain about a stagnant local economy and a crumbling local tax base allow a New York City-based company to remove a local business from the local airport in lieu of a franchise that serves bitter coffee and second-rate baked goods.

Yeah, that sounds right.

Oh, but there will be a Middle Ages Brewing Company, you say. Correct, thus far Creative hasn’t abandoned this concept, however I would like to point out one thing. Ever notice when the vast majority of flights depart Syracuse? If you said before 9 a.m., you would be correct. Syracuse is not a hub like Charlotte where people have layovers. Think about every time you have had a drink at the airport…it was probably while waiting for a connection in Charlotte or O’Hare (truth be told, Philadelphia is a great airport to get boozy in). In Syracuse, you either have an early morning flight or you are landing, and how often do people stay at the airport after landing for drinks? Neveish?

So, I digress. Once again, Syracuse proves itself to be Syracuse. It had a chance to be special and do something good by turning travelers on to a local food choice. Instead, it took the sterile, antiseptic route and chose below-grade coffee and food.

This is how we end up with highway viaducts, shopping malls that don’t pay taxes and baseball stadiums ignored by everyone.

At least when it comes to bad decisions we are nothing if not consistent.

##

Updated 3/26 8 a.m.:

Cafe Kubal owner Matt Godard posted a note to his company’s blog about the situation. It’s a worthy read, if for no other reason than the inside baseball that is revealed. I would draw your attention to this paragraph:

During our last few months at the airport, the quality of our product suffered. We were not permitted to train the airport employees during the transition of the concessioner’s contract. As a result, the rigorous standards we hold ourselves to were not being met. For that, I would like to apologize. Our customers deserve the best we can give them, no matter what.

That last sentence really stands out: Our customers deserve the best we can give them, no matter what. It’s a lesson out of a Peter Shankman presentation. Here is a local business owner trying to ensure a quality product with particular attention to a licensed outlet that was using his brand, and human/corporate obstacles prevented him from doing so. If the entire situation is indicative of Syracuse, then this sentence is a symbol of the entire air travel industry. Screw the customer: we can make $3.50 on that 45-cent bag of Chex Mix while at 30,000 feet. Screw the customer: make them pay $25 if they check their bag, even though wheeling it to the gate means they can probably gate check it for free. Screw the customer because margin is the priority.

For every major airline (United) that I gripe about (United) because they (United) have made travel a nightmarish (United), there is a JetBlue. What makes that airline different? It at least puts on the facade of caring about its customers. JetBlue offers some  little comforts, like chairback TVs, free baggage, and comfy seats built for regular-sized people. Sure, it has stockholders that care about margin and profit, but it has found a space where good customer service means more than just getting from point A to point B.

The problem is that like JetBlue, Cafe Kubal is not the norm. Instead of others adopting this principle, we end up with Dunkin Donuts shops on every corner and in the middle of the airport.

Grocery List: March 2, 2014

Photo Mar 02, 11 31 21 AM“Well, I have to go to the bathroom.”

(The Kid, in all of her charming three-year-oldness, beings a lot of her sentences with a pensive “Well…” these days. It’s cute because it’s so out of context.)

Standing in the ice cream aisle at Wegmans Fairmount, this was not exactly the news I wanted to hear.

“Are you sure?,” I asked.

“Yes. I have to go to the bathroom.”

I sighed, spun the cart around and attempted to make my way through the extra-long cashier lines, through the congested produce section, and to the restroom alcove. Conversation on this trip revolved around how she was a girl, she had to to the girl’s room and that I was a boy and couldn’t go in. This thought had also crossed my mind, but I thought I had remembered a family restroom in the back of the men’s room. Apparently, I had mistaken the Fairmount store for another one.

The other men in the room were slightly startled by the little girl wandering from the stall to the sink to wash her hands. We got out of there and back to our other business.

I’m not going to spend the rest of this post ranting about how there should be a law passed that mandates family bathrooms in every grocery, discount, drug, and auto parts store in New York (Al Dente’s Law?). When I was single and/or childless, I would use the family bathrooms because they were always cleaner and closer to where I was standing. As a father of a daughter, I’ve come to embrace the forethought shown by companies like Target — which has a separate family bathroom — and Wegmans — which has tucked them in the rear of their gender-specific rooms in newly-renovated stores. So, thanks to them.

**

I would be remiss not to mention the increase in traffic to the blog, the result of my recent post the food that makes this area special. This was not (necessarily) about what was the best, but about what was important. The Syracuse area has a long, proud immigrant culture: the Irish on Tipperary Hill, the Polish on the Westside, the enclave of Tyrol in Solvay, the Italians on the Northside and Solvay. A renaissance of immigration has brought Asians and African refugees to the Northside and Ukrainians to the Western suburbs. These are important contributions to the fabric of the community.

Much like the staying that “retail follows rooftops,” bakeries, grocers and restaurants catering to these populations have followed. And, the vocal fans of places like Eva’s European Sweets and Bangkok Thai have shown that this diaspora of flavors has been embraced by the community.

I’m just happy to be involved with the discussion.