Archive for the ‘Q&As, Interviews & Features’ Category

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and yelling and cheering for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt. They hate him now! BOO. Different shirt! BOO. -Jerry Seinfeld

Every so often I sit back and audit my sports fandom. Living in Manhattan a few years back at the height of Linsanity, I found it easy to root for the hometown Knicks. But after several abysmal seasons, I dropped them. Same for the Giants, who had a great run including two Super Bowls, but have proven just how difficult it is to stay competitive for an extended period of time. Last season, I barely watched a quarter of their games (i.e. 15 minutes, not 4 games).

The only team for which I have true sports loyalty is the Yankees. But even they don’t get my unconditional love. Back in 2012 I contemplated whether I’d still follow the Yankees as closely when my all-time favorite player, Derek Jeter, retired.

In typical Seinfeldian “it’s funny because it’s true” fashion, I’m still rooting for the pinstriped clothes even if there are different people wearing them now versus when my fandom began in the 1990s.

Though I moved from New York to Virginia in 2015, I keep up with NY local sports talk radio online via ESPN’s The Michael Kay Show. (Kay is also the Yankees’ primary TV announcer.) Every day, older callers–many of whom start their calls with, “I’ve been a Yankee fan since” and then specifying a year in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s–lament the game they fell in love with as children, only to barely recognize it in its modern form. Striking out, for example, was traditionally thought of as the worst possible result of an at-bat; now, teams literally don’t care at all if every out a batter makes is by strikeout, as long as their other success metrics align with The Analytics.

I capitalize The Analytics because it’s become a catch-all for justyfing why a seemingly bizarre decision is made by a manager over the course of a game. There are no longer any “gut decisions”; teams have led us to believe that there are no decisions at all, because that would imply bias, of which the numbers used in The Analytics have none.

(Admittedly, as an occasional Blackjack player, The Analytics are precisely how I try to beat the house. Going with your gut in a game designed to bleed you unless you play the razor thin odds is just silly. But, it’s not quite as fun.)

These days even I find myself being all get off my lawn when I hear that the Yankees signed another relief pitcher who throws 100 miles per hour. (These personnel decisions are, of course, driven by The Analytics.) Watching a player strike out (one on my team or the opposition) is very boring to me. I miss guys like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, who were impossible to defend because they would just “hit ’em where they ain’t.” I miss guys like Greg Maddux, who barely threw 90 mph but could make any batter feel off balance and uncomfortable, or Mariano Rivera, who got to the Hall of Fame with one pitch, his devasting cutter.

A few months ago I saw a video called “The Rotary Phone Challenge,” in which two teenagers were tasked with successfully dialing a number from a rotary phone in under four minutes. Is this how my son will view so many things I grew up with, including baseball? If nothing else, I guess I’ll have an amusing viral video to show for it.

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Roger Federer, arguably the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, has earned about $3 million in 2011, not including endorsements. His rival, Rafael Nadal, has made in excess of $6 million, and top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who recently completed a historic season that included three major titles, has pocketed nearly $11 million.

If you are one of the top men’s players in the world, a career in tennis can be pretty lucrative. But what if you’re the 978th ranked player in the world?

“I am losing money most weeks,” said Peter Aarts, a professional tennis player from Pound Ridge (Westchester County), N.Y. The 24-year-old Aarts turned pro in August 2009 after graduating from the University of Michigan three months prior with a degree in English.

“Maybe if you are 300th in the world, you can break even if you are wise and a little frugal,” said Aarts.

Though Aarts’ singles rank is in the 900s, he has been ranked as high as 391st in the world in doubles, rotating with three or four different doubles partners depending on who’s in town that week.

Like many American college students who graduated into the recession, Aarts’ career options were limited. He says several of his classmates from Michigan had committed to finance jobs during senior year, only to find out those positions were eliminated before they could claim them. So for Aarts, the decision to turn pro was easier than it might have been.

And yes, playing tennis for a living beats job hunting, resume tweaking, and cover letter writing, but it’s still, unmistakably, work.

“It’s the biggest grind you can imagine,” said Aarts, who travels 31 to 32 weeks a year playing tournaments in the U.S. and abroad. His playing schedule is a mix of “Challengers” and “Futures,” the second and third tiers of professional tennis tournaments below the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which includes majors like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Like many pros at his level, Aarts may as well add “Travel Agent” to his resume. He spends hours on end researching flights online and filing the paperwork for international visas when necessary.

“I usually only book one-way flights,” said Aarts, because he never knows when he’ll be leaving—it all depends on how long he survives in a given tournament. “Some days I wake up and I forget what city I’m in.”

In 2010, Aarts played five tournaments in five weeks in India and China. He also plays in South and Central America as often as he can—the cost of living is more favorable than in the U.S., tournaments are frequent there, and he speaks Spanish.

The entry fees for Challengers and Futures tournaments are about $40, and the prize pool for most tournaments is typically either $10,000 or $15,000, split among all participants based on where they finish. Meaning, if a player wins a $10,000 tournament, he’ll only take home about $1,300.

To help pay for his travel expenses, Aarts has a group of sponsors made up of family friends and other supporters who have known him for most of his tennis life. Some sponsors have contributed money, and one even chipped in with frequent flier miles.

At one point, Aarts set himself up as a limited liability corporation, borrowing that idea from his former assistant coach at Michigan, Michael Kosta. Aarts has since dissolved the LLC, though he maintains the partnership with his sponsors. (Kosta is now a working stand-up comedian in Los Angeles.)

Aarts’ arrangement with his sponsors is as follows: They keep him afloat financially and in exchange, they receive the lion’s share of his earnings. Once his sponsors have recouped their initial investments, the percentages flip and he keeps the majority of his winnings.

Retaining a full-time coach is another luxury common to the top players. But at Aarts’ level, it takes four or five players like himself to pool their resources and hire a coach, whose services they then share for as long as they can afford it—sometimes just for a week at a time.

“And sometimes,” Aarts said, “you just have to figure it out on your own.”

Aarts started the 2011 season hoping to crack the top 600 in singles, which, with his current ranking, could be difficult but not impossible with about two months to go. In his estimation, there’s not much disparity in skill level between the 200th ranked singles player and the 1,000th. The trick, he says, is maintaining a high level of play for longer stretches over the course of the season.

“Anyone can have one or two good weeks,” said Aarts. The question is, “How can I have one or two good months?”

Aarts plans to sit down with his sponsors at the end of the year to evaluate his finances, but says he wants to continue playing professionally through 2012, with a goal of competing in the qualifying tournament for the 2012 U.S. Open.

“Right now, there is nothing that I would rather do tomorrow than get up and be able to try and push myself to become a little better,” said Aarts.

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It’s a Monday night in December and I’m sitting in a bar called Mulligan’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, waiting for my buddy Mike to claim the bar stool I’m saving for him. I lived in Hoboken for three years during my mid-20s and spent a lot of that time in bars, but I can’t remember ever seeing Mulligan’s this packed on any night of the week, no less a Monday.

The crowd, which is about 90% dudes, is there for the same reason Mike and I came out: It’s Seinfeld trivia night.

When the trivia host hands us our answer sheet for Round 1, I examine it carefully. It’s made up to look like the cover of a Penthouse magazine–a noticeable departure from the nondescript answer sheets you might find at other trivia nights. The blank white answer spaces, labeled 1 through 10, are strategically placed to cover the otherwise exposed cover models underneath (pictured below). In the bottom right corner, I notice the magazine is addressed to fictitious Seinfeld “dentist to the stars” Dr. Tim Whatley, DDS, who in one episode had an adults only dental practice and a waiting room stocked with adult reading materials.

Not your average answer sheet.

Mike and I are confident going into the first few questions. Between us, we’ve seen every episode 20 or 30 times in reruns. (I’d learn later that our host estimates he’s seen each episode at least 200 times.)

We keep pace with the leaders for the first few rounds, including a perfect 12 out of 12 in Round 2, attributing quotes from the show to the characters who said them. But by Round 4, matching obscure character names to their pictures, and the final round, made up entirely of questions about the “Festivus” episode, we’re toast.

We finish in seventh place. Our only consolation prize is the small laugh we get from the other players when our team name (To See Ramon?) is read aloud.

Still thinking about Seinfeld trivia the following morning, I reached out to Trivia, A.D., the company that put on the event, via Twitter. I wasn’t really sure what I expected to find.

But five days later, I’m sitting in Trivia, A.D. co-founder Dave Oliver’s living room in Hoboken, listening to him tell the story of how the company came to be.

This place looks like The Max from Saved by the Bell! How cool would it be if they had 80s trivia here?

For friends Amy Gerson and Dave Oliver, that epiphany came in May 2009 over drinks and tater tots at their favorite neighborhood haunt, Big Daddy’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Big Daddy’s is an 80s-style diner that doubles as a watering hole for locals, which Oliver describes as “like Johnny Rockets but less cheesy.”

Half-jokingly, they bounced the trivia idea off each other for 10 or 15 minutes, after which Gerson (who freely admits, “I have a big mouth”) approached the manager on duty that night about co-hosting a trivia night with her friend Dave at Big Daddy’s, eventually getting in touch with the restaurant’s general manager.

He said yes.

Management didn’t know what to expect as far as turnout, so they set aside a space for Gerson and Oliver in the back of the diner to hold about 25 people. Big Daddy’s email-blasted their customer database to alert them about the event, and Oliver used his graphic design background to create an eye-catching flyer to hang inside the diner.

After just a few days of promoting, Big Daddy’s had 110 reservations lined up.

That first night went well–so well, in fact, that the nascent trivia hosting team was invited back to do 80s pop culture trivia at Big Daddy’s Gramercy location, and later to host more trivia nights at those locations as well as as at two Duke’s locations (owned by Branded Restaurants USA, the same people who own Big Daddy’s).

Before they knew it, Trivia, A.D. (named for Amy and Dave) had become a four-nights-a-month part-time job.

When Oliver approaches a potential client (i.e. a bar) about hosting a trivia night, they typically request “regular” or general trivia. But when one of his Friends or Saved by the Bell trivia nights brings in 80 to 100 people on a Tuesday night, that’s all the convincing they need.

The concept of a themed trivia night isn’t unheard of, but general trivia–topics like current events, geography, music and sports all rolled into one–is far more common in bars. For Trivia, A.D.’s events, though, people aren’t there simply by happenstance; they show up specifically to play trivia about their favorite TV show or movie because they’re passionate about it.

That passion is never more apparent than when Oliver hosts Seinfeld trivia nights, which he started in July 2009. In fact, Oliver says Seinfeld is one of his three passions in life (the other two are baseball and Pearl Jam), but there’s one couple who might love the show even more than he does.

“To date, we’ve won Seinfeld trivia 17 times,” says Jamie Sclafane, who plays under team name Why No T-Bone? with her husband, Dave. They’ve been attending Trivia, A.D.’s Seinfeld trivia nights since September 2009.

(For some more of Trivia, A.D.’s funniest Seinfeld trivia team names, see the comments section below.)

“We had been waiting for something like this for a long time,” says Sclafane. “When I saw the flyer, I immediately called Dave and was like we need to go to this!”

Why No T-Bone? placed second at Trivia, A.D.’s 2010 Seinfeld Trivia Tournament, which took place over three weeks in July 2010 across four Big Daddy’s and Duke’s locations. “The amount of work and detail [Oliver] put into the … tournament was incredible,” says Scalfane.

Each team who made the tournament “finale” received a Seinfeld themed gift, such as a giant marble rye or a box of Jujyfruits. “He also made … a giant clown check made out to The Human Fund and the sign to mile marker 114 for the highway Kramer adopted,” Sclafane says, “which we proudly hang in our dining room.”

Jamie and Dave Sclafane at Trivia, A.D.'s 2010 Seinfeld Trivia Tournament.

Looking to expand beyond bars and restaurants, Trivia, A.D. hosted a “Festivus”-themed Seinfeld trivia night at Comix comedy club in December 2010. Comix advertised the event in the New York Post and Oliver designed inserts promoting the event to put in the playbills for Long Story Short, the one-man show starring Colin Quinn and directed by Jerry Seinfeld.

Long Story Short donated 16 tickets to their show plus some Seinfeld memorabilia for the winners. Unlike previous Trivia, A.D.-hosted trivia nights, Comix sold tickets to the event ($15 plus a two-drink minimum), but still drew an impressive 125 people.

It’s easy enough to Google “Seinfeld trivia questions,” copy and paste the best ones, and pass them off as your own at a trivia night. But that’s not Trivia, A.D.’s style.

For Seinfeld trivia in particular, Oliver has a database of thousands of questions and answers and says he knows where to find just about any scene for any season within his Seinfeld DVD collection. (I detect a hint of pride in his voice when he tells me this.)

So, if I go to one of your Seinfeld trivia nights this month, and then I go to another one six months later, will I get any of the same questions?

No repeats, he guarantees, not at any of his trivia nights.

As we’re chatting, Oliver’s wife, Kara Oliver, stops in to tell her husband that she’s got a friend “who knows a guy who was in the Pez episode who owns a bar.” He appears to make a mental note to track down that lead once I’ve left.

While Seinfeld trivia is Oliver’s forte, he’s getting more comfortable writing questions and hosting trivia nights for themes in which he’s not as fluent.

“If you’re gonna host, you better know your stuff,” says Oliver. “Die hard fans pick up on that.”

Trivia, A.D. gets tons of requests for new themes. “Right now people want Scrubs trivia.” Oliver’s even heard requests for Little House on the Prairie trivia. (Do not look out for that one at a bar near you in 2012.)

“My favorite part of any trivia night is when we announce all the themes we do and hearing people’s reactions,” says Kara, who has hosted Trivia, A.D. events for Jersey Shore, Mean Girls, Mad Men and Caddyshack. “They get so excited to hear their favorite show or movie.”

Other Trivia, A.D. pop-nostalgia themes have included Star Wars, Beverly Hills 90210, Back to the Future, Sex and the City, and more recently, Arrested Development and Harry Potter. Oliver’s always got his ear to the ground for the next pop culture phenomenon that could make for great for a trivia night.

Just a year and a half after its inception, Trivia, A.D. had taken greater strides than Oliver and Gerson had ever imagined it could, but a series of bad breaks in the first half of 2011 left them wondering whether they’d taken it as far as it could go.

This past February, Oliver hosted a Seinfeld trivia event at Gotham Comedy Club, hoping to repeat the success of the Comix show. But a couple of factors were working against them this time–namely, it was the Monday night after Super Bowl Sunday–and the event drew just 40 people.

And in June, Trivia, A.D. and Big Daddy’s mutually dissolved their long-standing trivia arrangement; the two sides are no longer affiliated.

But Trivia, A.D. has rebounded, adding new venues to its roster in New York and New Jersey, including Croton ReservoirVillage Pourhouse, and Liberty Bar, and it currently has trivia events booked through March 2012.

Without giving too much away, Oliver hints at multi-city expansion beyond the New York metro area, and he’d like to further experiment with trivia events outside of bars and restaurants. “I have big plans,” he says.

Well, how’s this for big plans: On January 30, Oliver will host a Seinfeld trivia night at Tom’s Restaurant. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because fans of the show may know it better as Monk’s Diner, the coffee shop where Jerry and the gang spent an obscene amount of time during the show’s 10-year run. (Monk’s is based on Tom’s.)

Though the Tom’s event is already booked to capacity, Oliver is always looking to add the finishing touches. He has reached out to every Seinfeld actor he can get a hold of to get them involved in the event, from Bryan Cranston (Tim Whatley) of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad to Patrick Warburton (the face-painting David Puddy) of CBS’s Rules of Engagement.

And if Jerry Seinfeld himself happens to show up at Tom’s that night, you can bet there will be a spot waiting for him in his old booth–there might even be room for three of his closest friends.

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“A company like Anheuser-Busch is a hundred times our size. They literally spill more beer … than I make all year. My passionate life’s work is their industrial waste.” –Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Company, in the 2009 documentary Beer Wars


When you think about it, tasting a really good craft beer isn’t all that different from tasting a fine wine.

The process is about the same. You want to know where it’s from and who made it. Once it’s poured into your glass, you examine the color, maybe hold it up to the light and look through it. Next, you give it a sniff to try to pick out notes of chocolate or oranges or coffee. Then it’s time to sip it, swirl it around in your mouth. What other flavors can you pick up?

There is a difference, though, between tasting beer and tasting wine. Unlike wine, beer must be swallowed to fully appreciate its taste. Let’s just say at beer tastings, a spit bucket is a lot less common.

Craft beer, by most definitions, is beer brewed by a small, independent brewery. (See here for a more in-depth explanation.) To put it another way, craft beers come from any microbrewery that strives for creativity and innovation, and have little or nothing to do with Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors.

Henry Joseph, 30, has been bartending at The Pony Bar, a craft beer bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, since it opened in April 2009.

“The neighborhood was underserved for craft beers,” Henry says.

Unlike most bars, where craft beer tends to be the most expensive beer on the menu, The Pony Bar keeps it simple: all beers cost $5. To further entice its patrons to experiment with new beers, The Pony Bar’s All American program rewards anyone who tries 100 different draft beers (not necessarily in one sitting) with a Pony Bar shirt and their name on the All American plaque and on the website.

To date, 440 people have completed a 100-beer cycle.

The Pony Bar’s star attraction is the two-part menu board hanging on the wall behind the bar: a list of 20 American craft beers on tap, which rotates as often as a keg is kicked. Each line on the list has the name of the brewery, the name of the beer, and the alcohol by volume (ABV)—most beers are served in 14 oz. glasses, with higher alcohol brews served in 8 oz. glasses. For non-craft beer drinkers, The Pony Bar also serves liquor and wine, as well as Bud and Bud Light bottles.

Do you ever sell any Bud Light? I ask Henry. “A few on Saturday nights,” he says. How much do you sell them for? “Five bucks. But we’re thinking of raising it to six.”

With an obvious passion for craft beers and the knowledge to back it up, Henry is happy to help his customers select a beer from the menu board, which can be a little intimidating for a newcomer. “It’s fun to see locals come in and to watch their tastes develop and evolve over time.”

Theme nights at The Pony Bar include “Rocky Mountain High,” during which they only serve Colorado beers. They also run “Tap Takeovers,” which feature beers from one brewery all night. Previous Tap Takeovers have included Sixpoint, Lagunitas, Stone, Victory and Southern Tier.

It’s also a good place to find the latest American seasonal beers, such as pumpkin ales during October. Southern Tier’s Pumpking Imperial Pumpkin Ale has been a big hit this year. “We can’t sell enough Southern Tier pumpkin,” Henry says.

The menu board at The Pony Bar (courtesy of theponybar.com).


It’s an exciting and pivotal time for the craft beer business. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry was worth $7.6 billion in 2010. Yet craft beer’s undisputed heavyweight champion, The Boston Brewing Company (which brews Samuel Adamsmade up less than 1% of all beer sales in the U.S. in 2010.

This past March, the craft beer industry made headlines when Chicago-based Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch (AB) for $38.8 million. While many craft beer drinkers have mixed feelings about Goose Island’s decision to sell, the deal drew national attention to the brand and shortly after the announcement, Goose Island six-packs started appearing more frequently in the beer aisle of my local grocery store.

What’s your take on the Goose Island acquisition? I ask Henry. “[AB] can’t sell any more Bud Light,” he says. “It was a last ditch effort.” But doesn’t it make Goose Island kind of a sell out? “If the beer continues to taste good, who cares?”

The truth is the lines have been blurred for a while now. Craft Brewers Alliance, which sold its $16.3 million share of Goose Island to AB, still owns smaller outfits including Redhook Ale Brewery, Kona Brewing Company, and Widmer Brothers. This past October, Terrapin Beer Co. sold a minority share to Miller Coors in an effort to fund a $4.5 million expansion project. And Blue Moon, which makes its signature Belgian-style wheat ale as well as several seasonal variations, has been brewed by Coors since its inception in 1995.

Still, Henry points to brewers like Sam Calagione from Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, who have stuck to their guns despite financial pressures. “[Sam] could only brew 60 Minute IPA (India Pale Ale) all day,” Dogfish’s signature and best-selling beer, Henry points out, rather than experimenting constantly with new flavors that are less profitable as he does now. Calagione explains his brewing philosophy in the Beer Wars documentary:

“Big breweries are usually public companies … Their real goal at the end of the day is maximizing shareholder value, whereas our goal is maximizing the flavor of what we’re making for our own enjoyment as the people making it.”

And for other do-it-yourselfers out there, craft beer is more accessible than ever in terms of homebrewing. Amateur brewmasters can replicate their favorite beers just as an amateur baker would follow a recipe in a Paula Dean cookbook. Or, if they’re feeling adventurous, they could put their own unique twist on an old classic.

It seems like every guy I know is brewing his own beer these days, I say to Henry. “Those kids in Brooklyn, now…you can buy one-gallon [craft beer] kits,” Henry says. “The holiday markets in Union Square are selling vanilla bean porter kits. You can put craft beer kits on your [wedding] registry!” They’re even selling craft beer kits at Bed Bath & Beyond.


When I met up with Henry at another craft beer bar, this one on the East Side, I’d been drinking $2 mugs of light, drinkable, but unremarkable Checker Cab Blonde Ale. (I’ve had it before—it’s the bar’s Sunday football beer special.) When I was ready for my next round, I asked Henry for a recommendation. He peered at the chalkboard menu and seemed excited about a beer from Barrier Brewing Co. I take it you’ve heard of Barrier before? “Yeah, it’s two guys on Long Island, Evan and Craig, who used to work for [Brooklyn-based brewery] Sixpoint.”

You really know your stuff. “Me and [The Pony Bar owner Dan McLaughlin] are pretty dialed in … I’ll come to a bar like this and try new beers, and say, ‘Hey, we should be pouring this.’”

My own beer palate isn’t as developed as Henry’s but I’ve had enough drafts to know when the beer has gone bad, and every now and then I’ll send one back. “The state of draft beer is horrible,” says Henry. “I would not order draft beer outside of a craft beer bar.” He says the lines—those are the hoses between the kegs and the taps—should be ideally cleaned once every two weeks. The Pony Bar does this, but many places don’t clean nearly as often–if ever.

According to Henry, a lot can go wrong if a bar isn’t maintaining its equipment correctly. And he should know: Henry is a Certified Cicerone, the second of three levels of the Cicerone Certification Program, just below Master Cicerone, of which there are just three in the whole country. From Cicerone.org:

“The Cicerone Certification Program offers that independent assessment and certification so that industry professionals—as well as consumers—can be sure of the knowledge and skills possessed by current and prospective beer servers.”

Henry says one part of the certification process has candidates first taste a “control beer” and then several off-tasting iterations of it to determine what went wrong, such as having been served from a dirty tap, or containing too much diacetyl, which at low levels adds a “slipperiness” to the beer but at high levels can give it an unwanted buttery flavor. Was it like the milk tasting competition in Napoleon Dynamite? I ask. “Yes. Exactly.”

When he’s not tending bar, Henry is the director of events and tastings at Civilization of Beer, a company founded by Sam Merritt whose mission is “to promote, through education and appreciation, the responsible enjoyment of high quality, craft beer in the context of our rapidly changing culinary landscape.”

Before The Pony Bar, Henry had gotten his start in the summer of 2005 in Allston, Mass., working at the Sunset Grill and Tap under owner Marc Kadish. It’s there, he says, where “I truly fell in love with the wide world of beer.”

He went on to work for Craft Brewers Guild outside of Boston. Working as a sales rep, he learned the “business of beer,” and met many people in the industry who shared his passion for craft beer.

Henry describes the craft beer community as “a tight knit group—not cutthroat,” and says, “We’re at a point in history where there are more breweries than ever—more than before Prohibition. More people are passionate about making and drinking beer.”

He credits local bar owners Jimmy Carbone (Jimmy’s #43), Dave Broderick (Blind Tiger), and the late Ray Dieter (d.b.a.) for growing the craft beer business in New York City when no one else wanted to sell the stuff. Without these guys, Henry says, “I wouldn’t have a job.” (On a personal note, I’m indebted to Broderick, too: my girlfriend and I shared pumpkin beers at Blind Tiger on our first date.)

“Craft beer isn’t a fad,” Henry says, attributing an old quote to Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Garrett Oliver. “It’s a return to normalcy.”

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The following post is a Q&A with my friend and former co-worker Ross. I thought his story was blogworthy, so I’m having him do it [mostly] in his own words.

I met Ross in February 2005 at my first real job out of college. The low-paying, low-responsibility position we held was supposed to be a stepping stone for us; we were Millenials determined to snag the pie-in-the-sky careers we were promised by our parents and teachers—you know, the ones where we get paid a reasonable salary to do something we love, all the while maintaining a perfect work-life balance.

We both moved on from that job after about a year and a half. Ross went first into sports TV production and later into public relations. As he struggled to figure out what color his parachute was, he spent his time outside of work pursuing his personal interests, launching a successful blog, and diving head first into all things social media. Today it seems he’s found the best of both worlds, blurring the lines between his passion and his profession.

Just before the summer started, you did something rather risky career-wise. What was it?
This past April, I decided to leave a steady and dependable job at a Fortune 500 company that was flush with cash and positioned for long-term success. I did this without having another job lined up. I had been there over three years and while my role at the company had evolved somewhat, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. My job was within a traditional PR team working for a cosmetics company, in a very corporate atmosphere. Eventually, I came to the realization that I’d never be fulfilled there and it was affecting my personal life.

My creativity and strategy shone when working to educate our 40+ international PR managers on making social media relevant in their markets, but I was stuck in the weeds of a heavily administrative role, planning international press events and pushing press materials.

I was a square peg, invigorated by the shift in marketing caused by social media, trying to fit into the round hole of a great corporation that wasn’t quite ready to make fundamental changes at the speed of culture. I was working long hours and was recently married, so I wasn’t able to dedicate the networking time necessary to switch career paths without taking a calculated risk and voluntarily joining the ever-increasing ranks of the unemployed.

What did the people around you say? Your wife, your former coworkers, your friends?
Everyone I worked with was extremely supportive. They knew that I needed to spread my wings and fly off on a different career path, but would never have pushed me involuntarily. I sat down with the SVP of my department and had a great heart to heart, sharing my candid thoughts and taking in some great advice.

My small network of family and friends knew me well enough that they had seen the writing on the wall. While nobody would recommend it based on the current unemployment rate and uncertainty of the economy, they had heard me talk about “the fundamental shift” in communications, jobs, economics and many other aspects of society so often, they had no choice but to trust that I was doing the right thing.

Most importantly, my wife had a steady job and was willing to support me during the time it took to find another steady source of income. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have made the same decision without my wife, but having her support allowed me to take this risk without having to make a huge lifestyle adjustment.

With a solid support system—emotional and financial—in place, you were able to spend a few months networking, taking meetings, and job hunting. How did that work out?
I recommend that if you’re planning on leaving a job and heading off into the great unknown of unemployment, you do it at the end of April. The long-awaited respite from NYC’s increasingly brutal winters was invigorating and helped to cheer me up on days when things were looking bleak.

My job hunt was extremely calculated. I knew that blasting my current resume around would probably land me some interviews, but most likely in the cosmetics or PR industries. I was feeling entrepreneurial and knew that networking in person would lead me to some interesting opportunities in the startup/tech/social media/agency world. That was where I felt I belonged.

I had my eyes on Big Fuel Communications for some time, even while I was still in my previous position. I even applied to a junior position back in January, just to open up the dialogue. My salary expectations didn’t fit within that role, but I kept in touch with the hiring manager and solicited advice, stayed in tune with the latest agency news, etc.

Then, during my unemployment journey this summer, my networking led me to another person who worked at Big Fuel. It seemed that the stars were aligned, so I applied for a Brand Channel Manager position, leveraging the referral of the well-respected person who I had met via my networking. Less than three months after quitting my previous job, I walked through the doors of Big Fuel for my first day of work a completely changed person.

So after leaving a safe job you hated to pursue a job in a field you were passionate about, you landed on your feet. Well played. Tell me a little more about Big Fuel and what a Brand Channel Manager does?
I started to answer this by saying that hate was a strong word, but then I realized that I really did hate it. I hated not feeling like I was on the cutting edge of the fundamental shift in communications. I hated being stuck in the weeds as a “cog in the wheel,” doing something that anyone else could do. Big Fuel offered something completely different, in a startup-style atmosphere. (Although on the day I signed my offer letter, the company was bought by the Publicis Groupe, the third largest marketing/advertising holding company in the world, with subsidiaries such as Saatchi and Saatchi, VivaKi, Digitas, Razorfish and many more.)

Big Fuel is the only “pure play” social media agency. Huge brands are coming to the realization that social media extends into ALL parts of their organization and they need an agency that works with all of their other agencies (PR, ad, event, etc.) to become the “one throat to choke” when it comes to creating a successful marketing program. Our goal is to leverage our strategic insights into creative content and tell product stories through people. We exist to humanize brands through programs that live on their owned media channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, company blogs) and are distributed on earned media channels (online communities, websites, blogs).

As a Brand Channel Manager, I work with brands to lead development of an ongoing communication strategy and publishing calendar for their branded social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Foursquare, etc.). One of my passions is consumer advocacy, and in my role, I get to be on the front lines with social consumers who are connecting with brands. It is my job to foster two-way conversations and understand what makes the customers tick by soliciting and acting upon feedback.

Your position at Big Fuel literally didn’t exist when you graduated from Penn State in 2004. Yet seven years later you ended up there anyway. Do you think that’ll be the same story for a lot of kids starting college in the next few years, that their future dream job or company doesn’t even exist yet?
Big Fuel was in the process of being founded when I graduated, but it was completely different than it is today. As a matter of fact, one year ago, Big Fuel was very different than it is today. In social media, you have to move at the speed of culture, and culture is moving pretty fast right now. I think that social media is about to head in a much more academic direction, and it ties as closely to sociology and psychology as it does to marketing/advertising/PR.

Kids in college studying non-technical fields need to think like entrepreneurs. They need to realize that the days of finding a cushy 9-5 job based on their diploma are long gone. For better or for worse, the word “job” is taking on a different meaning–we all have the tools at our disposal to learn more than any college professor can ever teach us. The most successful people of our generation (aside from the developers/engineers/programmers) will be the people who tap into their passion and find a way to make a living that they are fulfilled by and offers some kind of value to the people around them.

In your case, the risk paid off. What’s your advice to other people contemplating a similar decision?
From a practical standpoint, you need to be fully prepared to deal with the worst case scenario if you make a decision as rash as quitting a job without another one lined up. You need to understand your financial limitations and how your lifestyle will be affected if you’re out of work for an extended period of time.

Once you have that minor issue taken care of, you need to have a really honest conversation with yourself, your loved ones, a therapist–whoever. You need to figure out what you are passionate about and research it. Lose all inhibitions and network with everyone and anyone, telling your true story and not shaping your story to fit other people’s needs or expectations.

Find people to network with via personal connections, business connections and websites like meetup.com. Read as much as you can about what you’re passionate about (use the website Instapaper.com to bookmark content you can’t read immediately so you can access it on iOS devices). Get on Twitter, follow people that share your interests and interact with them.

If you have an iPad, download the free Zite app which allows you to follow topics of interest and curates top content based on your social graph and their editors. If you have an iPhone, download the Summify app which will aggregate popular links from your social feeds (based on times shared) and serve it to your device at various times throughout the day.

What I’m saying is that you need to depend on yourself and not on “the system.” If you want to be successful and happy, make yourself indispensable within your field of interest and the rest will fall into place.

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My cheapness manifests in many forms. I once paid $350 for a tattoo, but complained about the five-dollar tube of healing lotion I had to buy along with it. When I eat at a fast food joint that has a self-service soda fountain, I fill my cup to the top, slurp two or three giant sips, and top-up again before I leave. I am willing to travel miles and inconvenience friends and family just to avoid an ATM fee. But never is my frugality more evident than when it comes to my daily coffee.

For years I tried any alternative I could think of to avoid paying someone else to make my coffee. When I first started at my current job, I would drink the office’s low-grade brew. Later, I brewed my own with a single-cup machine, but couldn’t get it to taste right. Then there was my failed experiment with a cheap Target French press. Last year, in an effort get my coworkers caught up in my neuroses, I cofounded an office coffee club. We would all share the responsibilities of buying the coffee, brewing it, and cleaning the machine each day. But we never seemed to establish any sort of rhythm, and after a few months we all gave up.

Meanwhile, a new coffee shop called Gregorys Coffee (no apostrophe) had opened up in the previously vacant storefront downstairs from my office building at 40th Street and 7th Ave. Disillusioned by the disintegration of the coffee club, a few of my coworkers went down to check it out and came back with rave reviews. But I held my ground. Still uninterested in overpaying for coffee, I tried my hand at Lipton tea (there’s an unlimited supply in my office), attempting to convince myself that it was just as good.

Then one day a coworker came back upstairs after a trip to Gregorys and notified me that he had become a “Gregular.” Gregular status, earned simply by asking for a Gregorys Coffee membership card, means that for every $50 you spend, you receive $5 to spend at Gregorys. Once you cash in your $5 you start over, accumulating another $50. The prospect of spending a little over $2 per cup for coffee twice a day still made me hesitant to try the new place, but the idea of becoming a Gregular—and joining a 10% cash back program—was too good to pass up.

My first few trips to Gregorys were uneventful. The coffee was reasonably priced and tasty, pretty much what I had expected. But after a few more visits I started to notice that their commitment to customer service was, well, noticeable. A couple times I even spotted Gregory himself working the espresso machines, tidying up, and offering explanations on his various brews if a customer asked. (I recognized him from his likeness from my Gregular card, above.) To me it seemed that Gregorys should have been drowning in a neighborhood dominated by Starbucks and other better known, longer established coffee shops. Instead, it was full every morning and still busy by afternoon. On nice days the outdoor seating was occupied by office workers and tourists spilled over from Times Square.

I had to know more. I found their modest company website and sent an email to info@gregoryscoffee.com, hoping to get in touch with someone—preferably Gregory—who might meet with me for an interview. A half hour later, I got a response from gregory@gregoryscoffee.com, asking when I had some time to talk. Later, we sat down for coffee at the store below my office building. He poured me a cup of my usual “medium-medium” (medium sized medium roast, which he explained had more caffeine than the dark roast) on the house; he had an espresso.

Gregory, a.k.a. Greg Zamfotis, is 29. He went to Boston University for business with aspirations of being an investment banker, but changed his mind. He went on to Brooklyn Law School to be a bankruptcy lawyer, but changed his mind again. He didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day; he wanted something that he could put his name on. Greg’s dad spent his entire career in the food and beverage industry in Manhattan, mostly with delis, but it never interested Greg enough to go into the family business. It was only during a conversation with his father a few years ago—at a Starbucks of all places—that he decided to combine his foodie pedigree with his entrepreneurial spirit and open a coffee shop in New York City. His first location, at 24th and Park Ave, debuted in December 2006.

It’s obvious the guy is passionate about coffee—and equally passionate about running a successful business. He splits his time among all three of his locations, often working behind the counter in a fitted white shirt (rolled up sleeves) and a dark skinny tie. He designed the company website himself. He answers his own emails. He has plans to move into a midtown office space in the near future, and has a fourth store set to open in August 2011. And on top of that, he’s literally the face of the company.

When I hear Greg talk about the finer points of coffee, I can’t help but think of a wine connoisseur describing the subtle differences between two vintages of a cabernet, or what someone like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales might tell me about his 60 Minute IPA versus the 90 Minute IPA.

Greg describes the coffee evolution in America as happening in three waves. The first wave, from coffee’s inception up until about 20 years ago, was when coffee was just Joe—it had caffeine, people drank it, and then went on with their lives. The second wave, in the 1990s, was Starbucks. More choices for serious coffee drinkers, from myriad roast profiles to a slew of espresso-based specialty drinks, and if you were willing to pay a little more, you could get a better cup of coffee than you could make at home or order at a deli. The third wave is where Gregorys comes into play. After our initial meeting, Greg articulated via email what exactly that third wave entailed:

“The third wave is basically taking the second wave to new heights. It is using single origin coffee and brewing them one cup at a time to highlight the specific flavors and aromas you might find. It is focusing on direct trade, buying straight from the farmers, establishing relationships with them. It is pouring latte art into espresso based beverages instead of just using an automatic machine like Starbucks. It is basically about picking and choosing specific qualities of specific beans and deciding which method of brewing will highlight that bean to its fullest.”

For Greg, it seems to be less about putting Starbucks out of business and more about putting something new out into the marketplace. “I wanted to bring the third wave to midtown,” he says. But if the majority of his customers are “first wave” coffee drinkers (like me) who order medium-mediums twice a day, doesn’t that run contrary to the whole third wave paradigm? He says no. He estimates 85 to 90% of his Gregulars order mostly just basic coffee. And if customers like those are trying to find the absolute cheapest coffee on the block, it won’t be his. (Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s are both within walking distance of his 40th and 7th location, not to mention a fleet of breakfast carts stationed at every corner.) So instead, he says, the plan is to compete by offering great customer service.

You might be thinking, Customer service? What a concept! It should come standard with every cup of coffee. But it doesn’t. The archetype of a modern coffee shop employee, as Greg describes him, is the guy wearing a wool cap in the middle of the summer, ignoring the customer so he can brag to the other employees about the latest indie flick he’s seen or the new obscure band he’s into. Of course that’s not always the attitude you’ll encounter, but Greg makes sure you don’t see it in his stores.

Even before I met with Greg, I could tell that the Gregorys staff had been trained to handle customers a certain way. On one visit, I reached the front of the line only to find the cashier fumbling with a stubborn roll of quarters. Her manager noticed the line starting to grow and in a polite but firm tone, she instructed the cashier: “Don’t worry about the quarters when there’s a line. Take care of the customer first.” Another time, I accidentally dropped my change into a dish of their complimentary mini biscotti. The cashier immediately snatched up the tainted plate and replaced it with clean cookies. On still another occasion when I was running late for work, I accidentally left a large personal check on the Gregorys counter and didn’t realize it until about an hour later. When I went back to see if anyone had found it, the check was waiting for me behind the counter along with a $10 bill I didn’t even notice I had left with the check.

The young staff is positive and enthusiastic and polite for now, but how, I asked Greg, does he keep them that way once that newness wears off? After all, even the most disgruntled employee in the world was probably happy at his job for at least the first month or two. At 29, Greg is around the same age as many of his employees. He appreciates that they have other interests outside of coffee and presumably that understanding has molded his managerial style. Though his is still a relatively small operation, he stresses the import of the distinct company culture at Gregorys. The staff regularly does book clubs and movie nights together. Once a year, Greg closes his stores and takes everyone to Medieval Times in New Jersey. And later this year, he’s headed to Brazil to visit some coffee farms and he has saved an open seat for one of his employees to join him, all expenses paid. To decide who gets to go with him, Greg is holding a contest. Employees can submit a piece of original art—a song, a personal essay, a photograph—with the best entry getting the ticket to Brazil.

After speaking to him, it’s hard not to like Greg; I’m rooting for him to succeed. But most of his customers will never have a conversation with him or follow him on Twitter or even notice him behind the counter. Still, it says a lot about Greg that he’s managed to overcome some long odds, against both his competitors and my cheapness. For the record, I still buy all my clothes at outlets and I still hate leaving even a few minutes unused on a parking meter. But I’ll happily pay $4.46 a day ($2.23 in the morning, $2.23 in the afternoon) for my medium-mediums, and I’m proud to call myself a Gregular.

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