Lessons from The Buena Vista Cafe

The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco is world famous as the birthplace of the Irish Coffee. The reality of it is that in about 1950, SF Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane (a legend at the time) had one at an airport in Ireland and loved it. He came back and described the drink to his friend who owned the BVC and they worked to recreate the drink. They “worked” slavishly and were hammered for a week. All hope looked lost until one day when George Christopher, the mayor of SF, came into the cafe. Christopher was a dairy farmer and told them the cream was too fresh and that they needed to lightly whip it and let it sit for a couple of days. That was the key as it turns out.

The BVC is special to me because I love Irish Coffees and because it’s where Lori and I went directly after getting engaged on the Golden Gate Bridge. When we went in that day, the guy working the bar was a tall striking silver haired older guy who, as it turned out, grew up in Livermore where I was living at the time. He talked of all the now busy streets in Livermore that were dirt roads when he was a kid.

Anyway…I studiously watched him make the drinks for a couple of hours. He made literally hundreds of them and I was confident I could make them at home. I did…and they were coffee, Tullamore Irish whiskey and cream…and they were not nearly as magical. The next time we went back, I told him of my disappointment. He said the cream was probably too fresh. He said they didn’t use the cream until it was just expired or beyond. He said fresh cream didn’t have the right heft to float on top of the coffee and whiskey.

I probably way overtipped that day.

I bought cream and patiently waited for it to expire. Excitedly, I made Lori and I Irish Coffees and while better, not the same as at BVC.

Fast forward to tonight. Lori had gone to BVC last weekend with a friend and in their little gift shop thoughtfully got me 4 real BVC Irish Coffee glasses. With the glasses came quaint instructions and in those instructions was the absolute key to the entire thing.

First, the glass is extremely important. The narrow bottom is perfect for the two sugar cubes to be muddled with the hot coffee and the Irish whiskey (and by the way, when I was doing this coffee mugs, I was putting in about 4X the correct amount of whiskey which sounds awesome but ruined the drink). Secondly the width at the top allows the perfect ratio of cream. So these glasses were key.

But the secret?

The instructions said to pour the cream (lightly whipped but not like whipped cream) OVER THE BOTTOM OF A SPOON. *That’s* what I didn’t get from watching the silver haired Livermore guy make the drinks at BVC. It stops the heavy cream from sinking into the drink and keeps it floating on top. This cannot be overstated. Having the hot coffee and whiskey come through the cold heavy cream is the part of the whole drink that makes it magical.

That one thing.

The lesson, grasshopper? It’s in the details. You don’t have to obsess about things but if they’re not working out just right, eventually the universe will reveal the upside down spoon that is the key.

*please excuse the stuffed baby yoda in the picture that I was too lazy to move but Lori’s kids loved it last year.


The Oakland Teacher’s Strike.


It’s over. That’s good. My wife is back at work with her kids where she always wanted to be. I spent a few hours on the picket line, a few hours in one of the “solidarity schools” they set up so parents wouldn’t have to cross the picket line (and 97% didn’t which blew me away) and a few hours with striking teachers having beers and talking. I also went downtown before the vote and listened to the teachers talk.

I did not hear a single comment about “my paycheck.” Every single comment about the raise (11% over 4 years to the lowest paid teachers in California who live in an expensive area) had to do with attracting and retaining teachers. Every comment was about teachers staying in Oakland more than a year or two and moving on. The people voting no (and there were a lot of them) all talked about the number of school nurses, counselors and programs.

They talked about school closures in African American and Latino neighborhoods and the “white flight” (my words not theirs) to charter schools that siphon off the involved parents and better students while turning away special needs students (”our school isn’t quite right for your autistic child”).

There’s a long way to go. They’re back to work in a challenging district. It would be so easy to just go somewhere easier and leave these kids to Darwinist forces we applaud as we make America great again.

But the idea that each and every fetus is special until it leaves the hospital and that poor children are less deserving than other kids living three blocks away because of how we fund schools is, if not un-American, inhumane and indefensible.

Listening to these teachers talk made me feel people who are on the front lines care. They could move to the school three blocks away and have much easier lives and they choose not to.

In this dark era where everything is measured by short term economic gains for small segments of the population while large segments are considered disposable, it was awesome to spend time with these heroes.

The Macaron Nazi.

soupCraft a perfect image for your business complete with logo, tagline and mostly stellar online reviews. That’s great. You WANT all those things. But many businesses have a hard time getting their heads wrapped around the idea their identity is public property and that even though it’s your blood, sweat, tears and money that built the business, you have an unpaid marketing department.

They’re called customers and they notice every detail. And to make it worse, every one of them is an expert. The sooner you get comfortable that their “expertise” is perfectly valid and will be shared relentlessly, the better.

There is a French bakery in a neighboring town that I pass by quite often. Their macarons are sublime and I would put anything they do that’s vaguely pastry up against anyone. The couple that owns the place are as nice as can be…until something happens that they don’t like.

It can be a dog tied to a lamp post in front of the shop, a noisy group, a guy moving a chair from one table to another, someone who asks a lot of questions and, mostly, Yelp reviews that are anything less than 5 stars. Reading their Yelp replies is as horrifying as anything Stephen King has written. Anyone who offers the slightest criticism gets a faceful of “what culinary school did you go to?” In this day and age, if you have a sizable number of Yelp reviews (and they do), there is no need to panic over one or two mediocre reviews. But if you insist on ripping into customers on-line, you, yes YOU are the one tearing down your business. New potential customers don’t want to run the risk of running into Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. They’ll find somewhere else to buy a tart as I reluctantly did. I just could not reward their aggressive online persona with my money.

It’s natural to want to defend your business or your employees but keep a level head. Online reviews are generally opinions and opinions are highly subjective. Generating what amounts to a court transcript of a back-and-forth with a disgruntled customer can never be good for you. Your regular customers will most likely side with you and the other 99.9% of the population that makes up people you WANT to be your customers will not want to get involved. Maybe your regular customers will mention that they read the bad review and give you an “attaboy” for your crusty (see what I did there?) response but that doesn’t make the cash register ring. Cold solace I’d say.

Writing a defensive “it’s easy to hide behind the internet” response to a bad review should be given the same consideration as drunk texting an ex. Think about it. Think about it again…and then don’t do it.

So what SHOULD you do? Remember your three constituencies in this case:

  1. The reviewer.
  2. Happy customers who will most likely continue to visit in spite of the review.
  3. People reading the review who are not customers yet

Think of the reviewer. But think HARDER about #3. It’s perfectly acceptable to offer your email address and ask for more details on their visit. Let them know that their business in important to you. Heck, it’s perfectly fine to get more to the point and say that YOUR business is important to you and you want to make it better.You should want to understand what could have made their experience everything they’d hoped it would be.

Get the information if it’s offered and see if there is anything to learn from. If it’s helpful, see what you can change or retrain staff where appropriate. If the feedback is a corner case or not helpful, disregard it and don’t feel you have to explain why it’s not helpful to the reviewer.

Remember, it’s more important to grow your business than be right on the internet.

The NFL, billionaires and your money.


The late Art Modell, Cleveland Browns owner who spirited his team away in the dead of night pictured with Art Spanos who is ill-advisedly moving his in broad daylight to a city that doesn’t care.

It was with some sadness this morning that I heard the San Diego Chargers were moving, inexplicably, to a small soccer stadium in Los Angeles. I lived in the San Diego area for a few years in the early 2000s. As a huge sports fan, I never forgot my Bay Area roots. When the Giants played the Padres, my sons and I wore black and orange to the games and cheered loudly for our guys. And while I remained a 49er fan, I did root for the Chargers while I was down South. They didn’t play in the 49ers division and, in fact, didn’t play the 49ers at all while I was there. Chargers tickets were easy to acquire and the great weather made tailgating, almost literally, a day at the beach. The fans were were wonderful and the games were a positive experience unless the Raiders were in town.

As a city, San Diego is a sweet good natured kid. Because of the huge military influence between the Navy in Coronado and in the Bay as well as Camp Pendleton, many people come in from other parts of the country. Some stay. Some go. But San Diego has greeting, embracing and saying goodbye down pat. Everyone is welcome and when you have to leave for whatever reason, folks buy you a beer and wish you well.

When I heard that the Stockton-based Spanos family was pulling up stakes to become, at best, the fifth most popular team in a city (Los Angeles) that doesn’t even like pro football, I wasn’t surprised.

When Spanos wanted a new staduim, San Diego said no and billionaires like Spanos don’t like being told no.

When San Francisco told my beloved Giants no, the Giants investors (for the most part) financed their own stadium and now that we’re 17 years down the road on that, they’ve done quite nicely for themselves. The City too benefited as the surrounding neighborhood is now vibrant. Even on non-game days and even in winter. San Francisco is just not the type of city to give spoiled rich guys a hand. They stop just short of giving them the finger as a matter of fact. But SF knows what it offers and if you want it, build your own damn stadium.

When the 49ers wanted SF to hand them a stadium with a big bow on it, the City said no. The team leaned hard on my childhood home (Santa Clara, CA) and there they built an odd, soulless collection of luxury suites with a football field next to it. The Yorks who own the team are doing well financially on the stadium with Taylor Swift concerts, WWE wrestling matches, truck pulls and the like. Football-wise, the place was a ghost town last year and now the city of Santa Clara is suing the 49ers for various reasons.

Santa Clara, it turns out, had nothing to offer but acreage next to an amusement park and glass cubes that house tech firms. The warm, inviting town where I spent my childhood sold itself down the river to a rich family that doesn’t need it.

Long story short, San Diego deserved better but it’s not a market that rich, flinty profiteers like Spanos value. And while the fans deserve better, I’m happy that San Diego didn’t prostitute itself out to keep a rich man’s toy in its warmth. San Diego is a great place to live and raise a family. That’s good enough. In fact, it’s great.

Rather than being seen as a city that “lost” an NFL franchise, I hope they’re the latest example in what becomes a long list of cities that keep their priorities straight as carpetbagging sports team owners move from city to city and wonder why so many seats are empty.

One more thing: Oakland? Be strong. Be smart.



Customer Experience When They’re Walking Away.

apple store What makes you “like” a business? What makes you love one. What makes you feel you’re a valued and enthusiastic part of an entire ecosystem that forms that enterprise?

When building a customer experience, it’s easy to cherry pick. It’s easy to gravitate toward the part of the experience that is most obvious or the one that’s most personally interesting to you.

When putting together a retail experience such as a brick-and-mortar store, a restaurant or a winery tasting room, everyone puts a LOT of thought and effort into the initial impression. The visceral feeling of the “unveil” is hard to resist. Who doesn’t love a good “voilà moment?”

I’m not agitating for undervaluing that part that part of the experience but a flush of excitement that fades is common. Ask yourself this: Would you prefer a customer loving you most on the way IN or loving you most on the way OUT of your business?

One of my favorite customer experiences to be had is at the Apple Store. Every second of the customer experience has been tailored to put you in the proper frame of mind. The precision look of the stores with their reliance on glass and modern design set your expectations as you approach. The eager staff that greets you as you walk into the often crowded stores has the right balance of clean eager nerdiness to make you feel like it’s a place of endless possibilities that will be quickly curated to your particular need.

If all customers walking in were there to primarily do one thing, the Apple Store would not be so amazing. But a person looking at a $3000 MacBook Pro, one looking for a charger cable and one looking for repair services all have needs for a vastly different experience. Triaging that quickly is key so that the superior experience for the unique use case starts immediately.

More often than not, customers walk out of an Apple store not feeling gouged by the incredibly high profit margins but with a feeling that “you get what you pay for.” They often walk out with a – some would say smug – feeling that they’re part of something special. Statistically, Apple customers are among the most loyal in tech and the customer experience building to THAT feeling is a huge part of it.

How do you want your customers to feel when they walk out of your business? Build your customer experience from back to front. How they felt walking in is important in teeing things up but how they feel leaving is who you are to them.

Customer Experience is Everything.


Reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors seemingly has it all. He has money, fame, professional success and a wonderful wife and family. It all adds up to a likeability factor that’s off the charts. He shreds the NBA and then goes home to record a Dubsmash video of a song from “Frozen” with his wife to post on social media.

He’s at the pinnacle of his profession. Under Armor gave him equity in their company to get him to design a shoe for them. His jersey is the top seller. In the off-season, he goes to Tanzania to hang mosquito nets in areas ravaged by malaria. He doesn’t send money like most would. He goes there.

No wonder people really like him.

Remember Tiger Woods? Remember when he was at the top? He dominated the links, his face was everywhere and every blue chip company wanted to be associated with him. He had it all. But even before his fall from grace, there was something about him that rubbed many in the public the wrong way. It could have been his robotic interviews and the cold vibe he threw off.

His popularity was more a form of respect for his utter domination on the golf course rather than a genuine embracing of the man himself. When his game began to deteriorate, the mystique was gone. Even before his shameful indiscretions were made public, he was fading. He offered one thing and that one thing evaporated.

As a company, you want your Customer Experience to be more Steph and less Tiger.

Tiger’s “customers” (sports fans, consumers, etc.) showed that their Tiger Woods “experience” was not something that really resonated on any deeper level. Their grudging respect for his one attribute (excellence on the golf course) was easily unraveled. Admittedly, he made it pretty easy for them to unravel.

When your customer experience is one dimensionally focused on product excellence, you are a misstep or two from a perilous fall. When your product quality, corporate culture, efficient processes and excellent people combine to form your identity in the marketplace, you may find your customers will be on your side if one of those important attributes falters.

Customer experience is bigger than the value your product provides.

Customer experience is everything.

The Snake.

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I’m a 49er fan to be sure. But until 1980, I was a die hard Oakland Raiders fan. As a freshman in high school, I wrote a paper that was supposed to be about William Shakespeare but instead, I wrote it on George Blanda, the kicker and second string Raider QB. I got a C on the paper. She penalized me two full letter grades over the topic which I considered a moral victory.

When Al Davis announced the Raiders were leaving their fairly new sold out stadium in Oakland to move to El Lay, it was one worst days of my life. I was instantly done with the Raiders and football in general. I tore down the Raider posters in my dorm room at San Jose State, openly cursed Al (I nearly had a multiple schadenfreudegasm when he died because fuck Al Davis) and was done with them forever. My loyalty was in a dumpster along with the posters of Blanda, Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff and Jim Otto.

That was the end of a golden era when the Raiders were unlike any team in sports. It was a time when you could actually go to Rickey’s in San Leandro after the game and the players would be there and they’d buy you a drink. The Raiders of the ‘70s were a rough-and-tumble, no nonsense group that played (and partied) on the edge 100% of the time.

No one personified this more that Kenny “The Snake” Stabler who died Wednesday of colon cancer at the age of 69.

When he replaced the wooden, inaccurate, immobile “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, it was a revelation. He was wicked smart, wicked quick, wicked accurate and well, wicked. He could find any receiver on the field. He called his own plays. John Madden eventually threw him the playbook and said “go win” because he knew The Snake could see and feel more of the game in the moment than the coaches ever could ensconced in the safety of the sideline.

I’m not going to recite statistics (although Kenny’s were great) or accomplishments (there were many but you can Google them). What made Kenny one of the greatest quarterbacks in history were his arm, his brains and his leadership. He was Tom Brady without the Audi R8, $40 million mansion and supermodel. After the game, he’d bum a ride to a bar and shoot the shit. He was a  football player rather than a faux celebrity.

He (and John Madden) left the Raiders after the 1979 season when Al didn’t want to pay him. The timing was perfect. We were both done with Al at almost the same time.

When I learned yesterday that Kenny’s last wish was that his brain and spine be donated to the Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, as sad as I was, I had to smile.

He had plenty of both.

Quick Movie Review: The Salt of the Earth

Lori and I trekked to Berkeley to see this documentary on Sebastiano Salgado, famed Brazilian photographer. The black and white photography, of course, is amazing. Mindblowing even. What this trailer does not prepare you for is his work in documenting the human condition and, spoiler alert, the human condition is not good. His heartbreaking work in Rwanda and Ethiopa and the migration of refugees in Eastern Europe show a world that, from here, is hard to imagine. But people in those parts of the world can’t imagine anything else.

I highly recommend this documentary (done by Wim Wenders, known for Paris, Texas and Buena Vista Social Club). You can wait to see it on Netflix but seeing it on the big screen, images of 50,000 Brazilian coal miners come to life in a way they may not on your laptop or, worse, phone. What will come through on any device is the cautionary tale the 71 year-old artist conveys through his words which accompany the images.

Three Nights of Dylan and the Giants Win the Series.


My girlfriend said it best after the second Dylan show the night of Game 7, “This will never happen again.” And it won’t.

I went to work on Monday morning and had a full crazy day. I knew with the Dylan shows at the shimmering palace that is the Paramount Theater in Oakland and the World Series, I would be distracted at work. I went to work on Tuesday thinking about the Dylan shows and the World Series. At noon, I told my boss I was taking the rest of the week off. I told him I’d be worthless with MadBob and MadBum on the brain. He of course is well-aware of my Giants obsession (which he shares) and my Dylan obsession (which he finds mindboggling unsharable) and he wished me well.

I was immediately at once so excited that I couldn’t breathe and so relaxed that I felt I’d float away. So I did what any guy would do. I got my oil changed. I then collected my two older boys and a boy’s girlfriend and we set off. We found a great place to park and a cool place that served oysters and whiskeys and other stuff. I immediately lightened the mood by telling them I was paying for everything and they could get what they wanted. So dinner was crazy good and fun even though the Giants got blown out by the Royals. We were surprisingly unconcerned and confident of a win the next night. We walked a short block to the Paramount past Bob’s bus. We got to our seats in the 20th or so row and at 7:59 a gong sounded twice. The lights came down and Bob was singing exactly at 8 hence the “don’t be late” admonishment on the poster for the show. I was a little concerned because this is NOT a ’60s rocker greatest hits show to harvest dollars. ONE song from the ’60s, one from the ’70s, one from the ’90s and the rest from the last decade including 6 from his latest album. This was not for the faint of heart. My two boys had seen Bob a few years ago and loved it but this would be Bob the contemporary artist and I didn’t know if they could do Bob without anything on the Greatest Hits album. And Stephanie knew almost nothing of Bob.

But this “oldie-less”show means that he’s singing songs written for his current voice and not the ones from records that are now 50 years old. The band was locked in and Dylan was at the piano half the time and out front in front of a mike the other half. There is no guitar anymore and plenty of harmonica but he holds it in his hand rather than a wire rack around the neck. The SET setlist meant that the band was well-rehearsed and Bob could just focus on the performance.

Sometimes he looked every bit his 73 years and sometimes he was so spry that all I could think about was how much he must love what he’s doing. Vocally, he was good but I was amazed at how much work he put into the piano. The instrument was mixed way out front and there was no place to hide. Even though he’s probably the 6th best musician on the stage (because his bandmates are so good), it’s clearly his band and they are riveted to his every move.

Highlights included Love Sick, Tangled Up in Blue (with many new lyrics), Early Roman Kings and Spirit On the Water.

The last song of the main set is the dramatic “Long and Wasted Years” which was a curious choice. It’s not exactly anticlimactic but a long slow song about a decaying marriage isn’t what most people would do to spark a thunderous ovation.

He came out for a one song encore, Stay With Me, a song made famous by Frank Sinatra in the ’40s. You have to love Bob’s weirdness but on the other hand, until a few shows ago, the encore had been Blowin’ in the Wind and All Along the Watchtower. The inclusion of two older iconic songs would have made the night for a large segment of the audience. Having checked setlists on the remarkable www.expectingrain.com, I was prepared but many weren’t.

As he does now, after the last note, he stood with the band at the front edge of the stage and stared out at the audience as they clapped. The slightest hint of a nod but no bows, kisses or finger pistols. The word “stoic” comes to mind. The lights went down, he exited and the lights came back up. Done.

I thought it was great. To my surprise, the kids thought so too. They were practically gushing and did so all the way home. This was a relief on several levels since the boys would be coming with me on Thursday as well. A very happy and memorable night.


I really wished he Giants had won the series in 5 or six games but no dice so Lori and I headed out way early to Oakland. We found some hipster paradise that was so hipster that it was a parody of hipsters. We drank obscure beers served by rail-thin tattooed persons of ambiguous sexuality.  When the Hutch next door opened at 4, we headed there and found prime seats at the bar. I told the bartender that we would be there for the game and while we couldn’t drink for four solid hours, I would tip as though we did. He indicated that this was a plan that he could support.

The plan broke down when we did actually drink for four solid hours. Me less since I was the driver. The game was amazing. There was a brief scare at the end that looked like extra innings could occur. Lori made it clear that she preferred to wait until the end of the game to go to the concert which meant we’d miss the beginning. This was my 230thish Dylan show and I’d never been late to one before but this was special and she can be very persuasive so we waited.

We were in the balcony which meant a million stairs but we made it. Lori loved the show and I was excited by her comments. She “got it” and knew she was watching greatness and (this is key) was more inclined to roll with it than to roll her eyes at it. That made an already wonderful night indescribable. I told her that Dylan show staging is usually very sparse, more akin to a high school talent show. This tour, there were a few nice touches like old timey Hollywood style lights above and a few backdrops that appeared from time to time. Every time one of the backdrops would change, she’d whisper, “Production values!” Like I said, she got it.


This night it was me and my three boys. Connor and Kyle had come on Tuesday but this would be 16s first Dylan show and I didn’t know how he’d take it. We had superb seats in the 5th row. The show was the best of the three. Bob was more into it it seemed. More hand gestures and vocal nuances as well as vocal clarity.

Musically and personally, three perfect nights. As I said, I’ve seen Bob many times. Every time, I think “this could be the last show.” I said that in 1998 and meant it. This time I’m not saying that. He changes, he morphs, he’s weird and seems like he almost wants to displease the audience sometimes. But at the same time, to see a tiny 73 year old man completely own the night like that is amazing. And to see him do it three nights in a row is unthinkable. And to think that this was one city on one tour and he does this night after night and year after year tells me that I have no right to assume or even guess when the last time will be.

(photo by my son, Kyle)

On Bud Selig.


Good riddance.

I love baseball. Like, really love baseball. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the Commissioner of Baseball was really an employee of the MLB owners. But Bud Selig took things to an entirely new level. He WAS an owner. He took the Milwaukee Brewers and put them in the sham-custody of his daughter and he became the Commissioner of  Major League Baseball, a position I’d always put one notch below President of the United States.

Bud, you sweet deluded bastard.

At age 80, you’ve stepped down with your odd blondish toupee in hand (or head) and your legacy will be one dimensional: You have lined the coffers of your fellow owners with solid gold. The unlikely story of a Milwaukee used car salesman turned mogul turned weird sports executive is over.

Owners have never been richer. The number of kids playing baseball has plummeted. The beer has never been so expensive. The DH rule is an abomination to be dealt with by your successor. The Oakland A’s situation is being handled by a super-secret blue ribbon commission that’s been “studying” for almost four years. The All-Star game has gone from the only sports All-Star game that mattered to some sort of 72 hour commercial for ESPN.

You are the Richard Nixon of sports. Get yourself some big shorts and a metal detector and scan the shores of Lake WInnebago in your sunset years and let’s hope that new Commissioner Rob Manfred can rebuild Major League Baseball to it’s former greatness.