Japanese convenience store dessert: mass-made can be handmade

Last night I was watching a Japanese TV program showcasing a wildly popular item sold at a convenience store chain in Japan. It’s a cafe-style roll cake: a ring of fluffy, moist sponge cake loaded with real whipped cream.

Premium Roll Cake

Now, let me take a step back and explain the concept of the konbini, or Japanese convenience store. You can start with an image of your typical neighborhood ampm or 7-11 store … open 24/7 selling snacks and basic sundries. But the similarity stops right there. In a konbini, you can find anything from fresh produce to makeup to bento (lunch) boxes; you can even print photos, ship packages, or pay your bills. And there are a couple of them on every block.

Japanese convenience stores brand their own snacks and other products, so it’s not surprising that one of them has come up with a “premium” dessert to cater to the sophisticated palate of their clientele … what IS surprising is that they decided to tackle the roll cake, the Holy grail of konbini desserts. You see, the roll cake is difficult to mass-produce: from slicing single-serving portions without squishing the creme to making a creme that maintains its light, luscious texture on the shelf, it comes with more than its share of challenges.

But one company has apparently succeeded, and the product has won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Monde Selection  – something like a Nobel Prize for confectionery.

The thing that struck me the most watching this show – asides from how I would love to live within walking distance to a konbini – was that this dessert, sold at one of the top convenience store chains in Japan, is actually made by hand. The cake gets mixed and cut by a machine, but the rest is done manually to achieve optimum quality. Now that is a dessert I would like to try!

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One-of-a-kind Cappuccino

Today I had a moment when the meaning of handmade became a little clearer.

My wife loves cappuccino and I felt like cutting back a bit. So I thought that increasing her portion a little and reducing mine a lot while at the same time reducing the overall production just a tad would accomplish the goal and go unnoticed.

But I had forgotten a small detail.

Years of perfecting the perfect cups of cappuccino for two using our stove top espresso maker had paid off. And years of daily training of my customer number one had developed quite a connoisseur! She told me exactly what was different without a hint of criticism… But perhaps she would have appreciated some notice before I went in and messed with a good thing.

To me, this section of the blog, is about the attention to details and how details matter to those who can tell the difference. At Marcopoloni we really strive to pay attention to details and I really hope that our customers notice.

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Our new Flip video camera: just a cool gadget or a floodgate for our business?

The new video camera has arrived earlier than expected, and it’s been providing us with some much-needed entertainment here at the office. As we fought over the little palm-sized device (smaller than the iPhone!), we’ve already come to love its simplicity and ease of use.

Here is a test video I shot of Daniele doing what he does best – finding silly geeky things to do during his lunch break. Today, it was testing some dictation software. Tomorrow, it will be coding an interactive recipe application.

But the big question still remains, “is this just another cool gadget, or could it possibly be the big thing that opens up a floodgate for our tiny business?” The reason for getting the device was to do video reviews of products that have unique features that are hard to describe with static images, such as our Snaplink key chain. Well, that, and it was Daniele’s birthday.

We hope this proves to be …  if not a floodgate, at least a floodgatino, or a little floodgate.  Time – and lots of amateur product videos – will only tell.

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How Do You Create a Decent Video Review?

I know a few things: that I am not a very good presence on screen, that I speak in a boring monotone, that I make pathetically funny facial expressions when I am in front of the camera, and that I want to create video product reviews to help our customers find out more about our products before buying.

So what’s the solution? Throw money at it, of course.

As I often do when faced with a problem, spending a nice chunck of change always makes me FEEL that I am starting to solve the problem. Only to later realize that my plan for solving the problem is a little too grandiose and my money would have been better off staying put.

But this time is different.

I only spent a couple of hundred dollars on a small HD video camera. It already records in the desired file format and is supposed to be easy to move video to your PC and edit it.

So, now let’s wait for the camera to arrive and let’s hope that I will miracolously become a great presence on camera. You will be the judge.

P.S. I’m considering trying to be funny.

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Polishing my old Affari

Today I took a briefcase to work because I needed a little more space than my Colombo. Why, you ask? Because, I had to carry my knives to get them sharpened. Our neighbors sell knives and I haven’t sharpened my knives since I bought them seventeen years ago.

Since I hadn’t used my Affari in a while it had gotten a bit dusty and dull and I definitely would not be advertising the beauty of Italian vegetable tanned leather if I did not take the time to polish it a bit. So I wiped the dust off with a soft cloth and I applied ample quantities of Meltonian Leather Lotion, again using a soft cloth. We love the Meltonian Leather Lotion because it really helps leather regenerate nicely. Now I look at my black Affari and it looks great. I can’t say that it looks new because it has shaped a little bit around the things that I put in it and the leather is so much softer today than it was when it was new.

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My New Belt and Italian Belt Sizes

Last year we decided to start carrying leather belts because both Marco and Vincenzo made some really cool belts. When we placed our first order with Dionigi back in January I had an eye on a belt that would make the perfect replacement for my aging, not-so-cool-anymore, brown dress belt.  Unfortunately, when the belts arrived none of them fit a 32 waist. That came as a little of a surprise because we had done some research on Italian and American belt sizes. So we placed another order to make up for sold inventory and to take care of… people like ME!

Last month my Aldo arrived in the big shipment from Italy and it fit! I got one in espresso and said goodbye to my old belt–finally! I like the Aldo because the stitching lines give it a refined and unique look. The leather is of very good quality and the color looks sharp with my slacks.

The next step was to come up with a system of sizes that would not confuse a potential buyer. So we now show you the range of pants sizes that will fit a certain belt size. If you wear a 30 pants size and you buy a 32-37 belt size, the belt is not going to help you very much.

Now that I am getting used to having a nice belt I am starting to think that I need a black one, and a pair of shoes. Should we starting importing shoes?

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Issue Detected and Fixed. NOT! Or at Least: Not So Fast

So we recently upgraded to a newer web hosting plan to be able to take advantage of some nifty features included in wordpress. Everything was playing out smoothly for a few days and then the new server we were on got hit with a denial-of-service attack. So our web hosting company responded to the issue in a way that disrupted our ability to send e-mail from the web site (automated order confirmations), at first, and to browse certain pages the next day.

The first problem was bad: nobody could enter an order because the web site would blow up at the moment of submitting an order. Actually it wouldn’t blow up. It would gracefully display an error instead of the order confirmation. Our first response was to remove the offending code, but by the time we were done we could not load any pages in our intranet and our ability to fulfill orders was slowed to a crawl.

We do not like to be a pain in the neck. But finally we had to give up and ask to be moved to a new server. That worked well. We still ran into a few problems but fixing them was easy.

What a boring day! I was already tired, had to stay up late trying to fix and solve things, and my 2-year-old decided that 6am was to be the everybody’s get up time. I’m really looking forward to a goooood night sleep tonight!

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One customer at a time

We get most of our orders online, and it is rare that I get to interact directly with a customer. But on Monday morning, while the rush to prepare orders was at its peak, I got to step up and help a customer with an exchange.

What a treat it was for me that he wanted to replace his Motorino with a Lucio. We named the Lucio after my father who, when I was a kid, used to carry a borsello, an executive clutch. I own a Lucio so I know the product inside out and I even had to come up with some of the specifications during the last redesign. I was able to warn the customer that a water bottle would not fit in the Lucio without causing it to bulge a lot. I told him that I carry my wallet, phone, keys, receipts, small diary, and pens and that the Lucio looks great sitting on a desk: it stands on its own..

After the customer got it, he took the time to thank me and tell me how pleased he was with his Lucio. That really made my day because helping people find a handmade product that suits them is what I set out to do.

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Christmas comes often at Marcopoloni

A big fallacy of owning your own small business is that you get to take time off whenever you want. Reality is, even though we COULD, we never actually do. It is the same thing when it comes to buying things from our inventory for personal use: we are surrounded by all of these beautiful products, so you’d think we’d own just about one of everything, right? Not quite.

 Even though we could theoretically buy things out of inventory for our own use at any time, we hardly ever do it. In fact, when we do purchase our own goods, it usually happens only after careful planning to make sure it does not impact our stock level, and often waiting weeks for it to arrive from the artisan. I guess it always comes down to a choice between making money selling that item, or paying  to keep it for myself – and unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out how to make owning a lot of gorgeous handbags pay our bills.

 One of our recent shipments was a special shipment – it contained several leather accessory items that a couple of us had purchased. Opening the cartons was like opening that long-awaited gift on Christmas morning ,or receiving a care package full of goodies at summer camp. We opened carton after carton, checking off the items received, with an occasional “Ooh” and “Aah” as we uncovered the items we had been waiting for. I had a flashback to my grade school years when we’d receive those shipments from Scholastic book club and the teacher would pass out the books and free posters  in a long, drawn-out ceremony.

 My coveted items were a passport cover, a leather belt and a beautiful snake-embossed leather wallet … which I will have to talk about another time. I had to wait 2 months for them, but they were well worth the wait!

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Snaplink Leather Key Chain by Gianni

The Snaplink Leather Key Chain by Gianni is one of the first products ever offered by Marcopoloni so it is probably one of the products I know best. Before I got mine, I was reasonably happy with my key chain but I had a problem: I often lost my keys because they bothered me in my pocket. So, in 2005, I finally decided to try the Snaplink and I have to say that I am really glad that I did.
Snaplink Leather Key Chain comes in multiple=
I have a black one and I like the way it looks. I am debating getting a second one, perhaps a dark leather or an espresso to better match my business clothes, but I don’t really see myself swapping key chains that often. On the other hand, it would be easy to swap key rings as the belt buckle is fully functioning.

After more than five years, the key chain is still as good as new and the leather has become smooth and soft. The clip is very strong but not too strong: I can easily clip the key chain to my belt loop with just one hand.

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