A Store Pricier Than Whole Foods, From China to Vietnam, and Hiring From The Starbucks Drive-Thru

Get the Oxford Morning Report every day. Click here for a free subscription.


A fast-food Twitter war appears to be selling a lot of chicken sandwiches: “The first Popeyes tweet seemed innocent enough—a photograph of the chain’s new fried-chicken sandwich (chicken breast, brioche bun, pickles, sauce) beneath an artfully garbled caption: ‘So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak.’ But as a social media battle has captivated the internet this week and generated long lines at Popeyes locations across the country, that tweet from last week now has the feel of an opening salvo. Things grew heated on Tuesday, when Chick-fil-A tweeted what appeared to be a coded response to the Popeyes announcement, extolling the virtues of its ‘original’ chicken sandwich. Popeyes replied a few hours later: ‘…y’all good?’

“As the Twitter commotion intensified, the Popeyes chicken sandwich reportedly sold out at some locations. ‘Look at how much attention they’re getting—it’s impressive,’ said Jonathan Maze, the executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine, a trade publication. ‘All this is really going to do frankly is embolden other chains to do similar things when they introduce new products.’”


Moving from China to Vietnam turns out to be harder than expected: “It is becoming increasingly clear that it will be years, if ever, before this Southeast Asian nation and other aspiring manufacturing destinations are ready to replace China as the world’s factory floor. The specialized supply chains that made China a production powerhouse for smartphones and aluminum ladders and vacuum cleaners and dining tables are nowhere near as developed in Vietnam. Factories with US-focused safety certifications and capital-intensive machinery aren’t as easy to find. And Vietnam, with less than one-tenth China’s population, is already running into labor shortages as global manufacturers rush to set up shop here to avoid US tariffs. ‘China has a 15-year head start—whatever you want, someone’s doing it,’ said Wing Xu, the operations director for Omnidex Group.”


Think Whole Foods should be known as “Whole Paycheck”? Check out its pricier competitor: “Erewhon, a natural foods grocer based in LA, has inspired cult-like devotion among those who can afford to pay four dollars for an avocado. On Instagram, a torrent of celebrities can be seen pushing bags of Erewhon produce to their Escalades, while beaming earth mother types with names like ‘healthjunky’ cradle the chain’s green beverages. The store has even inspired a line of merch. It’s not hard to understand the appeal: visiting the Southland health food chain—known for its $24 macadamia nut cheese, kelp noodles, and bone broth shots—is like stepping foot on an alien planet.

“While Amazon struggles to cut costs at competitor Whole Foods, Erewhon is operating a very different strategy: charge as much as consumers will pay for hyper-obscure, top-of-the-line products that destabilize your idea of what food even is. So far, the model seems to be working. Soon, the chain will open new stores in Silver Lake and Studio City, adding to a portfolio that already includes Santa Monica, Fairfax, Venice, Calabasas, and Pacific Palisades (in other words, places where people have money). The store’s beginnings, though, are surprisingly humble. Founded in April 1966 by Japanese immigrants Aveline and Michio Kushi, Erewhon started out as a diminutive, wood-paneled retail store in Boston selling macrobiotic and natural foods. By 1968, the business was importing foods from Japan and, by the following year, it had become the first natural foods wholesale and distribution company in the US.”


At 3,700 square feet, Wayfair’s first brick-and-mortar store carries just a fraction of the items available online: “You normally can’t stand on a dining room table when shopping for furniture. But the new Wayfair store does things a bit differently. Shoppers can don virtual reality headsets to see how furniture would fit into a space, using Wayfair’s Room Planner tool. They can virtually ‘climb’ onto a dining room table to get a 360-degree view of a digitally rendered room, then swap out chairs, chandeliers, and art on the virtual walls. That’s just one example of how the Boston-based e-commerce giant has used its digital DNA to create its first brick-and-mortar store. It opens Wednesday in the Natick Mall. Product information, including prices and customer ratings, is displayed on screens that update in real-timeo reflect online price changes. Staffers carry iPads with an augmented reality tool that makes furniture appear in a 3-D setting, or they can snap a picture of an item in the store and find dozens like it online.”


Silicon Valley is eyeing Toronto: Intel has announced plans to build a graphics-chip design lab in Canada’s largest city. Car-hailing service Uber will be opening an engineering hub. Google’s parent, Alphabet, proposed building a new Toronto campus as part of a sensor-laden ‘smart city’ on the Lake Ontario waterfront, and Microsoft said it would expand its Canadian workforce by more than 20 percent.

“There has been so much activity that Silicon Valley Bank, the Santa Clara, Calif., financier for some of the world’s largest venture-capital firms and startups, opened an office here in March after 19 years of handling Canadian business from Seattle and Boston. ‘There’s a hell of a lot more going on up here than we appreciated,’ said Win Bear, head of business development for Silicon Valley Bank’s Canada operation. … The links between San Francisco and Toronto have grown so tight that airlines added 139 flights between the cities in the past two years, even as they cut the total number of flights between Canada and the US, according to travel data provider OAG.”


Like many successful software products, Hacker News began as a side project—and then became a Silicon Valley institution: “For some, it’s the first Web site they pull up in the morning; it captures the mix of technical obsession, business ambition, and aspirational curiosity that’s typical of the Valley. … Originally, [venture capitalist Paul] Graham named the site Startup News. He hoped that it would serve as a new home for the startup founders and ‘would-be founders’ who had once gathered on Reddit, before that site grew too popular to feel like a community. Among other benefits, he imagined that Startup News might help him find worthy entrepreneurs. …

“The site was intentionally simple. It offered a dynamic list of links, submitted by users, each of which could be expanded into its own unique comment thread. Readers could upvote or downvote links and comments, and the top thirty links would be featured on the front page. The guidelines specified that most non-tech-related news—political news, in particular—was off topic. Users discussed the merits of relational databases, the complexities of co-founder relationships, and the pros and cons of dropping out of college.”

If you were forwarded this newsletter, click here for a free subscription.


In a tight labor market, small business owners are hiring from the Starbucks drive-thru: “As Deborah Sweeney placed her order in the drive-thru of a Starbucks near her home, she was impressed by the barista’s attitude and attention to detail. At Sweeney’s next visit, the staffer remembered her name. Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, was so amazed that she hired the young woman, first as a receptionist and then in customer service for the Calabasas, California-based online business consultancy. ‘She ended up being a rock star,’ says Sweeney, who sensed that the barista ‘could manage an environment where there’s a lot coming at you and be able to stay responsive and keep a good attitude.’Small business owners looking for new staffers in a tight job market have to be creative to compete with big companies.”

More than 60 percent of employers say they are willing to hire applicants who don’t quite have the required experience: “78 percent of companies will consider applicants with transferable skills that could lend to train-ability in the new job, rather than them having to fit the description exactly. ‘To compete in today’s tight labor market, employers across industries are becoming more flexible with their job requirements,’ said Amy Glaser, senior vice president of Adecco USA, in a release. ‘In many cases employers are bringing in talent that may not have all the skills needed and then upskilling or training candidates to complete job-specific tasks.’”

Udemy’s VP of HR believes office perks are sending the wrong signals to interns about professionalism: “People in your office may be dressed down for summer, but when interns dress like college students on summer break, they’ll be perceived as not as engaged and may not be taken as seriously. I can already hear the backlash—people shouldn’t judge anyone based on their clothes. That’s true. But why create an issue where none need exist? More than two-thirds of employees in our survey feel even athleisure is inappropriate for the office. Pass that info along to your interns. Interns can’t go wrong erring on the side of propriety, in both their attire and their behavior at work. Which brings us to communication. On day one, advise your intern not to chat—electronically or in person—with coworkers using the same slang they use with friends.”


A recent PYMNTS and LISNR report says most consumers do not purchase items through retail apps: “Only 12 percent of shoppers use retailers’ apps to pay in store and only 11 percent use mobile wallets, PYMNTS found. Consumers appear to have a limit when it comes to downloading retailers’ apps. Although more than eight out of 10 have downloaded at least one mass merchant app onto their mobile devices, (with Amazon, Walmart or Target dominating), about eight in 10 have five or fewer retailer apps, per the report. Data security and mobile storage also remain critical factors in consumer reticence to download apps, the report found. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they did not want to because they already have too many on their mobile devices, and 59.5 percent of respondents also cited data security concerns as a reason why they won’t download apps in the future, according to the report.” 


San Francisco-based Zendrive uses data and analytics to improve road safety and just raised $37 million in funding: “Founded in 2013, Zendrive uses machine algorithms to analyze data obtained from the smartphones of drivers to provide insights for fleets seeking to improve driver performance and insurance companies eager to improve their ability to price risk. The company has crunched more than 180 billion miles of smartphone data to predict risk six times better than the insurance industry standard, the startup claims, and has already helped fleets reduce collision risk by 49 percent, adding millions in revenue to its partners.”


The largest rooftop farm is opening in Paris: “The crops will be grown open to the air, as on a traditional farm, but in vertical growing towers similar to those used in indoor farms like Plenty, a robot-run farm in Silicon Valley. Plants sprout out of the sides of the towers, making it possible to grow more food in a small area. The system is aeroponic, meaning that it doesn’t use soil, and the plants are fed with a nutrient-filled mist that meets organic standards and uses little water. …

“While some of the largest vertical farming companies attempt to scale with indoor farms, Agropolis chooses to work outside. ‘When you have a controlled environment, you get rid of many hazards, but you also use lots of resources, like energy, to produce vegetables and fruits,’ says Hardy. ‘We decided to have productive systems, like growing towers, but in an uncontrolled environment to reduce investments and to avoid wasting resources.’ LED lights, for example, are more efficient than older lights used in indoor farms but still use large amounts of energy. … Hardy says that the crops will be more expensive than conventional crops, though cheaper than organic food grown on traditional farms, but he expects the farm to begin making a profit in the first year.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com.