Politics & Business

Time to Worship at the Pizza Altar

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Only two days left til the most anticipated event of Baltimore’s summer:  yes, of course, we’re referring to the opening of actor Chazz Palminteri‘s Italian restaurant Chazz:  A Bronx Original. It’s a dining establishment so momentous that it needs a subtitle. Need we say more?

Well, yeah, there’s plenty more to say. The restaurant’s decor sounds like it’s aiming for a mix between upscale-casual and totally ridiculous:  there are multiple dining rooms “each with its own Bronx personality,” “an unprecedented bar program” (whatever that means), and — maybe you should sit down for this one — a pizza altar.

But the pizza might turn out to be worthy of your worship:  it features house-made mozzerella, and gets baked in a coal-fired oven. One pizza expert pronounced coal-fired ovens 2008’s biggest fad in his annual “Year in Pizza” presentation, so Chazz is moderately on-trend in that way.

And of course with a name like Chazz:  A Bronx Original, the appeal isn’t only the food. As Chazz himself told the Baltimore Sun earlier this spring, “Diners will be sitting in Chazz’s dining room. Boom! One of my movies will come on. They’ll be dining at Chazz, and then they’ll see me on the screen. And then they’ll look around, and Chazz Palminteri will be right there.” No, he’s serious:  “Don’t be surprised to see me working the pizza oven; I plan on being there and being active.”

Palminteri had apparently spent years searching for the perfect place to launch the Italian restaurant of his dreams. Then he stopped by Aldo’s in Little Italy while he was in town performing his one-man show based on “A Bronx Tale” — and ended up eating there ten nights in a row. The man does his research:  after settling on a Harbor East location, Palminteri went on an “exhaustive pizza discovery tour of the New York area” with a couple of Baldwin brothers.

Sounds like it’ll fit right in with the expensive kitsch-that-doesn’t-know-it’s-kitsch of the rest of Little Italy. Let us know if you stop by!

Light Rail Railing: Board it to Better it

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Have you ridden the light rail lately? For many in the Baltimore community the answer is certainly no, despite a daily ridership of over 36,000. I’ve recently been taking it more frequently (to avoid drinking and driving, frankly) and I have been appalled at some of the problems with our city’s simple railway. First of all you can easily get away without paying to get on the thing. I have never seen anyone checking a ticket. I know that there are ticket checkers because I have a friend who was kicked off once for not paying but they are too few and far between. The light rail claims to run on an honor-based proof of payment system, but plenty of people still get on without paying, how many no one knows. But this keeps the light rail from making the money it could, which is a shame.

While I was riding the other night some doucher lit a cigar in front of me and about a dozen other people. Really? Who smokes a cigar in a closed train filled with people? While the light rail isn’t as bad as it could be (get off at Lexington Market and see how that other Baltimore property is doing) it could be much, much better. For instance, I admit that I’ve debated getting off before my stop just to escape the smell. And at night there are some predictably shady customers on board.

This all gets back to my original point. None of these things will change unless you start using the light rail more often and pay for it. Support your city. Do that and maybe they’ll able to pay attendants who can check tickets and, I don’t know, keep people from smoking cigars.

 

Arlo Shakur is one of two our summer interns. 

What the State’s Richest Employees Have in Common

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Who said working for the state doesn’t pay?
    While choosing the right college major may net you more (or less) money, maybe your best bet is to work for the college itself. Yes, the university system is where the money’s at — at least in Maryland, where the top ten highest-paid state employees all work for the University System of Maryland, primarily in the School of Medicine.
    2010’s top earner was Stephen Bartlett, chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His base salary last year was $864,786. That number doesn’t include bonuses, speaking fees, or payments for appearing on television; once you include those numbers, Gary Williams, head coach at the University of Maryland, surges to the top — his base salary was $450,869, but those extra earnings add up:  his total compensation for 2010 was $2.3 million. (Williams retired after the 2010 season, so maybe he was just trying to earn a little extra for retirement?)
    Governor O’Malley? His (relatively) paltry $150,000 per year put him nowhere near the top of the list. Maybe he should consider a second career in academia.
    What else do the top earners have in common?  Well, they’re all men; only two women make it into the top fifty. The highest-paid woman entering the list comes in at #22 — Claudia Baquet, an associate dean and an advocate for underserved communities. We hope she doesn’t feel too lonely up there at the top.

Food Trucks Prevail!

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The city and the food truckers yesterday reached an agreement that includes parking restrictions and clearly displayed permits for the trucks as well as food zones between 9 a.m and 3 p.m. Here are the food zone locations:

• The 500 block of St. Paul Place and St. Paul Street, on the east side of the street — one space at each location, for a total of two trucks.

• The 1900 block of East Monument Street, on the south side of the street — one truck at this location.

• The 500 block of Baltimore Street, on the south side of the street — one truck at this location.

• The 300 block of South Charles Street, on the west side of the street — one truck at this location.

• The 500 block of East Fayette Street, on the north side of the street — three trucks at this location.

Food truck operators will also be allowed to diverge from those five locations as long as they follow all other regulations, including staying away from restaurants and displaying the proper parking permit.

Groupon: The Billion Dollar Gamble

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There’s a whiff of the tech bubble surrounding Groupon, a company that — according to a recent article in the Times — seems staffed almost entirely by recent college graduates with non-lucrative majors. The 27-year old senior editor has a degree in poetry and feels “kind of old compared to everyone else.” Groupon’s 400-plus writers and editors are based in Chicago, and earn around $37,000 a year (for a new writer) to come up with zany ways to sell one of the most boring things out there — coupons. Oh, and they recently turned down a purported $6 billion buyout offer from Google. Is this the future of marketing?

(If you haven’t yet been inducted into the cult of Groupon, here’s how it works. Each day, each of the 177 North American cities that the company covers offers a discount on a local product or service, and you’ve got 24 hours to buy in. Recent Baltimore offerings include a $10 coupon good for $20 worth of food and drinks at Zen West, or $149 for two hours of labor from College Hunks Hauling Junk.) Baltimore-founded venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates was an early investor in Groupon. 

It’s actually a pretty simple business model; the Times argues that the reason Groupon dominated while other efforts failed is thanks to the very zaniness it cultivates in its copy. (“There comes a time in every cowboy’s life when he must become a cowman, leaving behind his spurs and hat for a cowbell, hooves, and a penchant for chewing grass.” That’s supposed to sell you the Zen West coupon, if you couldn’t tell.) You might find it endearingly irreverent or teeth-grittingly irritating, but it seems to work; the company’s already made more than a billion dollars from the businesses that seek out Groupon to give themselves a marketing bump.

But does it result in higher sales or repeat customers for the businesses themselves? That remains to be seen. For one, the very irreverance of the marketing copy can sometimes overshadow the product or service being sold. Then, there’s the fact that deal-loving Groupon buyers may not turn into those lucrative repeat customers after all.  Not so long ago I used a Groupon at a local coffee shop — one I’d never been to before — and asked the owner if the Groupon investment had worked out well for him. According to him, it just resulted in a bunch of thrifty one-time customers. I turned out to fall into that camp. The food was great, I loved the atmosphere — but, well, I just haven’t been back.

Rhetorical Style Setters

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Two weeks ago, Newt Gingrich’s press secretary Rick Tyler penned a press release on behalf of the Republican presidential hopeful and former Speaker of the House that was so florid, so melodramatic—it actually contained the words, “But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich…”—that it inspired ridicule from all corners of the media, peaking on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” where veteran actor John Lithgow gave the full statement a halting, bombastic dramatic reading. 

Now, the language of this press release is certainly overblown by any measure, even absurd. But what is it that we, as the voting public, require from our presidential candidates in terms of rhetorical flourish?

George W. Bush’s folksy language and accent-heavy delivery helped earn him two terms as president by identifying him as a political “outsider” who could relate easily to the average American, however imprecisely defined that term might be.

Barack Obama succeeded in 2008 with a poetic-but-not-too oratorical style that used straight-forward questions as jumping-off points for sweeping emotional statements digressing into “Let’s win one for the Gipper”-style national pep talks.

What style will win over voters in the 2012 election? Can most of us see past the rhetoric and understand what a candidate really stands for? How much oratorical flourish do we expect from a president, and when does it go too far? 

Food Truck Fever

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Miss Shirley’s, the popular lunch and breakfast spot in Roland Park, the Inner Harbor and Annapolis, is jumping on the food truck bandwagon June 1. This comes as surprising news, given the latest dust-ups between local food trucks and city officials. But the foodies at Miss Shirley’s remain undaunted. “We decided to venture into having a food truck because we believe we have a unique concept and there is a strong following now in Baltimore of food trucks,” says Jen McIllwain, marketing manager for Miss Shirley’s. More power to ‘em. Bring those sweet potato fries to the masses! (BTW, become a fan of Miss Shirley’s on Facebook and get a coupon for free sweet potato fries!)

The food truck craze started in Los Angeles right after the recession hit when two enterprising, young, experienced chefs, newly unemployed, put their heads together to whip up their gourmet treats, pack them on trucks and serve to office workers during the day and club kids and bar patrons late at night, all at budget prices. Truck location was revealed each day on Twitter and Facebook.

The fad was a hit and soon took hold in New York, Portland, Washington, D.C. and others. Baltimore’s Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon is in its second year. Gypsy Queens started late last year and Souper Freak in March, to name a few. 

It would be great if this national trend took hold in Baltimore, but we are entering into the fray in the aftermath of other cities and the progression goes something like this: Act I – Great chefs with little money take their show on the road and gain a following. Act II – Restaurants call foul with the lack of regulation and oversight of these upstarts and urge to have them stopped. Act III – Local legislators get involved and push-back on the truck scene, making it tough for the little guy to hang in there.  

We are already seeing the beginning of Act II with city officials barring trucks from parking within 300 feet of restaurants and more regulation. For its part, Miss Shirley’s is playing it smart by using private lots when traveling with goodies in the city and will also park its truck in the food truck-friendly county.

The city’s Street Vendors Board will try to resolve these issues when it meets on June 1. That’s the day Miss Shirley’s starts its truck engine. Maybe it should try to win the board over with some of those sweet potato fries.

 

Before You Grab Your Diploma and Run

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Before you say goodbye to the freshly minted college graduate down the street, you may want to say something else first: stay. Kiplinger.com just released its list of Ten Great Cities for College Grads and Baltimore made the grade, ranking higher than Austin, Denver and Atlanta in per capita income for downtown residents. Citing a relatively low cost of living and rent (compared with other major cities), strong income growth, thriving waterfront and downtown districts, extensive bus and subway systems, and an easy train commute to Washington, D.C., the report gives plenty of reasons not to pack it in just yet. Why not just take off your cap and gown and stay a while?

Q & A With US Congressman John Sarbanes

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Elected in 2006 as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District (comprising parts of Baltimore City, plus portions of Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties), John P. Sarbanes has established moderate-to-liberal political bona fides over his two-plus terms, focusing on health-care, education, and environmental issues. He voted for the landmark health-care overhaul, to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding gays in the military, and against a bill that would have denied federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Currently, Sarbanes sits on the Natural Resources and the Space, Science, and Technology committees, as well as on four subcommittees, notably the one overseeing national parks, forests and public lands.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Sarbanes graduated from Gilman in 1980, from Princeton University in 1984, and then earned a law degree from Harvard in 1988. He spent the next 18 years working as an attorney at Venable. (Oh, his first job: whipping up milkshakes at the Prevas Brothers stall in Fell’s Point’s Broadway Market.) 

His father, Paul, served as a U.S. Senator from Maryland from 1977 to 2007, exiting Congress just as John entered it. 

Married with three children, Sarbanes, who turned 49 on May 22, lives in Towson. 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Treat people with respect and don’t get ahead of yourself. 

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

My most important personal goal is to provide for my family. I defined that when I got married and started a family. Beyond that, to be a good citizen who is contributing to my community in some way.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

If something seems too good to be true, it is. 

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered? 

I try not to be surprised by the truth.

What is the best moment of the day?

When I walk into my house at the end of the day.

What is on your bedside table?

The Collected Stories of James Thurber and The Collected Stories of J.D. Salinger.

What is your favorite local charity?

The Public Justice Center.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Do the job you have well and the rest will take care of itself. 

Why are you successful?

If I’ve had success, I attribute it to being a good listener.

If Congress lifted its ban on earmarks for a day and permitted you to submit one piece of locally related legislation, what bill would you push for passage?

Sufficient funds to clean up Baltimore Harbor. 

What is your favorite film about American politics — and why?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because it shows you can be idealistic and also make a practical difference.

What music are you into right now that might surprise us?

I’m always into bluegrass.

Beyond Red and Blue: Do You Still Party?

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Have the tough economy and controversial military operations overseas made you more or less sure who you are politically? Without question, the political climate has encouraged red-and-blue polarization, to an extent, but according to new findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2011 Typology study, “A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse.” So, where precisely do you fit?

If you’re ready to know, Pew has published their Political Typology quiz to help you pinpoint your Party Animal DNA more intricately.

You’ll answer quick questions, like, “Does the growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten American customs and values or strengthen American society? Should the country do whatever it takes to help the environment, or have we gone too far? Hard work and determination basically guarantee you’ll get ahead, yes or no? Homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society?”

According to Pew, you could be a Staunch Conservative, a Main Street Republican, a Libertarian, a Disaffected, a Postmodern, a New Coalition Democrat, a Hard Pressed Democrat, a Solid Liberal or a Bystander.

Intriguingly, study shows: To the right, the classic divide between pro-biz conservatives and social conservatives has now gone fuzzy. To the left, the study identified a “New Coalition” of working-class voters who are white, Latino and African American, in near equal numbers.

Listed beside each Core Group Type in the online glossary, you can read a capsule of detailed, newsy information, under the headings, “What They Believe,” and “Who They Are.” (Did you know, for example, that 39% of Libertarians earn $75,000 or more? Or that 71% of Disaffecteds have experienced unemployment in their households in the last year? We did not.)

Seeing red and blue at once? Don’t have a poli-identity crisis. The quiz takes about a minute to complete–soon you’ll know yourself a little better, and how hard you still want to party.

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