March 30, 2019: When it comes to investing, there is a saying that you should buy what you know. That is, you should own shares of companies whose products or services you understand and are likely to use yourself, as doing so will give you better insight into what your investment and its potential are truly worth. Since our investing adventure began back in late October, we have acquired stock in more than 40 companies involved in everything from software development to coal mining, cruise lines to container manufacturing, and retailing to financial services. To be honest, our knowledge of a few of these firms has been limited to their balance sheets, and in some cases that has worked out better than others.
One of our more speculative investments has been in Blue Apron, a fledgling company whose business is delivering ready-to-prepare meals for customers who might enjoy gourmet cooking but have limited time or skills to make such dishes themselves. For around $60 you get the ingredients for three meals a week shipped to your home, and each order comes with step-by-step instructions on how to take those raw ingredients from the box they arrive in to culinary masterpieces ready for your dining table. Sounds pretty good, and since going public a couple of years ago the company has been moving closer to profitability, most recently signing on to a high-profile partnership with Weight Watchers. Thinking better times might be ahead, we took a chance on a very small position in APRN in February and sat back to watch the stock take off.
And take off, it did. Straight down. Yep, our perfectly timed purchase came just before the company decided to raise more capital and issued a new round of shares at a steep discount to where the stock had been trading. Our initial investment has lost about a third of its value in the past month, and while this really sucks we are comforted in the knowledge that we are talking tens of dollars rather than thousands. But with speculative investing you always accept the possibility of big losses, and while we will have to wait and see how the stock performs over the long haul, we realized that we really knew very little about Blue Apron beyond its introductory coupon when we bought into it. In fact, we had never actually ordered anything from them.
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HAT CHANGED WHEN Roni, our resident gourmet chef, got tired of hearing Glenn bemoan the sinking stock price and decided he needed to put his mouth where his money was. Actually, she had been thinking of trying out one of the food delivery services (there are several others out there) and went with Blue Apron because of the aforementioned coupon we had received in our email. So on a lazy weekend afternoon we ran through the Blue Apron menu and selected the recipes that would make up our first order.
That order was scheduled to arrive March 18, a Monday, and so that day we anxiously checked our doorstep in anticipation of the package that would bring us that evening’s dinner. Actually, it was Glenn who checked the porch while Roni was at work, and then Roni who took over the mail-watching duties when Glenn and Ben went out to do some birthday shopping for her that afternoon. The hours ticked by and there was no sign of the box, even after Roni received a notification that it had been successfully delivered. Hmmm.
Getting close to 6 p.m. and without our package, Roni was starting to wonder if someone else was enjoying our Blue Apron feast. She decided to make something else for dinner. It was just as she was conjuring images of package thieves sneaking around our porch that she got a knock on the door and answered it to find one of our neighbors standing there with our box in hand. Turns out that the delivery driver mistook a “1” for a “7” in our address and sent a week’s worth of meals halfway down the block. At least they were good enough to return it to us.
So the following night we got our first taste of a gourmet Blue Apron meal. We decided to try the roasted red pepper pasta because it seemed like the easiest thing to make (at just 20 minutes) and looked pretty yummy. The recipes are available online, but Blue Apron also ships helpful printed versions with each order so you can keep the directions close at hand during cooking. Better yet, the recipes include pictures during each step so you will have an idea if what’s in your pot resembles what should end up on the plate.
Our new stove handled the cooking task well and not only did the finished meal look the way it should, but it tasted right too. Apart from a minor disappointment with the roasted broccoli not turning out quite as expected — it was supposed to be “browned and tender” rather than seared and crunchy — we were reasonably impressed. So impressed was Roni that she thought Glenn should have the honor of cooking up Wednesday’s dinner. We just hoped that Glenn’s recipe preparation skills were better than his investing sensibilities.
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LENN'S MEAL CHOICE was Jaleo-inspired meatballs with pan con tomate and saffron mayo, which arguably was the most challenging recipe of the initial three we tried. It had a suggested preparation and cooking time of 25-35 minutes, which probably would have been the case if we’d had a professional chef delivered with our order. Basically the meal consists of a couple of baguette bread loaves cut in half and topped with a sauce of pan-fried cherry tomatoes. There are some spiced meatballs that are made in the oven from prepackaged ingredients, and they are placed on a bed of fried zucchini slices and topped with the saffron mayo.
The actual prep time came closer to an hour, mainly because Glenn kept having to refer back to the recipe card to make sure he was following the steps in the proper order. But we agreed that the end result was very tasty, even if it had been prepared by a culinary novice.
Dish number three was chicken and creamy polenta with roasted broccoli and balsamic-glazed onion. Much as Glenn enjoyed his cooking stint, he decided he was happier remodeling the kitchen that preparing meals in it, and eagerly returned the dinner duties to Roni. The polenta included mascarpone cheese, which Blue Apron’s meal card described as “creating the perfect, pillowy base for savory seared chicken and red onion glazed with tangy-sweet balsamic vinegar.” Um, okay. The chicken and broccoli tasted fine, but we both felt the polenta was lacking in flavor. Had we made it from scratch, Roni though we would have used more spices. Perhaps. The meal was edible, but it was our least favorite of the three.
Overall, our first impression of Blue Apron’s product was positive if not finding it a bit pricey. We’ve signed up for three weeks of meal service and are eager to taste more creations. If nothing else, hopefully our trial run will help boost the company’s profits before the next quarterly earnings report.
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OOKING AT HOME, even if it is gourmet cuisine, does not make up for the convenience of having someone else prepare the meal. So it should come as no surprise that for Roni’s birthday and our wedding anniversary we did just that.
March 23, Roni celebrated 57 years with a rare visit to San Francisco to see the Monet art exhibit at the M.H. de Young Museum. It was the first time we got to drive across the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, more than five and a half years after its opening. And considering the traffic we encountered on our drive, it is little wonder that we don’t go to the city often. Roni had decided on the Monet exhibit as a gift to herself and bought tickets for the three of us. We were very surprised when Ben had said he wanted to come along, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been, given Ben’s interest in art.
Once word about the exhibit got around, Glenn’s mom, sister and brother-in-law also wanted to go, so we wound up making it a group excursion for the six of us. Roni bought tickets for the 1 p.m. admission, figuring that would give us enough time to have breakfast near home and make our way through traffic. We left the house a little after 9:30 a.m. and stopped first in Pittsburg at the IHOP. The place is always popular on the weekend, but it didn’t take us long to get our table and we were on our way again by 11.
Two hours should have been more than enough time to get to Golden Gate Park, but Saturday traffic was heavy and it took us a long time to get through the bridge toll plaza. Then we slogged our way through the city once we had to get off the freeway. By the time we reached Golden Gate Park and crawled into the underground parking garage just minutes before the stroke of one, Roni was in full panic mode, worried that we would lose our admission time if we were late. Not wanting to ruin her birthday treat, Glenn offered to park the car so she and Ben could run on ahead to the museum. Fortunately a space opened up quickly and he caught up with the rest of the group inside the exhibit hall.
The de Young exhibit featured roughly 50 works from French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s later career, shortly before his death in 1926. On display were some of his best known pieces, including portraits of lilies, wisteria and weeping willow trees that grew in his garden. The exhibit hall was a sea of humanity, and finding a quiet spot to sit and appreciate the work of the master was impossible, so we made our way through in about 45 minutes and emerged in the gift shop to look for Monet souvenirs. Being that it was Roni’s birthday, our sister Jenny and brother-in-law Tom graciously paid for her purchase.
We took a break for lunch outside the museum’s cafeteria and then made our way down the street to the Japanese Tea Garden, something Ben especially looked forward to. It had been many years since our last visit to the gardens, which are beautifully maintained and in full bloom as the cherry trees have come alive with the beginning of spring. We took our time walking through the gardens, but by then it was getting late in the afternoon and our mom, Jenny and Tom were ready to hit the road for home.
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E WERE GIRDING ourselves for the long drive home too, but first Roni wanted to check out the food trucks across from the tea garden and then visit the Golden Gate Bridge. We bought some pretzels to tide us over for the drive, then braved the traffic to find the bridge. The drive to the Marin side of the bridge is thankfully free, but if you’re a tourist you pay the price when you hope to find a parking spot at the vista point on the north end of the iconic span.
The vista point was a sea of selfie-takers, so naturally we joined in for a few of our own. San Francisco makes a perfect backdrop for such photos, even if its skyline is dominated these days by the Salesforce Tower, which just might be one of the ugliest structures to ever dominate a major American city.
A couple of hours later we were back home, searching for a dinner spot that wasn’t our own kitchen. This being Roni’s birthday, we thought she deserved a night off from cooking — that and the fact that we didn’t have anything at home to cook for the three of us. So by consensus we wound up at CreAsian, our favorite go-to dining spot in Brentwood.
Back home we had cake and ice cream and presents waiting. And surprisingly we managed to get through it all before 9:30, which is probably the earliest we’ve done a birthday celebration for any of our immediate family in a couple of years. Roni normally likes to party with a pralines ice cream cake from Stone Cold Creamery, but since we discovered Nothing Bundt Cakes a couple of months ago we had wanted to order one of their large ones. Glenn picked out a red velvet cake for her online and went with Ben to pick it up on Friday afternoon along with a dozen “bundtinis” (think cupcakes) of various flavors, so the sweets were waiting for us when we got home from San Francisco. Just so she wouldn’t feel like she was missing out on her favorite ice cream, we got Roni a pint-sized serving of Baskin Robbins pralines and cream from the grocery store.
Our 31st wedding anniversary three days later offered another opportunity for dining out, but we did it one better and had the meal delivered to us, thanks to the DoorDash delivery service. Not a lot of places in our town do their own deliveries, so unless you want Chinese or pizza you’re kind of out of luck. DoorDash works with dozens of restaurants, and for a very reasonable price they’ll have someone pick up your order and deliver it to you. Their delivery area is much broader than most restaurants, so we were excited that we could order from places in Brentwood and Antioch that otherwise would have been unavailable to us.
One of those is Zam Zam Mediterranean Food, which we had tried before and liked. We especially enjoy their beef and lamb shawarma, also known as a gyro. We got a couple of those along with some baklava for dessert, and it was just like a fancy dinner on the town without having to get dressed up to go anywhere. Give us more of that!
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OMEONE ELSE WHO'D love to not have to go anywhere is our cats, especially if it involves a trip to the vet. But that is what happens when you catch tapeworm. Despite the fact that we keep our cats indoors to help prevent such things, Phoenix our bold adventurer pines for opportunities to go outside. Sometimes he can be obnoxious about it, moaning and scraping at the windows with his paws in hopes that we might take pity on him and let him out. It never happens, at least not voluntarily.
Then one morning Glenn got up and wandered into the living room. He sat down at his computer desk and looked out the dining room window to see an unfamiliar orange cat walking along the patio. “Wow, that almost looks like Phoenix,” he said. Roni looked and said, “Wait, that is Phoenix!” We figured he must have gotten out when Ben left the house earlier that day, so the cat had been out perhaps for hours. Captured and scolded, Phe returned to daily routine of meowing at the window, and we thought no more of it.
That was until several days later when we discovered sesame seed-like objects on our bed and right away recognized one of the telltale signs of tapeworm. It took us a day or two to narrow down the list of suspects, but Roni eventually became convinced that Phe was the source. We made him an appointment at the nearby veterinary clinic and about $250 later came home with a bagful of flea preventatives and one very pissed off cat.
The problem with most parasites is that if one cat has them then any others in your home are also at risk, which meant we would need to treat the others too just to be safe. The vet couldn’t sell us more dewormer medicine for the other cats without first checking them in the office, but we didn’t relish the idea of another $200 in bills. So we went online and found some over-the-counter medicine for much cheaper that should also do the trick.
The problem with the online meds is that they come only in pill form, and if you’ve ever tried to give a cat a pill then you know how much fun that can be. We also bought some Greenies Pill Pockets that are supposed to disguise the pill flavor enough so that the cat will take it. Katy had no problem with these and lapped her dose right up. Phyre, on the other hand, was much more stubborn. The cat that can wolf down half a chicken in a few seconds and then clean the plates of the other two for good measure wouldn’t touch the pill pockets for anything. We tried to stuff the pills in real chicken and he still wouldn’t eat them. Pesty cat.
So eventually he left us no choice but to resort to our last remaining plan, which was to pry open his jaws and force him to take the meds. We are happy to report that this worked, at least for the pill and a half that we had to give him. And now we are watching and hoping we were successful, because we found a worm coming out of his rear shortly after we treated his brother at the vet. We had nicknamed Phyre “Mr. Purrs” because he seems to purr for anything, but lately we’ve been calling him “Mr. Worms” until this little problem is taken care of. Fingers crossed it works!
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NE OF OUR least likely adventures this month involved a visit to Sunvalley Shopping Center about a week before Roni’s birthday. The occasion was an opportunity to visit Glenn’s mom and our niece, Shannon, who came out from Hayward to meet us. It had been a few months since our last get together for Christmas and Shannon was hoping to spend some time with her older cousin, Ben. Ben has been getting weekend days off from work lately, so it was a good opportunity for a visit and the Concord mall seemed like a convenient midpoint for everyone.
Things went well enough initially. The five of us had lunch in the food court and then took a stroll through the mall’s lower level to check out the novelty teen stores that both Ben and Shannon like. We older folks mostly lingered near the entrances or hung out on the benches outside the stores to wait. When the time for Shannon and her grandma to head home arrived, we said our goodbyes and went over to the arcade so Ben could play a few games on the machines. We hadn’t been there for more than five minutes when Roni got a call from Glenn’s mom. It seemed she had gone to look for her car and it was nowhere to be found.
Glenn went upstairs to meet her and see what he could do. She and Shannon had been up and down every aisle of the mall’s front parking lot and their little green Prius was missing, maybe actually stolen out from under them while we all visited inside. Sunvalley has had its share of car burglaries and other crimes over the years, but many of those happen around Christmas season and it seemed unlikely that some brazen car thieves would have singled out a Prius in a busy parking lot of a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Was it possible Mom only thought the car was missing? Had she accidentally parked on the other side of the mall and forgotten? No, she insisted, she remembered exactly where she had left it and it wasn’t where it should be! Okay then. Glenn called Roni and Ben to help join the search. Ben walked each of the aisled Glenn had already walked, finding nothing that matched the description of the missing car. Meanwhile, the rest of us convinced Mom that she and Shannon should come back with us to Roni’s car and we’d drive around the parking area to look for the Prius.
By this time Mom was pretty frantic and it looked like a call to the police would be next on the agenda, but she agreed to come with us to Roni’s car, so we went back into the mall and walked to the opposite side, where we had parked. Suddenly Mom had an epiphany and started to remember her surroundings, and sure enough when we reached the opposite parking area, there was her car right where she had left it. Phew!
No call to the police, and only 45 minutes of desperate searching. Mom was red-faced for the confusion, although we tried to reassure her that it is a very easy mistake to make at Sunvalley — we’ve gotten turned around ourselves coming through the stores and emerging in the wrong lot. We were all just relieved the car hadn’t been stolen! Crisis over at last, the three of us rewarded ourselves with frozen drinks and soft pretzels before heading home. Everyone remembered where we were parked.