OScloud1 This summer I received an email from a company introducing itself as an e-commerce start up that wanted to return us to the way we used to shop: personally. Founded by John Caplan (who helped to start About.com, then worked as CEO of Ford Models), and a few other innovators, it sought people with a particular passion and voice to recommend products that they personally loved. I sensed immediately that it was a fantastic idea and embraced it.

I receive thousands of emails each month, many from strangers asking what kind of knives they should buy or where can they get this or that product I've mentioned in a post.  Now there is a way for me to connect with those people on a broader scale and to recommend all kinds of products that I personally love.

Here's why I think Open Sky is such a great idea. Earlier this month, my son James was home with the flu (all's well now, thank goodness!). I scoured netflix for thrillers or sci-fi flicks that both a 10-year-old and his father would love. There was no search function for this. But I went to my local video store, VidStar, explained the situation to a guy named Joe behind the counter, who took me to his personal shelf and handed me a dozen movies that fit my requirements.  I chose three, they were awesome and I went back for three more a few days later.

This is an increasingly infrequent experience in our WalMart-Amazon world, one that Open Sky hopes to make less so by asking individuals to create small "shops" comprising products they themselves love and use. There are shops for gardeners, for fishermen, for bird watchers. It's an expression of the Long Tail theory.

Just last week, a reader of my books and blog wrote to me saying she had had enough worrying over E coli and wanted to start grinding her own meat.  She doesn't have a standing mixer so I sent her to the grinder I recommend on Open Sky.

This is my shop for kitchen tools—and everything in it is something I either own and use or covet myself.  Want to make a proper quiche?  I've got the ring mold you need.  What's coolest about Open Sky, though, is that I tell my colleagues at Open Sky that I want to offer something unusual, something most people don't know about, and they find a way for me to offer it through Open Sky. For instance, I found a great magnetic knife holder to hang my knives on (they're made from gorgeous woods so are not only beautiful, they also won't ding my knives) made by a small company you've probably never heard of.  Now you have. The company is Bench Crafted and the knife holder is called Mag-Blok, and if you want a space-efficient way to store your knives, I highly recommend it. It's also a really cool, affordable gift (it's not like you see these things all over the place).

Another example. Every time I returned to the Culinary Institute of America, I brought home with me 4 or 5 of the side towels they sell and which all the students use.  They're really heavy duty sturdy towels, not for wiping your board! or dabbing your brow! as Chef Pardus told our class, "They're FOR GRABBING HOT THINGS!" I hate pot holders and oven mitts; I find them ugly and clunky and inconvenient.  I love these side towels.  They have many uses and I always have a stack folded and ready nearby.  I used to have to wait till I went back to Hyde Park to buy more.  Now I can order them from my own store!  I love it.

That's the first best part of Open Sky. The second best part is that they've found a way to match or better Amazon's prices.  Yep.  I don't know how they do it but they do.

I'm not the only one telling people what my favorite stuff is, so there's all kinds of variety available.  Shannon and Alison, who write the cooking with friends club blog, have their own "shop." Michael Laiskonis, the outstanding pastry chef of Le Bernardin and excellent blogger, has begun building his own product list.

This is a new idea, Open Sky, a new concept, as far as I can tell, a new endeavor.  It's only months old and they're still developing the company.  There are drawbacks.  Not all the products I want to be available are available. But the folks at Open Sky are working hard to change that.  Please check out the site and tell me what you think.  Pros and Cons.  What could be better, what did you like? If you buy those side towels, or anything else, I'd love to know if the process was easy?

Here's Open Sky's "About" page and here's its Mission Statement.

If you have any questions, please ask me!

Update: A comment was made that is important and should be addressed here.  The commenter writes: "As a cynic, I'm wondering if companies will be paying people deemed 'celebrity' to push their products. How are we to know if Eric Ripert really uses that Kitchen Aid mixer or if he's being paid to promote it?"

It's part of the Open Sky Agreement that "shopkeepers," as we're called, will NOT be paid by any of the companies whose products we recommend and we do not accept free products from anyone.  This entire venture is about integrity and transparency, without which it would die a quick death.

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34 Wonderful responses to “Open Sky: A New E-Commerce Idea and Company”

  • Cliff Milliken

    A few minutes ago, I tried to order the towels. The web site does not accept orders for the product. I click on “add to card” and the site responds with “no items in cart.”

    Please let me know when I can order the product.

  • kitchenbeard

    Thanks for the link to the side towels. I’ve been subsisting on the pckages of terrycloth towels from costco. The issue with them is they’re thin and need to be folded at least twice before grabbing something and even then the heat eventually creeps through so your grip time is limited.

  • nicolja

    For the record, I trust that Michael would not push a product that he did not personally feel was a good product. But I think full disclosure would be a valuable component to Open Sky. That is something that is sorely lacking from most product endorsement sights.

  • luis

    One thing is for sure… I do buy on line many times because the alternative of driving around and shopping for hard to find items is way too time consuming. So I may pay a mailing fee now and then to avoid traffic and agravation. So this type of thing will become more popular as time goes by.
    I spent days running around looking for a footwear solution…which I only found when I went online. Now if someone was there to recommend the best product.. that’s a good thing.

  • cybercita

    hi michael, nothing to do with open sky here, just wanted to tell you that i went to a talk a couple of nights ago moderated by mark kurlansky. he was interviewing four european novelists whose books center around food and cooking. one of them, christoph peter from germany, mentioned that he dislikes most cookbooks because they don’t teach you the rules for making things yourself by showing you the formulas. i collared him during the reception and told him he had to buy a copy of ratio.

  • S. Woody

    The problem with our Amazon/Walmart world isn’t that the stores exist, either on-line or in reality, but that the people who work in these places have little connection to the products they are selling. There is little in the way of passion, or anything else in the way of a positive emotion, coming from these venues. They are places to work, meaning earn a paycheck, not to engage the employee with a sense of purpose in life.

    I consider myself lucky – I enjoy my work at a supermarket, because I enjoy food and cooking, and working at the supermarket gives me a chance to engage with others and express that enjoyment. I’ve become the go-to guy when a customer has a question about ingredients (yes, ma’am, I can tell you how to thicken a stew with something other than tapioca – this question really did come up a couple of days ago!). And the others at work think it’s great that I’m willing to share what I know… and think I’m a bit wierd, that I know it at all. (What do you mean, you like to cook? From scratch? Who has the time for that any more?)

    So, yes, Rulhman, I think it’s great that you’ve joined in a project that is indeed about people’s passions for their fields, and conveying those passions to others. I’m bookmarking the site, and plan to go back to it, hopefully to explore some fields I know nothing about (never can tell when that little bit of knowledge will come in handy).

    I’m also planning on taking two or three cookbooks with me, just the basics, for the week prior to Thanksgiving. I can’t expect to remember everything off the top of my head, after all. And if my co-workers don’t understand what I’m doing, that’s their problem. At least my boss understands my point of view… I think.

  • Michael Laiskonis

    Thanks for the plug Michael. I too am about to officially announce my part in the project, and those two words you mention have been very important in my decision to climb aboard, both personally and professionally: integrity and transparency.

  • ruhlman

    Thanks rock and roller, appreciate your taking the time to share your experience.

    you bring up a great point. i would never recommend a shitty product because people wouldn’t trust me, i’d throw away the only thing that makes my opnion valuable, which is my integrity. I’ll respond more, and specifically to nicolja, in an update because it’s critical.

  • nicolja

    I think this is a great idea but, as a cynic, I’m wondering if companies will be paying people deemed “celebrity” to push their products. How are we to know if Eric Ripert really uses that Kitchen Aid mixer or if he’s being paid to promote it?

  • rockandroller

    I purchased a meat grinder last week that Michael had recommended on open sky. I agree with the PP that the free shipping needs to be clearer on the site; it was a nice surprise during checkout, but would have been more of an enticement as a new customer. I also thought some of the pages were slow to load and the graphics seem a little odd to the eye but it’s all relatively new I think, so I’m more inclined to give them a break there.

    I’d like to point out the positives other than free shipping (and free returns, which was also an unexpected benefit; the online sites I buy from the most offer both free shipping and free returns, like zappos).

    I felt like I was buying something Michael personally recommended as opposed to something either with no recommendations or with product “reviews” such as on Amazon. Those reviews don’t carry much weight with me as I don’t know them, by reputation or personally.

    I received my meat grinder extremely quickly and it was well packaged and just as pictured/described. I’d much rather have spent that money on a grinder that Michael recommended given his knowledge and experience in the food arena than on some other site. This site seems like a smaller operation so it felt more like supporting a smaller, “local” store than a behemoth, and I liked the opportunity to browse products by “experts” in different fields.

    Whether Michael actually uses the grinder himself in his own kitchen was less important to me than his recommendation as a knowledgeable person in his field. I may be generalizing here, but I feel most people will not match their name to something if it’s a shitty product. I worked in a housewares department in a department store for quite awhile and I can tell you Emeril’s pans were some of the best we sold (it’s a department store, folks); I was more inclined to suggest those because I knew they were higher quality – I actually HATE Emeril himself, so his “celebrity” had little to do with it, however I trusted that he wouldn’t put his name on some cheap, shitty pans and that bore out with my customers’ reports and what I could see in handling the pans myself. Similarly, I saw a video in Bed, Bath and Beyond recently of Michael Symon demonstrating a pan and yes, I would be more inclined to trust that’s a good pan than some other pan, and it’s not because he’s a local “celebrity,” it’s because I think he has integrity and wouldn’t attach his likeness to a shitty pan. If I hated the pan (or the meat grinder), I’d return it, so on harm, no foul. But I’d much rather have someone guide me in a purchase like this who knows something about meat grinders, since I know nothing about them, then flail blindly across the internet.

    Perhaps I’m just naive but I wanted to share my experience.

  • Natalie Sztern

    and btw Mr. Caplan, I see you ship to Canada which is fabo..but perhaps you might want to asterik the ‘free shipping’ most sites offer that only in the continental USA but yours seems to include Canada for free shipping..if that is true then please let me know cause I will shop a storm….but i suspect international to Canada might need more small print..ie rates, duties etc…not that a Canadian doesn’t know they have to pay duty, of course.

  • john caplan

    thanks for all of the great suggestions…real feedback from active shoppers will help us create the most dynamic community and best shopping experience.

    - john

  • Jess Domokos

    Michael,

    This is completely off topic, but I just wanted to comment on how much I enjoy your blog. I feel I learn something new from each and every entry :) Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, your talent, and your joie de vivre with us!

    Sincerely,
    Jess D
    Devoted Reader, Home Cook, and Amateur Food Blogger ;)

  • Walt

    Michael,

    I agree 100% with everything you said. You really hit the nail right on the head. If they can truly make online shopping a personal experience, I’m all in. I like what I see so far and I can’t wait to watch them grow.

    BTW, Conratulations on Publishers Weekly choosing Ratio as one of the best food books of 2009. (I agree with them as well).

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6705893.html

  • Natalie Sztern

    I am such a big, too big, an internet shopper…but I am having a bit of a problem travelling through the site…I am not finding products right away and it is taking me too long to get into the meat of anything on sale.

  • Rhonda

    Michael,

    I like the intent of this but I am not completely sold.

    I have to give it a think and then get back to you.

  • Karen

    I’m interested in the towels, but $25 for one towel is a lot, so is there more than one towel/$25?

  • Michael Obertone

    Thank you….we tried to get the side towels in Napa and they don’t carry them. Thank you for giving them access to them here

  • Rhonda

    One more thing… (Michael, you are used to this from me)

    Mr. Caplan, please rethink the wording of your Mission Statement as in “Mission, Vision and Values”.

    It reads a tad bit derogatory and I am sure that is not your intent.

    I understand, very well, that these few sentences are the culmination of the “hardest thinking” any company will ever do. You will not get instant feedback from this work, you either will or will not get business as a result.

    Very hard indeed, I do not envy you.

    After dealing with such matters for years and years, I decided to start cooking professionally. Instant feedback, no guessing.

  • sygyzy

    I am very curious how this business is run. Can you recommend any item, sold anywhere or does it have to be something that Opensky has in their inventory. There’s no way they have the warehousing or buying power of Amazon. I wonder if they act as a middle man. How do you deal with returns? It’s defintiely a cool idea as far as a tool for you to list your favorite items but I am not sold on the ecommerce aspect. OpenSky should just link to the vendors directly.

  • Spencer K

    Once this gains the traction of suppliers, this will become *the* wedding and baby registry site on the internet.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Okay John Caplan
    That makes sense to me. So your focus is on the people who recommend the products and the desire to create a conversation between them and the readers. Great idea!
    Good luck with it.

  • ruhlman

    nancy, just heard back from andy at open sky and he’s working on what you suggested.

    in the meantime, the side towels are 30″ x 17″

  • Jason

    This seems like a great idea. It’s a much better expansion of product-suggestion from the Amazon Store concept. You get to provide real content that people see rather than just a link.

    Specifically though, the magnetic knife block is very enticing, as the one thing that kept me from wanting one before was an all-metal mag strip would bang my blades around. Wood makes it all better. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Nancy

    I looked up Michael’s towels, I may be odd but I need to know the dimensions of things & a little more about them before I buy. I need to know the length of the blade, size of the whisk, length & width of towels. What this site also needs is Donna!!!

  • Bob delGrosso

    It’s a nice looking instrument, certainly nicer looking than Amazon’s “A Store.” But apart from the obvious cosmetic differences is there anything uniquely different about Open Sky?

  • john caplan

    our vision at OpenSky is to connect consumers directly to personalities who have an expertise and passion. For us, it’s not about having every single product under the sun. Rather, we’d like to create a shopping experience where community is encouraged, questions are answered and fantastic products are discovered.

  • Vivian

    This is definitely something I will consider. I have been contemplating an Amazon Store for my own blog as its the next step up from their Associates Program. Thanks Michael, I will definitely look into this!