We’re in the H2H business

internet-summitI’ve been going to the Internet Summit in Raleigh every year since it began. It’s a chance to not only hear from thought leaders and rock stars in the digital world, but to network with peers who are interested in learning more about the technologies that have infiltrated and changed our lives forever.

Anna’s Gourmet Goodies has been on the web since 2002. We’ve evolved over the years, allowing me to combine my technology skills and background with a passion for creating products that feed people’s soul. I love meeting people who know something I don’t and are willing to share that knowledge. One of the people I met this year is Melanie from Sisarina.

Melanie has a gift for engaging the audience with her authenticity and passion. Her company, Sisarina, is named after her imaginary childhood friend. I was drawn to her topic, which was different than some of the heavy technology being shared that day, “Rock Your Business – Stop Selling. Build a Club.”

melanie-spring-laughShe used the example of Mini Cooper cars and how their marketing is focused not so much on the cars themselves, but the people who drive them. Apparently driving a Mini means you’re in the club. You wave at other drivers. You go on adventures instead of drives. It’s not about steel, rubber and petroleum products, it’s about the soul of the people behind the wheel.

Technology folks are famous for acronyms. I can’t tell you how many surveys I’ve taken where they ask what kind of business we are at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. Are we a B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business)? Melanie challenged all of us that we are neither. “You see”, she said, “we are all in the H2H business. Human to Human”.

What a simple and profound concept. I immediately thought about a recent experience I had meeting a new friend from the Ukraine. I was at Crossroads Infiniti and Yuri (the sales manager) was speaking with a client in Russian. My Russian has faded to a few words, but Yuri introduced me to the customer, whose name was Yuriy. He had recently moved to the United States and was there with his wife and his infant son, also named Yuriy.

I was in no position to try and speak Russian, but Yuriy was kind enough to practice his English. We talked about his coming to the US and their experience starting a new life here. The conversation moved to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our chocolate chip cookies. As an Infiniti customer, he absolutely loved them.

He described some of the cookies from the Ukraine and said that oatmeal raisin was very popular there and one of his favorites. He shared other treats and things about his culture. He was incredibly kind, respectful and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him and his family.

Afterwards, I asked Yuri (the sales manager) to send me his address. I baked up a couple of packages of our oatmeal raisin cookies and sent them to Yuriy and his wife along with a brief note. I welcomed him to the US and confirmed what he already knew, that Yuri and the other people at Crossroads Infiniti were not just professionals, but really good human beings.

yuriyAbout a week later, I was in the dealership and Yuriy (from the Ukraine) was there with his wife and infant. He had brought in a bag of candies from Russia for me. He walked up and with a huge grin on his face, hugged me and thanked me profusely for my kindness. All I did was send him a few cookies, but it was clear that the impact and connection went way beyond that. I was overwhelmed and even got a little misty.

We send out cookie and brownie gifts to people every day. We hope the connections we make generates this type of reaction from the people who receive them. But we rarely get a chance to experience this side of the human connection. It had an impact on how I view our business.

Sadly, not everyone has heard Melanie’s message and understands they are in the H2H business. We lost an order this week to a technology company who is stuck in the B2B business. The admin who prepared the gift list, sent us the order without a person’s name for the packages, only a company. These were going to large companies and I asked if they were sure they wanted to do this. She said yes.

From our experience, we knew the packages would be delivered, but we would likely get a phone call from the recipients asking who the packages were for. The opportunity for the technology company sending the gifts, to make a human connection to their customer, would be lost. When I asked a second time, just to be sure, they went with another large cookie company who will simply take their money and ship the order.

I can’t think of a time when it is more important to be reminded that we are in the human to human business. Things get busy this time of year. We’ll be working hard to hand craft our cookie and brownie gifts, and make sure they get to the right destination.

But thanks to Melanie and Yuriy, no matter how busy we get, we’ll remember that we are not sending cookie and brownie gifts to an address or a business. We’re sending them to a human being. And if we create even a small measure of happiness and gratitude that I saw in Yuriy’s face and felt in his hug, then I’ll sleep well knowing we’ve hit our goal by creating something that lasts long after the package is empty – a human connection.

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Traditions are part of our family and our business

We’re entering the season of traditions. In a few weeks, people across America will gather with friends and family to give thanks and share a meal centered around turkey, dressing, cranberries, pumpkin pie and a host of other comfort foods that are part of their Thanksgiving tradition.

Following that, we’ll celebrate traditions again in December. In my house it’s Christmas, maybe it’s Hanukkah in yours, or another tradition. These are big traditions, but sometimes the smaller ones in our families are just as important. We recently went to the NC State Fair as part of a tradition in our family that includes roots to the beginning of our business.

Freddy Farm Bureau at the Kentucky State Fair

Growing up, my parents took me to the Kentucky State Fair. We didn’t have phones with cameras to capture the images, but I have vivid memories of talking to Freddy Farm Bureau and the time I ate a corn dog and lost a tooth (no, we did not go on a mission to find it later). Memories from traditions are more permanent than anything digital.

Debbie and I started taking Anna to the NC State Fair from the time she was an infant. I’d take off an afternoon and we’d wander around the grounds looking at the booths, the animals, the vegetables and all the other stuff that comes with the State Fair. We’d park the stroller on a grassy hill (yes – it is still there) spread out a blanket and have a picnic with Anna.erikjohnson-2015

When Anna was three, we stopped by the Village of Yesteryear where artisans and crafts people demonstrate skills from days gone by. We met Karl Johnson a scissor artist and decided to have him create a silhouette of Anna. Watching a skilled scissor artist work is truly an experience. His brother Erik now carries on the tradition of scissor art at the State Fair.

We framed the image and hung it on the wall in our office. When we started our company and named it Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I scanned the image and 15 years later we’re still reminded that our brand was born out of a tradition.

This year, Anna found time to get away from college and come back home to go to the fair as a family. And, just as we have in years past, we followed our NC State Fair tradition. We stroll through the buildings, looking at the exhibits, stopping at least once at the House Autry booth for a fresh hushpuppy. We stopped for a quick photo in front of The Big Cart, a V8 powered shopping cart from the NC Department of Agriculture (I’m still negotiating for a chance to take it for a spin around the parking lot).

Then, we’re off to my favorite corn dog vendor where they’re hand-dipped and fried up fresh and hot. We explore the flower gardens, stop at the Village of Yesteryear and say hello to Erik and Dan Dye (a silversmith).  We take a ride on the ferris wheel, and finish off the night with some fresh made ice cream churned by John Deer tractor engines, while watching the fireworks. We’ve followed pretty much the same ritual every year.

Not everyone connects with a State Fair as an annual tradition. But for me, it is an experience that, despite whatever noise might be going on in the world at the time, reminds me that we live in a great country.

Do you have traditions in your family and/or your business? Looking back, it’s clear to me that traditions are threads that bind us together. The cord we hang on to that gets us thru the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the year. A reminder that it is okay to pause, to celebrate and to remember.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we have customers who order gifts from us once or twice, and we love that. We also have customers who’ve made sending our gifts a tradition. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to provide not only our cookies and brownies, but in some small way, be part of a tradition that binds together our customers with the people they choose to share our gifts.

I hope you’ll make some time to reflect on traditions, even small ones, in your family and your business. And if Anna’s Gourmet Goodies happens to be a part of that tradition, know that we take that responsibility seriously and always strive to deliver more than simply great cookies and brownies, but an experience that has a lasting impact on every person who opens one of our packages. That’s a tradition we’re proud to be a part of.

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This gift won’t have our cookies – but it will be an experience

One of the best compliments you can receive from a customer is when they ask you for a referral. It is a signal that you have become, as my friend Chris Brogan calls it, an ally as opposed to simply a vendor looking to sell something. We had an opportunity to create something special for a customer recently and it was a true gift for us to be able to design an experience for their clients.

Our customer contacted us to provide a referral to another company for client gifts this holiday season. Not that they were unhappy with our products – it was just that they wanted something a little different. I took it as a supreme compliment they would ask my opinion on alternatives.

I looked around at some companies and sites to see what might fit. We know a few others out there who do some great work (like Berta Scott down at Southern Supreme in Bear Creek). After giving it some thought, knowing what we’ve learned about their company and how they treat their clients, we thought it might be interesting to see if we could create something beyond a gift and deliver an experience their clients would always remember.

We are fortunate to have some very talented food professionals in our area. Years ago I connected with Missy at LaFarm bakery in Cary. Her husband Lionel is a true rock star in the world of baking. In addition to running a thriving bakery, he lectures at conferences and his book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, says it all. His work flows from his passion. a-passion-for-bread

I stopped in one day to discuss my idea of including some of his sweet breads in our gift and it was done. We’ll be adding Lionel’s coffee breads to our ‘gift experience’.

Next, I wanted something to go with that and naturally, I looked for coffee. Coffee roasting has exploded right up there with craft beer and once again, I found a shop, Back Alley Coffee Roasters.

back-alley-pour-overBeth and her husband Tracy started this business after an experience learning to roast coffee ‘in a back alley’ of sorts at the college where Tracy was a professor. They started, much in the same way as Lionel, out of a passion to create something wonderful. When you stand in their shop and watch the baristas create a custom pour over for customers, it’s clear they understand the difference between producing a product and crafting an experience. We checked off another item with coffee from Back Alley.

Finally, we needed something to put the bread and the coffee in. A box or a tin just did not seem right. A wood crate would be a nice touch. I started looking for solutions out there, but couldn’t find anything to fit our size and budget requirements. I did find one company that could have made the product, but after some thought, I decided to reach out to Richard.

wood-crate-2016Richard is retired and lives in Louisville. He began his career serving in the military and later went on to work at Fall City Brewery where he did a variety of jobs, including a tour guide. Richard loved to help people by building things and eventually ventured out on his own providing building and repair services.

Working on your own is never easy, especially when you have (5) children and a wife at home. But they worked together as a team, always doing the right thing for his customers, providing for the needs of his family, living responsibly and being faithful in charity to his church and community. His passion shows in his integrity and always wanting to do things right. He seemed like the perfect fit to craft the wooden crate to finish off our gift experience.

He agreed to let us use his workshop, so Debbie and I traveled to Kentucky to make some sawdust and craft some crates. The size of the order came in nearly triple what we initially expected, so we had a bit of work to do.

One of my favorite quotes is from Science Guy Bill Nye – “Everyone knows something you don’t”. It drives one of my passions, learning. Spending a weekend in the woodshop with a master craftsman like Richard was certainly an experience for me. We crafted the parts that would bring this project together.

The coffee breads, freshly roasted coffee and hand crafted crate came together nicely. To top it off and create the final piece of the experience, I put together cards with pictures of the craftspeople and their stories. In the end, we believe that creating an experience is more than just the taste of a product or the colors in the packaging, it is the story behind it and the feeling it evokes that make the difference. The recipients who get this package are in for an experience they’ll not soon forget.

This project was a chance for us to learn things that we’ll apply to gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. While it is dangerous for a business to stray too far from their core mission, we felt this project fit nicely with our core mission I discussed some time ago in this post titled ‘Real magic happens when you understand the why’.

We won’t be shipping these out until the first of December as a part of our Holiday gift rush, but having the opportunity to work on a project like this has been like an early gift for us. Telling someone else’s story is extremely gratifying.

By the way, in addition to being a generous craftsman, Richard is also my father in law. Not only did I get to spend time in the workshop and learn from a master, we were there to help him celebrate is 85th birthday. For me, that is a sweeter gift than anything coming out of our oven.

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On changes, the elephant, the rider and the path forward

Mark Twain said, “The only person who likes a change, is a wet baby”. Do you like change? The truth is, it really doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, change comes in life and in business. We’ve experienced a few milestones recently that mark change at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and in the Duke household.

I shared the story recently of how we started our business selling pies and cheesecakes. Like many startups, we did everything by hand until purchasing equipment to help us scale the business and keep up with demand. A dough roller quickly turned those rounds of dough into perfectly formed pie crusts, before carefully placing them in the pans by hand. A cake cutter from Food Tools helped us pre-slice pies and cheesecakes, inserting a sheet of parchment paper between the slices (you’ve probably seen this before in some warehouse clubs.

We sold both pieces of equipment and shipped them off to their new owners, a baker in Minnesota and a restaurant in Arizona. While it was nice to pocket cash for equipment we haven’t used in years, it was a bittersweet moment to see it leave the bakery. We spent a lot of hours together.

2016-graduationIn our personal life we’re also facing changes, getting ready to ship off our most prized possession and the company namesake off to college. Anna graduated from high school and is preparing for the next leg of her journey in just a few short weeks. The decision to leave Sciquest and start Anna’s Gourmet Goodies was complex and based in no small part on my desire to spend as much time as possible with my little girl, now a young woman. Change happens.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Dan Heath, one of the authors of “Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard”. He was concluding his book tour at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and I decided to take Anna along. She was just about to head into the teenage years, our business was undergoing some transition, and learning about change from an expert seemed to be perfect timing.

book-switch-300x391We sat in the front row. The audience was a mix of MBA students, alumni and business executives. I’m pretty confident that Anna was in fact, the youngest person in the room. When Dan came out on stage, he immediately noticed her and his facial expression confirmed that the age range of his audience would begin a little younger than he expected. Years later after the release of his next book “Decisive”, we chatted and laughed about that moment.

The Heath brothers present a framework for understanding change that I still think about to this day. It is simple, profound and makes more sense to me than programs based on lists, goals, exercises or whatever. It is based on the concept of an elephant, a rider and a path.

The elephant represents our emotional self. It is large, sometimes unwieldy and can be difficult to turn on a dime and move in another direction.

The rider represents our logical self. The rider can quickly assess a situation, apply lessons learned and come up with a decision on the best direction to proceed. Sounds easy, right?

Here’s the problem, the elephant does not always agree with the rider. And while the rider likes to think he’s in control, moving an elephant can be hard. What’s the answer? Find a path that works for both the elephant and the rider.

If you’ve ever raised a teenager or know someone who has, the elephant and the rider analogy probably rings true. Think of the teenager as the elephant, you are the rider and you’re looking for that path.

As parents we’ve worked diligently to keep Anna on a path that will allow her to achieve her potential. That’s about as much as any parent can hope for.

As for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we’ve also been moving along a path that we hope leads us to a place where we can continue to grow our potential. It was hard giving up the wholesale dessert business to focus strictly on cookie and brownie gifts. Along the way, the elephant veered off into a few brier patches (yes, those thorns are painful).

But we’ve always tried to stay true to the values that led us to found the company. Not because it looks good on a piece of paper, but rather because we know that ultimately, the best way to deal with changes every business faces, is to keep the elephant and the rider on a path where they are both comfortable.

One of the benefits of that mindset comes when we make a connection with our customer’s elephant and rider. When we provide a path for them that makes sense for their marketing, employee satisfaction, or branding goals by sending out our gourmet cookie gifts, it really is magical.

If you are facing change in your personal or business life, and it seems hard, stop beating yourself up. Pickup a copy of Switch and spend some time getting you know the elephant and the rider. Of course, you could also order a box of chocolate chip cookies, get yourself a tall, cold glass of milk and sit out on the porch to contemplate your path.

While I can’t speak for your elephant and rider, I can say that mine are always happy to go down that path.

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My visit to thank our first customer took me to a place I’d never been before

Like most business owners, when someone asks the question, ‘So, how did you start your business?’ I love the opportunity to tell the story. For some people, starting a business is quick, like turning on a light switch. For some, it involves a story that starts long before the first customer appears. I had the chance to sit down with the first Anna’s Gourmet Goodies customer recently, the one who helped launch our business, in an unusual setting. Our story starts with a cheesecake, not cookies, long before this first customer appeared.

I was working at SciQuest during the ‘dotcom days’ of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Work was fast paced, constantly changing and investor money flowed like water from a garden hose. We worked hard, played hard, and had fun with some interesting events. One of those was the ‘Cheesecake Bakeoff’.

I had baked a few cheesecakes over the years, all based on my Mom’s recipe that I got from her over-stuffed box of food-stained index cards. It was made with eggs sugar and cream cheese, but included a sour cream topping, lightly baked, adding a tang not found in traditional cheesecakes.

My Grand Champion recipe helped start Anna's Gourmet Goodies
My Grand Champion recipe helped start Anna’s Gourmet Goodies
The night before the contest, I made a last minute decision to enter. While I knew the recipe was good, I wanted top prize and figured I needed to kick things up a notch. I made a crust with graham crackers and finely chopped dates. I diced up some apples, sautéed them lightly in Kentucky Bourbon, and layered that on top of the crust. I poured in the cheesecake mixture, baked it and added the sour cream topping. Finally, I whipped up a bourbon caramel sauce and drizzled it on top.

It looked great and I felt the addition of a little alcohol might give me an edge. As it turns out, I was right. My Apple Bourbon Cheesecake was crowned Grand Champion. I was awarded bragging rights and a baseball cap that I still have to this day. After winning, the recipe stayed dormant, for awhile.

My first baking hatMonths passed and after repeated encouragement to sell the cheesecake, I finally decided to see what it would take to bake and sell them. I contacted the NC Department of Agriculture and the Town of Wake Forest, secured permits and inspections, and we were set to start baking. But first, we needed the most important ingredient, a customer.

I had been eating lunch at a small café in Cary called Chef John’s. As a somewhat regular patron, I got to know the owner, Chef John, and decided to ask him if he would give the cheesecake a try. He agreed.

I rounded up packaging from a local store, baked one cheesecake and dropped it by the restaurant. I checked back with Chef John after a few days and he said people ‘Loved it!’. So we made another. Then another. Then another.

From that one customer, we grew the business organically, adding new cheesecakes and eventually pies, finding customers who were willing to pay for our products to finance the growth. It grew until we decided in 2003 to take a leap of faith and build Anna’s Gourmet Goodies full time.

We continued to grow our customer base and Chef John was a customer even after he closed the café and focused strictly on catering. But his business and his career, ended in January 2011 when he was arrested and charged with murder for the death of his wife.

Both Debbie and I made deliveries and got to know his wife Donna as well as Chef John. The news story was a shock to both of us. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

It was the first time I was this close to someone convicted of this type of crime. It wasn’t something I’d ever connect with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our customers. I thought about him off and on over the years, but it wasn’t until my neighbor interviewed me for his research project on hiring offenders that I began thinking of visiting Chef John.

Keith is a retired Federal prison warden and was completing his PhD. “It was never my job to judge whether or not anyone was right or wrong”, he said. “I just did my job”. It took awhile, but at some point I felt compelled to track down Chef John, reach out, reconnect and thank him for what he did that was good, help me start Anna’s Gourmet Goodies.

With Keith’s help, I looked him up in the North Carolina prison directory and found he had been transferred to the Albemarle Correctional Institute. After calling, sending him a letter and completing the necessary forms to apply for a visit, I scheduled a trip to visit him on a Sunday afternoon.

My first visit to a Federal prison
My first visit to a Federal prison
It was my first visit inside a Federal Prison and not at all like what I’ve seen in the movies. The guards were firm, but friendly and the grounds were immaculate. After passing through security, I was sent to a large open room with tables and chairs to wait. A few minutes later, Chef John came out.

He had a big grin on his face, gave me a warm welcome and immediately asked about our cheesecakes and his favorite, our Key Lime Pie. We sat down and started catching up. If not for the surroundings, we might as well have been sitting back at the Café talking about old times.

I shared news about our business and how we had changed to only making cookies and brownies. I updated him on my family, as Anna was in a car seat when we first started deliveries to the Café. I asked about his life in prison and he filled me in on some of the details of his life behind bars.

We did not talk about the details of the event that led him there. That’s not why I came. My visit was not about judgment, but gratitude and closure.

I try very hard to tie the threads of my stories back to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies in a way that makes sense and provides you, the reader, with some measure of value. To give you food for thought that might inspire you to action in your life and/or business. And, to help our customers, both current and future, better understand the ingredients that make up our business beyond butter, flour, sugar and eggs. This one, has been more than a little difficult, but no less important.

For me, it was a chance to say thank you to someone who, despite his current circumstance, helped me along my journey. In turn, I had the opportunity to help Chef John remember back to an earlier time and smile, if even for a brief moment. As I’ve written before, that’s fundamentally what we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies – create memories and hopefully generate a smile or two. Since the prison system would not allow me to do that with a cookie or a slice of pie, I used my words, a smile and a handshake. All of which make up a winning recipe for a brief moment of happiness, no matter how you slice it.

Thank you, Chef John.

My visit to thank our first customer took me to a place I’d never been before Read More »

Our gourmet cookie gifts are ‘sticky’

No, I’m not referring to the kind of sticky that comes from putting your hand in the honey jar. I’m thinking about sticky as it relates to memory, something that stays there for a long time.

Anna and I watched the Disney movie ‘Inside Out’ (worth seeing if you have not) and it was an interesting take on what happens to our thoughts and memories. It was funny, well done as most Pixar movies are and got me thinking about what we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We often describe our gifts as ‘leaving a lasting impression long after the last crumb is gone’.

I also received a phone call recently from a former customer because we created a memory for her. One of her employers used to send our cookies as gifts to their employees. She decided to start sending gifts to her clients and called us because of that memory.

A simple 'thank you' can mean a lot - especially pared with a gift of our gourmet cookies.
A simple ‘thank you’ can mean a lot – especially pared with a gift of our gourmet cookies.
One of the first things she said was how she remembered getting our cookies on her birthday and work anniversary, a simple ‘thank you’ gift from her company letting her know she was valued and appreciated. This was years ago and I’m wondering, of all the things the HR department did, how many of them stood out like the simple gesture of remembering employees with a box of cookies on their birthday and work anniversary?

Jim Karrh, a friend and former classmate at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, is a consultant helping companies focus on managing the message they send to customers and employees. I subscribe to his email newsletter (you can too by tapping here to visit his website) and he shared this story in a recent post:

“I see a widespread assumption among managers that the main way to improve productivity is to set tough goals and push people. Yet we’re learning that employees who feel appreciated are more productive and loyal. An on-the-job study of 41 university fundraisers, all of whom were working on fixed salaries, confirmed this. For half of the group, the development director visited them in person to say, “I am very grateful for your hard work. We sincerely appreciate your contributions to the university.” The other half of the group received no extra expression of thanks.

What do you think happened? During the next week, the group who received direct thanks increased the number of calls they made by 50 percent, while the control group made the same number of calls as they had the previous week.”
– Jim Karrh, Managing the Message

Thinking about the movie, Jim’s quote, our business, and my own life, I believe two factors make a particular event or experience memorable: the unexpected and emotional connections.

It happens to all of us. We get caught up in the routine of life and business. But then, when something unexpected happens, either good or bad, we stop for a minute and that’s when the memory kicks in – like when someone gives us a real, sincere, ‘thank you’, that is totally unexpected.

Another powerful memory generator happens when we make an emotional connection. When I smell strawberries, I think of Mom’s strawberry cake she always made on my birthday. When I say the words ‘my daughter’ I am transported back to that dimly lit room where she came into the world and I saw her for the first time. Both evoke emotions tied to permanent memories. Do you have memories from emotional triggers? I bet you do.

While I’m flattered when people refer to me as ‘the cookie man’, (this happened just the other day at a Raleigh Chamber luncheon), I smile knowing that we are really in the business of creating ‘sticky memories’. When someone opens the package and bites into a cookie or brownie, I’d like to think two things happen. First, they are pleasantly surprised. And second, they are transported back to a time in their youth when they sat around a plate of cookies their Mom or someone special just made.

We pay attention to the details.
We pay attention to the details.
I have no way of confirming exactly how many of the tens of thousands of packages we’ve sent out over the years created an experience that ended up tucked away somewhere in the memory banks of the person who opened the box and tasted our cookies and brownies. But I can say with certainty that it did for the customer who called us recently, and probably a few more.

Sticky memories. For a company in the business of creating memorable experiences, that’s a pretty sweet reward.

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