Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We are happy to serve you.

If you’ve been in NYC at some point or another over the last 40 or 50 years, or if you’ve ever watched an episode of one of the many incarnations of Law & Order, you’ve certainly seen one: the Greek-style paper coffee cup that all the little non-chain coffee shops and delis seem to use. I’ve never seen one any where else – maybe there’s some paper cup covenant that they can only be sold in New York – but this coffee cup says NYC to me in the same way as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, or a sea of yellow taxis on Park Avenue does.

This is one iconic little product, no?

And now, Leslie Buck, the man who designed it, has died at 87.

In reading his obituary, I was struck by so many details that make this a quintessential New York story.

Buck was a Holocaust survivor, who made his way to the new world after the war. There he Americanized himself from Laszlo Büch to Leslie Buck, and, at some point in the 1950’s, got himself into the paper cup business. (Ah, for those pre-styrofoam days.)

It was as the director of marketing – a position that I have also held, but not at a company that produced anything as useful and tangible as a paper cup – that Buck designed the cup, which he dubbed the “anthora”, apparently a garbled version of “amphora.” ‘Anthora”, “amphora” – it was a pure instance of marketing genius.  Far, far better than any of the product logos I came up with when I was a director of marketing with a non-existent budget. (Thank you, Piet Mondrian, for inspiring one of my logos.)Of course, those products – software all – are no longer with us, which can’t be said for a cup of coffee. Anyway,

Sherri [the paper cup company where Buck worked] was keen to crack New York’s hot-cup market. Since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, Mr. Buck hit on the idea of a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek flag. Though he had no formal training in art, he executed the design himself. It was an instant success.

Know thy customer, alright.

I can just picture Mr. Buck roughing out his idea, then refining it, but not spending all that long on it. Probably less time than it took Starbucks to decide on how big a venti should be. (Okay. That’s a joke. If they’d decided on 19 ounces, it’d have to have been a diciannove.)

Although Buck never made any money off of the design* – which was knocked off by a number of other paper cup companies – he did make up for it in sales.

At its peak, Sherri was selling 500 million cups a year. Even after the Dunkin’-Starbuck-ization of the corner coffee shop market had taken hold, the company still managed to sell 200 million in 2005. As the corporate world turns, Sherri was sucked up into Solo, and they no longer carry the Anthora as an off-the-shelf stock item. You can, however, special order. Paper cup makers of the knock-offs still manufacture them, which is why you still see people walking around Manhattan warming their hands around them.

The Leslie Buck Story. Only in America. (Only in New York.) We are happy to have been served by you.


*Same goes for Harvey Ball, the Worcester man who designed the smiley face.


Trixie said...

I love those cups - I used to get my morning joe on the corner of 17th and 7th (or was it 8th?) on my way to work. They definitely say "NY" to me. I actually have a ceramic version of said cup on my desk now - there are a number of gift catalog companies where you can buy one. I just looked on the bottom of the cup and there is a "wearehappytoserveryou.com" website....

Alice Van-Weed said...

wow..that is a story worth to tell..i also looked up harvey ball..interesting to know that the smiley face was invented