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Amazon's Got Talent

Dave Lefkow: from Bacon Salt to Wickedly Prime

Dave Lefkow 1Dave Lefkow is the perfect lunch buddy. Currently a Senior Product Manager in our Consumables retail organization, he’s responsible for bringing deliciousness to customers’ Amazon shopping experience. And he always knows a great spot to grab lunch. We recently sat down over banh mi to talk about his work and food.

We’ve been friends for a while and one thing we have in common is that we’re both from Chicago. 2016 was a great year to be from Chi-town. Anything to say about the World Series?

My co-workers know what a huge Cubs fan I am, so they congratulated me like I actually played on the team. I guess I did drink a lot of Old Style to help make this happen… so I humbly accepted their congratulations.

You’re a Senior Product Manager in Amazon’s Consumables Private Label business. What is Consumables, exactly?

If you consume it, it’s a consumable product. Obviously, food and drinks. But other things people use up too, like toothpaste, cosmetics and baby diapers.

Wickedly PrimeWhat do you do in your role?

I develop snacks for Amazon’s own private label food brand, Wickedly Prime. Anything you might snack on – nuts, chips, popcorn - I’m working on. Yes, it’s as great as it sounds.

I also work with an amazing team of researchers, product developers, packaging/commercialization engineers and sourcing managers. Our group is doing some really innovative things to bring these products to life, and I’m really proud to be part of it.

When I talk to people about the work they do at Amazon, they always seem to connect it to a vision that makes the work more important or “impactful” than it seems. Why is your work important to Amazon?

Grocery is a growing channel at Amazon that the company is investing heavily in. As we get into making our private label line, we’re learning a lot about how to optimize things for the Amazon platform that will translate into a better overall customer experience across the board.

As part of that, I get to solve some pretty meaty business challenges like how we can cost effectively get delicate products to survive last mile, air and over-mountain shipping and what packaging innovations Amazon can develop that a traditional grocer can’t.

Aside from getting to work on those cool challenges, what else is particularly challenging about your work or the Consumables space?

We’re a startup with the resources of the leading ecommerce provider behind us. But… we had never developed our own packaged food products before. That comes with a whole new set of challenges, and an iterative process that is evolving as we learn more lessons.

Learning as you go is a theme I hear a lot at Amazon, especially since we are such a data-driven company. But fortunately, you have experience in packaged foods, so it’s not all new to you. Can you tell everyone what did you do before you joined Amazon?

Before Amazon, I was quite literally pursuing bacon-flavored interests – as founder and CEO of J&D’s Foods.

While working in the tech space, a friend and I came up with a crazy idea: a seasoning that makes everything taste like bacon. We called it Bacon Salt.  We ended up winning money on America’s Funniest Home Videos (my kid hit me in the face with a whiffle ball) and buying 6,000 jars of Bacon Salt to start.

All 6,000 jars of Bacon Salt sold out in 5 days to people in 12 countries and 25 states – we did it from a website without spending a dollar on marketing. Then things got really crazy.

We got interviewed on Oprah for 10 minutes. We were on ABC News, the Today Show, The Tonight Show, the Late Show, Good Morning America, Daily Candy – over 3 billion consumer PR impressions in all. We parlayed this into distribution in more than half the grocery stores in America. We made other bacony products like Baconnaise, Bacon Croutons, Bacon Popcorn and holiday novelties like Bacon Lip Balm, Bacon Flavored Envelopes (called Mmmvelopes) and Bacon Scented Pillowcases – among others.

In short, we built a multi-million dollar company with the premise that “Everything should taste like bacon.” Only in America!

OK, but seriously, WHY bacon? I have to admit that this is somewhat of a rhetorical question because: mmmm, bacon.

Why wouldn’t you want your food to taste like bacon? The fact that it hadn’t been done before was the surprising part.

Dave Lefkow Anderson CooperI was at your launch party for Baconnaise and saw some crazy stuff. What are some of the weirdest things you did or had happen to you because of Bacon Salt?

There are a lot of crazy things to choose from (including almost getting arrested at a national monument in a giant bacon costume and having Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart absolutely hate on us on national television).

But the all-time craziest story is the time that I fell through the roof of an RV dressed as a giant slice of bacon. It happened when we were promoting our launch at a chain of stores in Pennsylvania. We thought it would be a good idea to hit college football tailgaters and pass out free Bacon Salt – dressed as Giant Bacon. At a Penn State game, some college kids took me up to the top of an RV to do a kegstand, and walking back (Giant Bacon can’t see his feet!), I fell through one of those little plastic windows onto a couch below – where their dad was watching football. I’ll never forget what he said: “You’re paying for that window, son.”

That is a great story, assuming that your landing was soft. So I assume that your experience dressing up as Giant Bacon isn’t really applicable to what you are doing at Amazon, but how do you think other aspects of your experience as a bacontrepreneur has benefitted you here?

I’m able to apply my experience to a much bigger set of challenges and opportunities at Amazon.

Ownership, drive, innovation, customer obsession - these are all skills I learned as an entrepreneur and use heavily here. It might sound cheesy, but as I watch my products come to life, I really feel like an owner at Amazon.

I also love to invent. And Amazon is like a playground for inventors. If you have a great idea, they want to hear it and there are processes to bring them to life.

Do you get sick of thinking about food all day or does it make you hungry?

I live to eat – so thinking about food makes me hungry and happy. Mmmm… food.

OK, so if you could only eat 3 foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Well, bacon gets its own wing in my food hall of fame. And, by the way, variety is the spice of life, so I wouldn’t ever want to eat 3 foods for the rest of my life. But if you’re asking for my 3 favorites, I’d say: chicken tikka masala, gnocchi in black truffle cream sauce (from List in downtown Seattle), and bourbon pecan bread pudding.

Ooh, those are good. Foods made out of bread are the best. Aside from eating, what do you do for fun outside of work?

I play water polo – it’s the only sport that allows me to burn all the calories I consume on a daily basis. I also have two great kids, a cat, a dog, and a wonderful partner in crime. We hike, we explore, we play games. We jump on trampolines – never a dull moment! 

I mentioned that you are  great lunch buddy, and maybe when this blog posts gets published you will have a bunch more lunch invitations. What is your favorite lunch place in South Lake Union (Amazon’s neighborhood)?

There are way too many good ones to choose from to pick one – I’m loving the urban campus!

Let’s start with breakfast – I like the Zach sandwich at Serious Pie and Biscuit. It’s all sorts of bacony, biscuity, fried chickeny goodness. The Pasta Bolognese at re:public is pretty awesome. And we’re pretty close to some other spectacular eating adventures. Like Dutch babies at Tilikum Café. Crumpets (Vermont Life Changer) from The Crumpet Shop. Onion Obsession sandwiches at Paseo or Un Bien.

I have to agree about the Zach at Serious Biscuit (followed by a nap) and that re:public is also great. It’s one of my favorite places for happy hour (they make a great old fashioned).  We are a little spoiled by the food options around here.

Awhile back, I started something on my team called Lunch Around the World – every month we pick a new area of the world to lunch on. We’ve had some really excellent Indian (North and South), Mexican, Oaxacan, Caribbean, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Greek foods.  Like I said, variety is the spice of life!

I imagine your team is full of food-lovers like yourself, so the lunchtime conversations must be fun. I imagine there are some hazards to the job.

Let’s just say that for every food product we launch, my coworkers and I have eaten several pounds of it before it gets to the consumer. It’s a labor of love, but I’m guessing my doctor will have something to say about my sodium intake at my next checkup. And we all have to watch our weight. Totally worth it though!

 Thanks for lunch and the great conversation, Dave!

If you are interested in developing product, we have Private Label teams across several of our retail categories. You can find several of the Private Label job openings here.


Partnering with VPs, Alex Trebek and the Definition of "Crunk"

Stephanie Hubley is a bit of a celebrity at Amazon this week - she unseated a Jeopardy returning champion and Jeff Bezos knows her name. The Executive Assistant in Kindle appeared on Jeopardy this past Wednesday and will be returning to defend her spot in an upcoming game.

Jeff Bezos gave her a shout out at our recent employee all-hands as well. 

You can read about Stephanie's experience, in her own words here. And see how employees rallied to watch the show and cheer her on. You'll also learn more about "crunk" (which I would have struggled to define even without the pressure of the show) and get some insight into the EA role at Amazon - Stephanie cleared the calendar of the VPs she works with so they could join her to watch the show.

By the way, you don't have to be a master or trivia to be an EA at Amazon. If you are interested in exploring the different types of administrative roles across the company, you can find them here. There's also a page dedicated to EAs in Amazon's Consumer Division here and a video below.

 


Dogs in costume walk the runway at Amazon.

It's too bad we don't have more opportunities in life to see dogs dressed up in costumes. It's been a year since we wished you a "Happy Howloween!" with a bunch of dog photos from our Amazon Seattle offices. Some of us, unfortunately, have pets who show a clear disdain for dressing up, so we have to go long periods of time without dogs-in-costume photos. My dogs looked mildly tortured by the dinosaur costumes I bought them last year and I swore to them we would never do it again. But I still need a fix of dogs in costumes.

Fortunately, our social media team recently did a broadcast of pups in costume walking a really frugal runway. Aside from the ridiculously cute dogs (you have to stay tuned long enough to see Michael Jackson tell his wig to "beat it"), I'm pretty impressed by the collecti0n of human footwear.

Geekwire also covered a costume contest hosted in Van Vorst plaza on Friday, with some adorable entrants and employees talking about what it means to them to be able to bring their dogs to work. What, you think we'd only have one dog costume event on Halloween?


Varsha Raghavan is breaking tech pro stereotypes

“I can write a beautiful piece of code, that’s art. I can sing a beautiful aria, and that’s art, too.”

I love to hear about the unique interests and talents co-workers have. It’s like getting an entirely new perspective on someone you feel you already know pretty well. And I’ve noticed that there seems to be some relationship between technology and music. In my recruiting career, I have hired many people who have majored in music and many more who have some kind of musical side-jam.

Varsha Raghavan works as a Research Engineer in Amazon’s Prime Air organization. She is also appearing in Twister Beach at Café Nordo’s. Varsha was recently profiled in KUOW’s Art of Our City series. She got her masters’ degree from MIT, while continuing to foster the love of music she discovered at the theater camp she intended to help with her childhood shyness. She’s definitely breaking tech pro stereotypes…

 


Star Trek Beyond, starring Jeff Bezos?

If you are looking forward to the upcoming Star Trek movie, keep your eyes open for a cameo from someone unexpected: Jeff Bezos. He’ll be appearing as Starfleet Official in Star Trek Beyond.

 

 

A fan of Star Trek since childhood – he even noted Star Trek as the inspiration for the Echo device and Alexa automated assistant – it sounds like Jeff is getting to live out a dream. I’m not sure how this particular dream ranks among others, like launching rockets into space (and returning them successfully) or changing how America (and the world) shops.


Amazon Echo and Sir Mix-a-Lot

I use my Echo for normal household stuff; ordering dogfood, defining words, looking up trivia, playing music and converting measurements. I feel like I am just scratching the surface of what Echo can do, and plan to dig in more, specifically with the IFTTT integration. I’d love to be able to automate some work processes.

Some of our software developers in the Alexa organization (the group behind Echo’s intelligence) recently worked with Seattle icon Sir Mix-a-Lot to automate some of the labor-intensive processes involved in music production. Here’s a little video on Mix’s vision and how he’s using Alexa.

 

In April, Mix participated in a panel discussion at the Black Music Summit, along with the Amazon software developers - Thomas Phillips, Michael Dorsey, Jr. and Sebastian Blissett -  who worked with him, to talk a bit about their day together. Here is a video of that panel. Bonus: you’ll learn how the f-word gets edited out of tracks. Fast forward to -20:55 to hear Mix talk about his experience looking for an opportunity to develop workflow automation tools and what happened when the Amazon team came to his house.

It was also great to hear these members of the Alexa team talk about what got them interested in technology and Amazon.


Look at all those Amazonian dogs


BiscuitAmazon’s dog-friendly environment is well-known, and often one of the first things people ask employees about. Working here, you get accustomed to seeing pups in the elevators and baby gates blocking off work areas so peoples’ canine buddies don’t wander the halls.  We get a little spoiled by all the sweet dogs we get to visit around here.

Now you can experience some of that Amazonian cuteness every time you click on a bum link to an Amazon.com page. Because our 404 pages now feature a rotating crew Amazon dogs. You can check out the full pack here. Good luck not picking out a few favorites and imagining what your life would be like with one of those adorable pups by your side. Who can resist a dog whose favorite toy is human emotion?

A calendar featuring some of our four-legged friends is available on Amazon.com, with proceeds benefiting the ASPCA.