Mystery Threads 

Founder of E-ville marketing company scores an enviable publicity coup; plus, food sellers still eschew spinach, leaving local Popeyes in the lurch.

Shirt Tales: The tactics of Emeryville alt-marketing firm Forty Two are so fringe that it doesn't reveal the products it's paid to promote, nor that it's even running a marketing campaign, until the campaign is done with (see "The Buzzmakers" feature, 5/18/05).

Preceding the launch of Microsoft's blockbuster video game Halo 2, for example, the firm created an "alternate-reality game." It had players running around the country and the Internet, answering pay phones and piecing together an online radio drama set in the futuristic world Halo 2 was to use as a backdrop.

The latest creation of Elan Lee, Forty Two's mischievous founder, is a murder mystery embedded in a garment line. As Lee tells it, he was sitting around shooting the shit with friends Dawne Weisman and Shane Small. Weisman had previously launched several gaming companies, and Small's background was in fashion. "We just started thinking about, is there a way to make a product that mixes all our disciplines together?" Lee says. "If so, that would be something the world had never seen before."

The resulting company, EDOC Laundry, launched its first line of $30 T-shirts and $15 baseball caps this spring, and has completely sold out of them, according to Lee. Each garment style contains a hidden code. "It could be in the graphics, it could be in the stitching, it might be glow in the dark ink," Lee says. "You might need to put it under a black light or fold it in a certain way."

The codes are easy enough to find, but trickier to decipher. One was in braille, for instance. Typing a translated code into a special page on EDOCLaundry.com lets the wearer watch a short movie — there's one per style. "As you watch them, you start to learn this story of a woman on the run for a crime she didn't commit, and you're the only one who can help her," Lee says.

This week, his brainchild will score one hell of a publicity coup. The coded shirts have inspired an episode of CSI: NY scheduled to air tonight (Wednesday, October 11) at 10 p.m. on CBS. Comcast subscribers can also catch the archived episode on demand.

The buzzmaker swears he didn't seek this out. Apparently, Anthony Zuiker, the show's cocreator and executive producer, got one of the shirts from a friend. "Anthony called us up, and said, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever seen, and I'll bet I could write a whole episode about it,'" Lee says.

In fact, he adds, the company's creative team views its own murder mystery much like a TV series. "There's a central conflict, narrative arc, and central characters," he says. "Using cliffhangers and other literary devices, we encourage you to tune in next season, which in our case means go out and buy another shirt."

In tonight's episode, "Hung Out to Dry," a college girl is found beheaded at a sorority party. After more victims emerge, the CSI dudes realize their stiffs are wearing similar T-shirts. The investigation eventually takes them to the offices of EDOC Laundry, which is featured by name, although its designers are played by actors. Talk about your product placement.

Lee and his partners got to play extras, donning lab coats and walking around in the background during a crime-lab scene. But they weren't allowed to preview the episode. They'll just have to tune in along with the other fourteen million viewers. "This is my big film debut," he says, "so look for the blur in the background, because one of them is me." — Michael Mechanic

The Missing Ingredient: It's lunchtime at the Sizzler on Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward, and the restaurant's centerpiece salad bar is stocked for the impending rush. There's shiny-looking macaroni salad, pinkie-length corn-on-the-cob from a can, and a bowl of translucent red Jell-O. But something is missing.

Manager Anil Pandey points to three bowls at the head of the salad bar. "We used to put the spinach right here," he says, indicating a bowl of chopped romaine.

Almost three weeks after the US Food and Drug Administration gave consumers the all-clear for raw spinach grown outside Salinas Valley — the source of an E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened almost two hundred — East Bay diners are still shunning spinach like a bunch of picky five-year-olds. "A lady showed me a piece of lettuce like this," Pandey says, pointing to a square of romaine from a dark-green outer leaf. "She said it looked like spinach."

At the tony Market Hall in Rockridge, shoppers milling around the long deli counter at the Pasta Shop are also in a no-spinach zone. Sandy Sonnenfelt, the Pasta Shop's prepared-foods coordinator, has given up on spanakopita, never mind that the filo pastries contain frozen spinach, which was unaffected by the E. coli scare. "We quickly realized people aren't buying spinach in any shape or form," she says. She's substituting other greens in soups, salads, and pastas.

Spinach sales are down by at least half, says Tony D'Amato, sales manager at Bay Cities Produce in San Leandro, one of the East Bay's largest wholesalers. Formerly, 90 percent of the spinach D'Amato sold came from the Salinas Valley. Now he's sourcing it farther south, east of Santa Barbara. "People know it's untainted," he says.

Try telling that to consumers freaked out by the news stories of death by spinach. For Jeff Amber, chef at Lafayette's Chow, it's easier to banish than to explain. Before the crisis, a salad of spinach, feta, and apples was one of his biggest sellers. "Most of our stuff was from small-farm growers, but it's almost impossible to explain that to the general public," he says. He's substituted arugula: "We'll just keep it out until this is off the tip of people's tongues."

When will that be? Sonnenfelt, who just finalized the Pasta Shop's popular holiday catering menu for the printer, is sweating the next few months. "One of our most popular holiday items is a crab and fresh spinach dip," she says. This year, she thinks leaving off the word "fresh" will allay the fears. "I'm hoping by then this will all have blown over," she says. She doesn't sound especially convinced. — John Birdsall

Fame & Money:
Some new business names from Alameda County folks.

Chicken's Son Handyman
Eloy Sanchez

Ring Ring Bling Bling Team Marketing
Tracey Lovely

The Grey Geeks
Lynda J. Pike

Mr. Extremo
Jose A. Gonzalez

Fame and Money (FAM)
Refus Mcneeley

Viper Education
Adam Metz

Untouchable Babes Social Club
Tommia Andrews, La Tosha Stephenson, & Raven Box

— Compiled by Michael Mechanic

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