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3RD Place: EYE CANDY OPTICAL PINECREST | Cleveland, OH

Next Level Candy Crush

People told these optical biz owners that Cleveland wasn’t ready for ‘funky, futuristic and weird,’ but they proved them wrong a second time.

OWNERS: Steve Nelson and Anton Syzdykov | URL: eye-candy-optical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 2012 |YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018 | AREA: 2,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/EyeCandyOpticalCle | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/eyecandycle | TWITTER: twitter.com/ECO_Cleveland | YELP: yelp.com/biz/eye-candy-optical-beachwood | TOP BRANDS: Sospiri, Matsuda, Face à Face, Dita, Theo | BUILD OUT COST: $1.1M with equipment | ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Helen Rogic, ONE Interior (one-interior.com), and Jeff Bogart, Bogart Architecture, Inc.


Like many business ideas, Eye Candy Optical was born of a need. Steve Nelson, who launched Eye Candy Optical with Anton Syzdykov in Cleveland, OH, in 2013, recalls: “We couldn’t find fashionable glasses in our hometown.” They set out to change the local optical landscape by bringing a world-class eyewear shop to the city “based equally on fashion and function.” As industry outsiders, they felt they could avoid tunnel vision and preconceived notions. Of course, it’s one thing to identify a need — it’s how you go about filling it that matters. Eye Candy Optical’s founders were determined to do it with flair. “We asked ourselves: ‘What if Victoria’s Secret and House of Blues opened a glasses shop?’” The result was their first store in Westlake, west of downtown. Five years later, Nelson and Syzdykov opened a second location in the Pinecrest mixed-use development in Orange Village, one of Cleveland’s upscale eastern suburbs.

The goal with the second location wasn’t to duplicate the success of the first, but to build on it. “We had built a store that could compete with the best New York, LA, London or Paris shops,” says Nelson. “Sadly, many industry people, neighbors, competitors said we would fail. The shop was ‘too funky, futuristic and weird’ for the Midwest. Fast forward to today; we are very successful and have opened a second location.” Incorporating their five years of experience, the new location takes the strengths of the first store to the next level with added creature comforts, a superior lab and the latest in exam-room gear.

According to Nelson, it took several years to find the right space. “It was more than finding the right location, it was finding the location within the location,” he says. “We insisted on a spot caddy corner to the Whole Foods for the best visibility and parking.”

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It took many tries before they hit on the right design. “Truthfully we almost blew it and created an awful space that was fun but tantamount to a medical office instead of a sexy shop. We had to go back to basics and really recreate a better version of our first location. Sometimes you have all the answers right in front of you.” He acknowledges Helen Rogic from ONE Interiors, who did their displays, as a key contributor. “Without her … I don’t know how we would have tackled this project. She’s an amazing talent.”

“Sexy, cool, and very rock n’ roll” was the look and feel Nelson and Syzdykov were going for —fitting for a store just miles from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The optical’s layout is based around a circle of custom European displays by ONE Interior surrounding a coffee bar offering real Italian espresso and artisan teas.

When opening their second location in Cleveland’s Orange Village, Nelson and Syzdykov focused on the ‘location within the location’.

A large open window allows customers to see directly into the lab. Behind the center wall is a hallway that leads customers “back stage” where they find a first-class lounge with designer couch, bar seating and fridge with drinks and snacks. This area houses the state-of-the-art exam and pretest rooms, plus the “sexiest bathroom in optical with techno music and lights.”

Disappointed with the quality and selection in the mid-market category, the pair decided to design and manufacture their own frame line, Sugar Specs. It was a lengthy learning process and has been both labor and capital intensive, but well worth it, they say. “We set out to improve our position in this important price category by taking the bull by the horns. This is not simply choosing a design from a box of samples; instead we do our own hand and 3D drawings and get inspiration from our staff and customers,” says Nelson. They offer about 15 models in four colors and are working on getting it up to 50 models in the next 24 months. Frames are made from premium acetates or titanium with European hardware.

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The way Nelson and Syzdykov see it, they have “a vested interest in making customers look awesome.” What they strive to deliver, they say, is not just an amazing pair of glasses, but compliments and social validation from each client’s friends, peers, and relatives — with some fun along the way.

Thinking back on Eye Candy’s arrival on a staid Cleveland optical scene six years ago, Nelson says, “Look, we were different. People are always afraid of what is different. We were unapologetic when we said, ‘We are going to be the sexy rock ’n’ roll optical in Cleveland.’ Be bold, be brave, and stick to your vision.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Nathan Troxell: The Eye Candy Optical brand and persona is embraced throughout the entire patient experience and across all consumer touch points. Terrific connection to their home city by embracing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the attitude that goes along with it.

Stirling Barrett: Eye Candy Optical is showing that eyewear can be creative, exciting and fun. They care not only about getting customers in a frame that looks great, but they also have a fun approach in getting their customers to try new styles and push their comfort zone.

Beverly Suliteanu:This is a serious business that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fun, cool spirit throughout, from interior design to frame collections, marketing material and online platforms. They are quite high tech and appear to put as much emphasis on the substance (eyecare) as they do on the style (eyewear).

PHOTO GALLERY (28 Images)

5 COOL THINGS ABOUT EYE CANDY
 OPTICAL

1 EDGE ON THE COMPETITION. Eye Candy’s lab has a commercial edger from MEI Italy that allows the practice to make glasses on demand in minutes.

2 GET WITH ‘THE PROGRAM.’ Eye Candy staff wrote their own POS and accounting software that integrates with their edgers, labs, and medical equipment, simply called “the program.” A major undertaking, the end result is a streamlined system that has cut the average transaction time by 50 percent.

3 2020 VISION. The new store has the latest Visionix and Reichert pre-test and exam equipment for faster and more accurate exams.

4 IN THE MOOD. Eye Candy uses the SONOS system to set up to four different music stations. “The mood needs to be different on the retail floor versus the exam room,” says Nelson. They have everything from oldies and lounge to metal and techno.

5 WOW FACTOR. A front display window includes an advanced LED light show. The idea, says Syzdykov, is to “dazzle customers with an ever-changing screen with inspirational photos, sayings and memes, and to make it fun.”

Fine Story

“We are really proud of the ‘Eye Candy Process’ we utilize to get the customer to their perfect frame,” Nelson says. To do this, opticians and stylists are asked to pull five to seven frames for each client that “push their fashion comfort zone,” in a variety of colors, styles and price points. “Then we play a game called ‘Hate/Don’t Hate.’ If they ‘don’t hate it’ it stays in the tray.” (They used to say, “Like/Hate” but customers found the word “Like” too committal.) More frames get pulled, the cream rises to the top, and, eventually, the customer can be certain they found the best frame. It sounds simple but it takes a very skilled person to lead the process and consider the client’s style, facial features, skin tone, color palette, occupation, and the image they want to project. “Try doing that at a chain store! Here we are all psychologists, detectives, artists, and stylists!”

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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America's Finest

America’s Finest Optical Retailers 2019 Winners Announced!

This year’s winners are eyecare business masterpieces designed to inspire.

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Edgar Degas

Despite a basis in medicine, running an exceptional independent eyecare business isn’t a science… It’s an art. A fine art. And nothing demonstrates that more than the top three winners of this year’s America’s Finest Optical Retailers contest. Nothing cookie-cutter here; our first, second and third place winners all demonstrate an individuality that cannot be replicated and a creativity that is quite literally hard to beat.

“I had so much fire in me and so many plans.”
Claude Monet

In speaking with this year’s honorees, many expressed a dissatisfaction with the more traditional routes eyecare has to offer. Sometimes burnt out, or otherwise just not interested, each determined that corporate optometry or a big box setting just wasn’t for them. Not fulfilling enough, not creative enough, not welcoming enough to big ideas and even bigger dreams.

“To create one’s own world takes courage.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

So they each took the leap. And they went BIG. Each pursued their idea of what an eyecare business should be. Whether they started from scratch or changed an established business, are a business in their infancy or have several generations behind them, each of this year’s honorees changed and tweaked their businesses to fit their most authentic expression of experience.

“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
Salvador Dali

But none of these businesses came about by happy accident. The businesses recognized this year have achieved their success through passion, creativity, hard work and an unrelenting drive to offer superior products and service to their customers. They are dreamers. They are doers. They are thinkers and they are artists. They are, in short, an inspiration.

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America's Finest

Stunning Interiors and Exteriors Draw Fine Eyewear Fans to This Unique Memphis Practice

They had faith that the neighborhood would support them; and they were right.

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1ST Place: Eclectic eye | Memphis, Tn

Down to a Fine Art

A Memphis couple built an optometric practice and eyewear boutique that reflects and enriches the vital, art-loving neighborhood they grew up in.

OWNERS: Robbie Johnson Weinberg and Michael Weinberg, OD | URL: eclectic-eye.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 2002 | AREA: 3,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 10 full-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/EclecticEyeMemphis | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/EclecticEyeMemphis | TWITTER: twitter.com/EclecticEye | YELP: yelp.com/biz/eclectic-eye-memphis | TOP BRANDS: Anne et Valentin, Moscot, Krewe, Theo, Jacques Marie Mage | BUILD OUT COST: Original $400,000, Renovation $425,000 | ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Archimania: Jeff Blackledge, Todd Walker and Stephanie Wexler


Eclectic Eye was born out of husband-and-wife team Robbie Johnson Weinberg and Dr. Michael Weinberg’s dream to establish a viable, engaging and artistic business in Midtown Memphis — the community in which they grew up, went to high school and first got to know each other — and where they had long hoped “to live, work and play.”

Midtown is known for its ethnic, economic and architectural diversity, thriving art scene and established LGBTQ community. According to Johnson Weinberg, however, it is still recovering from the effects of “white flight” experienced in the 1970s and ’80s after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and generations of Jim Crow racial oppression. By the late 1990s, after decades of depopulation, the neighborhood was sorely underserved. “We wanted to be a part of the solution by being in the city, in the community,” says Johnson Weinberg. In a way, they were hoping for a personal rebirth to match the revitalization they wanted to see in the community. At the time, they were both hustling in jobs for other people and beginning to feel trapped.

“We considered moving out of town briefly but eventually decided that what we wanted, most of all, was to open our own eyecare and eyewear boutique in our beloved Midtown community … We honestly believed that if we put a business in Midtown, people would support us.” They were right. “With our youth, naivety and lots of enthusiasm we threw open the doors in October 2002 and blew past our first-year projections within the first three months.”

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Eclectic Eye fits in effortlessly with many of the mid-century businesses on Midtown’s Cooper Street, which has long been a primary artery connecting affluent, growing communities with all the city’s resources. “We wanted to be sensitive to the varied architecture and the activated, walkable community it once was and be a part of its return.” That process wasn’t a simple one, however. The location itself was found through sheer perseverance. The real estate broker they originally chose wasn’t comfortable with their vision; he simply didn’t believe Midtown was sustainable for the level of investment they wanted. “Back in the late 1990s,” recalls Johnson Weinberg, “Midtown was not pleasing from an economic or aesthetic standpoint.” In an era whose aspirations were characterized by big box, suburban living, “moving back into the urban core was an anomaly.” But after months of searching they found a new broker who was developing the space that eventually became Eclectic Eye.

Opening Eclectic Eye was the realization of Robbie Johnson Weinberg and Dr. Michael Weinberg’s dream ‘to live, work and play’ in Midtown Memphis.

Eclectic Eye’s design expertly brings the outside into the store with large windows taking up two whole walls of the dispensary. Inside the space feels vast but approachable, always focusing on the eyewear. A large acrylic tower in the center houses the pre-test center. From here, custom wooden work areas run for approximately 20 feet, mirroring the tower and its dropped ceiling shape. The store’s 1,200-piece collection of unique eyewear is showcased in custom glass and wood boxes that are variously fitted into the windows, lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Floating, suspended custom cabinetry provides storage for cases, books, cloths and other items.

Johnson Weinberg describes the store’s feel as “modern and industrial with homage to the mid-century style that’s all the rage today.” Flooded with natural light, the interior’s materials are primarily glass, stainless, aluminum and acrylic with warm wood tones for furnishings. A high, exposed-ductwork ceiling rises 14 feet above a richly textured, grey concrete floor. The frames themselves are displayed by brand. “To us, each brand tells its own unique story which must fit into the overall narrative of our story,” she says.

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Over the past three years Eclectic Eye has put particular effort into its online presence, and has been gratified to see its follower numbers grow consistently across all channels, generating strong reviews. Johnson Weinberg acknowledges this is a never-ending process and credits the PR and advertising team at Inferno for creating a consistent brand message across platforms. The need for content challenges her to keep coming up with fresh ways to market the business, she says.

As they don’t take any insurance, Eclectic Eye is able to make it a policy to give patients one hour each with their doctor. “The doctors have time to listen to them, talk with them about their vision and their lifestyle, and maybe even have time to hear about their latest travel excitement or a kid’s escapade. They truly get to know their patients,” says Johnson Weinberg. A core goal of the practice has always been to provide the most comprehensive exam possible. To this end, they are always adding new technology. Exams include everything from taking blood pressure and obtaining an extensive family history to having their own OCT and visual field machines, which are used on each patient.

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Eclectic Eye has its own lab and Dr. Weinberg is somewhat unique as an OD, as he grew up working in his dad’s lab. “That’s the other side of his passion,” says Johnson Weinberg. “He loves the process of understanding how that extremely challenging prescription might be designed to fit in an exceptionally unique frame.” She adds that her husband has worked hard to train their current lab team, as they view the lab itself as being equally important to their brand.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Stirling Barrett: Eclectic Eye’s brand brings together design, style, art and eyewear under one roof and with a purposeful, clear vision. Their community focus is refreshing and they lead with a commitment to customer hospitality.

Leigh and Todd Rogers Berberian: Now this is a contender!

Beverly Suliteanu: From the onset, there was a clear vision of the type of business Michael and Robbie wanted to build and they have succeeded in building a thriving, caring business that has stayed true to their mission and core values. Their love and commitment to the Memphis art scene, and to Memphis itself, is apparent. All of their initiatives speak to their core value of strengthening their community and building their team.

PHOTO GALLERY (55 Images)

5 COOL THINGS ABOUT ECLECTIC EYE

1 IN-DISPENSABLE. Patients are always set up for dispensing appointments with the team member they worked with originally. They receive a reminder text similar to those for doctor’s appointments. “We value the time for all of our staff and their expertise is scheduled accordingly,” says Johnson Weinberg.

2 TESTING TIMES. To boost team performance, all staff participate in Enneagram personality testing, a process that Johnson Weinberg admits “requires some deep diving.” She adds: “It’s been an awakening and continues to unfold.”

3 EYE CATCHERS. The exterior walls are adorned with two huge murals from local muralists. These and a large local sculpture constantly draw new customers.

4 NOT A SCRAP. NOT A SCRAP. Eclectic Eye has been a paperless medical office since it opened in 2002.

5 OUT AND ABOUT. In early 2018, Johnson Weinberg gave staff a Saturday off to participate in the September Memphis Gay Pride parade. She donated the day, the materials, the costuming, and whatever else they needed, and they designed and built a float and costumes. “They worked with each other outside of work to make it happen. It was a magical experience to watch it all come together!”

Fine Story

From its inception, Eclectic Eye was designed to host art shows. The store has hosted over 120 of them in the past 17 years. “This is one way we give back to the community,” says Johnson Weinberg. “In addition to providing our space, Eclectic Eye takes care of all of the event planning, advertising, PR, food, drinks and staffing of their event. In turn, a local artist gets to showcase their art to a whole new group of people for 7-8 weeks a year.” Eclectic Eye sees its independent eyewear designers as artists, and each frame as wearable art. So, showcasing local artists is a natural next step. The shows are fully dedicated to supporting artists (the Weinbergs don’t take a commission) and are separate from the store’s trunk shows. “We do, occasionally, sell a frame or book an eye exam, but that is the exception. The art is then on display until the next art show,” she says.

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America's Finest

After 55 Years in Business, This State-of-the-Art Tulsa Optical Shop Knows How to Offer Something for Everyone

The largest selection of frames in the area, old-school repairs and an in-house digital lab, just don’t come in looking for an exam.

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2ND Place: EMPIRE OPTICAL | Tulsa, OK

Family Empire

With five generations under its belt, this
state-of-the-art Tulsa optical shop offers something for everyone… just not an OD.

OWNERS: Christian and Brooke Hargrove | URL: empireoptical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 1964 |YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018 | AREA: 5,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 7 full-time, 7 part-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/empireoptical | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/empireoptical | TWITTER: twitter.com/empireoptical | YELP: yelp.com/biz/empire-optical-tulsa | TOP BRANDS: Silhouette, Ray-Ban, NW 77th, iGreen, The Caldwell (house brand) | BUILD OUT COST: $ 1.5M | ARCHITECT FIRM: Rick Stuber Architecture


Started as a retail optical lab in 1964, Empire Optical sells the largest selection of eyeglasses in Tulsa and makes their own lenses in house. In fact, the business boasts all sorts of impressive stats: 55 years, five generations, 5,000 square feet, 3,000 frames on display, six sales “boutiques,” 14 employees, the only local in-house digital lab, and NO ODs.

In 2018, the current generation of owners — husband and wife Christian and Brooke Hargrove — gutted and remodeled a neighboring 1930s-era building into a state-of-the-art retail experience to rehouse Empire Optical. With two open stories, the physical feel of the store is that of a renovated loft apartment in an old brick warehouse. “Old brick, new steel, lots of glass, and ‘cool’ lighting,” describes Christian Hargrove. “After the sun goes down, the lighting takes over, and it feels a lot like a high-end restaurant.”

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The store features an eight-foot-tall eyeglass sculpture, a custom 50-foot wall mural, a readers library with fireplace and chairs, women’s boutique complete with chandelier, makeup tables and mirrors, a “$150 Deal” area, and farm tables in the entry where all the “new stuff goes so it’s the first thing customers see when they enter.” Did we mention the motorcycle driving through the front of the store, the sunglass section with DJ light show (SUN21, more on that in Five Cool Things) and a men’s sports bar area with TVs where guests are served glasses with glasses of the latest award-winning homebrew (see Fine Story)?

“Our customers tell us they love how different the experience is from any other eyeglass purchasing they have done in the past,” says Hargrove.

‘We can cut virtually anything,’ says co-owner Christian Hargrove about Empire Optical’s digital lab.

The in-house digital lab may also be a factor. “We can cut virtually anything,” he explains. “We use Satisloh freeform equipment for our surfacing, and our finishing is a combination of Essilor Instruments and DAC edgers; both wet and dry edging options for different styles of lens cuts.” Empire only sends out jobs when there’s a time or backorder constraint, and for anti-reflective coatings. They specialize in wrap prescriptions and often exceed the ranges most “brand” labs can handle. “We always take an Rx in and see what we can do, even if we are just learning from the experience,” says Hargrove. “Since we are a smaller, independent lab we can combine lens materials from various manufacturers with freeform designs from other manufacturers to create custom combinations no one else makes. It allows for a lot of creativity from our customers, and the ability to make almost anything we can dream up.”

In a non-licensed state, Empire prides itself on its many home-grown Certified and Master Certified Opticians with an average tenure of 17 years. “The opticians that run the freeform equipment are the same ones that adjust your eyeglasses. They see the glasses through the process from beginning to end,” shares Hargrove.

The staff is encouraged to continue learning and participate in frame buying, social planning and media, current trends and generally keeping a pulse on what the customers are asking for. “Learning and growing is a big part of our culture, so we really like to collect, summarize and interpret information for our employees and customers.” Hargrove says they create a lot of their own handouts to explain optical issues in “layman’s terms” so customers better understand. “We feel like the information empowers them to make good decisions and pick the right products.”

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In addition to selling frames and finishing lenses, Empire has been known for 55 years as the leader in servicing and repairing damaged glasses from optical stores all around the region. They designed their new service area with airline parts — Tulsa is home to American Airlines’ maintenance center. Guests wait in “Empire Airlines” first class seating and watch videos that determine “Which kind of dog ate your glasses?” while repairs are made on airplane drink carts.

“We are the only ones left in our area that learned how to edge on hand wheels, solder broken frames, custom fit replacement parts, and remount lenses,” concludes Hargrove. “We’ll just do whatever we can to help keep your glasses going.”

Judges’ Comments

Nathan Troxell: Incredible family legacy. Appreciate the complexity of running a freeform lab and dispensing eyeglasses.

Leigh and Todd Rogers Berberian: The layers of this business are amazing … with history and heritage to match!

Beverly Suliteanu: It is amazing to see a family business continue to grow, evolve and thrive after so many years. The longevity of their staff speaks not only to the expertise of their opticians but also to the culture and environment the owners have fostered. Their tag line, “Looking good on you,” plays well across all their marketing materials.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (60 IMAGES)

5 COOL THINGS EMPIRE OPTICAL

1 SIP AND SEE. Empire hosts a monthly event where a dozen people reserve an after-hours spot to custom paint a frame while sipping cocktails. “The frames are extremely affordable and come with a special lens deal,” says Hargrove. “It’s really an opportunity for socializing… and to get people talking about our business.”

2 HELPING HAND. The business partners with local charities Day Center for The Homeless and Family and Children’s Services to make dozens of free pairs a month for their needs-based patients. “We love to give back by doing what we do best: make eyeglasses.”

3 RIDE ON. Empire’s popular house brand, The Caldwell, is named after founder Gus Caldwell, owner Christian Hargrove’s maternal grandfather. Gus and wife Naomi ran Empire from 1964-1978.

4 NAMESAKE. Empire’s popular house brand, The Caldwell, is named after founder Gus Caldwell, owner Christian Hargrove’s maternal grandfather. Gus and wife Naomi ran Empire from 1964-1978.

5 STORE IN STORE. Empire’s sun styles get their own presence. The area in store is called SUN21 and has its own website, Facebook, Instagram, etc. “Google tells us more people are searching for sunglasses than eyeglasses, so we mean to capitalize on that,” he shares. SUN21 serves as an incubator for new marketing tactics.

Fine Story

Owner Christian Hargrove is also an award-winning home brewer and has his Brewer’s Notice to legally brew beer for the public. He has medaled regionally with his Sweet Potato Brown Ale, Porter Patrol, Peach Hefeweizen, and Go Fig-ure, a Belgian strong ale brewed with figs. But customers don’t have to wait for special events to sample his creations. “Currently, we offer four of our own beers, as well as other local Tulsa brews, in our sports bar area,” he says. “We love community, and this is just another way to promote that!”

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