The Guy Who Designs Puzzles for Escape the Room

If you haven’t heard of Escape the Room, you’re missing out.

The concept, which was initially inspired by online games, is much more thrilling as a live experience. You’re locked inside a web of 150-square-foot rooms for an hour, maybe with your closest friends or maybe with strangers (you decide which is scarier), where you must work as a team to find hidden objects and decipher clues in order to solve the puzzle and break free.

Behind the curtain — or in this case, behind a big TV monitor on a perch outside the room — is Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-founded several Escape the Room locations with his friend Max Sutter. (“Think of it like a karaoke bar,” he says. “Anyone can open one.”) They now have three spots: New Haven is their flagship, but the Escape Industries network, which they co-founded with local partners, also includes Sacramento and Rhode Island. They build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer, so similar tendencies are at play with the Escape the Room design,” Rodriguez-Torrent says. He’s experienced 20 or 30 different rooms, but he’s still no master: “I should be better than I am.” Here, he discusses the key to success (in Escape the Room, but also in life), how he creates puzzles in a former brothel, and the time he almost banned a bachelor party. Spoilers ahead.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Sutter.
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Max Sutter.
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The Man With His Head in the Clouds (Quite Literally)

Gavin Pretor-Pinney distinctly remembers the time he traveled halfway across the world to the middle of nowhere.

To see a cloud.

A few years ago, he trekked from his home in the English countryside to the Australian outback to see a Morning Glory cloud, which stretches horizontally across the sky like tubes, a rather rare phenomenon. They look like elongated cotton balls, if you pulled a bunch of them apart and placed them next to each other, rising and sinking like ocean waves along the horizon.

Morning-Glory-1993-Kangaroo-Point
A Morning Glory cloud approaching Kangaroo Point in Australia, 1993. (Photo: Russell White)

“It’s a mecca for glider pilots who go there to surf this cloud,” Pretor-Pinney explained. They form in different parts of the world, but this one stretched hundreds of miles in length. “When I first got there, it was looking dicey. I was worried I would have to go home and say I just saw a blue sky.”

For Prettor-Pinney, clouds aren’t just a hobby anymore; they’re his business. The Cloud Appreciation Society operates from an office adjacent to his barn in Somerset, UK, which is covered in cloud posters and has a big etched hand pointing up toward the sky.

It doesn’t take much prompting for Prettor-Pinney to begin waxing poetic: “Clouds don’t just get in the way of the sun, they are the most dynamic and poetic aspect of nature.” His idea for the society arose as a joke in 2004, and has since taken on a life — and membership base — of its own. In fact, it’s given quite a meteoric jolt to how we classify the wispy white stuff above us.

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The Real-Life Willy Wonka Behind Those Classic Candy Hearts

geoff-bloomThe magic happens in a room with a giant tub that looks like Play-Doh, in a 810,000-square-foot factory, in a small city named after Paul Revere.

The New England Candy Company, better known as Necco, produces 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts — those colorful conversation hearts you got from everyone in your third-grade class on Valentine’s Day — each day for nearly the entire year, even though they’re only sold for several weeks in January and February. They’ve been around for decades — 150 years, to be exact — but Geoff Bloom, the creative director at Necco, is tasked with finding ways to keep them fresh. (“On Fleek” is one of the phrases you’ll find on the hearts this year.)

Valentine’s Day, a one-day holiday to you but a six-week one to Necco, is the company’s biggest moneymaker; about 2 billion Sweethearts are eaten each year. But none of that would be possible without Bloom’s careful touch.

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The Duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel

"It's not a very subtle outfit, but it's not a very subtle job," says Anthony Petrina, who has been the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel for about three years.
“It’s not a very subtle outfit, but it’s not a very subtle job,” says Anthony Petrina, the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel.

“I never thought you could get a condescending look from a duck, but as it turns out, you definitely can,” Anthony Petrina explains.

He remembers the day clearly: It was his second week on the job as the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and he thought he was doing a pretty damn good job of marching those ducks down the red carpet in an orderly fashion. (It’s a twice-daily occurrence at the hotel that attracts hundreds, including names like Jimmy Carter, Oprah, an incognito Michael Jordan and Nicholas Cage.)

But he had pressed the wrong button on the elevator, and instead of opening into the lobby, Petrina was greeted by an open expanse of balcony. The five mallards turned around and just looked at him – the duck equivalent of major side-eye.

Along with his assistant duckmaster, a retired hotel veteran, Petrina oversees the decades-old, now-famous Peabody Duck March – and the care and keeping of the ducks. He can even see the duck palace on the roof of the Peabody from the window of his apartment down the street. “I can literally keep an eye on them at all hours,” he says, “though that’s probably taking the job a little too far.”

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The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin
Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

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