food business

Is There Really Always Room for Jell-O?

 

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Maybe not so much.
With five straight years of sharply declining sales, the media are having a field day with punny headlines:
Jello-O Sales Just Can’t Seem to Solidify (San Jose Mercury News); Jell-O Can’t Stop Slippery Sales Slide (ABC News); Jell-O Losing Its Jiggle? (WCVB Boston); and J-E-L-L-O needing H-E-L-P (Illinois Herald-Review).

By all rights we should be living in a golden age of Jell-O.
It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. It has a versatility that’s well-suited to our unstructured, small plates style of dining—it can be a cocktail, a salad, or a dessert.

It’s kitchen magic that can be a liquid, a solid or somewhere in between, which should appeal to fans of the modernist style of molecular gastronomy. It’s tailor-made for the DIY homesteader—you can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser. It even has off-label uses like Jell-O shots and Jell-O wrestling, and provides timeless entertainment to office pranksters who never fail to be amused by gelatin-encased staplers and cell phones. Plus, it wiggles.
So why is Greek yogurt kicking its flubbery butt?

Consumers are unwilling to forgive the nutritional transgressions of Jell-O.
We give a pass to bacon with its salt and fat and shady nitrates and nitrites; we are charmed by the sugar and white flour-dipped nostalgia of cupcakes; yet we judge Jell-O so harshly. It’s a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass of refined sugars, artificial colors, and flavor additives and we just don’t trust it.
The next punny headline you read just might be R.I.P. to J-E-L-L-O.

Posted in diet, food business, food trends | Leave a comment

It’s Official—PBR is Over. Here’s Proof.

image via The Trademark Blog @ SchwimmerLegal.com

image via The Trademark Blog @ SchwimmerLegal.com

 

If you were born much before 1980, Pabst Blue Ribbon is–
an unremarkable, 170-year old beer; a blue collar favorite that all but disappeared in the 1980′s flood of status imports like Heineken, Molson, and Beck’s. 
If you were born any later–
you know it affectionately as PBR; a no-frills heritage brand that’s become the unbearably hip quaff of choice for young urbanites. Once embraced for its anti-establishment, downscale chic, PBR has achieved mainstream success.

All signs point to peak PBR.
In a scholarly study titled What Makes Things Cool? published by The University of Chicago Press, co-author Dr. Margaret Campbell of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business (who coined the phrase ‘peak PBR’) traces Pabst Blue Ribbon’s popularity to a calculated association with the nonconformist counterculturalism of hipsters. She asserts that mainstream acceptance robs the brand of its appeal, first driving out the hipsters, and eventually the second wave of adapters will follow. Evidence of a first wave retreat comes from the merchant number-crunchers at Locu who mapped hipster migration patterns and correlated those to frequency of PBR’s appearance on area menus. The PBR strongholds are no longer the hipster hoods; instead the maps light up around college campuses where the drinkers are younger and less edgy—more frat boys than bicycle messengers.

Of course anyone who pays attention to these things already knows that there’s very little left of the brand’s early, scruffy authenticity.
Four years ago, food industry magnate Dean Metropoulos bought Pabst Brewing and granted control to his two sons, then best known for buying Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner’s former Los Angeles mansion (Daren) and appearing as the self-designated ‘youngest tycoon in the world’ on an MTV reality series (Evan). The brothers promptly moved the headquarters from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, jacked up prices, and shed most of the company’s management team.

The most stunning change was firing the advertising and marketing agency that had engineered the PBR comeback. 
The brand’s resurrection is now the stuff of legend. The agency orchestrated a stealthy campaign that the New York Times dubbed The Marketing of No Marketing with none of the traditional trappings of beer promotions—no Super Bowl spots, NASCAR banners, busty barmaids, or celebrities. In their place were small-scale sponsored events aimed at an alternative crowd—bike polo tournaments, art gallery openings, film screenings, and indie book releases; the sponsorship always seemed like an afterthought with no signs or trinket giveaways or glad-handing executives in from Pabst’s corporate offices.

Since 2010, promotions have moved beyond the shaggy dive bar crowd.
There are splashy new sponsorship deals with car races and music festivals, and the company is none too shy about self-promotional signage and banners, and there are always plenty of key ring and beer cozy giveaways. Logo-emblazoned tee shirts can now be found everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Sears, and the merchandising group has
 licensed some very unhipsterish new items like polyester cowboy hats, golf bags, and surfer gear, some of which made it into the celebrity swag bags at this year’s Country Music Association Awards.

Trouble seems to be brewing for PBR as hipsters flee.
Growth has stalled, despite a robust PBR infrastructure built by pioneering urban dwellers. Never a good sign, PBR hater sites have sprung up, while the parody industry has fired off video clips and spoofs coming from The Simpsons, filmmaker David Lynch, and a whole channel of unknowns who mock the PBR mystique on Funny or Die.

Is there hope for PBR now that its coolness quotient has plummeted?
Not according to Refinery 29, the arbiter of all things hip, with a recently titled post PBR is Officially Over.
And if you still need further proof of its demise, look to the Metropoulos boys who are already planning the second coming of Ballantine.

 

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, food business, food trends | Leave a comment

Celebrity Chefs Storm the Pet Food Aisle

 

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Those new Fancy Feast Broths don’t look half bad.
Then again, they come from a chef who’s cooked in the kitchens of Chez Panisse, French Laundry, and El Bulli.
If you prefer you can feed your dog Pup Casserole from a five-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef nominee or take a course in kibble from a Le Cordon Bleu-trained culinary instructor. Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais is behind the stove at Purina, Rachael Ray has her Delish line of dog and cat food, and Thomas Keller sells Bouchon Bakery dog biscuits enriched with foie gras and chicken stock.
It’s the era of the pet food celebrity chef.

doggyicecreamWe’ve projected our foodie-isms onto our pets.
Pet food now comes in locally-sourced, seasonal, kosher, halal, organic, vegan, and slow food varieties. Specialty bakeries peddle treats like bacon macaroons and peanut butter pupcakes, while food trucks with punny names like Poochi Sushi and Mobile Muttballs roll through neighborhoods and downtown streets drawing four-legged foodies with cat meows and cow moos played over PA systems. Celebrity chefs for dogs—why not?

Chef-owned pets: a rarified breed.
What self-respecting cook can bring themselves to serve any old canned slop to a beloved pet when there’s a nice osso buco bubbling away on the stove? The Culinary Canine: Great Chefs Cook for Their Dogs – And So Can You! asked 30 top chefs to share recipes of their dogs’ favorite dishes. New York restaurateur/Iron Chef Anita Lo has a pair of Shih Tzus that sup on bluefish filet with roasted yams, peas, and bacon. The Today Show’s ‘Chef Harry’ Schwartz soothes his dog’s irritable bowel syndrome with oatmeal-’truffled’ pan-browned pork medallions. Bay Area Zagat favorite Alan Carlson serves his mixed-breed brined and smoked chickens and 72-hour braised short ribs; and a delicate small plate of poached chicken with blueberries is just right for the tiny Chihuahua owned by San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Dominique Crenn .

Let’s not forget that this is not really about our pets.
Chef-branded pet foods play into our own culinary sensibilities and fascination with celebrities. The fact is that dogs and cats have a mere fraction of our taste buds and very different sensory receptors. They’ll eat pretty much anything, from a pizza crust discarded on a filthy sidewalk to the used Tidy Cat in a litter box.  

 

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Great Moments in Bottled Water History

Some of us are old enough to think of bottled water as a recent phenomenon. We remember a time when water was something drunk straight from the tap, and we marvel at the $12 billion that’s now spent annually on this country’s bottled water habit. Here are some special moments from the decades-long journey, courtesy of the bottled water industry.

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It’s the little green bottle that conquered America. So chic, so French, Perrier was introduced to this country in 1976, ushering in the modern era of bottled water.

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Evian, another French spring water, comes to the U.S. in 1978, marketed as a luxury brand with a premium price tag. The ah ha moment with the name comes soon after.

Aquafina

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Truly a Great Moment in Bottled Water History, PepsiCo begins a national rollout of Aquafina in 1994. Labeled with snow-capped mountains and the tagline Pure Water, Perfect Taste,” the bottles are filled with regular tap water that’s been filtered and purified. Aquafina goes on to become America’s top-selling brand of bottled water.

More of that American exceptionalism is on display as The Coca-Cola Company offers up Dasani, its own brand of processed tap water to compete with rival PepsiCo.

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Coca-Cola campaigns to reduce what it calls “tap water incidence.” In 2000, the company launches the H20No website (since removed) instructing restaurants workers in the art of upselling bottled beverages, and tried again in 2010 with a program called Cap the Tap.

In 2001, PepsiCo names a new division president of U.S. Beverages. She promises Wall Street that “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.”

 

brighthouse-concorse-mapAn undeniably Great Moment in Bottled Water History took place on September 15, 2007. It was also a big day for the 45,000 fans of University of Central Florida football who were attending the first home game in the school’s long-awaited and just completed stadium. Under the clear skies and 90°+ temperatures of a central Florida autumn, 78 people were treated for heat-related illnesses, 18 requiring hospitalization, as over-heated fans learned that their new $54 million stadium had been built without a single drinking water fountain.

 

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After 4 billion or so years on Earth, water is finally declared ‘organic’ in 2011. Never mind that water is an inherently inorganic substance—it’s not alive and never was—Welsh bottler Llanllyr even claims extra purity because not only are their fields certified organic, but nuns have lived above the source for centuries. 

 

bolt-980x462PepsiCo tags water as the enemy in 2012′s brand-integrated mobile game, Bolt!. Treacherous water droplets hinder the progress of Olympic star Usain Bolt as he maneuvers through the popular game. Only Gatorade can help him win the race.

 

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In June, 2014, Los Angeles restaurant worker Mark Riese becomes the first ‘water sommelier’ on national television when he’s a guest on Conan O’Brian’s late night talk show.

 

The U.S. is the world’s largest consumer market for bottled water. We buy 31 gallons for every person in America; that means we drink more bottled water than beer, milk, or fruit drinks—more than every other beverage except soda. We continue to make history.

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Instant Coffee is Still Big Business. Just not here.

 

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[Nescafé ads of the world  l-r:  India, Philippines, United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Turkey]

Speed and convenience rule the day.
We love one-click online shopping, ATMs, and microwave popcorn. We want our videos to stream, our deliveries shipped overnight, and communications capped at 140 characters. But we’re willing to wait for a cup of coffee, because we know it’s worth it.

Instant coffee is still big business, but most of that business has shifted to traditional tea-drinking nations where they don’t really know from coffee.
Only 7% of Americans regularly drink instant coffee; in France it’s 4%, and in Italy it’s a mere 1%. Contrast that with countries like England, India, and China where the vast majority of coffee- as much as 90% in some areas- is made with powders, concentrates, and freeze-dried crumbles reconstituted in boiling water.

The instant coffee strongholds are concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Britain—places with deeply embedded tea cultures. They all have highly developed aesthetics and intricate social structures associated with tea drinking. Standards are exacting and  brewing technique is perfected over a lifetime.

Instant coffee first appeared in these tea cultures when it traveled the globe in the ration packs of US troops during World War Two. It was fairly nasty stuff—bitter and stale and made from cheap, low quality robusta beans rather than the more desirable arabica variety—but what did they know? It was modern and glamorous and exotic, and all you needed was a kettle and a cup. 

Instant coffee never prevailed in the U.S.
We invented it and we foisted it on the rest of the world, but few of us will touch the stuff. Our coffee traditions are deeply resonant—the grinding, the brewing, the taste, and aroma—and can be every bit as ritualized as tea ceremonies are in other countries. We demand speed and convenience from single-serve coffee makers and a Starbucks on every corner, but our connoisseurship has been rising steadily for decades, moving us further from the quality compromise of instant coffee. In other words, we know better. 

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Naming and Shaming the Food Brands

 Who’s Behind the Brand?

 

 

The average American supermarket carries nearly 40,000 products.
It sounds like myriad options until you realize that most of them—estimates run as high as 90%—come from fewer than a dozen companies. Acquisitions and consolidation have left us with Unilever-Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, ConAgra-Hebrew National kosher salami, and PepsiCo-Sabra hummus, and all but 15 of the nation’s organic food processors are in the hands of multinational giants.

The melding of brands matters.
When you buy Sweet Leaf organic tea you’re a customer of a company that funds initiatives to block GMO labeling; the parent company of your Morningstar Farms veggie patties is party to the mass destruction of rain forests. Stealth ownership of brands means that your carefully spent grocery dollars are ending up in the hands of the top 10 food and beverage producers who together emit more greenhouse gases than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined. If you care about poverty and hunger, child labor, living wages, women’s rights, and climate change, then you should care about who really owns the brands that are lining the shelves of your supermarket.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign rates the social and environmental policies of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. The top 10 companies are megacorporations whose products are sold virtually everywhere on the planet. Millions of people, most in poor countries, rely on them for employment in agriculture and production. Their policies and business practices shape national economies and influence lifestyles for billions of global citizens. Oxfam evaluates the companies according to seven criteria: corporate transparency, women’s rights, labor practices, farming practices, land use, water use, and pollution. While some companies are doing better than others, overall it’s a fairly bleak portrait of the food system.

Oxfam’s campaign highlights the massive reach and global influence wielded by just 10 companies. If these industry leaders can be prodded to use their power responsibly, they could play a major role in the world-wide fight against hunger, poverty, inequality, and climate change.

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Your Next Nosh: The Best New Treats from the Sweets & Snacks Expo

image via The National Confectioners Association

image via The National Confectioners Association

 

There were plenty of smiles when the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo wrapped up earlier this week.
It’s not just that they’d spent a few days in a real life, sugar-sprinkled Candyland; even better was the industry report. Candy is more than dandy. Sales grew to an all-time record $33.6 billion in 2013, and the forecast for this year, with Halloween, the year’s biggest candy holiday, falling on a weekend night, is even sweeter.
For all the talk of healthy eating, it’s our enduring love of candy that rules the day.

The industry likes to talk about the four S’s: snacking, sharing, simplicity, and sustainability, and they were clearly driving this year’s trends.
Many of the old familiar candy bars are shrinking down to poppable, shareable bite sized bits. Scaled-down Milky Ways, Kit Kats, Twizzlers, and Airheads all come as bags of Bites; there are Starburst, Reese’s, and York Peppermint Patty Minis, Sour Punch Punchies, and tiny marshmallow Peeps, hoping to find a life after Easter. Inexplicably, Hershey’s went in the other direction introducing a full-sized Krackel bar, better known as a perennial member of the assorted miniatures bag. Sustainability shows up in a slew of all-natural, fair trade, GMO-free, and organic labels. Some heritage brands are reformulating to rid themselves of gelatin and other animal byproducts to earn the vegan label. There are new chocolate-covered fruits and grains from Dove and Hershey-owned Brookside Chocolates, as well as limited edition and seasonal offerings that purport to tap into the farm-to-table movement.

With thousands of new treats to choose from, experts say it’s likely that just a handful of new products will ever make it to the big time as national brands with $100 million or so in sales. A panel of judges from the National Confectioners Association, which sponsors the annual Expo, weighed in with their six top picks for the show’s most promising and innovative products, and the event’s attendees voted for the people’s choice award winner. 

 

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Sour-Farts-Logo

 

top row l-r:  Chocolate Traveler’s Tabasco Dark Spicy Chocolate Wedges, Ripple Brand Collective Dark Chocolate Bark Thins with Toasted Coconut and Almonds
second row l-r: Chocolate Doodle Egg, Jelly Belly Draft Beer Flavored Jelly Beans
third row l-r: Project 7 Coconut Lime Sugar Free Gum, York Peppermint Patty minis- the people’s choice top vote-getter
bottom row: Farts Candy- judged Best in Show  (with apologies. I don’t pick ‘em)

 

 

 

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Even a Genius Can’t Figure Out What’s Next in Food

Blackboard with mathematics sketches - vector illustration

 

If you track enough consumer behavior you should be able to spot the trends.
Spot the trends and you can own the future. That’s why Big Data is a big deal.
But what if you collect all the data, crunch all the numbers, and still come up empty?
That’s what happened to Food Genius.

Food Genius provides Big Data to Big Food.
They’ve attracted millions in start-up capital and have built a gold-plated client list that includes Kraft, Applebee’s, Arby’s, and Safeway supermarkets. The company currently tracks 50 million menu items from over 87,000 unique menus at more than 350,000 restaurant locations. The Food Geniuses work their quantitative magic to provide ‘industry analysis and actionable insights.’ In other words, they’ll spot the trends before they pop.

But what if there are no new trends to spot?
Food Genius has been aggregating menu data and working their algorithms since 2012 and they’ve seen nothing but big flat lines across their graphs. Gluten-free and farm-to-table already have a few years under their belts. Cupcakes and craft beer are just a part of the landscape. The next big thing? The Geniuses can only shrug.

Kale? Cronuts? Artisanal toast? 
They’re barely moving the needle. Food Genius blows up our widely accepted notions of trends. They don’t start on one of the coasts and then migrate to the middle of the country. That rarely happens. Our sense of trends is mostly an illusion, fueled by foodie conceit and an over-heated food press. The data they amassed says that different foods get popular at different times in different places. Fluctuations are small and localized, and overall eating patterns are basically static with only minor shifts over very long periods of time.

This was not what Food Genius expected to find.
The company was hired to keep its clients ahead of the curve. The Genius reports were expected to be predictive, allowing food and beverage purveyors the time to get innovative products and menus in place before nascent trends took hold. 

Food Genius has essentially shifted gears.
There’s still plenty of gold in all the data they mined, and it’s proven valuable in the sales and marketing functions rather than product development. Instead of the big picture of national fads and trends, the company offers detailed insights on a market-by-market, menu-by-menu basis. It’s just more granular than they expected, more gold dust than the hoped-for nuggets. More like food intelligence than food genius.

 

 

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Me, Myself, and I: Table for One

INB-table-plate-FPO

 

We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him. It’s the mark of the loner, the weirder, the social outcast.
              Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

It’s a displaced dishonor that just won’t die.
Newspapers and magazines regularly run features on the how-to’s of this unnatural state. It’s treated as the extreme sport of food and drink, calling for nerve, verve, practice, and pep talks. It doesn’t help that there are restaurateurs who still grumble Here comes lost revenue for the 2-top, and there there are servers that will treat you as if you have a communicable disease.
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The internet pokes fun while fueling the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1I feel sad when I see an old person eating alone is Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation that has attracted 749,000 likes. And Ikea’s April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed close enough to the stereotype to leave many wondering if it was really a put-on.


alonetablesOne woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a BiteThe website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And as further proof that middle school scars will never fade, there are forever alone tables. The partitioned cafeteria seating from Japan has been popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

We all know the joys of the communal dining experience, but eating alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert.

Eenmaal is a recurrent pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that aims to take the shame out of dining alone. The dining room is filled exclusively with tables for one and the wine list is stocked with half bottles. There are no couples, no families, no chattering groups of friends to prey on a solo diner’s insecurities. 

The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captured the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone…

I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me,“feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion….

 

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Restaurant Lingo

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Restaurant people are truly a different breed.
They look different, with their own clothes and tattoos. They keep their own hours, heading to work when most of us are heading home, and going out when we’re going to sleep. The industry has its own rites and rituals, its own rules, and its own language.

Dining room jargon–

BOH: Back Of the House; the kitchen, walk-in, or any other area where you don’t deal with customers; BOH also refers to the people who work there. FOH: Front Of the House is the bar, the dining room, or anywhere else the staff deals with customers, as well as the people who work those areas.

[ _ ]-Top: describes the table’s seating– a 4-top seats four; a 2-top seats two but is better known as a Deuce, and a Hi-top is a tall table like you’d find in a bar area.

Covers: the count of meals served; multiply the tops by the Turns (the number of seatings at a single table) and you’ll get the total covers.

What they call us–

Diners are called Campers when they linger too long at the table, or Cupcakes when they’re flirting with staff. If it’s an open kitchen there are probably a few other coded descriptors.

PPX is an Extraordinary Person–it might be written on the ticket to signal VIP treatment. It’s not just for celebrities and high rollers; someone might write NPR on a ticket to tell the staff that Nice People Are Rewarded too.

There are numerous unprintable phrases to describe a bad tipper; some of the kinder ones are Stiff and Flea.

Kitchen jargon–

After you place your order, the kitchen might print out Dupes; these are duplicate tickets frequently printed in multiples on color-coded paper to signify courses. The dupes are hung on the Rail or the Board where they’re considered On Deck.

If your server has checked the Low Board they know the Count of a particular menu item; if it’s 86′ed you’re out of luck. In a hurry? The cooks will be told it’s On the Fly, and they’ll Fire the dish immediately.

When multiple cooks are working different components of a single dish they’ll call 3 Out or 5 Out to signal to the others that they’ll be ready to plate their items in the stated number of minutes. All Day counts the number of dishes that the cook is readying at that particular time, as in ‘I’ve got 2 lamb and 3 risotto all day.’

Cooked orders go from the Line to the Pass, a long counter surface where they’re plated and picked up by servers. If the kitchen is In the Weeds with too many dupes, the orders won’t be Coming On Up as quickly as they should. Conversely, if the waitstaff is Slammed the orders can sit there Dying on the Pass.

Learn to speak their language and who knows—the next time you’re at your deuce in the FOH, you just might find yourself comped like a real PPX.

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The FDA or Monsanto: Which One Will Control GMO Labeling?

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image via ediblearia

 

GMO labeling is coming.
The fight over if we’ll label genetically engineered crops and foods is over and the good guys won. The fight over who will control the labeling is just beginning.

Last week we saw the first shot fired in this new battle.
A group representing the inventors and food manufacturers who use genetically modified ingredients announced the formation of a new alliance called The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. The group wants to get out ahead of legislative efforts to enact mandatory GMO labeling by creating their own voluntary labeling system.

The food, chemical, and biotech companies of the coalition have pretty much given up on the state battles. For years the agribusiness giants—companies like Monsanto, Dupont, Kraft Foods, and Coke and Pepsi—opposed labeling initiatives at the state and even local level, engaging in costly campaigns to defeat individual ballot measures one by one. They pressed so hard because they felt that a single regulatory win could have a domino effect on the remaining states. And they were correct: after recent legislation passed in Alaska, Connecticut, and Maine, as many as 30 states are expected to introduce mandatory labeling laws during the 2014 legislative session.

Consumers should be wary of voluntary GMO labeling. In fact such a system already exists. The FDA instituted self-labeling in 2000 and in the dozen or so years since not a single food company has voluntarily labeled its genetically engineered products. The difference this time, if The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food has its way, is that the new voluntary system would get congressional approval allowing it to take precedence over state regulations. Essentially it would let the industry off the hook for mandatory labels.

One thing everyone in the industry can agree on is that the conversation about engineered ingredients is growing louder.
A recent survey found that more than half of all American adults report some concern about GMOs in their food. They don’t necessarily perceive a health risk from engineered ingredients. They might not even choose to eliminate them from their diets. But they have the right to know what they’re eating.

 

 

Posted in food business, food safety | 1 Comment

5 Popular Brands That Could Disappear in 2014

Five different brands, five different reasons, but each of these household names could reach its expiration date by 12/31/2014.

Michelob Light

Michelob Light hit number one on the Wall Street Journal’s list “Nine Beers Americans No Longer Drink.” Annual sales have dropped to about 350,000 barrels from the million barrels sold in 2007. The company might cede the ‘light’ category to another of its own brands, the lower calorie, lower carbohydrate beer Michelob Ultra.

 

tab

Who knew that Tab was still around? Apparently not enough soda drinkers to stop the Coca-Cola Company from looking to dump the brand this year. It was the grooviest diet soda around when the hot pink can hit the market in 1963, but Tab’s sales took an early hit when its original sweetener cyclamate was banned by the FDA. It didn’t fare any better with saccharine as a replacement, and the stylish can spent a few decades sporting a mandatory label warning about its link to bladder cancer. The brand’s pretty much been down and out since Diet Coke was introduced in the 1980′s, but can still be found in some parts of the United States (and in Africa, Spain, and Norway) for at least a few more months.

chiquita

Chiquita Brands International made $1.7 million in payments to a nasty right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia where it’s long had banana plantations. The company has already admitted this, pleading guilty to U.S. criminal charges that it had supported the terrorist efforts of a group responsible for torturing and murdering Colombian citizens. While the company survived the media coverage and $25 million fine, it could be toppled by potentially billions in payouts to the thousands of victims’ families that have filed lawsuits against Chiquita.

leancuisine

Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, has drawn up a short list of underperforming businesses it’s looking to sell or shutter, and a lot of industry insiders are betting that Lean Cuisine is at the top. Frozen foods have fallen out of favor in recent years with customers are looking for fresher, less processed options. Frozen entrées have taken an especially big hit. Lean Cuisine might not be worth salvaging.

sriracha

Sriracha? What could stop the hot sauce juggernaut? Sales and profits have skyrocketed for more than a decade at Huy Fong Foods, the condiment’s maker. A passionate customer base slurps up 20 million bottles a year, and the company works overtime during the three-months of California’s chili harvest. Some say the air is perfumed with the aroma of 100 million pounds of roasting peppers; others call them ‘fumes’ and area residents say they’re driven indoors with headaches and red, stinging eyes. An injunction has halted operations for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

 

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Destination Dining Where the Gas Station is the Destination

Eat-Here-Get-Gas

The term destination restaurant originated with France’s Michelin Guide.
In the early days of motoring, the Michelin tire company got into the travel guide business to boost demand for cars. It assigned the top score of three stars to restaurants with cuisine so exceptional that they were worth a special trip. The restaurant was the destination and a stop at the service station was, Michelin hoped, a byproduct of the journey. 
Now it seems the service station is the destination.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and other media outlets have reported on the recent popularity of gas station cuisine, some even calling it ‘the next big thing’ or ‘the new food truck.’ These are restaurants you head to even when you don’t need to fill up; maybe they’re not vaut le voyage like a Michelin three-star, but they’re not just gas station convenience markets with withered hot dogs turning on grill rollers. There’s a Shell station with pan seared diver scallops on its menu; apricot glazed pork tenderloin served with a view of the Mobil sign; and corned beef that’s slow-cured in-house by an Exxon station’s deli master.

Gas station owners are willing business partners, happy to see a rent check and the increased foot traffic that a restaurant brings. Would-be restaurateurs see relatively low start-up costs for what is typically a highly visible and accessible corner location.

Gas station dining is a long-standing tradition in southern states where picnic tables are a common sight alongside the diesel pumps and locals know that the area’s best barbecued brisket just might come out of a roadside smoker. If you’re new to the genre, it can be jarring to dine on seared ahi amid a parking lot ambience of exhaust fumes, car horns, and stacked oil cans. The intrinsic kitschy charm of the experience is not for everyone.

This month Bon Appetit profiles 16 gas station restaurants around the country. You’ll find reviews of food at the pump at Gas Station Gourmet and Gas Station Tacos.

 

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Whole Foods Brooklyn: Fits Like a Glove

whole-foods-hipsters

 

What took them so long?
That was the obvious question when Whole Foods opened its first Brooklyn store this week.
The largest retailer of natural and organic foods and the borough that’s home to the most hobby brewers and pickle makers per capita are like a match made in heaven.

Brooklyn is of course much more than just a borough across the bridge from Manhattan.
It’s a lifestyle brand; the locus of the urban artisan food renaissance; an edgy-artsy-smart meeting of old and new, tradition and technology, rustic and haute. Its population skews toward a young, educated, creative class with deep pockets and well-traveled palates. They infuriatingly blend genuine knowledge and discernment with their hipper-than-thou pretensions of alder-smoked Himalayan sea salt caramels and secret coffee handshakes of cuppings and pour-overs.

Whole Foods is the rare retailer that speaks fluent Brooklynese.
Highlights of the new store include:

  • a bike repair station (plus dedicated fixie parking, or if you must there are two electric car charging stations)
  • knife sharpening from a local maker of knives and cutting boards whose website describes him as ‘an American multi-disciplinary visual artist and designer
  • something they call the vinyl venue, selling albums and accessories made from old, recycled records
  • a pickle and kimchi bar
  • a 20,000 square foot rooftop garden that promises to grow plenty of kale

It’s a who’s who of the borough’s food luminaries.
Brooklyn’s food heroes are all there, like Roberta’s, Mast Brothers, and Frankies Spuntino. They share shelf space (built of wood reclaimed from the Coney Island beach boardwalk) with hundreds of local, small-batch purveyors who are shooting for the same foodie stratosphere with locally-accented treats like cage-free, Sriracha-spiced mayonnaise, parsnip yogurt, vegan vanilla-hemp granola, and grapefruit-smoked salt marmalade. The Brooklyn angle is underscored by the store’s abundant signage, tags, banners, and stickers so shoppers can have no doubts about a product’s provenance.

Whole Foods has sold itself to Brooklyn as a creative, communal endeavor. 
Yes, it’s a supermarket, but it’s also a participant in the local economy, fighting the good fight against the GMOs and monoculture of corporate agribusiness alongside the visionary butchers and worker-owned collective bakeries of its urban enclave. 
A second Brooklyn Whole Foods is already in the works, this one in the uber-affluent and hipsterish neighborhood of Williamsburg.
To Whole Foods, it’s just so much low-hanging fruit.

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Soylent: When Silicon Valley Dreams of Food

soylent

 

Soylent, a high-tech food alternative, has been grabbing headlines and investors.  
The meal substitute has the wind at its back with millions raised through crowdfunding, pre-orders, and the backing of prominent venture capital firms. Many in Silicon Valley think that Soylent could be a real game-changer.

Soylent is an engineer’s approach to food. 
It’s an odorless, neutrally-flavored sludgy mix of nutrients in a base of oat starch. It’s gluten free, vegan, and halal. It’s appropriate for sufferers of food allergies, acid reflux, or digestive disorders, and can be used to control weight or cholesterol. Soylent is essentially an efficient, inexpensive, clean-burning fuel. Its taste, to put it kindly, can be characterized as pretty much like you’d expect.

This is food by and for the tech crowd.
The concept took shape in Y Combinator, the preeminent bootcamp for digital entrepreneurs, and the story of Soylent’s development is peppered with techspeak about optimizations, inputs, and beta-testing (what regular eaters call nutrition, ingredients, and tasting). Its creator refers to meal replacement as a default diet, while regular dining is called recreational eating.

Soylent was influenced by the kind of sci-fi futurism that’s so beloved by engineers and technologists. 
The film and literary genre often depicts a bleak, dystopic future whose inhabitants subsist on lab creations like the vats of goopy gruel in the Matrix series or the blue milk of the Star Wars trilogy. Even the name Soylent comes from the novel behind the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green in which Charlton Heston’s character discovers the unthinkable secret behind the edible solution to the twin problems of overpopulation and an insufficient food supply (It culminates in one of filmdom’s most memorable lines, captured in this YouTube clip).

Could this really be food’s future?
Soylent is regularly showing up on lists of the top food trends for 2014. It’s seen as the perfect food for the stereotypical, heads-down coder who subsists on takeout pizza and data packets. It’s also expected to appeal to people who think that home cooked meals are not worth the hassle of shopping, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards.  
The investors are betting that even outside of Silicon Valley, that adds up to a sizable population.

 

 

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The Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers– how low can you go?

pennyonplate

 

The federal minimum wage is not rock bottom.
In the midst of the intense focus and national debate on the minimum wage, we don’t want to forget a group that falls even lower on the pay scale. There’s something called the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, and by law it can be a shockingly stingy $2.13.

Increases to the federal subminimum wage haven’t even kept up with the standard minimum wage.
For most of the 20th century, the subminimum wage was pegged at 50% of the standard wage. In 1991, when the minimum wage was  set at $4.25, tipped workers received $2.13 per hour. In 1996 workers won a 90-cent per hour increase, but for the first time the subminimum wage was uncoupled from the standard wage and it was held at $2.13. It’s been stuck there for going on three decades. While the minimum wage has been increased four more times to its current $7.25 an hour, the subminimum wage, unchanged at $2.13, has been reduced to less than one-third of the minimum. Factor in the rising cost of living, and the buying power of the subminimum wage has effectively shrunk to $1.28.

Think about that $2.13 when you calculate a server’s tip. 
It’s called a gratuity, but the way the pay scale works there’s nothing gratuitous about tips. The subminimum wage is based on the assumption that tips will constitute the vast majority of a server’s earnings. As customers we think we’re rewarding good service, but in fact we’re subsidizing the ability of restaurant owners to pay a mere pittance to their employees. Tips are necessary just to get server compensation up to the minimum wage.

While wages are stuck at $2.13, tips are trending down. 
The recent recession and current recovery have kept a lid on restaurant menu prices and taken a toll on individual spending habits and corporate travel budgets. Tips are calculated on stagnant spending, and customers have gotten chintzy with that calculation.

Restaurants can also choose business practices that will erode tips.
Employers can keep payrolls down naming more of their workers to the subminimum wage category. And when those workers aren’t in typically tipped positions, it’s perfectly legal for restaurants to institute mandatory tip-sharing pools and take a cut from the servers to subsidize the paychecks of non-serving employees. They can also deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up to nearly $1,000 a year for full-time workers. For a restaurant chain like Olive Garden, it can be upwards of $10 million in credit card fees that are skimmed from employee paychecks.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Servers
We have a seafood watch list, fair trade labeled imports, and we know when the eggs are cage-free. How about looking at the sustainability of restaurant workers?
There’s a measure in the Senate that will increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Let’s make sure that subminimum wage workers are included this time.

 

 

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There’s Just One Kind of Turkey in This Great Big Land of Plenty

image via Minnesota Turkey Growers Association

image via Minnesota Turkey Growers Association

 

Everyone in America eats the exact same turkey.
Of the 242 million turkeys raised this year, maybe 30,000 of them are not broad-breasted whites.

Virtually every turkey bred in the U.S. comes from a single genetic line. Even most free-range farmed turkeys have been raised from poults purchased from large-scale breeders working from that line. The broad-breasted white is a genetically-engineered hybrid developed in the 1970′s. It was bred to be ‘broad-breasted’ because breast meat sells, and ‘white’ because that way the little feathers missed in plucking won’t show, cutting down on processing costs.

The broad-breasted white is a triumph of efficiency in factory farming.
It was engineered to convert the minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white breast meat in the shortest possible amount of time. The turkeys are ready for market in as little as 12 weeks and 70% of the weight is breast. The over-sized breasts make it impossible for appropriate body parts to meet, so 100% of factory-farmed turkeys are the result of artificial insemination. By contrast, heritage breeds take seven months to reach market and are about 50% dark meat. The heritage designation demands that they mate naturally with no human intervention. 

A lot of turkey parts have to fall by the wayside to get that much breast meat on a broad-breasted white.
Mass market turkeys have scrawny legs and tiny little skeletons. Their body cavities are so small that their organs are too crowded to reach full functionality. They’re too frail and top-heavy to walk, roost, or fly, often painfully crippled by the stress of all that breast weight perched on under-sized frames. Industrial producers actually prefer immobilized turkeys because there’s no chance of movement that could lead to muscle development. They want to see all of the growth aimed toward the singular goal of breast production.

The broad-breasted white turkey is not a robust bird.
Their oversized breasts constrict their lungs so that they are constantly starved for oxygen. They develop the cardiovascular diseases that seem to find the overweight and sedentary members of every species. Even if they’re not headed to slaughter, the ‘natural’ life-span of these turkeys is only a year or two, versus the eight to twelve year life expectancy of heritage breeds. There’s nothing robust about their flavor either. All that white meat is flabby; the protein level is low, the taste is mild, and the texture is soft. Gaminess and chew have been bred out, and while broad-breasted whites are higher in fat than other breeds, there’s none of the richness.

A naturally raised, free range broad-breasted white turkey can be a vast improvement over a factory farmed specimen. It has a foraged diet and develops muscle mass that contribute to superior flavor. But for a turkey that tastes like a turkey should taste, you’ll have to seek out a heritage breed. ‘Heritage’ is not a federally-regulated term, and it’s an over-used marketing buzzword, but a true heritage turkey is one of the ten specific breeds that were raised in the U.S. prior to the 1950′s when the poultry industry began to genetically engineer turkeys on the way to developing the broad-breasted white.

Don’t eat a Thanksgiving turkey that tastes like every other turkey in America.
You can order a heritage breed turkey online at Heritage Foods USA and D’ArtagnanOn the east coast, Mary’s Turkeys can direct you to local markets that carry their birds. Local Harvest and the The US Ark of Taste at Slow Food USA both maintain national directories of heritage turkey farms, markets, and breeders.

Breed makes a huge difference to the taste of chickens too. Read about heritage chicken varieties in Chicken. Just Chicken.

 

Posted in food business, holidays, Thanksgiving | 1 Comment

‘Nose-y’ Neighbors Sue to Shut Down Sriracha Factory

sriracha

NIMBY-Stamp1

 

It’s harvest time for California’s jalapeno peppers and the air around the Huy Fong Foods factory is perfumed with the rich aroma of chilis and garlic.
The company makes a full year’s worth of Sriracha hot sauce during the three-month chili harvest. Daily deliveries of fresh peppers, 100 million pounds in all, are roasted, ground, and blended with garlic and other spices.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the factory’s neighbors is threatening this year’s production cycle.
With pepper processing hitting its full swing, nearby residents are complaining about the pungent fumes. They’re getting headaches, their eyes are stinging, throats are sore, and children are being kept indoors. Last Monday, the city of Irwindale, California sued Huy Fong Foods charging that the wafting odors are a public nuisance in violation of the municipal code. The city has asked for a restraining order that would immediately stop all operations at the factory, and lawyers might even pursue a permanent injunction that could lead to a total shut down.

Sriracha is no ordinary hot sauce.
Sriracha love starts out innocently enough: a squirt in the stir fry, a dab added to marinades. 
You marvel at how a tiny hit of heat, sweet, and garlic perk up those dishes. You try a few drops in dips and dressings, a steady squeeze into scrambled eggs, a swipe of the basting brush on meats headed for the grill. A smidgen turns into a dollop and a smear quickly becomes a slather. Pretty soon the green-capped rooster bottle is keeping company with salt and pepper at every meal and there’s a second bottle for the office fridge. You think: is there nothing that can’t be improved by this marvelous elixir?

Sriracha lovers come from all walks of life.
It’s a sleeve-trick of Michelin chefs, a key ingredient in urban street food, and it’s mixed into the mayonnaise at the Applebee’s in Ottumwa, Iowa. The company sold 20 million bottles last year and it pulled it off with no advertising and a website that hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Sriracha could be in very short supply next year, and beyond that—who knows?
Huy Fong Foods is exploring filtration systems and other means of mitigating the aromatic emissions but there’s no quick fix. At least part of this year’s chili pepper harvest will likely be written off. 
Let the hoarding begin.

 

 

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Who Would You Rather Work For: Apple or McDonald’s?

 

logo mashup via Perfect Image Group

logo mashup via Perfect Image Group

 

Fast food giant McDonald’s is notorious for paying low wages.
The company’s employment practices have been making a lot of recent headlines. First there was this summer’s protest—the biggest one to ever hit the industry— when workers in 50 cities walked out on their jobs calling for fair pay and the right to form unions. We saw McDonald’s respond to the mounting pressure with a widely ridiculed employee budgeting tool that allows a whopping $25 a day for food, child care, transportation, and clothing, and that’s if an employee gets a second 30-hour a week job on top of full-time McDonald’s employment. Then we learned that the company also runs the McResource advice line that steers employees to public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

What about Apple?
It’s one of the best-known, most admired companies on the planet.
It’s created countless millionaires by richly rewarding corporate-level positions in engineering, design, programming, and marketing. But the majority of Apple’s nearly 50,000 U.S. employees work in Apple Stores. They might not be flipping burgers, but like McDonald’s workers, they’re members of the service economy, and most earn about $24,000 a year, an income that is within $1,000 of the federally-designated poverty level and which happens to be the same lowly amount used by the sample budget in McDonald’s financial planning tool.

McDonald’s and Apple are members of an exclusive club.
They are the nation’s largest and most profitable corporations that are also the stingiest. They’re keeping company with Walmart, although even Walmart pays its employees better ($26,000 on average), and Walmart pays out a greater share of its earnings to its workforce.

Not such golden arches…or shiny apples
In 2012, McDonald’s earned a profit of $8 billion. Divide that by the number of workers and the company made a profit of $18,200 from the labor of each employee after paying an average salary of $18,000.
In the same year, the phenomenally successful Apple Corporation posted a profit of more than $40 billion. Divide that by the number of workers and Apple raked in an astonishing $697,000 per employee.

Another thing they have in common: little hope for advancement.
According to the  National Employment Law Project, nearly one-third of all jobs in the U.S. economy are managerial, technical, or other professional occupations. By contrast, only about 1 in 50 fast food jobs is classified as ‘professional.’ There’s simply no room at the top for the army of low-skilled workers to aspire to.

Legions of young, college-educated true believers flock to Apple Stores where the job prospects aren’t much better. Yes, they’re working for an exciting, fast-growing, innovative company, but store employees soon realize that they aren’t in the tech industry. They’re retail workers, and a job in an Apple Store isn’t much different than ringing the register at the shoe store across the mall. Dozens of qualified candidates working on the sales floor are all vying for a few management opportunities, and the turnover is practically nil over at the high-paying Genius Bar. Most Apple Store jobs, just like those at McDonald’s, are low wage, menial dead-ends.

McDonald’s and Apple, fast food and technology. Both companies and both industries are America’s leading representatives to the global economy. Both are enormously successful businesses that pile up huge profits while they pay poverty level wages to the majority of their employees. 
Who would you rather work for? Is there any difference?

 

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Barrel Aging is This Year’s Pickle

ManWearingBarrel

Put the jar down. Step away from the beets. 
Pickling is so over. Sauerkraut and kimchi can stick around, corned beef and herring are forever, but trendy pickle plates on every menu and dare-you-to-try-it pickleback cocktails need to go. A mason jar and a vinegar cure are not always the answer. Today’s overzealous briners remind us of the We Can Pickle That! duo spoofed by the sketch comedians of TV’s Portlandia:  “Too many eggs? We can pickle that! Dropped your ice cream cone? We can pickle that! Broke a heel on your shoe? We can pickle that!” Before the opening credits had rolled on the segment they had pickled an old CD jewel box case, Band-Aids, a parking ticket, and a dead bird.

Barrel-aging is the latest down-home technique to get a hip, upscale boost.
Barrel-aging is usually associated with wine and whiskey, and sometimes beer and vinegar. The contents mellow and mature during the aging period and they take on some of the compounds found in the wood. In the case of whiskey, it actually goes into barrels as a colorless liquid with just a hint of flavor and fragrance from its grain and alcohol, but emerges with its aroma, color, and flavor transformed.

Mixologists have latched on to the technique to create barrel-aged cocktails.
Essentially these are pre-mixed drinks that spend some time in a small cask. Fruits and juices, sodas, bitters, and other mixers are all in there, which puts a lot of neighborhood bars on shaky legal ground with both the local liquor authority and the health department, but craft cocktail fans are swooning.

Barrel-aged condiments were the buzzed-about category at this summer’s gathering for the specialty food industry.
Salt, pepper, paprika, teriyaki sauce, salad dressings, soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire sauce, and especially hot sauce are all getting the barrel treatment, picking up complexity, a hint of smokiness, and even boozy notes if they spent their time in recycled wine or whiskey barrels. If you balk at the premium prices charged by the boutique condiment producers, you should know that good ol’ Tabasco is, and always has been, aged in oak for up to three years.

There are hints of a We Can Pickle That!-style frenzy that threaten to turn barrel-aging into the next culinary cliché.
The process turns sweets like cane sugar, sorghum, vanilla extract, and maple syrup into a bitter, charred, sticky mess. Barrel-aged milk and ricotta cheese are sour, smoky, funky-smelling abominations.

And most troubling, mostly because of its self-referential gratuitousness, is the appearance of whiskey barrel-aged pickles.

 

Posted in cook + dine, food business, food trends | Leave a comment
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