food business

You Can Never Have Too Many (Green) Friends with Benefits

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Type ‘the next kale‘ into a Google search bar and it returns more than 21 million results.

It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago Pizza Hut was the single largest consumer of kale in the U.S., and they weren’t even serving it. It was treated as an inedible garnish used to decorate their salad bars. Today kale is everywhere, tossed into soups, snacks, and soft drinks. Juice bars are squeezing it, mixologists are crafting kale-tinis, and it’s so ubiquitous in the trendy quarters of Brooklyn that the New York Times proposed it as the borough’s official vegetable.

Kale craziness is everywhere:

It’s peaking as a baby name. This chart illustrates how many boys were named Kale in the U.S. since 1880. It clearly resonates as manly since we only get 5 or so baby girl Kales each year.

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 We have 50 Shades of Kale, the cookbook and more than 4,300 Starbucks outlets now offer a kale smoothie.

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Just remember, America’s eaters are notoriously fickle.
Expect a steep drop off from peak kale. As good as it is, kale is not the only one. There are plenty of other nutrient dense, brain-boosting, heart healthy vegetables with kale’s potential. Kale just happened to be the one that captured the nation’s collective appetite. Kohlrabi, watercress, collards, escarole, chard, dandelion greens…. anyone of them could be the next kale..

It’s out there somewhere.
Right now there’s a long-neglected leafy green lurking in some farmers market or produce aisles that’s just waiting for its close-up.

 

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

Sampling or Shoplifting? It’s a Slippery Slope

image via Colors Magazine

image via Colors Magazine

 

 

Spear one cheese cube with a toothpick and you’re sampling. Are you pilfering if you snare a dozen? Is it shoplifting if you dump the plateful in a produce bag for later?
How much is too much? Exactly what constitutes a free sample?
Those were the questions at the heart of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The plaintiff, 68 year-old Erwin Lingitz, went into the Cub Goods supermarket in White Bear Township, Minnesota to pick up a prescription. He helped himself at two un-hosted displays offering free samples of lunch meat, and then packed some up for his wife who was waiting outside in the car. He was arrested by store security as he exited the store.

An attorney for the supermarket chain itemized his haul: “Plaintiff had approximately 14-16 packets of soy sauce along with one plastic produce bag containing 0.61 pounds for [sic] summer sausage and another plastic produce bag containing 0.85 pounds of beef stick in his pockets,” She also claims that the store’s manager had spotted Mr. Lingitz on previous occasions filling plastic produce bags “with 10-20 cookies from the kids’ cookie club tray, which specifically limits the offer to one free cookie per child.”

The supermarket called it theft, arguing that “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.”
Mr. Lingitz called it a violation of his civil rights
and filed suit against Cub Goods for $375,000 in damages. It was potentially a landmark case for retailers and cheapskates alike since there is currently no legal definition for free samples. 

The store had defended itself arguing that free samples are governed by “a common-sense rule.”
A few try-before-you-buy grapes is on one side of it, while stuffing a T-bone inside your raincoat is clearly on the other side. The question is, where does 1.46 pounds of ‘free’ lunch meat fall on the side of common sense?

Mr. Lingitz ultimately withdrew his lawsuit, so there was no watershed moment. We’re still left wondering where the legal line exists for free samples. In an interview with the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Lingitz’s wife, Frankie defended her husband with her own ruling: “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”

Mr. Lingitz is hardly standing alone on that slippery slope between sampling and stealing.
Who among us has never popped a grape in their mouth in the produce aisle? A website called Free Money Finance will show you how to save $2,000 a year in grocery bills and grow your net worth by eating free samples.

 

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Do a Farmer a Favor. Shop Online

 

 

Old School                                                 New School

Market51 Overstock_FM_Logo_Cropped

 

 

 

This is the year you’ll visit an online farmers market (at least you should).
I know; it seems counterintuitive. Farmers markets are as old school as it get. They’re quaint and homespun, all about time-honored tradition and sensual, earthy pleasures. Could anything be more IRL?

Here come the corporate interlopers online distributors.
Virtual markets promise organic produce, heirloom varieties, and artisan-made foods delivered to your doorstep. Small startups like Backyard Produce, Good EggsFarmigo, and Full Circle have been aiming for their own regional footholds, and now the e-commerce giant Overstock wants to take it nationwide. Famous for peddling marked down closeout home goods and last year’s model electronics, Overstock is launching an online farmers’ marketplace and aiming to take it national.

The farmers market movement could stagnate without an online marketplace.
Industry watchers speculate that we might have reached ‘peak farmers market.’ Farmers markets blew up beginning in the 1990’s when fewer than 2,000 of them were scattered across the country. The number of markets doubled and then doubled again, now standing at 8,268, and farmers have seen double and triple-digit growth in lucrative direct-to-consumer sales. Today, even though consumer demand remains high, sales have stalled in recent years. New outlets like farm-to-table restaurants and specialty grocers have picked off some of the sales, but some think that the farmers market boom may be leveling off because of mismatched supply and demand.

Key urban markets have run out of farmers.
Urban farmers markets used to be a weekend morning phenomenon where farmers would set up once a week in an out of the way parking lot. Now there are weekday markets, night markets, winter markets, downtown markets, and pop-up markets. While city residents can support the concentration of markets, the high-priced farmland of regional ecosystems can’t support enough producers. The problem is especially acute in cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while in the less densely populated regions of the Midwest and Southwest, there are plenty of farmers but fewer urban outlets within their reach.

Overstock just might be a good thing for local farmers.
There’s a tendency to be reflexively dismissive toward Overstock, but you shouldn’t. The company has other community-focused ventures under its belt like Worldstock, a fair trade world artisans’ division, Main Street Revolution, an Etsy-like business selling American-made products from individuals and small businesses, and the Pet Adoption feature, which lets animal shelters across the country to piggyback on the shopping site as a free service to connect consumers to adoptable pets.

It’s a national network, but the goal is to ship locally.
Overstock has taken a grass roots approach to the enterprise and is building a national network of growers and producers. Ahead of this season’s launch, they started the process by cold-calling small farms listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s local foods directory, focusing on small and family-owned operations and avoiding those practicing larger-scale organic production in which farms win a label by adhering to minimally-required organic standards. So far they’ve signed up enough farms to serve about a third of the country’s zip codes with truly fresh, local shipments, and hope to achieve national coverage within a season or two. Customers outside of a locally-served range can select certain non-local seasonal produce and less fragile foods like grains, cheese, jam, and meats.

You might wonder, “Why buy from a national, online retailer if it’s coming from my own zip code?”
Farmers and consumers both enjoy the sense of community and connection found at farmers markets, but too many small growers are lacking nearby consumer options while others are spread too thinly by the explosive growth of outlets in their regions. For the farmers, marketing their wares, trucking produce in and out, and staffing the booths is an expensive, gas-guzzling, time-consuming process; shipping through an intermediary can actually be more profitable. Online shopping can also be a cost-effective choice for consumers. Obviously it’s a time saver, and shipping is at most a few dollars and nearly always free.

An online farmers market is also surprisingly green.
It’s true that a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the produce to you, but a giant retailer like Overstock is probably already cruising your block, bringing a set of deeply-discounted 480-thread count sheets to someone in the neighborhood. The incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the route is less significant than if you get into your own car and make the drive to the market. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute found that an online purchase with home delivery can save 35 percent in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions over a traditional market outing.

Online shopping can never take the place of stroll around the outdoor stalls of fresh produce on a sunny day.
But it can be a source of fresh, seasonal, and local produce. It can sustain local food systems and keep consumer spending in local economies. And it just might open up the marketplace to provide the opportunities and support that small farmers need to survive in today’s globalized economy.

 

Posted in agriculture, food business, shopping | 1 Comment

Wall Street Goes for a Ride on a $100 Million Grilled Cheese Truck

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In January, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Inc. became the world’s first publicly traded food truck business (ticker symbol: GRLD).
Its early valuation of $108 million is based on 18 million shares that started trading at around $6. For less than the price of a Plain and Simple Melt off the lunch truck’s menu, you can now own a piece of the company.

By all accounts The Grilled Cheese Truck makes a pretty darned good grilled cheese sandwich, and who doesn’t love grilled cheese? But before you put your lunch money into a brokerage account, let’s do a little reality check on what it means to have a $100 million valuation in something called ‘the mobile gourmet grilled cheese space.’

The company owns four licensed catering trucks, a whole lot of cheese, and not much else. In the SEC documents filed ahead of the public offering, GRLD claimed assets worth $1 million while owing nearly $3 million against them. If those were my trucks, I’d be looking out for the repo man. Their track record in sandwich slinging is even more dismal. The financial statements they filed showed that their best stretch was the third quarter of 2014 when the company lost more than $900,000 on sales of $1 million. For the first nine months of the fiscal year, GRLD reported a total loss of $4.4 million on $2.6 million in sales.

Once you get past the woeful fundamentals, GRLD still isn’t looking so hot.
None of its sandwiches showed up last April (a.k.a. National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month) when Women’s Day paid tribute to the 10 greatest grilled cheese sandwiches. Nor were they cited by Zagat on its list of 30 Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches around the U.S. The Grilled Cheese Truck didn’t even make the cut when Mobile Cuisine named the 2014 Grilled Cheese Food Truck Of The Year and its four runners up.

Before you plunk down cash for shares, you might want to talk to some Cereality franchisees, or more accurately, former franchisees. Every one of their businesses has failed. Like grilled cheese sandwich trucks, the cold cereal cafés were based on a single, universally loved dish that most people already prepare at home. A decade ago more than 6,000 potential investors lined up for the opportunity to buy into a franchise concept that USA Today described as “so absurdly simple, self-indulgent… well, how can it fail?” Well, it did, after each owner had ponied up franchise fees and startup costs ranging between $145,650 and $461,300. Cereality is currently in retrenchment mode, down to just two company-owned outlets; one an airport kiosk and the other located inside a hospital cafeteria.

When it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches, I’d pass on Wall Street and stick to lunch. But if you really want a wild ride, Cereality is still looking for a few new franchisees.

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Domaine versus Domain Name: This is why the new .wine websites are bad for wine

image via Hypographia

image via Hypographia

 

Dot Wine is coming.
The internet has gotten too big to be contained by .com, .net, .org, and .gov, so the organization in charge of internet addresses is pushing a major expansion in domain name suffixes. For years we’ve been making do with just 22 suffixes, plus a few dozen country-specific ones like .uk and .fr for Britain and France, but now the floodgates have been thrown open and everyone can choose from thousands of new keyword suffixes like .coffee, .vote, .football, and .wine.

The next step for the new suffixes, known as top-level domains (TLDs), is that internet name registries will bid for them at auction. The winning registries then own the rights to issue URLs with those TLDs. This has winemakers in an uproar.

Up till now, TLDs have basically come in two flavors.
There are open TLDs like .com and .net that anyone can register, and there are restricted TLDs like .gov and .edu that are limited to governmental and educational entities. Under the new plan, brands can apply to own their own limited domain suffixes so we’ll start to see TLDs like .pepsi and .nike, but the vast majority, including .wine, .vin, .napa, and .chardonnay will be open. The problem for winemakers is that the language speaks volumes.

The wine industry is very particular when it comes to names.
There are varietal names, vineyard names, winery estate names, and geographical appellations, and each describes a very specific combination of grape varieties and winemaking practices, topography, climate, soil, traditional methods, and sourcing of ingredients. In some European countries, these names are based on classification systems that date back many centuries—France’s goes back to 1411—and even the relatively new and evolving standards for America’s wine regions are considered critical to the industry’s integrity, quality, and reputation.

That’s why winemakers on both sides of the Atlantic are fighting the new TLDs.
They fear that the new domain names will open the door to misrepresentation. Think of how true Champagne has continued to exist in a world of lesser sparkling wines. Everything about Champagne from pruning to vineyard yields to the degree of pressing to release dates has been codified in its name, and that name has been legally protected for hundreds of years, extending into more than 70 countries and reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. But the new TLDs allow anyone and everyone to register a .champagne URL. It essentially gives cyber permission for the makers of any old rotgut- fizzy or otherwise- the imprimatur of centuries of history, terroir, and reputation.

Old World (and some New) winemakers want protection for their geographic indications.
They argue that names like ‘Napa Valley,’ ‘Champagne’, and ‘Bordeaux’ should be treated in the same way as trademarks. Third parties aren’t allowed to buy up the TLDs for ‘Olympics’ or ‘Tylenol’ or ‘Sony’, but as it stands, anyone with the auction fee can saunter in and claim ‘Côtes du Rhône’ as their own.

The right side of the dot is pitting nation against nation and ancient traditionalists against new world rivals.
Most European winemakers are pushing for protection, most Australians and Canadians want a free-for-all, and there’s a split decision from the U.S. wine industry. Critics of protection like to trivialize the argument as tedious squabbles over all the silly circumflexes and and hyphens in old chateaux names. They like to point out that nobody will ever confuse a .vin Chardonnay with a .vin Chevy just because the French wine suffix can double as an acronym for vehicle identification number. They assert that geographic indications are not settled international law and that proponents should take up the fight in venues like the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Cyber-squatters are already lining up to buy the most illustrious and treasured of the appellations.
These are disinterested third parties who simply smell money in the domain name dustup and are looking to lock up ownership of wine-related TLDs. And who knows what happens then. The squatters can sit tight and charge extortionary usage fees; they can ‘flip’ ownership at a vastly inflated price to legitimate wine industry constituents; or they can dismantle a centuries-old institution, selling the related URLs to anyone and everyone with a case of plonk and a GoDaddy account.

What’s in a domaine name?
History, terroir, reputation, quality.
What’s not in a domain name?
Transparency, accountability, oversight, legal protection, global international agreement.

Learn about the new domains from the issuing agency: the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers.

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture, food business | 1 Comment

The Surprising Names Behind the Brands You Trust

 

 

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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We’re Hungry and We Want It Now

We’re fussy, we’re fickle, we’re inconsistent, and unpredictable.
We say we want healthy but opt for decadence. We chase the new but choose the familiar. We demand quality but reject premium price tags.
Somehow, restaurant operators need to parse all the contradictions and inconsistencies to give us what we really want.

Restaurant Business Online has come out with one of their periodic snapshots.    
They compiled data from numerous business intelligence sources (including Consumer Reports Magazine, Technomic, The National Restaurant Association, and Pizza.com) to capture our ever-changing dining preferences at this singular moment in time.

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

 

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The National Kitchen Audit

 

image via NPD Group

image via NPD Group

 

Every three years a massive study reveals what’s in our kitchens.
In 1993, the NPD Group, a market research company, first asked American consumers to tell what’s in their pantries and on their countertops. The published reports have taken us through the era of George Forman grills and South Beach diets to coffee pods and Greek yogurt. And through it all there’s a block of cheddar cheese lurking in everyone’s refrigerator.

Here are the latest findings from the 2014 Kitchen Audit:

Pod-based coffeemakers are now found in 23% of kitchens, up from 9% just three years ago. And they’re using them regularly—80% in the past month, even though 55% of these households held on to their electric drip coffeemakers. Other dedicated appliances like rice cookers, slow cookers, juicers, and waffle makers have also found a place in more kitchens.

You’ll find soda in 54% of kitchens, and home soda makers in 4%; that rises to 10% if there are children under age 6 in the household.

Sriracha hot sauce was barely a blip in previous audits. Now it’s found in 9% of total households, and an impressive 16% of households with a cook under the age of 35. This reflects the influx of new flavors shared by Asian-Americans, the country’s fasting growing ethnic group, plus the much larger Hispanic population, which opened us up to bolder, spicier flavors.

There’s a slew of new pantry staples.
Sea salt, formerly a specialty food item, has officially crossed over into the majority of kitchens. 
Nut products are becoming a standard way of adding meatless protein to diets; hazelnut spreads like Nutella are now in 14% of kitchens (up from 8% in 2011), and nut milks, especially from almonds, reached 10% (up from just 4%).
Of course the reigning king of the high-protein meat alternatives is Greek yogurt. In three short years its market penetration more than tripled, and it can now be found in 29% of all household refrigerators.

Instant and prepared foods are losing ground.
Home cooks are using microwave ovens less frequently. Canned foods are slipping (lima beans and mushrooms dropped out of  20% and 6% of pantries, respectively), and the dry cereal manufacturers are in full panic mode. There’s still a ready-to-eat box of in around 90% of American households, but unless there are small children, we’re just not eating it like we used to.

The biggest surprise revealed in the audit is that we’re cooking.
Consumers- especially millennials- say that they want to be hands-on in the kitchen. They still like convenience (remember all those coffee pods?), but the buzzwords are fresh and customized. Think of bags of pre-washed and trimmed salad greens with homemade dressing or tacos constructed at home with a takeout rotisserie chicken. More people consider themselves good-to-excellent cooks, and 53% of that self-identified group is cooking at least some elements of a meal from scratch- with recipes even- at least once a week.

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Selling Like Hotcakes? It’s time for a new metaphor.

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IPads, kale chips, Bean boots, Taylor Swift’s new album: these are selling like hotcakes. Pancakes? Not so much.

Pancake sales are tough to pin down.
We visit IHOP, pull Eggos out of the freezer, add oil and water to boxed mixes, and sometimes even sift flour and crack eggs for homemade. In the industry, they look at the total picture and call it the ‘pancake experience.’ And when you add it all together, the pancake experience has been pretty flat for years.

It’s the rare household that makes pancakes from scratch. You’ll find a box of pancake mix in two-thirds of American kitchens, but it’s probably just whiling away the months until its expiration date. Annual household spending on pancake mixes is a mere $1.16, which adds up to a single new box about every three years. The frozen category is the only bright spot in home pancakes.

We still like a good restaurant pancake. We just wish that Chipotle would put them on the menu.
IHOP, with more than 1,500 locations, is the top chain in its category, but customers are increasingly abandoning the whole category. The top five traditional family dining chains (by sales) are IHOP, Denny’s, Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, and Bob Evans Restaurants. Every one of them is in the pancake business. Diners have been shifting to the new category of fast-casual restaurants where the top five brands are Panera, Chipotle, Panda Express, Jimmy John’s, and Five Guys. There’s not a pancake in sight at any of them, unless you want to count the scallion pancake-filled orange chicken wrap at Panda Express.

Don’t blame this one on the gluten police.
We flip over carb-heavy fads like ramen and cronuts, and trendy cupcakes, mac and cheese, and craft beers are still going strong, while pancakes are falling behind.
Hotcakes: these days they’re selling like sweetbreads.

 

 

 

 

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Read It and You’ll Never Buy a Mexican Tomato Again

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This weekend the Los Angles Times wrapped up an explosive 4-part investigative series exposing the horrific conditions at Mexican farm labor camps. Product of Mexico pulls no punches as it takes readers into the worker camps attached to industrial mega-farms that send millions of pounds of tomatoes into the United States.

The workers are recruited from Mexico’s poorest and most discriminated populations of indigenous ethnic groups living in remote regions. They’re trucked to distant farms with the promise of decent housing and a weekly salary of $48 for the duration of a 90-day contract. In fact they are housed in squalid shacks, often with no mattresses, working toilets, or running water. Some are held against their will behind barbed wire fences, and some are trapped by employers who withhold wages for the duration of the 90 days. Others are trapped by debt—to the recruiters who charge them a job placement fee, or to the on-site company store where the captive workers overpay for basics like soap and food.

Fully half of all the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. are the product of these farm camps. But don’t worry; the produce itself is coddled. Immaculate greenhouses and packing facilities adhere to the food safety standards demanded by American customers. There might not be sinks and showers at the camps, but food handlers are treated to nail trimmers and hand sanitizers so that the tomatoes will pass through unblemished.

The list of U.S. customers includes nearly every major produce distributor and restaurant chain. Retailers carrying the tomatoes run the gamut from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods, so no matter what kind of shopper you are, you’re likely eating the tomatoes. And until American consumers are willing to use their voices and purchasing power to speak out against the abuses and exploitation, you’ll continue to do so.

Here are some steps you can take on the road to systemic reform:

Visit Fair Trade USA for a list of fair trade certified products and local retailers that carry them. The Fair Trade produce label ensures that farms will meet certain requirements for the treatment of workers, and they are subject to regular inspections and audits to maintain their standing. 
Join your local Fair Trade Campaign that works with schools, hospitals, and other local institutions to broaden the availability of fairly-traded products in your community.
Read the Product of Mexico series. You’ll never buy another Mexican tomato.

 

 

 

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A Device that Distills Coca-Cola into Clean Drinking Water

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The Real Thing is a Dutch art installation that challenges us to think about priorities within our consumerist culture.
The multidisciplinary artist Helmut Smits sought to make a statement about “a world in which drinking water can be harder to come by than Coca-Cola.” With input from the Synthetic Organic Chemistry group of the University of Amsterdam, he created a reverse osmosis filtration system that turns a bottle of Coke into a purified bottle of clean water.

Coca-Cola is everywhere.
The company likes to brag that it operates in more countries than the United Nations (200 to the UN’s 192). Coca-Cola’s network of bottlers is the world’s largest and most widespread production and distribution system. It’s estimated that 95% of the world’s population can identify an unlabeled Coke bottle just by its iconic (and patented) contoured shape.

Coca-Cola’s reach extends to even the dustiest little towns in the most remote regions of every continent. The residents might not have access to potable water, but they have Coke. They have Coke in drought-stricken regions of India, even though the production of a liter bottle of Coca-Cola can use up to nine liters of clean drinking water. They have Coke in impoverished regions of Africa, where Coca-Cola is the beverage of choice because it’s priced below the cost of clean water.

Coca-Cola has been trying to spruce up its image, championing various sustainability and community-building initiatives.
Critics see the effort as window dressing; a fleeting social commitment of convenience while billions continue to flow to advertising in developing countries.
The Real Thing installation reminds us that residents of the world’s poorest nations need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.

 

 

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Made With Conviction

image via The Justice Institutes

image via The Justice Institute

 

Forget about license plates.
Prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie. And of course there’s the inmate agricultural worker. We have an image of chain gangs working the fields under the watchful eye of guards on horseback—stereotypical but also historical truth. Mechanization put an end to most large-scale prison farms, but draconian immigration laws have created a new labor market for prisoners in the civilian agriculture and food-processing sectors, and prison-made foods are now a supermarket staple.

There’s a prison connection to much of what you eat.
Convicts have baked Sara Lee cakes and packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans. They make Louisiana hot sauce, lunchbox apple juice packs, and produce mozzarella for the world’s largest pizza supplier. Prisoners have even gone artisanal: they grow chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes for award-winning wine bottlers, produce raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raise the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.

The National Correctional Industries Association, which oversees partnerships between prisons and private companies, praises the prison-to-table movement for enabling inmates “to acquire marketable skills to increase their potential for successful rehabilitation and meaningful employment upon release.” Critics call it a thinly veiled return to slavery that displaces civilian workers while it exploits the poor and people of color who are disproportionately represented in prison populations.

Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are well-compensated through these arrangements.
The businesses are often paying pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. They’re not paying benefits and aren’t held to the standards of civilian employers. Up to 80% of the wages can then be kept by the prison to cover the costs of incarceration. A full day’s labor might put a few dollars into a prisoner’s account, but the state can withhold those amounts for fines, court costs, and victim restitution.

What’s wrong with this picture?
Corporate responsibility, racism, social justice, corruption, immigration reform- take your pick.
But what do we make of cage-free egg producers who use prison labor?

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Fast Food in the Age of Transparency

 

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It’s not as nasty as you think. That’s the message of McDonald’s latest ad campaign.

McDonald’s knows it has a serious image problem. Obesity, pink slime, Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me—the decades of exposés, headlines, and scandals have taken their toll. Since they can’t advertise their food as fresh, or healthy, or natural, or environmentally friendly, the company decided to go with It’s really not that bad.

McDonald’s has gone on a transparency drive called Our Food. Your Questions. They’ve produced video vignettes and infographics that explain the production process behind some of their most mystifying menu items like McRibs and McNuggets to show how something not found in nature can end up on your lunch tray. They’ve hired a host from TV’s Mythbusters to debunk some of the more persistent rumors, like the viral video of an ancient burger, so packed with preservatives that it refused to rot.

At the heart of the campaign is the online forum where customers can get real-time answers to their questions.
It’s where you’ll learn that their beef contains growth hormones but no worms, and that NOT ALL of McDonald’s salads are more fattening than their burgers. Special attention is given to questions about the notorious ‘yoga mat’ chemical. Yes, the rubbery additive is baked into most of their buns and rolls, but the spokesperson gives us a new way to think about the link to yoga mats: it’s like sprinkling ice on sidewalks in the winter; you don’t go around saying that you season your food with a de-icer, now do you?

Our perceptions may be malleable, but McDonald’s is McDonald’s is McDonald’s.
The problem with McDonald’s form of transparency is its toothlessness. The food remains fundamentally unhealthy, employees aren’t paid a living wage, and suppliers practice inhumane and unsustainable forms of agriculture. The hamburger meat continues to be pumped full of antibiotics to combat the filth of the crowded factory farming feedlots, and the eggs come from chickens that lived out their lives in locked battery cages.

This new openness might make McDonald’s appear less sinister, but consumer confidence and trust won’t be rebuilt until the company commits to taking a stand for healthy, sustainable foods. Companies like Starbucks, Panera, and Chipotle are winning the fast food wars not because they’re more transparent, but because they’ve taken a hard look at the quality and origins of the ingredients they use and have forged genuine change. As the nation’s biggest fast food chain and one of the world’s largest purveyors of raw materials, McDonald’s is in a position to make a real difference in how food is grown and the way the world eats.

Posted in fast food, food business, food safety | 2 Comments

A City Guide to Affordable Gastronomy

The Wallet Hub Map of Food Affordability in 150 Metro Markets 

 

A roof over your head and food on your plate.
Those are the big ones in everyone’s budget. Housing and food add up to nearly half of most Americans’ annual spending.

Housing values are closely scrutinized; food values not so much.
There are endless real estate rankings and ratings—we know about New York condo prices and San Francisco rent; we know which cities are affordable for retirees and where to move to after college. Even though food is often the next largest chunk of the budget, there’s been scant research into where to go for the good food values.

The sweet spot for a food scene is where quality meets affordability.
Wallet Hub
, a social platform for financial decision making, evaluated the 150 most populous U.S. cities to find the most and least economical food scenes in the country. Data was culled from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and analyzed using 18 weighted metrics indicating diversity, accessibility, quality, and affordability of food in each city. They counted grocers, butchers, cheese shops, and coffee roasters and compared prices across regions. Well-ranked cities have farmers markets, CSAs, food trucks, and maybe a food festival or two. They also have plenty of healthy options, a range of ethnic cuisines, food delivery, and a decent ratio of full-service to fast food restaurants.

Some of the rankings are what you’d expect. For all its bounty, high prices sink New York City to #143 (where it’s sandwiched between Port St. Lucie, Florida and Anchorage, Alaska), and places like Omaha, Nebraska and Fort Wayne, Indiana don’t have too much going on food-wise, but man are they cheap. Coffee, craft beer, and inexpensive ethnic restaurants spring up wherever you find large student populations, giving a ratings boost to big college towns like Madison, Wisconsin (#3) and Austin, Texas (#8). San Francisco is tops for restaurants and diversity but gets dinged for some of the highest prices in the country, knocking it down to #15.

There are also plenty of surprises.
Tourist meccas like Honolulu, Hawaii and Orlando, Florida are inexplicably dense with specialty grocers. Portland, Oregon is perched within the winery and brewery belt of the Pacific Northwest, yet it has some of the highest beer and wine prices in the country. Detroit is in dire need of ice cream parlor. Salt Lake City, even with its caffeine-free Mormon population, has more coffee shops per capita than Jacksonville, Florida and El Paso, Texas. And can someone please tell me why Fayetteville, North Carolina and Henderson, Nevada are two of the nation’s most expensive food towns?

Visit WalletHub’s 2014’s Best and Worst Foodie Cities for your Wallet to get a full picture of the eating landscape, and to learn why we should all pack it in and move to Grand Rapids.

 

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Wake Up and Smell the Rat Meat: Stop Buying Chinese Food Imports!

 

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It wasn’t easy choosing a headline. 
I could have gone with the noodles infested with maggots or the baby food with more lead than a gallon of old gasoline. Then there’s the used cooking oil reclaimed from sewers and the shrimp that are raised on a diet of pig feces. I wanted a headline that will make you ask why we still import food from China.
I’m thinking that rat meat sold as lamb could do the trick.

China hit a new record this year: in the first three quarters of 2014 more of its food production was deemed unfit for human consumption than fit.
In recent months we’ve seen 11,000 cases of norovirus among schoolchildren served smoothies and fruit salad made with diseased frozen strawberries, and American restaurants frying with Chinese-made ‘vegetable’ oil that was actually extracted from the fat of animals like cats and foxes. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Burger King were all ensnared in a massive tainted meat scam that involved expired meats that were ‘freshened’ with bleach and relabeled for shipping.

If you think that you’re not eating Chinese food imports because you don’t frequent fast food outlets, think again. They make up 80% of America’s tilapia, 51% of cod, 49% of apple juice, 34% of processed mushrooms, 27% of garlic, and 16% of frozen spinach. Reading labels is not enough: American food companies are generally required to label only where their products are packaged or processed, not where the ingredients come from. A Swanson frozen dinner or a can of Campbell’s soup can contain 20 different ingredients from 20 different countries with no mention of this on the label. When you open a can of Bumble Bee tuna or Dole fruit, or pour your child a glass of Mott’s apple juice, you’re likely eating foods from China. All-American brands like Kraft, Lay’s, Pepsi, and General Mills all buy from Chinese growers and producers that harvest and process with lower labor costs than almost anywhere else.

Many more food violations see the light of day because of Wu Heng, the Upton Sinclair of China. 
Gelatin made from leather scraps, melamine in milk, pork that’s chemically transformed into beef—these are some of the scandals that first came to our attention through Wu Heng’s muckraking website Zhi Chu Chuang Wai. The name translates to Throw it Out the Window, a reference to an incident in which then-president Theodore Roosevelt tossed a sausage out of a White House window after reading Sinclair’s The Jungle, chronicling the horrors of the U.S. meatpacking industry. Wu and his staff of volunteers have identified and documented nearly 4,000 separate incidents of substandard, unsanitary, and unsafe food production, mostly deliberate, and most fueled by greed, ignorance, and corruption.

It’s gotten so bad that wealthier and savvier Chinese citizens are shunning their own local foods. 
They’ve sent food imports from the U.S. soaring to new heights by shopping at large grocery stores, like Walmart or the French chain Carrefour that offer foreign brands and a greater guarantee of quality control over domestic products. 

Can somebody tell me why the U.S. still imports food from China?

Posted in food business, food knowledge, food safety | Leave a comment

The Small-Batch Experts at PepsiCo Are Crafting Your Next Artisanal Cola

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[shareable, instagram-ready photo via Caleb’s Kola]

PepsiCo, the mega-giant, multi-national food and beverage corporation has just launched Caleb’s Kola.
Maybe ‘launched’ isn’t the right word. As the PepsiCo folks like to say: We’re a passionate group of kola lovers who came together to craft a unique kola from scratch using a few simple ingredients. We love it. We hope you will too.
Sure, just another food startup from a couple of hip food artisans with a rowdy tumbler website and the hashtag #HonorInCraft on its twitter feed. And one that seems to have focus-grouped the hell out of that k in ‘kola.’

Although they’ve sent us an engraved invitation to snarkiness, we’re not going to RSVP just yet.
It’s too easy; the cultural appropriation and pandering is just too brazen. The desperation is too visible in the carefully constructed social media presence. PepsiCo isn’t the only one doing it: Domino’s is baking up artisan pizzas; Tostitos peddles artisan chips; and Sargento shreds cheese into artisan blends. PepsiCo is just the biggest and baddest of the corporate opportunists who are raiding the hipster-artisan oeuvre.

Craft soda is like the low-hanging fruit of the fast-growing, wildly lucrative market for ‘real’ food.
Unlike the organic designation, craft and artisanal have no legal definitions. Even Webster’s says only that it calls for ‘a manually skilled worker.’ PepsiCo is free to slap the label on its new beverage and market the heck out of the notion of a kinder, gentler company.

Corporate lip service is a lot easier and cheaper than actual craft practices.
Authentically artisanal food is based in craft, community, tradition, and innovation. It’s inherently ethical and sustainable, relying on passion and commitment to guarantee longevity. While PepsiCo is not bad, as corporate citizens go, it’s still in the business of selling carbonated sugar water, and never lets social responsibility get in the way of profitability.

Small artisanal businesses all struggle with the sustainable movement’s underpinnings as they grow into large and successful enterprises, while Caleb’s Kola is off to a false start because of the dubious record of its parent company. PepsiCo’s spoken strategy is ‘performance with a purpose,’ but privately the company fights mightily to derail government efforts to tax sugary drinks and label genetically modified ingredients. It runs afoul of the law in its marketing of unhealthy products to young children, and has at best a mixed record for environmental advocacy, drawing frequent criticism for its plastic packaging, water usage, pesticides, and carbon emissions.

PepsiCo is hoping some of the good will towards Caleb’s Kola will rub off on them.
They’ve larded the new brand with fair trade sugar, retro-styled glass bottles, and the sheen of civic virtue. But the millennial consumers they’re aiming for have a talent for spotting inauthenticity. It’s just as likely that the taint of industrialized production and hypocrisy will rub off on Caleb’s Kola. That’s when you’ll really see some snark.

 

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Madison Avenue Makes Way for a Girl


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The Morton Salt Girl beat back the Keebler Elf, the Energizer Bunny, Mr. Clean, and the Jolly Green Giant to take her place among the most celebrated icons of advertising.
They were all vying to be this year’s inductee to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame. The winner was announced in conjunction with Advertising Week, the industry’s annual, New York-based celebration of ads and agencies.

The Morton Salt Girl was the odds-on favorite in this year’s contest.
The umbrella-toting miss is celebrating her hundredth anniversary this year and she wasn’t shy about playing the nostalgia card for publicity. She teamed up with another century-old icon for the double centennial celebration of Morton Salt Girl Day at Wrigley Field, and has been strutting her stuff from coast to coast for 100 Parties.100 Cities.100 Days

Little Salt Girl; big social media maven.
A few years ago the Walk of Fame selection process shifted from the advertising community to a public vote, landing squarely in the Morton Salt Girl’s wheelhouse. Her classic pose was endlessly repinned on Pinterest pages and copied for an Instagram look-alike competition. Her timeless yet constantly evolving image was profiled in a sentimental YouTube documentary.  And she furiously worked to get out the vote on Facebook and Twitter, imploring her fans with the campaign slogan Make it rain! Make it pour! Vote Morton Salt Girl and raise her score! The elf, the bunny, and the bald man didn’t stand a chance.

The Morton Salt Girl broke through the glass ceiling to join her male counterparts on the Walk of Fame.
Just one other woman has made it—the weirdly enthusiastic Flo of Progressive Insurance got the nod in 2012. Certainly nobody expected to see a young girl rise from the old boys’ network of the food sector, with its long list of male inductees that includes esteemed heavyweights like Mr. Peanut, Colonel Sanders, Orville Redenbacher, Tony the Tiger, Juan Valdez, and the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

The Morton Salt Girl (and yes, that is her only name) has increased brand awareness, generated revenue, and withstood the test of time. Now she’ll have a permanent place on New York’s sidewalks. You can visit her along with the other iconic figures of branding at the Advertising Walk of Fame on Madison Avenue between 42nd and 50th Street.

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Covert Coffee: The CIA Starbucks and More

ultra top secret mug available at Zazzle.com

ultra top secret mug available at Zazzle.com

 

The Washington Post spilled the beans on National Coffee Day with a profile of a Starbucks that’s secreted away within the CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters.
You won’t find it on the coffee company’s store locator and your GPS will come up empty. It’s known simply as Store Number 1, or familiarly as the Stealthy Starbucks.

The Post reports that it looks like every other Starbucks with its framed coffee posters and comfy armchairs. It sells the same lattés and iced lemon poundcake as every other Starbucks, and the same soft rock soundtrack floats in the background. It’s one of the busiest locations in the chain—nobody’s popping in and out of the highly secured facility to pick up something at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Security prevails at Store Number 1.
Noses aren’t buried in Facebook feeds since personal cellphones are a security risk. Rewards cards are also out since the data could be leaked. And even though baristas go through extensive background checks and are sworn to secrecy (they can only say I work for Starbucks in a federal building), they can’t ask for their customers’ names.

Of course it’s unlikely that a barista could really blow a secret agent’s cover.
Starbucks’ name butchery is legendary: the cashier scrawls it on a cup, the barista calls it out, and with figures crossed you go to pick up a beverage that might or might not be yours. It’s as if your name went a few rounds with AutoCorrect: Amanda becomes Tammy, Andrew becomes Stanley, and God help you if your name is Gaelic in origin, has more than two syllables, or rhymes with any part of the female anatomy.

Starbucks also operates a handful of covert cafés in New York City.
While many university campuses, hospitals, and office buildings have Starbucks outlets that aren’t technically open to the public, most won’t exactly refuse a paying customer. There a a few locked-down exceptions like the Starbucks in the New York Stock Exchange and one that serves the regional offices of MI6. CIA-level clearances are fitting for cafés that rub up against national security interests and sensitive global markets. But some of the tightest security and most limited access—even the Washington Post couldn’t talk their way into this one—is found at 1740 Broadway, where the Starbucks serves the New York headquarters of Victoria’s Secret.

 

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Is Hot Honey the New Sriracha?

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Can you remember your first Sriracha?
Remember the way a tiny hit of heat and sweet perked up whatever it was that you were eating?
You started slow—a squirt in the stir fry, a dab added to marinades. Then you branched out: 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. Was there nothing that couldn’t be improved by this marvelous elixir?

Chili-infused honey takes you back to that wondrous moment.
Like all great condiments hot honey is a utility player. Squeeze it on vegetables, drizzle it over noodles, mix it into dressings, dips, and sauces. It’s a no-brainer on biscuits and cornbread, and a revelation on pizza and cured meats.

Like Sriracha, hot honey has a craveable sweet-spicy balance.
Hot honey tends to be the tamer of the two, unless it’s made from a blazing-hot chili pepper, and it doesn’t have Sriracha’s garlic punch. But honey has greater depth of flavor than Sriracha’s added sugar, and the addition of vinegar both moderates the sweetness and contributes to its complexity.

Both condiments are all-American culinary hybrids.
Most of us saw our first red rooster bottle of Sriracha in an ethnic restaurant. Probably Thai or Vietnamese, but it could have just as easily been Chinese or Mexican. The sauce is clearly in the Asian camp, but of indeterminate provenance, and Sriracha’s creator, a Los Angeles-based Vietnamese immigrant born to Chinese parents, likes it that way, even printing the bottle’s label in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French, and Spanish. Hot honey is also a polyglot mutt, inspired by a Brazilian condiment used on Italian pizza, and then reborn in Brooklyn artisan kitchens.

Hot sauce is the rare food that crosses geography, cultures, and demographics.
A one-two punch of sweet-hot only broadens the appeal, and the blockbuster potential of chili-infused honey has a few condiment makers scrambling for market position. Mike’s Hot Honey is the grandaddy of the category with a four year company history and an addictive elixir in a recognizably honey-style squeeze bottle. MixedMades’ Bees Knees is the upstart. They’ve been bottling their version for less than a year, but have captured a sizable share of the fledgling market with distinctive packaging and a premium price. Then there’s the wildcard. A primetime network viewing audience watched sixteen-year old Henry Miller win television’s Shark Tank with his spicy honey line called Henry’s Humdingers. He ended up turning down the Sharks’ offer ($300,000 for a 75% stake in the company), and is struggling to fulfill orders, but it was an auspicious launch.

A smidgen turns into a dollop, a smear becomes a slather.
Hot honey could soon be keeping company with salt and pepper at every meal.

 

 

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Whole Foods Has Seen its Future and it Looks Like Every Other Supermarket

 

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An early Whole Foods Market

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Whole Foods today

Back in July, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey waxed nostalgic in an interview with a Washington Post reporter. Published under the title When We Were Small, Mackey shared memories of the early days of his first market:

It was this old, three-story Victorian house, very charming. On the first floor, we had some cash registers in the front, two of them, and we had a little bulk food area. In another room, we had produce, and in the next room, we had a little dairy cooler and a little frozen food section.

Mackey was 25 years old and living in a little apartment above the shop. He had a girlfriend, a bicycle, and a handful of employees. His biggest worries were the $10,000 he owed his parents and avoiding the embarrassment of failing in front of his friends and family.

Forgive him his sentimentality. These days he heads a natural food empire of nearly 400 locations with more than 80,000 employees. The whole world was watching as his publicly traded company was named this year’s worst performer in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

For a while Whole Foods could do no wrong.
Natural and organic foods were just taking off and there seemed to be no end to the urban and affluent neighborhoods that could use a high-end grocer. Whole Foods was the only game in town—supermarkets didn’t even stock organic milk back then—and when they weren’t, they would buy up the competition, opening new stores and acquiring smaller natural food grocers by the dozen. Venture capital replaced the friends and family funding, and then Wall Street took them public in 1992, and the stock reached one high after another.

It was the era of Whole Paycheck.
The nickname was well-deserved. Whole Foods could practically mint money through premium pricing because there was no one else selling the same foods. A typical grocery chain has a net profit of about 1%; for years Whole Foods was banking close to 5%. Those days are over.

The competition has caught up. Whole Foods’ success spawned imitators in the premium sector and every mainstream supermarket chain now carries organic produce and natural foods. Trader Joe’s is giving them a good run, and Wal-Mart is killing them on price. Whole Foods is squeezed in every direction, slowing sales growth and narrowing profit margins. Their financial statements are starting to look a lot like those of every other supermarket. Absent a unique niche in the marketplace, many are wondering if Whole Foods’ woes are (dare we say it?) organic.

Now that their business model is indistinguishable, Whole Foods is tackling its recent challenges in the same manner as the traditional supermarkets.
Whole Foods is gearing up for its first-ever national ad campaign which will tout its programs like GMO product labeling and animal welfare ratings in hopes of steering the conversation away from pricing and toward quality and value. They’re adding online ordering and home delivery services to more markets. And they’re launching a customer loyalty program with a mobile app and rewards card, a concept that the company has resisted for decades. One thing that Whole Foods won’t engage in is a price war.

The new message is what Whole Foods staffers are calling ‘value and values.’
While they’re looking more and more like a conventional supermarket operation, the company is hoping that socially responsible business practices combined with value-added programs will distinguish them from the Safeways and Krogers of the world—at least enough to justify premium pricing.

 

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