food business

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.

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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?

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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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Slow Money: It’s Like Slow Food for your Wallet

currency cover art from 'Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money'

currency cover art from ‘Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money’

 

The Wall Street Journal says of Slow Money: ‘Forget conventional 401(k)s; think goat cheese and fennel.’
Bloomberg Businessweek calls it one of the ‘big ideas that will change small business and entrepreneurship,’ and Time Magazine says it has the potential to ‘remake America’s food industry.’.’

Investments you can sink your teeth into. 
Slow Money is a movement that organizes investors and donors to steer capital to small food enterprises, organic farms, and local food systems. It’s guided by the same principles as the Slow Food movement. Slow Food promotes traditional cooking with local ingredients as a response to the unhealthy and unsustainable fast food lifestyle and the globalized, industrialized state of our food supply. Slow Money offers a similar alternative to the fast money of our global financial markets. It asserts that our current paths, both agricultural and fiduciary, are irresponsible, unhealthy, and ultimately unsustainable.

You don’t need a big bank account to join the Slow Money movement.

  • Kickstarter and Indiegogo have both had great success applying a crowdsourced funding platform to food-related projects. They pool money in increments as small as a few dollars and patronage is usually rewarded in the form of project mementos or perks— a $10 pledge might entitle you to a snack bag from an organic nut roaster, or $200 to a pickle maker could get you a weekend brining workshop.
  • Kiva Zip is a crowd-sourced platform for 0% interest peer-to-peer lending. Lenders can browse individual loan profiles to choose a borrower—both food producers and sellers—approve the payback schedule, and even have direct conversations with borrowers. Loans are pooled from amounts as small as $5 PayPal transactions, and while there is risk involved, borrowers and business plans are vetted for credit-worthiness and are overseen and endorsed by trustees.
  • Credibles crosses crowdfunding with the CSA model of prepayment for the next harvest.
    If an individual were to make a direct investment in an egg farm or a jam maker, payment in-kind would bring them more eggs and marmalade than they would know what to do with. Credibles creates a single fund from the contributions of multiple investors, with buy-ins starting at $50. The loans it makes to small and artisanal producers are repaid in-kind—a farm returns crops, a restaurant returns meals, a small-batch ice cream maker returns pints of rocky road—but since an investor is buying into the shared pool, repayment comes from the collective pool of businesses in the form of edible credits, ‘credibles,’ that can be redeemed for a wide assortment of products.
  • Gatheroundis like TED Talks for the Slow Money crowd. Each live online event features a conversation with a thought leader from the food world plus presentations from several early stage food entrepreneurs who are seeking funding. A $25 donation logs you in, and at the end of the session you direct Gatheround to send those dollars in the form of a three-year, interest-free loan to the entrepreneur of your choice. When the loan is paid back, your tax-deductible $25 will continue to cycle through future Slow Money projects.

SlowMoney.org mobilizes investors at a grassroots level through its network of regional chapters and local investment clubs. 
Since 2010, Slow Money affiliates have funneled more than $38 million to over 350 small food enterprises around the United States. Visit the Slow Money website to learn about local gatherings, and join the emerging network of investors who are working to improve the health of local food systems and the economy.
Put your money where your mouth is. Literally.

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Cafés Go From Free WiFi to WiFi-free

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Coffee and conversation. What a concept.
Cafés were among the first to flip the switch on free wifi. Now some pioneering coffeehouses are pulling the plug.

Blame the coffee shop squatters.
For the price of a small coffee they monopolize a café table for hours on end. They commandeer electrical outlets with multiple chargers and tangled trails of power cords, connect to the free WiFi, and settle in for the workday. Why not? The bathrooms are clean, the downloads are fast, and somebody left behind today’s newspaper with an empty crossword puzzle. They can nurse the cool dregs of a single cup of coffee for the better part of a day.

What once lured customers has become a drain on the bottom line.
The squatters monopolize precious seating space, too often crowding out paying customers. With fewer free tables, turnover rates and food tabs are lower as customers who might linger over a sandwich or a pastry choose to just grab a quick cup of coffee.

The impact is cultural as well as economic.
Customers are put off by the office-like atmosphere with its silent sea of laptop screens and the occasional one-sided cell phone business call. The squatters will look up from their keyboards to glare with open hostility at small children, and have been known to shush energetic conversationalists.

Cafés have struggled to strike a balance.
Some change their network passwords every few hours giving access only with a fresh purchase. Others cover electrical outlets, shut down routers during peak business hours, or shrink the size of café tables to tiny cups-only pedestals. Extreme measures were taken at one Vancouver pop-up that created its own electromagnetic dead zone by wrapping the café in a giant metal cage that channeled a signal-blocking static electrical field. Most coffee shop owners are just wondering when Sony will start selling its newly-developed electrical outlets that can limit access with time-sensitive user authentication.

What’s fair and reasonable? According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 32% of Americans think that a person who has purchased coffee should be able to use the shop’s free wifi for as long as they want. 38% think that 30 to 60 minutes after they finish their drink is reasonable. Only 18% think you should use it only for as long as you’re drinking.

Proving it’s not just for Luddites, Eater has a list of 17 wifi-free cafes in tech-loving San Francisco.

 

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Seeking Perfection: One-Dish Restaurants

Some restaurants try to have a little something for everyone.
They aim for a wide audience by giving the people what they want. It’s the Cheesecake Factory with its exhaustive, globe-trotting, genre-straddling menu, or the new small plates dining that gives a nod to every passing trend. All that variety can please a crowd while stretching a kitchen thin. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the tyranny of tasting menus. The inviolable procession of courses doesn’t presume to appeal widely, and even the most receptive diners will find misses among the hits.

The growing ranks of one-dish restaurants  go their own way, expanding on the greatness of a single, much-loved dish.
The most successful single-subject restaurants focus on a dish with mass appeal, often a classic comfort food like macaroni and cheese or meatballs. There might be multiple variations and a few side dishes and embellishments to spice things up, but the main attraction is where it’s at, and it’s probably safe to say that most customers of Potatopia aren’t there for the side salad.

All those eggs are in just one basket.
A one-dish restaurant needs to achieve excellence through its specialization. That single dish better be flawlessly prepared because there’s nothing else for the kitchen to hide behind.
Here are some of the restaurants that are 
singing just one note, and some of them are even making beautiful music:

There’s luscious coconut pudding, butterscotch pudding, chocolate pudding, and tapioca at New York’s Puddin’. They probably make a pretty good rice pudding too, but wouldn’t you rather go a few blocks further downtown to the rice pudding specialists at the single-dish Rice to Riches?

Meatballs are universally and perennially loved; the kind of homey humble dish that is rarely stylish but always in style. They’re at home in soup, on a sandwich, atop pasta, or stuffed in rice paper, grape leaves, or dumpling wrappers. They’re practically tailor-made for the one-dish concept. That must be why we need a national ranking of the best all-meatball restaurants.

Macaroni and cheese is another dish that never seems to fall out of favor or fashion. Some restaurants try to reinvent it with luxe and modern ingredients, but the best are those that barely tweak the classic recipe. Maybe that’s why so many of the mac and cheese specialists aim for distinction through an establishment’s name, resulting in places like S’Mac, Mac AttackElbowsMac & Cheese 101, Mac Daddy’s, and the nostalgic HomeroomClose cousin grilled cheese has inspired more than its share of punnily-named one-dish cafés. There’s Ms. Cheezious, C’est Cheese, Meltdown, and the Star Wars-themed grilled cheese truck The Grillenium Falcon.

Southerners and Midwesterners are always shocked to learn that casseroles are much maligned in coastal culinary circles. They’re a mainstay in much of the country where they even have their own nickname of ‘hot dish,’ a generic term that includes everything from tuna-noodle to tamale pie. Wherever the casserole is held in high regard you’re likely to find the all-hot dish establishments like Illinois’ mini chain Johnny Casserole and Georgia’s Casseroles. Minnesotans can choose between the traditional (Hot Dish) and the contemporary (Haute Dish).

There’s a hummusiya or all-hummus restaurant in Philadelphia and a risotteria or all-risotta restaurant in New York. It’s cold cereal only at Cereality, hot cereal straight through to dinner time at Oatmeals, and San Francisco’s The Mill serves nothing but toast, where its rarefied all-toast format became an instant parable and parody of the city’s latest crop of shallow, callow tech millionaires with their overheated consumerism.

One-hit wonders? One-trick ponies?
Some of the one-dish restaurants will certainly die off, but a strong concept that’s well executed can live on. And the next wave is already on the horizon: look for two-dish restaurants like Tom + Chee (tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches), BubbleDogs (hot dogs and champagne), and Burger & Lobster, whose name needs no explanation but it could use a rationale.

 

Posted in food business, restaurants | 1 Comment

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.

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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.

Posted in food business, sustainability | Leave a comment

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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doodle_egg_package                Jelly-Belly-Draft-Beer-Jelly-Beans-133429-im2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Posted in food business, food trends | 1 Comment

Me, Myself, and I: Table for One

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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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