food business

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

 

logo mashup via Perfect Image Group

logo mashup via Perfect Image Group

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in fast food, food business | Leave a comment

Barrel Aging is This Year’s Pickle

ManWearingBarrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

How Many Ways Can You Say Sugar?

image via Dumbink

image via DumbInk

 

The Harvard School of Public Health identifies 23 different names for added sugar on food labels.
The consumer advocacy site Consumerist calls them ‘code words’, and names 30 of them. Robert Lustig raised the number to 56 in his current bestseller Sugar Has 56 Names, and the American Institute for Cancer Research puts the total closer to 100.

All the synonyms, euphemisms, and turns of the phrase make it difficult to figure out just how much sweetener is in there. And that’s no accident.

Food manufacturers are required to label a product’s ingredients in descending order by weight.
The most abundant ingredient is listed first, the next appears second, and so on. Manufacturers have figured out that if they spread the total amount of sugar among several different sweeteners instead of using just one type, each of the sugars is weighed separately. A whopping dose of added sugar might be the number one ingredient, but it could show up far down the list divvied up between fructose, glucose, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Strictly speaking, they’re all different additives, but sugar is sugar is sugar.

Sugar assumes many guises.
Some of the tip-offs are ingredients ending with -ose, most syrups, and anything with malt in its name. It can come from sugar cane, corn, beets, coconut, dates, and a slew of grains and fruits. Commonly used forms that can be tricky to identify include dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, glucose solids, maltose, galactose, diastatic malt, molasses, sorghum, cane juice, cane crystals, barley malt, brown rice syrup, turbinado, demerara, muscovado, rice bran syrup, agave, panocha, ethyl malto, sucanat, rapadura, panela, and jaggery.

Consumer groups have pressured the FDA to close the labeling loophole by creating a single line for ‘added sugars.’ Until then, the major ingredient on nutrition labels is confusion. You need to be a chemist, a detective, and a mathematician to hunt down all the sugars, add them all up, and turn them into information in a form that you can use to make educated decisions about diet and nutrition.

The USDA Supertracker analyzes the nutritional content of just about every product sold in U.S. supermarkets.
Its database is unavailable during the government shutdown but will become available again when our country comes to its senses.

 

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

McDonald’s: Savior of Diverse Food Cultures?

mcdonaldsglobal

I’m the last person you’d expect to praise McDonald’s.
I hold the fast food chain responsible for childhood obesity, animal cruelty, environmental degradation, union busting, and the decline of the family dinner. 
Not a bite has crossed these lips since I read Fast Food Nation, and short of a gun to my head, it’s unlikely that one ever will again.
Still, credit where credit is due.

McDonald’s first steamrolled its way into overseas markets as an exporter of American culture. Its standard-issue menu of burgers and fries famously transcended boundaries and borders so that customers everywhere were assured of the same Quarter Pounder whether they were in a McDonald’s in Mozambique, Malaysia, or Minnesota. It was seen as the worst form of globalization, corrupting cultures, adulterating diets, and trampling on local culinary traditions. And it did those things. The hamburger has truly become a global food, and you can find them not just at McDonald’s but on menus everywhere, from Greek tavernas to Egyptian mataams.

McDonald’s is truly a victim of its own success. Now that you can find burgers at cafés, cantinas, brasseries, and biergartens, their own version doesn’t register the same excitement it once did. When McDonald’s brought its first restaurant to Kuwait in 1994, the opening day line of 15,000 customers stretched for seven miles; when the 70th Kuwaiti outlet opened this year, it elicited a yawn.

McDonald’s has shown itself to be surprisingly mutable.
They’ve abandoned their goal of standardized globalization for one of internationalization. Instead of bringing the same cookie cutter menu items to every foreign locale, the chain adapts its offerings to local tastes, preferences, and available ingredients.

While America’s McDonald’s adhere to a proscribed menu of commoditized, mass-produced burgers, foreign franchisees are only required to stick with a short list of standard items and are encouraged to tinker with the rest of the food. Hamburgers come on patties of sticky rice in the Philippines and on flatbread in Greece. In India, where much of the population doesn’t eat beef, there’s a potato-patty McAloo Tikki burger and Israel has the kosher McFalafel. You can order cheese quiche in Brazil, red bean pie in Hong Kong, and traditional Caldo Verde soup (made with cabbage, kale, onion, potato and chorizo) in Portugal.

The overseas McDonald’s are often held to a higher standard.
They conform to local laws and sentiments by sourcing GMO-free ingredients, and beef is often lean, grass-fed, and hormone-free. They source locally, buy cheeses with no artificial dyes, soft drinks with no added corn syrup, and grill meats over charcoal fires. Even the workers’ pay is often better than in the U.S.

Ironically, McDonald’s, the world’s best exporter of American culture has become a champion of global food cultures.
But make no mistake about it, this is still fast food. It’s loaded with sodium, preservatives, and cheap fats, pre-cooked and kept wiltingly warm under the glare of heat lamps, and served in an excess of packaging. 
It’s a cold comfort to think that the world’s culinary traditions are being preserved at food court kiosks. 

The 26 year old Canadian author of  McDonald’s Around the World has eaten at McDonald’s outlets in more than 50 countries (the trick, he says, is to cram as many layovers as possible into every travel itinerary). His blog chronicles the highs and lows of global eating at the Golden Arches.

 

Posted in fast food, food business | Leave a comment

Your Green Friend With Benefits

Paint-roller-with-green-p-001

Kale isn’t the only one.
It’s just the one with the best PR.

Kale is a true ‘superfood.’ It’s a low calorie, nutrient dense, brain-boosting, heart healthy, do-no-wrong vegetable. You can say the same about plenty of other dark leafy greens, but kale is the one that has captured the nation’s collective appetite.

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 you’ll find kale on the menu of any restaurant worth its hand-harvested fleur de sel. Food manufacturers are tossing it 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.

There are signs of kale craziness everywhere:

It’s peaking as a baby name. This chart illustrates how many boys were named Kale in the U.S. since 1880.

eat more kale shirt

 

It turned Bo Muller-Moore into a folk hero when his small, eco-friendly, Vermont t-shirt business was sued by Chick-fil-A for violating their Eat mor chikin trademark.

50-shades-kale_vg

 

We now have 50 Shades of Kale, the cookbook.

We learned that a rubdown does wonders for kale’s texture with more than 5,000 YouTube videos demonstrating proper kale massage technique.
MassageKaleSalad

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s feeling more and more like peak kale.
The market is reaching saturation, and the notoriously fickle foodies are getting restless. Thousands cast their votes in last month’s Huffington Post superfood deathmatch pitting kale against the likes of chia seeds and kohlrabi. You can practically hear the rustle of pages turning as food marketers pore over trend reports looking for the next big thing.

America’s vegetable sweetheart is out there somewhere.
Prognosticators say that there’s plenty of room at the table for another kale-like superfood. They’re prowling the farmers markets and produce aisles for another long-neglected leafy green that can be readied for its close-up.

Zagat looks at the likely contenders in Predicting the Next Kale.
They look at nine different leafy green vegetables like collards, escarole, and dandelion greens, evaluating the potential of each to be the next kale.

Posted in food business, food trends | Leave a comment

Guns in Starbucks and Other Fun Facts

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

 

Starbucks entered the gun debate with a bang.
In a widely circulated open letter on the company blog, CEO Howard Schultz writes: “…we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.”
Note that it is a request rather than an outright ban. The guy at the counter waiting for his half-caf vanilla latte could still be packing heat.

This caught a lot of people by surprise.
That’s because for all the talk about gun control at the state and federal level, we don’t really think about about guns on a personal level. But we need to, because when guns are legally carried into restaurants and even bars, it’s touching all of our lives.

  • Fun Fact: Red state or blue—it makes no difference. Nearly every state throws its bar and restaurant doors open to gun-toting customers.

There’ve been some changes in the wake of December’s tragic shootings in Newtown; just not the kind you might expect. With bills pending in a number of state legislatures, we’ll soon see a majority of states explicitly allow residents to bring concealed and open-carry guns into bars and restaurants, while another 20 states continue to allow them by default.

  • Fun Fact: Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd served time this year for drunk driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol. He had previously worked tirelessly as the sponsor of the nation’s first guns-in-bars law, which Tennessee passed in 2009.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life.

Mixing guns and alcohol: this is truly the logic of the madhouse.
A very large body of research tells us that people who abuse alcohol are far more inclined to engage in risky behaviors, and gun owners are more likely to fall into that group:

  • Fun Fact: Compared to people who don’t keep guns in the home, gun owners are twice as likely to down five or more drinks in a single sitting; they’re nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to get behind the wheel of a car when drinking; and they consume 60 or more drinks per month at more than double the rate of non-owners.

Looking for a 3-star gun-free bistro for Saturday night?
Restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, and recommendation sites like Yelp now include ratings for gun-free dining. Of course concealed weapons make compliance kind of iffy. Unarmed Tennessee residents rely on the listings at not-for-profit Gun Free Dining Tennessee (their motto: Eat in peace) while the NRA crowd visits GunBurger.com (protecting the Second Amendment one bite at a time).

For all the fun facts, there’s nothing trivial about the dangerous mix of alcohol and firearms.
Americans own more than 300 million non-military weapons. There are more than 40,000 gun-related deaths every year, and one in three involves alcohol.

Are there guns in your local restaurants? The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.

Posted in food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Grocerant

supermarketmenu

 

It’s 4 PM. Dinner is just a few hours away. Do you know what you’re having?
Studies show that 81% of Americans aren’t sure.

A Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner? Mac and cheese from a box? Those days are gone. Today you can kick things off with a cup of Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup or maybe some of Hooters’ chicken wings. Are you in the mood for a burger? Choose from T.G.I. Fridays sliders, L.A.’s  famous Fatburger, or the cultish White Castle. And don’t forget to save room for a slice of the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme.

Eating out while staying in.
Restaurant brands are gaining traction in the supermarket. Ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat meals that bear the name of your favorite casual or quick-serve outlet are blurring the line between eating in and dining out. The industry’s name for this hybrid is grocerant, where grocery shopping and restaurants collide.

Restaurant, supermarket, and consumer trends have all pushed us toward grocerants.

Restaurants were hit hard during the recent economic downturn.
Customers weren’t coming to them so they developed products that they could bring to the customers. Franchisees worried that the grocerants would cut into their dining-in sales, but the restaurants learned that if they developed licensed supermarket products that were a good fit without seeming identical to menu items, it could actually help the brand.

Supermarkets have also embraced the grocerant model.
They’ve been scrambling for years to keep up with the ever-expanding category of prepared foods. Shoppers are looking to bring the restaurant experience home. Grocers have tried to replicate that experience by installing pizza ovens, rotisseries, and stir-fry stations, but it’s quicker and easier to relinquish the space to licensed grocerant products. For all the effort it takes to create a store brand from scratch, they know that consumers are more likely to purchase a brand they already like over one they don’t know.

Consumers are cash-strapped and time-crunched. 
The supermarket might be a necessary downgrade from dining out, but restaurant-branded grocerants help soften the blow. They know that a frozen or pre-made version of the freshly-served restaurant counterpart is an inferior product, but for the savings and convenience it’s a compromise they can live with.

 

 

 

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

End Food Waste. Stop Tossing the Ugly Ones.

 

image via The Mutato Project

image via The Mutato Project

 

The U.N. wants you to buy funny food.
‘Funny’ is their word. Let’s call it like we see it. We’re talking about ugly fruits and vegetables; the two-legged carrots, blotchy apples, crooked cucumbers, and lumpy lemons. They’re the culinary misfits that are culled by the farmer in the field, tossed out by the supermarket produce department, and if they make it far enough, passed over by consumers. The U.N. partnered with consumers, producers, and governments to launch Think.Eat.Save, a global campaign aimed at raising awareness of food waste issues and facilitating cooperation across society’s producing and consuming sectors.

Farmers plow under more than a fifth of their crops every year because they don’t meet marketing standards for their appearance, and retailers generate another 1.6 million tons of food waste. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s food production goes to waste, and about half of that is for cosmetic reasons. The U.N. says it could feed 900 million of the world’s hungriest citizens with our cast-offs.

Market standards for appearance are often circumscribed with awe-inspiring precision. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s document for greenhouse-grown cucumbers goes on for 10 pages describing the allowable gradients of the curves for cucumbers that bend, bow, or taper toward the ends. Field-grown varieties are guided by a separate document. The color of a red apple is delineated in the following paragraph:

That an apple having color of a lighter shade of solid red or striped red than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. For the striped red varieties, the percentage stated refers to the area of the surface in which the stripes of a good shade of red characteristic of the variety shall predominate over stripes of lighter red, green, or yellow. However, an apple having color of a lighter shade than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of stripes of a good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. Faded brown stripes shall not be considered as color.

The Federal Trade Commission sets additional standards of beauty for fruits and vegetables that are shipped across state lines, and there are separate benchmarks for imports.

The European Union has already loosened its notoriously arcane produce regulations (sample banana spec: The thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm). Britain’s Sainsbury’s supermarket further relaxed its own standards, putting forked parsnips and knobby apples on the shelves of its 1,000+ stores.

Here in the U.S. we waste nearly as much as we eat, tossing out 20 pounds of food each month for every man, woman, and child. We spend a billion dollars a year just to dispose of  it. Unlike so many of the challenges we face, food waste doesn’t require a technical solution so much as a new mindset.

 

Posted in food business, sustainability | Leave a comment

Your Fork, Your Conscience, and Your Pocketbook

 

image via Watershed Media

image via Watershed Media


Do you know where your food dollars are going?

From Tom Monaghan, founder of both Domino’s Pizza and the ultra-Orthodox Catholic Ave Maria List PAC, to the Koch Brothers and their Dixie Cups brand, conservatives have plenty of friends in the food world. A few, like Chick-fil-A, are controlled by far right-wingers who openly and unapologetically use their brands to promote conservative agendas. Most just quietly pour profits into campaigns and super PACs that oppose gay rights, abortion rights, gun control, universal healthcare, and other affronts to conservatism.

Business owners are free to exercise their Constitutional rights of speech and assembly, just as we are free to decide that we’d rather not help them to finance bigotry and intolerance.
Here at Gigabiting, these are the food-related businesses with politics that leave a bad taste in our mouths:

Johnsonville Sausage has a long history of support for right-wing causes and candidates, most recently to fight the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Carl’s Jr.’s founder’s support of a nasty little proposition to fire gay teachers earned his hamburgers the nickname ‘bigot burgers.’

The Waffle House, a southern roadside fixture with 1,600 mostly franchised restaurants, used centralized corporate funds to become a major supporter of Karl Rove’s group American Crossroads.

White Castle likes to support the seriously conservative Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC.

The ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries is also a fan of the Boehner-linked Congressional Leadership Fund.

Cracker Barrel has stopped firing employees who don’t exhibit ‘normal heterosexual values,’ but its political contributions list reads like a Who’s Who of the Tea Party.

Outback Steakhouse has been criticized for strong-arming employees to sign over paycheck deductions to a massive in-house PAC. Ironically, that fund directs its contributions to organizations that fight labor-friendly causes like a higher minimum wage and a national health care system.

When you mop up kitchen spills with Brawny, Sparkle, or Mardi Gras paper towels, you’re lining the pockets of Charles and David Koch, the pair who is funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to groups like the National Rifle Association, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the National Right to Life Committee, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, the 60 Plus Association and the American Future Fund. Like Dixie Cups and Vanity Fair napkins, they are all produced by subsidiaries of Koch Industries. It’s not food but it’s in your kitchen.

Vote with your pocketbook, your fork, and your conscience.
Better World Shopper rates the social responsibility of over 1,000 companies in a range of industries. It’s a reliable and comprehensive database that examines corporate records on human rights, environmental issues, animal protection, issues of social justice, and community involvement.

Posted in food business, food knowledge | 3 Comments

How Wall Street Is Messing With the Price of Beer

beerfund

It’s been a rough run for the U.S. economy in recent years.
One of the few bright spots is the price of beer. The U.S. has the most affordable beer on the planet.

Americans can point with pride to a study published in The Economist Online.
Based on median hourly wages and average beer prices, it takes just five minutes of an American worker’s time to earn a cold one. Prices are lower in plenty of countries, but their wages are even more so. The average across 150 countries is 20 minutes of work to pay for a beer, and in some parts of Asia it can be close to an hour.

But there’s a proposed monopoly that threatens the American way of life.  
Anheuser-Busch InBev wants to take over Grupo Modelo of Mexico (Corona beer), which would leave the country with just two companies (the second being MillerCoors) controlling half of the U.S. beer business. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit to prevent the merger. It has a pretty good case against the proposal, arguing that the marriage of Budweiser and Corona’s parent companies would eliminate competition between the rivals and lead to higher beer prices for Americans.

The brewing industry has already been consolidating like crazy for years. The number of major brewers in the U.S. fell from 48 in 1980 to just two after a mega-merger in 2008. Global Beer: The Road to Monopoly, a study from the American Antitrust Institute, shows how beer price increases started to accelerate immediately after 2008, with Anheuser-Busch leading the charge. Anheuser-Busch has kept prices high for decades by threatening a price war against any American brewer that breaks ranks and lowers prices, and the memory of retail bloodbaths in the 1980’s has kept them all in line. Grupo Modelo has been able to grab a lot of U.S. market share for its flagship Corona brand by keeping its prices stable. If Busch goes through with the purchase of Modelo that competition disappears, and pressure to keep prices down disappears along with it.

There’s also pricing pressure coming from everyone’s favorite Wall Street shakedown artists.
Last week the New York Times reported on an aluminum hoarding scheme perpetrated by Goldman Sachs that is bidding up the price of beverage cans. Apparently some Goldman analysts stumbled across a loophole in the arcane system of aluminum pricing. When they learned that storage times are factored into metal market prices, they realized that a killing could be made by buying up aluminum and lengthening the storage time. But since it’s not entirely legal to just sit on a stockpile of metal, Goldman Sachs designed a massive shell game.

Three years ago Goldman bought up a major storage system of 27 aluminum warehouses. Every day, a fleet of trucks shuffles 1,500-pound bars of the metal among the warehouses. They load up in one warehouse and unload in another, sometimes making multiple circuits with the same bars in a single day, and each time they get to add a little rent charge to the price of the metal. The daily dance of the aluminum has stretched out average storage times from six weeks to more than 16 month. The scheme has earned $5 billion for Goldman Sachs over its three years, and the inflated rent charge ends up added to the cost of every can of beer.

At least we can shop wisely.    
SaveOnBrew 
calls itself the world’s only reliable beer price search engine. Instead of erratic and unreliable crowdsourced data supplied by drinkers, SaveOnBrew gathers its pricing data directly from brewers and retailers and publishes up-to-date, reliable beer pricing data sets for every single zip code in America.

 

 

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

This is Why FroYo is Trouncing Ice Cream

 

image via LiveStrong

image via LiveStrong

 

Have you seen the new breed of frozen yogurt shop?
Of course you have; they’re like retail kudzu, sprouting everywhere with their happy-hued decor, self-serve flavor lineups, and myriad toppings. We started this summer with around 6,000 frozen yogurt shops, a big jump from the 3,624 at the end of 2010.

The frozen dessert shop segment as a whole has been holding steady at $6 billion per year, which means that virtually all of the froyo growth represents a cone for cone, cup for cup swap of ice cream for yogurt. Ice cream sales are at their lowest point in decades, and chains like Cold Stone, Baskin-Robbins, and Friendly’s have been shuttering stores by the hundreds.

The name says it all.
The 1980’s saw the first wave of frozen yogurt shops with the popular franchises I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! and TCBY (originally the acronym stood for This Can’t be Yogurt until a lawsuit from I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! forced a name change to The Country’s Best Yogurt). Like selling margarine as an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter stand-in, frozen yogurt was seen as ice cream’s poor relation, and the more closely it mimicked the real thing, the better. After a decade of froyo madness, the market collapsed in the ’90s with the rise of coffeehouses and competition from niche frozen treat alternatives like gelato, Italian ice, and smoothies.

This time around, it’s all about the yogurt.
The new wave of frozen yogurt is defiantly, unapologetically not ice cream. It’s tart and comes in a slew of trendy and nontraditional flavors like green tea, guava, and salted caramel swirl. Plus it’s kinda, sorta, maybe healthy.

In its basic form frozen yogurt is a healthier choice than ice cream.
It contains less fat and sugar than ice cream. Frozen Greek-style yogurt has an especially dense concentration of healthy protein, and the tart flavors can slow down the release of sugar in the body, which stabilizes appetite and energy levels. Frozen yogurt also contains the strains of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics; the National Yogurt Association demands it of any product labeled as yogurt. You’d be fine if you just stopped there, but that’s not going to happen.

The ironic indulgence of the yogurt shop
Neuroscientists study something called ‘vicarious goal fulfillment.’ It happens when a person feels that a goal has been met even if they’ve only taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it: you feel healthier just joining a gym, even before you’ve ever worked out there; and smarter for subscribing to the New Yorker, even when the issues pile up unread. And in the froyo world, you can feel virtuous about your diet simply because you chose frozen yogurt over ice cream.

There you are celebrating your dietary restraint in a self-serve frozen yogurt shop. You pat yourself on the back with one hand while the other fills the oversized yogurt cup and ladles on honey toasted almonds and- what the hell, it’s only yogurt- Oreo crumbles. And here’s the ironic part—the more self-disciplined an individual is, the more powerful the what-the-hell effect. So says the University of Chicago’s Journal of Consumer Research in the study Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision. Maybe this is news to you, but you can bet it’s not to the frozen yogurt industry. They know that the health food halo that sits atop yogurt brings customers in the door, but it’s the guiltless indulgence of the toppings bar that satisfies them.

Ice cream is struggling to regain its cool factor.
Frozen yogurt shops are successfully selling the health angle, the buzz of their hip decor, and the hands-on foodie vibe of customization. They make traditional ice cream parlors and scoop shops feel downright stodgy. Ice cream isn’t going anywhere; it will always be the luxuriant nosh of choice. But if it wants a marketing edge over frozen yogurt, it needs to enrich its offerings and update the customer experience.

Miscellany from the froyo world:

Naming Force will pay you $100 to name their client’s frozen yogurt shop. 
Don’t they all just pick a fruit, pick a color, and add  a ‘Yo!’?

The yogurt shop aesthetic has been described as ‘cool,’ ‘sugary,’ and ‘Tokyo preschool lounge.’ Mindful Design Consulting has assembled a best of gallery of shop interiors.

I wouldn’t say it was bound to happen, but it has: Cups is touted as the Hooters of froyo.

 

Posted in food business, health + diet, snack foods, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Farmed Shrimp: A Cocktail of Nastiness

 

image via Wikimedia Commons

 

Raised in sewage, bathed in toxins, harvested by child laborers…
and we’re just getting started.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, and most of it is filthy, nasty stuff.
90% of the shrimp we eat has been imported, and 90% of that comes from shrimp farming ponds in developing nations with unsanitary conditions and lax regulations. When it’s inspected by U.S. regulatory agencies, shrimp is consistently found to contain more banned additives, pesticides, antibiotics, and even more cockroaches, than any other seafood, but less than 2% is inspected. Here’s what’s wrong with the shrimp that’s getting through the system.

Shrimp ponds are like over-crowded sewers
As shrimp grew in popularity, production has become more intensive to meet the demand. A few years ago, the typical one acre pond produced 445 pounds of shrimp; a concentrated operation will now produce as much as 89,000 pounds, packing 170,000 shrimp into a single acre. Most shrimp farms don’t purify, filter, or recycle the water  as it becomes a stagnant cesspool of mouldering feed and decomposing shrimp bodies. Most ponds have seven year runs before the water itself kills off all the shrimp.

Drugging the sick shrimp
With all the bacteria flourishing in the pond water, shrimp farmers battle disease outbreaks with antibiotics, pesticides, and fungicides added to feed pellets or dumped directly in the water, or both. And while a mere 2% of the imports are inspected, only 0.1% are tested for chemical residues, according to the Government Accountability Office. Among the substances that the FDA fails to catch in the untested 99.9 % are the banned carcinogen PCB; chloramphenical, a highly toxic drug of last resort to treat typhoid fever and meningitis that’s been detected in shrimp at levels 150 times the legal limit; and penicillin, the antibiotic that is also the most commonly reported allergen in the U.S.

Ghastly conditions in shrimp processing plants
A reporter’s visit last fall to an Asian seafood exporter resulted in the Bloomberg News article Asian Seafood Raised on Pig Feces Approved for U.S. Consumerswhich describes a filthy hellhole of buzzing flies, murky water, and unrefrigerated shrimp sitting on the trash-strewn floor waiting to be sorted. Human Rights Watch has documented physical abuse, debt servitude, and child labor, and Food and Water Watch reports on processed shrimp shipments that arrive in the U.S. containing filth like rodent hair and cockroaches.

More shrimp could leave us with nothing but shrimp
Shrimp farms dismantle critical elements of the marine ecosystem. Inland shrimp farming is located in ecologically important salt flats and marshes, giving farmers easy access to saltwater, the natural environment for shrimp, and intensive production almost always requires large-scale removal of mangroves. Coastal mangrove forests provide vital habitats for countless seafood species including snapper, wild tilapia, sea bass, oysters, and crabs. Food and Water Watch estimates that for each acre of mangroves destroyed, 675 pounds of commercial fish are lost. As much as 80% of mangrove forest land has already disappeared from the leading fish-farming nations of Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico, and Vietnam.

Go wild, go domestic
Rule out farmed imports and you’re left with the still imperfect options of wild-caught and domestically farmed shrimp.
Wild-caught shrimp isn’t raised in a chemical cocktail, but most is caught by trawling, a highly destructive fishing method that drags nets the size of football fields along the ocean floor. For every pound of shrimp that’s caught, many more pounds of marine life, including endangered species like giant sea turtles, are scooped up, most to be killed and discarded. The nets also inflict damage all along the ocean floor, razing coral reefs and stirring up plumes of sediment that are large enough to be seen from outer space. Domestically farmed shrimp is free of antibiotics and added toxins but there are still lingering concerns from the effects of the 2010 BP oil spill.

What’s a shrimp lover to do?
There are safe and environmentally-responsible farmed shrimp sources in the Pacific Northwest and sustainably and humanely harvested wild varieties like spot prawns and pink shrimp. Choose from the list of ‘best choices’ and ‘good alternatives’ provided by Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their free downloadable guides will tell you what to buy and where you can find it for every region of the U.S.

Bubba tells us what we can do with all of our good, clean shrimp:

 

 

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

The Trader Joe’s Magic

 

 

 

It doesn’t work for everyone.
Trader Joe’s store locations are second-rate and their parking lots are impossibly small. The aisles are cramped, there are so many missing product categories you’ll never knock off a whole shopping list, and the lines at the register rival July 4th at Disneyland. It should all add up to the retail equivalent of waterboarding, but instead, the population of admirers continues to swell.

Trader Joe’s has figured out how to take its many shortcomings and weave them into its mystique.
There’s just one brand of olives and one box size of polenta, but customers will bet that if Trader Joe’s picked them, those olives must be fabulous and it’s the best damn polenta out there. Employees are scruffy, laid-back, and Hawaiian-shirted, but also customer-friendly, always out on the floor to answer questions, and quick to open a package to give you a sample. Beloved products spontaneously disappear from store shelves, but they’re replaced with new and offbeat culinary discoveries that are often a half-step ahead of our palates (anyone for adzuki bean chips and dried green mango?). Instead of a chore, shopping at Trader Joe’s is a cultural experience.

Trader Joe’s carries around 4,000 products, compared to the typical grocery store’s 50,000. It’s a mix of foodie-friendly staples, like cage-free eggs and extra virgin olive oil, plus affordable luxury and exotic items, like frozen truffled ricotta pizza and Moroccan tagine sauce. This is not inexpensive food, but the offerings are unique and the prices are often the lowest in town. If this is not how you shop, cook, and eat, you just won’t get it.

To make sure its customers get it, the company looks at demographics like education levels and cooking magazine subscriptions to divine its next store locations. And they sure do get it: Trader Joe’s has average store sales of  $1,750 per square foot—that’s double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods and triple the amount of a typical conventional supermarket. For Trader Joe’s, it adds up to $8 billion in annual sales.

The genius of Trader Joe’s is its marriage of cult appeal and scale. It doesn’t just masquerade as a neighborhood store with its bad clip art and folksy hand-lettered signs; it is a neighborhood store, with a tight customer focus and an ability to curate each store’s offerings to suit local tastes.

With 471 stores and counting, individual store oversight is less manageable, and a buying error can cost the company millions. Let’s hope as Trader Joe’s grows, it can hang on to the quirks and surprises that make it a special place to shop. Although no one will complain if they expand their parking lots.

If you do nothing else today, be sure to watch this video. If I Made a Commercial for Trader Joe’s is one man’s unauthorized tribute. It’s a complete, warts-and-all portrait; a love song celebrating the customers, employees, and eclectic merchandise of his favorite store. And it’s charming and very funny.

Posted in food business, shopping, shopping | Leave a comment

America Has Spoken: These Are Our Most Patriotic Foods

image via SaysIt.com/The Uncle Sam Poster Generator

image via SaysIt.com/The Uncle Sam Poster Generator

 

The Fourth is Number One.
Memorial Day and Labor get their own weekends, but we still manage to squeeze in more classic American eating on the 4th of July.

According to data from the top online ordering service Seamless, hamburgers are America’s most-ordered Independence Day restaurant dish. They hold down the number one spot on all three summer holidays, but spike dramatically on July 4th, nearly doubling the orders placed on Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Fourth also leads restaurant orders for corn on the cob, hot dogs, and apple pie.

When it comes to backyard barbecues, hot dogs still rule. 
According to the National Sausage and Hot Dog Council Americans will eat 7 billion hot dogs over the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The 4th of July is the single biggest hot dog day of the season with 150 million served. Add to it the 750 million pounds of barbecued chickens  we’ll go through and there’s a 1 in 4 chance that you’ll be eating one of those two grilled foods.

Beer is in a class all its own. 
The 4th of July is the biggest beer drinking day of the year accounting for 5% of the nation’s annual beer consumption. It’s a billion dollar sales day that the Beer Institute ranks ahead of Labor Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even Super Bowl Sunday. Last year beer was the largest selling category of all food and beverage categories for the two weeks leading up to the July 4th holiday.

Some food and beverage marketers will drape themselves in stars and stripes to capture a piece of the holiday action.
That’s how we end up with Benjamin Franklin selling discount mattresses for a TV commercial and Oreos stuffed with limited edition blue filling.

The market researchers at Brand Keys looked at the business of marketing patriotism.
They surveyed thousands of consumers from every region of the country, gathering opinions on 197 brands in 35 categories. The brands that are broadly recognized as most patriotic are not necessarily the ones that engage in the flag-waving call-to-emotion. Some, like Budweiser beer, aren’t even American-owned. But they are all American icons. Their values represent a notion or aspect of America, and those values are deeply ingrained in the brand’s equity. We need to see that a brand’s engagement is genuine and credible if we’re going to engage emotionally with it ourselves.

Three iconic food brands were among the top 10 drawn from all categories: Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Wrigley’s. Other food and beverage brands that made the top 50 include McDonalds, Campbell’s, Kellogg’s, and Budweiser.

 

 

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

Quirky, Creative, Cool: The Latest Food Projects from Kickstarter

 

handout

Some say that Kickstarter’s gone downhill.
There’s controversy (should celebs be trading on fame to fund pet projects?). There’s scandal (a would-be dating guide author who advocates for sexual violence). There’s scam (a Kobe beef jerky ripoff funded 50 times over).

You could call it a victim of its own success.
The crowdfunding site for creative projects has only been with us since 2009 but has already funneled $600 million into 44,000 projects. It took nearly three years for a Kickstarter funding campaign to hit the $1 million mark; today you might see multiple projects reach it in a single day. And as a real sign of success Kickstarter parodies are popping everywhere: on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, in the pages of the Onion, on the sketch comedy show Portlandia, and all over the internet.

For all its growing pains it’s still the same old Kickstarter.
The competition is stiffer, the pitches have gotten slicker, but it’s still the funding platform that brought us the world’s largest jockstrap, hand-knitted beards, and grilled cheese Jesus. It continues to be the go-to funding channel for artists and dreamers, and you can find plenty of creativity, ambition, eccentricity, and just plain awesomeness among the food projects that are current vying for your patronage.

I’ve personally never played a food-themed game. They lack the literateness of Scrabble and the gameplay seems far from the addictive pace of Angry Birds, but they’re awfully big on Kickstarter so maybe I’m the exception.
There’s VivaJava: The Coffee Game. Players try to stay one step ahead of the competition as they hunt down the best coffee beans in the world. Each pulse-pounding roll of the dice brings a crucial decision: roast or research? In BEEF: The Game, you’re a cow trying to puzzle your way out of a slaughterhouse without bumping into Meatjoy the butcher. Extra points for rescuing cow companions. Wok Star is a race against the clock in a bustling Chinese restaurant. You have to get past pushy investors, fussy reviewers, and demanding customers while you rush to prep ingredients and stir fry the menu items. The player with the lowest calorie count is the winner for each round of Mealtime Sabotage. But look out because while you’re busy assembling a healthy meal from the recipe cards, your fellow diners are scheming against you, wielding sabotage cards of butter and bacon.
It makes perfect sense that another Kickstarter hopeful seeks funding to open GameHaus Board Game Cafe.

The cookbook category is currently a gloomy little corner of Kickstarter.
If a zombie virus ever contaminates our food supply, and said virus is spread to humans who consume meat and dairy products, we’ll be really glad that the vegan-zombie cookbook Cook & Survive! received its Kickstarter funding. Less of a longshot, but still a title we hope to never need is The Unemployment Cookbook: Abundant Eating on a Frugal Income.

There are sweets to cheer you up.
There’s the cinnamon roll and cookie hybrid known as the Cinnarookie, and The S’mores Campfire Kit which comes packed in a pyramid shaped kindling box that can be upended and lit on fire. Playa Paleteria hopes to bring its popsicle cart to Burning Man this summer, so while they only need $800 for fruit pops, if they can pull in an extra $1,400 they’ll add lights and a kickin’ sound system. And since someone is always going for a record on Kickstarter, there’s a group looking for backers as they attempt the World’s Largest Cup of Boba Tea with a straw that tops out at a height of 12 feet.

A couple of project pitches come from the urban agriculture movement.
The Duluth Grill Parking Lot Orchard has ambitions to shoehorn an orchard in among parked cars without giving up any parking spaces. Farmstead Meatsmith plans to cruise around in a rolling slaughterhouse and butcher shop, Potential backers should know that in the founders’ opinion, “there can be nothing more threatening to the billion dollar industry of meat fabrication than the ten dollar bill freely given in love.”

After popsicles, ‘smores, and zombie cuisine, we could probably benefit from The Skinny Mirror. Clever curving produces a funhouse-like effect that subtly slims your reflection. The maker claims that a peek at The Skinny Mirror (with the affirmation You are beautiful locked inside each frame) when you’re on your way out the door will boost your confidence and improve your self-image. All this and pledges start at just one dollar.

There are currently 194 food-related funding looking for funding on Kickstarter.
You can learn crowdfunding basics at Kicking Around Any Ideas? from Gigabiting’s archives.

 

Posted in cyberculture, food business | Leave a comment

Junk Food Jargon

collage via images from The Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge

collage via images from The Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge

 

Great literature is like a great meal.
In the hands of a talented writer, simple words are carefully chosen and combined into something transcendent. A master chef can do the same with basic ingredients, mixing and transforming them into a sublime dish.

Junk food has its own literary equivalent.
The language of junk food isn’t lyrical or poetic. It’s not crafted by a master of the literary arts but by the folks who brought us Funyuns® and Uncrustables®. It’s processed and assembled just like the food it describes: it’s conceived in a boardroom, designed in a laboratory, fabricated in a factory, and given a spin by marketers. It’s manufactured language for manufactured food.

Junk food isn’t trafficking in proteins and carbohydrates, and certainly not fruits and vegetables. Its building blocks are sugar, salt, and fat, known in the business as the three pillar ingredients.

Food manufacturers are on a continual quest for products with a perfect sweet-salty-fatty balance of the three pillars. That optimal mix is called the bliss point. If they hit it just right, a product is irresistible. It tastes so good that it lulls consumers into passive overeating, which happens when they keep eating after they’re full, or auto-eating, which takes place when they weren’t even hungry in the first place.

Sometimes a manufacturer tips the flavor balance too far and runs into the dreaded sensory-specific satiety. That happens when the flavors are just too big and bold. They overwhelm the taste receptors and trigger a mechanism in the brain that tells you to stop eating.

Food technologists also manipulate other features like shape, size, texture, and consistency. An appealing mouthfeel—the way an item feels pleasingly crunchy or creamy or fluffy or juicy in the mouth—is key. Flavor bursts can take mouthfeel a step further with salt and sugar crystals that are strategically positioned for targeted mouth contact.

Vanishing caloric density is like the holy grail of junk food science. A snack food with vanishing calorie density would go down so quickly and sit so lightly in the stomach that the brain would vastly underestimate the amount consumed and the snacker would just keep on snacking. When the food technologists achieve it, you can bet that they’ll push the new product up-and-down-the-street, which means you’ll find it in every supermarket, drug store, and corner market, from the chains to the mom-and-pops.

Ultimately it’s all about the junk food industry’s battle for something they call stomach share.
The World Health Organization coined their own word for it: they call it globesity.

 

Posted in food business, snack foods | 1 Comment

How Green is Your Supermarket?

 

tote bag from Hayden-Harnett Handbags

tote bag from Hayden-Harnett Handbags

 

It’s a carefully compiled shopping list.
You pay attention to food miles so there’ll be no out of season raspberries. Chilean sea bass is on the Seafood Watch List so you’ll choose local cod instead. You want your eggs cage free, you want milk without rBST, and beef that’s free of antibiotics. And of course you’ll look for lots of organics.
You steer the Prius into a parking space and grab the reusable grocery bags you brought with you. 
You’re ready to shop.

Are supermarkets merely talking the talk?
Supermarkets have done a good job of helping consumers integrate sustainable choices in their daily lives. They’ve been far less successful when it comes to their own environmental impact. There are 36,000 supermarkets across the United States. Some recycle, some are energy efficient, some limit their food waste, and some mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions; very few have managed to piece all the bits of the sustainability puzzle together.

With their blazing lights, doorless freezers, and open refrigerator aisles, supermarkets are almost always the biggest energy guzzlers around, using twice as much as energy as the average commercial building per square foot. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) only hospitals and restaurants are more energy-intensive. The electricity and natural gas used by the average supermarket  annually dumps 1,900 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s as if they filled the space with 372 cars and ran the engines all year.

Worst of all are the walk-in coolers, refrigerators, and freezer cases. These are the nation’s single biggest source of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), emissions that are 4,000 times more powerful in causing climate warming than carbon dioxide. While shoppers have been educated to bring reusable bags or to choose paper over plastic—even banning disposable plastic bags in many cities and towns—the EIA reports that HFC greenhouse gases from super­market refrigerators and freezers pose just as great a threat to the environment, yet few stores have been fitted with greener equipment.

What’s good for the goose..
More and more consumers are doing their part. It’s time for supermarkets to step up their own sustainability efforts.

 

Posted in food business, shopping, sustainability | Leave a comment

Extreme Restaurant Promotions

 

Senior discounts, student discounts, kids eat free—we’ve seen it all before.
It takes something special for a restaurant to cut through the clutter of a crowded marketplace. Here are some of the more inspired, buzzworthy, and just plain wacky restaurant promotions.

Casa Sanchez’s Jimmy the Cornman

Melt grilled cheese logo

Melt grilled cheese logo

Earn your discount with a restaurant logo tattoo. It seems awfully extreme, to say nothing of permanent, especially considering that the average lifespan of a restaurant is just five years. But there are plenty of takers, even when it’s just a measly 25% off. Somehow that was enough to convince a few hundred customers to get inked for Melt Bar and Grilledan Ohio grilled cheese emporium. San Francisco’s Casa Sanchez ups the offer to free lunch every day for the rest of your life; no guarantees, but it’s been in business since 1924. Of course for the duration you’ll have Jimmy the Cornman flying across your skin on a corn cob rocket.

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Let’s just say that kids aren’t always the greatest dining companions (Of course we’re not talking about your darlings). They’re even banned from certain restaurants and during certain hours. Not at Washington State’s Sogno Di Vino which offers a ‘well-behaved kids’ discount. Alas, there is no penalty for noisy tantrums.

Phone_Zone

Then there’s the ‘well-behaved adults’ discount. Plenty of restaurants discourage or even ban cell phone use in their dining rooms. LA’s Eva Restaurant goes a step further offering a discount to customers who check their cell phones at the door. About half of Eva’s customers take them up on it.

mississippi-welcome-sign-close-up

They do things a little differently down south. On the 20th of each month Jackson, Mississippi restaurants welcome diversity. They call it Two & Two Restaurant Days, and a 20%
discount is given to any diner who eats with someone of another race. No word yet on the other days.3027-virginia-welcomes-you-sign_1

Virginians love the Second Amendment and they celebrate their right to bear arms in restaurants with special discounts for gun-toting diners. Events like Concealed Carry Wednesday and Fire Power Happy Hour have been a real shot in the arm for restaurateurs throughout the state.

 

 

Posted in diversions, food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

The Italian Bank that Lends Cash for Cheese

cheesevault

cheese vault via Credito Emiliano

 

It must be one of those ‘only in Italy’ things.

Here in the U.S. when you take out a car loan the bank keeps the pink slip as collateral; get a mortgage, and it holds on to the deed to your house. Italy’s Credito Emiliano accepts cheese as collateral for loans and to cover interest payments, and locks it away in bank vaults until the loan is repaid.

Of course it’s not just any cheese. The bank only takes Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is king in a country where cheese is revered, and where the cheese making arts are refined with unique varieties that represent every region, city, town, nook, and cranny of the country. It’s one of Italy’s biggest exports, but the industry remains resolutely artisinal. The cheese is made with infinite care by hundreds of small producers who adhere to labor intensive, centuries-old techniques. It’s also a time-consuming process, and that’s where the bank comes in.

Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for two years. A lot of money is tied up in each wheel which contains 550 liters of milk, and this can create cash flow problems for small cheese makers who need to keep buying milk and paying their employees. Credito Emiliano takes the unaged cheese as collateral and provides financing to keep production going. Producers can get 80% of the value of their cheese, and if they default on the loan the bank can sell the cheese and still make a profit.

Credito Emiliano is one of Italy’s largest banks with hundreds of branches and thousands of employees. It’s pretty much like any other bank—except for the cheese vaults and some unusual job descriptions. Bank employees oversee the aging process, turning the 80-pound wheels a few times a week, and a former branch manager wields a little metal hammer and periodically taps each cheese listening for hollow sounds indicating that the wheel has cracks or voids or is a dud that’s gone soft.

Credito Emiliano treats cheese like other banks do gold.
For good reason: the bank holds about 400,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano each with a street value of nearly $1,000. High-tech electronic door locks, motion sensors, security cameras, and armed guards stand watch over the vaults, but that hasn’t deterred bank robbers who’ve targeted them three times over the years. The most recent theft took place in 2009 when the robbers dug a tunnel beneath one of the vaults and made off with 570 cheese wheels.

Like gold, with serial numbers that identify each metal bar, every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano carries an ID code that indicates the dairy source and production date, and when they reach the one year mark, the outer rinds of the partially-aged cheeses are indelibly branded with the EU classification, each with its own registration number. Of course every Italian knows the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and ordinary Parmesan, and even on the black market the thieves had to prove the authenticity of the stolen cheese. Ultimately, the registration numbers were traced back to the bank and the robbers were apprehended.

Once the cheese was safely back in the vault, no one was more relieved than Mr. Bizarri, the former Credito Emilian branch manager who now brandishes a cheese hammer. He spoke for all of us when he said:  “Thank heavens we caught the robbers before they grated it.”

 

 

Posted in diversions, food business, Travel | Leave a comment

Stick a Fork in Them: America’s disappearing chain restaurants

Friends don't let friends eat at Chain restaurants Tee Shirts

t shirt available at zazzle.com

 

It’s been a decade-long slide for chain restaurants.
In the past 10 years, some of America’s biggest chains lost more than half of their sales as they closed hundreds of locations nationwide. Former American staples like Bennigan’s, Big Boy, and Ponderosa Steakhouse are teetering on the brink of extinction as they fight their way back from bankruptcy, and some, like Howard Johnson’s, Steak and Ale, and Chi-Chi’s lost that battle and disappeared from the landscape.

According to sales data provided By Technomic, these are the biggest losers; each restaurant started 2001 with more than $225 million in sales, and each experienced 50% or greater declines since then. Together they have shuttered a combined total of more than 4,000 outlets.

  • Blimpie Subs & Salads
  • Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouse
  • Big Boy
  • Don Pablo’s
  • Tony Roma’s
  • TCBY
  • Damon’s Grill
  • Country Kitchen
  • Ground Round
  • Bennigan’s

The restaurant business is a kind of economic indicator for the middle class.
The average American adult eats out or orders takeout more than 200 times a year. The casual dining segment fares well in a strong economy—that’s the Applebees, Cheesecake Factories, and Ruby Tuesdays of the world with their full bars and laminated dessert menus. When times are tough customers used to trade down to fast food, but the 1990’s saw the rise of a new dining segment favored by a new generation of customers that pushed some of the old-line chains toward decline.

The fast casual segment was created by chains like Chipotle, Five Guys, and Panera.
It’s defined by limited menus of made-to-order items that are a step up from fast food, but without the hostess stations and wine lists of casual dining. Prices fall between those of the other two segments, and counter service cuts out the need for a 15% tip. Nobody seems to miss the Sutter Home wine by the glass.

Many of the casual dining chains saw their heyday come and go several decades ago.
Ethnic and local foods rule for young diners who seek variety and authenticity, while chain restaurants promote just the opposite: a sense of dislocation with a hodgepodge of nominal ethnic touches, and decor and dishes that promise you the same meal every time, wherever you are. Data from consumer market researchers at NPD Group show that 18-47 year-olds are abandoning the chains in droves. Older Americans have actually increased their spending on chain restaurant dining, but not enough to stop the slide.

The food is dull, the ingredients mediocre, but refills are free, the bathrooms are clean, and the meal unfolds predictably and reliably. Chain restaurants don’t strive to inspire; merely to not disappoint. But for a new generation of diners, that might not be enough.

Just for fun
Top Cultured created the flowchart Where Should I Eat? (Chain Restaurant Edition).

 

Posted in food business, food trends, restaurants | Leave a comment
Web Analytics