food business

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.”

 

 

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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).

 

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Inside the Staff Meal

 

mg_taste1_3525

 

 

The staff meal is coming out of the kitchen.
We’re curious about the restaurant staff meal, the standard pre-service sustenance that’s commonly referred to as family meal within the industry. It’s a time-honored tradition in restaurants where the staff spends its shift surrounded by food but is too slammed to manage more than a few half-cold, intermittent bites while standing up in the kitchen.

Family meal is a rare occasion when the hierarchy of the kitchen brigade is broken down, and the front and the back of the house mingle—dishwashers sit with beverage directors, hostesses with sous chefs, and line cooks rub elbows with bartenders. The food that’s served is also a break with the restaurant’s traditions and culture.

Chefs use staff meals to experiment with future menu items and as a training ground for young cooks. Pantry and prep cooks might try their hand, and the wait staff might turn it into a potluck one night. It can mean Brazilian home cooking served by the Latino line cooks at a French restaurant or potpies from a pastry chef looking to branch out into savory dishes.

The odds, ends, and nasty bits.
Cost is paramount. Staff meal costs are tax-deductible for the restaurant, but the IRS forbids owners from dinging wages. The well-run restaurant makes use of leftovers, less-than-prime produce, and cuts that can’t find a place on the regular menu. Inspiration is found in the far reaches of the walk-in where wilted kale, lamb necks, and days-old cuttlefish will find their way into casseroles, croquettes, and curries. Meals end up looking like a cross between recessionary home cooking and a reality TV cooking challenge. And as with any home cook responsible for turning out a regular family dinner, there are hits, misses, and nights when you can’t do better than hot dogs on buns.

There are the staff meal legends.
At most restaurants, the kitchen staff is stuck behind the stove and the servers are likely to grab a plate and cop a squat in the alley out back. Then there are the family meals responsible for the low turnover among staff at Chanterelle in New York’s SoHo, where the whole restaurant gathers nightly around a white linen-draped round table in the dining room for rich, French bourgeois feasts. Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of the hallowed French Laundry who began his own career cooking staff meals, puts on a lavish weekly sit-down celebration for his staff; and in the culinary stratosphere of places like Copenhagen’s Noma and Spain’s (now closed) El Bulli, the kitchens are literally filled with dozens of unpaid crew members willing to work merely for the offer of free staff meals.

Eat staff meals and still keep your day job.
Two recent cookbooks, Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, and Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants take you inside the staff meal time of some very good kitchens. 
After each night’s dinner rush, D.C.’s District Commons restaurant rings an old farm bell signaling the start of the family meal, offering customers a classic staff meal menu at a bargain price.
The restaurant industry blog StarChefs features occasional profiles of extraordinary and unusual staff meals.

 

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Where’s the Line Between Free Samples and Shoplifting?

image via Colors Magazine

image via Colors Magazine

 

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

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

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

The supermarket calls it theft, arguing that “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.” In an interview with the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Lingitz’s wife, Frankie defends her husband with the statement: “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”

Mr. Lingitz is hardly standing alone on that slippery slope between sampling and stealing.
There’s the Definitive Guide for Food Grazing (for free) at Costco, and another site that shows you how to save $2,000 a year in grocery bills and grow your net worth by eating free samples. And of course who among us has never popped a grape in their mouth in the produce aisle?

Mr. Lingitz is suing for $375,000 in damages claiming that the arrest was a violation of his civil liberties and that he sustained injuries during it. His case hinges on whether it was a lawful arrest, which will depend on whether or not the judge considers it a crime to take too many free samples. It’s potentially a landmark case for retailers since there is currently no legal definition for free samples.

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

 

 

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Restaurants Gear Up for the No-Show Season

Dear Harvard grads who cancel your large party CONFIRMED reservations at the last minute ‘something  just came up’, have fun ruling the world.

–tweet sent last May from the Twitter account of Cambridge, MA restaurant Rendezvous (@RendezvousCS)

It’s almost May, the month that brings warm weather, spring blooms, Mothers Day, and restaurant no-shows.
Fickle diners are a restaurateur’s worst nightmare at any time of the year, but the problem peaks in May with college graduation dinners.

Restaurants in cities with large student populations are thrilled at graduation time when families and friends descend on local venues for commencement celebrations. In cities like Boston and Philadelphia, the ceremonies at nearby colleges and universities can give restaurants their biggest nights of the whole year. The problem is, as J. Erin Reilley, general manager of Boston’s Bondir puts it: “Graduates and their families are notorious for flakiness regarding celebratory dinner reservations.”

There’s a penchant for multiple reservations. It can happen innocently when different family members don’t communicate about different bookings and they only learn of overlaps at the last minute. More often it’s intentional with someone trying to hedge their bets with the family’s taste buds. According to Bill Curry of Philadephia’s Cafe Nola: “[Students] will call five or six places and make reservations. Then when their parents get to town, they decide where they’ll go.”

The impact of even a single empty table can be significant in an industry where average profit margins run as low as 3% to 5%. Restaurateurs know that things can happen: a flight is delayed, someone gets sick, the babysitter cancels. But when research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business tells of an average no-show rate of 20% for restaurants in large cities, they also know that the real problem is rudeness.

And no one is immune. On a recent evening, two groups of diners didn’t claim their reservations at Noma, the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant considered by many as the best in the world. With just 12 tables and a tab that hovers around $500 per person it took a real bite out of the night’s business. The next morning, chef and co-owner René Redzepi tweeted: ‘And now a message from the Noma staff: to the people of two different no-show tables last night,’ accompanied by a picture of staff members showing their middle fingers. It was quickly deleted by cooler heads, but of course the retweets carried the message for days.

After a similarly rough night, another fed up restaurateur, this one from Los Angeles’ Red Medicine, turned to Twitter to publicly call out the customers who failed to show up for their booked tables:

redmedicine

Restaurants are experimenting with cancellation fees, reservation deposits, mandatory telephone confirmations, and the Twitter ‘name and shame.’ Of course the only real solution is for diners to realize that a little courtesy goes a long way.

 

Posted in cyberculture, food business, restaurants | 3 Comments

How Much Will That Beer Cost You?

price_of_beer_button_red-p145996141209409970q37f_400

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 threat to the American way of life.  
Last week the Obama administration filed a lawsuit in Washington’s district court to block a proposed beer industry merger. 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 more than 70% of the U.S. beer business. The Justice Department has made a pretty compelling case against it, 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 the Justice Department predicts higher prices for everyone.

Never overpay again. 
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.

 

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Crowdsourcing: You Pick the Flavors

you-decide

Crowdsourcing is bigger than ever.
Pepsi, Lincoln, and Dannon all used it for their Super Bowl ads. We recently saw an indie music star crowdsource his tattooYahoo’s CEO crowdsourced her baby’s name, and an online mob of Monopoly fans convinced Hasbro to dump the iron, a game piece since the beginning, and replace it with a cat.

The food world is especially cozy with crowdsourcing .
Everyone eats, and everyone has an opinion about what they eat—witness the ever-expanding online universe of food discussion boards, reviewing sites, dining guides, and food blogs. The target market is already doing the work; crowdsourcing campaigns are just a way for food marketers to tap into all that passion, creativity, and collective intelligence.

Crowdsourcing pioneer Ben & Jerry’s has always relied on customer input. Even before the world had taken to the internet the company was selling ice cream flavors born from customer suggestions. In 2009 Ben & Jerry’s made it official with a crowdsourcing contest called Do the World a Flavor. They were looking for the next Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey, or Chubby Hubby, bestselling flavors that were all suggested by customers, and highlighting the company’s use of fair trade ingredients in its ice cream. The winner was Almond Delight, a caramel ice cream with praline almonds and a caramel swirl (later renamed Dulce Almond due to trademark issues), chosen from 100,000 entries.

Beer is social by its very nature, but brewers haven’t quite figured out the fit with social media. The Boston Beer Company used virtual sampling to develop a new beer through its Sam Adams Crowd Craft Project. Budweiser, though, wanted true sensory feedback for its crowdsourced Black Crown brews and combined local tasting events with online feedback through Budweiser Project 12.  Heineken clearly wants to engage online but doesn’t seem to want its customers anywhere near the beer. So far the company has turned to the crowd to create a pop-up nightclub and to design a commemorative anniversary bottle, but it hasn’t relinquished control over what’s in the bottle.

By contrast, Dunkin’ Donuts seems happy to hand over the keys to the donut shop. Their website and Facebook page periodically feature interactive donut-building tools that invite customers to get creative. Dunkin’ even paid $12,000 apiece to the online originators of Toffee For Your Coffee (glazed sour cream with Heath Bar chunks) and Monkey See Monkey Do-nut (banana filling, chocolate icing, and Reese’s Cup shavings).

Glaceau VitaminWater boasted of the first Facebook-created flavor. While not a purely virtual creation, the ‘Flavor Creator Lab’ monitored social media chatter on sites like Google, Twitter, Flickr, and Foodgawker. The application tabulated  tweets, blog posts, images, and searches to create a list of the 10 most buzzed-about flavors, and then let its Facebook followers vote for their favorite. The winner was a caffeinated black cherry-lime blend that was aptly named Connect.

Facebook has spoken. It said Cheesy Garlic Bread, Sriracha, and Chicken & Waffles. What? No Cajun Squirrel?
It’s the final phase of the mother of all crowdsourcing campaigns.
Snack food giant Frito-Lay put out the call for a new potato chip flavor on its Lay’s Facebook page, offering a million dollar bounty for the winner. Within a matter of weeks there were nearly four million submissions; they were whittled down to the three finalists. This week bags of Cheesy Garlic Bread, Sriracha, and Chicken & Waffles chips began shipping to stores nationwide.

From now until May 4th you can vote for your favorite flavor to become a permanent addition to the Lay’s product line. The two runners-up will each get $50,000, and the inventor of the top vote-getter will win the $1,000,000  prize or 1% of this year’s sales of the flavor. So far, Sriracha is looking like the odds-on favorite. You can vote via Facebook, Twitter (with hashtags #SaveGarlicBread#SaveSriracha, and #SaveChickenWaffles), or by texting VOTE to 24477.

The Lay’s campaign is new to the U.S., but in 2008 Frito-Lay held the first of it chip flavor competitions in the United Kingdom for its Walkers brand. Finalists Chilli & Chocolate and the aforementioned Cajun Squirrel were bested by the winning Builder’s Breakfast, tasting of bacon, sausage, and eggs. A 2009 Australian campaign produced the winning Caesar Salad-flavored potato chips, India went for Mango-flavored chips in 2010, and in 2011 Serbians chose Pickled Cucumber.

You can see all the global chip flavor winners at Ad Age.

 

 

 

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Home Soda Maker Goes After the Big Boys

soda

You drink too much soda.
Last year Americans consumed 50 billion liters of soda. That comes to 216 liters for every man, woman, and child. Not you? Well, someone is drinking all that soda.

This is not like pineapples from Hawaii or lobsters from Maine—it’s water and flavoring and some CO2 for carbonation—the stuff could come from anywhere. And sparkling water? We haul San Pellegrino from Italy like it’s Prosciutto di Parma. Oceans of corn syrup; mountains of glass, metal, and plastic waste; money; fossil fuels; canned and bottled soda is wrong on so many levels.

Who wouldn’t want to cut the waste? That’s why home soda makers are so appealing. And that’s why the giant soft drink manufacturers just might be looking over their shoulders.

One home soda maker, SodaStream, is itching for a showdown.
It was supposed to happen during the Super Bowl. SodaStream had saved up its pennies and purchased one of those big-money ad slots during the game. They prepared an ad touting their reusable bottles that showed rival Coke and Pepsi trucks racing to make a delivery. As the delivery men push their carts loaded with soda bottles toward the supermarket’s entrance, the bottles spontaneously explode into a sticky mess. It cuts to a home SodaStream user while a voice over intones ‘With SodaStream, we could have saved 500 million bottles on game day alone.’

We had the duration of the Pepsi-sponsored halftime to ponder this one.
The ad wasn’t aired. CBS, which owns the broadcast rights to this year’s Super Bowl, rejected the spot. Too ‘controversial’ for the network, it crossed a line that apparently wasn’t approached by the soft core content of the Mercedes-Benz wet t-shirt car wash or the explicit GoDaddy make out session.

You can see the banned commercial and its milder replacement at Fast Company’s Co.Create blog.

 

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Whole Foods: They Have You at the Front Door.

 

wholefoodsrainbow

They’ve got you the minute you cross the Whole Foods threshold.
That whooshing sound you hear is not the gentle glide of the automatic doors. It’s the sound of reason and willpower flying out of your head.

You’re immediately sucked into a sensory-rich shopping experience. It’s a high-quality, all-natural supermarket Shangri-La, and every element is designed to influence your subconscious mind. The first impressions prime you for the kind of shopping that earned the stores their Whole Paycheck reputation.

Go get your shopping cart.
It’s not your imagination; it really is bigger than last time. Whole Foods has repeatedly enlarged its carts and baskets, nearly doubling their size since 2010.

whole-foods-market-cafeThere are the café tables.
It would probably be more comfortable for in-store diners if the tables were in a quieter, less-exposed location toward the back, but of course this way you get to see them. And doesn’t it all look tasty?

Freshness comes first.
Conventional grocers stack promotional goods just inside the front door— 12-packs of soda and pyramids of half-priced canned pineapple rings. Produce is always the first merchandise you see at Whole Foods.

Yellow-bananasThe colors pop.
Vegetables are artfully arranged by hue. Fixtures are faced in black for even greater contrast.

And it’s not just about aesthetics. Produce departments use Pantone color matching—just like the color selector cards in a paint store—so that fruit can be displayed at the exact shade that suggests the ideal ripening,  freshness, and wholesomeness. Bananas, for example, should be Pantone color 12-0752; a somewhat muted shade known as Buttercup.

wholefoods display

Like it just fell off the turnip truck.
The supermarket’s farm stand aesthetic tells its own tale of freshness. Produce signs appear to be hand-written on chalkboards as if the prices change with the weather. The tomatoes are still in wooden boxes suggesting that a local farmer pulled out back with his flatbed truck and hauled the crates straight to the selling floor. Look closely and you’ll see that signage lettering is painted on with a chalk look-alike and and the faux fruit crates and other displays are factory-made. After all, those tomatoes were shipped in days ago and prices are mostly set at Whole Foods’ corporate offices.

It’s all about messaging.
Plenty of stores stores try, but few succeed like Whole Foods. The gleaming fruits and fish, the grainy breads and artisan cheeses project freshness, quality, and wholesome abundance; the organic pedigrees and rustic fixtures contain environmental and nutritional pieties. The totality of the shopping experience envelops you the moment you step inside, and by the time you reach the register, you’re gladly handing over your whole paycheck.

 

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How’d They Get So Little? The true story of baby carrots.

image via Bent Objects

image via Bent Objects

 

Did you ever wonder where those perfect little carrots come from?
Those marvels of the produce aisle, so uniform in shape, size, and color, like no carrot found in nature. You’ve had your suspicions; you’ve heard the rumors.
It’s all true. Carrots- yes; Babies- no.

True baby carrots are a specialty crop that’s grown to be harvested before maturity. The supermarket version is a manufactured product, more properly known as ‘baby-cuts’ instead of baby carrots.

The baby-cuts began as full-sized, fully-grown carrots that are snipped into 2-inch sections, pumped through water-filled pipes into giant whirling peelers, whittled down to lovable niblets, and bathed in a mold retardant before they’re packed in plastic bags for shipping. Organic carrot growers use a citrus-based product called Citrix, but the conventional baby-cuts in your supermarket were treated with chlorine to prolong shelf life.

Pass the bunny balls
The baby carrots we’ve come to know were invented in the late 1980′s. Supermarkets have always demanded carrots of uniform size and shape, with no lumps, bumps, spots, or twists. One California carrot farmer had grown tired of culling the imperfect and irregular carrots from his crop. Up to 70% of his harvest would end up discarded or sold at a discounted price for juice and animal feed. He started experimenting with green bean trimmers and potato peelers, dabbling first with 1-inch rounds that he marketed as ‘bunny balls’ before settling on 2-inch thumbs, and an industry was transformed. Ironically, we now pay a premium price for the former cast-offs.

The baby-cut boom has changed the way carrots are grown. The ideal carrot used to be bulky-topped and steeply tapered, grown to a standard 6½ inches for the best fit in 0ne- and two-pound plastic bags. Now growers shoot for long, narrow cylinders. The length gets them more cuts—it’s gone from the original two cuts per carrot to three and even four cuts from 8+ inch behemoths. Straight and narrow means they can be planted closer together for more yield per acre, and less is wasted when they’re carved into the baby carrot shape.

Before the advent of the baby-cut, annual carrot consumption in the U.S. was a steady 6 pounds a year per person. It started climbing in 1986 and topped 11 pounds per person by 2007. We snack on them, throw them into soups and stews, entertain with baby-cuts and dip, put them in lunch boxes, and order them at fast food restaurants. The carrot industry’s Eat’em Like Junk Food campaign has even pushed ‘scarrots’ as a dubious alternative to Halloween candy.

I know what you’re going to say.
Yes, it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But baby-cuts did get us to eat twice as many fresh carrots as we used to.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

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Another Epic Twitter Fail – This Time It’s Starbucks’ Turn

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez

 

When good tweets go bad
Twitter is a powerful tool for brands to interact with their fans. It’s an inexpensive and immediate way for restaurants to build relationships and create a buzz. It builds customer engagement and loyalty. But when something goes wrong, things can go downhill in a hurry.

The followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….
We’ve seen blunders and over-sharing, humor that backfires, restaurants that tweet their own gaffes, and Twitter campaigns hijacked by disgruntled customers. When it happens, the company’s own narrative is in the hands of the masses. Starbucks is the latest in a string of restaurants to lose control and see their Twitter campaign blow up.

They spread it, all right.
Starbucks created the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out some holiday cheer. The feed was displayed  on a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum where the company sponsors the ice rink. But cheerful quickly turned to sneerful.

Unfortunately, Starbucks has a reputation as a bit of a Scrooge in Britain where the company has been in the news for its plans to cut paid lunch breaks, sick leave, and maternity benefits for thousands of employees. It had also recently emerged that the coffee chain, with 700 locations across the U.K., had circumvented the British tax system with some financial-sleight-of-hand involving its division in Switzerland, and had paid less than 1% in corporate taxes over 14 years. The tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup. And all was displayed on a giant screen at a central London landmark.

For the non-twitterers out there, hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hash (#) symbol. They’re used to organize tweets into a topic or dialogue, and make them searchable. The hottest hashtags appear as trending topics on the right side of Twitter’s homepage, the most coveted spot in the twitterverse, seen by millions of users. This happens organically when a newsworthy event dominates the conversation, like #HurricaneSandy or #JustinBieberHaircut, or for about $120,000 a hashtag can be purchased and promoted as a trending topic, as Starbucks did with #SpreadTheCheer.

This is not the first restaurant twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets:  Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.

Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef?  When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is! and another segment responded with less bawdy but equally graphic imagery of cruelly penned, industrially-raised livestock.

There have been some obvious missteps: Taco Bell was justifiably slammed for its utterly offensive tweet on Martin Luther King Day asking Have you ever dreamed of eating @Taco Bell and then woke up and made that dream come true?  And Denny’s printed its menus with an invitation to Join the conversation! that directed its customers to the Twitter account of a Taiwanese gentlemen named Denny Hsieh whose Twitter handle is @Dennys. The menus were used for four months in 1,500 locations before they were corrected.

For Starbucks, this was a rare stumble in cyberspace. The company has topped virtually every list of social media winners since such things were tracked: industry, media, and marketing firms have all singled out Starbucks as the most socially engaged company, the best loved online brand, and the top restaurant presence online. That’s what makes this bush league Twitter fail all the more surprising. A publicly displayed, unmoderated, real-time feed? They should have known better.

 

Posted in coffee, cyberculture, food business, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Walmart Sells the Groceries While U.S.Taxpayers Feed its Employees

 

image via Eat Drink Politics

 

We all know that Walmart sits at the top of many lists.
It’s the world’s largest private employer, the world’s biggest retailer, and one of the most valuable companies in history.
Here in the U.S. it’s the largest seller of food, collecting one of every four dollars spent on groceries. It also rakes in more from food stamp recipients than any other retailer, hauling in nearly 40% of all food stamp spending.

Here’s another lists it tops:
Walmart workers lead the nation in government subsidies to the working poor.

Because of low wages and lack of covered benefits, each Walmart store costs taxpayers an average of $420,000 in annual government assistance, or about $943 per Walmart employee. With as many as 80% of store workers falling into the safety net, Walmart employees top the list of food stamp and Medicaid recipients in dozens of states, collecting a total of $2.66 billion in taxpayer assistance last year.

All that food, all that profit, all those food stamps. You might call it ironic; some call it the conservative circle of life; I call it reprehensible.

See your city, county, state, and federal tax dollars at work (for Walmart) with the interactive map found at Walmart Subsidy Watch.

Posted in food business, food policy, workplace | 1 Comment

We Can Pickle That!

image via IFC

 

Spoofed on TV: It’s a sure sign that pickles have crossed from alternative to mainstream.
The oft-brilliant sketch comedians of Portlandia love to give a ribbing to studiously trendy foods. They skewered the pretensions of mixology with a cocktail of ginger-based bourbon infused with ingredients like charred ice, egg shells, bitters, and rotten banana; ‘green’ carnivores brought us Colin, a restaurant chicken dish served with his local, free-range, heritage breed, woodland-raised pedigree; and the Allergy-Pride Parade celebrated a lactose- and wheat-free world. Now we have the overzealous briners of We Can Pickle That! who enthusiastically pickle and eat all manner of brined matter. “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 for the latest Portlandia season, they had pickled an old CD jewel box case, Band-Aids, a parking ticket, and a dead bird.

Can you call a process that’s been with us for thousands of years a trend?
Pickling began as a food preservation technique in ancient Mesopotamia. It’s now practiced globally in a multitude of forms: Indian chutneys, Irish corned beef, herring in Scandinavia, Germany’s sauerkraut, Chinese duck eggs, and Korean kimchi are all regional adaptations of the culinary art. Here in the U.S. the cucumber is king, and the average American eats 8½ pickled pounds of them a year: sweet pickles in the South, where you can get them brined in Kool-Aid; bread-and-butter slices in the Midwest; refrigerated for Northeasterners; and kosher dills for everyone.

What’s new is the way pickles are being reinvented in every color, shape, size, and texture. Chefs are experimenting with everything from apples to sea beans in brines both sweet and savory. They’re adding them to salads, soufflés, seafood, and desserts, and even giving them center stage with entire pickle plates.

The new pickle renaissance was disconcerting to top pickle-maker Vlasic. 
As supermarket pickles go, they hold their own with a nice vinegar zip, a touch of peppery heat, and their famous crunch, but with an ingredient list that’s as much laboratory as grandma’s kitchen and an alarmingly fluorescent yellow hue (thank you, Artificial Yellow #5), they were turning off the new breed of pickle buyer. Vlasic recently introduced its new ‘artisanal’ pickle line to compete with jarred upstarts like McClure’s and Brooklyn Brine. Farmer’s Garden™ by Vlasic® eschews Mexican imports for most of the year using Michigan cucumbers in season, and adds whole garlic cloves, pepper strips, whole peppercorns, and carrot slices. With no artificial coloring, they look less like Mountain Dew than Vlasic’s traditional varieties, and you can buy them at Walmart for about half the price of their trendy competitors’ pickles. Indeed, the pickle renaissance has gone mainstream.

 

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Big Food Swallows Up Small Organic

There’s nothing ‘alternative’ about organic foods anymore.
The category is a $30 billion industry that accounts for 4.2 percent of all U.S. food sales, Whole Foods Market is in the Fortune 500, and most of your favorite brands like Bear Naked, Kashi, Health Valley, and Spectrum Organics are owned by global brands like Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, and Kraft.

Organic goes global: a victim of its own success
It’s been years since organic food was the back-to-the-land ideal of blue skies over happy cows. We can lament our disillusionment, but growth is the result of a cycle of success.  And it’s not all bad news when corporate America comes knocking.

No love for multinational agri-business conglomerates
Make no mistake about it; organic food is a fast-growing, wildly lucrative business, and that’s why Big Food wants in. If a company doesn’t want to make the investment in improving the eco-friendliness of its heritage brands, it can acquire an organic business and ‘green’ its image by claiming improved environmentalism throughout its overall product line. It’s misleading, hypocritical greenwashing, but here’s why we’ll take it:

Organics for everyone
Big food brings economies of scale that allow organic brands to produce and deliver more products to more people at lower prices. Three-quarters of America’s grocers now carry organic products, and the growth necessary to achieve that kind of  mainstream success would have been impossible without corporate investment. We might view the developments warily and cry ‘sell-out,’ but it is possible that at least some of the conglomerates will continue to produce first-rate organic products and continue the commitment to the socially responsible values of the companies they now own.

The weight of marketing, the power of persuasion
Pepsi sells the heck out of bubbly, brown sugar water, and Kraft taught America that cheese is spelled K-R-A-F-T. Imagine what that muscle and expertise could do for organics. Imagine if just a small fraction of the half a trillion dollars spent on worldwide consumer advertising last year was used to persuade people to buy hormone-free milk, or to feed their kids organic breakfast cereals, or to buy compostable ketchup bottles. Big Food has the power to change consumer behavior in a way that Small Organic never could.

Heighten public awareness and you have a catalyst for further change.
As consumer interest turns toward organic foods, agri-businesses will no doubt seize the opportunity to capture market share by expanding their investments in the organic sector and perhaps over-hauling their heritage brands. Grow the market large enough and it won’t even matter if they share a commitment to environmentalism; the profit motive will propel Big Food into a greener future.

See who really owns the organics: Dr. Philip H. Howard at Michigan State University created the Organic Processing Industry Structure  charting the organic food chain of acquisitions by U.S. food processors.

 

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Should Restaurants Charge More on Saturday Night?

utensil clock via the Smithsonian Store

 

You can walk right in on a Tuesday night. You won’t have to wait if you want to eat at 5:30 any day of the week. But when Saturday night rolls around, there are more takers than tables.

It seems obvious that a table during prime dining hours is more valuable than the others. A popular restaurant could sell those tables to the highest bidder and economists would tell us that it is the fairest, most rational system. Instead the tables are doled out at the regular rates, awarded to diners for a well-timed phone call to the reservationist or a lucky session with an online booking tool, or the tried-and-true method of slipping a fifty to the maître d’.
Restaurants are starting to realize that they’re leaving money on the table, and some, like a group of always-booked-up New York restaurants, are banding together to change the system.

Flexible pricing is already with us.
Airlines charge more on busy travel days, hotels jack up their prices at holiday time, and just try to find a babysitter who won’t charge extra on New Years Eve. It’s simple supply and demand and we’re always happy when it works in our favor. But mention variable pricing and food in the same breath and it rings of profiteering.

The Coca Cola Company tried variable pricing last year and it resulted in one of the company’s most notable missteps. In a move that ranks up there with the New Coke fiasco, the company outfitted some of its vending machines with a temperature sensor and computer chip that allowed the machines to raise the beverage price on hot days. The strategy, expressly designed to exploit the thirst of its neediest, faithful customers, came off as especially mean-spirited, even unscrupulous. After a little roughing-up from the press (“Soda Jerks,” Miami Herald; “Coke’s Chilling Concept,” The Irish Times), the program was withdrawn.

A Saturday night reservation for a trendy restaurant is hardly about hunger and thirst. If the restaurant chooses to charge whatever the market will bear it can hardly be called price gouging—it’s not like they’re selling water in a heatwave or flashlight batteries in a power outage. We understand the logic behind lower prices at slow times.
Isn’t a Saturday night surcharge just the flipside to the early bird special?

New York, the first U.S. city to try the surcharge, has 24,000 restaurants including 66 with one or more Michelin stars. Despite the competition, enough of the city’s top tables believe that they can command a weekend and holiday premium. If the plan succeeds in New York, you can bet that restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, and probably a few other cities will follow.

For the elite, the spendthrift, and the special occasion celebrant, weekends will get a little easier. For the rest of us, we’ll learn that the food tastes just as good on a Monday or a Tuesday.

Posted in food business, restaurants | 1 Comment

Who Needs a Prettier Apple?

image via Mercola.com

 

It sure does bug us when our apples turn brown.
You know, the discoloration that occurs when you cut or bite into an apple and its flesh is exposed to air.
One apple grower is convinced that it bugs us so much that we’ll choose a non-browning variety, even if it’s a genetically-modified organism. The USDA is currently sitting on the application for the Arctic®Apple, which its inventor hopes will be the first approved food that’s been genetically modified solely for cosmetic reasons.

It’s an awfully big deal when a crop is genetically modified.
Bio-engineered crops can impact health, the environment, and market dynamics, and we don’t even fully understand all the risks. Although many in the scientific community would like to see it banned altogether, an argument can be made for agricultural biotech that addresses issues like world hunger or devastating pathogens. That’s why most GMO crops are designed to resist pests or disease, to grow faster, or to produce extra nutrients.
But not the Arctic®Apple; it’s been sliced and diced at the molecular level to spare us the need to add a sprinkle of lemon juice to prevent slices from browning.

The food industry already has plenty of techniques for maintaining the appearance and extending the shelf life of apples so that a ‘fresh’ apple in the supermarket can actually be from last year’s harvest.
They’re sprayed with wax or shellac to make them shiny and seal in moisture. They’re flushed with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, 1-methylcyclopropene, and other inert gases, and stored for months in sealed, controlled atmosphere storage facilities. They’re irradiated using high-energy electrons or X-rays from accelerators, or by gamma rays emitted from radioactive sources. The Dorian Gray-like Arctic®Apple won’t even bruise to alert you to damage or decomposition.

How do you like them apples?
The agricultural biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits has petitioned the USDA and FDA for approval to sell the Arctic®Apple in the U.S. The USDA has paused in the middle of the approval process, and over the next week the agency is asking for consumer input. The U.S. Apple Association, the Northwest Horticultural Council (representing growers of more than 60% of the U.S. apple crop), and other grower groups have already voiced their disapproval of the Arctic®Apple.

Submit your comments through the Regulation.gov website.

 

 

Posted in food business, food policy, Science/Technology | 3 Comments

Food Truck Names: some funny, some not so much

 

 

Food truck names: they make you you laugh, they make you cringe, but most important, they make you look.
Food trucks can tweet their arrivals to loyal followers, but they have only their wits to draw in the make-or-break traffic of passersby. Truck operators lean heavily on humor, sexual innuendo, food puns, and double entendres as they aim for a memorable, or at least eye-catching, name.
Here are some that accomplish it best–

  • The Grillenium Falcon: a Star Wars-themed grilled cheese truck out of Fayetteville, Arkansas serving a sandwich called the Cheebacca
  • Two dictator/food truck mashups: the San Francisco-based Chairman Bao, with steamed or baked bao and other Chinese street foods and Portland, Oregon’s Kim Jong Grillin’ serving Korean barbecue
  • Coolhaus, with trucks in four states, makes ice cream sandwiches. It’s a good name made even better when you learn that the owner is a former architect partial to the designs of Rem Koolhaas
  • Nashville’s I Dream of Weenie keeps it clean and clever, an all too rare combination in the world of hot dog trucks
  • Austin, Texas gets its sweet and savory empanadas from MMMpanadas
  • There’s rolling meat at Seattle’s burger-centric Buns on Wheels and Los Angeles’ meatball-focused Great Balls on Tires.
  • A bit misleading, it’s burgers, not miso soup at LA’s MeSoHungry, but the name is still killer

And then there are the questionable choices–

  • LA’s Egg Slut, where I hear the breakfasts are so much better than the name
  • At Greasy Wiener, the signature deep-fried hot dog sounds as unappetizing as the name of this Tucson, Arizona truck
  • If you’re not versed in Mexican slang you’ll have to trust me; Pinches Tacos, another LA food truck, does not have a very nice name
  • I get it, they serve dumplings; but still, the Dump Truck? (Portland, OR)

For the food truck operator who could use a little naming help, Mobile Cuisine Magazine has a Food Truck Random Name Generator.

Posted in diversions, food business | Leave a comment

The List: Food Companies that Mix Business with Conservative Agendas

image via WatershedMedia.org

 

Did you think Chick-fil-A was the only one?
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, restaurants | 93 Comments

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

image via SF Girl by Bay

 

Not this year, Billy Boy, Billy Boy.

Three-fourths of the nation’s tart cherries—the kind baked into pies and cooked into jam—come from Michigan, and the latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that virtually all of Michigan’s crop will be lost to freakish weather events. If they’re lucky, cherry growers will eke out 5 million or so lbs., compared with a typical year’s production that hovers around 180 million lbs.

Yes, folks, global warming is here.
2010 was the world’s hottest year on record; that is, until 2011. Now we’re six months into 2012, and it’s clearly another one for the record books.
A bizarre mid-winter heatwave with two weeks of near-90° temperatures brought early buds to Michigan’s cherry trees. When temperatures dropped back into the seasonal range of frosts and freezes, the cherry blossoms dropped too.

Michigan’s disaster is a taste of things to come, a kind of cherry on top of the global warming sundae.
Barring a swift and sudden reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, here’s what else will happen to our food:

  • Dairy cows will produce less milk and chickens will lay fewer eggs.
  • Grapes will wither into raisins before they can be pressed for wine.
  • We’ll drink  summer ales year-round—the only palatable brew that can be made with the milder, low-acid, warm-weather hops.
  • Fish will flee the southern hemisphere, vegetables will wither in the fields, and maple syrup will be just a memory.

Popsicles and iced drinks can only take you so far. What will you be eating as the planet heats up?

 

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Why Twitter’s Founders are Going into the Fake Meat Business

image via 365 Days of Appreciation

 

Mock, faux, vegan, fake
That hunk of seitan isn’t getting you to pass on a ribeye anytime soon. Let’s face it, meat substitutes are no substitute for meat.
So why are Twitter cofounders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, guys who know a thing or two about trends, calling vegan meat substitutes the next big thing?

Stone and Williams are funding and also participating in the marketing of a vegan meat maker called Beyond Meat. The company website touts its product as “the first plant protein that looks, feels, tastes, and acts like meat;” and Stone calls it “A little bit freaky… just too real,” claiming that the experience might even be disturbing to long-time vegetarians. Their target market is not just vegetarians; they see it as anyone with religious or health-related dietary restrictions, or anyone who is concerned about the environmental impact of raising livestock. They have their work cut out for them.

Crimes committed in the name of the frankfurter
The conventional hot dog is the poster child for all of our food system’s woes: highly processed, factory farmed mystery meat loaded with fat, sodium, and preservatives. That’s why, for many meat eaters, the veggie dog is the first foray into meat substitutes. This is an unfortunate place to start. The true frankfurter’s snappy casing with its barely contained salty-smoky-spicy-juicy interior defies replication by soy, gluten, and textured vegetable protein. Instead, you get rubbery skins and spongy, off-putting textures; and a taste that no amount of mustard can salvage. It can be a Smart Dog, Tofu Pup, or Tofurkey frank; it doesn’t matter because they all get it wrong.
It’s worth noting that Beyond Meat doesn’t list a hot dog in its product line.

To faux or not to faux
This is the vegetarian’s dilemma. Most people don’t stop eating meat because of the taste, but more often for health or ethical reasons. Meat substitutes offer them a meatless way to recreate favorite recipes and replace the protein in their diets, and might even move confirmed meat eaters to make more sustainable choices. But many vegetarians say that cooking with faux meat is no different than the questionable morality of wearing faux fur. Just like some anti-fur advocates wonder if wearing faux fur promotes real fur as fashionable, there are vegetarians who feel that meat substitutes send a message that meat is desirable and that the vegetarian lifestyle demands sacrifice and deprivation.

The Twitter team is banking on Beyond Meat as the gateway meat substitute, the one that will wear down faux meat resistance from vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. They believe it can have a real impact on meat consumption–and in turn, our health and the environment. And you know, they’ve been right before.

 

 

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