food business

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.

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Who Needs a Prettier Apple?

image via


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 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.

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The List: Food Companies that Mix Business with Conservative Agendas

image via


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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YOU Try Living on $2.13 an Hour


If you thought that the federal minimum wage was rock bottom on the pay scale, think again.
There’s something called the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, and it’s a staggeringly stingy $2.13. It’s no big surprise that poverty rates  among tipped workers are three times that of the workforce as a whole.

The federal subminimum wage has not been raised since 1991.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton pressured Congress to raise the minimum wage for the first time in years. He ultimately won a 90-cent per hour increase, but the restaurant industry, led by the National Restaurant Association and its board chairman Herman Cain, who would later become the group’s president, successfully lobbied to have the minimum wage for tipped employees separated from the increase and kept at $2.13.

Until then, the subminimum wage had been pegged at 50% of the standard minimum wage: $2.13 to the standard $4.25. Since the two were decoupled, the minimum wage has been increased four more times to its current $7.25 an hour, while the subminimum has remained unchanged at $2.13, reducing it to less than one-third of the minimum. Meanwhile, the cost of living has continued to climb, effectively reducing the buying power of that amount to $1.28.

What about tips?
There’s nothing gratuitous about tips. They constitute the vast majority of a server’s earnings; rather than rewarding servers for good service, tips are essentially subsidizing the pittance paid by their employers. And the tips themselves are shrinking. Average ticket prices in restaurants have been sluggish for years as the prolonged recession takes its toll on individual spending habits and corporate travel budgets.

Restaurant business practices can further erode tips.
Employers love to keep payrolls down by naming more of their workers to the subminimum wage category. And when those workers aren’t in typically tipped positions, restaurants can institute mandatory tip-sharing pools and take a cut from the servers to subsidize the paychecks of non-serving employees. Restaurant owners can also deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers, cutting further into meager earnings.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Servers
We have a seafood watch list, fair trade labeled imports, and we know when the eggs are cage-free. How about looking at the sustainability of restaurant workers.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United has released its 2012 National Diners Guide rating the working conditions in national and regional restaurants. It covers everything from higher-end dining rooms like Morton’s Steakhouses and Legal Seafoods to the Applebee’s, Cracker Barrels, and Cheesecake Factories that dot the nation.


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Food Tastes Different in Noisy Restaurants

image via Synergy Consultants


A widely circulated study reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference concluded that background noise affects the taste of food.
We didn’t need a study to tell us.

Drink a glass of wine in a crowded, noisy bar.
Now sit down in a quiet dining room and have another glass.
These are two entirely different experiences. In fact, you’ll swear you’re drinking two different wines.

The study found that loud ambient noise makes flavors lose their intensity. Sweet foods taste less sweet and salty foods taste less salty. The researchers attribute this to the distraction—the noise seems to overwhelm the senses, drowning out the taste of food in the same way as it drowns out conversation.

Bring in ‘da noise
Nothing says fun like clattering dishes, chattering diners, and a pounding bass line. Some restaurateurs will cultivate the noise level to signify that the place has a buzz; it’s busy and lively and happening. Sedate and quiet feels empty. Raucous draws in customers who will want to be there because so many other people feel the same way.

The up-sell of sound
Louder and faster music makes us eat and drink faster. One study found that when music is played at 72 decibels (equivalent to the background noise of a vacuum cleaner), people drink at a rate of one glass of beer or wine per 14.5 minutes. Crank the music up to 88 decibels (equivalent to the noise of busy street traffic) and 4 minutes is shaved off the time it takes to finish a drink. And they’re not just drinking faster to flee the ruckus; consumption increases from 2.6 to 3.4 drinks in the same period of time.

We also chew faster when the music is fast and loud, accelerating from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. Of course it’s difficult to talk over the volume, so there tends to be less conversation to slow us down, but it seems that the ambient energy works to energize us. Some restaurants, like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, have pre-programmed their sound systems to raise the tempo and volume of music at peak times, when people are waiting and they want to turn tables quicker.

Sound check
Loud background noise is stressful. It changes your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and increases breathing rates. The fallout can linger long after you’ve left a restaurant, intensifying the effects of alcohol and interfering with sleep. And audiologists agree that regular exposure to sound levels above 90 decibels—typical of a bustling bar/restaurant, which can hit brief peaks as high as 140 db—leads to permanent hearing loss.

When Zagat asked its survey respondents “What irritates you most about dining out?” restaurant noise ranked second, just after poor service—that’s more dissatisfaction than reported for food, prices, or any other aspect of ambiance. Restaurant reviewers from publications like the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle now routinely carry sound meters into restaurants, and report decibels along with the stars.

Next time, I’ll have the steak frites and a side of earplugs, please.



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Sriracha-holics Anonymous












[images: The Oatmeal, Corvossalus, Food Beast, Cafe Press, The Sriracha Cookbook Blog, Jessica Hische]

It started out innocently enough: a squirt in the stir fry, a dab added to marinades.
You marveled at how a tiny hit of heat, sweet, and garlic perked up those dishes. You branched out: a few drops in dips and dressings, a steady squeeze into  scrambled eggs, a swipe of the basting brush on meats headed for the grill. Was there nothing that couldn’t be improved by this marvelous elixir?

Your second squeeze bottle was a lot bigger but disappeared just as quickly. It started keeping company with salt and pepper at every meal. You bought another bottle for the office fridge. A smidgen turned into a dollop, a smear became a slather.
Sound familiar? You just might be addicted to Sriracha.

Most of us saw our first red rooster bottle of Sriracha in an ethnic restaurant. Probably Thai or Vietnamese, but it could have just as easily been Chinese or Mexican. The sauce’s garlicky punch of sweet with heat puts it clearly in the Asian camp, but of indeterminate provenance, and its manufacturer Huy Fong Foods likes it that way. David Tran, the company’s founder and Sriracha’s creator, was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents; he named the sauce for a town in Thailand and prints the ingredient list on the back of the bottle in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.

The All-American polyglot purée
Sriracha is a blend of red jalapenos, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt that would be unrecognizable in Mr. Tran’s native country but has found a home here. In its 25 years of existence, Sriracha has gone from ethnic exotic to pantry staple. We go through more than 10 million bottles of the stuff a year, finding it on Wal-Mart’s shelves and Applebee’s menu. Online, jokey pictures circulate of extreme consumption like hot sauce IV bags and aerated Spray-racha.

Hot sauce for everyone; a hot sauce for every taste.
Hot sauce is the rare food that crosses geography, cultures, and demographics. So much so that it’s flourishing even in the down economy, and was recently named one of America’s 10 fastest growing industries. Tabasco is still the indisputable leader. Sriracha’s yearly output of 10 million bottles is banged out every couple of weeks by the McIlhenny Company. But the dedicated legions of Sriracha addicts continue to grow. You can spot them by the trail of red sauce and the whiff of breath mints that don’t quite mask the telltale scent of garlic.

For the record, the other 9 industries on the list are: generic pharmaceuticals, solar panels, for-profit universities, pilates and yoga studios, self-tanning products, 3D printers, social networking games, green and sustainable construction, and online eyeglasses and contact lens retailers. You can download the full report on America’s top 10 fastest growing industries from IBISWorld.




Posted in food business, food trends | 1 Comment

Shameless Act of Product Placement: James Bond Will Drink Heineken

Everyone’s got their price. Apparently James Bond’s is $45 million.
That’s the rumored value of the marketing deal with Heineken that turns Daniel Craig’s James Bond into a beer guy.

Vodka martinis have always been James Bond’s signature drink. Ian Fleming assigned very specific traits and idiosyncrasies to Bond that are emblematic of the style and sophistication of the character he created. Along with 007′s choice of martinis, famously served “shaken, but not stirred,” there’s his gambling (baccarat), guns (Beretta 418 or Walther PPK), attire (dinner jackets and Saville Row suits), and car (Aston Martin). In Skyfall, the next big-screen installment, the suave, lady-killing British spy will swap his cocktail shaker for a can opener.

There’s nothing new about food and beverage product placement in movies and television shows. The origins of the practice go back to 1935′s Curly Top; that’s right, Shirley Temple was shilling for Nabisco when she sang ‘Animal Crackers in my Soup.’

Product placement is inescapable in contemporary entertainment. Every scene is a potential merchandising opportunity. A sitcom family’s got to eat, so why not have them eat a sponsored product? A marketer will pay a fee for its cereal box or soda to show up on the kitchen counter; more if it’s in the foreground; less if it’s only seen in profile. If you see “products provided by…” or “promotional consideration given to…” in the closing credits, you can bet that money changed hands.

Technology has even given rise to the virtual product placement. A different sponsor can be tapped when a movie hits the rental market or a television show is seen in syndication. The Friends gang never ate Oreos in its broadcast seasons, but you’ll find them on Monica’s kitchen table in reruns, and a 2006 episode of  How I Met Your Mother now shows the lead characters walking past a movie poster for the 2011 film Bad Teacher.

At its best, product placement feels like a natural extension of the character and plot line. At its worst, you get Agent 007 chugging a brewski.

Product placement is everywhere. Educate yourself at Product Placement News.


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1 in 10 Americans is Employed by a Restaurant


Forget about manufacturing, healthcare, and technology; the real jobs are in food.
According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants have added more than 560,000 jobs in the past year, with 200,000 of those positions created in the last six months. Restaurant employment now stands at 180,000 jobs above the pre-recession peak.

This year we’ll spend $1.7 billion per day on restaurant meals.
That’s 48% of all our food spending. Consumer spending and employment growth in the restaurant industry have outpaced the rest of the economy for 13 straight years, and they’re expected to keep growing with 1.4 million new positions added in the next decade.

Jobs for everyone
Half of all adults—60 million Americans—have worked in restaurants at some point in their lives. One in three workers got their first job experience in a restaurant, and for one in five of us, it was a McDonald’s.

Restaurants are a vital part of our lifestyle and our economy. Do your part for America—eat out more often.


Posted in food business, restaurants | 1 Comment

Behold the Round Saltine

Round Saltines have been showing up on supermarket shelves throughout New England.
After a century of quadrilaterality, Nabisco is test-marketing the new geometry. If it’s well received in the region, there could be a national roll out by the end of the year. This is no mere addition to the Saltine product line—the round crackers will replace the original squares.

Nabisco company spokesman Basil T. Maglaris calls the round crackers “relevant and contemporary.”
He seems to be missing the point.

Saltines are innocuous, familiar, and bland, which is precisely why we eat them. They’re the stuff of home remedies and kindergarten snacks. At restaurants we’ll crumble a cellophane two-pack into soups and stews, and at home we’ll eat them with peanut butter while we stand over the sink. Saltines are prescribed by doctors to ease nausea and settle an upset stomach, and they’re often the only food tolerated by pregnant women and anyone who wakes up with a hangover.

Cutting corners, both literal and figurative
On a pragmatic note, there’s the matter of the missing corners. The round crackers have a lot less area than the square ones, but there are no more of them in the box. The old 16 ounce package has been replaced by one that weighs a mere 10.5 ounces, but the retail price has stayed the same.

Nabisco has been strangely silent on the subject of the re-engineered crackers. There’s no advertising campaign or marketing promotion and the company didn’t issue the typical press releases. Not a twitter has been sent, and there is no round Saltine Facebook page for you to ‘like.’ Even the company website shows no trace of round Saltines.

By this time next year, the iconic, four-sided, salt-dimpled cracker might be history.

Nabisco’s Mr. Maglaris did say that concerned customers could contact the company’s hotline at 1-800-NABISCO.

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Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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


The Wall Street Journal said: ‘Forget conventional 401(k)s; think goat cheese and fennel.’
Business Week called it one of the ‘big ideas that will change small business and entrepreneurship,’ and Time Magazine explored its potential to ‘remake America’s food industry.’
They’re all talking about the nascent Slow Money movement bringing seed capital to local food systems.

This is an idea whose time has come.
Local foods are in the spotlight, focusing our attention on the need to strengthen and promote sustainable regional food systems and move away from corporate agribusiness. And our food interests happen to coincide with an opening for new investment models. The last financial market meltdown convinced us that we need to understand our investments. Forget about credit default swaps and subprime-backed derivatives—let’s put our money in investments we can sink our teeth into. Literally.

Kickstarter (and the similarly structured Indiegogo) has had great success applying its crowdsourced funding platform to food-related projects.
It began as the go-to place for filmmakers, designers, and other creative media types, but food entrepreneurs quickly staked out their own small but vibrant corner. Last year more than 30,000 Kickstarter investors pooled their funds- in increments as small as $5.00- to fund 241 food and beverage projects like a community gristmill, a magazine for high school foodies, an urban apiary, a doggie cupcake bakery, and lots and lots of food trucks (plus one tricycle vendor).

This is not a loan or an investment; Kickstarter participants are patrons, and their patronage is usually rewarded in the form of project mementos or perks— a $10 pledge might entitle you to a snack bag from an organic nut roaster, or $200 to a pickle maker could get you a weekend brining workshop.

Not all your eggs in one basket
Credibles nudges the model closer to an investment.
If an individual were to make a direct investment in, say, an egg farm or a jam maker, payment in-kind would bring them more eggs and marmalade than they would know what to do with. Intead, Credibles creates a single fund from the contributions of multiple investors. The loans it makes to small and artisanal producers are repaid in-kind—a farm returns crops, a restaurant returns meals, a small-batch ice cream maker returns pints of rocky road—but since an investor is buying into the shared pool, repayment comes from the collective pool of businesses in the form of edible credits, ‘credibles,’ that can be redeemed for a wide assortment of products.

Slow Money for Slow Food
These new investment models are part of the larger concept of Slow Money. Equal parts movement and investment strategy, it takes more than just its name from the global grassroots Slow Food organization. In the same way that Slow Food is a response to fast food and the globalized, industrialized state of our food supply, Slow Money offers an alternative to the fast money of our global financial markets. It asserts that our current paths, both agricultural and fiduciary, are irresponsible, unhealthy, and ultimately unsustainable.

Slow Money redefines investment returns to measure not just profits, which will come more slowly, but to also consider the value of social responsibility in return-on-investment calculations. Land preservation, crop diversity, food safety, and strong local economies all pay their own dividends.

Crowdfunding just got a lot easier.
Earlier this year, a bi-partisan group of senators introduced a piece of securities legislation called the Crowdfund Act. While it adds to the compliance burden of funding portals like Kickstarter, it’s a boon to both individual investors and entrepreneurs, lifting many of the regulations that restricted the crowdfunding of small businesses. Approved resoundingly by the Senate, this month President Barack Obama signed it into law as part of the JOBS Act.

You can read the full text of the Crowdfund Act (Senate Bill 2190) at the Library of Congress website.

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The Worldwide Vanilla Shortage is Coming

Vanilla, we hardly knew ye.
And now we’re heading into a worldwide vanilla shortage.

Yields are down by as much as 90% in every one of the world’s vanilla-growing regions. Supplies are dwindling and nervous buyers are bidding wholesale prices up into the stratosphere.
You won’t have vanilla to kick around anymore.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
In a world of chocolate this and chocolate that, vanilla’s always been the quiet one. It’s plain vanilla, a name that’s synonymous with dullness. In finance, vanilla is the most basic investment with no special features; in sex talk, vanilla refers to the straightforward, routine variety. It’s the missionary position of flavors, the Treasury bond paying a reliable 3½%, the mousy girl with glasses that sat in the second row of English class and edited the yearbook.

Vanilla is the girl next door to chocolate’s Casanova.
It’s not a rich, dark seducer that can send you into a swoon, but something sweet and familiar. It can only be fully appreciated with closer attention to nuance and depth. It possesses complexity and exoticism that need to be teased out, but it’s well worth the effort.

Vanilla adds dimension and aroma to recipes. It infuses baked goods with a deep mellow sweetness and pulls out tasty brown sugar and caramel notes. It cuts acidity in savory foods (try it in tomatoey dishes like chili or spaghetti sauce). Coca Cola isn’t Coca Cola without vanilla extract (witness the vanilla-less New Coke debacle), and even chocolate needs vanilla to bring out its chocolate flavor.

What does the coming vanilla shortage mean?
So far, about 40% of this year’s vanilla harvest has shipped, and it amounted to just 1,000 tons of pods. The year’s total will clearly fall far short of the 6,000 tons that shipped in total during 2011. Most of the early crop was sold at prices locked in by contract at $40 per kilo, but prices for much of the remaining crop will float at free market rates. The last time we saw a harvest failure in 2004, vanilla prices climbed from $25 per kilo to $500.

The U.S. is the world’s biggest consumer of vanilla, gobbling up more than half of global production. Even if we could buy up the entire 2012 harvest, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. With maybe 60% of all vanilla expected to ship to us, it will be in very short supply.

Expect to see higher prices for candy and baked goods and more use of synthetic vanillin and other artificial flavors. Ice cream manufacturers are expected to be hit hardest, especially in the premium category where natural vanilla flavoring is crucial. And for all our talk of chocolate, plain vanilla is the perennial favorite, accounting for nearly one-third of all ice cream sold.


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Falling Out of Love with Food Trucks

Food trucks were the darlings of the food world.
They rolled their cheap and casual fare into the heart of the recession. They had the good food sense to swap steam tray hot dogs for trendy dishes like red velvet cupcakes and Korean pork belly tacos, and the tech savvy to tweet out their locations and daily specials.

In a few short years food trucks became a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Now they fan out each morning arranging themselves on sidewalks, street corners, and parking lots, transforming the face of public spaces in urban centers from coast-to-coast. They’re in demand to make scheduled appearances at farmers markets and street fairs, they’re hired to cater weddings and bar mitzvahs. There are food truck competitions and festivals, Zagat guidebook ratings and cookbooks, and they have their own Food Network show.

Is the food truck phenomenon just another pop culture moment?
In this fast and fickle culture of ours the pendulum already seems to be swinging away from food trucks. The food cognoscenti complain that they’ve become eye-rollingly common, their quality diluted by less inventive latecomers drawn to the hype. Others gripe that the prices mirror those found in bricks-and-mortar restaurants despite the lack of customer amenities and the operators’ lower overhead. Then there’s the existential question of a food truck as a destination.

There is mounting evidence of a food truck backlash.
Cities have responded to their proliferation with skepticism or even hostility as municipal governments balance mobile vending with the demands of community, permanent business owners, and traffic patterns. New York evokes an obscure parking rule to kick food trucks out of metered parking spaces, while Washington D.C. issues tickets if they idle without a waiting line of customers. Oakland, Atlanta, and Chicago all have exclusion zones protecting traditional food businesses from what they decry as unfair competition, and San Francisco banishes the trucks from a 2-block ring around school entrances to keep temptation from undermining school nutrition programs.

Health messages, onerous regulations, a crazy quilt of protected real estate, and restaurants crying ‘foul’—it’s all too much for some fledgling operators. In an abrupt turnaround for a business that was so recently was busting at the seams with eager new entrants, food truck associations are reporting members’ revenues dropping by as much as 70%, and you’ll find plenty of used food trucks at fire sale prices on Craigslist.

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Stevia: Is it really an all-natural sugar substitute?

sweetener timeline via the New York Sun

What’s the story with stevia?
A few years ago we had never hear of the stuff, and all of a sudden it’s in everything— sodas, juice drinks, yogurt, and of course those little green and white packets of Truvia and PureVia that are already outselling pink-packeted Sweet-n-Low and baby-blue Equal. Supermarkets can’t restock it fast enough, and coffee bars have taken to keeping it behind the register because it has a habit of disappearing by the hand-full.

The big driver behind stevia’s growth is its position as a natural alternative to aspartame, saccharin and other chemically derived sweeteners. Fans of stevia say that its taste is closer to sugar than other sugar substitutes. It pours out of the packet in convincing crystal-like granules, not in a powder, and when it’s sprinkled on top of cereal it crunches like sugar crystals. It even has a sweet cupcake icing kind of smell. But is it as natural as its marketers claim?

‘Natural’ is a largely unregulated word.
But it’s one that casts a powerful spell over consumers. Stevia is itself a plant. It’s a member of the chrysanthemum family that’s native to Paraguay where the potent leaves have been flavoring food and drink for centuries. Stevia leaves are a high intensity sweetener with sweetening power estimated to be three hundred times more concentrated than table sugar. It’s calorie-free and has a glycemic index approaching zero making it safe for diabetics. The exchange-traded agribusiness concern Stevia Corp refers to it as “the holy grail of sweeteners.”

But stevia leaves aren’t what’s ending up in sweetener packets.
It’s a curious coincidence that both Truvia (a Cargill/Coca Cola partnership) and PureVia (from the Pepsi folks) use the same analogy and nearly identical language to explain stevia manufacturing. Both refer to it as much like making tea in which dried leaves are steeped in water to release the flavor. In fact Coca Cola’s patent application for Truvia identifies more than 40 steps in the process and includes acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, isopropanol, and erythritol—a mouthful of ingredients that includes chemical solvents, flammable liquid fuels, and numerous substances derived from genetically modified corn.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I make my tea.

You can buy truly natural stevia. There are organic suppliers of whole and powdered leaves, and the branded product Stevia in the Raw is a processed form but without the corn-based additives. In it’s pure form stevia is a powerful sweetener but with a hint of a bitter licorice aftertaste that all the processing and additives seek to mask. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t taste like sugar.



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The True Story of Baby Carrots

[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. It starts with 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.

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.
Of course it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But we’re eating twice as many fresh carrots as we used to. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.



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The Facebook IPO is Not the Only Game in Town

It’s the biggest IPO in years and there will be none for you.
There’s a long line of bankers, venture capitalists, institutional investors, and well-connected individuals getting first dibs on shares of Facebook when the social media titan goes public this spring.

Less buzz, more bunny.
Why bother when you can easily buy into the initial offering from Annie’s Homegrown? When Annie’s announced plans to go public, there was none of the frenzy that surrounded recent offerings like LinkedIn, Groupon, and now Facebook. The organic mac and cheese maker doesn’t generate the same kind of heat, but unlike so many technology and social media companies, it does generate profits: in each of the last five years, Annie’s sales have grown by an average of nearly 16%; in 2011 the company reported a profit of $15 million.

Annie’s makes the second most popular macaroni and cheese, trailing only the iconic blue box from Kraft. In the natural and organic market, it’s number one for macaroni and cheese, snack crackers, fruit snacks, and graham crackers. The company makes crackers, condiments, frozen pizza, and 100 other products that can be found in 25,000 specialty and mass market locations across the U.S. and Canada. Annie’s is a premium-priced, high-margin brand with a loyal customer base that is better-educated, more health-conscious, and spends more on food than the average consumer.

Annie’s also has a cute bunny logo and a way better stock ticker symbol (BNNY) than Facebook’s (FB).

See full financials and learn about the stock offering–read the company prospectus filed with the SEC.



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