The World’s First All-Vegan Supermarket Chain Opens its First U.S. Branch

tote bag available at MotiveCo.

tote bag available at MotiveCo.


The world can be a cruel place for vegans.
They’re forced to eat just the sides at dinner parties and are exhausted from carrying the weight of moral superiority. Finally, they have a place to call home. Veganz, the world’s first all-vegan supermarket chain, will be opening later this year in Portland, Oregon.

TopVeganCitiesFINALVeganz fits Portland like a glove.
The city is already home to an all-vegan strip mall, a vegan tattoo parlor, a vegan donut shop, and a vegan colon hydrotherapy clinic (don’t ask). There’s even a vegan strip club where you can enjoy a bowl of lentil soup while the strippers perform, and you’re assured that none are wearing clothing made of fur, leather, feathers, or wool. A vegan supermarket? You have to wonder what took them so long.

The five-year old supermarket chain opened its first store in Berlin. It now has locations throughout Germany and has pushed into Austria and the Czech Republic. In 2016 Veganz stores will open in London, Amsterdam, Zurich, Barcelona, Milan, Copenhagen, and of course Portland.

Since whole, unprocessed, animal-free foods are well represented in mainstream markets, Veganz instead emphasizes the processed side of veganism, filling its shelves with food analogs. There are fake cheeses, fake meats and fish, egg substitutes, dairy-free ice creams and baked goods, and of course plenty of meatless German-style wursts and schnitzels. The chain’s merchandisers are sourcing from 30 countries to assemble this range of products.

Less than 1% of the U.S. population chooses a vegan lifestyle, fewer than 4% follow an exclusively vegetarian diet, but between a third (older consumers) and a half (millennials) of Americans fall somewhere on the flexitarian spectrum. Many are half-time, Michael Pollan-styled vegans following his prescriptive VB6 schedule of meat-free eating just until 6 PM.

I’m sure there are Portland vegans and vegetarians who will be thrilled to have a hometown Veganz.
The store’s analog offerings can satisfy their hunger for the meat-ish foods that are missing from their diets. But most of us, with veg-friendly but flexible diets are not so hard up, and faux and processed meat- and dairy-like substances just won’t cut it. Animal welfare and environmental factors are part of the equation, but most people who eschew a meat-based diet do so for reasons of health and wellness.

We might have different moral comfort zones, but we’re all looking for balance, variety, and satisfaction.




Posted in health + diet, shopping, vegetarian/vegan | Leave a comment

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



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

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

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

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

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

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




Posted in food business, shopping | Leave a comment

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


Whole Foods Store Then...

An early Whole Foods Market

Store front 1

Whole Foods today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in food business, shopping | Leave a comment

Am I Getting Old or is Supermarket Music Getting Better?

image via Northrup Cener at Iniversity of Minnesota

image via Northrup Center at the University of Minnesota


The standard easy listening mix of Kenny Rogers and vintage Doobie Brothers always felt like I was being held hostage in a dentist’s waiting room. But not lately. While no one’s going to mistake the deli counter for a DJ booth, the music has gotten decidedly hipper. A recent shopping trip yielded a little Major Lazer, a Warpaint track, and a David Bowie remix tucked between the Whitney Houston and post-Aja Steely Dan.
Who do they think is shopping in my neighborhood supermarket?

Background music can define the experience and influence purchases.
A slow tempo will slow down your trek through the aisles, and if it’s classical you’ll end up spending more. French music gives a boost to the wine department and loud music brings shoppers to the checkout lanes. When a store plays the wrong mix of tunes, customers will over-estimate the amount of time they’ve spent on shopping. But of course right or wrong depends on who’s listening.

There are four generations all pushing shopping carts through the same aisles.
The Millennials, born between 1982 and the early 2000′s, are now reaching the age of paychecks and shopping lists. 
They follow the solidly adult Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, the middle-aged Baby Boomers, and the retired seniors known as the Silent Generation.

As an added twist, life stages are not as linear as they used to be.
Life stage and generation used to be pretty much the same thing. Milestones like marriage and buying a first home were fairly constant events that marketers could count on. Today you’ll find new parents in their 40′s and young adults still living at home long after the traditional age of household formation. Juice boxes and jars of prune juice, diapers and denture cream—they’re all commingling in shopping carts. There are spending differences between age groups, but they matter less than they used to.

Supermarkets brand themselves with their playlists. 
They know that store atmospherics matter, especially when it comes to differentiating themselves from the competition. Music is a fast, cheap, and flexible way for a store to distinguish its environment. But it’s a delicate balance: with so many generations in the shopping mix, the stores are challenged to find the right music mix. The trick is to appeal to one age group without alienating the other three.

My neighborhood supermarket has clearly put the Millennial Generation in its crosshairs.
I live in the big college town of Boston, with BU dorms just down the block from the market, so that comes as no surprise. How about you? Listen up. You’ll learn who’s shopping in your supermarket.


Posted in diet, shopping | Leave a comment

You Had Me At Goodbye: Candy at the Cash Register


Toys R Us time for a temper tantrum

Toys R Us
a temper tantrum waiting to happen

Best Buy I just need a phone charger

Best Buy
this is not the phone charger aisle

Whole Foods somehow we expected better

Whole Foods
somehow we expected better



Staples I'm just here for the ink cartridges

but I’m just here for an ink cartridge

Trader Joes the checkout lines are long but there's always lots to see

Trader Joe’s
the checkout lines are long but there’s always lots to see

Bed Bath and Beyond I guess this is the beyond

Bed Bath and Beyond
I guess this is what they mean by ‘beyond’


























It’s the most valuable real estate in the whole damn store.
It’s just a few square feet by the cash registers, but every single customer is eventually funneled through the checkout lanes, and its merchandise is reachable by even the littlest of shoppers. Candy has always been a top seller for supermarkets, but in recent years it’s moved to the front of the store at specialty retailers like Old Navy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Babies R Us, and Sports Authority.

Most shoppers assiduously avoid the candy aisle.
Just 25% will even go there, and when they do, they linger for fewer than 30 seconds. But good intentions and self-restraint are no match for the extended captivity of the checkout lanes where 58% of shoppers buy candy at least once a month. We’re not talking about the chewing gum and mints that 63% pick up on a regular basis, but real candy like Kit Kat bars and Twizzlers and M&Ms.

Cigarettes are out; candy is in.
Retailers are going tobacco-free, following the lead of stores like Target and CVS, and where they’re not, municipal governments are imposing their own sales bans. Stores have leapt to 
fill the void left by cigarettes with expanded offerings of soda, chips, and especially candy. In the process we’ve traded one threat to public health for another.

The New England Journal of Medicine addresses the insidious nature of sugar consumption in the article Candy at the Cash Register — A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease. The authors takes retailers to task for the way they harness sophisticated marketing techniques to deliberately bypass our cognitive controls and steer us toward unhealthy impulse purchases. The authors contend that it’s not the candy itself, but its placement at cash registers that creates the risk factor, and argue that that moving candy to other store locations should be mandated as a service to public health. They say it’s just like safety requirements for window guards or balcony railings—we know it’s dangerous to go right to the edge, but sometimes we wander a little too close and need to be protected from our own limited capacities. 






Posted in candy, health + diet, shopping | Leave a comment

Bang for the Buck: How to Ration Your Organics Budget



Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

There’s no two ways about it: we pay through the nose for our organics.
But it’s worth every penny when the conventional counterparts are laced with toxic chemicals. That’s good value, regardless of the premium. Have you checked the sticker price of cancer lately?

But an all-organic diet isn’t always practical or available, much less affordable. Thankfully, there are times when it’s not essential. With some foods, there’s room for compromise.

There’s a good rule of thumb when you’re choosing produce: if it’s thin-skinned, leafy, porous, or has a lot of cracks and crevices, you want to go organic. Pesticides tend to leech into the flesh or get trapped in the openings, and even with careful washing and peeling there’s no way to avoid ingesting a good-sized dose.

Reduce your total pesticide exposure by 80% with these organic fruits and vegetables:

•Apples  •Cherries  •Grapes (imported) •Nectarines  •Peaches
•Pears  •Raspberries  •Strawberries
•Bell Pepper  •Celery  •Potatoes  •Spinach

The flesh of thicker-skinned, husked, or podded fruits and vegetables are less susceptible to most contaminations, cold weather crops are grown when pests are less prevalent, and tree fruits often require fewer pesticides because they’re high above the ground where they’re less susceptible to insects.

You can safely stretch your grocery budget with the conventionally-grown versions of these:

•Avocados  •Pineapple  •Mangos  •Papaya  •Kiwi  •Grapefruit
•Onions  •Sweet Corn  •Asparagus  •Peas  • Cabbage  •Eggplant
•Broccoli  •Tomatoes  •Sweet Potatoes 

Conventional processed foods can be a minefield of toxins and contaminants, but it’s impractical if not impossible to keep track of the safer choices among the ever-changing selections and brands. The FDA performs pesticide residue monitoring, but the allowable levels that meet federal safety guidelines are still pretty hefty, to say nothing of the various and sundry dyes, preservatives, and other additives.

You can keep your sanity in the supermarket while still limiting the toxins with a few key recommendations:

•Baby Food
This should be a no-brainer. Baby foods are often cooked and condensed versions of fruits and vegetables, intensifying the chemical levels present in the ingredients. Factor in the baby’s small body size and they can pack a real wallop. Since toxins can also pass through a mother’s bloodstream to a developing fetus, the switch to organics should start in pregnancy.

Insects love grains, so it takes a lot of insecticides to keep them at bay. Malathion is especially popular with food processors, showing up in most conventional, grain-based packaged foods like bread, saltines, graham crackers, tortillas, cookies, and breakfast cereals. School lunches are full of it; so are doggie flea dips and head lice shampoo, but there its links to lower IQ and ADHD are less troubling.

•Frozen Lasagne
Beef, cheese, tomatoes, and pasta—four of the big chemical carriers join forces in a single dish. Popular brands even contain DDT-class pesticides. Have you read Silent Spring?

•Pick your poison
Is it chips and salsa? Ice cream? Coffee? What’s your personal favorite indulgence? If you eat a lot of it or eat it often, it’s a good idea to eat it organic. A little bit of a particular toxin can be tolerated, but buildup and overexposure to a single substance can be harmful.

Organic foods can be costly, but they represent long-term investment in our health and environment.  Shop strategically and you and the planet will get the most value out of those splurges.


Posted in shopping, sustainability | 2 Comments

Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like Custom, Edible, and Anatomically Correct

gumpaste mold via CK Products

gumpaste mold via CK Products


When flowers just wont do…
Digital imaging and 3D printing put a modern spin on Valentines gift-giving.



Choc-Edge will render your face or your beloved’s in dark, milk, or white chocolate. Just send in a photo; custom molds start at $80.




Parker’s Crazy Cookies turns your likeness into a caricature of fresh-baked goodness. The design process costs $25 for an initial proof and three revisions, and then you can order all the cookies you want.



It’s hard to top the Valentines Day gummy mini-me, but unfortunately it’s currently available only in Japan. A 3D scanner maps you from head to toe to create a detailed silicone model that’s turned into a candy mold.



Fondant doppelgänger cake toppers aren’t just for wedding cakes. Like Butter creates plenty of custom, edible sculptures (starting at $60) in the days leading up to February 14th.



Send in a photo and Chocolate Dreams will render pretty much any shape or image in chocolate, even so-called exotic designs that they claim are ‘not for the fainthearted.’



Posted in chocolate, shopping, Valentines Day | 1 Comment

5 Popular Brands That Could Disappear in 2014

Five different brands, five different reasons, but each of these household names could reach its expiration date by 12/31/2014.

Michelob Light

Michelob Light hit number one on the Wall Street Journal’s list “Nine Beers Americans No Longer Drink.” Annual sales have dropped to about 350,000 barrels from the million barrels sold in 2007. The company might cede the ‘light’ category to another of its own brands, the lower calorie, lower carbohydrate beer Michelob Ultra.



Who knew that Tab was still around? Apparently not enough soda drinkers to stop the Coca-Cola Company from looking to dump the brand this year. It was the grooviest diet soda around when the hot pink can hit the market in 1963, but Tab’s sales took an early hit when its original sweetener cyclamate was banned by the FDA. It didn’t fare any better with saccharine as a replacement, and the stylish can spent a few decades sporting a mandatory label warning about its link to bladder cancer. The brand’s pretty much been down and out since Diet Coke was introduced in the 1980’s, but can still be found in some parts of the United States (and in Africa, Spain, and Norway) for at least a few more months.


Chiquita Brands International made $1.7 million in payments to a nasty right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia where it’s long had banana plantations. The company has already admitted this, pleading guilty to U.S. criminal charges that it had supported the terrorist efforts of a group responsible for torturing and murdering Colombian citizens. While the company survived the media coverage and $25 million fine, it could be toppled by potentially billions in payouts to the thousands of victims’ families that have filed lawsuits against Chiquita.


Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, has drawn up a short list of underperforming businesses it’s looking to sell or shutter, and a lot of industry insiders are betting that Lean Cuisine is at the top. Frozen foods have fallen out of favor in recent years with customers are looking for fresher, less processed options. Frozen entrées have taken an especially big hit. Lean Cuisine might not be worth salvaging.


Sriracha? What could stop the hot sauce juggernaut? Sales and profits have skyrocketed for more than a decade at Huy Fong Foods, the condiment’s maker. A passionate customer base slurps up 20 million bottles a year, and the company works overtime during the three-months of California’s chili harvest. Some say the air is perfumed with the aroma of 100 million pounds of roasting peppers; others call them ‘fumes’ and area residents say they’re driven indoors with headaches and red, stinging eyes. An injunction has halted operations for the foreseeable future.





Posted in food business, shopping | Leave a comment

Whole Foods Brooklyn: Fits Like a Glove



What took them so long?
That was the obvious question when Whole Foods opened its first Brooklyn store this week.
The largest retailer of natural and organic foods and the borough that’s home to the most hobby brewers and pickle makers per capita are like a match made in heaven.

Brooklyn is of course much more than just a borough across the bridge from Manhattan.
It’s a lifestyle brand; the locus of the urban artisan food renaissance; an edgy-artsy-smart meeting of old and new, tradition and technology, rustic and haute. Its population skews toward a young, educated, creative class with deep pockets and well-traveled palates. They infuriatingly blend genuine knowledge and discernment with their hipper-than-thou pretensions of alder-smoked Himalayan sea salt caramels and secret coffee handshakes of cuppings and pour-overs.

Whole Foods is the rare retailer that speaks fluent Brooklynese.
Highlights of the new store include:

  • a bike repair station (plus dedicated fixie parking, or if you must there are two electric car charging stations)
  • knife sharpening from a local maker of knives and cutting boards whose website describes him as ‘an American multi-disciplinary visual artist and designer
  • something they call the vinyl venue, selling albums and accessories made from old, recycled records
  • a pickle and kimchi bar
  • a 20,000 square foot rooftop garden that promises to grow plenty of kale

It’s a who’s who of the borough’s food luminaries.
Brooklyn’s food heroes are all there, like Roberta’s, Mast Brothers, and Frankies Spuntino. They share shelf space (built of wood reclaimed from the Coney Island beach boardwalk) with hundreds of local, small-batch purveyors who are shooting for the same foodie stratosphere with locally-accented treats like cage-free, Sriracha-spiced mayonnaise, parsnip yogurt, vegan vanilla-hemp granola, and grapefruit-smoked salt marmalade. The Brooklyn angle is underscored by the store’s abundant signage, tags, banners, and stickers so shoppers can have no doubts about a product’s provenance.

Whole Foods has sold itself to Brooklyn as a creative, communal endeavor. 
Yes, it’s a supermarket, but it’s also a participant in the local economy, fighting the good fight against the GMOs and monoculture of corporate agribusiness alongside the visionary butchers and worker-owned collective bakeries of its urban enclave. 
A second Brooklyn Whole Foods is already in the works, this one in the uber-affluent and hipsterish neighborhood of Williamsburg.
To Whole Foods, it’s just so much low-hanging fruit.

Posted in food business, local foods, shopping | 1 Comment

Picking Up the Tab for the White House Kitchen

image via Lame Cherry

image via Lame Cherry


Room but not board.
That’s the deal we make with presidents. They live rent free in the White House but meals run them extra.
If food is served at a state function, the government picks up the tab; when it comes to family meals, they’re on their own.

Groceries are delivered from various Secret Service-approved commercial suppliers, and they’re randomly rotated for added security. Household staff members fill in the basics with runs to butcher shops, supermarkets, and farmers markets. At the end of each month, the bills are tallied and submitted to Mr. and Mrs. Obama. Personal care items like toothpaste, shaving cream, and Tylenol are on the tab, plus the cost of snacks for Air Force One.

The Obamas also pay the salary of the chef who prepares the First Family’s meals.
Past First Families all opted to pay just for the groceries and have their family meals prepared by the White House kitchen staff—an executive chef, executive pastry chef, and four sous-chefs, paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Obamas chose to bring in a personal chef, Sam Kass, who works in a small private kitchen on the residence level of the White House. Kass has been cooking for the Obamas since their Chicago days and knows their likes and dislikes so well that he rarely consults with them on menu planning. He’s also notoriously tight-lipped about their eating habits saying little more than “we have very balanced meals,” and that the family “walks the walk” with Michelle Obama’s healthful food initiative for the country.

Still, a few details have leaked out about the Obama family dinner hour.
We know that the president sits down at 6:30 to eat with the family nearly every night, a practice that is much criticized for his perceived neglect of  the traditional schmoozing time for Washington’s power players. Meals begin with a quick blessing and a clink of their glasses. The family typically plays a round of rose and thorn—going around the table, each member shares something positive from their day (the rose) and also something difficult or unpleasant (the thorn). Meal-time is soda-free, peanut-free (Malia’s allergic), vegetables are plentiful, they eat brown rice instead of white, and dessert is served just a few times a week. The president detests beets and loves double-crusted fruit pies.

Dinners out are rare, in part because they turn into a major production.
A Secret Service detail conducts an advance walk-through of the restaurant, scoping out the Obamas’ points of entry and exit, and seating. Metal detecting wand-wielding agents position themselves at the front door, and a dozen or so more take up positions inside and out, including a multi-talented chef-agent who supervises kitchen security. The Obamas arrive by motorcade with leading and trailing police motorcycle and cruiser escorts. There’s an ambulance, a couple of communications vans, and some black Chevy Suburbans carrying still more Secret Service agents behind tinted glass. Somewhere in there are multiple armored limousines, one of which holds the First Family.

Why bother?
Especially when there’s a brigade of White House cooks, an organic garden, the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, and never a dish to wash.

We’ll probably never know what’s on the Obamas’ shopping list.
An annual report is submitted to Congress that documents official, tax-supported White House expenses. But the First Family’s personal expenses, paid for out of their own pockets, are their own business.


Posted in home, shopping | Leave a comment

Four Generations are Sampling the Supermarket Music


shopping list magnets via Harrington & Squires


Here’s something I’ve been wondering: am I getting old or is the supermarket music getting better?
The standard easy listening mix of Kenny Rogers and vintage Doobie Brothers always felt like I was being held hostage in a dentist’s waiting room. But not lately. While no one’s going to mistake the deli counter for a DJ booth, the music has gotten decidedly  hipper. A recent shopping trip yielded a little Major Lazer, a Warpaint track, and a David Bowie remix tucked between the Whitney Houston and post-Aja Steely Dan.
Who do they think is shopping in my neighborhood supermarket?

There are four generations all pushing shopping carts through the same aisles.
The Millennials, born between 1982 and the early 2000’s, are now reaching the age of paychecks and shopping lists. 
They follow the solidly adult Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, the middle-aged Baby Boomers, and the retired seniors known as the Silent Generation.

As an added twist, life stages are not as linear as they used to be.
Life stage and generation used to be pretty much the same thing. Milestones like marriage and buying a first home were fairly constant events that marketers could count on. Today you’ll find new parents in their 40’s and young adults still living at home long after the traditional age of household formation. Juice boxes and jars of prune juice, diapers and denture cream—they’re all commingling in shopping carts. There are spending differences between age groups, but they matter less than they used to.

Supermarkets brand themselves with their playlists. 
They know that store atmospherics matter, especially when it comes to differentiating themselves from the competition. Music is a fast, cheap, and flexible way for a store to shape its environment. But it’s a delicate balance: with so many generations in the shopping mix, the stores are challenged to find the right music mix. The trick is to appeal to one age group without alienating the other three.

My neighborhood supermarket has clearly put the Millennial Generation in its crosshairs.
I live in the big college town of Boston, with BU dorms just down the block from the market, so that comes as no surprise. How about you? Listen up. You’ll learn who’s shopping in your supermarket.


Posted in diversions, shopping | 1 Comment

The Trader Joe’s Magic




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Green is Your Supermarket?


tote bag from Hayden-Harnett Handbags

tote bag from Hayden-Harnett Handbags


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

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

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

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

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


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

Be a Bad Ass in a Betty White Kind of Way

image via Granny Cart Productions

image via Granny Cart Productions


No wrinkles, no age spots. Is that a new young hand I see pushing the granny cart? 

The granny cart is the right product for right now.
But it’s having a tough time shaking off old associations— of slow-moving urban decrepitude, a loss of youthful vigor—in other words, the stigma of grannies. The new adopters often come to them reluctantly, flashing sheepish grins to other granny carters in recognition of their mutual defeat.

They need to see themselves in the vanguard.
They should proclaim themselves a new generation of city dwellers pioneering a mode of self-reliant, self-propelled, carbon neutral transport.

Granny carters are edgy eaters. 
They put their discernment and sophistication right out there when they announce to the world “I shop on foot. I shop small. I shop local.” It shows that they know their way around urban enclaves and farmers markets and can point you toward the quirky grilled cheese sandwich truck or the neighborhood food artisan who sells small-batch alder-smoked Himalayan sea salt caramels.

There’s none greener.
Reusable shopping bags? Sure, they save some paper and plastic waste, but how many are really carried home on a shopper’s shoulder? Granny carters save on packaging waste and food waste with smaller, more frequent trips, and they limit fossil fuels and greenhouse gases by walking and by skipping the frozen foods aisle (it melts before they make it home).

Granny carters are cool.
Let the mockery ensue, the ‘Grandma’ catcalls, the derisive references to arthritic hips, the comparisons to walkers; cart pushers are unshaken, unwavering. They’re free thinking and defiantly nonconformist. They don’t follow trends, they set them. They’re change agents with the confident knowingness of the righteous.
And you thought they were just schlepping groceries.


Posted in funny, local foods, shopping | 1 Comment

Online Wine Shopping: Let the Algorithm Do the Picking

image by Jomphong via

image by Jomphong via



Would you trust a computer to choose your wine?
There’s a new generation of wine sellers counting on it.

Wine has been a tough sale online.
Wine shopping is daunting even in a traditional, bricks and mortar wine shop, where most customers wander the aisles a while and then end up grabbing an old favorite, an eye-catching label, or whatever’s on sale, with finger’s crossed that it won’t disappoint. It can be even more overwhelming online where the selection is inexhaustible and you don’t have store displays to cue you. Add to that a regulatory maze of interstate shipping laws, and by 2007, online sales were a piddling 3% of retail wine sales.

In the last few years, the internet has blossomed into a virtual vineyard.
Wine has benefited enormously from the rise of social media. There are thousands of online wine groups sharing tasting notes, alerting members to flash sale sites like Lot 18, and holding virtual wine tastings where on the count of three everybody uncorks and sips the same bottle. You can order wine for your Facebook friends through that site’s birthday reminders, and even Amazon, twice burned by failed wine-selling ventures, has jumped back in.

To succeed online, wine sites have to be more than just digital catalogs. Wine is consumed experientially, and in that sense its purchase has more in common with music or movies than with, say, a pair of shoes. That’s why the new generation of wine sellers looked not to Zappo’s but to Netflix for their sales model. And the secret sauce of the wildly successful video service is in the predictive algorithms that fuel their recommendations.

Online shopping has always run on recommendation engines.
The innovation was pioneered by Amazon, where now you’ll find them integrated into every inch of the shopping experience. From the home page through to the last click at checkout, Amazon beseeches you to consider ‘Frequently Bought Together’ items, ‘Customers Who Bought this Item Also Bought,’ and the less persuasive ‘Customers Who Viewed this Item Also Viewed,’ as well as ‘Sponsored Links,’ ‘Product Ads from External Websites,’ and a sidebar of  ‘More Buying Choices.’ Amazon’s algorithms skew toward building recommendation lists from items ordered by similar customer profiles. All the come-ons feel a bit like a traveling salesman with a foot stuck in your front door telling you about the vacuum cleaner your neighbor just bought.

Wine, like DVDs, requires more finesse.
Using its peer-to-peer comparative algorithms, Amazon derives a reported 10% of its book sales through recommendations on the site, while at Netflix recommendations drive 75% of the video viewing. Netflix accomplishes this through its algorithms, which turn an infinite buffet of data into a highly personalized, user-friendly experience. Instead of comparative recommendations, it builds individual profiles based on each customer’s individual preferences. It’s constantly throwing DVD titles at you, always asking your opinion about what you watch both on the service and elsewhere. Like Netflix, the new wine recommendation engines run on ratings. They build taste a profile based on what you’ve enjoyed in the past, and continually tinker with the profile as you rate your new wine purchases. And unlike Netflix, where the queue can get clogged with the entire Toy Story oeuvre, you don’t have to share this with your kids.

I’ll have what the MacBook Pro is having.
Try one of the new digital sommeliers:

Wine start-up Taste Factor, which compares the complexity of its recommendation engine to NASA, is like a custom wine-of-the-month club. Sign up for the subscription service and you get a starter pack of wine to rate. Your feedback establishes a tasting baseline, which is refined after subsequent monthly shipments, each of which is uniquely chosen for you.

Instead of NASA, Club W feels more like an online dating service. You start with a questionnaire—not about wine but lifestyle questions and details like how you take your coffee. The screen fills with potential matches, and you choose the ones that look good to you.

WineSimple also starts with a quiz to build each individual consumer taste profile. The geo-servicing phone app doesn’t sell wine, but it lets you know when you’re in a shop or restaurant that carries one of your recommended bottles.



Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture, shopping | Leave a comment

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?



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

The Expired Foods Supermarket



Here’s a pair of statistics that don’t make sense:
One in five Americans suffers from food insecurity, which means they don’t have consistent access to enough nutritious food.
Every year American supermarkets and grocery stores throw out 10 billion pounds of food, most of which is just fine to eat.

Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, wants to reclaim that discarded food. He plans to open grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods that sell perishable foods that are at or near their expiration dates.

At first the concept has an elitist ‘Let them eat cake!’ ring to it.
It’s not good enough for us, so let’s pawn it off on them.
But the idea is not without merit. And precedent. Think of Goodwill stores that rack up a few billion dollars in annual sales of discarded clothing and household items, and do so in a perfectly respectable and respectful manner.

Americans waste a lot of food—more than 40% of all we produce.
Behind the scenes and after hours, your local supermarket is still buzzing with activity. Employees strip the shelves of brown bananas and misshapen potatoes that customers pass over. The out-of-date yogurt cartons, dented cans, and damaged packaging can go right in the dumpster. They also remove packaged foods approaching their expiration dates—still perfectly good, but who’s going to buy a 5-pound block of cheese with 3 days left?

Expiration dating gives the consumer a sense of a security, but it’s not usually tied to spoilage.
Most expiration dates refer to the point when a product’s taste, texture, color, or nutritional benefits start to deteriorate rather than the point when you need to worry about the product’s safety. Except for infant formula and certain baby foods freshness dating isn’t required by law, and federal watchdog agencies like the FDA and USDA stay out of it. Some states require dating for dairy products, but there is no agreement or uniformity for freshness standards. For all other foods, labeling is voluntary. Producers can choose to slap on expiration dates that are pretty much of their choosing, and except for dairy products and formula, the retailers are free to keep the expired products on their store shelves.

Mr. Rauch is funding the not-for-profit project with much of his own money. He has started hiring for the first store set to open in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The store’s kitchen will create healthy prepared takeout foods that are price-competitive with fast food meals, and there will also be an in-store kitchen offering low-fat cooking classes and workshops. That’s because food insecurity in America is not about empty stomachs but empty calories.

Learn more about why we create so much food waste and why it matters at the Wasted Food website.


Posted in food safety, shopping | Leave a comment

Mother Nature for Rent




It starts with a weekly visit to the farmers market.
It’s all fresh, in season, and you see who’s growing your food.

Then you join a CSA.
The food is more abundant, the commitment to sustainable agriculture is greater. Your weekly farm share has you eating with the growing season, and with your pre-paid subscription you’re contributing to the stability of a small and local producer.

What’s next?
Dirt under the fingernails and you’re own diesel rototiller?

Rent Mother Nature takes you to the next level of connectedness while keeping your fingernails clean. Similar to but more direct than a CSA, RMN inserts you into the growing cycle by leasing you your own little corner of the farm. You’ll lay claim to a beehive in the Catskills, an oyster bed on the Puget Sound, or a pistachio tree in the Arizona desert, and for one season the harvest is yours.

Massachusetts-based Rent Mother Nature was started in 1979 as a way of helping small-scale New England farmers improve their pre-harvest cash flow. The company now works with farms across the country and even a few from other parts of the world, so you can lease an organic date palm tree in California, a wild rice bed on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, or a cocoa tree in the rainforest of Costa Rica.

Rent Mother Nature sends out periodic progress reports during the growing season, and many of the farmers welcome personal visits from lease-holders. There is a minimum guaranteed bounty, and a roll-over to the next season if it’s not met. If it’s a bumper crop, you’ll get first dibs on the larder.

Rent Mother Nature partners with artisanal producers and farmers practicing natural and organic agriculture, and engages in fair-trade in foreign countries. When you lease a dairy cow you’ll get wheels of brie or cheddar from an animal you’re on a first-name basis with. The sap of your leased sugar maple tree is boiled into syrup in a traditional wood-fired sugarhouse in the Adirondacks. The wheat from your leased acre of land is sent to a Rhode Island mill that’s been operating since 1711, and the great-great-grandchildren of the Massachusetts textile mill’s original owner are still shearing the wool and custom-weaving the blanket from your leased sheep.

On the Rent Mother Nature website you’ll find nearly two dozen 2013-2014 leases available for crops and products including prolifically-producing Florida citrus or Georgia peach trees that can be leased in their entirety or by the branch, lobster trap leases that land you the yield from a ten-day fishing trip in Maine, and hive leases for jars of raw, unfiltered honey produced by a single, flower-specific beehive.



Posted in shopping, sustainability | Leave a comment

Whole Foods: They Have You at the Front Door.



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.


Posted in food business, shopping | Leave a comment

The $450 Starbucks Card Is Here


Last week Starbucks rolled out  the Starbucks Metal Card. For the low, low price of $450 the card gets you $400 worth of coffee.
That’s not a typo. $450 gets you a card preloaded with $400 in store credit. Oh, and you also get a gold-level Starbucks card membership, a frequent buyer perk that gets you some freebies like drink refills and a birthday frappuccino, but that’s already free to regular customers.

Forgetting what they say about one born every minute, Starbucks announced a limited initial run of 5,000 cards and offered them for sale on the luxury goods website Gilt. The cards sold out in less than a minute and you can now find them on sites like eBay and Craigslist where they’re being resold for for more than $1,000.

Clearly this about more than just coffee. But what?

Starbucks gave up its aura of exclusivity the minute it opened its first shop outside of the Seattle city limits. You can’t be an insider to something  that you can buy on every street corner, turnpike rest stop, and hospital cafeteria. And the now mass market coffee brand doesn’t speak of any particular connoisseurship. The true coffee snobs left the building long ago. But since the next guy in line won’t have the Metal Card in his wallet, merely possessing the card confers a conspicuous kind of status in and of itself. And the Starbucks Metal Card, which really is made of metal, is truly conspicuous. Watching someone pay for coffee with a slab of etched stainless steel is a little like seeing Fred Flintstone buying his brontosaurus burgers with a stone credit card issued by the Bank of Bedrock.

Starbucks understands that status signaling is a game of ever-higher stakes.
Look what happened with credit cards: the fading luster of the American Express Gold Card led to the AmEx Platinum, only to be topped by the company’s black titanium Centurion Card, distinguished less by the superiority of its member benefits than by its $5,000 initiation and $2,500 annual fee. Then there’s the I Am Rich mobile app: when iPhones first became widely available and lost their must-have status, a $999.99 application was sold through the App Store that was virtually featureless save for a large glowing red screen icon and the mantra “I am rich. I deserve it. I am good, healthy & successful.” Eight were sold before Apple removed it from the store.

While it’s intended to be seen, status is really in the eye of the beholder.
“This is a card for the 1%,” cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff told USA Today. “It’s all about status, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’d want to be seen with one of these.”


Posted in coffee, shopping | Leave a comment
Web Analytics