Category Archives: food

Pumpkin Spice

This Foodie Friday, we’re taking a leap ahead into Fall, and if Fall means one thing to most people, it’s pumpkin spice. I know – you were thinking football, but no, my guess is that far more people are affected by the pumpkin spice thing than the pigskin thing. It’s a relatively recent development as spice companies didn’t actually make “pumpkin pie spice” until the 1950s and that became “pumpkin spice” in the 1960s. Some candle company began marketing a pumpkin spice candle in 1995, Starbucks picked up the flavor after many small coffee shops did, and the rest is food history.

Today, I saw what might be the last straw in the craze: Pumpkin Spice Spam. This is not a joke – it will be available only online and there are already cans of it out in the wild. Apparently, it doesn’t taste too bad – kind of like breakfast sausage. While I’m generally a believer in the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” philosophy, I think we just might have hit our limits here, although one might wonder where that limit lies after pumpkin spice hummus, Four Loko, Pringles, gum, and vodka, to name only a few of the products that are out there.

There is a serious business point to be made here. Pumpkin spice is a flavor and a scent, and of course, you can add either of those things to a product to make it seasonally relevant, at least to some people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should which is the broader business point. There are often moments in business when we’re confronted with what some might call opportunities while others might see them as dilemmas. A bank might be able to make more money if it charges its own customers a fee to use their own ATMs or to have a debit card. That’s a bad idea.

There was a great piece published years ago called “Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them.” It talked about charging penalties and fees especially in the cell phone, cable, and banking industries. It concluded:

One of the most influential propositions in marketing is that customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets profits. Why, then, do so many companies infuriate their customers by binding them with contracts, bleeding them with fees, confounding them with fine print, and otherwise penalizing them for their business? Because, unfortunately, it pays. Companies have found that confused and ill-informed customers, who often end up making poor purchasing decisions, can be highly profitable indeed.

I don’t think that adding pumpkin spice to an already good product is on a level with some of the outrageous fees we’re charged as consumers but it illustrates the point that just because we can do something in business doesn’t mean that we should. Not only do you run the risk of having seasonal merchandise go unsold (unhappy retailers!) but also of having customers question your sanity. Neither is good business in my book. Yours?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Reality checks

A New Food Hall?

This Foodie Friday I’m doing something way out of the ordinary for this space: I’m going to quote heavily from a press release. Yes, that’s right – I finally got one that interests me because I think it makes a point that will be of interest to you. That said, I’m going to edit this to make a point in a second.

The Local Culinary, an all-new innovative (EDIT) restaurant concept led by seasoned European restaurant industry veteran and entrepreneurial visionary Alp Franko, today celebrated its official launch, with the opening of its first location in downtown Miami. With a (EDIT) kitchen located on South Miami Avenue, The Local Culinary operates eight individual concepts where chefs produce a range of creative, inspired menus.  Catering to both evergreen fare and timely dining trends, The Local Culinary is dedicated to serving modern, chef-driven food (EDIT) options inspired by global cuisine. From Mexican, Italian and Asian cuisines to burgers, fried chicken, healthy bowls, gourmet salads and more, the company’s (EDIT) restaurant fare is available to Miami residents (EDIT).

OK, so why would an announcement of what sounds very much like a food hall (8 restaurants under one roof) be particularly interesting? I mean you can’t go more than a few miles in many major cities without finding one, so what’s the big deal? I’ll give you a hint. According to a recent survey on Upserve.com, 60 percent of U.S. consumers order delivery or takeout once a week, and 31 percent say they use these third-party delivery services at least twice a week. Orders placed via smartphone and mobile apps are expected to become a $38 billion industry by 2020, with millennials as a driving force.

Did you guess? This is a virtual restaurant or restaurants. Everything I edited out mentioned that fact and that the food is only available via delivery. There is no physical dining room and all 8 operate out of a common kitchen. It’s a food hall without a hall and it caters specifically to the demand for meals delivered. Why I find this interesting, no matter which business you’re in, is that it is a reminder that consumer preferences change constantly and those changes can be devastating if you’re not anticipating them. Think about the landlords who own prime street locations for a restaurant. What happens when “restaurants” can be located in a warehouse with no real parking or storefront? What about the paper companies who haven’t geared up to fulfill orders for a huge takeout market? It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to figure out how many other sectors, from servers to bartenders to furniture to glassware this trend could impact.

Legacy thinking does nothing but gets you left behind. Look at the issues (since it’s Foodie Friday) that Kraft-Heinz is having. Big brands like Oscar Mayer and Maxwell House are out of step with modern consumers’ tastes and even though they were smart enough to buy an early plant-based “burger” company (Boca), they have been left behind by the newer companies such as Beyond Meat.

How far down the road are you looking? What are you doing about what you see?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Reality checks

False Inferences

This Foodie Friday, let’s give a round of applause to Burger King, A&W, White Castle, and all of the other burger chains who are beginning to serve Impossible Burgers. OK, throw in the donut chains who are serving the Beyond Meat “sausage” products too. Are they indistinguishable from their meat-based versions? I have no idea – I generally don’t go to QSRs when I want a burger although I might have to just to try one out.

The round of applause is not for taste but for trying to expand their customer bases to include vegetarians and vegans. My vegan daughter will (rarely) go to a QSR and get what amounts to lettuce and tomato on a bun (think a chicken sandwich without the chicken) although some of the chains offer truly vegan patties and sandwiches.

Burger King is not one of those – their veggie burger has both milk and eggs in it. However, they are one of the first chains to add the Impossible Burger to their offerings. As it seems with many things business-related, there is a dark lining to the silver cloud. It turns out, unless you specifically ask, the Impossible Burger is cooked with the same broiler as regular burgers and chicken. So much for vegan or even vegetarian. Burger King says that 90% of the people who ordered the Impossible Whopper during a trial run this spring are meat eaters, which means most diners may not care if their faux-meat patties are cooked alongside classic beef ones. In fairness, they don’t label the product as vegan either. Still, it raises a point I want to bring to the surface today.

Humans make inferences. We use our beliefs as assumptions and make inferences based on those assumptions. We do that because we can’t act without them. We have to have some basis for understanding and the only way for us to take action is to use our assumptions to make inferences. An assumption is something we “know” based on our beliefs or previous experience.

When Burger King offers a burger that is a vegan alternative to a meat-based product (something that’s known) you can see how a customer will infer it’s still vegan even when it’s not labeled as such.  If there is room for the customer to draw a faulty inference based on reasonable assumptions, I think we need to go out of our way to correct them. I also think that it’s way out of bounds to create those false inferences knowingly – having the customer see that something is 35% off and a good buy when you marked it up the week before with the intent of marking it back down.

The difference between “relaxing” and “wasting time” is all in the meaning we assign to what we’re doing, the inferences we draw. The difference between “selling” and “dishonesty” or “hyperbole” or even “grifting” is also based on inferences. Not allowing customers to draw a well-constructed line from their assumptions to inferences and meaning is bad business in the long run, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Too Much Cabbage

I’m in South Florida this Foodie Friday celebrating my mom’s 90th birthday. While my mother is hardly a “foodie”, one food group that we both love is deli, and Jewish deli specifically. Living in North Carolina as I do has many wonderful food aspects but the availability of a good pastrami sandwich is NOT one of them. Because of that as well as my mom’s love of the genre, I’ve taken her (and my dad) out for lunch the last couple of days to get Jewish deli.

Yesterday I ordered a Reuben sandwich, having had my pastrami the day before. One thing really good deli is known for is overstuffed sandwiches. Even if you choose not to overeat and finish the thing, you always have something to bring home. The photo of the Reuben on the menu showed a typically large offering (the photo here is not the one from the menu since that’s probably copyrighted). What showed up reminded me of a great business point.

The photo isn’t my sandwich but it’s one from the same deli. As you can see, the Reuben was made by rolling the corned beef around the sauerkraut. The thing is served on toasted rye bread with Russian dressing. It’s hard to tell but when I picked the thing up it was immediately obvious that the bread was smaller than a typical loaf of rye which meant that there was less “there” there. More importantly, while rolling the meat around the sauerkraut like a meat and cabbage jelly roll was clever, it also meant quite a bit less meat was used in the sandwich. If you look closely at the photo you’ll see that unrolling the thing would yield about a half a dozen thin slices of corned beef, hardly something a proper deli would serve as an “overstuffed” sandwich. The meat in my sandwich didn’t fill the bread either – the roll stopped about halfway back on the bread. Most Reubens (or Rachels – a version of the sandwich made with pastrami) pile the sauerkraut on top of a stack of meat.  Is this presentation designed to hide the fact that there is far less meat than one would expect?

What does this have to do with your business? Customers do “unroll” the filling.  When they come up with too much cabbage and not enough meat they’ll find a competitor that really does deliver what they promise. I think overpromising and underdelivering is the biggest mistake any business can make. While this chain of delis does quite well (most of their other food is terrific and does deliver), they need to revisit the Reuben or delete the photo from the menu since it sets expectations that are not met. None of us can afford to do that, not if we want repeat business.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Huh?

Foreign Flavors

This Foodie Friday, let’s think about the Black Cheese donut. Yes, there is such a thing although unless you live in Jakarta you’ve probably not sampled one. It’s a donut that’s glazed in chocolate icing and then rolled in parmesan cheese. No, I’m not making this up – you can find them at Dunkin’ outlets in Indonesia.

Then there is the Thai snack food of BBQ-flavored fish. They’re bite-sized – yum! You can buy a creamed corn pie (think apple pie but creamed corn) at KFC outlets in Japan or haggis-flavored potato chips in Scotland. If you want a brief around the world tour of some odd food products that will probably seem strange to those of us with American palates, click here and scroll through 46 of them.

The thing is that they’re not odd, not to the people in the areas where they’re made and distributed. As with most things, if there wasn’t demand the product wouldn’t continue to exist. The fact that they got made in the first place is a tribute to anyone who was involved in the process but for whom the product has no appeal. Ignoring our own prejudices is something that helps us succeed in business. Most of us aren’t the typical consumer of our product and, therefore, must keep an open mind where research or other data tells us that there is a market opportunity.

You might not need to be reminded that not everyone sees the world in the same way. One glance at the evening news or even your own social media stream will confirm that for you. Not everyone will love a Black Cheese donut but apparently, enough people do to justify their continued presence on Dunkin’s shelves. We need to try some flavors that are foreign and, even if we don’t like them, remind ourselves that others do.  Crab flavored Pringles might not be your thing. Maybe you prefer the Iberian ham chips. I had my first ketchup flavored chips when I was in Canada. They seemed like a good idea – ketchup goes on french fries which are potatoes, so… Well, they weren’t, but I don’t think any less of our Canadian brethren for making them popular.

Want to keep your business open? Keep your mind open as well. The flavor might only be foreign to you!

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Harder Than It Looks

It’s Foodie Friday and yesterday I took my old beast of a smoker out for a July 4th spin. Of all the things I transported from the wilds of Connecticut to sunny (read that as hotter than blazes) North Carolina, The Beast was probably the most difficult thing to move. It was the subject of a Foodie Friday post all on its own a couple of years back. As I described it at the time:

Photo by Jaden Hatch

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move.

Yesterday I fired it up and did some racks of ribs, some chicken and some sausage. They came out quite well, thanks. What also came out was a reminder that something so simple – putting meat into a box and letting it cook slowly – is way harder and less simple than it looks.

First, prepping the meat. One might just salt and pepper the ribs and toss them in. Yes, one COULD do that, but it would be a disservice to the ribs and your palate. What’s less easy is removing the membrane and assembling a nice dry rub of several spices to bring out the flavor of the wood smoke and the pork. Similarly, you COULD just plop the whole chicken on a rack and let it smoke or you could halve it, brine it, season it properly and then proceed.

Next is cooking. Good BBQ is NOT a passive activity. Don’t let the guy sitting next to his cooker sucking down a beer mislead you. He’s there to keep a watchful eye on the on temperature, adjusting the air intake to raise or lower the temperature in the box and to add fuel when needed. I find that checking every 30 minutes or so at a minimum is critical.

Wood chips are a must. You can’t toss them on the fire – they won’t smoke, they’ll burn. You need to soak them after you think about what kind of wood chips to use. Hickory? Mesquite? Fruitwood like apple or peach?

The point I’m trying to make here is that something as simple as smoking a piece of meat is much harder than it looks if you’re going to do it right. So are many things in business. Assembling a team and keeping it functioning at a high level. Handling customer service issues.  Managing capital and cash flow. Every one of those things as well as many others as much harder than they might appear. What each of us needs to do is never underestimate the difficulty of anything until we’ve mastered it. That mindset makes us read, learn, and stay humble.

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Intentional Mislabeling

Let’s start with a question this Foodie Friday. If I offered you two carrots, one of which was had a label that said “non-GMO” and the other didn’t, which carrot would you choose? “GMO” as I’m sure you know means that this food wasn’t made from genetically modified crops. Would that make a difference in your selection?

It’s a trick question, actually. There are no genetically modified carrots in the marketplace, at least not yet. Neither are there GMO strawberries. That won’t stop you from finding carrots or strawberries labeled as non-GMO though. You’ve also probably seen that many chickens are labeled as “raised without antibiotics” while others don’t bear that label. Does that influence your thinking? It shouldn’t: antibiotics have been banned on chicken farms for over a decade.

Some labels in food can be horribly misleading while others are not. “Organic”, for example, really does mean that the food was grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. It’s a legal term meaning that there are penalties for its misuse. You might think that non-GMO foods are organic and, therefore, better for you. Unless they also say they are organic, non-GMO foods are conventionally grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Why I bring this up in a business blog is that the misuse of these and other terms in marketing is not due to confusion about them. It’s due to the willful deception of the consumer by an unscrupulous marketer who at best is just jumping on a bandwagon and at worst is looking to charge more for an inferior product. Your “cage-free” chicken still lives indoors in a jammed coop and those “free-range” chickens for which you pay a premium probably haven’t been outside either. It just means that they have access to go outside if they can find and get through one of the few doors in the henhouse.

I’m a fan of clear, enforceable labels in all products, not just food. What the hell does “skin organics? mean on a cosmetics label? Chemical-free sunscreen? Not possible, yet some brands are labeled just that way. The labels don’t write themselves and as marketing people, we need to hold our customers’ interests paramount. Their health too since it’s rather difficult to get a dead consumer to buy much of anything. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Huh?