Tag Archives: cooking

All Kitted Out

There is a relatively recent phenomenon in the food world which is our topic this Foodie Friday. I’m talking about the explosion of companies offering food kits. Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh, and others have been joined by Amazon in offering up boxes of already measured and portioned ingredients along with the recipes that tell the cook how to combine and cook everything to create a meal. For busy people, not having to shop for ingredients or to research and think about recipes is a godsend. That said, there are several things I find wrong with meal kits and they just might be helpful as you think about your business as well.

I’ve tried Blue Apron. The food was pretty good and the quality of the ingredients was better than I expected. Not having to shop or to think about what I was making (once I’d chosen the meal from the website) saved time. That said, a less experienced cook wouldn’t really have been able to save much time. You still need to chop vegetables (although I know some kits have them pre-chopped – not great for flavor or texture!). You still need to be able to interpret the recipe and follow the instructions (which contain cooking terms inexperienced people might not quite grasp). And they’re not cheap: $10 per meal per person is generally a lot more than most people spend per portion on home-cooked meals.

The real issue I have is that you’re trying to change habits. How so? Many people dread going to the supermarket but most of the better cooks I know relish shopping. I know that many supermarkets now offer a service where you can shop online and the store will fill your order either for pickup or delivery. I’ve never used them because I’m picky about produce and I’m always looking for opportunistic specials to plan a menu around. That experience is taken away with these kits. You can’t keep them either. Like many folks, I’ll buy ingredients and when my plans change, I can freeze the proteins for later. That doesn’t really work here.

The people who don’t cook don’t do so because they either don’t know how or they don’t like it. They find recipes with more than three steps complicated (these kits often are a lot more). They’re slow – I can chop an onion in under 30 seconds. It might take an inexperienced cook a few minutes. They don’t have tools that make the jobs easier: sharp knives, the right pots and pans, a decent stove, etc. Meal kits don’t solve any of those things as they try to change people’s habits.

Pay more, save time shopping, and worry less doesn’t solve the basic problem: people don’t like to cook and this is an expensive program that doesn’t solve that problem. In addition, you’re adding another issue: managing the subscription online. And customers seem to be finding that as well. Blue Apron reported that customer retention is their number one issue. Business Insider reported that:

According to a new poll by Morning Consult and Money Magazine, 49% of respondents who canceled a meal kit service cited the cost as the biggest reason for their cancellation…Not liking the recipes (13%) and unavailability in their area (15%) were the second biggest factors for those who canceled their service and those who have never tried a meal kit service.

As we try to solve consumer’s problems we need to be sure we’re actually doing so, and doing so in a way that doesn’t create other problems. I’m not sure that meal kits meet that test. You?

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No Water, No Friction

Foodie Friday, and today we’re going to have a think about what microwave ovens can tell us about our business. I don’t know about you, but I use my microwave all the time. I tend to have a fair amount of leftovers around and it seems that my morning coffee gets cold before I can finish it. Both get a quick warm-up in the microwave. But let’s think for a moment about how a microwave actually works.

A microwave is less of an oven than it is a radio transmitter. The thing heats food by causing water molecules in whatever is being heated to vibrate as it sends out electromagnetic radiation. As they vibrate, the molecules rub against one another and it’s the friction that causes heat. If the thing being hit with the radiation contains no water (glass, ceramic, etc.), there is nothing to vibrate and, therefore, no heat created. That’s why the part of the bowl or plate you’re heating up that’s above/outside the thing being heated stays cool (at least until the heat from the food spreads outward). No friction means no heat.

I like to think of a business that way. A big part of what we want to do as businesspeople is to eliminate friction. We often talk about “frictionless” transactions. Business, after all, is built upon transactions between two parties, usually a buyer and a seller. It takes something – marketing of some sort, generally – to get some momentum going towards the conclusion of the transaction, but once that’s happened our job is to remove any impediments that create friction as the deal moves towards a conclusion. It can be a long line a the checkout, it can be unknowledgeable salespeople, it can be a lack of inventory. In short, we want to keep everyone “dry”, since no water means no friction, right?

Ask yourself what “dampens” your process. Where are the friction points? When the deal microwave is switched on, what begins to vibrate and create the heat that too often accompanies a deal?

Microwave ovens aren’t ideal for all forms of cooking but they excel when they’re used properly. Understanding how they work helps us use them appropriately, and we can take advantage of their speed and efficiency. Applying the “no water, no friction” thinking that makes a microwave work to our businesses can help us do the same thing there.

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Burgers And Dogs

It’s Foodie Friday, and we’re heading into what I hope is a long Fourth Of July weekend for you. At some point, hopefully, your plans include firing up a grill of some sort and cooking some hot dogs and hamburgers. Simple? You bet, but this is a weekend for leisure time and not getting all sweaty in front of a grill. Besides, you never know when your crew will get hungry, and burgers and dogs can be ready in no time. And what meal could be more All-Amercian (even if both foods come to us from German origins)?

It wouldn’t be the screed if we didn’t use the simplicity of burgers and dogs as a jumping off point for some business-related thought, right? As I was musing about that, it came to me that there are, in fact, a lot of possibilities with either of those basic dishes, even if you’re not stuffing your own hot dog casings or grinding your own meat for the burgers (I do the latter; the former is well beyond my patience). Think about the almost endless variations on the hot dog. I used to patronize two very fine establishments who were renowned for their extensive takes on various dogs. You can change up the meat (all beef, beef and pork, etc.), you can change the dressings and roll (compare the classic Chicago dog with a classic Detroit Coney Island, a chili dog and onions), but the thing is still a boring old hot dog (not).

It’s the same with burgers. I have a few different burger books in my cookbook collection, and while the dressings, meats, and buns vary a lot, it’s still some form of ground meat shaped into a patty and grilled. Heck, you can even taste the difference (if you’re brave) between a simple burger from McDonald’s vs. one from Burger King (cooking on a grill vs. a griddle). It doesn’t take much to change the dish.

The business point is this. Even if you’re in a very crowded space, your business can distinguish itself. You do this by becoming a brand – something that is instantly recognizable for the promise to the customer it contains. You can do this through great service, great value, smart marketing, or any other number of ways.  What makes a Chicago Dog unique are the sport peppers, the poppy seed bun, and the celery salt. What makes you unique? How does your vision differ from all the other people in your business area?

Enjoy your Fourth and your cookout. Just remember that even if it’s plain old burgers and dogs, you’re the secret sauce that can make everything unique, both on the grill and in the office.

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Opening A Can Of Mistrust

It’s Foodie Friday and I want to talk about a widespread fraud this week. If you cook Italian food every so often, you might have been a victim of this common deception, and of course, it has implications for your business (or else why would I bring it up here?). I’m talking about the lies told by many companies about what lies within a can of tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano.”

If you’ve been to Italy you’ve tasted the difference in what they have there vs. what we commonly use here, and one of the biggest differences is the true San Marzano tomato. Grown in the volcanic soil that surrounds Mt. Vesuvius, these plum tomatoes are protected by an official designation – DOP – which certifies that they are the real deal. Many other types of products receive this stamp which certifies that they are locally grown and packaged in the specific region according to strict standards – balsamic vinegar and mozzarella di bufala are two of the best known along with these tomatoes.

If you walk through your local supermarket, you will find many cans labeled “San Marzano” and yet there is a high likelihood that they are nothing of the sort. 95% of the tomatoes sold here as San Marzanos are fake, at least according to the person who certifies them. If you see crushed or diced San Marzanos, they’re fake, since true ones are only sold whole. If they are grown in the US, they’re fake. If it doesn’t have the DOP seal and the seal of the consortium that sells them, they’re fake. Some unscrupulous packagers put a DOP-looking seal on their cans; some don’t even bother, knowing that the words “San Marzano” are enough to confuse shoppers.

Why do I raise this? First, it bothers me that so many retailers are complicit in perpetuating this fraud. You wouldn’t see a legitimate store knowingly selling fake Dior bags or knockoff golf clubs with high-end labels. Why do supermarkets allow this? Can I trust that the wild-caught fish you’re selling at the fish counter isn’t farm-raised? Second, some fairly big time packagers engage in this, which calls into question what’s in the cans of other products they produce. Are those really organic peas or are you just charging more for the same stuff that’s in the non-organic cans? Lastly, and most importantly, it reiterates the point we’ve made often here in the screed. The most important thing any business gets from customers is trust. Losing that trust can be fatal, no matter how good your service or pricing might be. Knowingly perpetuating a fraud on your customers is way over the foul line.

I don’t want to make too big a point about a can of tomatoes. Most shoppers don’t look for San Marzano tomatoes – they buy whatever is on sale. It only takes one customer, however (like me?), who figures out that you’re profiting off of the deception to put a crack in your reputation. That’s not the type of sauce you want to be serving, is it?

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Foaming At the Mouth

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.

Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:

If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.

Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:

Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.

I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.

The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.

Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?

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Adding Umami To The Business

This Foodie Friday we’re going to talk about basic flavors. If you’ve done any cooking, you know that there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and something called “umami,” which is often mentioned as “savoriness.” It’s a Japanese word that means “delicious taste. It’s actually built on three types of amino acids:

japanese soy sauce, it contains more salt than...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some examples of the amino acids associated with umami are glutamates in kombu or soy sauce; iosinates found in fermented fish, shellfish and meats; and guanylates, which are present in mushrooms like shiitake.These different types of amino acids can be combined to increase the umami taste in your dishes.

Got it? As with all the flavors, the trick is to use umami to balance out and enhance the other flavors present in a dish. If you add soy sauce (umami), for example, you’d want to reduce the salt (salty). If you’re using fish sauce (an umami bomb often found in Asian food) you’d add acid to balance it out (citrus juice, for example.). Got it?

Let’s think about umami in business terms. You have the basic building “flavors” of solving a customer’s problem, the enterprise’s financial goals, customer service, producing the product or service, and supporting your team. What distinguishes great businesses from good businesses is the umami added to the mix of those building blocks. Just as adding a rind of parmesan cheese into a soup or stock boosts umami, teaching everyone in an organization to be customer-centric while pursuing clear goals boosts the coherence and performance of the team. It’s possible to offer decent customer service via email but the umami of a caring human to deal with customer issues makes a lot of difference.

A long time ago, someone told me to add red wine vinegar to the clarified butter into which I was dipping a lobster. I know now that the sour and pungent vinegar was balancing the fat of the butter and took the lobster to another level. Balancing all the elements of either a dish or your business and making sure that balance includes something that boosts umami is the key, both in the kitchen and in the boardroom. You with me?

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Your Dishwasher And Your Business

This Foodie Friday we’re going to take a business point from the aftermath of our foodie experiences. Unless you’re in the habit of using paper plates and plastic cutlery, you usually have some dishes to wash after you eat. Many of us are fortunate to have dishwashers to do that job for us. We load the dishes, glassware, and cutlery into the box, add some soap, and go watch TV or read. Of course, the dishwasher can be used for so much more.

A dishwasher containing clean dishes

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can pretty much put anything that’s not wood or cast iron into your dishwasher for a good cleaning. OK, electronics aren’t such a great idea either. You can, however, let the dishwasher take care of doing some otherwise nasty cleaning jobs such as washing those pop-out range filters or all the buttons and drip pans from your stove. I’ve been known to stick my sweaty, smelly golf hats in there for a good washing (they actually sell plastic forms so the hats won’t shrink) and I also ran some glass light fixtures that were filthy through it. Obviously you don’t want to put anything through that’s hollow and can collect water that might precipitate mold formation later on but otherwise, with the aforementioned exceptions, anything plastic, metal, or glass is a candidate for a trip through the dishwasher.

What does this have to do with business? Most of us think of the dishwasher as a single-task machine. It washes kitchen stuff – dishes, etc. The truth is that it’s way more versatile. I think many of us think about many people this way. We don’t think the accountants are creative nor that the lawyers are marketers. I’ve worked with accountants and lawyers who definitely were. While it’s usually pretty apparent what someone’s strengths are, we don’t ask often enough how those strengths – critical thinking, writing, etc – can be applied in areas other than the one in which the person is currently using them.

You might have to remove the top rack to fit something like a garbage can in there. You might have to ask the accountant to adjust his or her paradigm too. The results, however, are worth it in both cases (who likes to wash a garbage can?). We need to keep an open mind about all things in business, don’t you think?

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