Tag Archives: Food

Generically Speaking

This Foodie Friday, I’ve been thinking about store brands. Some of them – such as the Costco vodka really being Grey Goose at under half the price – are the stuff of legend. Other places – such as Trader Joe’s – have built entire enterprises on top of their own brands which are basically repackaged and rebranded versions of mainstream products. It’s well-known, for example, that TJ’s pita chips are made by Frito-Lay, who puts Stacy’s pita chips in TJ’s packages. Of course, you can buy a  6oz bag of Trader Joe’s Pita Chips for $1.99 whereas a 7.33oz bag of Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips sells for $2.99 or more.

An example of a Trader Joe's storefront.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of Walmart‘s Great Value branded products are just name brands rebranded. Most people can’t tell the difference between the name brand and the store brand, although in fairness, every so often the store will have the manufacturer make a minor change (a little less lemon, a little more salt) so they’re not identical products. Still, In 2012, Consumer Reports did a test. They found:

In comparing store-brand and name-brand versions of 19 products, our savings ranged from 5 percent (frozen lasagna) to 60 percent (ice cream). Many of those store brands were also as tasty as the alternative. Our sensory experts found that the store brand and name brand tied in 10 cases, the name brand won in eight cases, and the store brand won once.

So why do people continue to pay more for the same product? The easy answer is marketing. Name brands spend an awful lot of money each year to influence consumers’ perception of their products. Some of it is mistrust, particularly when it comes to store-branded drugs. Even though the law says that generic medication contains the same active ingredient as the name brand (yes, I know generic brands may have different inactive ingredients that can make them behave differently), people spend more for branded pain relievers, antacids, and other types of drugs. It’s interesting that studies show that chefs and pharmacists tend to buy generic food and drugs, respectively.

I think a good chunk of why people tend to spend the extra money has to do with experience. They expect that a brand name will provide a quality, consistent product experience. In instances where others are seeing what products are being used (guests in your home, coworkers in an office), the brand name is more socially acceptable. Finally, over time, brand names build loyalty. Once again, we end up at the cost/value equation, but we always need to remember that value isn’t just measured in dollars and cents.

I buy a lot of generics or store brands. There are, however, some things for which I pay extra because I do perceive a difference. Still, knowing that most of what’s at Trader Joe’s or Walmart or Costco is the same as what’s at the supermarket (but less expensive!) lets me splurge on those things with a clear conscience. The question for those of us that market is how we get consumers to see the value that goes along with our brand.

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Eating With Your Eyes

It’s Foodie Friday, and today’s topic is the thought that we “eat with our eyes.” While sometimes you can smell food coming, most often our eyes are the first sensory organ we use as part of eating. It’s why many cooking shows (Chopped, Top Chef, etc.) grade dishes not only on taste and creativity but also how the dish is plated and its visual appeal. Since the rise of Instagram, eating with our eyes has taken on an entirely new dimension. As The Verge reported:

For years now, Instagram has sat at the center of trends in food and beverages. Rainbow-colored “unicorn foods” are often designed with Instagram in mind…Now some entrepreneurs are taking the idea a step further, designing their physical spaces in the hopes of inspiring the maximum number of photos. They’re commissioning neon signs bearing modestly sly double entendres, painting elaborate murals of tropical wildlife, and embedding floor tiles with branded greetings — all in the hopes that their guests will post them.

I’d encourage you to read the full piece, but it does raise a business thought in my mind. I did a little search for “love decor, food sucks” and got over 2.5 million results. In the course of helping people eat with their eyes and/or to gain social virality, many of these places have forgotten their primary mission: to cook great food. “Going viral” isn’t a strategy. While it may increase your visibility, as Chipotle will tell you, so will an e-coli outbreak. Gaining followers and visibility is ideally a reflection of the quality of what you’re doing.

Designing any business or product so that visual appeal is its primary focus is designing for failure. Yes, it’s smart marketing, but as with any marketing, there as to be, as Gertrude Stein said, a there there. We might eat with our eyes, but ultimately we want something more substantial than a great visual. None of us should forget that our customers may come based on good marketing, but they stay because of great a great product or service. Don’t you agree?

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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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A Rose By Any Other Name

It’s Foodie Friday! Today I want to discuss grilling since I’m told that July is National Grilling Month (who knew). An article in AdWeek tipped me to that fact, along with the fact that how to grill steak is the most researched topic on YouTube, followed by grilling pork, chicken, and ribs.

I’m gratified that they used the term “grilling,” because, in a lot of places, the grill is known as the barbecue, as is what you’re doing when you cook on it. Barbecue, of course, is a very different food. It’s smoked, not grilled, over low heat. Grilling generally involves a high heat, either directly or indirectly applied to the food. Nevertheless, I have friends and family who ask if we’re going to “barbecue” some steaks. I made the error of saying I wanted to fire up the barbecue in front of some Southern friends and they wondered out loud if we were going to be eating in 5 or 6 hours, a reasonable amount of time for anything to be real ‘cue.

There is a business point in this. Often we say one thing without realizing that the people to whom we’re saying it are interpreting it as something entirely different. “Dressing” to my Yankee friends is something you put on a salad; in the South, it’s a bread-based side dish (like what we’d call stuffing). “Greens” up North are the base of a salad; down South, they’re usually cooked collards.

Part of being a good businessperson (and a great manager) is making sure not only that what you’ve said has been heard but also that the meaning you intended to convey is the meaning assigned to your statement. Lawyers tend to be very good at this, sometimes painfully so. There’s a reason why they’re as precise as they are, though, as our examples show.

I’ll grill something this weekend. I might barbecue as well (although it tends not to be a verb down South). I know the difference and will be sure that anyone to whom I mention what I’m cooking does as well. See the difference?

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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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