Tag Archives: Food industry

Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Unintended Consequences

It’s Foodie Friday and I have unintended consequences on my mind. What spurred that were a couple of food-related things. I went to do some research about an alcoholic product and of course, I was asked to verify my age before being allowed to read the brand’s website. I assumed that was some sort of regulation imposed on beer, wine, and booze makers since it’s the sort of thing I caution clients about doing all the time: preventing the user from completing their task as seamlessly as possible. As it turns out, there is no rule requiring alcohol brands to do this. What it might do, however, is deter the very people who should have more information about alcohol – young people – from getting educated. This is an unintended consequence. If they lie about their age to gain access, you’ve also caused them to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and making them break the law is another unintended consequence.

I also read a piece on the growth of restaurant delivery services:

As mobile food delivery apps like Seamless, UberEats, Caviar, and Postmates steadily expand their delivery zones and their customer bases, many restaurants are increasingly relying on delivery orders as a significant source of revenue — and they’re having to adapt operations accordingly to keep up with demand.

The unintended consequence here is that restaurant personnel are often spending so much time servicing the take-out business that the customers seated in the dining room have a lesser experience. Putting aside the fact that there is the potential for a restaurant’s reputation to suffer when the product delivered is way inferior to the product in the dining room, a failure to properly prioritize the kitchen to service the folks who have journeyed to the dining room could set up a lose-lose situation, with neither the folks eating at home nor the people eating out being satisfied. There is also the stress caused by having to refine the operations plan to support the take-out business.

We see unintended consequences all the time. Kudzu went from being an ornamental plant to a menace. When the British governor of Delhi, India addressed a cobra infestation by putting a bounty on cobras, they got more, not fewer, snakes, as people raised them to collect the bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen examples in your business of this, whether it’s a different response to a price change than what was anticipated or a sudden wave of popularity of a brand or product based on some bit of social media madness.

Whatever it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about every decision in the context of what the effects of a course of action might be. Who is affected and how? How will it affect competitors and what might their possible responses be? Do this more each alternative you’re contemplating and your odds of avoiding an unintended consequence will improve. You with me?

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A Mustache On The Mona Lisa

It’s Foodie Friday, and I want to relate an experience I had the other night while dining out. It got me thinking about some dumb things folks in the food business do and how any of us in business can be smarter than they seem to have been. I went to get a burger at a local bar that serves excellent food.

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda).

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They grind the burgers themselves out of a combination of several cuts of beef and they cook it nicely. It’s perfectly seasoned and is served on a bun that absorbs the juices without falling apart. I order mine with bacon and a runny fried egg (why not have breakfast with your burger?) but they offer many other options. It’s a work of art: the Mona Lisa of burgers.

When the burger came the other night, I asked the server for some mayo to dress the bun. They used to serve a lovely house-made truffle aioli but the menu has changed and now it’s just mayo. What I got was a handful of packets of mayo. You know – the shelf-stable, room temperature stuff you’d get tossed in your bag at a deli for your take-out sandwich. I was shocked and felt like whoever made the decision to serve their condiments as if we were in a concession line someplace was disrespecting the customer, not to mention their own product. They had put a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

It got me thinking. How could these people compromise the excellence of their product by doing something so silly? Then again, we see plenty of examples of this. Ever notice a water bottle that claims to contain “gluten-free” or “non-GMO” water? It’s another example of a business showing their customers disrespect. You assume we’re too dumb to know that water couldn’t possibly contain those things. I’m sure you’ve seen ads for “hormone-free” chicken. Well, yeah – the law prohibits the use of hormones. It’s fake transparency or worse because it shows a contempt for the customer’s lack of knowledge.

Do I think the bar serving me a packet of mayo is as bad as misleading labeling? No, but both actions come from the same place, one we all need to avoid in business. We need to honor our products and services but first and foremost, we need to honor our customers. I get that this is probably nothing more than a cost-saving measure, but I’m also sure there is mayo in the walk-in and putting a spoonful into a little cup may cost a few cents but is more in line with both the quality of the product and the customer’s expectations. Make sense?

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Our Daily Bread

I was struck, this Foodie Friday, by an article written for the Civil Eats site about how much bread is wasted. I don’t mean financial resources. This is actual bread: loaves, bagels, even donuts. As the piece states:

There’s also the fact that, except in the most exclusive bakeries, a bare shelf is a no-no. Customers expect fresh bread and lots of it. Sugar and fat are also relatively inexpensive, so it is safer to make too much and donate the leftovers than it is to risk running out.

Apparently, it’s a worldwide epidemic, caused, in part, by the growth of factory bread. You know: mass-produced loaves that taste like nothing and are full of fat, carbs, and not much else. Putting aside the quality of the products, I hate waste in all of its forms but particularly when it comes to food. Yes, there are people in this country and around the world who are starving, but I don’t think for a minute that the food either you or I throw out is taken from their mouths. I also get that the statement is more a reminder to be thankful for what we have. What’s lost in idly tossing out food or giving away a bakery’s excess is something I learned from both my friend’s grandmother who taught me to cook and from watching Jacques Pepin on TV.

Nothing is to be wasted. Old bread becomes breadcrumbs or a panade to round out meatballs or a meatloaf. Maybe it’s even the star of a Panzanella. Top mac and cheese with fresh breadcrumbs. Veggie trimmings can be collected and used to make broth, as can shrimp shells or meat trimmings. Ground beef generally is, in fact, meat trimmings.Find some Jacques Pepin videos on YouTube and you’ll be struck by how everything he has is used somehow, even as a garnish.

Bakeries might need to do a better job of managing their dough, but so do we. The kitchen mantra of wasting nothing needs to apply to every business. I once saw the events group at the NHL dragging full garbage bins. They were tossing the contents of their closet which contained event signs and other stuff. We turned their garbage into a million dollar auction business. Nothing is wasted.

What if the bakeries and supermarkets changed the paradigm? What if empty shelves were a sign of an in-demand, high-quality product? What if they made less? Great BBQ places run out of food in hours. It sure makes projecting your P&L a lot easier when you know that you’ll sell everything you make. Sure, you’re losing a bit of upside by running out, but how does that compare with what you’re wasting? Food for thought!

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Weenies!

It’s the start of the college football season this Foodie Friday and that means weenies. You may call them pigs in a blanket but my daughter and I, who are aficionados of them, refer to them as weenies. One football Saturday several years ago we heated up a tray to watch our favorite team play (Go Blue!) and have never looked back. They are a staple of our game day experience and we’re so serious about them that we have tried just about every brand we could find. We learned a few things, some of which have to do with your business as well.

The first thing we learned was that these are one of those foods that are just as good bought frozen as making them yourself. It’s not that they taste appreciably better from the store but the effort required to roll out the puff pastry and properly size either the cut pastry or the hot dog doesn’t yield a dramatic improvement over the best of the store-bought products. That’s an important business thought as well, as we return to the old cost/value equation. For consumers to choose to use your product or service to solve their problem, you need to provide a better return on their investment of time and/or money. In this case, the final results of our homemade weenies took a fair amount of effort that wasn’t a significantly better solution.

Next, we learned that not everyone’s concept of what a weenie should be is the same. We bought versions that were bland hot dogs in buttery puff pastry. Some pastry was dense, almost biscuit-like. Some had parmesan cheese rolled in. Some folks even try to pass off a bagel wrap as an acceptable option. Ha! None were perfect. We found that we loved one brand’s hot dog and another brand’s pastry. Yes, it crossed our minds to buy both and combine the best parts, but our top choice has decent enough pastry to negate the Frankenweenie from happening. But the business point is that you can call your product whatever you want, even a fairly common name, but not everyone is going to think of it in the same way. I think the IHOP even calls sausages wrapped in pancakes pigs in a blanket. That’s definitely NOT what we have in mind to munch whilst watching college football.

Present your product clearly. Excel at solving the cost/value equation from the consumer’s perspective. That’s a dish worth eating every time.

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Supermarket Sweep

It’s Foodie Friday but I want to talk about Thursday. Why Thursday? That’s the day I do my grocery shopping because my preferred supermarket gives a 5% discount to seniors. Stop snickering – I managed to live this long and I deserve the benefit!

One thing I’ve gotten much better about is saving as I shop. Nothing brings joy to me these days like finding a coupon that I can layer on top of an item already on sale. This happened yesterday with Duke’s Mayo and I was nearly brought to tears. In any event, I thought I might pass along a few things I’ve learned, and as it turns out, many of them have a lot of application to your business as well.

First, I try to make some sort of a weekly meal plan. You’d be shocked how much easier shopping is when you know what you’ll be making in advance. I leave myself some flexibility – maybe the rapini looks good and I’ll swap out the asparagus I’d planned to buy. Maybe I’ll just say “beef” as a protein and rely on whatever I can find that’s on sale or, even better, a “yellow tag” special that’s deeply discounted because it’s near its last day of sale. I do look at the circulars that come on Wednesday to help me plan, and the coupons that come the previous Sunday also guide my thinking. The key is that before I step foot into the store I already know why I’m there and what, specifically, I need to buy.

This sort of planning is something I encourage clients to do with their businesses. Chasing the latest shiny object without some sort of a coherent plan rarely works out well. Yes, I’m a believer in just walking to the meat or fish or produce section, buying what looks good on an opportunistic basis, and going from there, but I’ve found that in general, I do better in the long run (and the wallet) by having a plan. Opportunities will always arise but we should only take advantage of the ones that make sense, given our overall plan.

Next, once I have a plan I go through all the coupons, tossing the ones that have expired and matching the ones that haven’t to items that are on sale or in my meal plan. It’s rare that I purchase anything at full price unless there is a pressing need and I can’t find a brand on sale or with a coupon. Like you, I have preferred brands and I’ll stock up on them when they’re on sale. That sort of opportunistic and volume purchasing is something any business can do. Make commitments to providers for a long term in return for a discount. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of lower costs provided that you’re receiving equal value. By the way, this is how your customers think which is why it’s imperative that you emphasize that value you provide to go along with your reasonable costs.

By the way, even if you don’t get a newspaper, most stores post their circulars online, and there are plenty of free online coupons you can print off and take on your trip. As in business, the key is research, planning, and the careful allocation of capital on those things that are in the plan. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

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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