Tag Archives: Food industry

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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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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Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

The Health Inspector

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s talk about the grades restaurants receive from the health department. Depending on where you live, you might see an “A” to “F” scale or some number on a 100-point scale. Most jurisdictions require that the establishment display its most recent grade and I, for one, make a point to have a look at it, especially when it’s an unfamiliar place. I don’t know about you, but I won’t eat in a place where the grade drops below 92 or “A”. Better safe than sorry, right?

I looked up the record of a place in which I eat frequently. It’s well-run and I’ve peeked in the kitchen to see if my opinion might change (back of house and front of house are two very different worlds, after all). It too looked well run. Their last 9 inspections confirm this – they run from a low of 96 to a few perfect scores of 100. Does that make the food taste any better? No, but at least I have no qualms about tasting it.

Why do I raise this since most of us aren’t in the restaurant business? Because each of us gets inspected and publicly rated every day. Search for any business and you’ll almost assuredly see several review sites or actual reviews in the search results themselves. I’m not even thinking of influencers here, just normal folk who have some information (if they’ve patronized a business and you haven’t, that’s knowledge) and the ability to share it. I suspect that Amazon’s product reviews are almost as valuable an information source as their purchase data, and Consumer Reports has built a business in doing unbiased reviews for as long as I can remember.

Everyone who interacts with you business is a health inspector of sorts. The National Restaurant Association has some tips on how to prepare for a health inspection and a few just might apply to your business as well:

  • Walk into your establishment from the outside to get an outsider’s impression.
  • Brief your kitchen staff to review any problems post-inspection.
  • Ensure all staff are on the same page.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Train your managers to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest food-safety techniques.
  • Review your local health code.

In other words, approach things from the customer’s perspective, reinforce that need to everyone on the staff, operate as a cohesive unit, listen and respond to customer feedback, stay current and be sure you’re operating under whatever set of rules govern your field of business. Those tips will keep health inspectors of any sort happy, don’t you think?

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How Rude

This Foodie Friday our topic is rudeness. OK, maybe not rudeness per se but whatever it is one would call being brusque with servers in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and elsewhere. You know what I’m talking about. You probably have a friend who treats the waitstaff as if they are indentured servants rather than food service professionals who work long hours for not a lot of money. Maybe they make ridiculous demands or maybe they manage to find fault with everything that’s sent from the kitchen, causing problems not just for the server but also for the cook who will probably have to refire the dish.

It’s an important business point. When you’re dining out, you’re in a position of power with respect to the servers and, to a lesser extent, the entire kitchen. In an office setting, there are managers who revel in that and they’re the ones whose subordinates can’t wait to find employment elsewhere. No one likes being treated dismissively. The rude manager is probably feeling a need to demonstrate how special (or entitled) they are. To a lesser extent, I think they’re trying to see what they can get away with. Unfortunately, subordinates rarely get the chance to tell the manager’s manager how detrimental this behavior is to the entire team.

I’m not saying we need to be obsequious either to the waitstaff or to our subordinates. I am saying that “please,” “thank you,” and other demonstrations of appreciation (a nice tip to the server, a decent raise if possible to the employee) will get you better results than being demanding and rude. I often wished that I could take every candidate I was thinking of hiring out for a meal, or at least for coffee. You will learn an awful lot about their character, especially if the service really is bad or if their order gets messed up.

One of my bosses told me a long time ago to think about managing as if I were moving a piece of string. If you get behind it and push, it rarely will go where you want. If you get out in front and pull, you can lead it anywhere. Good manners are part of being out in front, whether in a restaurant or an office, don’t you think?

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It’s Time For Brunch!

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic this week is brunch. You might not have noticed, but having breakfast late is a thing. In fact, many restaurants are adding a specific brunch menu while all-day breakfast has contributed mightily to McDonald’s improved financial results. Consumer research shows the growth of brunch service in restaurants around the country as customers enjoy breakfast foods all day and night long.

Mid-City New Orleans: Brunch at the Ruby Slipp...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to its 2017 MenuTrends report, Datassential reveals brunch was available at 4.9 percent of all chain and independent restaurants in the United States in 2016, compared to 2.0 percent of restaurants ten years prior. Over the past four years (2012-2016), brunch service in U.S. restaurants increased by 43.5 percent.

In other words, restaurants are catering (pun intended) to the desires of their customers for breakfast foods around the clock. I’m willing to bet your local diner has always served breakfast all day so this isn’t exactly a surprise or huge innovation. What is an interesting development is how many places have responded and added a brunch or all day breakfast menu.

Contrast this with a place I know that opened as a casual lunch business, got great reviews, but not enough business. The owner didn’t want to change his business hours to include early supper to take advantage of the increased foot traffic in the neighborhood after 5. He wasn’t able to make a go of it. The flaw wasn’t the food or the service or even the location. It was in not responding to the realities of the market and the opportunities those realities presented.

Your business might be making similar mistakes. What are your customers telling you? What are market trends showing? It may be overly simplistic, but if customers are enjoying breakfast foods all day long, your job, if you’re in the breakfast business at least part of the day, is to serve them all day as well. You can fight your competitors but you can’t fight your customers’ tastes! Make sense?

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