January 21st, 2011 — Food and eating, Marketing
The Fancy Food Show was jam-packed at San Francisco’s Moscone Center…. good news for business but making it difficult to navigate during a truncated visit this week. Here are some highlights:
Trending up: fancy soda
Trending up: cured meats, especially Serrano and Parma hams. I remember when it was a rare treat to get a slice of one of these beasts; this year they are everywhere. Though oddly enough, the salt content of most seems significantly reduced from classic preparations. There was also a jerky stand advertising 50% less sodium than traditional jerky. Also, lots of high-end sodas.
Trending down: nuts. Once a massive snack category, the vendors showing fancy smoked and salted nuts are today few and far between, Too much fat for today’s snacker? Baja Bob’s, a low calorie cocktail maker, can pour you a margarita for 60 calories vs 240 calories for a regular margarita. The benefit of which, they explain, is that your date will have more than one.
Down and out: gluten free everything, All of last year’s signs were gone. Also, vendors trumpeting the ‘USDA Organic” certification were rare even though a pavilion was set aside for them. May be that, as some of the folks at Terra Madre Day speculated, the designation is cumbersome and simultaneously lets in questionable products while not defining a level of quality that is actually useful.
Paul Bertolli and his wonderful head cheese
Product of the year: Testa di Porco (head cheese) from Fra’mani. Paul Bertolli has been threatening to bring this product to market for several years and last Sunday it happened. Ethereal. It’s not little bits of this and that like traditional head cheese but nice big chunks of celery-cured ham held together with a clove-y gelee. People were standing in line for this one.
Trend to watch: consolidation. NYC-based Rick’s Picks, to take one example, is now shipping 10 standard products rather than 14 in the past. In a tough economy retailers can’t be asked to stock that many SKU’s. Rick says there’s a demand for “spears” but that yen is now satisfied with a classic dill sour (really crunchy and good) and the green bean and asparagus spears have been put out to pasture.
Most popular giveaway: showgoers who traveled across the country, and could have all the food they wanted, stood in a long line to get a tea press with the Tea Republic logo. Starbucks take note.
January 6th, 2011 — Food and eating, Tech
On the plane heading to CES in Las Vegas, I decided to think about innovations I’d LIKE to see prior to reading my sheaf of press releases to find out what I actually am GOING to see. This year I’m not looking for any dramatic product category breakthroughs. Instead I’m on the prowl for stuff that makes our life easier, especially when it comes to food and eating related tasks.
The iGrill Bluetooth thermometer mentioned yesterday is a good place to start. It’s pretty intuitive how it works without knowing much more than the name. You can be sitting in front of the game indoors and still monitor the temperature of your meat (or perhaps the internal temperature of the grilling chamber) and when it’s done, get up and waddle out into the sunlight to collect your perfectly smoked brisket.
At $99, the iGrill seems a bit pricey for a one-trick pony. It would be nice if, after reading the temperature, it can do something for you… like turn off the heat (if it’s a gas grill) or dump a fresh supply of wood or charcoal on the fire. And hey, how about a really smart convection oven that can show you temperature and airflow in your oven in a heat map diagram on your iPad and you can move your finger around to adjust things? Or, a device that releases an even supply of steam inside the oven to produce a perfect loaf of crusty bread? That doesn’t need to be electronic, probably, just a fancy teapot with tricky vents and valves. I’m digressing a bit…
Lots of devices are integrated systems these days…. think of your dishwasher, or clothes washer, and the multiple functions that happen at the touch of a button. These things are controlled electronically, so theoretically it does not seem to me complicated or expensive to add a software interface that lets you monitor and modify what’s going on. Then add the Bluetooth connection and software on the computing device, and you’re in business, right?
Every year there are a number of platform areas at CES…. a number of vendors following a common standard such as X-10 or Zigbee. The booths often seem kind of sad and underfunded and it’s hard to see them starting a revolution. Meanwhile some of the big vendors, often Panasonic, will develop a technology on their own and if it takes off then others adopt it. Such is the inefficient platform development system in conumser electronics.
I’d also like to see a solution that lets you retrofit a remote control, software based interface to legacy gadgets… like Slingbox, but for my bread machine. I have been fiddling with one of these devices and it shows promise. So, what if I want to set it from the road to turn on and have a hot fresh loaf waiting when I come home? Slingbox’s secret is that it uses infrared technology,… a communications channel between the home entertainment system and a remote that is already there. The only interface to the bread machine is your finger. But, you’re saying, I could do all the programming and have some kind of delayed device to give power to the machine. That might work on some models but not mine; you have to unplug then plug it back in to input cycle instructions.
I am eager to see if some smarter soul has figured out some of these things for me…..
October 14th, 2010 — Everything else, Food and eating
I for one could not get enough of the rescue of the Chilean miners yesterday. I spent much of the day watching “Miner TV” and I quickly switched to Telemundo so I could actually hear the statements of the rescued miners instead of Larry King talking over them. It was an inspiring example of teamwork on both ends of the tunnel and a testament to what determination and a little technology can accomplish.
The haters (including a few journalists) are now saying that it was no big deal, they weren’t actually in that much danger. Balderdash. For the first 17 days, when they had no idea whether they would be rescued, the miners subsisted on 48 hours worth of rations and when they were discovered the bloodwork showed their systems had started to feed on themselves from dehydration. The medics up top knew that to quickly bulk them up with candy bars or other sugar sources would send them into shock. So the miners got copious liquids… first water, then energy drinks, gradually giving way to protein and finally to empanadas that were specially shaped to fit in “la paloma”, the tube used for lowering supplies into the mine. By the time of the rescue, there was a little concern that some of the miners would fit into the rescue cylinder.
I predict that some entrepreneur will quickly come to market with “The Chile Miners Diet” consisting of this process… but in reverse. Start with a normal diet then strip away everything except protein and ultimately water. Hopefully it will stop at that point before the miners’ original state is reached. You read it first right here.
July 29th, 2010 — Everything else, Food and eating
As long as it is on or near a lake or stream, an upstate NY vacation home is called a “camp”. There’s usually some concession to rusticity without really roughing it. In the case of my wife’s camp, it is a stove with only two burners (the others having been destroyed in a flood), a collection of pots inherited from her parents, and country cupboards which not only conceal their contents, but move them around when I am not looking so I can’t find an ingredient at the exact moment I need it.
I am up here with my two boys and I have learned to make weekly specials at the local market my friend; if it is advertised in the flyer they are more likely to actually have it at the lone store in town. Shopping with a preplanned meal in mind: very bad idea.
We tend to make a big pot of something and repurpose it over several days. Chicken Cacciatore (prepared with Mr. Purdue’s bargain leg quarters, not the prissy organic birds we buy “down the line”), carnitas and Texas chili (beans on the side) have figured so far. There is a steady stream of teen and preteen boys through the kitchen requesting hot chocolate, which is a good thing because I found three boxes of Nestle Cocoa in the cabinets, all expiring in 2010. Now looking for ideas to draw down a dozen half used boxes of pasta and 4 bags of lentils; when one wants to be sure something is on hand in camp, one tends to bring it up from the city forgetting one did the same thing last year, and the year before.
I have learned to successfully cook coffee in a stovetop percolator (the secret: don’t use too much coffee, or the water can’t seep through from the top grounds to the bottom) and broil on an ancient gas grill prone to flareups (always have a can of beer in your hand…. that’s to put out any leaping flames).
I look forward to being back in a kitchen where the utensils and equipment will do what I ask them to, and forgotten ingredients are five minutes away, but it is nice to have limitations and learn to stick with them. I am in awe of caterers and “secret kitchen” chefs who work like this every day.
July 26th, 2010 — Everything else, Food and eating
The past month I’ve been cooking in two unfamiliar kitchens, the first being the San Francisco bachelor/bachelorette pad shared by several friends of my daughter and the second the “camp” belonging to my wife in the Adirondacks.
In San Francisco, my task was to prepare a Texas brisket meal for 60 people for the wedding party. I knew what I was in for and brought a number of key components with me, including my chef’s knife, a stack of aluminum trays and several necessary spices. But there were some things too big to carry on the plane, like the brisket itself and hickory chunks for the smoker (my old one from Phillip Claypool, which had been kindly stored in the back yard of the same SF flat). Chunks were hard since not only are San Franciscans not known for their smoking but in fact there is a city ordinance against open fires; finally I found a small expensive bag at Action Rentals, which also rents cooking equipment.
Brisket, on the other hand, was a major score. Cash & Carry, a restaurant wholesaler, had USDA Choice for $1.57 a pound… a lower price than I’ve ever seen in Texas. They also had an enormous bag of shredded cabbage at the same per-pound price I’d paid for the 10 pounds I’d just shredded myself to make sour slaw, so I added that to the hand truck. I stood in line with several other happy guys sharing hints (but no trade secrets) for what we were going to do with our brisket.
I was prepared for challenges in the prep, just didn’t know what they would be. The beans (to be used for Jack Daniels style baked beans eventually) were precooked in another alien location, the galley kitchen of the “home away” where I was staying with my boys; I used every pot and pan in the place. Back at the flat, the cookspace turned out to be tiny and without a cutting surface so I went out and bought a cutting board, the only outright cookware purchase I made. And I had too many briskets to fit in the smoker so I had to cook them in two batches, making for a 10 am to midnight cooking day. Fortunately the apartment dwellers were away at the formal pre-wedding ball where I was supposed to be; I put in an appearance then scurried back to tend my brisket and I knew the culinary gods were smiling when I was able to carry four trays of dripping brisket down three flights of stairs to my car parked in the towaway zone without spilling anything on my fancy duds.
The meal turned out just like it was supposed to, served the next night to hungry people at a conference center in the redwoods who kept coming back for seconds, which I was happy to be able to offer them. One half a brisket made it through the night and for the rest of the weekend whenever you went into the kitchen at the center (which hadn’t been available to me for prep) you’d see somebody surreptitiously sneaking a scrap out of the fridge. Among them were the renowned caterers who prepared the next night’s wedding feast, high praise indeed.
June 7th, 2010 — Food and eating, Marketing, Words and writing
You know the economy is improving when the incidence of bad advertising and clueless products starts to rise. In tough times, every single product and marketing manager has to justify its existence. But today there’s a place for talent like the creative committee that came up with this slogan for Perkins: Our people deliver more.
Get it? It’s a delivery company. But when some copywriter (not a great one, but at least with a pulse) came up with the slogan “our people deliver” the committee was not comfortable. “Any delivery company can make that claim,” the CEO or CFO perhaps pointed out. “I’ve got it,” yelled a board member. “Let’s add a ‘more’ after the catchphrase and turn it into a USP.” Well he didn’t exactly say that because he doesn’t know what a catchphrase or USP is. But see what he did? Took a workable slogan and turned it into a generic statement.
Want some cleaning supplies with that sirloin?
This is a company with quite a tin ear for marketing. Take a look at the Perkins home page pictured here. Does anybody else feel a little queasy with the juxtaposiition of the juicy steak and the guy with his foot on the bumper of the car linked by the recycling logo that makes it look like one is turning into the other? Turns out Perkins is both a foodservice delivery company AND a janitorial/sanitation/laundry company. I can see that the same hapless copywriter pointing out that these are rather dissimilar services that maybe shouldn’t be shown side by side on the page, and I see CEO barking “why the hell not?”
Lucky for this misplaced copywriter, a job will soon be opening up at one of the recognizable brands in America: Lysol. They are now advertising the “No Touch Hand Soap System” because—did you know—germs can get on the handle of the soap pump? Wait a minute, I thought that was why you have soap. Do people not know to use the soap after they dispense it into their hands? I think Lysol is underestimating its audience (even the people who are watching “All My Children” which is where I saw it advertised) and indeed, this product is already being remaindered at Overstock.com. The product is on its way out and the product manager may not be far behind.
Happy days are here again.
April 13th, 2010 — Food and eating
I have been trying ever since I arrived in Upstate New York to understand the appeal of the “red sauce place”. This is a neighborhood restaurant that serves a limited menu of Italian-American staples, and many people are passionate about their favorite local spot. To me the food seems one-dimensional (which objectively it is, since the identical red sauce will make its appearance on three or four dishes at your table) and often rather high priced (I’m talking $20 or more for a pasta dinner with a food cost of maybe $4).
Last weekend, I finally got it while enjoying a pressed prosciutto sandwich and an antipasto platter at Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Street Market in the Bronx. Arthur Street, variously called the “real” Little Italy or the “original” Little Italy, is full of strollers all of whom know each other and are happily catching up as they munch on foodstuffs or dart in and out of shops. Our plan (which I recommend) was to fortify ourselves with lunch prior to visiting the Bronx Zoo. We were there before the sit down places opened at noon, so we wandered into the retail market and found Mike’s.
The food was good but not great (once the hunger subsided and I took a look around I realized there are two eating establishments in the marketplace, and Mike’s is the less popular) but what was great was the abundance. Choose your own pre-made sandwich from a pile higher than your head and they will griddle and plate it for you. Or design your own. Or order a sampler of the day’s entrees (Veal Saltimbucca, Chicken Marco Polo, Calimari in cream sauce and Linguini with Shrimp) for $6.95. Or…
What sums it up is Mike’s slogan, on the waitress’ t-shirt: Our salami satisfies everybody. That, I realized, is the litmus test of the red sauce place: the delivery of pleasure through food. And abundance has to be at the core of this, because you need plenty of volume if not variety to carry you through a lengthy table experience.
And that is why the upstate red sauce places charge so much. They may not have the best ingredients, they may not have the most imaginative preparations, but they sure do give you a ridiculous amount of food. (Invariably, reviewers who give a red sauce place five stars on Yelp will talk about how they had enough food for another meal the following day.) And in retrospect the taste of the food is mingled with the pleasure of the conversation and maybe a few glasses of wine and ecco, a great red sauce place.
Tomato Pie fresh from the oven at Perreca's in Schenectady.
I have written previously about the San Marzano sauce I made from scratch, with organic tomatoes just picked in the fields, using a recipe from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It is just one of three basic red sauces in that book, and Tomato Sauce III (a light, briefly cooked sauce with butter and a halved onion that tastes to me like the essence of summer) is a world apart from Tomato Sauce I which I made. Start adding ingredients, to make for example Ragu Bolognaise, and your red sauce repertoire branches out considerably. Which is to say I believe the numerous red sauce places I’ve sampled are coasting.
Tomatoes lend themselves beautifully to canning (so it’s silly that Yelpers who want to disparage a place will carp that “the red sauce tastes like it came out of a can”) and it’s easy enough to make a sauce better than 90% of what I’ve had so far by opening a can of San Marzanos and cooking it down with the addition of some sugar and tomato paste for intensity. The result is pretty close to what they spread on the tomato pie at Perreca’s. It’s 30 miles down the road in Schenectady, but I’ve decided this is my neighborhood red sauce place until something better comes along.
January 23rd, 2010 — Food and eating, Marketing
This show didn’t have the excitement of June in NYC, which may be due to the fact that the west coast was harder hit by the recession than the Northeast. (Though many of the same vendors exhibit at all the shows in SF, Chicago and NYC, merchants tend to go to the show closest to them.) There were some empty booths, but good floor traffic. Three trends I noted:
Gluten-free candy... who would have thought?
1. Gluten-free everything. People with celiac disease can’t eat gluten, but for most of the rest of us it’s the wheat protein enhanced during kneading that makes rustic bread chewy and delicious. But marketers seemed to have sensed a trend that “free” of anything equates healthy goodness, so there are many booths advertising “gluten-free” products that would never contain gluten in the first place.
2. Pizza. Lots and lots of frozen gourmet pizzas are on hand, designed to be sold at $6 or more for an individual-size pie. Also a lot of flatbreads that are advertising themselves as pizza foundations.
3. Old-timey packaging. There are an increasing number of packagers trying to make their product look like it has been around for 150 years, with accompanying benefits of heritage and nostalgia and old time values, even if it just came to market. Correspondingly, there’s less of the light and bright “lightbox” look (I call it that because the products are designed to look great when lit from below on a shelf) that has been popular in recent years.
I did a taste comparison of high end vodka pasta sauces, which were easy to find on the floor. I’d had the real thing, more or less, at Rao’s in Las Vegas last week, and the ones I tasted (included jarred Rao’s as well as Mario Batali) suffered in comparison less from being preserved than from being dumbed-down in flavor and salt. Marketers, no doubt with lots of consumer research backing them up, have decided that the product’s personality should come from the face on the label, rather than the actual taste.
This show is not blogger-friendly, by the way. I registered as a media “trade affiliate” which I won’t do again. Maybe guessing I am not a serious buyer, some boothers tend to pull back the sample tray as I approach. Or maybe they’re just worried I am going to suitcase them.
September 27th, 2009 — Food and eating
Yesterday I drove from San Francisco to Hollister for the last Tomato U-Pick of the season at Mariquita Farm. It’s run by a couple who decided they’d rather sell direct from the fields than pay rent at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
San Marzano tomatoes on the vine.
If there is anything better than standing in the autumn sun and plucking a warm ripe tomato off the vine and popping it in your mouth, I would like to know about it. I had planned to pick 10 pounds of San Marzanos for sauce and 5 pounds of Early Girls mixed with a few heirlooms. But my emotions got the best of me and I ended up with 25 pounds of Marzanos and 30 plus pounds of everything else.
My 25 lbs of San Marzanos.
The tomatoes, other than the Marzanos, were so ripe that many of them got squished and overripe on the long drive back (punctuated with a stop for Bun Pho Hue in San Jose) and they ended up in the sauce. I made a classic red sauce, which I wanted for comparison to the “red sauce places” I’m encountering in my new home in Saratoga. I adapted a recipe from Marcella Hazan which goes like this:
Classic Red Tomato Sauce for pasta or pizza
10 pounds San Marzano tomatoes
1 ½ cup each finely chopped onion, celery and carrot
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (mild, not overly “grassy” in taste)
Salt and sugar
San Marzano red sauce following Marcella Hazan recipe
Dump the tomatoes into a sink or very large bowl full of water. Take them out slicing each in half lengthwise and cutting out any bad spots and transfer to a large pot. Bring to a simmer, covered; the water from washing will be enough liquid so they don’t stick. Once the mixture is bubbling away remove the lid and continue simmering about 90 minutes more until the tomatoes have lost their individual identity. Allow to cool to a safe handling temperature, then put them through a food strainer. I did this twice: at a coarse setting to remove the skins, then a finer setting to remove the seeds.
Meanwhile, sauté the onion in about ¼ cup olive oil until translucent. Remove then sauté carrots 5 minutes, then add celery and sauté 3 minutes more. Puree the carrots, onions and celery in a food processer and add to strained tomatoes. Cook 30 minutes then taste for seasoning. I only added 1 T of salt and 1 T of sugar and thought about using even less than this; the tomatoes themselves were that good and complete.
The result was fabulous, rich and tomato-y. Out of curiosity, I’d initially cooked the other squished tomatoes separately. Heirlooms are pretty, Early Girls are sweet, but San Marzanos have the robust flavor profile this sauce demands.
Pizzas and green zebras for dinner.
Dinner was an assortment of pizzas made with the red sauce and with individual tomato slices, accompanied by sliced green zebras (they were getting ripe faster than anything else) in a vinaigrette with garlic and basil. All in all, a pretty good day—assuming you like tomatoes, of course.
August 12th, 2009 — Copywriting 101, Everything else, Marketing
The lead story in the Specialty Foods newsletter today really caught my eye. “Some 52% of consumers are monitoring the amount of sodium in their diets and 26% read labels for sodium.” This seems simply incredible on the face of it, especially in the context of my new home in upstate New York where 77.8% of the populace pays no attention whatsoever to what goes into their gullet.
Seeking understanding, I follow the link to its source — Mintel, “a leading global supplier of consumer, product and media intelligence.” Here I find out that:
- 22% [of consumers] restrict the amount of salt that they add to food, but don’t watch the much greater amount of sodium that is in foods and beverages
- 18% say that “food and beverages low in sodium are one of the three most important components of a healthy diet”
- 26% read labels for sodium, and may make some decisions based on this info, but they are not following a regimen to control sodium in their diet
- 34% do not pay attention to sodium
Except for the last stat (which seems low), none of these numbers seems at all credible to me on a seat-of-the-pants basis. Do they to you? Perhaps this is some research from a survey that is skewed to make a particular marketing point? So let’s look at the original source material, the verbatim comments from the survey. Oops, they aren’t available. Instead Mintel offers a link to a webinar where we can learn about “Sodium: The Next Trans Fat?”
High school debaters learn that with a little digging, they can find a “statistic” to support any point of view. Perhaps in the Mintel survey, and I’m stipulating that there was one, they asked people “do you ever think about the amount of sodium in your diet?” and 52% said yes. That would still be a high number, but I’d accept it. Then maybe some creative marcom copywriter changed it to “monitor” which recasts the same stat as alarming or fascinating news.
One of my earliest bosses promised he was going to teach me to “lie with statistics”. I didn’t last very long at that position and don’t know what happened to that boss. Hmm…