business news in context, analysis with attitude

We wrote last week about the "slow food" movement, and got the following email on Wednesday from a member of the MNB community:

How timely! This is the one week of the year that most everyone is guaranteed to be sitting down to at least one “slow food” meal. It is a pity that it is so rare. I will admit that I and my family are part of a rather strange fringe element in the United States of 2003: we eat dinner together EVERY NIGHT. Even if one of us can’t be there, the rest have a sit-down dinner. Often, one of the kids (we have six at home, from 14 years down to 2) will cook. Sometimes it’s a very loose affair, leftovers or “breakfast for dinner,” and once in a rare while my husband will bring home roasted chickens from Publix. Even then we make a salad and potatoes or rice. I would say that we cook “from scratch” at least 90% of the time. And we even go, all eight of us, to my parents’ for dinner every Sunday night.

OK, so this is not the norm any longer. But it should be, and it really could be. We have active kids, my husband has a 45 minute drive home each evening, and I take evening belly dance classes (I told you we were a bit different!). And still we manage to eat real food, together, every night. I cook mostly vegetarian food, though we do eat some fish and the aforementioned occasional chicken. Yes, it takes some time, though honestly not as much a people seem to think. If I make pizza, we are eating sooner than if we had ordered it—and the food is better (pizza is truly easy to make—my 12 and 14 year olds can do it. So can YOU.)

My husband is the one in the produce business (I am merely a lurker who enjoys your commentary greatly—it is fodder for great drive-time cell-phone conversations!), so I hesitate to offer any prescriptions for the industry. I have seen things that seemed to work, though. I used to live in the Puget Sound area and shop at PCC, where they offered guided tours of the stores, complete with recipe handouts. They offered a wonderful array of classes that introduced people to unfamiliar foods, techniques and cuisines. I am sure that it is easier to sell quinoa if people know what to do with it (and if they know that it cooks in the same time as white rice, but is much more interesting and nutritious). Of course, this is quite a self-selected audience of motivated consumers.

But, as you say repeatedly, education of the consumer is a key to staying competitive. This works in any store, no matter what the niche. And it puts a “face” on the store, if you have live people doing the educating (handing out samples, recipes, leading tours). Ask any mom out shopping what she thinks of samples. Chances are she’s thrilled at the way they mollify her kids while she races to finish the dreaded weekly shopping. She might even get to taste some herself (that would be the chewed-up piece the little one rejected, but, no matter! Moms will eat anything their darlings hand them.) All of this education does help to make the “chore” of cooking a bit more approachable.

The best advice I have to get the family to eat together? It doesn’t come from the grocery industry. Start by turning off the TV. It doesn’t sound sappy at all that we should sit down and talk with our families over dinner. How else do we create the bonds that hold us together, if we don’t share time and our thoughts?

Thanks for letting me spout off, though I am sure that I am an anomaly and as such will be dismissed by most as doing the impossible. Ah well, maybe we will start a small revolution with our kids and their families . . . it’s all they have ever known.

Also on the subject of "slow food," MNB user Sharmyn Woolworth wrote:

I found it interesting to note your thoughts about Slow Food, even once a week, having the potential to "improve society˜ and I agree that there are many things in our society that at first glance are a Godsend, but in practice are gently eroding our society like water over rock˜ and yet as I scrolled down your column a bit I found the FastNewsBeat section and had to wonder: is Fast News similar to Fast Food in that it satisfies the bare minimum of (knowledge) sustenance and allows us to get back to our busy lives but is all too often a replacement for full-bodied (news) diets?

Are we a society that is so rich in information that must be consumed fast an on the go that we're starving in knowledge? Do we base all of our assessments on what can fit into three lines of text or five seconds of air time? Whoever sold us "Fast Is Better!" has probably got a bridge he'd like to talk to us about.

Interesting…we'd never thought about it this way before.

FastNewsBeat is a section designed to offer brief news stories that simply don't seem to require the full attention that we give other stories. True, it is a section that probably provides basic sustenance rather than a full meal…but we think that's okay. We happen to think that in any given week, people probably should be able to have fast food, slow food, and everything in between.

We also got a great pre-Thanksgiving email from MNB user Glenn Cantor:

It is the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, and 70,000 people (and their families) in Southern California are out of work.

We should reflect on the effect of the on-going conflict between the drive for lower prices and costs, and the ethical responsibility of business to provide for the welfare of the people in markets in which they chose to do business. All companies have an ethical responsibility to their constituents- including customers, employees, and shareholders/owners. To ignore the welfare of one group in favor of another may yield short-term benefits to a minority of stake-holders, but this also results in the long-term deterioration of the very societies and markets that are needed to ensure perpetual growth. Those business leaders that understand, and practice, this level of responsibility and commitment will enjoy ultimate, long-term success both personally and in business.

On the other hand, those who continue to ignore long-range ramifications in favor of short-term gains will ultimately destroy the markets and societies that they will need to ensure continued viability - this is the old, "seeing the forest through the trees" syndrome.

As we approach this Thanksgiving Day holiday, and the season of giving, it
is my hope that business and political leaders who recognize this
responsibility will step forward to lead in the United States. While we have much in this country for which we can be thankful, the perpetuation of the long-term viability of our capitalistic society depends on the well-being and happiness of all people. To ignore all in favor of a few is short-sighted, and just plain unconscionable. Good leaders will act within this responsibility.

Last week's piece about Voortman Cookies deciding to make its entire line of cookies trans fat-free prompted MNB user Ron Rash to send us an email:

Seems the brands are following private label manufacturers rather than the other way around.

Quite a few private label manufacturers have already switched to non-Trans Fat or are in the process. Many have been using non-hydrogenated soybean oil, canola oil and palm kernel oil for some time now.

Voortman's move should just add more weight to the trend.

Regarding the new Medicare bill, MNB user Mark E. O'Toole wrote:

It simply amazes me that we don't involve the most competent women and men in solving such a complex problem. Rather than do this, we solicit the help of government officials and their "groupies" that support their views, special interest, and we always end up with something sub-par and something that both sides will blame the others for years to come.

I would believe that we should enlist the services of the top drug companies and insurance companies and let them work-out a plan that works for America and not their individual entity. That should be the mandate and not some party claiming victory because their interest were served.

Both parties should be ashamed of themselves.

On the other hand, it isn’t like the drug and insurance companies don't have their vested interests and groupies…

We got the following email about the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) call for the US government to file a new suit against the European Union over GMO labeling:

GMA's request to file suit against the EU over GMO labeling, in a word, ridiculous.

Regarding Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation, one MNB user wrote:

While COOL seems to be more a nuisance than anything else, I'd just like to point out that it probably would have helped considerably in the green onion hepatitis incident.

In a Tales from the Front piece last week, we wrote about our experience in a local store where the employees didn’t do a very good job of communicating appropriately with the shopper. Which led one MNB user to write:

Boy, you nailed it. Here's an example that sticks out in my mind and really highlights success vs. failure resulting from poor people skills (really - poor training on the part of management).

I went to Winn Dixie last Friday at around 4:30 to pick up some things. At the register, the cashier - who was unkempt and wearing a stained wrinkled uniform, yelled across the front to the service desk "You tell Bill (the manager I guess?) I ain't workin one minute past five o'clock". Then she watched me bag my own groceries while she impatiently waited on the check card to slowly process the transaction. In fairness to WD - The store was well stocked, had a better selection than any store in town, and was clean.

At Publix the next day, a polite lady kindly processed my order, made just enough small talk, and thanked the bag boy for packing up my order. Everyone in the store is helpful, dressed appropriately, and working. The managers are always in control of the ship, rather than continually struggling keeping it afloat.

Go figure - Publix is one of the most successful supermarket chains in the US. Winn Dixie is slowly dying, and probably can't figure out why. I'm sure I pay more at Publix, but why deal with imbeciles if you don't have to? Life is too short - I'll pay more.

We were at a Publix recently where the guy on line in front of us was buying flowers. The cashier asked what they were for, and it ended up that his wife had just had their first baby after more than a decade of being told by doctors that she couldn’t conceive. There was genuine good feelings being expressed at that checkout…and it was a nice moment…all because the cashier was interested and engaged enough to ask a simple question.

We had a piece last week about Wal-Mart planning to sell a line of private label laptops, to which MNB user Kirk Martensen responded:

In addition to selling laptops for unbelievably low prices, Wal-Mart will probably use them as a loss leader to generate traffic and bolster add-on sales (leading naturally to more fully featured step up sales). Let's also not forget about E-machines, which now profitably sells opening-price point computers.

This story also clearly got another MNB user thinking out of the box (or maybe, in this case, 'in the box'):

Stop, for a moment and think what would happen if Wal-Mart entered the funeral business. Talk about an industry where there has been so much chatter about prices, etc. and what Wal-Mart's entry would do. Consider that most folks aren't prepared for the sticker shock they encounter in a time of great stress and what decisions must be made on behalf of the departed. Many of your "neighborhood" parlors are, I believe, part of national chains anyway at this point.

It would certainly give whole new meaning to burying the competition…
KC's View: