business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

CHICAGO - Yesterday, I used this space to muse a bit about the turbulence that I believe faces much of the food industry, in the form of competition and technology and changing consumer trends and tastes. My thoughts were prompted largely by comments made Tuesday by Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL who know runs an investment group that specializes in launching and nurturing innovative start-up companies.

Yesterday, I actually found some optimism, delivered with flourish and joy.

It was at an FMI general session in which two celebrity chefs - Mario Batali and Robert Irvine - in which they talked about something that I've found often is not focused on enough in supermarkets.


And what came across in the session - moderated by FMI CEO Leslie Sarasin - was the degree to which these guys absolutely love food. Not necessarily the fancy stuff, of course. Batali waxed rhapsodic at one point about the the pleasures of linguini with clams, soft scrambled eggs, or pork chops with a sprinkle of pickled cherry peppers ("that you can pick up in any supermarket," he pointed out) that are cooked under the broiler. "Simpler and more realizable" is best, he said, suggesting that the only obstacles to that kind of cooking "is thinking you can't do it."

Batali also said at one point to the assembled grocers and suppliers, "Show me five steps to make something in eight minutes, and I'll be your customer for life."

Irvine talked a bit more about the fitness lifestyle, but emphasized that good food can be very much a part of this. 'Food changes people's lives," he said. "It changes their mental state and physical being, and you are part of that." And, he emphasized, "Food is not handcuffs."

The good news about the session was that it likely made everybody a little bit hungry. But if there was bad news for FMI, it was that it seemed that there was less food sampling on the exhibit floor than ever ... which may suggest that the organization (which once had an entire show built around 'Meal Solutions") is at some sort of creative crossroads.

This is not to say that there was no food at the McCormick Place convention center. In fact, the United Fresh exhibit floor across the hall seemed very much busier, with lots of sampling and energy. And more than a few people observed to me that the Italian Pavilion on the FMI floor was pretty busy, largely because there was more food (and wine) there.

The thing is, more and more food stores are finding that they have to be more focused on food - fresh, delicious, even challenging food, and not the lowest-common-denominator products that used to dominate their aisles - because it can be for them an enormous differential advantage against competition that is coming at them from all directions. And they have to find ways to bring the "flourish and joy" about which Batali talked to their own food offerings.

They have to do it right, or it won't be worth doing.

Meanwhile, FMI already is reacting to the general perception that the show this year is under-attended and lacks the energy of past years. The association will address the issue in a press conference scheduled for later today at which Sarasin will talk about plans for 2017: “We recognize that today’s grocers must be nimble to meet the growing demand for products, global cuisines, new shopping and customer communication channels and more; therefore, our event will progressively address these changes," she said in a statement preceding the press conference. " We are taking steps to change the event to increasingly reflect the food retail industry’s customized approach to food retailing operations and the shopping experience, which is why we’re committing to boldness and agility.”

• In other news, FMI announced the winners of the 2016 Store Manager Awards - Alberto Ayala of Northgate Gonzalez Market, Los Angeles, California (in the 1-49 stores category); Piotr Soja, of Big Y Foods, Inc., Northampton, Massachusetts (in the 50-199 stores category); Josh Birmingham, of The Kroger Co. Columbus Division, Holland, Ohio (in the 200+ stores category); Ted Pigeon, of Overwaitea Food Group, Victoria, BC, Canada (in the international division); and Jon Wieser, of Festival Foods, Green Bay, Wisconsin, who got the 2016 Store Manager People's Pick Award.
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