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    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Occasional & random musings from The Content Guy…
    We noted in a story above that technology can provide a trap for retailers, obscuring the importance of the human connection.

    Well, we're in Seattle at the moment, working on the production of a Japanese documentary/video about the US supermarket business, and at dinner last night we came face to face with a perfect example of the importance of a human face.

    The face belonged to Jacqueline (we don't know her last name), who waited on us last night at the Dahlia Lounge, one of three great restaurants here owned by chef Tom Douglas.

    She was, quite frankly, the best waitress we can ever remember encountering. She was funny, attentive (but not overly so), and educated about the food. When picking out a wine, we had joked about loving adventure - so when we mentioned that we were torn between choosing the Alaskan Troll Caught King Salmon (with pea shoot-tomato salad, carrot reduction, Yukon gold potatoes and peas) and the Roasted pork loin (with molasses glazed pork belly, caramelized onion spoon bread and roasted figs) - she simply smiled, took away our menu, and said she would surprise us.

    She did - with the salmon. And it was one of the best salmon dishes we ever ate. (The wine was a 2000 Chateau Benoit Pinot Noir - which would've worked with both meals, but was a perfect complement to the salmon.)

    It ends up that Jacqueline is a working mom who has a chef husband and a two-year-old son - and she personalized the meal for all of us in a way that was both unusual and uplifting. She knew her stuff, she understood her customers, and she put a great face on an already estimable restaurant.

    Every once in a while, it is heartening to run into and report on a great food experience.

    The Dahlia Lounge was one of them. If you’re ever there, ask to be seated at one of Jacqueline's tables.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    We got several emails this week pointing out that, contrary to our usual practice, we had not posted NFL scores this week.

    We plead guilty. Being on the west coast and working on several projects other than MNB, we've been writing these stories and commentaries at odd hours - and the sports scores got away from us. Sorry about that.

    For those who may have missed them, the Week 3 NFL scores were:

    Jacksonville 13
    Indianapolis 23

    Pittsburgh 17
    Cincinnati 10

    New Orleans 12
    Tennessee 27

    Tampa Bay 31
    Atlanta 10

    Kansas City 42
    Houston 14

    NY Jets 16
    New England 23

    Minnesota 23
    Detroit 13

    St. Louis 23
    Seattle 24

    Green Bay 13
    Arizona 20

    NY Giants 24
    Washington 21

    Baltimore 24
    San Diego 10

    Cleveland 13
    San Francisco 12

    Buffalo 7
    Miami 17

    Oakland 10
    Denver 31

    In Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees clinched the championship of the American League East, the Minnesota Twins clinched the AL Central championship, and the Oakland Athletics clinched the AL West. The only thing left to be decided in the American League is the wild card winner - but only a major collapse by the Boston Red Sox would eliminate them from that role (which means it is about a 50-50 possibility).

    In the National League, the Atlanta Braves already have clinched the eastern division championship (we think they did that back in May), and the San Francisco Giants have clinched the western division title - leaving only the central division in doubt, as the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros battle it out (the St. Louis Cardinals aren't out of it yet, either).
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    We got a number of emails regarding yesterday's story about the new cheeseburger fries that the beef industry is pushing. Each individual cheeseburger fry has about 75 calories and four grams of fat - and the version being peddled to schools has six grams of fat apiece. In our commentary, we said that the industry's "understandable desire to get people to eat more beef has clouded their judgment, if they think that getting people to eat more fat-laden, artery-clogging food is going to help their cause.

    "Maybe they shouldn't stop at getting school kids to eat this stuff. Maybe they could start a campaign to get them served in coronary care units all over the country."

    The reactions were mixed.

    One MNB user simply wrote:

    Some people just don't get it!

    We think he was referring to the beef industry, but he could have been describing us. We're not sure…

    Another MNB user wrote:


    But it would make Dr. Atkins happy, wouldn't it?

    Sounds disgusting to me!

    Actually, we're not sure the breading and frying would please the late Dr. Atkins…

    MNB user Alan Binder wrote:

    I grew up in Atlanta, GA, and some variant of a fried meat was on the menu every day (e.g. "chicken fried steak", which was a deep-fried ground beef patty). Side dishes were also deep-fried; thinking of the dreaded fried okra makes my stomach turn to this day.

    I suppose that I was hoping beyond hope that such things were solidly in the past. I guess I was wrong.

    Glad I send the kids to school with packed lunches!

    MNB user Richard Lowe wrote:

    Sounds like good prison food to me!

    And MNB user George Morrow wrote:

    You need to "CHILL OUT" on this subject. Their job is to sell this new item, your job, or the school boards job is to say "NO" to this new product. Please don't presume as to what new product I might want to buy. Let the free enterprise work, as it usually does.

    Of course, you can buy what you want. And they can sell what they want.

    It just seems horribly misguided at this point in time to be selling it in schools. And it doesn't even sound like a timely marketing idea for the "real world" when so many people are concerned about nutrition and obesity.

    MNB user Bob McMath had some thoughts about the new Sears store that includes groceries:

    What on earth is the Sears management thinking when they enter the food business?

    The margins are awfully small, and being pushed down by Wal-Mart tactics. Years ago Sears was a place to go for home and auto needs, and the people who sold the goods could intelligently discuss the problems you had and answer questions and sell you what you needed. We used to love to go to the stores, and much of our stuff as my wife and I had a growing family and moved around the countryside to new homes, we went to Sears to buy. They gave service, had answers, and the quality was decent and the price, less expensive.

    Not today. You can't find people to ask anything of when you need help. 90% of the people who man the departments don't know anything about what they are trying to sell you. Too bad they gave up one of their strongest angles as good help became hard to find -- and are now drifting in all directions like a drowning person, grasping for a new angle to save them. I can't believe anyone in their right senses these days thinks food will be the savior!

    MNB user Brad Morris wrote in about our story concerning economic hypocrisy:

    I am surprised that the concept that Americans are their own worst economic enemy warranted a story unto itself. To me it seems like common sense. Cheap begets cheap. The spiral is reversed.

    I think this is why I found our recent tax-cuts and rebates so laughable. You want to stimulate the economy so you give money to the consumer to spend?

    How does buying foreign-made electronics, clothes, cars, etc., etc. stimulate our economy when only the retail markup charged locally is the part that might stay in the US? This is not 1950, and our economy is not a closed loop. It is global.

    If you really want to stimulate the US economy with that money why not spend it on roads, mass transit, schools, prescription drugs, WIC, etc? The money stays here, provides local jobs, rebuilds our infrastructure, educates our children, and supports the least of us all at the same time. Excluding National Defense, the only thing that the Federal Government is organized to do effectively is taking money from all of its businesses and citizens and allocating it where it can do the most good for the people and the country.

    True, many of the tax-rebates and incentives are going to families that spent that money on food, rent, and clothing. (Although the clothes are probably not made in the US either) If those were the only families who received the break, I would have supported it. Instead, most of the benefit continues to go to those who do not really need it, like me, at the ultimate expense of those who do. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

    Me? What did I do with my rebate check? To stimulate the economy I bought a neat grill for my dad at Costco. I got a great deal. . . It was made in China.

    Point taken.

    Finally, we continue to get email about pork jowls and its relationship to beef cheeks (we kid you not).

    One MNB user had an explanation:

    A hog jowl is the whole bottom jowl. Beef Cheek meat comes from the indentation on the upper jowl where meat is to fill in the gap. This meat has been used in processed burgers as well as Vienna sausage and other processed meat items. The meat is very lean and taste full however the name is not very merchandisable.

    Have you ever tried an oyster steak? This is the cut of meat that comes out of the rump roast section. When boning out the rump there is a portion of meat that covers the indentation in the pelvis bone. The Meat is Exceptionally Tender and Tasty.

    MNB user Lisa Everitt wrote of beef cheeks:

    It's one of those cheap meats that benefits from long, slow cooking. Some people believe that cheek meat has its own subtle, sweet taste that emerges as it stews, but I find it hard to distinguish that from the flavors that get imbued from the cooking liquid, onions, chilies and whatever else you throw in. It's like pork shoulder in that regard.

    If you're ever in Denver, I'll take you out for a carnitas burrito that will make you weep with joy. Actually, the Chipotle chain does an exceptional carnitas burrito with Niman Ranch free-range pork.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    • The Food Institute has released a survey suggesting that only half the food industry understands that all domestic and most global food manufacturing companies are required by the Bioterrorism Act to register with the US Food and Drug Administration by December 12 - and that almost another quarter of the industry that does understand the requirements has done nothing to comply with them.

    • In Seattle, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reportedly are investigating a tampering threat against Safeway. Neither agency is commenting for the record.

    • Pummeled by a decline in both sales and profits, McDonalds Japan announced that it will cut its headquarters staff by about 15 percent - but will not cut store employee levels.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Robert Ligon , a former executive with Nutrisource Inc., has been sentenced to 15 months in prison for fraudulently claiming that baked goods he sold to Whole Foods Market Inc. and other health food stores were low fat.

    Bloomberg reports that Ligon sold doughnuts labeled as containing three grams of fat and 135 calories, when they actually contained 18 grams of fat and 530 calories.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Men's Health magazine, in its October 2003 issue, revisits the phrase that parents all over the world have uttered to their kids: "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

    Remarkably, in this case, parents actually have been correct.

    A proper breakfast, according to the piece, helps keep you slim (because breakfast eaters are less likely to overeat later in the day), keep you healthy (reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer), and keep you sharp (boosting both memory and concentration).

    The problem, even among people who do eat breakfast, is that it usually is made up of simple carbohydrates and consists of a couple of hundred calories - when it should be between 500 and 600 calories and be packed with vitamins, minerals and at least 20 grams of protein and five grams of fiber.

    On pages 122-124, Men's Health offers some suggestions that can be easily passed along to consumers - testy alternatives that can build energy and fight disease.
    KC's View:
    Our favorite: the Santa Fe Burrito.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Reuters reports that American Airlines has decided to join the list of airlines now selling meals to travelers, now that it has decided to save money by cutting back its in-flight foodservice programs.

    For trips originating at John F. Kennedy International in New York, American now will offer its meals at the gate through food kiosks - two breakfasts for $7 each and two other choices for lunch or for dinner for $10 each on flights from New York to Miami and St. Louis.

    The test will run through the end of next month, and will be expanded or adjusted depending on consumer reaction.

    Ironically, The New York Times reported this week that "rather than carry nothing more than trail mix or sandwiches, (air travelers) are packing elaborate picnics to be consumed at 25,000 feet: coolers and Tupperware containers are filled with fragrant homemade meals, bottles with spring water and juices." There was even one couple that regularly brings a bottle of its favorite wine.

    "Travelers, flight attendants and industry analysts say the trend has become more pronounced since the Sept. 11 attacks, which accelerated a business downturn that has caused even full-fare airlines to often provide little more than a snack," the NYT reports.
    KC's View:
    We find ourselves doing exactly this when taking long flights these days, or when traveling during lunchtime or dinnertime. Sushi often is a great in-flight meal, and we get points when we share with the flight attendants.

    We saw a story the other day about how Pret A Manger, the UK-based sandwich chain, has not been as successful as it hoped in NYC…but we think that this chain could blow the doors off the competition if it would just open some stores in airport terminals. They are the perfect in-flight food - tasty, nutritious, and easily portable.

    Better yet, maybe the airlines should contract out their foodservice programs to Pret.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    BrandWeek reports that Wendy's is testing new kids meals in some 400 units, allowing children to select reduced fat (2%) white or lowfat (1%) chocolate milk instead of soda and a fresh fruit cup -- with honeydew melon and cantaloupe chunks -- instead of French fries. There is no extra charge for these substitutions.

    These new options are being promoted with the slogan, "Let kids be choosy."
    KC's View:
    Actually, we suspect it will be the parents who will be doing the choosing, earning the eternal enmity of any child forced to eat fruit cup instead of fries.

    But, hell, raising kids isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest.

    C'est la vie.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Royal Ahold, under siege because of an accounting scandal and under pressure to publish restated 2002 financials, has said that it will make public the 2002 annual figures next week - though it did not specify a date or time.

    If it does not publish the figures by the end of the month, it will lose access to some of the financing that is getting through current financial difficulties - including a $12 billion debt load.

    Meanwhile, Ahold said this morning that it has completed the sale of its Paraguay business, Supermercados Stock S.A., to A.J. Vierci, a local businessman.

    This move is part of Ahold's strategy of getting rid of non-core businesses.
    KC's View:
    In late 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy, asked how he would tell the world that he had decided to name his brother Robert as Attorney General, said that he might open his front door at two in the morning and whisper, 'It's Bobby."

    We suspect that this might be the same strategy that Ahold is considering…and that the news it will release won't be encouraging to investors.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    Working Mother magazine has come out with its annual list of the top 100 companies for working mothers.

    There's not a food retailer among them.

    The list does include, however: Accenture, AFLAC Inc., Allstate Insurance Co., America Online, American Express Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Citigroup, Colgate-Palmolive Co., Ernst & Young, Gannett Co., Harvard University, Johnson & Johnson, Marriott International Inc., Patagonia Inc., Schering-Plough Corp., USAA, Verizon Wireless, and Wells Fargo.
    KC's View:
    Which strikes us as pretty remarkable, considering that working mothers happen to be one of the main demographic groups being served by food retailers.

    Wouldn’t you think that it would make sense for food retailers to develop cultures that are friendly to these folks, especially because they would bring their knowledge and sensitivity about this demographic to work each day?

    That's who we'd want working for us if we owned a food store - people who not only profess to understand the customer, but who also happen to be the customer.

    Published on: September 24, 2003 reports that Tesco is testing two new formats in markets outside its home in the UK - a Super Express store that is larger than its traditional Tesco Express format, slated to be tested in Korea next year, and a "compact hypermarket" being tested in both Korea and Slovakia.
    KC's View:
    Tesco remains a master at creating new formats that will cater to specific locations and customer needs. If these tests work out, expect to see these formats cropping up elsewhere.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    The Washington Post reports this morning that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack plans to acquire lower-priced medicines from Canada for state employees, joining a growing list of governments - including Illinois and the city of Springfield, Mass. - that are looking north of the border to cut health care costs.

    The move puts the Democratic governor directly in opposition to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which says that such drug imports are both illegal and unsafe.

    It also ratchets up the pressure on the FDA, which is being challenged to find a way to reduce the soaring cost of prescription drugs in this country.

    As many as two million Americans now purchase prescription drugs illegally outside the United States, the Post reports.
    KC's View:
    The way this issue is taking shape, you have to figure that it will be an issue in next year's presidential campaign.

    Published on: September 24, 2003

    The Orange County Register reports on how retailers "have loaded up on gadgets from electronic price tags to self-service checkout stands" in order to both control shrink and improve customer service - and, ultimately, battle back competition from big box stores and discounters.

    The piece notes that Albertsons is testing a system that will update prices on electronic shelf tags through central computers linked to the checkout registers, and how both Albertsons and Ralphs have expanded their use of self-checkout technology.

    And, while supermarket chains are enamored with technological solutions to various problems, the paper notes that these solutions don't always work. "Three years ago, Ralphs tested video screens on grocery carts with advertisements and electronic eyes that signaled when shoppers were nearing sale items," but concluded that they were "too bulky and expensive."
    KC's View:
    We continue to believe that technology is a double-edged sword for retailers. Used properly, technology can be a great facilitator, allowing retailers to be more efficient and effective. But, used as a replacement for human interaction with the customer, technology can be a tool for the depersonalization of the shopping experience…which can only play into the hands of big box retailers that only wish to communicate the perception of low price.

    It is, at the end of the day, sort of like the difference between going to an automat and having a waiter and/or waitress who adds immeasurably to the dining experience. (See OffBeat below for an example…)