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    Published on: April 8, 2008

    by Michael Sansolo

    Truth be told, I’m a strange foodie. I love a good meal, but my definition of what’s good may leave others scratching their heads.

    For instance, I’m a member of a strange cult of residents of the eastern US. Whenever we travel west, specifically to California, Nevada or Arizona, our first stop is that slice of hamburger heaven known as In-N-Out. For the uninitiated among you, In-N-Out is just what it suggests—a quick meal on the run. Yet it is so much more.

    At In-N-Out the décor is simple: clean, 1960s roadside chic. The menu is simple: burgers, fries, drinks and shakes. And the concept is simple: the food is fresh, cheap and really, really good. After that, simplicity ends.

    For instance, my usual order (the double-double cheeseburger and yes, I follow it with a Lipitor) is guaranteed to take about 10 minutes. I don’t mind, because my order like everything else at In-N-Out is made from scratch. The wrapper around my burger and the little boat for my fries reminds me about this. Each ingredient is carefully spelled out so that I know for certain that my bun was baked in the store and that only one specific type of potato was used for my fries. (Talk about merchandising the menu, In-N-Out gives details on everything except the ice in the soft drinks.)

    Even the employees make it special, with no fewer than five different people checking on my satisfaction during one recent visit. Somehow, those “how are you doing” questions that annoy me from waiters in nicer restaurants seem more genuine while I eat a $5.83 meal that comes with no hope of a tip.

    What’s truly incredible about In-N-Out is how the cult works. Mention that you visited one to a fellow easterner and you’ll always get the same envious response from those who know. It’s just a burger, but really it is so much more.

    Food has that strange power over us and the reminders come all the time. While sitting in an airport yesterday discussing this column on the phone with the Content Guy (a foodie himself, as you might have noticed) I mentioned the name of a small restaurant I love in New Orleans. An attractive young woman, sitting nearby, turned around and quickly chimed in her feelings about the same restaurant.

    So here’s the question: where are the supermarkets in this discussion? Is that same passion for food beyond what we offer or is it simply something we forget? (And before you say it’s impossible, consider this. I live 30 miles across the crowded Washington metropolitan area from the closest Wegman’s. Yet mention Wegman’s at a school event or anywhere else in our town and people will join the conversation to wax poetic about some product or recipe they just love.)

    What’s more, if In-N-Out burger can train high school age students to smile at customers and make them feel special, what stops the same from happening in your store or your company?

    In short, nothing stops us. The battle for mealtime is always being waged and anyone can win it, even a burger stand with paper wrappers and red trays.

    And just in case you need one more argument why mealtime can be won, check out this past weekend’s Washington Post Magazine. The cover story is by food critic Tom Sietsema about a rising complaint with restaurants today.

    It’s not the food, the service or the cost. Rather, it’s the incredible level of noise that diners put up with. (He didn’t get into lighting, which to my aging eyes gets worse daily.) Sounds like one more good reason to get families back around the dinner table. Good food, good times and you might even hear each other speak. Now that’s a memorable experience we should all be talking about.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    Interesting “think piece” in the Los Angeles Times the other day about the new and “massive” Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, which the paper describes as the “height of one-upmanship in Southern California's increasingly competitive grocery store trade. I'll see your three brands of soy milk, it says cockily to Fresh & Easy, and raise you two.

    “But the store is even more striking for what it says about the similar discontents plaguing the organic food and green architecture movements. The way they come together in this Whole Foods--a piece of green architecture designed to hold an organic food emporium--suggests that both may need to adjust their priorities. Or at least start acknowledging that they've become victims of their own success.”

    Here is the essential conundrum, as described by the Times:

    “Somewhere along the way, for both organic grocers and the corporate patrons of green architecture, the line between planet-saving and aggressive marketing became blurred. Companies realized that promoting themselves as eco-friendly could be a powerful sales tool. Some, not surprisingly, concentrated more on the marketing message than on their green practices - a strategy that became known as ‘greenwashing.’

    “Some, if not most, organic food outlets - including Wild Oats, which Whole Foods acquired last year - suggest that the shopper's goal should be to do more with less. But the genius of the Whole Foods approach, under hard-driving Chief Executive John Mackey, has been to realize that many American consumers have a vague desire to buy organic and live healthier but have no interest in dispensing with selection or comfort.”

    The paper notes that while the store is enormous, “the first rule of sustainable architecture is to keep new buildings as small and efficient as possible. With its soaring 30-foot ceilings and endless aisles, 280 subterranean parking spots and all those TVs flickering day and night, this place is neither. It's more like the grocery store version of a hybrid SUV made by Lexus or a 12,000-square-foot ‘green’ house with a swimming pool and six-car garage accompanying its solar panels and sustainably harvested decking … the architecture of the Pasadena store suggests that the fundamental approach hasn't changed. Forget about doing more with less. This green-tinged cornucopia is all about doing more with more.”

    KC's View:
    Does this mean that the environmental movement is, at its core, hypocritical? Of course not…though the piece does an excellent job of framing a debate worth having about the chasm that can exist between intentions and implementation. Is it better to have massive store that is “green” as opposed to a massive store that is not? Of course? Would it be better to find another way that is even less impactful on the environment? Sure.

    This is all a work in progress, and in some ways a balancing act. And it is better to be aware of some inherent conflicts – and yes, even hypocrisies – as we all try to find responsible ways to conduct our lives and businesses.

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    At high noon today on the east coast, Starbucks is scheduled to unveil its newest coffee blend – Pike Place Roast, named after the location of the original Starbucks store in Seattle – with free samples handed out at stores all over the US.

    "We've been so focused on espresso ... that we haven't done anything to reinvent brewed coffee," Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz tells the Wall Street Journal.

    The feeling seems to be that Starbucks has ignored a major competitive advantage by focusing so exclusively on espresso drinks – which are now being copied by competitors such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. Schultz tells the Journal that he believes the company needs to be more aggressive about selecting and roasting coffees.

    KC's View:
    Needless to say, the Content Guy will be at Starbucks today at 12:01 pm…and will report back.

    Tough job, but somebody has to do it.

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    • The San Jose Mercury News has a story on its website sounding a cautionary note about problems that Tesco has had in the UK stemming from the sale of food past its expiration dates, and wonders whether the same problems could occur in its US Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets division.

    The story notes that the story about the expired food violations is being spread via pamphlets being handed out at Fresh & Easy’s Southern California stores, probably by union activists.

    A spokesman for the retailer responded to the charges by saying that a) no such incidents have taken place in the US operation, which has an entirely new infrastructure, b) the date coding at Fresh & Easy has been extremely aggressive, even on fresh produce items, and c) 60 percent of the produce, poultry and eggs sold in its west coast stores will come from California.

    KC's View:
    Ironically, it is the aggressive date coding that is raising so many eyebrows within the industry as people speculate about the likelihood that Fresh & Easy can survive its initial troubles. And one retailer told me last week that he’d heard a story - anecdotal, and unconfirmed – that there are food banks in Southern California that have stopped accepting donations from Fresh & Easy because they have become too much to handle.

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    • GMDC announced yesterday that it is renaming its annual golf tournaments after Doug Blough, the organization’s recently deceased longtime director of communications. A special tribute at this year's golf events will be the permanent renaming of the GMDC Golf Classic to the GMDC Golf Classic - Doug Blough Memorial Tournament.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    • Weis Markets announced that it has named Bob Mawyer, former director of information systems at Giant Food, to be its new vice president of information technology.

    • Target Inc. has promoted Kathee Tesija to be its executive vice president of merchandising. Tesija formerly was the company’s senior vice president of merchandising for the baby, beauty, commodities, electronics, entertainment, health and wellness, pharmacy, sporting goods and toys divisions.

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    Responding to our ongoing coverage of Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores in the US, MNB user Steve Gullihur wrote:

    My wife and I were in Las Vegas 2 weeks ago and finally got to go into a Fresh & Easy store. I purposely said nothing and waited for my wife's opinion. She walked in, stopped, and just looked around for a solid minute or 2.

    She immediately saw the combination of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods meets Costco. We walked the whole store, she really liked it, and said she would definitely shop there, and the prices were excellent.

    We bought some raw almonds among other things, and they were fresher than Costco or Trader Joes. The associate at the front end was very friendly and expressed her happiness at working for Tesco.

    Now my wife is eagerly anticipating store openings in our area (Fresno, CA).

    On the other side of the argument, one MNB user wrote:

    Kevin, I continue to believe that you are focusing a disproportionate amount of time in assessing Fresh & Easy. I've been in the business a long time and I think it's time to stop giving Tesco the benefit of the doubt here just because they are 'Tesco'. Even the good companies like H-E-B and Wegman have stubbed their toes numerous times. It happens. The difference here is that Tesco went 'all in' on this concept and, frankly, it is lousy! The format is boring, the private label fresh items are not compelling, and the American consumer finds the store irrelevant. This concept is a full-fledged, 100% disaster. Move over Webvan and make way for Fresh & Easy...RIP!

    In yesterday’s MNB, I suggested that “at some level, I think that the conversation about Fresh & Easy has to change. I think we all have to cut down on the speculation about whether or not it will succeed, because we haven't seen the format yet that will enable long-term success for Fresh & Easy. (That will come with the 2.0 and 3.0 stores that Tesco eventually opens.) But what we really have to talk about is the future of small-store format, and what kinds of permutations it may take as other retailers experiment with the form. And I think we’re going to see a lot more companies testing the concept, and reshaping it into new forms.”

    Which led MNB user Tony Moore to write:

    What - do you own stock in Tesco? "The conversation..... has to change"? Like your newsletter but the tone on this smacks of arrogance or lover's desperation.

    I've only been in one Tesco, but I got a bad vibe. I thought I was in a cleaned up Aldi's that couldn't decide if it was a box store or a Whole Foods. Just don't think you can be all of the above. Tesco might succeed, but they again they might fail. Not sure why you can't concede they could fail.

    To start with, I must say that my definition of “lover’s desperation” is different from yours. Either that, or you had a lot less desperate youth than I did.

    That said, I’m not sure I’ve ever suggested that they cannot fail. I have said that to underestimate Tesco would be a mistake, because the company’s history is one of a retailer that is both flexible and resilient.

    In suggesting yesterday that the conversation needs to change, though, I actually was trying to suggest that Fresh & Easy’s success or failure may be irrelevant, at least in the big picture. The small-store concept that it is trying to make work is already prompting other retailers to look at small stores as a viable alternative – Wal-Mart will open a new one this summer, and I think we’re all looking forward to see what the Bentonville Behemoth does to top the Fresh & Easy entries.

    Progress is all about innovation, and innovation is all about progress. They require both ingenuity and momentum, and I think we’re seeing this happen in the small store segment.

    Make sense?

    MNB had a story yesterday about reports that Starbucks is testing self-service in some of its stores, which prompted a number of responses.

    MNB user Dave Tuchler wrote:

    If true, seems like a wrong move to me. I can get self-serve coffee of remarkably variable- -usually bad -- quality anywhere (convenience stores, hotel lobbies, etc) and it does not increase my expectation that the coffee has been labored over and is fresh and of high quality (rather the opposite). Maybe more importantly, the image that self-serve conjures, to me anyway, is of a company trying to speed up the line and crank up efficiency - which is counter to what seems to be Starbuck's desired image - a company that is obsessed with coffee and serves every cup as if it were the most important thing that happened that day. There needs to be some magical element in the process that helps justify premium pricing -- and self-serve would remove a lot of the mystique.

    But MNB user Paul Schlossberg offered:

    It's easy to see why they're testing it. This takes the drip coffee drinker through the line faster. The baristas have a little less pressure on them - to deal with the more complicated prep items – the beverages with higher prices and, no doubt, higher margins.

    It's the same concept as self-serve soft drinks for fast food customers. In both cases, it allows the counter service team to serve more people in a fixed time period. That's critical in peak volume rushes.

    Starbucks sells coffee. Being a better user of customer time is a great idea for Starbucks and any other retail (or service) provider.

    I've sat in a Starbucks a few weeks ago at 10:30 am on a Saturday. I was early for a nearby appointment. I got my coffee while the line was only three deep. When I sat down, I timed the line. It was nine people deep at one point. I noticed that some of those folks waited well over five minutes.

    I suggested yesterday that one idea Starbucks might test is giving lessons to consumers in how to make espresso drinks.

    One MNB user wrote:

    Wow, I have been thinking the same thing for a long time. I think that would be a GREAT idea! It might turn more people onto those kinds of drinks also if they don’t know already exactly what latte or espresso is.

    Good thought!

    Great minds…

    MNB user Jonathan Lepisto responded:

    If a tip jar is involved in this new self-service, will the customer be entitled to a share of the proceeds? 🙂

    Liked your idea on latte and espresso classes. They already sell the beans and many of the other items that go along with home brewing. It seems like an obvious tie-in.

    We had a piece yesterday about UPS saving money and energy by mandating that its truck drivers only make right turns whenever possible.

    One MNB user responded:

    I read your postings this morning with a grin. The note that UPS now makes more right turns and finds it makes them more efficient harkens me back to the days of my youth. You see, I learned how to drive in Los Angeles (the valley actually, yes that "valley") and we always learned that in L.A. "3 rights = a left" and that most of the time that was the faster way to go. Maybe it was also that I learned to drive in a '65 bug with 40 horsepower and it really couldn't get out of its own way. Really, Kudos to UPS for thinking outside of the box....

    Reminds me of a line from Lawrence Kasdan’s under-appreciated “Grand Canyon” (1991), in which Kevin Kline, teaching his son how to drive on the streets of Los Angeles, says “This is difficult stuff. Making a left turn in L.A. is one of the harder things you'll learn in life.”

    (Interesting side note – the son was played by a then-unknown Jeremy Sisto, who now plays one of the detectives on “Law & Order.” But I digress…)

    On the subject of what is laughingly referred to as “home incarceration” for former Wal-Mart vice chairman Tom Coughlin, who reportedly is going to parties as a way of fulfilling the community service portion of his sentence, one MNB user wrote:

    If he wasn't so rich he'd be in jail now, regardless of how sick he might be. And you and I would be footing the bill for his health care.

    The logical -- and one might argue, the just -- thing to do would be to incarcerate him and charge him for his health care. But then again it seems that at times the justice system is neither logical nor just.

    I’ve said several times – and repeated yesterday – that as a NY Mets fan, I hate the Atlanta Braves. Which led one MNB user to object to my choice of words and emotions:

    There's only one thing I hate... and it's the word "Hate". And I'm sure you know, hate and fear are the same emotion. You must truly fear the Braves! Now I'm no Braves fan, I'm no Mets fan (I'm a life long Phillies fan).

    Regardless, wouldn't we all be better off in every aspect of life by simply rooting for our own chosen "team" to prosper rather than introducing and perpetuating the very divisive "Me vs. You" mentality. I know, it's only a game... but far too often this discourse leads to a great deal of needless arguing and fighting. Win or lose... you will find that rooting for your team (or social issue... or religion... or politician.... you get the point) to do well while respecting the other guy leaves you feeling better than harboring some silly resentment. Oh yeah.... GO PHIL'S!!

    You make a good and politically correct point.

    The fact is that I do fear the Braves. There isn’t a time when the Mets go up against them that I don’t expect that somehow they will figure out how to beat my team. And I respect the Braves – any fan of the game has to respect the team’s winning tradition, the accomplishments of manager Bobby Cox, and the enduring excellence of people like John Smoltz.

    That said, I hate the Braves. Hate ‘em.

    The same way that Brooklyn Dodger fans hated the New York Giants. The same way that Boston Red Sox fans hate the New York Yankees.

    And that’s okay. Respect and hate are not necessarily mutually exclusive emotions.

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 8, 2008

    In the NCAA men’s college basketball championship game, the University of Kansas rallied to defeat the University of Memphis 75-68 in overtime.

    KC's View: