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    Published on: May 15, 2009

    Two and a half weeks after postponing its Future Connect and MarkeTechnics conferences because of concerns about swine flu and what was being described by health officials as the possibility of a global pandemic, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has rescheduled Future Connect for October 12-14 in Dallas, Texas.

    The MarkeTechnics technology conference, however, has been cancelled for 2009. It will be revived in concert with the FMI Show scheduled for Las Vegas on May 10-13, 2010.

    It is expected that the October Future Connect will strongly resemble the agenda planned for May, with three educational tracks – operations, executive and senior executive. However, it seems likely that not all the original speakers will be able to appear in October, and so some shifts and substitutions are probable.

    “FMI appreciates the support and positive reinforcement we have received from the industry as we addressed the myriad issues resulting from the postponement of two events due to the influenza outbreak,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI’s president/CEO. “We are thrilled to announce new plans to provide the industry with the essential education and insight provided by these events.”

    According to the trade association, original registrations for the May event will be transferred over to the October confab, with companies allowed to make substitutions as necessary.
    KC's View:
    Wow. It was just yesterday that I was saying in this space that FMI had taken too long to reschedule Future Connect…and a scant few hours later, they come up with a date.

    Talk about power.

    I’m glad I have promised to use it only for good.

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    In a front page story this morning, the New York Times reports that “increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients” and often “do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show. Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.”

    The Times cites one case in which ConAgra Foods knew there was salmonella contamination of some of its frozen pot pies, but “could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The ‘food safety’ instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: ‘Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots’.”

    Here’s the kicker:

    “Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult,” the Times writes. “The industry says that it is acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the source.”

    KC's View:
    I may be wrong about this, but I think that consumers actually do want manufacturers to guarantee the safety of the products they sell. And I’ve never seen anyone stick a thermometer in a frozen food container…though I may have lived a sheltered life.

    Consumers are going to be engaged in an extended game of “who do you trust,” and there may be no clear winner. It’s not like this is a sudden revelation – the fact is that the food safety situation has been getting increasingly dicey, and stories like this one are becoming more common.

    The real issue is whether government and industry are going to figure out an effective and transparent way to address the situation.

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) issued its annual State of the Industry report yesterday, highlighting the following trends:

    • Supermarket industry sales increased 5.2 percent in 2008, and identical-store sales rose 4.5 percent, but these gains were offset by the 5.7 percent food-at-home inflation rate last year.

    • Adjusted for inflation, sales declined 0.5 percent and identical-store sales 1.2 percent.

    • Industry net profits decreased to 1.43 percent, from 1.82 percent, as companies competed more intensely for fewer consumer dollars in a recessionary economy. Contributing to this decline were increases in the cost of goods, health insurance and credit card interchange fees, among other expenses.

    • Independent retailers (companies with 1-10 stores) posted the highest net profits and identical-store sales increases at 1.90 percent and 5.11 percent, respectively.

    Asked to rank issues in terms of importance, retailers pointed first to the economy, followed by “competition from other retailers,” “healthcare costs,” “credit/debit card interchange costs,” “food safety,” and “local, state and federal regulations.”

    However, even in a recessionary economy, retailers continued to focus on fresh foods as a way of differentiating themselves and finding a competitive advantage, with more than two-third of retailers saying that they were focusing on “consumer wellness and family health” as a competitive strategy.

    The FMI State of the Industry report is generally presented at the trade association’s May conference. However, the meeting was cancelled this year because of concerns about the swine flu and a possible global pandemic; FMI chose to release the study yesterday at the same time as it announced that the conference has been rescheduled for mid-October 2009.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    Interesting piece in Business Week comparing Walmart to Whole Foods…and suggesting that the latter, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, may be doing a good job of managing its way through the recession.

    While Walmart has what is termed a “natural advantage” in an economic downturn because of its low price positioning, “Whole Foods has suffered from its reputation as an expensive place to shop for fancy food. Even as some worries about the economy have eased in recent months, that reputation is still hurting Whole Foods.” However, Whole Foods has seen some turnaround by creating an in-store focus on values (which is different than being “cheap”) and by cutting back on new store openings to free up cash and reduce debt from its acquisition of Wild Oats.

    At Walmart, CEO Mike Duke clearly doesn’t see the company’s fortunes rising and falling with the recession. “When economic conditions improve, we believe customers who shop at Wal-Mart today will stay with us because of the business improvements we're making and continue to make,” he said recently.

    Not surprisingly, Business Week also makes its judgment based on stock price:

    “In 2008, as the recession deepened, shares of high-end grocer Whole Foods plunged 77%, while discount retail giant Wal-Mart saw its stock jump 17%,” the magazine writes. But “on May 14, in response to the release of quarterly results, Wal-Mart's shares sunk 1.9%, to 49.10, while Whole Foods' rose 2.8%, to 20.55.” Walmart’s earnings were up for the quarter and Whole Foods’ were down…but Whole Foods’ earnings were better than expectations, and that’s all the market cares about.

    KC's View:
    I continue to have the quaint, anachronistic view that a company’s success ought to be gauged by how it takes care of customers on Main Street, not customers on Wall Street. This is not to say that share price isn’t important…but I prefer to get a feel for how a store is working by wandering the aisles, chatting with the checkout people, and tasting the food.

    Which is probably why I’m a blogger/pundit and not a broker.

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    The Financial Times reports this morning that Walmart-owned Asda Group plans to open what it is calling a “virtual store” this summer that it says will double the number of online customers it can serve in its Yorkshire marketing area…and thus make Asda online more competitive with Tesco.

    Essentially, the virtual store is described as having shelves but no customers, and will be adjacent to an existing Asda unit. The goal is to create a layout that makes it easy for Asda employees to shop for online customers.

    FT writes: “Asda, which saw home shopping sales rise 50 per cent in the quarter, has also begun to relaunch its website. It will be open until 10pm for next-day deliveries.

    “The plans for the virtual store follow a similar move by Tesco, which two years ago opened an internet-only store in Croydon.

    “Both companies are expanding aggressively online, with expectations that it will become a key way for customers to buy groceries in the future.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    The Massachusetts Public Health Council has approved a regulation requiring restaurant chains to post calorie information on their menu boards or menus.

    The new rule applies to chains with 20 or more locations in the state; the Boston Globe estimates that this will encompass some 50 chains with a total 5,000 units.

    KC's View:
    As a consumer, I like this rule. Sure, it reinforces stuff that I already should know – “wow, a triple bacon cheeseburger has that many calories!” – but that’s okay. It is a good guide that helps to make the best out of a fast food situation.

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    • The New York Times this morning that Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman of Wal-Mart’s United States operations, said in a conference call with analysts yesterday that during the most recent fiscal quarter “about 17 percent of Wal-Mart’s customer traffic came from new customers and that they spent 40 percent more on a shopping trip than Wal-Mart’s average — evidence that shoppers were trading down.”

    And, the Times writes, “Bob Drbul, a retailing analyst with Barclay’s Capital, estimated that 27 percent of Wal-Mart’s sales growth in February came from new households. And Wal-Mart intends to keep them coming back.”

    KC's View:
    I’ve been saying for months that Walmart is playing a market share game during the recession…which is what every smart retailer should be doing. It is inevitable that sales and profits aren’t going to grow during this period…so it becomes incumbent on retailers to grow market share that is sustainable once the recession ends.

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    Advertising Age reports that PepsiCo has been more deliberate than expected about introducing its new logo around the globe…and at the moment seems to be running two different identity campaigns.

    "The new Pepsi brand identity recently introduced in North America has generated a very positive response from consumers," a Pepsi International spokesman tells Ad Age. "We expect to introduce the new Pepsi identity around the world over the next year or two. We will communicate specifics about those changes when we formulate our marketing plans."

    Ad Age describes this strategy as “baffling,” especially since we live in a global environment where people outside North America have almost complete access to the brand messages being delivered there. “Those companies whose very brand identities differ from country to country risk confusing consumers and appearing woefully out of touch with today's global realities,” the magazine writes.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal reports that e-commerce spending in the US was flat during the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier, a marked improvement from the three percent decline reported during the fourth quarter of 2008.

    According to market research comScore, it is not expected that online spending will rebound significantly in the near term, especially as more affluent shoppers pull back on spending to rebuild wealth lost during the past year.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Coca-Cola is developing a new kind of bottle made from sugar cane and molasses that could replace the traditional plastic bottle made from a petroleum-based resin known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The new bottle is called a “PlantBottle,” and is designed to be more environmentally friendly.

    “We’re interested in developing the packaging of the future, which we think is going to be in some ways derived from either plants or something else that is a naturally occurring resource that’s not under stress like petroleum,” spokeswoman Lisa Manley tells the Journal-Constitution.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    • Smithfield Foods yesterday said that it has been cleared by the Mexican government – health officials there found no evidence of the swine flu at its hog farms south of the border.

    • Published reports say that Kmart plans to open its first in-store medical clinic inside a store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It will be run by the local Beebe Medical Center, and according to one report in the local press, “will have two exam rooms and be located in the front of the store next to the existing pizza restaurant.”

    • Congrats to Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of the eponymous Irish supermarket chain Superquinn, who last won the All Ireland Marketing Champion award, sponsored by Irish Independent and “designed to highlight the exceptional contribution of an individual to marketing leadership in Ireland.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    We missed a couple of days worth of ‘Your Views” this week because I’ve been dealing with root canal issues that had me taking Xanax and Vicodin (I feel a little like Dr. House from the TV series); I found myself falling asleep early and waking up late, and that was taking away from the ‘Your Views” time. (I have only myself to blame for this…I am phobic about dentists and hadn’t been to one for ten years, but time and decay finally caught up with me.)

    But I’ll try to make up for it today…

    Responding to yesterday’s rant about the cancellation of the FMI Future Connect conference – I said they were right to cancel it but were waiting too long to announce new plans – one MNB user wrote:

    “The…pundit….doth protest too much, methinks.” (copyright and apologies to Bill Shakespeare).

    What’s done is done. Let it be. You were Paul Revere in April. Quit rationalizing. Just realize or acknowledge that the cancelation affected more than FMI. Every attendee was affected – financially and personally. During that same time period, Warren Buffett conducted his highly attended conference, NBA and NHL playoff games continued, the MLB schedule and attendance did not suffer and no college or university suspended classes. Our stores did not close. Our warehouses did not close. It’s all about informed choices and… having worked behind the scenes for Future Connect…I don’t see the transparency you ascribed to their decision process.

    Point taken. I certainly wasn't trying to rationalize the FMI decision, though, and the last thing I would ever accuse FMI of would be transparency.

    One note here – I’ve heard from a lot of folks that they thought FMI was overly secretive in how it dealt with the conference issue.

    But I was really making a larger point yesterday – that we all need to be transparent and speedy in how we conduct business. Which led MNB user Craig Espelien to write:

    In your “MNB Radio” piece today you touched on how stuck many industries are in old ways of thinking. Years ago Theodore Leavitt wrote an article for HBR that talks about Marketing Myopia – how industries become so internally focused they forget who they really should be. His main example is the railroad industry – an industry that to this day focuses more on the fact that they want to be in the railroading business than the transportation business – and how they became somewhat irrelevant because of the focus being too close in. He also uses A&P (from about 25-30 years ago) with their small store on every corner thought process. Too many retailers are stuck in the “way things used to be” mode – heavily invested in old ways of doing business and not focused enough on who their consumer could be and how they could serve that consumer.

    Also, too many businesses (retail and other) talk a lot about change – but only want it if it is exactly like what is currently happening. I had a friend who once said “everyone wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die” – a perfect encapsulation of how people who are so heavily invested in the way things used to be that they can not let go of the present to embrace the future.

    All businesses – whether retail, technology, healthcare, etc. – all need to focus on what products the consumer needs/wants, how they are being used and now something better can be created to solve the problem of the ultimate end user. Unfortunately, the journey between yesterday and tomorrow is fraught with challenge as consumers also tend to embrace the way things are – until they do not.

    I love the Jean Luc Picard quote – “Things are impossible until they are not” – so much meaning about how business could evolve – if only they would see beyond the end of today.

    Someone once said that it is always easier to see what’s broken than it is to replace it.

    A relevant comment, I think.

    And MNB user J. Curtis Alpeter chimed in:

    I also loved the analogy this morning on MNB Radio on race car driving. As a fellow Skip Barber participant, which I have to believe you have participated in, I thought I would clarify your analogy to race car driving. I believe the expression is "look to where you want to be", not "to where you are going". The point being the car is taking you where you are going, perhaps off the track, and you want it to take you where you want to be, the apex of the corner. Which is your case in point, that companies do not necessarily look at where they need to be but focus too much on either where they are heading, which is often not the right path, or where they have been.

    Thanks for clarifying. You are clearly both a better businessman than I am, and a better race car driver.

    Loved the following email from MNB user Clayton R. Hoerauf:

    This is only slightly related to your topic but my wife and I spent last week wondering how we could relate our experience at our convention to the MNB world. Our industry had a conference scheduled for Vienna Austria and we also had some of the same concerns about traveling.

    Fortunately we went through with the trip and attended the minimally required BS, which is for Business Sessions, of course. However, the fondest memories we brought home with us were believe it or not, the fabulous Billa grocery store in the lower level of the Ring Street Galleria which happened to be connected to our hotel. That is until we discovered the Julius Meinl store on Kohl Street. Being the true “grocery geek” and mentor to us MNB disciples I can only assume you have also had or will have the pleasure of experiencing these gems. Whole Foods won’t seem quite so impressive next time…….

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been to Vienna. Hopefully, one of these days someone will ask me to give a speech there, and I’ll get a chance to visit the stores that you describe.


    We had an MNB user the other day who inquired if there were any research done about how often people bring their kids to the store and specifically into the produce department. We got some responses…though I’m not sure that this is what he was looking for…

    MNB user Kathy Schuster wrote:

    My unscientific response would be - too many bring their kids to the store. When I walk into my favorite grocery store, there is an area where parents can leave their kids (supervised of course) and there are TVs all around the store where you can glance up and see how they’re doing. UNFORTUNATELY few parents seem to take advantage of this. This could be because the store has little carts with flags saying “shopper in training” and some that are built to carry the kids and still have room for the groceries.

    Would be okay if they would train their kids to behave instead of letting them scream and carry on. I don’t dislike children, but I’ll tell you from experience that you only have to say once “If you don’t behave we’re going home” and actually do it, they learn to behave for the next time…

    Another MNB user wrote:

    In our family we avoid, at all cost, taking our kids with us to the grocery store. Why? Because most grocery stores, beyond the basic meat, dairy, and produce sections, are my worst junk-food nightmare; well-lit, strategically designed labyrinths of visually enticing, high-calorie, low-nutrition, processed products that have little in common with what I consider good, clean, healthy food.

    The notion of trying to market to kids in the produce section is noble, but you’d be arriving late at the party, because the rest of the store will have you outspent in marketing dollars 10,000:1.

    I actually feel sort of bad about these responses.

    I always took my kids to the grocery store when they were little. Never had a problem. They knew they had to behave, and they knew not to beg. And I’d say, by and large, it was usually a pleasant experience for all of us. (Enough so that I can vividly remember the time my oldest looked at me when we were on the checkout line at Stew Leonard’s – he couldn’t have been more than four years old at the time – and said, “I don't feel well”…and then promptly threw up all over me. What I also remember is how fast the folks at Stew Leonard’s got out there with rags and paper towels, helped me clean myself off, and then made sure that everything in the cart was clean before handling the entire checkout process for me. And you wonder why I’ve been shopping there for 26 years?)

    On the subject of “renting customers,” which a study the other day suggested that a number of stores were doing through price cutting strategies, MNB user – and MNB fave – Art Turock had a thought:

    I was in the gym yesterday talking to a produce manager for a Seattle independent who competes against several big chains including Safeway. Even in produce where suppliers don't have major trade promotion budgets, the retailers are competing on price. He says the weekly specials ads are kept as top secret information until their appearance in media so as to be sure not to tip off the competition who are stocked substantially by the same suppliers.

    Renting customers is rampant in the grocery industry where the recession trio of moves is to cut costs, cut prices, and increase private label. When a marketplace's key competitors mimic each others moves, the long term result is for every retailer to lose profits and brand equity. In the absence of strategies that differentiate, no one is playing for a competitive advantage.

    What ever happened to retail format innovation? Remember King Kullen invented the first supermarket in 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression.

    I agree completely. There’s too much imitation, not enough innovation.

    But I’m not sure that this is a problem created by recession.

    I was pretty critical of Target the other day, and it prompted a number of emails.

    MNB user Ronni Blumenthal wrote:

    Target is one of my personal favorites for shopping. I have the benefit of working for an organic produce company so I don't spend much time in the produce department, but I find the selection of well priced organic foods in the other departments to be excellent and constantly expanding. I agree with your comment about individual wrapping of produce not being the best measure of food freshness. (I'm paraphrasing). Organic produce customers choose their food not only for taste and health, but also to support sustainable living. Single wrapping produce items has nothing to do with freshness. It does, however, require melting plastic around the item. That is not very appealing to organic eaters who might fear leaching from the plastic. The other issue would be the plastic waste that is generated when each item is single wrapped. I think Target would do well to use both bulk and trayed items in the produce department, particularly for the growing audience of people who are particular about their eating.

    MNB user Dean Sparks was even blunter:

    How many plastic trees in the plastic jungle have to be felled to create enough plastic to wrap all the potatoes in all 1,200 Target store locations?

    I dunno, cause my Eco-Organic-I-Don't-Give-A-S$%t-About-The-Environment Calculator only goes to 9 digits........

    Excellent point. While Walmart reduces packaging and creates a “green” image, Target is wrapping potatoes in plastic.

    And they wonder while a new board of directors might be in order?

    Another MNB user is even more pointed:

    As a manufacturer that sells to both Target and Walmart, there couldn’t be two more different customers. Walmart says, give me your best price, and let’s move on. A rare deduction but always for something that is authorized. They couldn’t be any easier to deal with. Then, there’s Target. I do not exaggerate when I state that most of us in the office will not step foot in a Target because just the idea is upsetting after dealing w/them all day. Our IS manager got a call from his wife that she was on her way to Target to buy an X because it was $50 cheaper there than anywhere else she could find it. He told her to forget the $50 and just go somewhere else and buy it but to definitely not buy from Target.

    We probably average 10-20 deductions from them/week for a myriad of “offenses”. As soon as we figure out what they’re doing and we adjust, they move down their list of deductions to something else and we start all over again. This is our favorite. We are penalized if we ship more than one purchase order at the same time. However, they pick up. You see where this is going. When they pick up, naturally, they want to be efficient. So, they pick up more than one purchase order at the same time. And then they fine us for shipping more than one purchase at the same time. But it gets better. They buy our product on pallets. Yet they continually send in those little FedEx trucks (yes, the same ones that pull in your driveway w/your new toaster) to pick up pallets and pallets of product. So, we call them and tell them the product won’t fit on the truck they sent. We remind them they need to send in a BIG truck. Somehow, this is our fault, also, so another deduction. In short, dealing w/them could give Scott Adams and Dilbert story material for a year. We’ll take Walmart any day…

    And another MNB user wrote:

    Don't know if there are any Targets near you, but we have two near us (and two Walmarts). Traffic in Target is always very light, even in the one that is a Super Target. Food side, too.

    Unfortunately, Target is suffering as its customers concentrate on basics and cut back on discretionary spending, whereas Walmart thrives on basic needs, plus improving stores and selections at the same time, all the while maintaining those low, low prices.

    On the subject of the FDA challenging General mills’ claims about Cheerios being good for lowering cholesterol, MNB user Sharese Alston wrote:

    We are suffering from the marketing of all sorts of fatty, sugary, death traps and this is the one FDA chooses to go after?? I guess everyone prefers an easy fight. Regardless of if “it’s a drug” or not, Cheerios are a good, healthy choice for anyone trying to maintain a decent weight or manage health issues … It’s strange to me that our government would rather regulate a product like Cheerios and leave the Twinkies, Pepsis and Big Macs of the world with their billion dollar campaigns alone to kill us all. Someone other than me has to think that’s simply crazy, right? I sure do hope so.

    MNB user Roy Bitz agreed:

    This makes my hair hurt.

    Where has the FDA been for the two years GM has been promoting this claim? Where are they on the things that matter----food safety for instance?

    I sincerely hope GM has done their homework on this so I won't have to buy my Cheerios in the HBA aisle.

    But another MNB user…not so much:

    Good for the FDA.... I had a chance to meet with them over several issue two years ago. Let me tell you they are a misunderstood agency that does have our interest top of mind. Unfortunately lobbyist and certain US Senator along with manufactures run the FDA and pressure these folks and kill many good programs they have.

    "Truth in advertising " for many years in many categories has taking a back seat to sales and marketing hype. If General Mills can prove it good for them, they need then to show us the data, if not...

    Regarding a proposed federal tax on soda and other sugary drinks, one MNB user wrote:

    How about the feds quit spending and start cutting the beast we call government. Then they won't need to tax everything that is enjoyable in life. Seriously, this is getting absurd. How about we just sit around in rocking chairs, drink water, and eat vegetables? If people do not want to exercise and they want to eat unhealthy food and drink unhealthy beverages, that is their choice. Or is this the new China?

    But another MNB user disagreed:

    I would like to call this the " Save Your Children Life Tax ". As a person who has diabetics and has attended many classes on the issue I can tell you that soda / fructose is not good for anyone and diet soda isn't any better.

    Obesity is a national epidemic and we all need to recognize this fact and deal with it. Thank God, the kids of today have more information about health and are paying more attention to it then any other generation. Over all I like most people don't like taxes but in this case its the right thing to do.

    Finally, on a completely different subject, I got the following email from an MNB user:

    Tom Devlin's comments on aluminum bats can be traced back to the late 60's and early 70's as the then minimally financed little league teams struggled with the large number of wooden bats that broke and the impending cost. I remember as a kid the coach letting us try out some test bats from the Reynolds company (hate to say it but a bat named after mom's tin foil did not seem appealing) as well as some fiberglass versions I think from Wilson.

    At the time the coaches never even pondered the ability to hit the ball farther they just wanted to maximize their shoestring budget (remember passing the hat during the game to collect $$). And as they say the rest is history. Fast forward 40 years or so and some of the local softball teams have actually moved back to wooden bats to limit injuries and level the playing field.

    As with Tom I am also confused that aluminum bats are used all the way up through college. That's why the Cape Cod league is so interesting because for many it is the first time those gifted players use a wooden bat prior to playing pro ball.

    Agreed. For me, baseball played with aluminum bats isn’t real baseball…sort of the same way that baseball played with the designated hitter isn’t real baseball.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 15, 2009

    I got a number of emails last Friday from MNB users who wanted to know – with varying levels of indignation – why I had not seen the new ‘Star Trek” movie on Thursday night and report back about it on Friday.

    Normally, that would have been my intention. But believe it or not, I was doing something more important.

    Last week, I picked up my almost 20-year-old son from Ohio Wesleyan University, where he has just completed his sophomore year, and made the drive home. Alas, we did not go directly.

    We left Columbus and first drove south to Cincinnati…where on Thursday night we visited Great American Ballpark to watch the Cincinnati Reds beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5.

    Friday, we drove north to Cleveland…where we visited what used to be called “The Jake,” and now is called Progressive Field, and watched the Indians play a terrific game against the Detroit Tigers (though they lost 1-0 in a pitchers’ duel that was mesmerizing). We also squeezed in a quick visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was terrific. And finally, we drove east to Philadelphia to watch the Phillies play the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park, and lose 6-2.

    I cannot imagine a better way to spend time with my son. It wasn’t just the time at the ballparks, though that was great; it was the time in the car, over meals, even in a variety of hotel rooms…talking about important things (how the Mets will finish this year) and less important things (pretty much everything else).

    It is hard to compare the ballparks, because each had its own charms. The seats at Great American Ballpark were the best, thanks to the considerable pull of an MNB user who offered us some of the best seats in the house; we also loved the Machine Room Grille, a sports bar and restaurant that sits over the left field corner and features not just great food and beer, but also some of the nicest bartenders you’re likely to run into.

    Progressive Field seemed like it had the most mileage on it of the three, but it wears its age well…and they do an excellent job of spotlighting the Indians’ long history. (By the way, the only problem that I had with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is that it closes at 5:30 pm…which seems more like the time that a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would open. It is a definitely a visit that requires 4-5 hours, just for future reference…)

    And Citizens Bank Park? Well, it probably is the stadium style that I prefer – I like brick and steel construction rather than cement. But it has by the far the worst location of the three – so far from downtown that it almost is in Delaware. And, it has Phillies fans…who spent the entire game obsessing about the Mets (who had won earlier in the day) even though the Phillies were engaged in a perfectly good game against the Braves. (Being Mets fans, it was hard to have a rooting interest in either team…we chose the Braves – very, very quietly – just because the Phillies fans surrounding us were so annoying.)

    But I wasn't there just to compare ballparks, or hot dogs, or beer styles. I was there to spend time with my son. Hard to imagine that in just a few weeks he won’t be a teenager anymore, that this little boy I used to coach in Little League has grown into quite a man.

    Hard to imagine, and yet pleasant to think about. As parents, there are thousands of ways in which we can and do screw up our kids. It’s good to see when one actually survives the experience.

    Days to treasure. Hopefully, we’ll do it again soon.

    So, that is why we didn’t see “Star Trek” last Thursday night. But on Sunday, once we got home, the whole family went…

    And as far as this long time “Trek” fan is concerned, the new movie is wonderful. Not the “Star Trek” of my youth, of course, but that’s okay…they captured enough of what I loved about it when I was a kid and managed to give it a modern spin that serves the franchise well. The performances are uniformly excellent, and if they played with canon a bit too much for some traditionalists, well, they’ll just have to get over it.

    Besides, Leonard Nimoy – the original Spock – has given the new take on “Star Trek” his imprimatur…and that’s good enough for me.

    This isn’t to say that ‘Star Trek” is a perfect movie. It isn’t. There are a couple of plot holes that one could drive a starship through…if one chose to. And there are moments that are a little too slapstick for my sensibility. (Though if this film were created with my sensibility in mind, it probably would not have generated almost $80 million in sales the first weekend it was open.) But “Star Trek” was always more about possibilities than realities – it posited a universe in which peace and brotherhood between species was not only possible, but achievable. We’re living in a time now of diminished expectations and petty bickering, and “Star Trek” always has had the audacity to suggest that we are better than this, that we can survive lowest common denominator thinking and, in ways both physical and spiritual, reach for the stars. That we can live long, and prosper.

    (As you can tell, I’m a “Star Trek” guy. Always have been. Always have preferred it to “Star Wars.” I can even do the Vulcan hand salute.)

    I can’t wait to see it again. You see, the rumor is that somewhere in the film, there is a Tribble to be found. And I plan to keep seeing it until I find it.

    BTW…have you seen “Fringe,” the new television series made by the same guys responsible for the new “Star Trek”? If not, find some way to catch up on the season’s episodes…watch them in order…and prepare to have your mind blown. “Fringe” is sort of like “The X-Files,” but on steroids…and I found myself gripped by pretty much every episode. Anna Torv plays an FBI agent investigating phenomena related to so-called “fringe science,” John Noble plays the quite literally mad scientists she recruits to help her, and Joshua Jackson plays the scientist’s ne'er-do-well son, brought in to help control the father he hasn’t seen in decades. (One of the unexpected pleasures of the series has been watching this father-son relationship develop…though recent events on the show suggest that there is more here than meets the eye.)

    “Fringe” is terrific television. Check it out.

    I have two questions.

    1. Who cares what Miss California thinks about anything?
    2. Who cares whether Miss California keeps her crown or not?

    Talk about news that is utterly useless…and that took up way too much time on all the cable news channels this week.


    My wine of the week is a special one: the 2007 Bramble Bump Red from JM Cellars in Washington State – which is a delicious blend of 33 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 31 percent Merlot, 15 percent Syrah, 13 percent Mouvedre, and eight percent Petite Vedot. I’ve never had any of this vintner’s wines before, and this was delicious…
    rich and smooth and just about perfect.

    That’s it for this week.

    Have a great weekend…and I’ll see you Monday.


    KC's View: