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    Published on: August 10, 2009

    by Kevin Coupe

    “Julia & Julia” opened over the weekend, and offers an important business lesson. But maybe not the one you’d guess.

    First of all, let’s get the basics out of the way. “Julie & Julia” is a charming, entertaining, utterly delightful movie about two women’s romances with food – especially butter.

    “Julie & Julia” is writer/director Nora Ephron’s paean about Julia Child’s discovery and mastery of the art of French cooking in post World War II Paris. Child is played with sheer joy by Meryl Streep, who never descends into caricature; she captures the big emotions and small moments of Child’s outsized personality with equal affection, and she is pretty much matched at every turn by Stanley Tucci as Paul Child, Julia’s adoring diplomat husband.

    The “Julie” of the title is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a would-be writer in 2002 New York City with what she views as a dead-end clerical job, who decides – urged on by her adoring husband Eric (Chris Messina) – to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s landmark “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” in 365 days. And blog about it – because that’s what people do, and when they’re lucky, as she was, they get an audience.

    The movie moves smoothly back and forth between the very different lives being led by Julia and Julie, focusing on how the pursuit of good food gave both of them purpose and direction. While some critics have suggested that the Julia Child stuff is much better and that the Julie Powell segments just distract from the more interesting store, I’m not sure that’s true – in fact, I think that it is juxtaposition of the two time periods that makes the whole movie work. Paris in the late forties was a very different place than New York in the early 21st century, which is made clear by the fact that Paul Child is at one point in his career investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, while Julie Powell’s job is in the bureaucracy dealing with the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Each period puts the other one is sharp relief, and that makes the movie better.

    “Julie & Julia” isn’t a perfect movie; for example, it mentions that Julia Child didn’t think much of Julie Powell’s endeavor, but doesn’t really go into why. (One can imagine that Julia Child, then in her late eighties, likely didn’t get the whole blogging culture.) And it isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone – the target audience is an older demographic, and I noticed at the Saturday night show I attended that there were a lot more canes, walkers and wheelchairs than one normally sees at the movies. (I felt younger just by virtue of being ambulatory. But people older than 40 are hungry for solid entertainment, and want something other than “Transformers” and “GI Joe.”)

    Now, there has been a lot of discussion about whether this movie can awaken in the US public some sort of renewed interest in fresh food and cooking. Go online, and you can find everything from Julia Child devotees criticizing Julie Powell for not being worthy of the great woman’s mantle, to people suggesting that entities such as the Food Network suddenly are going to adopt a more Julia Child-like approach to cooking programs (more food, less celebrity and sex appeal).

    All of which is just silly. “Julie & Julia” is just a movie, and it would be highly unusual for even as entertaining a movie as this one to have that kind of cultural impact. Emeril Lagasse isn’t suddenly going to stop shouting ”Bam!,” Giada De Laurentiis isn’t going to gain 40 pounds (thank goodness!), and we’re not all suddenly going to get a yen for deboning ducks, or for making Child’s famous boeuf bourguignon. (I’m pretty sure about this last part because the recipe calls for a six-ounce chunk of bacon and instructs the cook to “remove rind and cut bacon into lardons.” For most of us, that would be enough dissuasion …the first thing we’d have to do is figure out what the hell a lardon is.) Wishing we could go back to a simpler time, when we were less time-constrained and more focused on fresh foods rather than pre-packaged processed foods won’t make it so.

    What’s interesting, if you pay attention to the arguments and debates, is that they are about more than just food. There is all this discussion back and forth about organic vs. natural vs. local, about who is purer and better, about who has the right motivations. (The real Julie Powell has made it easier for some self-righteous critics; after the events portrayed in the movie, she cheated on her husband, worked on another book, and is described on numerous sites as a not entirely pleasant functional alcoholic.)

    It is all about superiority and the sort of annoying and sanctimonious posturing that sometimes takes place among foodies. The point, it seems to me, ought to be that there are tons of options out there and that it is up to people to make informed decisions about what suits their lives and interests. I’m not sure there is a moral or ethical high ground to preferring local beers, Oregon Pinot Noirs, heirloom tomatoes, organic apples, or grass-fed natural beef to other kinds of products. Julia Child showed one way to live your life, and Julie Powell took her up on the challenge…but it certainly isn’t the only way. One of the great opportunities that exist for many food stores is the chance to educate consumers about the possibilities – not because of some ethical dictate, but because it is, quite simply, good business.

    The business lesson that really should be taken from “Julie & Julia” is the way that Julia Child identified an opportunity – that in the post World War II era, women were food-challenged to a great degree and that if made accessible to them, French cooking could change their lives in the same way that it changed hers. And she pursued it with a singular passion – writing the cookbook with two collaborators in a number of countries on two continents, relying on carbon copies and snail mail to communicate.

    In many ways, that’s exactly what Julie Powell did, though she had the advantage of the Internet to make her communication processes a lot easier. She loved cooking and was a frustrated writer…so she put the pieces together and created – out of passion – a business opportunity.

    That’s the magic formula, it seems to me. When passion is added to opportunity, and is multiplied by dedication and focus, that’s the way to create a successful enterprise, whether it is a retail store, a packaged product, or a book. Or even, when you think about it, a good and entertaining movie. Which “Julie & Julia” is.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    The Washington Post joins in on what seems to be generally positive media coverage of Whole Foods that has emerged in recent weeks, reporting that “if Whole Foods were perishable, it probably would have expired this past year. But instead, it has done surprisingly well, holding its own as a high-end food retailer in what's now been a year-long assault on any store considered expensive. While its performance hasn't been dazzling -- the downturn hurt sales and dampened expansion plans -- it hasn't been dismal, either.”

    To do so, the company had to ramp up its marketing and change its product mix to emphasize items that did not scream “whole paycheck.” Its efforts have been largely successful, at least to this point, and analysts seem to be coming around.
    KC's View:
    One of three things is happening here.

    It is possible that Whole Foods has a very, very good public relations firm that is successfully pitching this story to a lot of newspapers and is getting lots of bites.

    Or, it is possible that newspaper reporters are following their occasionally lemming-line instincts and following up on previous stories about the retailer’s resurgence.

    Or maybe it is some combination of the two.

    That doesn’t mean the resurgence isn’t happening, or that the road ahead isn’t treacherous if Whole Foods makes a mistake. Both probably are true, and it will be interesting to see what happens as Whole Foods gets away from its gourmet image and refocuses on its healthy living roots.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    The News & Observer reports that a new McClatchy-Ipsos poll suggests that while obesity may be in a problem in the US, most people don't believe it – only 17 percent of those surveyed said that they thought obesity might be a serious problem for themselves and their families and that two-thirds felt their weight was “healthy” –which is at variance with the national trends that put US obesity rates at between 25 and 30 percent.

    The survey also found that “75 percent of Americans think the most effective way to combat obesity is through education about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet.”
    KC's View:
    This could be simple denial, or it could be the tendency of many Americans to not believe what the government tells them. Which seems to be a tendency growing by the minute.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    Yet more evidence that the end of civilization is at hand…

    The Los Angeles Times reports that “the ubiquitous 750-milliliter glass wine bottle is starting to get competition from a plastic upstart, both on retail shelves and at a few restaurants.

    “The bottles carry a ‘use by’ date -- plastic doesn't provide quite the same seal as glass -- and as such aren't likely to find their way into the cellars of serious wine enthusiasts. For those who aren't as picky, however, the wine is likely to cost less. And oenophiles say that for wine that hasn't, err, expired, the taste will be the same.”

    For the moment, plastic wine bottles seem to be more marketable to restaurants than to consumers, since individual wine shoppers may not be ready to make the transition to plastic. But some think it is inevitable…that if screw tops and boxed wine can take hold, there’s no reason plastic bottles cannot catch on as well.
    KC's View:
    : I’ve just now adapting to screw tops. I’m not sure I can handle boxes and plastic bottles of wine.

    And I continue to worry that we are bleeding the magic out of wine, that by getting rid of things like corks and heavy glass bottles, we make it less special. We make it like milk or soda. And I’m not sure that in the long run, this helps the wine business.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    Bloomberg reports that Target Corp. plans to end its relationship with in 2011 and will take over the operation of its own website. The move ends a decade-long arrangement with Amazon that had the online retailer handling order taking, fulfillment and customer support for Target.

    “We’ve had a very positive, productive relationship with Amazon,” Kelly Basgen, a Target spokeswoman, tells Bloomberg. “However, given the flexibility required to deliver a customized multi-channel experience for our guests as we continue to grow, we just thought it was in our best interest to grow and manage our own platform.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    • Walmart’s newest format, a Latin-themed membership warehouse store called Más Club, opened in Houston last Thursday.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, the new store “aims to satisfy the yearnings of recent immigrants for the familiar foods of home -- in American-style bulk sizes. The Sam's Club spinoff is part of a broader effort by the retailer to target the nation's fast-growing Latino population with dedicated stores.”

    And, the Journal writes, Walmart management “says it is feeling out the Más concept … and may end up using it mainly as a laboratory on how to tailor existing Sam's Club stores to local tastes.”

    Advertising Age reports that Walmart’s Project Impact initiative, which seeks to streamline assortments, could have a negative impact on small suppliers that simply won’t be able to earn space on the retailer’s shelves. It also could lead to consolidation, the story suggests, as mid-sized suppliers look to pair up in a way that gives them more marketing sway with Walmart.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the recession has created a consumer-friendly scenario in the UK: “With an estimated five million Britons staying home this summer instead of traveling, the country's leading grocers are slugging it out for shoppers' time and money. They're slashing prices, launching new budget brands and taunting the price claims of rivals in advertising.”

    According to the story, “The standoff is having a curious result: Nearly all the major grocery chains seem to be winning. Even with the recession dragging on, many U.K. grocers are posting strong growth in sales and operating profits. Whether the party lasts after the economy recovers is an open question, though, since raising prices again after customers get used to discounts is notoriously difficult.

    “For now, the chains are benefiting largely because they moved quickly to keep customers from defecting to discounters.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    There’s a good article in Business Week that looks at what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is doing to reinvigorate the company, which has been struggling because of the recession and energized competition from the likes of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

    It is a 2,500-word piece, but here is the gist of it: Starbucks needed to get more efficient, and Schultz had to learn how to integrate that sort of thinking into a management style that had largely depended on impulse, instinct and entrepreneurial intuition. That’s meant paying attention to supply chain issues and in-store processes, and adapting some traditional retail metrics to the way the company operates. And it has meant doing some radical things – like advertising – that the company previously eschewed.

    It hasn’t been easy, Business Week writes, and Schultz remains conflicted about abandoning the tried and true approach that helped grow the company into an icon. But there seems to be progress, as same store sales declines seem to be slowing. And in this environment, any progress is solid progress.
    KC's View:
    One of the questions I would ask is to what extent Schultz may have resisted some of these changes in the past because he didn’t see the future as clearly as he should have. It is a good thing that he is adopting a changed approach to management of the company, but my sense is that he may have waited until it was almost too late.

    That said, I am impressed with one story told in the Business Week piece – that the development of the new 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea prototype, which sells beer and wine and does not have the Starbucks banner over the door or in the store, started with Schultz telling a small team, “If you were going to open a store to compete with Starbucks, how would you do it?”

    That’s the question that virtually every retailer should be posing to its development teams: How would you put us out of business?

    Better the question be asked – and, most importantly, answered – inside a company than outside. Because the guys outside actually do want to put you out of business.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    Women’s Wear Daily reports that “Seven For All Mankind and Gap Inc. are taking advantage of the wealth of empty storefronts around the country to open denim pop-up shops,” stores that open for just a few days to take advantage of specific marketing opportunity like back-to-school or the end-of-year holidays.
    KC's View:
    I wonder if this might be an interesting opportunity for food retailers, who could bring targeted products and services to unorthodox locations where they can appeal to an expanded customer base. If we all agree that the “if you build it they will come” era is over, then it is time to try new approaches.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    • The Stripes Group, a private equity firm, has completed a $13 million equity
    investment in MyWebGrocer, the Vermont-based company that provides Internet services to regional and national grocery chains as well as the operator of a national grocery ad network with more than four million monthly shoppers.

    Full disclosure: MyWebGrocer is a longtime MorningNewsBeat sponsor. However, we would have written about this even if it were not a sponsor – because lining up this kind of investment in the current economic environment struck us as newsworthy – so it didn’t make sense to penalize the company for being a MorningNewsBeat supporter.

    • The Seattle Times reports that the last Juan Valdez coffee shop in Seattle – opened a few years ago by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia to cash in on the burgeoning coffee trend – has closed, the victim of indifferent consumers and tough competition.

    According to the paper, the Juan Valdez chain “still operates stores in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., a couple airports and ‘select Wal-Mart and Kroger stores nationwide.’ But the site says its Seattle cafe is still open, too.”

    • The Independent reports that Starbucks plans to close 31 of its UK stores as a part of its overall effort to eliminate non-productive units. The retailer, however, said that it has no “specific announcements” to make at this time.

    • The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a new food trend worth noting – tart yogurt, which is chilled not frozen and reminiscent of Greek yogurt. People seem to like it with a vast array of toppings and it has a strong “good for you factor” because it also has probiotics.
    KC's View:
    They’ve just started selling and sampling tart yogurt at Stew Leonard’s…and I like it a lot. It is an acquired taste…Mrs. Content Guy wasn't nuts about it…but it’s always good to bring something new to the table.

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    • PriceSmart, which operates 26 membership club stores in Central America and the Caribbean, reported July sales that were up 4.9 percent to $99.8 million from $95.2 million in July a year earlier, on same-store sales that were up 1.2 percent.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    • Price Chopper Supermarkets/Golub Corporation announced today that Rick Mausert, the company’s Manager of Continuous Improvement, has been promoted to the position of Director of Non-Resale Purchasing. Mausert is a three-decade veteran at Price Chopper.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    James Walter Brown, who worked for Ralphs Grocery Co. for a half-century before taking reins of the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC) died Friday just a week shy of his 82nd birthday.

    According to a statement released by WAFC executive vice president Carole Christianson, “Extremely humble and a man of great integrity, people were always his first priority. Jim was a great communicator, operator, and, most importantly…friend. He will be missed. We have lost a treasure.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 10, 2009

    The US Department of Labor said Friday that non-farm payrolls were down 247,000 in July – which was below the 275,000 decline that was expected. At the same time, the unemployment rate was down in July 0.1 percent to 9.4 percent – still a lot higher than the less than six percent reported just a year ago.

    There remain concerns in some quarters that the unemployment rate could soon go above 10 percent, and that unemployment is likely to lag behind other indicators that the recession may be coming to an end.

    My comment: The recession may end, but recession-minded consumers are not going to change their stripes anytime soon. The key for effective retailers is to maintain a short-term focus on value, but not to lose tough with the enduring values that make them different in the eyes of the consumer.

    MNB user Tim Heyman responded:

    My view is much simpler than this, the recession end when those 6.7 million are back working and not underemployed.

    Agreed. No matter what the definition of a recession, that should be the mantra of every elected official in America.

    Got an interesting email from Down Under:

    I live in Australia, and have been unemployed for 10 weeks. Just as I was wondering if I was ever going to find something, I've been offered four great jobs (one after an interview, three on recommendation alone). These jobs would have been the types of jobs you'd fight for when times were good - so to have been offered them in the current environment I was truly blessed.

    Even better, I've now been able to help out 2 others in my position - both ideal candidates that under normal economic conditions would not have been available.

    I argue that now is the time for businesses to find the quantities of gold that have been cast aside for no good reason, other than cutbacks.

    Excellent point. There are a lot of companies where there are labor cutbacks being enforced not because they are necessary for survival, but because a recession is a good excuse for cutting employees. For those companies that choose this moment to invest in people, I believe the long-term payoffs will be significant.

    MNB user Andrew M. Casey wrote:

    I have always been a glass half full kind of guy and the optimist in me wants to believe, but I just don't get these news reports lately about things getting better soon.

    The reality is that almost 250,000 people lost their jobs last month (OK, a little better than expected but c'mon) and many of those will likely remain unemployed for some time because the pool of jobs keeps shrinking every month. Yes, unemployment took a small dip (good news) but primarily because many who lost their job months ago have exhausted their benefits and are no longer counted. And while I have no quarrel with the "cash for clunkers" program, any effect from it can only be short-lived because it is just too expensive to sustain (even for Congress).

    I fervently hope and pray I am wrong but my gut tells me we may not even have seen the worst yet.

    MNB took note on Friday of a Marketing Daily report that Bumble Bee Tuna is launching a new radio and in-store advertising campaign designed to hype the product’s value and meal versatility. MNB user Rick O’Hara responded:

    I guess I’m getting old, but your blurb today about Bumblebee tuna launching an ad campaign brought to mind the Schooner Tuna campaign launched by Teri Garr in Mr. Mom (wayyyy back in 1983!). Life imitates art, you think?

    “My fellow Americans. I am Howard Humphrey, President of Schooner Tuna. All of us here at Schooner Tuna sympathize will all of you hit so hard by these trying economic times. In order to help you we are reducing the price of Schooner Tuna by 50 cents a can. When this crisis is over, we will go back to our regular prices. Until then, remember, we’re all in this together. Schooner Tuna. The tuna with a heart.”

    Rather bittersweet, because it also reminded me of the loss of John Hughes (who wrote “Mr. Mom”) this week.

    Another MNB user chimed in on the loss of John Hughes:

    Looking back, John Hughes was gifted, using his characters fully to create absolute hilarity. But an even bigger gift is a legacy of many films that truly reflected life in the Chicago area, a place he believed had reality other places like LA did not. He made visible the issues that were relevant with teens in the 80’s, getting along, awkwardness, social status and parents. He had his finger on the culture. Certainly those movies could have reflected life in many places around the country, but ask any Midwesterner about John Hughes and you’ll hear of subtleties and nuances in each movie they feel are truly theirs.

    I said nice things about TV host Craig Ferguson in last Friday’s “OffBeat,” leading MNB user Christian Erzinger to write:

    At the end of a long week, I read Friday's column. Your mention of the Late Show bit got me to check out Craig Ferguson. You are correct; I had forgotten how spot-on he can be. Of course I somehow traveled from the "I Figured It Out" spot to George Carlin (the magic of hyper-links). That is when the chuckles turned to tears from laughing so hard. Thanks for a good start to the weekend.

    My pleasure.
    KC's View: