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    Published on: October 22, 2010

    Postcards from the road...

    SEATTLE - The week started with Michael Sansolo and me moderating a panel discussion at the California Grocers Association (CGA) Strategic Conference, featuring Safeway’s Karl Schroeder, Unified Grocers’ Al Plamann, and Kraft Foods’ Tom Corley, as well as facilitating round-table discussions with attendees. We then moved on to Portland, Oregon, where Michael spoke at the annual conference sponsored by the Portland State University Food Industry Center, and I spoke at the vendor conference held by Western Family. And then, I moved on, via Amtrak, to Seattle, where I met up with some MNB users last night at Etta’s, and where I have some meetings today.

    Here are three highlights that opened my eyes during the week...

    • During the panel discussion, there seemed to be agreement that the recessionary environment being endured by the country right now may be some sort of structural change in the nation’s economy...with the strong possibility that high unemployment of eight, nine or ten percent the status quo for as long as a decade. Or maybe longer. Which means that people and companies may need to adjust their expectations and approaches, because we’re not going back to the way things were anytime soon.

    • One of the revelations during my roundtable about technology was that at Raley’s, where some 18 stores offer online shopping, there are customers who have established relationships with the professional shoppers who take their lists and walk the stores for people who prefer to use their computer keyboards. Some people actually request specific shoppers to do their picking for them...which means, in some ways, that technology - often criticized for depersonalizing various experiences - actually may be creating a more personalized experience when it is done right. (I think that maybe companies ought to post pictures and profiles of available shoppers on their sites, and allow customers to choose from them when placing orders.)

    • Laree Renda, the Safeway executive vice president, gave a wonderful speech at the PSU dinner, stressing the extent to which, even in challenging economic times, companies need to focus on customer service and great food as key differentiators.

    She used as an example a company that I’d never heard of - Kogi, a Korean BBQ to-go enterprise that has no set physical location - just five trucks that go to rotating locations around the Los Angeles area, where they usually find lines of dozens of people who have been tracking the trucks’ movements via the internet. She seemed to be suggesting that Kogi’s nimble business model and high quality combine to make it a unique and successful business, and that it offers lessons that all food retailers can learn from.

    And those are my Friday Eye-Openers...

    - Kevin Coupe
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    “Phil Lempert’s Food Sense,” a one-hour special that will be showing up on public television stations around the country over the next few weeks, is exactly what you would expect from a PBS program on the subject - an in-depth, well-researched, engaging one hour explanation of where various foods come from, with an emphasis on what we must do to maintain a sustainable food supply.

    Lempert clearly enjoys having the time and range to examine the subject in-depth; it is far more time than he gets, say, on the “Today Show,” where he reports regularly about food trends. And it is very smart to use a simple breakfast meal to illustrate just how complicated and even political the food chain is.

    It is, indeed, a contradictory subject. About food, Lempert says, “there is nothing more basic, it is the first essential of life, our biggest industry, our most frequently indulged pleasure, and perhaps the greatest cause of disease and death.”

    I will be curious about one thing - whether Lempert will get any criticism for producing a documentary focused on health and nutrition, in which the first interview subject is Marion Nestle, the outspoken Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University ... and that apparently is partly underwritten by Monsanto, which gets lots of criticism for its promotion of genetically modified organisms. (But maybe that just illustrates how complex the food chain is, and how complicated the questions are that surround it. The good news is that standard operating procedure is that sponsors don’t get a say in editorial decisions...)
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    The New York Times reports this morning that “two premium chicken producers, Bell & Evans in Pennsylvania and Mary’s Chickens in California, are preparing to switch to a system of killing their birds that they consider more humane. The new system uses carbon dioxide gas to gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.”

    While this shift is expected to gain approval from some animal rights groups and consumers, the two producers are struggling with how much they want to market it ... since the general feeling is that most people really don’t want to know how their food is killed.
    KC's View:
    I think you can count me in this group. I like chicken, eat it often, but the whole “throat slitting” thing is really more than I need to know.

    However, this actually ties into the message of the Lempert documentary - that we need to know where our food comes from and how it is processed. Even if it makes us queasy ... because it is only with such knowledge that we can make ethical decisions about the foods we buy and eat.

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that “across corporate America, more companies are wrestling with when and how much to raise prices as raw materials costs climb. The increases pose new hurdles to profits as consumers continue to resist increases.”

    Among the companies cited in the story: General Mills and Kraft Foods, which are said to be raising their prices to supermarket chains, expecting them to pass those increases on.

    “Grocery stores have struggled with price deflation in the last few years and had welcomed signs of food inflation as a means of raising profits by passing along the higher prices to consumers,” the Journal writes. “But with intense competition for customers resulting in fierce discounting battles among stores, inflation isn't as welcome now. The big chain stores see their costs either already rising or expect them to, and they're growing nervous about the prospect of passing those higher costs on to price-conscious consumers.”

    Supervalu CEO Craig Herkert, for example, tells the Journal that he expects "a vendor-by-vendor, and in some cases, item-by-item discussion of what does or does not get passed through" to consumers. He says that “the question for Supervalu is ‘how consumers will react to price increases’.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    South Africa-based Pick n Pay said yesterday that it plans to continue its expansion outside its home market, where it operates or franchises more than 700 stores.
    According to Reuters, the company said that it will open four more stores in Zambia over the next 12 months, and also plans to open units in Mauritius, Malawi and Mozambique during the coming year.

    Pick n Pay currently operates just 26 stores in countries outside South Africa.
    KC's View:
    Remember, Walmart just announced that it is working to acquire Massmart, which has close to 300 stores in 13 African countries. Which means that the pressure is on...

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    • About a week after it started carrying the Apple iPad, Walmart announced that it will shortly begin selling the Barnes & Noble Nook, which is its alternative to the Kindle.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    • Publix Super Markets continues to use the “hybrid” format that combines one of its traditional stores with its GreenWise concept that offers a more comprehensive selection of earth-friendly, all-natural and organic products, opening a new store in Naples, Florida.

    The News Press reports that “the hybrid store is about 9,000 square feet larger than traditional Publix stores to make room for
    expanded products and services ... Publix will continue to operate Publix GreenWise Market stores, but has plans to roll out a few other hybrid stores. No locations have been selected at this time,” according to the company.

    • The Los Angeles Times reports that Smart & Final has leased a 350,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center in Fontana, California, which will serve the company’s Southern California stores.

    The Fontana center “will enable us to improve our efficiency as we continue to expand our retail platform in the Southern California region,” said Tom Paolucci, director of Smart & Final Distribution.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    • Supervalu announced yesterday that Steve Irland, its Chicago-based vice president for banner marketing, has been named president of its W. Newell & Co. fresh produce distributor.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    ... will return.

    (One quick note. Thanks to all the MMNB users who said they like the unique blend of stories, comments, obscure references, cultural allusions and sports reports that make up the site, and urged me not to change a thing. I appreciate it. The goal here is always to write stuff that nobody else does...and we see no reason to change that strategy anytime soon. But it’s always nice to get a little positive reinforcement.)
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    • The always resilient Philadelphia Phillies defeated the San Francisco Giants 4-2 last night, staying alive in the best-of-seven series and sending it back to Philadelphia, with the Giants still holding a 3-2 game lead.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    Last week, when I wrote about “Painted Ladies,” the new Spenser novel written by Robert B. Parker before his untimely death in January, I mentioned that I had interviewed him a number of years ago. This prompted a bunch of emails from MNB readers who wondered where they could access the piece that resulted from that interview.

    The story, as it happens, ran in the Bridgeport Post, a paper that doesn’t really exist in that form anymore, on September 1, 1985. I couldn’t find it anywhere online, probably because people don’t digitize stories that are more than a quarter-century old. However ... I did find a yellowed copy of the paper in my files, and retyped it for reproduction here, to satisfy those who asked.

    It’s interesting to go back and read something written 25 years ago. For the most part, I’m okay with it, though there are some changes I’d probably make if I had it to do over. (I cannot believe I actually used the phrase “murder and mayhem.”) For the purposes of reproducing it, I’ve left the story virtually intact, changing just a couple of clumsy words and punctuation marks. What you get here is Parker, at 52 fairly early in his book writing career, having published just his 12th Spenser novel, and long before he conceived of Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall or Virgil Cole or Everett Hitch. And you get me, not yet 30, a little in awe, but luxuriating in the moment when I got to meet a hero of mine, and a newspaper actually paid me to write a 1,600-word piece about the experience...

    Robert B. Parker writes love stories.

    They cannot be found in the “romance” section of the local bookstore, of course. Parker’s series of novels, featuring a Boston-based private detective named Spenser, generally can be found in the “mystery fiction” section, amid the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, writers who generously seeded the ground that Parker works today.

    But Parker’s are love stories nonetheless. “Most of my books are about love, in part,” he says over a beer in the cafe of the Ritz Carlton, the posh Boston hotel overlooking the Public Gardens. “And, in some way or another, about the question of how a person should act.” Parker, who sprinkles his conversation with allusions to Shakespeare, Frost and Melville, among others, here refers to Freud’s observation that the most important things in a man’s life are love and works.

    “The books are about that, too,” he says. Those are the things that interest me - (love) between men and women, adults and children, fathers and sons. Fathers and sons because I am a father and have two sons, and I modify that and strain it through. Husband and wife because that is what my real interest is, and I strain that through. Those things interest me the most.

    “I change, I hope, as I get older,” Parker says. “But those things are in many ways consistent in the books. Not so rigidly as Ross Macdonald’s commitment to the dark sin hidden in the deep past, but most of my books, directly or indirectly, are about some of those things. Family, childhood, love.” Parker smiles. He takes another sip of beer. “Very few of my books are about who stole the Maltese Falcon.”

    The occasion for Parker’s reflections is a sudden emergence of his finely crafted works on a number of fronts. The twelfth book featuring Spenser, “A Catskill Eagle” (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, $14.95), has been on national best-seller lists almost since the week it was published. The eleven preceding Spenser novels - plus two outside the series, “Love and Glory,” and “Wilderness” - have been reissued by Dell in paperback to significant success. “Spenser: For Hire,” a moderately faithful rendition of the characters in a television series format, premieres with Robert Urich in the title role on September 20.

    But Parker, 52, a burly, strong-looking man several inches under six-feet tall, with mirthful eyes and a throaty, infectious chuckle, seems comfortable with his growing fame. Perhaps it is because he does not take it too seriously, which becomes evident when he discusses his own family life. (Sometimes, when Parker speaks, it is for Spenser, and sometimes for himself. While it is obvious that the two share much, Spenser is not Parker. “He’s taller,” jokes the author, who is a good deal less intense than his creation.)

    Writing novels was never a burning passion, he says, despite a career that veered from advertising to academia. “I had achieved the most important things in my life and had the sons (David and Daniel). Given the choice between Joan and the boys, and being a writer, I would give up being a writer without a blink. I have a burning passion for only those three things, plus Pearl, of course.” He laughs, then confides that Pearl is his dog.

    “But I did always want to (write books), and I profoundly disliked all the other stuff I was doing. So Joan suggested that I ought to get to be a professor, and that then I would have time to write. I said that I’d need a Ph.D., and she said, ‘Why don’t you get one?’ I said that I was 30 years old and had a wife and two kids, and she said, ‘Well, aside from that?’ So we did, and we scrambled for a couple of years and finally I got the Ph.D. and became a professor and wrote the books. I refer to myself now as a reformed academic...But it (writing) was never a burning passion. It looks that way because you look at my history and see that I finally wrote a novel when I was 40, but I would have died happy with Joan and the boys and if I had never published a book.”

    Most of Parker’s books are dedicated to his wife; one that was not has the following inscription: “For David Parker and Daniel Parker, with the respect and admiration of their father, who grew up with them.” This openness of affection can be seen throughout his books, whether it is Spenser’s helping a baseball player and his ex-prostitute wife escape the clutches of a blackmailer, aiding a shiftless and hangdog young boy and encouraging him to develop personal standards of conduct, or giving the woman he passionately loves, Susan Silverman, the physical and spiritual freedom to make the most crucial of choices. Spenser is not a man of law, but one of justice. Of ethics and integrity. And most of all, love.

    Of course, the character didn’t start out that way. In the first book, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” Spenser is a typical fictional private eye, all wisecracks and libido. By the time he reaches “A Catskill Eagle,” he has gained a surrogate family, he has learned much more about himself and his world, he increasingly has become convinced that his outlook on life has been too severe.

    “I think he is a lot less rigid,” Parker says. “He has come to understand much more how complicated the world is, that integrity is a goal to be sought, but he is realizing, as he gets older, how complicated it is to achieve it.” The associations with other characters, the surrogate family has become a regular part of the series, were natural rather than planned progressions, he says, and perhaps reflect his own change in circumstances. When he first started to write about Spenser, Parker says, he was much more defiant; with success has come an ability to reflect and accept more readily. “I think there may be a great parallel,” he says.

    Less defiant though he may be, Parker says that “A Catskill Eagle” represents a conscious attempt to push the boundaries of the detective novel. “I don’t write in the genre, people read in the genre,” he says.

    By no means a whodunit, “A Catskill Eagle” is about Spenser’s search for Susan Silverman, who has become a damsel in distress. In the course of the search, Spenser commits murder, mayhem and violates any number of laws. He spends little time contemplating the morality of his acts; the ends, at least in this case, seem to justify the means. It is left to the reader to judge Spenser’s actions and their consequences.

    The book has drawn its share of attention - Parker acknowledges that some feel it is his best book, while others say it is his worst. Publisher’s Weekly described Spenser as “degenerating into an amoral mass murderer,” but Newsweek called the book Parker’s finest, noting that “he seeks to recreate, in contemporary context, the medieval quest.”

    “I don’t want to write the same book over and over,” says Parker. “I want to do what I can do. I want to try things. It is like a high-jumper: ‘I wonder if I can do seven-two’.”

    Parker says he wanted to shift the conventional view of heroism. “The convention of the novel-reading world is that the hero does what is right. And it isn’t all the time. (Spenser) is someone who wouldn’t be in his line of work if he didn’t like to hit. There is something about violence that charms and appeals to him. And it is difficult for him to justify that. We’re talking ambivalence and ambiguity here. The degree to which he uses violence is never random. It is always for reasons - whether one likes the reasons or not or whether they are even right or not. They are, in some sense, civilized.”

    Parker adds, “You cannot say that ends justify the means, or vice-versa. It is irrelevant to the way people really live. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do to someone and not someone else. There is a priority in Spenser’s order of things, and it is always one-on-one. He does not theorize.

    “He may expound philosophically now and then, but he always chooses - and I would always choose - the individual rather than the group. I would not sacrifice you for the greater good. I think it was E.M. Forster who once said that if he had the choice between betraying his friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. I’ll buy that. Someone else, I think it was Pound, said that if there were a fire in a museum filled with great works of art and there also was a cat in there, he’d try for the cat. I agree with that, too.”

    Several years ago, in “Inward Journey,” a collection of tributes to the late mystery novelist Ross Macdonald, Parker contributed a piece entitled “Heroes and Debts.” He concluded it as follows: “It was not just that Ross Macdonald taught us how to write; he did something much more, he taught us how to read, and to think about life, and maybe, in some small, but mattering way, how to live.”

    And while Parker says he would “rather not be tabbed as someone who tells other people how to live,” his Spenser demonstrates precisely that - how to care, how not to be timid, how to learn and grow and share.

    Which may be a definition of love. And explains why Robert B. Parker actually writes love stories.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 22, 2010

    Just some random thoughts this Friday morning...

    This one had sort of fallen off my radar, so I was surprised to see the story the other day noting that the fight is continuing over whether Walmart should be allowed to build a supercenter near a historic Civil War battlefield in Northern Virginia. The debate came up in the news again because James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has agreed to join with opponents of the store - including actor Robert Duvall and documentarian Ken Burns - by testifying against it in the court case that is proceeding.

    It was the way the facts of the case were arranged that drew my attention. The store is said to be not on the old battlefield, but near it. There are other stores in the area where Walmart wants to build, which suggests that the neighborhood is hardly sacred ground. And the two sides lining up on either side of the issue are resolute, though there seems to be greater public passion being expressed by those who would ask Walmart to build the store elsewhere.

    Now, I’m not trying to draw a strict comparison, not am I suggesting any sort of moral or historical equivalency. But...when you read those facts, the scenario actually sounds like another case concerning an entity that wants to build a specific structure that will be near but not on the ground that some would view as sacred because it was the location of an extremely important historical event, and there is opposition even though the other business entities in the neighborhood are fairly mundane. And, the passion on both sides of this issue is considerable, though the people who want the entity to build its structure elsewhere have drawn more light and heat to the issue.

    Interesting, huh? I am, of course, talking about the Muslim community center that is planned for two blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center towers that were attacked on September 11, 2001.

    As I thought about it, it also occurred to me that some of the people who probably object to the Muslim community center might find themselves on the side of Walmart in Virginia, while the folks who object to Walmart’s building a store near the Civil War battleground might be, shall we say, less strident about the mosque being built in New York. Not everybody would have bifurcated interests, but I’d bet a fair number of people would.

    Again, the issues are not the same, but maybe there are more similarities that people on either side of the two issues would care to admit. And I find this to be, at the very least, curious...and I wonder how much it all comes down to ideological posturing.

    On another, completely non-business related issue, it was interesting to see the other day that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that her country’s attempts to be multi-cultural had failed, and she called on her countrymen to, in the words of one news story, “to learn German and adopt Christian values.”

    “We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don't accept them don't have a place here," said the chancellor.

    And I’m thinking to myself, hasn’t Germany tried this approach once before?

    People who don’t look like everyone else, who don’t act like everyone else, who don’t pray like everyone else (or don’t pray at all), and who have personal lives that don’t fit the majority’s definition of what is appropriate or acceptable ... these are the people who are the targets, and eventually the victims, of actions that can result from such statements.

    It made me glad that the theory of the American quilt that so many of us were taught in school - and that some of us even remember - allows for the celebration of differences.

    And here’s the business relevance, beyond the fact that customers are customers, regardless of their beliefs or persuasions. The person who comes up with the next great technological innovation may not be a Christian. By adopting a position like that stated by Merkel, Germany may position itself as a culture where that person will not feel at home, and that innovator/entrepreneur will choose to live elsewhere.

    Like, hopefully, here.

    “The Reversal,” the new Michael Connelly novel, is a terrific read. The book brings together two of Connelly’s protagonists from different series of books - Harry Bosch, the tortured and driven LA police detective, and Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln Lawyer” who makes a good living representing questionable defendants. For once, Harry and Mickey - in fact, half-brothers - find themselves on the same side of the law as Mickey is appointed a special prosecutor in the case of a kidnapper whose case was reversed two decades after he was convicted and sent to jail.

    The writing is riveting, with chapters that alternate between the two main characters - Harry’s chapters are written in the third person, while Mickey’s feature a first-person narration. The conceit works - and Connelly constructs a relentless narrative that drives to its inevitable conclusion. It’s a page-turner.

    It was a busy week to be in the Pacific Northwest. When we landed in Portland, our bags were held up and the airport was locked down because Vice President Joe Biden was in transit from a campaign speech, on his way back to Air Force Two. The following day, it was only good timing and the city’s wonderful Max light rail service that allowed Michael to get back to the airport despite the fact that President Barack Obama was in town for a speech.

    But my favorite visitor to Portland this week was, in fact, Jimmy Buffett, who played the Rose Garden Arena on Tuesday night. For the first time in years, I’d missed seeing Buffett this summer because of bad timing ... and then, because of pure coincidence, he ended up being in town on Tuesday night. And so, I took Michael to his first Jimmy Buffett concert...and he will report on the experience next week.

    My wine of the week - the 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Syrah, which my friend Morgan poured for me last night at Etta’s - was delicious, and perfect for a cool, cloudy Seattle evening.

    That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

    KC's View: