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    Published on: September 10, 2020

    Content Guy's Note:  "The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket," is as much a look at the secret lives of the people who make up the supply chain as the stores themselves - author Benjamin Lorr has turned five years of research into a fascinating, entertaining and revealing book that I think will be prove to be of interest to consumers and business people alike.  The book focuses on some fundamental misunderstandings and misapprehensions that people have about the food they eat and that defines their lives and tastes, and I had the chance to engage with Benjamin Lorr in an extended  conversation about his experiences while writing the book.

    Here's part one.  Enjoy.

    You can get the book from Amazon, or from one of the nation's best independent booksellers, Powell's, or at a bookstore near you.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    Walmart said yesterday that it will "run a pilot project for delivery of grocery and household products through automated drones, along with end-to-end delivery firm Flytrex, as the U.S. retailer looks to beef up its delivery business," CNBC reports.

    The test starts this week in Fayetteville, North Carolina, "with cloud-controlled drones picking up and dropping off select items."

    Bloomberg  writes that "the move follows Walmart’s attempt to counter Amazon’s popular Prime service with its own membership program, dubbed Walmart+, which debuts Sept. 15. The two rivals have both acquired millions of customers during the pandemic thanks to their low prices and convenient shopping options, and the key now is to hold onto them by making it even easier to purchase the millions of everyday items they carry.

    "Amazon has a head start with drones, as last month it became one of only a handful of companies certified by the U.S. government to operate as a drone airline. That allows Amazon to begin its first commercial deliveries in the U.S. under a trial program, using the high-tech devices it unveiled for that purpose last year."

    “We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone. That still feels like a bit of science fiction,” Tom Ward, senior vice-president, customer products, said in a statement.

    KC's View:

    But maybe not quite as much like science fiction as might have been believed just a few years ago.

    It wasn't that long ago that drone deliveries seemed like a flight of fancy - literally - but the acceptance and regulation of the technology has moved quicker than many of us might have expected.

    These days, the only delivery system that might legitimately be defined as science fiction would be Star Trek's transporter.  And I'll probably get proven wrong on that point sooner rather than later.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    GeekWire reports that "Amazon is opening its second Amazon Go Grocery store … this one in Redmond, Wash., bringing its larger cashierless store format to the Seattle suburbs and the doorstep of Microsoft’s headquarters … The stores are an expansion of the high-tech shopping experience first ushered in by the smaller Go convenience stores two years ago. Amazon Go Grocery stocks many of the items found in full-size grocery stores but uses an array of cameras and sensors to log what people put in their carts as they shop, eliminating checkout lines."

    According to the story, "This Amazon Go Grocery will differ from the first location by offering a selection of hot food items prepared in a kitchen on site. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner food items will include breakfast wraps and oatmeal, soups, hot sandwiches, pizza by the slice, rotisserie chicken, chicken wings and BBQ ribs.  The Redmond store is also catering more heavily to parents on the go with expanded baby products such as diapers, wipes, food, and other supplies."

    The Amazon Go Grocery format is said to be larger than the original Amazon Go stores, which are more of a convenience format, but smaller than the new Amazon Fresh grocery stores that the company is rolling out.

    The GeekWire piece notes that "while the new store may attract shoppers who work at Microsoft, the location is also notable because Microsoft is not shy about also wanting to 'redefine the shopping experience' through technology. The software giant has teamed with Kroger on projects including on a high-tech QFC store in Redmond, which features smart shelves and handheld devices to bring greater efficiency to grocery shopping, pricing, stocking and in-store advertising."

    KC's View:

    The Go Grocery format has gotten less attention than the other two, so it is interesting to see it opening now.  (There's supposed to be another one in Washington, DC, one of these days.)

    The idea that Amazon would place it near Microsoft HQ reminds me of when my daughter's dog, Zazu, grabs a toy in her mouth and walks over to our dog, Spenser, and wave sit in front of him, daring him to try to get it.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal has a story about 10 food trends that we're likely to see in the coming 10 years.  Among them:

    •  Less booze consumption (quarantine habits aside), as people embrace "aperitif culture, adaptogen-infused mocktails, non-alcoholic spirits, session beers and low-ABV wines."

    •  Families more frequently will eat and cook together, "a silver lining of pandemic lockdown," as "remote work becomes more prevalent, the ritual will continue, advancing a whole generation’s kitchen skills for the long haul."

    •  Regionalism will grow, as people look into "hyperspecific food concepts, those driven by authentic personal narrative and/or a highly particular cultural context."

    •  "Following on Covid-era business pivots, restaurants will continue to find new ways to serve their communities, extending their purview beyond sit-down dining to offerings like meal kits, cooking classes, wine clubs and food retail."

    •  "Waste-consciousness will go mainstream, with consumers demanding better biodegradable delivery packaging, composting at home and buying from burgeoning waste-reducing grocers such as Imperfect Foods."

    •  "As the term 'organic' continues to be diluted, evolved eaters will instead seek out ingredients labeled 'regenerative': grown and raised using methods that improve the soil, capturing carbon and encouraging biodiversity."

    •  "Plant-based meat and dairy substitutes will improve and proliferate."

    KC's View:

    There are two predicted trends that I really liked in the Journal story…suggesting that "restaurants and food brands will be headed by a more diverse group of chefs …  talented women and people of color who have been shut out of leadership positions to date … (and) a proliferation of new flavors and ideas will follow."

    Which sounds wonderful.

    The other one is that "ethical employment practices will take root," with consumers paying as much attention to how businesses take care of their people as to how they source their food.

    I think that's really important.  (And one of the subjects of part two of my interview with Benjamin Lorr, which will run on MNB tomorrow.)

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    The New York Times reports that two mall operators - Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners - are going to acquire JC Penney out of bankruptcy, "averting a total liquidation."

    The Times writes that "Simon and Brookfield will pay about $300 million in cash and assume $500 million in debt to buy J.C. Penney, lawyers for the retailer said at a Bankruptcy Court hearing. The deal will split J.C. Penney into separate companies, with Simon and Brookfield running the retail business and its creditors owning a portion of its real estate. In all, the deal values J.C. Penney at $1.75 billion, including the funds committed to support its business after it emerges from bankruptcy … It was not immediately clear how many stores the mall operators will keep open, or exactly how many jobs they would preserve."

    One of the reasons that the two mall operators may have found JC Penney worth acquiring is that "smaller mall retailers often have so-called co-tenancy clauses in their leases, which allow them to pay reduced rent or even break their leases if two or more anchor stores - like Sears, Macy’s and J.C. Penney - leave a location … J.C. Penney’s bankruptcy already had serious implications for American malls and workers, as the company prepared to close as many as 250 locations and started liquidations at more than 100 stores this summer."

    KC's View:

    There's an old Russian proverb that goes, ""Nothing is more permanent than a temporary solution."

    I think that applies here.  They may be preventing the loss of some retailers and keeping the JC Penney brand on life support, but do they have a vision for how to turn it into a 21st century retailing entity that is compelling, relevant, resonant and sustainable?

    I wouldn't bet on it.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    From the New York Times:

    "A federal judge has struck down key portions of a Trump administration rule that made it more difficult for workers to win lawsuits against companies over violations committed by contractors and franchisees.

    "The rule, which the Labor Department proposed last year and made final in January, raised the bar for employees of a franchise like Burger King or Subway to win a judgment against the parent company if the restaurant violated minimum-wage or overtime laws.

    "Because the contractors and franchisees that directly employ workers often have limited resources, suing the larger companies is often the best hope for workers seeking to recover wages they are owed.

    "In a decision on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Judge Gregory H. Woods largely sided with the more than 15 states that challenged the rule. He said the Labor Department had departed from the statute governing minimum-wage and overtime rules without adequate justification, rendering the rule arbitrary and capricious."

    KC's View:

    Experts seem to feel that it is likely that the administration will appeal the ruling, but unlikely that anything will happen before the presidential election in just 54 days.  So the final disposition of this case, along with a lot of other stuff, may depend on what happens at the polls.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  In the United States, there now have been 6,549,771 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 195,245 deaths and 3,846,659 reported recoveries.

    Globally. there are a total of 28,050,253 confirmed coronavirus cases, resulting in 908,434 fatalities and 20,117,616 reported recoveries.


    •  From this morning's Washington Post:

    "President Trump’s head popped up during his top-secret intelligence briefing in the Oval Office on Jan. 28 when the discussion turned to the coronavirus outbreak in China.

    "'This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,' national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. 'This is going to be the roughest thing you face'.

    "Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed. He told the president that after reaching contacts in China, it was evident that the world faced a health emergency on par with the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

    "Ten days later, Trump called Woodward and revealed that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly.

    "'You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,' Trump said in a Feb. 7 call.  'And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.'

    "'This is deadly stuff,' the president repeated for emphasis.'

    "At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the U.S. government had it totally under control. It would be several weeks before he would publicly acknowledge that the virus was no ordinary flu and that it could be transmitted through the air."

    The Post notes that "President Trump acknowledged Wednesday that he intentionally played down the deadly nature of the rapidly spreading coronavirus last winter as an attempt to avoid a 'frenzy'."


    •  The Wall Street Journal writes that "the U.S. is catching its breath after a punishing six months of the coronavirus pandemic, with the daily death toll from Covid-19 declining in the wake of summertime outbreaks in Sunbelt states like Florida and Texas.

    "Still, public health authorities and researchers are warning Americans not to let their guard down. The confluence of students mixing once again in classrooms, colder weather in places like the Northeast and fatigue from long-running pandemic isolation threatens to trigger more cases while driving the deaths back up, experts say.

    "For now, though, some metrics are improving. The seven-day average of new daily Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. has remained below 1,000 for more than two weeks, according to data tracked and compiled by Johns Hopkins University, after the average topped 1,100 in late July and early August."


    •  The New York Times reports that Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told a US Senate hearing that a vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus would not be made available "unless it was safe and effective," and that there would be no compromise on safety.

    “Certainly, to try to predict whether it happens on a particular week before or after a particular date in early November is well beyond anything that any scientist right now could tell you and be confident they know what they are saying,” Dr. Collins told the Senate panel.


    •  The New York Times has a story about how scientists are now saying that while the coronavirus has primarily been seen as respiratory in nature, there also seems to be some neurological impact.

    Here's how the Times reports the news:

    "The lungs are the coronavirus’s foremost target in the body, and it has been clear for some time that the virus can attack the kidneys, liver and blood vessels as well. About half of Covid-19 patients also report neurological symptoms, including headaches, confusion and delirium — suggesting that the virus might attack the brain.

    "A new study offers the first clear evidence that in some people, it does just that, in two ways: The virus invades brain cells, hijacking them to make copies of itself, and it appears to suck up all the oxygen near the host cells, starving other cells to death.

    "It’s unclear exactly how the virus gets into the brain or how often it touches off this trail of destruction. Infection of the brain is likely to be rare, but some people may be susceptible because of their genetic backgrounds, because of a high viral load or for other reasons … The coronavirus is much stealthier than some other pathogens: It exploits the brain cells’ machinery to multiply, but doesn’t destroy the cells. Instead, it chokes off oxygen to adjacent cells, causing them to wither and die."


    •  Albertsons Companies announced today that it "has partnered with Phosphorus to begin offering at-home COVID-19 test kits in select market areas, with plans to expand the offering throughout September and October.

    "The saliva tests typically return results in 72 hours or less from the time the lab receives the test. Albertsons Cos. piloted the test kits in the Houston, Austin, and Boise markets and saw rapid adoption from patients … In October, Albertsons Cos. expects to have rolled out the offering to all the market areas it serves. The test has received Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA for the detection of COVID-19.

    "The process for obtaining a test is simple. From their home, patients complete a short online questionnaire at scheduletest.com that is reviewed by a local Albertsons Companies pharmacist. The patient is then contacted by the pharmacy to schedule a pickup or delivery. Patients showing symptoms should not pick up their own test; they must send a representative or choose delivery.

    The patient completes the saliva sample collection and sends it to the lab via the kit’s prepaid next-day shipping envelope. The results are delivered by email or text, typically within 72 hours or less from the time the lab receives the test."

    Patients have to pay for the test out of pocket and then send the bill to their insurance companies themselves.


    •  From the New York Times:

    "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Wednesday that the ban on indoor dining in New York City would be lifted on Sept. 30, a boost to the city’s recovery from the pandemic that would end its status as one of the few places in the nation with a complete ban.

    "The governor’s announcement, which would allow restaurants to open indoor tables at 25 percent capacity, could be a major milestone in the coronavirus crisis in New York City, where restaurants form a critical part of the city’s economy and its currently moribund tourist trade, and are a vital part of its usually vibrant social fabric.

    "The announcement came more than two months after the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio halted a plan to reopen indoor dining at restaurants, citing ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 30,000 people in New York. But the infection rate in the state has been kept below 1 percent for weeks, allowing for the easing of some restrictions. Indoor dining resumed in neighboring New Jersey at 25 percent capacity last week."

    Just in time, by some measures.  There have been a number of stories that I've seen over the past few days about mounting concerns that as the weather gets colder, restaurants using outdoor dining as a lifeline for the past few months will find themselves facing new troubles.  At the same time, though, it is critical not to let down our guard, lest we see the virus ravage the country yet again.


    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that LA County public health officials are walking back an earlier announcement that Halloween trick-or-treating would be banned this year because of the coronavirus.  Instead, they are saying, it simply will be "not recommended."

    The shift apparently was because of some negative reactions to an outright ban.

    The Times writes that "the latest guidelines also prevent carnivals, festivals and haunted house attractions, and instead encourage online parties, car parades that comply with vehicle parade protocols and Halloween movie nights at drive-in theaters that meet health and safety standards.

    "Annual Halloween events such as Knott’s Scary Farm and the Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland have already been canceled because of the pandemic."

    My opinion? This eventually will end up going back to being a ban, as it will in many communities. We're in a severe public health crisis, and a traditional Halloween makes no sense ... though I'm sure there will be folks in denial and will send their kids off regardless of the risks.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    CNN reports that Home Depot has decided not to follow tradition - offering a single day of deep discounts and promotions - on Black Friday this year.

    Instead, the retailer says, "it will offer Black Friday discounts for two months, beginning in early November through December … Given the pandemic, the company indicated that maintaining safety was also a factor in its decision" to follow a less stress-inducing approach.

    Home Depot says that "mobile app users will get exclusive early access to some discounts in November."

    KC's View:

    Hard to imagine that Black Friday will follow traditional parameters at any retailer this year … in part because bring so many people together in a physical environment seems - let's face it - stupid, and in part because burgeoning e-commerce trends have reshaped the landscape.

    One again, this isn't any sort of a revolution, but rather an acceleration of trends that would've happened anyway.

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    •  Amazon yesterday announced that "it will host its 2020 Career Day on Wednesday, September 16. As a part of the nationwide virtual event, Amazon – the largest job creator in the U.S. over the last decade – will give attendees the opportunity to learn about the 33,000 corporate and tech jobs currently available across the country, and the thousands of additional hourly positions in the company’s operations network to be announced soon. Amazon will also mobilize 1,000 of its recruiters to provide 20,000 career coaching sessions to attendees in a single day. Anyone can participate in Career Day 2020 by going to amazon.jobs/careerday to register and book an appointment with an Amazon recruiter."


    •  Amazon-owned Whole Foods is saying that it plans to offer grocery pickup in almost all of its 500+ US stores by the end of the month, a result of the ramping up of its e-commerce capabilities since the pandemic accelerated already occurring trends.


    •  CNBC reports that Sweetgreen "is making another push for customers to order salads and warm bowls through its app as its digital orders have soared 178% during the coronavirus pandemic," announcing "a new collection of online-only dishes."

    One of the collections "spotlights the typical orders of award-winning chefs like Kwame Onwuachi and Missy Robbins," using the chefs as a way to get people to try new items.  Another will "include a series that highlights seasonal ingredients, another focused on dairy-free meals and one for crispy rice bowls."

    The CNBC story notes that "the online-only availability of the meals is meant to coax even more customers to order through the Sweetgreen app. The chain isn’t the only one to use the strategy. Fast-casual rival Chipotle Mexican Grill, for example, has offered similar online-only entrees, like the orders of U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team members and diet-focused Lifestyle Bowls."

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    From this morning's Wall Street Journal:

    "U.S. unemployment claims heald steady at 884,000 last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, a sign the labor-market recovery is losing steam six months after the coronavirus pandemic struck the US.

    "Claims have fallen from a March peak of about 7 million but remain at historically high levels—above the pre-pandemic record of 695,000."


    •  CNN reports that "McDonald's will test out reusable cups in the United Kingdom next year in an effort to address the environmental toll of disposable cups and appeal to customers who are increasingly concerned with wasteful single-use packaging.

    "It's a rinse-and-repeat cycle: Once customers finish their coffee or tea, they return their mug to a McDonald's restaurant or designated drop-off point. The mugs are washed and readied for the next customer.

    "But there's a catch: Customers have to pay a small deposit, the exact amount to be determined, for the mug. They'll get the money back once they return the vessel. The program isn't mandatory: The restaurants participating in the pilot program will also continue to serve drinks in disposable cups."


    •  From the New York Times:

    "The number of high school students regularly using e-cigarettes dropped significantly over the past year, after several years of soaring use, according to a new government survey of teenagers.

    But the data suggested that even greater progress may have been stymied by the growing popularity of a new product — disposable e-cigarettes, which, under a loophole in federal regulations, are still allowed to be sold in youth-friendly flavors.

    "The shifting trends were captured by the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey, an annual look at teen use of tobacco-related products, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year’s data collection was less thorough than in years past because the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the full survey cycle.

    "Still, enough data was collected to show some distinct trends. Among high school students, 19.6 percent reported using an e-cigarette at least once in the prior 30 days, down sharply from 27.5 percent in 2019. That amounted to a decline of 1 million regular users — to 3 million, down from 4.1 million a year earlier."

    Published on: September 10, 2020

    Yesterday we ran an excerpt from a Gothamist piece in which some New Yorkers talked about why they were staying in the city.  One comment, from a woman named Andrea Skowronek, really touched me:

    "I love New York and I live in New York because, for the most part, this is not just a city where people randomly end up. This is a city where many people have chosen to live. We choose to live amongst each other even though we are all so different. We choose the dirt and the grime and the expense and the inconvenience because we know that New York is the real American Dream. The American Dream isn't a vision of white utopia where everyone has a yard and 'freedom' and barbecues on the weekends. The American Dream is people streaming in from all over the world for hundreds of years onto this one tiny island because they wanted to make a better life for themselves and their kids and their families back home. Covid didn't scare me out of New York because my great grandfather busted his ass to get here at 14 without a dime in his pocket and just a few generations later every single person in the family has a college degree and a good job and health insurance and a home (...and most of them still have their New York accents!). If he could come here as a little kid alone, help build the Holland Tunnel, and build a life and a family, then I can suck it up and wear a mask on the train."

    One MNB reader responded:

    Thank you for sharing the excerpt from Andrea Skowronek.  I have been feeling unmoored since coming back from 2 weeks in Provincetown (part work/part vacation), which was a much needed break from the previous 5 ½ months of largely staying in our apartment and within a 5-block radius.  However, I think that as with any change in venue, when you return you expect things to be different and it has slowly (?) sunk in since Saturday, that things are very much the same here and look to be for the near future.  I am working from home until at least January, we have not physically seen most of our friends in over 6 months, and our much loved cultural & personal interest forays (shows, museums, exhibits, birdwatching in Central Park, to say nothing about dining out) effectively put on hold – it starts to feel a bit like a “lost year” and can make the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel seem very dim.

    I, too, have been reading non-stop headlines about how everyone is moving out of the city, or any city for that matter.  We even have one example from our small (40-unit) building, and in full disclosure, I will admit to having wondered if our own short chapter here in the city is coming to a close and we would join the exodus.  This excerpt provided a much needed boost and a shot in the arm of positivity….  THANK YOU!

    My pleasure.  I think we're all a little unmoored at the moment, no matter what our circumstances … and her comment about sucking it up and wearing a mask just struck me as absolutely on-key.

    We've all lost touch over the past months with many of the things that made life interesting and fun, and that can be disorienting.  But we have to suck it up.


    Another email, from MNB Jack Flanagan:

    I’ve been a long time user of, and investor in, Amazon. That said, I thought you might find my very recent experience of interest.

    Was in need of an external storage device for my MacBook Pro for a project I’m working on that involves lots and lots of photos.

    Was in a brick and mortar store and found the offerings stale. While in store I checked Amazon’s assortment and chose a good item at a good price. At checkout I was asked if I wanted overnight delivery (I.e. it would arrive between 4:00am-8:00am today).

    Now I don’t know how long that option has been available. However I chose it figuring “Great. Amazon has upped their game. Instead of losing a day by not purchasing a marginally acceptable product in a competitor’s B&M facility I’ll have the Amazon item sitting on my doorsteps when I come down the stairs in the morning:”

    If only.

    No box on the doorsteps. Go back and check my emails and o/a 2:30 am they told me there’s a problem with my shipment. However, no worries since they assure me my cc won’t be charged until the item actually ships.

    Around 10:30 I get the outline “Track your package” email fm Amazon informing me that I can expect my item to arrive between 5:00-10:00pm today. No indication whatsoever that this was a “busted” transaction.

    Bottom line - I did actually lose that working day after all unless I do some workarounds - which I’ll do.

    Now if this overnight delivery is a new, experimental initiative I can well imagine there might be some initial disconnects. Indeed I’d pre-forgive them for a delay since they would have given me a heads up. In this case they dropped a ball several times - a ball they didn’t even have to be holding.

    I get it - first world problem. That said, didn’t have to be a problem at all.


    And finally, responding to yesterday Innovation Conversation in which I used a specific analogy - saying that improving logistics without effectively using data is like making spaghetti carbonara without pancetta - MNB reader Philip Bradley wrote:

    Kevin—just to let you know— 🙂 — real Italians use Speck and not Pancetta for Carbonara!  But it is still a good analogy…

    Thanks.

    What can I tell you?  I'm an Irish American kid from New York.  (At least, that's how I think of myself.  The "kid" part probably could be challenged…)

    One of my dreams is to someday go to Italy and take a couple of weeks of cooking classes … I'm just a rank amateur who is pretty good at getting supper on the table.