Tag Archives: Retail

Introducing The Snap Blog…Our New Home!

Hello Readers,

I’m guessing by now that at least some of you may have thought I fell off the face of the earth. Close.

Instead, about six months ago I jumped feet first into my own ProFood venture – Sugarsnap located in Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale. Candidly, I had no idea how consuming this transition was going to be and expected to continue writing on a regular basis.

Well, after putting together a comprehensive business plan and private placement memorandum, I am happy to report that we have nearly completed our initial fund raising, and will soon accelerate our expansion plans. These changes are allowing me to start breathing again about the critical issues addressed at Every Kitchen Table.

The exciting part is that I am now partnering with some great people that have their own stories to tell. So, with this post I am formally merging Every Kitchen Table into The Snap Blog, the official blog of Sugarsnap.

You will once again see me posting on a regular basis, and will get the added benefit of reading the well-informed thoughts of my Sugarsnap partners. It may take us a couple months to hit our stride, but rest assured we will and the content will be great.

See you on The Snap Blog!

Cheers,

Rob Smart (a.k.a., @Jambutter)

P.S. You can also follow Sugarsnap on Twitter and Facebook.

Top 10 Selling Grocery Items (Change Needed!)

Take a look at this information regarding the Top 10 items people are spending money on at food stores.

While you’re reading through the list, make a note of what is missing. Consider what it takes to create each product, e.g., value-added process, ingredients, etc. Think about which food crops are needed to create each product. And, if you can, think about how the money flows from your pocket to which participants in the food value chain.

For the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2009, the Top 10-selling grocery items are (NOTE – ranked by dollar sales, in $billions):

ITEM                                                  SALES ($B)                     % CHANGE

1.)  Carbonated Beverages                                     $12.00                                         1.86

2.)  Milk                                                                          $11.20                                        -8.44

3.)  Fresh Bread & Rolls                                             $9.57                                         4.77

4.)  Beer/Ale/Hard Cider                                          $8.17                                          5.42

5.)  Salty Snacks                                                            $8.09                                         9.75

6.)  Natural Cheese                                                      $7.64                                         7.75

7.)  Frozen Dinners/Entrees                                    $6.13                                          0.18

8.)  Cold Cereal                                                               $6.11                                          2.12

9.)  Wine                                                                            $5.49                                         3.72

10.) Cigarettes                                                                $4.63                                        -2.18

SOURCE: INFORMATION RESOURCES INC. (IRI)

While its great to see Milk on the list (although share is dropping fast), as well as Grains (i.e., bread, cereal), did you also notice that Vegetables (2-1/2 cups recommended per day), Fruits (1-1/2 cups) and Meat & Beans (5 ounces) were not on the list?  Considering how many empty calories are wrapped up in soda and snacks, you can start to see why America has a problem with its waistline.

The other important thing that jumps out is how much of this list is occupied by highly processed “foods”, including sodas, snacks and (many) frozen dinners/entrees. Lots of added sugar, salt and oils originating from heavily subsidized corn and soy crops, much of which is grown using genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Do you see anything on the list that diversified farms are benefiting from?  Dairy farms show up, but if you’ve been following their industry as of late you know most smaller dairies are facing serious financial troubles.

Without getting into the many influences that make this list look the way it does, from food science to marketing to consumer behaviors, I would like to issue a homework assignment to anyone interested in using your food expenditures to increasingly benefit farmers (rather than the industrial food system that dominates today’s market).

  1. Over the next 2-3 months capture information on your own household’s grocery purchases.
  2. Compare the data you capture to the list above.
  3. Develop a game plan to replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables and your preferred protein sources (meat, beans, etc.).
  4. After several months of effort, gauge how you and others in your household feel.

My expectations is that your body, mind and soul will feel nourished in ways that strongly reinforce your decision to shift how you spend your food dollars.

Give it a try. Make a difference.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday series.

Wrapping Our Heads around Eating Local

Day 2 of Eat Local Challenge Series

My family has been eating healthy food for as far back as I can remember. By healthy, I mean using fresh ingredients, with some preserved foods, mostly done so by food processors, to prepare home cooked meals.

Coming into this week’s Eat Local Challenge 2009, we figured it wouldn’t be a big stretch for us to add “local” to our routine, especially since we participate in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program at Wellspring Farm in Marshfield and have a large vegetable garden of our own.

What we are finding out is all the things we have been taking for granted, including many commonly used ingredients that are difficult, if not impossible to source from within 100 miles: sugar, flour, coffee, exotic spices, baking powder, baking soda, citrus fruits and juices, and so on.

Granted, we are using the Marco Polo Rule to allow the use of some of these food products, as well as five “wild card” foods, so we aren’t going cold turkey. But what if we, as a family or as a region, truly had to make such adjustments? How would we make that work? It’s hard to imagine given how accustom we have become to getting what we want when we want it.

Yesterday, my 11 year old daughter asked why more Vermont farmers and processors don’t find ways to create the products we import, e.g., grapes and raisins. Great question. The answer can be quite complex, and depends quite a bit on one’s perspective. For example, in a household with two working adults, time is a severely limiting factor, which is at least part of the reason why nearly half of the money American’s spend on food is spent eating out. Of that, nearly half is spent on fast food. In other words, even if Vermont farmers produced more of the ingredients needed, this group of consumers would not likely become regular customers.

On the other hand, if those farmers were able to sell such products to Vermont’s restaurants and institutions, e.g., UVM and Fletcher Allen, in significantly greater quantities, then those same consumers would indirectly be supporting those farmers with their “away from home” food expenditures, assuming they ate out at Vermont-owned restaurants versus national chains or fast food joints.

My point? Vermont, like any other region, has significant upside potential in supporting local farmers, dairies, ranchers and processors through consumer food expenditures for at home and away from home consumption. Taking a week out of our year to understand the subtleties and challenges of eating local has already opened our eyes to how we can better do our part.

Today’s Localvore Meals

  • Breakfast:  Scrambled eggs (Savage Gardens in North Hero), Vermont Maple Sausage (Vermont Smoke and Cure in South Barre), strawberries (Taste of the North, St. Lawrence Valley, Quebec), and Cold Hollow Cider Mill apple cider…to grogy this AM to remember to add peppers and chives from our garden and some wonderful Vermont-made cheese, but did get to sit down with entire family from breakfast on a school day, which was quite the treat
  • Lunch:  Vermont Soy Maple Ginger Tofu, Cabot Sharp Cheddar Cheese, homemade “local” muffins, hard boiled eggs (Savage Gardens), and lemon and regular cucumbers and carrots from our garden and Wellspring Farm (13-Year-Old Exception: U-32 cafeteria…no luck yet on getting her to take a lunch, although we will keep trying)
  • Dinner (Previous Night):  Savory Vegetables in Polenta Crust (recipe in From the Cook’s Garden by Ellen Ecker Ogden) – utilized great local ingredients, e.g., Butterworks Farm cornmeal, Rainville Family Farm organic sunflower oil and red bell peppers, onion, garlic, zucchini, basil and oregano from our garden; salad made from our garden and Wellspring Farm CSA produce; Monument Farm milk
  • Wild Cards: French Roast Coffee (Fresh Coffee Now in Burlington), baking powder (muffins)
  • Exceptions: (1) 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar in last night’s dinner; (2) raw cane sugar for coffee (were going to try out maple syrup, but ran out over weekend; will be buying syrup and maple sugar to test out…stay tuned)
  • Market Opportunities: following items might be ripe for Vermont food entrepreneurs – localvore breads (know Red Hen has some, but were sold out; couldn’t find any at Hunger Mt. Co-op in Montpelier), localvore dry pastas, raisins (my daughter will be your best customer), kid-tested peanut butter substitute
Related Posts:

Stocked Up for Local Eating Challenge

Day 1 of Eat Local Challenge Series

Following the Mad River Valley Localvore Project’s lead, my family is following the Marco Polo Rule (i.e., salt, pepper, spices) and taking five wildcards (i.e., coffee, olive oil, baking powder, baking soda, TBD) in our 2009 Eat Local Challenge.

Thank goodness for these exceptions, since I can’t imagine either my wife or me starting out the day without a hot cup of coffee. By the way, our Organic, Fair Traded certified coffee of choice this week is a French Roast from Burlington-based Fresh Coffee Now.

When we are unable to find something locally grown or raised, e.g., coffee beans, something that became readily apparent during our “stocking up” food shop on Sunday, it is important to have a succession of next best alternatives, e.g., organic, locally processed or locally-owned retail. Which raises an important question related to eating local which I covered in a recent blog post: Is it more important to buy from locally-owned retailers than it is to eat local food?

While I won’t revisit that post again, I will suggest that if there were more locally-owned food retailers (see Mad River listing as example) that would likely be smaller and more intimate than today’s average supermarket (>45,000 square feet), then regional consumers would have increased, everyday access to locally grown, raised and processed foods. The term “everyday” is key, since currently many people have to use exceptional channels to purchase such foods, e.g., once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs.

This symbiotic relationship between local food producers and retailers should allow both to grow and prosper, and, most important, begin taking back market share in a market dominated by industrial-sized food companies.

Today’s Localvore Meals

  • Lunch:  Vermont Soy Maple Ginger Tofu (not sure about ginger), Shelburne Farms Maple Cheddar Cheese, and cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans from our garden (13-year-old exception: U-32 cafeteria’s salad bar – not sure how local)
  • Dinner:  see Day 2 post
  • Wild Cards: Coffee
Related Posts:

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

Extending the Pro Food Pathway

Guest Blogger: Carrie Oliver is the CEO & Founder of The Oliver Ranch Company and founded The Artisan Beef Institute. Carrie is dedicated to helping people learn more about what’s on their plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. She blogs at Discover the World of Artisan Beef and Twitters under @OliverRanch.

What better way to shake off a bad case of writer’s block than to meet the origin of your last meal face-to-face?  Earlier this summer a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob Smart, had written a post on his Every Kitchen Table blog about Pro Food, a burgeoning post-organic food movement, to which I’d been trying to respond for weeks.  Casting around for a distraction I turned to Twitter only to see a post from one pastured pork farmer, Heather Walters (@Rosemont_Farm) to another, Neal Foley (@PodChef):

Heather:   @Podchef &^%$!! that was a horrid link!

Who can resist clicking through a link like that? Much to my surprise, I was met with an image of three heads in a wheelbarrow, two pigs and one cattle, the latter with shaggy black hair and horns.  Horrid perhaps to Heather, but even more haunting to me since Neal had so graciously served me some mouth-watering rib-eye steaks for dinner a few weeks before.

Me:            @Podchef Hmm, re: horrid links & chicken carcasses… is that the beef I tasted?

Neal:         @OliverRanch Re, the heads in the barrow? Yes, that bottom one was Torino the steer & some of his piggie friends.

I had just met my meat. And my writer’s block was cured.

What does all this have to do with Rob’s original post, and its follow up, The Five Stones of Pro Food?  Rob outlined a set of principles on which food entrepreneurs could draw to create and support a new, pro-consumer, pro-farmer food system.  The five stones are decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility.

I relate to Rob’s five principles; I founded my own company in part on principles like these.  But while these are great business and moral guidelines, they didn’t quite capture my heart or frankly, my stomach. At the end of the day, to truly drive change, I believe that food still has to be about food.  My heartstrings need a tug and my stomach has to yearn for this food.  My stomach is all about “food appeal” (flavor, texture, and other functional benefits) and my heart is all about community (emotional and experiential benefits).

As a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob has graciously allowed me to use the story of Torino the Steer to cast a couple more stones.

Consumer Feedback Results in Better Food

In a more decentralized, transparent food system we have the chance to create and celebrate feedback loops between farmers and consumers, so that producers can incorporate consumer appeal into their decision criteria.  With Torino the Steer, we have the ideal, you might even argue utopian scenario: the person who most influenced the flavor and texture of that beef ate at the same table as I, and the other main influencer, the butcher, was just one phone call away.

I gave feedback to Neal, “This beef is just delicious!  It has a great chew, straightforward personality and medium impression.  It has a sweet almost delicate start and is a bit herbal. It’s an ideal steak for someone just embarking on a journey of artisan beef discovery (what I call Gateway Beef™).”  Neal’s response?  “Well that’s interesting, there are actually 11 herbs growing on that pasture; they were planted there in the 1950s and have thrived ever since.”  Now Neal has his first confirmation that the herbs are a good thing, not just a random thing.

Imagine if every farmer could access that kind of feedback.  OK, granted we cannot all sit down with our farmers and share a meal together, but greater transparency should result in the consumer knowing who made their food and give them the ability, one way or another, to tell the producer what they find most appealing.

The value? I can buy beef from Neal and know that I’ll enjoy it. I also discovered that I like beef that is finished on herby pastures.  We both can tell others what the beef tastes like so they have an idea if they might like it, too.  And Neal can consider what he might do next time – stay the course or work to make his beef even better.

Of course this extreme case isn’t easily scalable and the next most proximate – farmers markets and CSA programs — also serve a limited market.  However, I think entrepreneurs should be excited by the possibilities of using the Internet and new retail formats to take these types of experiences to larger market segments.  As long as we create and maintain transparency, even at scale we can create or enable a continuous, self-reinforcing feedback loop between farm and fork, thus improving the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the food we eat.

Advantage:  Pro Food

Community

Sitting down to share a meal with friends, family, and strangers has long been a communal activity.  Together with knowing more about what is on my plate, I think we need to start reversing the disturbing trend towards depersonalizing our cooking and eating experiences.  It wasn’t that long ago that a natural part of the dinner conversation was about where the butcher sourced the turkey and how we simply must tell Mr. Jones that the milk from his Jersey cows is the only milk we buy.

Shopping in today’s big box stores, including conventional supermarkets, warehouse stores and so on is, comparatively speaking, a complete disconnect.  From a food-community point of view, we’ve become detached.  An unseen stock person stacks pre-wrapped consumables on the shelf at midnight.  Not that this impacts the food itself in any way, but this is about as far from an intimate food experience as one can get.

By way of contrast, eating Torino the Steer with Neal and his family was a supremely communal act. Having seen first hand the way this family loves their land, livestock, and the other food they raise, I enjoyed that meal and came to appreciate my food at a deeper level than had I purchased the salad, berry pie or rib-eye steaks anonymously at a supermarket.

Indeed, ask anyone who’s been to a dinner on a farm or met a producer at an in-store demonstration, farmers market, or CSA pick up: there is something about knowing the source of one’s food that creates a certain sense of community, if not bonding, with the people in who make our food.

While knowing everyone who had a hand in bringing every food item to our plates is impractical, we can begin to restore a sense of community around food simply by letting our customers know where it came from in the first place.  Who knows where that first baby step might take us?

In a Pro Food system we’ll also probably see each other a lot more.  Some entrepreneurs might create small footprint, neighborhood stores in which we will recognize and befriend other patrons and store employees over time.  I still remember shopping with my mom at Robert’s Market in Oakland.  Half the time spent shopping seemed to be chatting it up with the butcher or friends she ran into in the aisles.

This is not a clarion call for a return to the past.  For better or worse, big box supermarkets beat out mom & pop stores for a reason, namely price.  To their credit, Wild Oats and Whole Foods reintroduced the concept of knowledgeable employees and presented food artistically, taking some of the commodity out along the way. How can today’s entrepreneurs challenge the current retail business model to extend the reach of such community based shopping experiences beyond high-income urban centers?

Other entrepreneurs, including myself, might create online or other communities outside of brick and mortar to achieve similar goals.  Social media tools offer the opportunity to build personal relationships and create rich discussions across political, geographical, professional, or personal boundaries.  A case in point:  a recent Twitter-based #AgChat discussion on antibiotic use in livestock included sustainable food advocates, farmers, ranchers, public relations managers, trade associations, veterinarians, journalists, food bloggers, butchers, and lawyers.  Just about the most inclusive community you could imagine, with a total contribution much greater than the sum of the parts.

Advantage:  Pro Food

The opportunity to rethink our food system is not by nature limited to entrepreneurs.  In fact, I would argue that our successes will fall short of expectations if we try to innovate without taking advantage of the two big constituents that I have talked about here, namely the consumer, and the food community in its broadest sense.  Decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility are important pillars, but I’ll bet our future will be brightest if we engage the consumer and encourage community at every juncture along our path.

How Eating Local for One Week Might Just Revolutionize Our Food System

This post is the first in a series supporting the Eat Local Challenge 2009 from City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont. The Challenge is the week of September 21, 2009.

Local food. 100-mile radius. Seasonal eating. All great ideas, but why would anyone commit to abide by such rules for an entire week in a place like Vermont? That’s what City Market is asking its customers to do as part of the Eat Local Challenge 2009 the week of September 21. My family has enthusiastically agreed to take their challenge, as well as write about our experience. This initial post should give you a flavor of what to expect.

According to the Mad River Valley Locavore Project, an organization with an outstanding local food track record, the Eat Local Challenge “is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods.  Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.

By challenging ourselves in such ways, we will increase our awareness of the food we eat, where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it and more. Regardless of how far any of us has already come, there is always room to learn more, but given the complexity of today’s industrial food system and large-scale conventional supermarkets, increasing our understanding of food can be very challenging. Thankfully, in Burlington and communities throughout Vermont we have food cooperatives, farmers markets and community-support agriculture (CSA) farms that allow us to get much closer to local foods.

The fact is most Americans take their food for granted. Cheap, convenient food is everywhere, and is often treated as an accessory in today’s fast-paced lifestyles. The problem is much of what we consume today isn’t really food; it is highly processed calories made to resemble food. Sophisticated marketers wrap those calories up in slick packaging and push them into the marketplace with large marketing budgets. And what appears cheap at the register is made so through taxpayer-funded crop subsidies, industry-friendly regulations and deferred costs related to our health, the environment and regional economies.

As you might imagine, tracing ingredients in such processed foods back to their sources is nearly impossible, since doing so would expose the inner workings of industrial food’s “black box”, which brings me back to the importance of locally grown and/or processed foods.

Over the next several weeks leading up to the challenge, I will be sharing more on why supporting local foods is important. Being 100% local in a place like Vermont for one week will be tough. Doing so year round nearly impossible, except for the most committed. But making such efforts is exactly what consumers – who have grown accustom to having whatever foods they want, whenever they want them – must do in order to reclaim control over the food we eat.