Thursday, March 10, 2016

Corporate Food for Corporate People

We live in an amazing world. I was reading a baking trade magazine where they detail a European industry leader that can produce 3 million buns a day. Robots do some of the work, nothing is mixed or formed by hand, twelve humans are working per shift, and the company is valued at $56 million.

Ninth Street Bakery, by contrast, still produces bakery products by hand, and the baking machines that we use, like a basic spiral mixer, could have been found in bakery in the 1970s, or 1950s for that matter. 
Across the nation, small artisanal bakeries, donut shops, and confectioners are springing up to fill the desire for authentic goods. But that is not news to anyone who has ever watched the Food Network.

What remains to be unraveled is; who are the remaining 95-percenters who are still buying industrial, corporate bread? Who are buying those 3 million soft, preservative-laden buns that can sit on the shelf up to three weeks?

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I drove to Harker's Island last summer, which is a great spot on the North Carolina coastline for fishing, crabbing, and clamming. Along the way. I passed a Flowers Foods bread factory in Goldsboro.  The distinctive smell of Sunbeam and Nature's Own was wafting through the air.  The workers were ending their shift, driving home with blue hairnets still on.

The thing was, those workers with the blue hairnets, driving away from their corporate bread job, they were happy.  They were smiling.  The sun was shining and the sky was Carolina blue. 

And this made me realize, that these folks that work in corporate food, these are the self-same people that buy the corporate food in their local food desert.  In case you were looking for it, there's no Wholefoods in Goldsboro.  The corporate food wins because that is what exists for people who work in corporations. That is their daily reality. It is not all that mysterious.

The question that it leaves us with is if we want to upend the corporate food chain, we think we need to start with the companies, like the Wal-Marts and the Wholefoods and the McDonald's, but in fact we need to begin by thinking about their employees.  What are they looking for? How can we guarantee them a steady paycheck while offering a different way to consume calories? Which companies in the future will do this well, and which poorly, and how will that affect their fortunes?

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One amazing this has been to watch independent business mimic the corporation.  I recently went into an independent cafe, and the service flow and the way the counter staff presented themselves, I momentarily thought that I was in a Panera Bread.  As independents get pushed out by large brands, independents take on the traits of the corporate, for better or for worse.  Sometimes that means getting a very vanilla customer service experience, but it can also mean using online ordering or social media in a way that allows the independent to outmaneuver or at least compete with their corporate counterparts.

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I went recently to the recruiting day at Johnson and Wales University, probably regarded as the best culinary training in the state.  And I would say that 90% of the recruiting businesses were larger corporations: casinos, hotels, corporate restaurant groups, retirement community corporations, tech campuses, and so forth.  The students appeared motivated to be employed, but it seems like after an expensive education, they likely want top pay plus benefits, and few independent restaurants can offer that to a novice cook.  So if you are wondering who is cooking the meals in corporate America, here they are, bright, smiley, young, and ready to work, but maybe not at an independent restaurant near you.

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There are certainly days where I wish my life was plan-o-grammed and multiple layers of bureaucracy insulated me from having to wash dishes or take out the trash occasionally.  But ultimately, I'm happy we're not corporate because of all the compromises you would have make to be corporate.  Not just the preservatives, but the entire ethos that must accompany making a sealed cinnamon bun or PB&J sandwich shelf stable.  You have to be able to stare bad food in the face and say, you know what, for poor people, this is good enough.  For obese people, this is good enough.  For people without a lot of time on their hands, this Snak-Pak or Lance Cheese&Crackers is good enough.  An economy built of phoney food is going to be run by people who have made so many compromises, that their tough talk on diet and nutrition and exercise will ring hollow.  These two rhetorics are not mutually compatible.  Ultimately the food economy, like the economy itself, will need to be regulated to ensure access for all to healthy food.  Left to its own devices, it is a race to the bottom.  So yes, let's tax fast food, let's tax soda, let's tax alcohol until we figure out how to produce consistent fresh food for society.  But not only that, let's educate and make fresh food and fresh cooking sexy and affordable.

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