Tuesday, September 22, 2009

grocery wars

I'd prefer to write about this epic struggle, but one can only dwell in fantasy for so long. The top business story in Sunday's St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Food Fight," details the present landscape of mainstream grocery stores in our oft named battleground state. Well written and detailed, the piece describes how grocery market share in MN has changed over the past few years, particularly in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.

The overarching trend discussed in the article is clear: huge, extreme discount stores - mainly Walmart and Target - are attracting more and more shoppers away from Minnesota-based or regional chain stores, such as Kowalski's, Cub Foods, and Rainbow Foods. Many key issues are addressed, including unionization, loss-leaders, and extreme discounting (Walmart vs. Cub). Aside from the fact that co-ops and co-op-like stores aren't mentioned in the article, the most interesting part (for me) is the perspective offered by and about smaller grocery retailers, such as Kowalski's. Here's an excerpt:

The nine-store Kowalski's strategy is to hunker down, focus on quality and see when the economy improves, said Jim Kowalski. "We're not doing any growth right now," he said. "We don't pretend to compete in the price wars that seem to be going on."

Let's face it. There are at least as many types of grocery shoppers as there are brands of frozen pizza at Cub Foods (which was 27 last time I checked). Some people are loyal to one store, at which they buy everything. Others play hopscotch with several retailers, buying different items across multiple stores. Still others are perhaps a bit more schizophrenic, shopping at a different store depending on immediate geographic location (work, school, neighborhood) or emotional state (indulgent, frugal, or green). Such is the state of our food culture.

I am not a grocery store business expert or analyst, but I do buy a lot of food and attempt to follow these trends closely. To date, I have spent money at nearly every grocery retailer mentioned in the article, the exceptions being Aldi's/Trader Joe's and Walmart/Sam's Club. However, for the past 5 years or so, I've chosen to abandon corporate grocery stores in favor of co-ops, of which there aren't nearly enough. That's a different blog post altogether.

What if the challenge Kowalski's faces is an opportunity? A crowded market is dangerous for business as usual, so perhaps the time is right for some lasting innovation among smaller grocers. Jim Kowalski's quote acknowledges that his stores, despite their focus on "quality" (whatever that means), cedes a defeatist outlook by using expressions like "hunker down" and a lack of "growth." He claims to not "pretend to compete in the price wars," but his market share has decreased as a result of shoppers migrating to newer, bigger stores. He doesn't compete because he can't, at least not solely on the price of Brazilian orange juice concentrate, yet he would like to open additional stores.

Fundamentalist discount shoppers seek the lowest prices on food products, without much (or any) regard for the costs associated with producing, distributing, or selling those products, such as the energy (e.g. gasoline), environment (e.g. chemical pesticides), and community (e.g. wages). Smaller grocers should forget about these people. They live on a different planet or will have to soon.

Rather than use the same vocabulary and approach to growth (i.e. increasing profits, number of stores, and market share), smaller grocers should be and celebrate what the super stores are not: progressive, community-building organizations that sell healthy, fairly priced products (a lot of which are local) and create sustainable, livable jobs. If the tremendous growth of farmers' markets is any indication, there is an increasingly vocal segment of the grocery-buying public that seeks a different choice. Find them and sell them what they want. Co-ops have figured this out, so why can't the local supermarket? Such an outlook may squash a regional executive's dream of creating the next national chain store, but within a different framework, that executive no longer will be needed, and neither will the additional 5 stores he or she hoped to open. A small, efficient neighborhood store can hold a reasonable monopoly. Why must we always need more?

Here's an idea. Maybe the Kowalski's in Stillwater could sell meat, dairy, and produce from the St. Croix river valley, and the Grand Avenue store could sell products from Gardens of Eagan. Add a kick-ass bulk section and show people how to use it. If you can't compete on the price of Tyson chicken fries, then sell real chickens from Callister Farm. Think differently. Yes, these products cost more, but an educated customer understands and appreciates the quality of such products. If I want to find the lowest price on crap I will travel to the cheapest crap heap, of which there are many.

Perhaps a plant analogy is appropriate: grow and manicure a small but healthy bonsai that lives for 200 years, rather than 10,000 acres of wood-pulp aspens to be harvested en masse, or consumed by fire, in a few short decades.

Friday, September 11, 2009

reicpe: french tomato salad

During the juicy splendor of late summer/early fall, insalata caprese is often the default mode of consumption for fresh slicing tomatoes. It is a truly wonderful salad. However, to add some variety to your repertoire, culturally and technique-wise, try this minimalist French version, which is more or less the same recipe that appears in Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook.

recipe: french tomato salad (salade des tomates)
*Serves 4 as a first course salad, or 6 as a side.


  • 2 lbs perfectly ripened heirloom tomatoes (don't mess around)
  • 2 shallots or one very small onion, sliced paper-thin
  • handful of basil or parsley leaves, cut into chiffonade
  • 1 garlic clove, slightly smashed
  • very coarse sea salt (fleur de sel would shine here)
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • strong tasting olive oil (my new favorite is Napa Valley Naturals)
  1. Using a very sharp chef's or tomato knife (I'm not a fan of specialty knives, but this is a useful one), cut the tomatoes in half, remove the cores, and slice the halves into wedges.
  2. Place tomatoes in a large colander (positioned over a bowl or the sink) and sprinkle with a good amount of salt (a word of caution: salt preferences vary, and you will brush some of it off later, but don't go overboard the first time you make it. You can always add more salt before serving). Let them sit at room temperature for 10-20 minutes. Water and seeds will begin to drain through the colander.
  3. Put the sliced shallots or onions in a small bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let them sit with the tomatoes.
  4. Remove tomato wedges from the colander, scraping any loose seeds out with your fingers, and put them in a wide, shallow serving bowl or dish. You also can brush off any large granules of salt.
  5. Add sliced onion/shallot to the bowl, brushing off any excess salt.
  6. Add the basil and drizzle everything with a generous amount of olive oil. Then drizzle with a smaller amount of vinegar. The key here is to minimize the amount of liquid in the salad, as you want the flavors to be intense. The tomatoes should absorb most of the oil and vinegar, and release a minimal amount of juice into the bowl.
  7. Toss lightly with a spoon, top with black pepper, check seasonings, and serve.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

reinvent your appetite: the relative value of local food

Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune contained a short article about the cost of eating as a locavore - "Making the local food movement accessible." Written by Hayley Tsukayama, a grad student, the piece describes how the author seeks to eat more local foods but also maintain a trim grocery budget. Here's an excerpt:

"I was so excited that I forgot a key fact: I'm a single, omnivorous graduate student who normally buys groceries at Wal-Mart. And while the local produce at most farmers' markets is the same price or cheaper than at supermarkets, the meat is far more expensive. I believe that good food is worth the higher prices, but after rent and student loans it's hard to finance a foodie habit."

I'll start by saying that I'm not a big fan of the word "foodie." In a creepy way, it reminds me of the Crucible-era word "goody." Besides, it's too cute, and helps stoke the fire that enjoying high quality food is somehow elitist. By our pitiful standards of nutrition, anyone living in rural France or Italy would be a foodie - "those people make their own pesto!" As an unhealthy society, we should shun these words in favor of "healthy," "high quality," or "whole" foods, prepared from scratch (either at home or at a restaurant). Perhaps the verb "to cook" could see a renaissance.

Enough semantics. What I find interesting about this article is the frequent supposition that "going local" is simply a matter of plugging local products into the American discount "menu" and Walmart "more for less" value equation. Quite literally, we're looking at apples and oranges; or rather, locally-grown Minnesota apples (eaten in season) and dry, industrial orange-like organisms.

Eating healthy, delicious, simple food is possible at any budget. Rural, agrarian communities around the globe have demonstrated this for hundreds of years. In my opinion, one of the biggest issues is that many Americans are reluctant to adopt a healthier, more sustainable diet because it requires eating different foods and much less of certain things, such as meat.

For example, Americans eat a lot of bacon and pork chops. When you make the decision to eat local, pasture-raised pigs that are humanely treated and minimally processed (with care), it will cost more than buying a frozen mass of industrial chops from a huge company. Get over it. What this means is that you may only be able to eat pork chops once a month rather than every Wednesday. The same is true for bacon. At $1.99/pound for industrial bacon, the average person could eat bacon every morning and not go broke. Spend more on some high quality bacon and eat just a few slices on the weekend with pancakes or dice and toss it with pasta. It is time for Americans to revere high quality meat as a precious, scarce delicacy.

The same is true for other parts of the American meal. Bulk, organic oatmeal is very affordable. So is polenta. Dried pasta and rice have kept people satisfied and proud of their food culture for centuries. Remember your grandma's beef stew recipe or your aunt's green curry recipe? Perhaps it is time to rediscover these simple foods as the basics, and combine them with small amounts of more costly ingredients, such as meat, cheese, butter, milk, and olive oil. Throw some seasonal vegetables in a salad or on the side and you will enjoy a trim grocery budget, better tasting meals, and a higher quality of life. I promise.

In the author's defense, the people she interviewed suggested some novel, paradigm-shifting habits, such as eating less meat, so the article does offer some thoughtful perspective from different people who do know something about this. It also generated a number of comments - take a look.