When Small Grocers Get Big Ideas

The New York Times: “DMG Foods, a bright, 7,000-square-foot, nonprofit grocery store … is one of a growing number of experimental grocery stores that have emerged as traditional supermarkets confront a crisis that industry analysts say could surpass the retail apocalypse that pounded shopping malls a decade ago … some of the most radical reinvention is happening at the local level, in both cities and small towns, where a new breed of small community stores use the grocery aisles to fill cultural niches and address social needs.”

“At Nada, everything, including toothpaste and chocolate, is sold package-free. Shoppers can buy scoops of frozen berries, a handful of crackers and just one egg, if that’s all they need. There’s no plastic wrap or paper at the deli counter. Customers bring their own containers, buy reusable ones at the store or take some from a stack that have been cleaned and sanitized, using a digital scale to weigh and tag them before they start shopping … There’s a similar store, Zero Market, in Denver, and one called the Fillery planned for Brooklyn. No-waste stores are already popular in parts of Europe, and are popping up in other Canadian cities.”

“Two thousand miles away in New Prague, Minn., population around 7,600, Kendra and Paul Rasmusson have been inundated with inquiries from people equally enamored with their grocery concept: a store that is largely unstaffed … inspired by a nearby 24-hour fitness center, they had an idea: Why not create a store that didn’t need staff, for shoppers who wanted organic ketchup, gluten-free crackers and vegetables from local farmers? Members pay $99 a year and use a key card to open the door. They can shop anytime they want. Lights are motion-activated, and checkout is done on an iPad. Members can use a space upstairs for community meetings, or hold classes on making kombucha or Spanish for children.”

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16 Handles: Frozen Yogurt Gone Wild

The Wall Street Journal: “At the New York-based frozen-yogurt chain 16 Handles, the main draw has always been the self-serve aspect: Customers are free to mix and match flavors and toppings at will, paying a per-ounce price, varying by store, for their creations. But this summer, patrons at the 10-year-old chain’s East Village location may be surprised to find a soft-serve machine positioned behind the counter. It is reserved for a special new line of frozen treats, dubbed Sugalips, that employees are charged with making.”

“Included in the offerings: an outer space-inspired Galaxy Cone, priced at $8.95, that combines frozen yogurt, cotton candy and rock candy, a colorful dessert designed with the food-on-social-media era in mind … it comes as 16 Handles has seen its same-store sales decline in each of the past three years, following an initial period of consistent growth.”

“For starters, the concept of self-serve frozen yogurt is no longer seen as novel. But even more important: Frozen yogurt isn’t the trendy dessert it once was. Artisan ice-cream companies, offering a wave of creative and even vegan flavors, are commanding increased attention. So, too, are makers of multicultural frozen treats, such as Thai-style rolled ice cream … While such changes might help bring frozen-yogurt chains a broader clientele, experts warn there is a risk of alienating the regular customer base if a company goes too far.”

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Meal Kits: The Complexity of Simplicity

The Wall Street Journal: “Meal kits may make cooking easier, but getting a box of pre-portioned ingredients and instructions to a customer’s door is one of the most complicated logistics riddles in the food business. Companies have poured millions of dollars into solving such questions as how to stack fish and fennel in boxes. They’re also investing in systems to reroute shipments during snowstorms and algorithms to predict what customers want to eat during the summer months.”

“Meal-kit spending by consumers has grown three times as fast as spending in established food sectors such as restaurants and grocery stores since 2015, according to Nielsen … But companies that sprang up in garages or test kitchens are getting a close look at just how expensive and complicated it can be to deliver millions of boxes a month to customers’ homes or to supermarkets. Startups have had to devise workarounds for everything from heavy weather to diverting trucks around highway accidents, and company founders have lots of war stories, especially from the early days of their operations.”

“To help keep a lid on costs, Sun Basket, whose meal kits target health-conscious consumers, has gone so far as to set up a Midwestern distribution center in a converted limestone cave—a cheaper way to keep its products cold than spending millions to convert a conventional warehouse in the region for refrigeration. The temperature inside the underground facility remains stable regardless of whether it’s hot or cold outside, so the company spends less on electricity.”

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The Future of French Fries

The New York Times: “A new type of fry starts in the ground. At its farm in Paterson, Wash., Lamb Weston grows half a dozen potato varieties on 20,000 irrigated acres, tracking even the most minute differences in hydration, temperature and other environmental factors. Potatoes with less water make for crispier fries. Too much water can make them limp … Workers monitor the fields from the Pentagon of potatoes, a room filled with computers that monitor soil conditions, crop maturity and irrigation. The plants are tested every week to measure their nutrients, a sort of blood test for plants. Using those results, workers can adjust how much water they give the crops.”

“Lamb Weston started testing a longer-lasting fry two years ago. Employees on a visit to China noticed dozens of delivery scooters outside a McDonald’s. They figured the trend would go global, and wanted to be ready … Lamb Weston had already developed a French fry batter that could keep fries crispy for 12 minutes. So food scientists at the company’s laboratory in Richland began tinkering with the recipe to extend a fry’s life even longer. When the fries drop into the hot oil, the batter, made mostly of uncooked starch, cooks instantaneously to form the crispy outer layer.”

“To protect the fries during delivery, the team created new packaging to keep out moisture while allowing for the right amount of ventilation … Plastic bags or tightly sealed containers turn into little saunas, making French fries soggy quickly. A paper bag, lightly folded over, is a better option … Back at the laboratory, food scientists duplicate different hazards, packing French fries in white paper bags next to cold milkshakes or moist hamburgers. Bags are left alone for 15 minutes, others for 30 or 45. Their heat is measured using infrared cameras … Testers check how they fare. They take bites of chocolate, crackers and other foods, using them as benchmarks to rate the fries’ crunch, sweetness and other attributes.”

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Late & Great: Allen McKellar

The Wall Street Journal: “Allen McKellar, an African-American college senior in South Carolina, figured his chances were slight in 1940 when he entered in an essay-writing contest in a bid to win an internship at Pepsi-Cola Co … Pepsi chose him as one of 13 interns. After serving in the Army, he returned in 1947 to join a Pepsi marketing team focused on African-Americans at a time when few large companies hired blacks for white-collar jobs.”

“At Pepsi, Mr. McKellar and his colleagues persuaded Duke Ellington and other jazz stars to give shout-outs to the soft drink, according to ‘The Real Pepsi Challenge,’ a 2007 book by Stephanie Capparell, a Wall Street Journal editor. They were treated as celebrities in the black press as they crisscrossed the country to pitch Pepsi by giving interviews and visiting schools, church groups and mom-and-pop groceries.”

“Pepsi already had set itself apart by offering 12 ounces for a nickel, while most rivals sold 6-ounce bottles for the same price. Promising “twice as much,” Pepsi ads appealed to the less affluent. The soft-drink company hoped its willingness to hire African-Americans for prominent roles and to market directly to blacks would give it further advantages over Coca-Cola.” In a 2009 interview, Mr. McKellar commented: “Back in those days, there were one or two things a minority kid could expect to do: You could become a teacher or, if you had the financial resources, a doctor. I became the national sales representative for the black market in America. I have been told this was a precursor for blacks in the corporate world.”

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Kicks: How Sneakers Sneaked Up

The Wall Street Journal: “How on earth have people who make freaking footwear apparently managed to reduce athletic powerhouses like USC and Louisville to the role of glorified money launderers? It all comes down to the outsize importance of sneakers in popular culture. In his expansive, thorough and entertaining book ‘Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers,’ author Nicholas Smith traces the history of this $20 billion industry, arguing that the power and allure of the shoe have shaped American business and fashion for decades.”

“Their manufacturers have thus become economic forces larger than the sports they’re supposedly there to support. In many ways, to hear Mr. Smith tell it, the shoes have been wearing us.’Kicks’ serves as a comprehensive look at how much the sneaker became a signature indicator of cool, from Chuck Taylor and his Converse All-Stars to Clyde Frazier’s Pumas to Run-DMC and their Adidas to, of course, Michael Jordan.”

“Today, the author suggests, sneakers have essentially replaced music as the go-to investment for companies looking at getting into the youth market. They have become so popular that most manufacturers make limited-edition shoes that exist solely to become valuable and are almost never worn. The shoes aren’t for wearing; they’re simply for having.”

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MacBlur: Apple Melds Laptops & iPhones

The Wall Street Journal: “Laptops, which haven’t been exciting for years, are about to get interesting again … Many manufacturers are already using mobile chips from smartphones in laptops running Google’s Chrome OS, and are starting to put them in laptops running Microsoft Windows. Apple Inc. already designs its own chips, which are arguably the fastest mobile processors in the world—will it use them in its own MacBooks? A shift in this direction would blur the line between laptops and mobile devices further, changing our expectations of computers large and small.”

“So imagine something that looks like a MacBook and works like a MacBook, but has the guts of an iPhone. In addition to things like facial recognition and AR capabilities, it could have longer battery life, built-in always-on connectivity to fast 5G networks, and more … The size of the circuitry on a microchip, known as a process node, determines its power consumption, performance and cost. The smaller the transistors on the chip, the wider the variety of stuff you can put on it, such as wireless modems, GPS receivers, image processors and the like. Each new silicon breakthrough is named after the ever-smaller distance between certain chip components, measured in nanometers.”

“Apple is also pushing capabilities such as on-device artificial intelligence, which could enable better voice recognition and other capabilities, and the company aims to support only its own graphics software in the future. Because Apple’s in-house chip designers only have one customer—Apple—they’re able to tune its silicon to run all these things as fast as possible.”

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How Ben & Jerry’s Creates Flavors

Fast Company: “Ben & Jerry’s tastemakers don’t just rely on their own judgment … After assembling a couple hundred ideas, the Gurus then turn to a surprisingly low-tech yet crucial source in order to whittle them down: email surveys. Close to 200 flavor possibilities enter the ‘reduction’ stage. Only about 15 make it through. The team sends out a short survey to a representative slice of its massive email list of ice cream enthusiasts. The survey is extremely straightforward; it consists of a one-sentence description of each of the 200 flavors, followed by the same two questions apiece: How likely are you to buy this flavor? How unique is this flavor?”

“Respondents are asked to rank their answers on a five-point scale. According to the Flavor Gurus, the goal is to zero in on flavors that are both familiar and novel.”

“The second question, ‘How unique is the flavor?’ helps Gurus ensure they’re maintaining enough novelty in the flavor pool. Based on the survey data, the team settles on the 15 flavors they believe have the ideal balance of novelty and familiarity. This is the reduction step, and it’s likewise a key part of many creative processes. To generate ideas that stick, you need to go from a wide-ranging list of plausible ideas to a data-driven subset of the ones that have the strongest likelihood of succeeding, based on whatever metrics for success you’ve outlined.”

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Meatless Meat Stampedes Grocery Stores

The Wall Street Journal: “For thousands of years, meat came from slaughtered animals, and milk was squeezed from cows. Tech-style disruptions are now upending supermarket meat cases and turning the stomach of cattle ranchers … dismayed to find the meat replacements sold next to the real thing. High-tech startups are building burgers from plant proteins and compounds that grill and taste more like the real thing than old-fashioned veggie burgers. Other firms are using cell-culture technology to grow animal muscle tissue—otherwise known as meat—in stainless steel bioreactor tanks, similar to the fermentors used to brew beer.”

“The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the Agriculture Department to bar plant-based products from bearing labels that say ‘beef’ or ‘meat,’ with similar restrictions on meat grown from animal cells … Stakes are high for the roughly $200 billion U.S. meat market. Sales of alternative meat products account for less than 1% of fresh meat sales in the U.S. but are growing at an annual rate of 24.5%, according to Nielsen Total Food View.”

“To get better exposure, Beyond Meat requires that retailers carry its products in the grocery meat section, rather than the frozen foods case—what Mr. Brown called the ‘penalty box.’ Alison Pham, 22, of Bokeelia, Fla., is a vegan who sees the realistic looking Beyond Meat patties as a way to get her father to try a plant-based diet. She reaches for the package in the same meat-filled cases she long avoided.”

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Reefer Madness: The New Meaning of ‘Fresh’

The Wall Street Journal: “Refrigerated containers known as “reefers” can keep food fresh for more than a month, allowing distributors to safely send everything from orange juice to lobsters around the world. In the past, those trips were mostly reserved for bananas because only major distributors like Chiquita Brands International Inc. could afford to hire cargo ships with large refrigerated spaces. Meanwhile, the growing affluence of the global population, especially in Asia, has boosted demand for more-expensive foods.”

“The main reefer trade is from the Southern Hemisphere to the north. Exporters in places like South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand move fresh produce to supplement demand in the north during the winter months. The U.S. and Canada are also exporters of vegetables, citrus and other fruit along with meat and seafood, mainly to Asia.”

“One of the smaller customers, Peru’s Sun Fruits Packs SA, last year shipped 700 reefers of grapes to Philadelphia and 220 containers of avocados to Spain and the Netherlands … It takes as long as 18 days to ship grapes from Peru to Philadelphia. The fruit “is put to sleep” in a controlled atmosphere that delays the ripening process before it’s distributed to supermarkets across the East Coast.”

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