Will Big Food Destroy the Food Revolution

outbackIn the U.S., the turn toward local, artisan, sustainable foods—real food with real flavor—over the past 40 years has been remarkable. It has made our lives immeasurably better.  But will that revolution last or will the corporate behemoths of global capitalism find a way to co-opt it?

Deception is their biggest weapon and they are bringing out the big guns:

At a taco shop in Southern California, milkshakes are served in mason jars and a chalkboard menu lists “The 1%er” made with lobster meat.

The logo is a pink skull and instead of buzzers, customers are given license plates so servers can identify them when bringing out orders.

Nowhere is it evident that the U.S. Taco Co. is an outpost of a chain better known for cheesy gut bombs: Taco Bell.

Major companies are testing whether it would pay to tuck away their world famous logos in favor of more hipster guises: PepsiCo, for instance, introduced a craft soda called Caleb’s last year and McDonald’s opened a cafe that lists lentils and eggplant on its menu. The stealth efforts reflect the pressures on the country’s biggest food makers, which are contending with the surging popularity of smaller brands that position themselves as decidedly less corporate.

As the preference for authenticity and the thrill of discovering new food experiences attracts more and more people, big food companies have taken to hiding their footprint:

As such, Allen Adamson of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm, said companies should keep the images for their latest efforts smaller and more niche: “You don’t want to scream from the mountain top that you’re Pepsi.”

McDonalds, Pepsi, Taco Bell, Anheuser Busch, Yum Brands all have spin-offs masquerading as hip, artisanal products making real food—chain restaurants with marketing designed to hide their essential “chainness”.

Will the “big lie” succeed in burying the burgeoning but still relatively small artisanal food movement?

I have my optimistic hat on today. The point of creating a chain restaurant or mass-marketed brand is to increase margins through standardization—supply chains, packaging, marketing, production, training, etc. all following the same rulebook produces efficiencies that translate into profit. By definition, such products lack uniqueness or individuality and cannot maintain a connection to the idiosyncrasies of particular locations without sacrificing efficiency, The idea of a local, artisanal, mass-marketed brand is a contradiction. The more popular these “faux-authentic” products become the more obvious it will be that they are just another corporate product. Not to mention the fact that standardized products just don’t taste good and the differences when compared to genuine artisanal products are usually obvious.

But my pessimistic hat is never far away.  H.L. Mencken’s adage “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” is surely still relevant. It takes some effort and attention to nuance to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit and it isn’t obvious we are up to the task.

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