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The Perishable Pundit Visits South Africa
Dispatch IV: Seeing The Future
From Across The Pond

 

In continuation of yesterday’s review of a day in London’s newspapers:

Back in The Guardian, a columnist by the name of Simon Hoggart visited America. Those foreigners report the darndest things. For example:

“It may be the little things in America that make most of it such an attractive place. Friendly service in shops, where your arrival to buy things is not regarded as a gross intrusion on the assistants’ day. The hospitality is wonderful and taken for granted. You no more ask for a beer or a soda from the fridge than you would beg permission to visit the loo.”

Who’d have thunk it?

Anyway, this columnist goes on to speak in praise of diners:

“…next morning we drove to Georgetown, a nice old part-colonial town where we found Theo’s, a diner that was serving the traditional breakfast, with pancakes, waffles, eggs over easy, eggs benedict, home fries, hash, plus jugs of coffee and juice. What was so appealing was there: men in overalls, businesswomen with laptops, mums who’d just dropped the children off at school, a pair of lawyers in suits and ties. It’s a gathering place. And right now, with the low dollar, prices are silly: a heaping meal for four cost less than £15 [the equivalent of $29 US].

Spend only a few days in South Africa and you realize the blessings we share in America go well beyond the legalistic or material ones, and one very great blessing is our easy comfort with people of different economic situations. We are democratic in America in a way that goes far beyond the way we share our votes.

There are plenty of rich guys in America who have fallen in love, married, and had children with their one-time waitress, bartender, hairdresser, etc. Here in South Africa, there is a social and cultural gap that runs concurrent with economic status, which makes that type of interchange very difficult. In America, we are blessed in ways we do not fully appreciate.




Convenience Food Puts End
To Buffet Cars

“The buffet car, one of the few remaining civilized pleasures of traveling on Britain’s over-crowded railways, is to be axed on several routes between London and the West Country.”

All the usual reasons were given — it takes up room, adds weight, etc. But many passengers were unhappy:

“The buffet car is part of the ritual of train travel. I remember the days when you would sit down for afternoon tea and there would be waiters on the tables. Having somewhere to go and get food breaks the journey up — traveling long distance can be very tedious. The other problem with the trolley [Pundit note: The proposed replacement for the buffet car, which Americans would call a diner car, is a rolling trolley, which Americans would call a cart] is if you’re at one end of the train, then by the time it gets to you there can be nothing left.

Another passenger said:

“Eliminating the buffet car will detract from the whole experience of traveling by train. It is deceitful of First (the train company) to claim that the trolley will be a good substitute. It cannot carry anything like the range of products, and passengers will have to wait while it is hauled all the way down the train. Trolleys also have an annoying tendency to be off-duty when you want them.”

But it is interesting to note how societal changes in one area lead to unexpected changes in other areas. For example, we have discussed the plans of Tesco to open in the US both here and here. In the UK, many Tesco Express stores as well as similar concepts from others are right in the train stations. As one sharp consumer noted about the buffet car:

“I think it’s overpriced — especially the water — and it’s not nice food. These days, when there’s a supermarket at the station, why bother?”

And as a spokesman for the train company noted:

“Only one in eight passengers used the buffet. Most people would prefer to be served at their seats rather than leave luggage unattended.”

So, in a sense, the opening of convenient food stores with high quality product enabled people to react to the growth of crime by buying food at the station and eating it in their seat, near their luggage, rather than going to the buffet car, getting inferior food and putting one’s property at risk.

All true, and yet as the nostalgic reference to tea service with waiters points out, although the overall cost-and-benefit ratio may dictate the loss of things like buffet cars, there is a loss of things that made life more civilized. That is a loss indeed.




Box Fresh

 

The Times also devoted a two-page spread to the hottest trend in British retailing, as the headline states: "Box-fresh and delivered right to your doorstep".

The article is basically a review of five different services, all of which deliver mixed boxes of organically grown fruits and vegetables to the homes of purchasers, typically on a subscription basis. Most of the services seem to provide a less expensive pre-made box that ranges from about £14 to £20 (or, from $26 to $38) and the option to create a box a la carte by paying more money. Most of the services offer delivery at no charge.

Though the basic point of these boxes is to encourage ecologically diverse farms by buying ecologically diverse selections, they do include out-of-season imports that are organic but not necessarily grown in ecologically diverse farms. You can check out one of the box-fresh companies here.

The article also mentioned that the supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer, are planning to launch similar schemes. The Pundit dealt with that issue specifically as a solution to problems facing the organic industry. You can review that article here.

The two prime issues of the box-fresh program seem to be the ease and predictability of the box subscription — knowing your family's produce needs are basically taken care of each week — versus the regularity and difficulty of dealing with items you don't want and didn't order. How many people have any use for a couple pounds of turnips delivered to their door every week?




Traceability And “Food Miles”

The trend is for people to want to know where their food is from and who produced it. This goes far beyond country-of-origin labeling. It is a French and Italian trait, always foreign to British culture, but now catching on. It is part of the Slow Food movement and much more. I expect we will get much more consumer demand for this.

We already have traceability technology back to farm level. With today’s sophisticated computers, we should be able to tag each bunch of carrots, say, with a hang tag that tells who grew it, shows a picture of the farmer, gives its location, etc. It would be a big winner for Whole Foods and Wild Oats right now, and others might do some experiments.

The other issue is “Food Miles”, basically telling consumers how far the produce was shipped. This is a proxy for the environmental impact of the food. Although there are also food security issues that are creeping in, not so much about terrorism fears but about the vulnerability of countries to be cut off from their food supplies. In this article, The Times rated each box on food miles.

I really think it would behoove companies like Earthbound Farm to consider growing and processing operations on the east coast, probably somewhere in the triangle of Baltimore, Boston and Chicago. This is America’s greatest population center, and I think it is clear that Earthbound’s constituency wants more locally grown or, put another way, fewer Food Miles.

By diversifying its operations, it would help Earthbound position itself in what is likely to be the sweet spot on this issue. Then it could say something like: “We grow locally when seasons permit but work worldwide to keep products available 52 weeks a year.”

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