Category: Food and Drink

Diminished choice in your neighborhood supermarket

Contactless shopping and the elimination of free samples. Less browsing and “product discovery” and more focus on the expediency of repurchasing. These are ways the novel coronavirus has changed how Americans buy groceries. The pandemic has altered what products people purchase, when and where, who is buying them, and how much time is devoted to the endeavor.

Americans are spending more, yet increasingly they are being offered fewer choices, both online and in person, slowing a years-long trend toward innovations that put “good for you” and “environmentally friendly” spins on established and much-loved products.

The winnowing — what one expert calls a “Sovietish” reduction of choice — is also solidifying eating patterns, for good or for ill. With customers’ selections reinforced by online advertising, repeat ordering and other algorithms, the food system is becoming bifurcated as consumers who have expressed enthusiasm for healthful or artisanal foods are offered more of the same, while those with a penchant for highly processed comfort foods are inundated with opportunities to restock.

There is a gender effect as well:

He says more men are claiming to be the primary shopper during the pandemic, and “they do buy different things and buy differently.” Men, Baum says, tend to favor efficiency: shopping club stores for bulk purchases, convenience stores and online. They report making fewer, larger, quicker trips for a narrower range of items.

This part surprised me, though I wonder if they have done a full data check:

This “narrower range” is not just a brick-and-mortar constriction. As the pandemic accelerates the shift to online shopping, the number of packaged food products available to purchase on the Internet fell 21 percent globally from January to May, according to Euromonitor International, a London-based market research company. It found that nine out of the 10 biggest countries by retail sales saw a drop in the number of unique SKUs available online.

Here is more from Laura Reiley, note this also is another reason why actual rates of price inflation are somewhat higher than what we are measuring.

Forthcoming markets in everything, squirrel nut bar edition

An Ohio man built a backyard squirrel bar with seven varieties of nuts on tap.”  And yes this will be monetized:

Dutko’s favorite part of the bar is its quirky bathroom sign: “Nuts” and “No Nuts.”

The project, which measures about 25 inches wide and 16 inches tall, took him eight hours to design and build.

After posting a video on YouTube showing the build process, Dutko said he was “overwhelmed” with comments and requests to purchase the bar. He immediately applied for a design patent and is now planning to launch a business to sell The Nutty Bar for about $175 – $200.

Here is the YouTube video.  Via the excellent Samir Varma.

The polity that is San Francisco

If you were hoping to cure your cabin fever with a quick jaunt to San Francisco to eat a $200 dinner in a geodesic dome next to a homeless encampment, it looks like you’ve missed your chance. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that after a surprise inspection, the city’s health department has ordered Japanese fine dining spot Hashiri to take down the fine dining domes that have made it internationally famous…

Hashiri opted to erect three plastic garden igloos on the sidewalk and reopened for dinner on August 5. The structures, which cost $1,400 apiece, immediately generated controversy, as the restaurant, which caters to the ultra-rich, happens to be located in an area where people experiencing homelessness congregate.

“Mint Plaza is a phenomenal space, it’s just sometimes the crowd is not too favorable,” Matsuura said to the Chronicle. “There are people who come by and spit, yell, stick their hands in people’s food, discharging fecal matter right by where people are trying to eat. It’s really sad, and it’s really hard for us to operate around that.”

The restaurant began receiving hate mail prior to last Thursday’s surprise inspection, which Matsuura suspects was the result of anonymous complaints to the Department of Public Health. The domes were ordered removed “due to the enclosed nature of the structure, which may not allow for adequate air flow,” per the inspection report.

Not enough air flow?  I wonder how many kitchens would pass that test?  Here is the full story, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

The farmer-influencer and the economics of streaming

Though Mr. Gold sells poultry and eggs from his duck farm in Vermont’s northeast corner, most of what he produces as a farmer is, well, entertainment.

Mr. Gold, who is short and stocky, with the good-natured ease of a standup comedian, does his chores while carrying a digital camera in one hand and murmuring into a microphone.

Then, twice a week, like clockwork, he posts a short video on YouTube about his exploits as a neophyte farmer, often highlighting failures or pratfalls. Keeping a close eye on analytics, he has boosted his YouTube audiences high enough to provide a steady advertising revenue of around $2,500 to $4,000 a month, about eight times what he earns from selling farm products.

And this:

It’s a lot of work: Mr. Lumnah wakes up at 3:30 a.m. so he can edit the previous day’s footage in time to post new video at 6 a.m., which his 210,000 regular viewers, who are scattered as far as Cambodia and India, have come to expect. “People will say, it’s lunchtime here in Ukraine,” Mr. Lumnah said.

Others, like Justin Rhodes, a farmer in North Carolina, have parlayed a giant YouTube audience into a dues-paying membership enterprise — he has 2,000 fans who pay annual fees of up to $249 for private instruction and direct communication, via text message. “We don’t sell a single farm product,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Our farm product is education and entertainment.”

Some of them earn money through product endorsement deals, like Al Lumnah, who posts videos five days a week from his farm in Littleton, N.H.

Here is more from the NYT, via Steve Rossi.

The Great Psychometric test continues (U.K. fact of the day)

And the results ain’t always pretty:

The number of high-risk drinkers nearly doubled in lockdown and was worst in groups of higher social class, a government report shows.

Here is the (gated) Telegraph article.  Part of the mechanism of course may be that the “groups of higher social class” have not experienced the most severe income hits.  But I wonder if there is not more at work here.  These same “groups of higher social class” are also those who went around to parties to be feted, traveled the world, gave talks at conferences, “did deals,” dominated meetings and grabbed the good seat, and through various other means received big in-person ego boosts in pre-Covid times.  Now those ego boosts are gone, and…what do they do?  Some of them do very fine things indeed.

What are fungi?

I don’t view this as a formal answer, but it is interesting nonetheless:

Mycelium is how fungi feed.  Some organisms — such as plants that photosynthesize — make their own food.  Some organisms — like most animals — find food in the world and put it inside their bodies, where it is digested and absorbed.  Fungi have a different strategy.  They digest the world where it is and then absorb it into their bodies…

The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.

…to embed oneself is an irregular and unpredictable food supply as mycelium does, one must be able to shape-shift.  Mycelium is an living, growing, opportunistic investigation — speculation in bodily form.

That is from the new and excellent book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Moghul Express, Edison, New Jersey

It is the best biryani I have had outside of South Asia, plus the arrangement for outside dining is both spacious and nicely done and offers protection against rain.  Here is their web site.  Just get the biryani, but yes everything there is good it seems.  It is very close to where the Turnpike and Parkway intersect, and thus close to both — what more could you ask for in New Jersey?

The arrival of cheap food in England

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Here is more from Bee Wilson, via The Browser.

Alcohol is again the culprit

It is “crystal clear” drunk people can’t – or won’t – socially distance, a police chief has warned after scenes showed huge crowds packed into Soho in central London.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, said he witnessed “naked men, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights and more angry drunks” while on shift in Southampton – and there were similar scenes across the rest of England.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, had warned reopening pubs was a “high risk” for spreading coronavirus ahead of the easing of lockdown restrictions which also saw restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers and museums open their doors on what was dubbed “Super Saturday”.

Here is the article (no further reason to click), via Matt Yglesias.

We are living in a (very temporary) dining paradise

Of course current arrangements are terrible for restaurants, and pretty soon they will be bad for your dining too, as more restaurants close up for good.  But right now we live in a window of opportunity.

The owner and/or best chef is in the restaurant at a higher rate than usual — where else can he or she go?

Menus have been slimmed down, so there are fewer dishes, which means fresher ingredients and less delegation of cooking tasks.

Most menus have new dishes, not otherwise available, often in the direction of comfort food, which is a comfort because it tastes good!

They are cooking just for you, yum.

Show up for lunch at 11 a.m. or for dinner at 4:30 p.m.  Please only eat outside.  Bring a mask as well.  And please don’t linger at the table, so that others may follow in your footsteps.

Note which places have good outdoor dining arrangements, and which have nice park benches right nearby.  (Don’t drive the food back home as it becomes soggy and non-optimal for human consumption.)  You won’t end up with that many options to choose from.

Nonetheless I’ve had some very good and special meals as of late.

It’s a Good Summer to Explore America at Random

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the premise:

With my summer trips abroad canceled, I decided to be resourceful about travel. Having lived in Northern Virginia for 30 years, I asked myself a simple question: Which local trip have I still not done?

Earlier in the summer I thought I might spend time in scenic Maine, but too many of my friends from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic seemed to be planning the same. I decided a more adventurous course of action would be to get in the car with my daughter Yana and spend a three-day weekend on the road.

The column is not easily excerpted, but here is one bit:

Lunch was in Morgantown, West Virginia, but rather than visit the university, we stopped for excellent Jamaican food with jerk chicken, oxtail and plantains — better than the equivalent in the D.C. area. A tip: If you’re ever looking for great food in obscure locales, don’t just google “best restaurants Morgantown WV,” as that will yield too many mainstream options. Pick a cuisine you don’t expect them to have, and Google something like “best Haitian restaurant Morgantown WV.” Whether a Haitian restaurant comes up (it didn’t), you’ll get a more interesting selection of “best” picks. In this case we learned that a town of 30,000 people has several Caribbean restaurants, highly rated ones at that.

Five states in one day (VA, WV, MD, PA, OH) was great fun.  In my view, every excellent trip has one stop or locale at its emotional and narrative heart, and for this trip is was the Native American Earthworks in Marietta, southern Ohio.

Delivery service price cap regulations

Ben emails me:

Could you please consider and comment on some of the unseen consequences of local price caps on restaurant delivery services?  (Politico article describing the phenomenon in SF, NYC, etc.)  A highly competitive market for such services exists between GrubHub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, etc.  Moreover, patrons can always pickup and restaurants can always hire their own drivers.  That dynamic market will keep prices down and improve service quality and value.  As reported 2 days ago, 5/13/2020, in the Wall Street Journal, “America is stuck at Home, but Food Delivery Companies Still Struggle to Profit.”  Yet many locals are considering regulating and limiting the prices that such delivery services can charge.

Here is a NYT article on the same phenomenon, claiming that some apps charge up to 40% of the restaurant’s take.

My first question is why the restaurants do not charge higher prices for customers using the app.  That might be illegal in some localities, but surely that is not the general answer to the question.  Rather the restaurants are afraid of losing customer good will  — “what!? I have to pay 30% more just because I bought it with my phone?”  [Plus the apps do not allow it, see the comments, though I do no think the apps could prevent restaurants from giving “extras” and thus lower prices to those who show up for service in the restaurant.]

In this setting, restaurants are losing potential revenue to avoid a reputational hit, and staying in business (rather than closing up) because they believe the value of their future reputational franchise is high.  In other words, in both channels the restaurants perceive the value of their future reputational franchise to be pretty high.

That is the good news, although you might wonder how it squares with the generally low returns to running a restaurant.  I suspect some restaurants simply know they are good and profitable because they are skilled, and the losers are overconfident and less well-informed.

One efficiency advantage of the apps is that they will put the unprofitable restaurants out of business more quickly.

The next question is whether some surplus from the profitable restaurants should, in the short run (and maybe in the longer run too?) be redistributed to the app company.

The apps should increase the demand for the food from the good restaurants (easier to order and arrange delivery), but lower the profit margin on selling more of that food.  If those ingredients and kitchen capacity otherwise would go to complete waste, overall that seems like an acceptable bargain.  Kitchens are kept active, which is an efficiency gain, even if some profit is redistributed to the app company.

In this scenario, you can think of the app as doing some of the selling, rather than the restaurant doing that selling, and reaping surplus from that effort.  In essence, the business of the restaurant has become more specialized, toward pure food production and away from selling, that latter service now being performed by the app company.

Restaurants that were great at selling in the first place might be worse off.  But it is far from obvious that these apps and their prices should be decreasing efficiency.  Some other restaurants might be worse off because it is harder for them to carve up or segment the market, but that change likely is efficiency-enhancing.

And if the apps do indeed speed the bankruptcy of the lesser restaurants (presumably what the critics have to believe), over the longer haul prices will indeed go up and the good restaurants will earn back some of what they lost up front.

On net, consumers will have better services, better marketing, pay higher prices, and have a better selection of restaurants.  That just doesn’t sound so terrible, or so necessitating government intervention to cap app prices.

Note that informed customers probably need the app least, so they are least likely to see its value, just as “critics” as a class, including restaurant critics, are also least likely to see the value of the app in marketing the restaurants.  Of course this class of “critics” are exactly those who are most likely to be writing about the apps.

My excellent Conversation with Ashley Mears

Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting?  Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist.  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

And:

COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode.  And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.

Coronavirus markets in everything, Swedish restaurant edition

At Rasmus Persson and Linda Karlsson’s restaurant, you don’t have to order takeout, or wear a mask, or try to stay two metres away from the other patrons — because there are no other patrons.

It’s just you, seated alone at a table in a picturesque meadow in the Swedish countryside as you’re served a homemade meal that arrives in a basket using a rope and pulley.

It’s called Bord För En, which translates to “table for one,” and it opened on May 10 in Ransäter, a rural town some 350 kilometres west of Stockholm.

“We wanted to create a space that’s 100 per cent corona-free, as much as we could at least,” Persson told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson, and no you don’t have to worry about them having too many beautiful women…

And here is their Facebook page with further details and images.  By the way, most of the customers are men.  Then there is this:

When you book your reservation at Bord För En, you include a list of names of your close friends, and the restaurateurs then solicit one of them to write you a personal message.

It operates on a “pay what you wish” basis, and so far they have been heavily booked.

Will Covid-19 expose the ghost firms?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Demand for in-restaurant dining is likely to fall as well, though estimates vary. Since the average small business carries less than a month’s worth of liquid reserves, and the wait for a vaccine is likely to be at least a year, many restaurants will simply be unable to survive the shrinking of the market.

I call these places ghost restaurants because they are still walking around, so to speak, visible to us and listed on Yelp, but not really alive and without much of a future.

In a few months’ time, a significant number of these ghost enterprises will be gone. My drive around Northern Virginia, rather than being rich with culinary choice, will soon become fairly desolate — and the overall economic landscape will indeed be much emptier.

What else in our current capital structure might qualify as “ghost”?

And this:

And while an all-but-certain death awaits some businesses, others can look forward to mere stagnation. If you are a 23-year-old entrepreneur, how easy will it be to build up the network of “soft ties” that will help you launch the next phase of your career?

As many marginal businesses are going under, it is quite possible that the public-health situation will improve. Civic spaces will repopulate as commercial ones depopulate, giving urban landscapes a confusing feel. And because there will be fewer businesses to choose from, it will be all the harder for those remaining to enforce social distancing.

Many Americans have been clamoring lately for more freedom, and those desires are understandable. But as they emerge from lockdown, they might well be disappointed to discover that, above all else, what people will be exercising is the freedom to go out of business.

If you start by using the word “ghost” (better than zombie, in this setting), don’t be surprised if the column turns out a bit gloomy!