Monthly Archives: May 2013

10 Observations from the Real Man’s NRA Show

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What sort of a charmed life is one living when Chef Robert Irvine factors into it twice in a single month?  I had the pleasure of walking the floor at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago this week, and was treated to a delightful array of sights, smells, tastes, huge portions of protein, and in the case of Chef Irvine, sounds!


Overall, while there were no gangbuster introductions, the show seemed to achieve a cosmic balance of the healthy (e.g. gluten-free), the indulgent (pastry galore), the novel (spinach balls) and the old-school standbys.

Here’s a sampler from this roving do-it-yourself Lazy Susan:

1)    MO’ MEAT!  An unlimited assault of meat.  Australian Wagyu beef (unbelievable!), Ditka’s chicken sausage (should real men eat it?), bangers from Jolly Posh, jamon iberico de bellota, plain old hot dogs, and the list goes on.  A veritable on-the-fly charcuterie.  Ron Swanson’s vision of heaven.  Perhaps the only product equally welcomed at either NRA show.


2)    Celebrity!  The boundary between cooking as craft and cooking as entertainment has been erased forever.  Anthony Bourdain, a few of Food Network’s A Team (Aarón Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Alexandra Guarnaschelli – and that was just the day I was there), and many others.  They attracted long lines, and in the case of the showcase demo area,  made a lot of noise (yes, that’s Chef Irvine wearing a tight black short-sleeved shirt for a change).


3)    Rising international influence.  The international representation of exhibitors was exceeded only by the internationality of the attendees.  Not just many countries, but lots of delicious cross-fertilization of ingredients and techniques. More proof of the unstoppable globalization of foods and flavors.  Peru debuted at NRA this year.

4)    Salmon –  oak or maple smoked, flavored, salty, delicious – – and in unlimited supply.  Like the brunch table at that swanky Bar Mitzvah you heard about but weren’t invited to. Maybe it’s been there all along, but I was astounded at all the options this year.

5)    Tchotchkes – Flo bobble-heads (from Progressive Insurance), t-shirts, cozies, pens, etc.  I was lucky to be on the floor close to the show’s end, and scored a nice bottle of Magueye Sweet Sap – – an old-but-new, tasty alternative sweetener.  You heard it here first.

Maguey Sweet Sap

6)    Umami – OK, there are 5 flavors now, just like there are 8 planets.  Forget what you learned as a kid.   It’s here, it’s savory, and it means great taste.  A whole area was devoted to just umami.

7)   Greek Yogurt – – it’s alive!  And not just in plastic containers any more.  Not only were Greek yogurt-based dessert options shown that more closely resembled ice cream sundaes, there was also Greek yogurt cheesecake, mac and cheese, and more.  Hmm…starts out as a healthy option, now loaded with sugar and other stuff.  We’ve seen this before:  energy bars, muffins, etc.

7)    Technology – from the large booths of companies like NEC and IBM, to small software entrepreneurs, at times the NRA looked more like a technology convention.  Whether hi-tech signage, online menu management software, or nutritional scoring, technology seems almost as important as the food in enabling operators to compete profitably.  Judging by a lot of sameness in some of the standard food offerings, perhaps it’s already passed food in importance…

9)    Alternative ordering/delivery  – GrubHub/Seamless, MobileTummy and others were pitching all manner of new ways to hook people up with food.  Order online, order by mobile, have it delivered, have it ready – – another case where technology is enabling options that are designed to match the way people live.

10)  Focus on kids’ health – consistent with NRA’s own Kids Live Well program, there were quite a few exhibitors focusing on not only healthier fare that kids might actually eat, but techniques to evaluate nutritional content and make good choices as foodservice operators, as well as consumer-friendly apps to make it easier to find a restaurant with kid-friendly offerings.

And now to the Stairmaster.


Warby Parker, and why Brands Don’t Matter

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Brands don’t matter?!?  Blasphemer!  Heretic!  Neanderthal!  Republican!  Put down that crack pipe!

This is of course counter to everything you hear (and if you know me, everything I say).

But it’s true, with an asterisk: Brands often DON’T matter – – until they do.  Then they matter a lot.  It all depends on what value is delivered.

At the risk of alienating my friends in the branding business:  look at some of the more successful recent brands , or just brands you’ve used everyday and never really thought about (Yahoo!  Google.  Zappos.  Ebay.  Subway. Apple.  AT&T.  Starbucks. Blackberry. Target. Kindle. MiO. Allegra.).  Even better, musical artists:  Stone Temple Pilots.  Foo Fighters. Neutral Milk Hotel.  Arcade Fire.  Queen – – no, strike that last one.  Anyway, you get the point – – does any of these in any way describe the product or service?  (and let’s not get started on prescription medicines…). Asked another way, did the brand have a material impact on success?


Which brings us to Warby Parker.  Warby Parker is a relatively new web-driven mail-order prescription eyeglass business that has totally disrupted this space.  The concept:  shop online, they send you 5 frames to try out at home, you pick one, get them your prescription and you’re immediately sent designer eyeglasses for $95!  So from a value perspective it’s a great deal – – sort of in the same mold as Target – – call it cheap chic or funky frugal or whatever – – their value recipe is cooking right now.

But that’s not all.  Like Zappos, WP have distinguished themselves with over the top customer service.  Every message, call, post or Tweet is answered personally, promptly, and cheerfully.  The combination of value and service has created a significant buzz that is helping to propel the business very quickly.

So where does the ‘Warby Parker’ name come from?  Who cares?* — because of a winning value proposition and excellent execution, it NOW means something very valuable and unique that drives customer loyalty – -and that’s the value of a brand.

*According to the WP website, it is actually a combination of two characters’ names from Jack Kerouac’s work.

Sure, the exceptions to the ‘brands don’t matter’ statement could fill an e-book:  Oikos and Chobani convey Greek; Twitter suggests short bursts of conversation; SquareSpace describes a computer screen, Orapup means something to do with a dog’s mouth, etc.  These and others can help quickly telegraph what’s going on, particularly where authenticity is critical or where marketing funds are limited.  And certain brands can definitely convey a sense of quirkiness — or seriousness — that is core to the product or service’s desired positioning.

However – – while many electrons are spilled proclaiming the value of brands, the most important thing is ultimately not the brand itself, but the lasting value and relevance that the brand delivers.