More Than A Little About Lidl

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A year ago, Germany-based grocer Lidl ‘invaded’ the United States. The company (whose name is pronounced Leedl ) originally set its initial US goal at 100 stores. That was scaled back, early this year, to 50. There presently are Lidl stores in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with more stores pending in New York’s Staten Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia.

The up-coming stores are likely to be closer to the company’s 15,000-20,000 sq ft (1393-1858 sq m) European model, for a few reasons:

(1) The US stores, judging from the one I’ve visited (several times), are seriously trying to do too much, as almost-full-service supermarkets, than they can deliver;

(2) they dedicate 12-25% of their floor space to nonfood items that might, might, generate high enough profits to justify the company’s investment in them… but they might not; and

(3) while in-store bakeries certainly are a potential draw, Lidl’s scratch versions – as opposed to bakeries doing bake-off of frozen or otherwise-‘almost-finished’ products, involve serious up-front and ongoing investments. And using only Europe-inspired recipes oay not be as good an idea as Lidl executives imagined, because European and American tastes differ.

A company website notes that, “At Lidl, our bread and baked goods are authentic European quality and they are always oven fresh because we bake several times a day. Take a deep breath – that smell is our croissants oven-baked on site! We melt the right amount of butter, dash the perfect amount of salt, and layer each luxurious taste to be the perfect flaky bite. The baked goods are made using the original recipes and baking processes that we perfected across Europe.”

Something Lidl may never (so far) have been recognized for is the quality of its shopping carts. Beyond the now-standard area for small, delicate items, their cars feature handles that are heavier than the types usually found at US supermarkets, and Lidl’s handles have shaped, plastic grips for the user’s hands. While the carts feel sturdy, they are easy to maneuver, and seem to be constructed so as to not face the fate of so many carts: jammed or broken wheels.

The care and attention that went into designing those carts wasn’t exercised when the entry into US market was planned.

While generally some 35% larger than their European counterparts, Lidl’s US stores’ shopping areas don’t employ space efficiently. Aisles are too wide, compared to most US supermarkets; the first-in-view produce section features multiple displays of some items and, in mid-June, had no available peaches – a serious summertime favorite across the US. (Meanwhile, a roadside stand a few miles up the road from the Danville VA Lidl was offering “South Carolina Peaches”); Non-food bins, which feature ‘specials’ on Thursdays and Sundays, were empty on Saturday – a huge waste of space and, no doubt, many missed opportunities to sell something – anything.

Americans like prepared foods. Lidl doesn’t, one must assume, like to sell prepared foods, at least not in assortments Americans are used to. Oddly, one of the widest ranges of packaged foods comprises sauces destined, as per package directions, to be used to turn plain pieces of chicken into Indian-Indian – as opposed to Native American “Indians” – dishes. It would amaze me if there’s an even middling demand for Indian food in Danville, population 42,000  or so, where there’s nothing vaguely resembling an Indian restaurant or Asian food market within 40 minutes (in Greensboro, NC, of all places!).

This Lidl offers frozen Indian entrees, as well. A generous assessment assumes they must sell, because the display is always well-stocked. (Alternatively, these long-shelf-life items, prepared in Canada, may not be selling well at all – but let’s  give the benefit of the doubt and assume stock is turning over nicely!)

Given the amount of space dedicated to them, Lidl clearly loves to sell cookies, packaged crackers and similar snack foods: The company’s Danville store has oodles of them.

The bring-your-own–bags – or buy Lidl’s for a few cents each – system seems to be widely accepted by shoppers. (I keep a bag full of Lidl bags in the trunk of my car so when I’m in Danville, I’m prepared. On my most recent visit, a departing customer tossed me a few Lidl bags he didn’t need, so I added them to my ‘bag stash’.)

I live an hour’s drive from that store, so I visit only when I’m in Danville for another reason. So I can’t report on day-to-day traffic there. Press reports have said the company hasn’t been converting fans of other local supermarkets – of which there are not a wide assortment in Danville – to Lidl regulars.

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My visit earlier this month was either the ideal time for encountering little in-store traffic… or a portend of problems to come: There were very few shoppers, at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon. But the good news is, for Lidl, many of the few were loading carts with well over $100 in merchandise. That’s four to five times what a press report a few months ago said the average Lidl ‘buy’ was.

I like Lidl. It employs some clever time- and cost-savers such as price-labeling your own bakery and produce items. (Walmart’s self-checkouts require one to try to figure out how some produce items are listed in the system – corn, peppers, and chilies can be problematic  — or enter the PLU code. The latter often are as hard to locate as the product-look-up system is to navigate. Not so at Lidl.

A few months ago, writing in Forbes, noted retail analyst Walter Loeb  wondered why, rather than spreading stores from New Jersey to Georgia, Lidl hasn’t focused on a more condensed area and positioned stores closer together. The current scatter-shop positioning, he noted, makes it hard for any store to have more than a very local impact.

Well, the company recently appointed a new head of the US operation, a 15-year veteran of Lidl, and he’ll no doubt put that experience to good use getting Lidl USA back on the track envisioned by envisioned by Klaus Gehrig, director of the Schwarz-Group, which owns Lidl.

On average, competitors have lowered prices more than 9% in markets where Lidl sets up shop. That   suggests US consumers have every reason to hope Schwarz-Group becomes more profitable thanks to Lidl USA.

 

 

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Filling In Where Food Retailers Drop Out

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Growing plants at Watson, Inc. for the West Haven (CT) Emergency Assistance Taskforce

While hardly a new phenomenon, community gardens currently are thriving across the US – and in several instances, they are doing what supermarkets are failing to do: Provide fresh food choices to people in ‘food deserts’ – areas where fresh produce is hard to come by.

I remember years ago – more than four decades ago, in fact  — some ambitious soul was growing sweet corn (maize) on a patch of barely-soil in between two pairs of subway tracks in Harlem, New York City. The tracks at that point are elevated, probably 40 feet (12 m) above Broadway. Despite the poor soil quality, the corn was thriving.

Similarly ambitious entities – some simply private citizens, others organized in one or another fashion – are providing food servings and sometimes space for community members to grow food for themselves and their families across the country.

Feeding Food Banks

In the town of Orange CT, Watson, Inc., which is primarily in the business of producing nutritional enrichment and similar products for food processors, four years ago opened what it calls its fellowship garden, where food is grown for food banks.

The company provides 4,800 plants each year, and those not used are donated to the food bank for use in its gardens.

More recently, having space to spare, the company created a garden where children with autism spectrum issues can grow pumpkins, melons and other items.

Christina Cole, 47, a graphic designer at Watson told The Guardian: “The plot for Milestones Behavioural Services gives kids with autism and developmental disabilities the chance to not only have fun and be outside, but also learn life skills and take home what they grow and learn to cook with their families.”

This year, they’re adding a corn maze to that garden, she noted.

Hunger, Often Hidden, Is Too Common

The Connecticut Food Bank told The  Guardian that one in eight citizens struggle with hunger.

In Louisville, KY, a non-profit restaurant called The Table is run by volunteers who use food grown in urban gardens in the Portland neighborhood. Founded by Pastor Larry Stoess and his wife, Kathie, along with John Howard, a volunteer, the restaurant was featured in AARP The Magazine’s April/May edition.

In 2016, the State Fair of Texas introduced Big Tex Urban Farms, a revolutionary, mobile agriculture system in the heart of Fair Park.

As a testing ground for the project, the Fair used an 80-by-80-foot area normally used to house the Gateway Pavilion during the State Fair season. Employees from various departments worked with a Fair Park TX-area company to develop 100 raised planting beds created out of products normally used for packaging and shipping.

Promoting Healthy Lifestyles

By the end of 2016, the project proved itself to be a successful experiment by investing financial and human capital into immediate Fair Park neighborhoods and companies. It connects like-minded agriculture entities and provides fresh, organic produce to organizations focused on hunger and healthy lifestyle programs.

This year, the project expects to grow more than 5,900 pounds of fresh produce, 77,882 total servings, 11,230 heads of lettuce, and, oddly, 303 eggs.

Considering the dynamics of Fair Park’s numerous events and National Historic Landmark designation, developing a mobile solution for the farm was imperative to the program’s success. Through a partnership with General Packaging Corporation, the urban farm’s 40-by-48-inch beds were designed and manufactured by a Fair Park-area company. Each bed, created with a shipping-pallet base, is easily constructed by one person, optimized for storage, and moved by forklift.

Throughout the growing season, all produce (more than 6,000 fruits and vegetables) was donated to Fair Park-area organizations including the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Institute in the Mill City neighborhood, Cornerstone Baptist Church, and Austin Street Shelter.

As of 2017, Big Tex Urban Farms has grown to 520 boxes, a 15×30-foot-deep (4.5 x 9m) water culture bed capable of producing more than 20,000 greens a year, and various community locations throughout South Dallas.

One recipient, Glenda Cunningham, of the Baylor Scott and White health and wellness center, praised the project’s work. “The community looks forward to the Big Tex urban farm delivery each week. The food is fresh, free and beautiful,” she told The Guardian.

 

Some of US’s Wealthiest Athletes Prefer 69¢ Snack At Work

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For their homes, many members of the NBA (the National Basketball Association), the top paid four of whom take home a total of more than $100,000,000 per year, have private chefs. At work, at stadiums across the country, one of players’ favorite pre-game snacks is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (Maybe more than one, given the size of these guys, who tend to be well in excess of 6′ (1.83m) tall and hardly bean-pole thin!)

Unknown to large swaths of the world beyond the US, PB&J, as the snack is affectionately known to virtually every American, is a centuries-old tradition – dating back to the early days of peanut growing in the US, even before George Washington Carver found hundreds of uses for it (but he did not invent peanut butter!).

One use I suspect he never pursued, perhaps after one trial of it, would be peanut butter soup, a “delicacy” high school classmates of mine and I created on occasional Sunday evenings, when, unlike the rest of the week, we had “requisitions,” kid-selected foods, in our dorm. Why we made it more than once is a mystery, since the stuff hardly halted on its journey from mouth to the other end!

Yep, PB mixed with milk and heated will clean you out quicker, with less pain, than raw or lightly-sauteed Habanero peppers!

Today, there is scarcely a household of native-born Americans that doesn’t have at least an “emergency” jar of PB somewhere handy.

Among those that does is Donald Trump’s. His choice for White House Chef reportedly has no cheffing experience, but his boss declared, when announcing the appointment of Mike Wave, whose cooking-for-cash experience is more or less limited to six months with Blue Apron, the meat kit maker, “he makes a mean PB&J,” the leader of the free world (and under-valued sandwich fan) said. Then he took another bite if his!

‘Food Crisis’ As Low Oil Prices Cost Indian Workers Their Jobs In Saudi Arabia

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Laid-off Indian workers queuing for food packets in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Low oil prices have forced the Saudi government to slash spending since last year, putting heavy pressure on the finances of local construction firms which rely on state contracts.

As a result, some companies have been struggling to pay foreign workers and have laid off tens of thousands, leaving many with no money for food let alone for tickets home.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on Saturday said over 10,000 Indians in Saudia Arabia and Kuwait were facing a “food crisis” because of economic hardships, while appealing to an estimated 3 millions Indians living in Saudi Arabia for help.

“Large number of Indians have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The employers have not paid wages, closed down their factories,” she tweeted on Saturday.

One of the country’s two junior foreign ministers, V.K. Singh, will travel to Saudi Arabia next week.

Swaraj said on Saturday that India’s other junior foreign minister, M.J. Akbar, would take up the issue with the authorities in the two Middle Eastern countries, saying the government was monitoring the situation on an hourly basis.

“While situation in Kuwait is manageable, matters are much worse in Saudi Arabia,” she said in a tweet.

Separately, the Consulate General of India in Jeddah said on its official Twitter feed on Saturday that it had distributed 15,475 kg (34,116 lbs)  of food over the past three days to the Indian community.

It posted pictures of Indian people queuing up to collect the food packets.

The hardships faced by Indian migrants come amid rising protests about working conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of foreign workers at construction firm Saudi Oger staged a public protest in Jeddah at the weekend to demand seven months of unpaid wages, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News reported. They were dispersed by police after disrupting traffic.

Saudi Oger did not respond to a telephone call and an email seeking comment.

The Saudi government says it investigates any complaints of companies not paying wages and if necessary, obliges them to do so with fines and other penalties.

Chinese Shamed For Dog-Eating Festival

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While Americans (and many others) have an emotional attachment to dogs, and would never think of eating them, they appear somewhat immune to the fact that, as has been widely publicized for the past half decade, an annual ‘festival’ in a small Chinese province is built around the brutal slaughter – and consumption – of some ten thousand dogs.

Somewhat, but not totally, immune: The Huffington Post has been particularly outspoken over the past two years about the goings-on in Yulin every June. The cruelty of the event – which local government deny any involvement in, citing “local businesses and [a small percentage of] local businesses” as its instigators and sponsors, is inexcusable, but it goes on.

The fact the festival isn’t just about dog-eating doesn’t make the international media and dog-lovers globally any less comfortable: The event is officially billed as The Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, because the former and the latter are paired in culinary preparations, Wikipedia (reference above) says. It runs for ten days, during which dogs are paraded in wooden crates and metal cages before being skinned and cooked for festival goers and local residents. Some, Huff Post says, may even be boiled alive.

Not to in any way condone what goes on in Yulin, I think westerners (in the U.S. in particular, since that’s the only country I know specifics about) need to consider how the meat that ends up on their tables is grown, slaughtered and processed.

While the system has improved due to tighter laws and greater enforcement in recent decades, both four- and two-legged ‘protein crops’ still often tend to be treated more like crops than sentient animals that do feel pain, and undergo suffering as they hear the outcries of those preceding them to the slaughter.

There’s also the fact that most of the animals raised as food crops are genetically modified in ways meant to make they grow faster – often in ways that, unavoidably, make life itself a misery. (Chickens bred to have breasts two, three or more times what nature intended couldn’t be comfortable even if they had the ability to move around and try to take some of that weight off their legs and feet.)

I’ve already cut my consumption of beef to a significant degree, and I’ve tried to be more selective in where I source the chicken we eat. But I can try harder, and despite the cost, I’m going to make a greater effort to seek out birds from farmers specializing in truly free-range one with diets that are in no way genetically modified.

I anticipate that, because of the far higher cost, we’ll be cutting back on meat overall – just as we cut back on eggs when I go for the likes of the local farmer’s ‘pure’ ones at close to double the price of a Walmart dozen. (Walmart is selling large ones at close to $1.50 per dozen; That farmer is asking $3.00.)

That means, of course, we’ll have to substitute something else into our diet – something healthier, and something less subject to ‘abuse’ by producers. ‘Not a bad tradeoff, that!

Want Fresh Juice? It Will Cost You – A LOT!!

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Somewhere, somehow, the economy is improving enough to justify the existence of a countertop vegetable-juice-producing machine costing $699 – with pre-packed veggies custom-made for it at prices up to $10 or so per 8-ounce (242 g) ‘dose’.

That, at least, is the view of investors who have put some $70 million behind a California start-up hawking its initial product as a tool, as one news report put it, “to get people to drink their fruit- and vegetable-based nutrients and reduce the amount of junk foods that they buy and eat, while also making it easy to cold-press juice at home or possibly the office.”

But your home or office has to be in California, as that’s the only place the Juicero is being offered at present. And while the company fully intends to expand, no future locations have been announced where it will be possible to plop down $699 up front and $9 or $10 daily thereafter to enjoy this wonder’s wonderful benefits.

Oh, OK, I’ll give to ‘em: Their machine is picture perfect, and it crushes the juice out of only certified organic veggies – from only hand-picked farms – and it comes with, and actually requires the use of, an app that keeps it connected, via the internet, to the parent company, which is able to read a QR code – a topic we’ll being looking at within a few days – to ensure your ‘veggie pack’ is within its ‘use-by’ period, and to record what you’ve ordered so ‘appropriate’ repeat or newly-suggested reorders can be scheduled.

This entire concept is, to me, mind-boggling!

First of all, how many people can afford to plop down $699 upfront than another $50-70 per week for seven 8-ounce glasses of juice?

I’m also wondering how a start-up company can raise $70 million for a product that, in the short (and probably long) term, would appear to appeal to a relatively small sector of the juice-loving public, and only a fraction of that number is likely to even want to spend so much for so little, in terms of quantity.

And of those who are so focused on getting the very freshest and purest juice available (at any price), I can’t imagine many of them being so fanatical on the subject that they want to know the specific farms where their juice-source vegetables were grown.

Even in California, where a copious number of start-up companies have earned small fortunes for their entrepreneur owners, where rents in such high tech centers as San Francisco are so high that at least one young man is living in a box (he calls it a pod) in someone else’s living room (at $400 per month, a bargain most anywhere for a one-bedroom apartment; but a box?) it’s hard to imagine there being enough people willing to shell out so much cash, on an ongoing basis, to generate glasses of juice.

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Peter Berk’s Box (or ‘pod’)

But 65 years or so ago, ‘the big they’ was saying television would wipe out radio. That still hasn’t come to pass, and more than likely never will.

And who would have imagined, a mere four months ago, that this blog would by now have found its way into 34 countries, including China?

We live in strange times.

 

The Automat Returns! Bon Chance, Eatsa!

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A story last month (February) in Business Insider described Eatsa, a new restaurant chain, as “unlike any fast-food chain we’ve seen before.”

The reporter, Hayley Peterson, who appears to be, in her photo, in her youngish thirties, clearly was using the ‘royal we’ – speaking as one as if she were, like the queen, somehow greater than the sum of her parts.

But then, no one of her generation ever had an opportunity to see Eatsa’s spiritual and practical predecessor, because Horn & Hardart, shut down its last New York City Automat in 1991 – a fact that Haley later alludes to in her well-done, highly-illustrated article.

Horn & Hardart, which opened its first restaurant in 1902 in Philadelphia, quickly caught the public’s attention for a couple of reasons. Its several walls of shiny glass-door compartments held individual portions of sandwiches, salads, desserts and more. Combinations of nickels (five-cent pieces) would be deposited in a slot by each door featuring a desired item. The door would unlock, and the item became yours!

On one side of the usually-large rooms – some seemed to be nearly the size of Rockefeller Center’s ice rink – there were steam tables where hot dishes were available. Whether you stopped by the hot tables or skipped them, you sat wherever you wanted – beside whomever happened to be there – and tipping was discouraged.

There was, after all, no service: You could enjoy a pretty good ‘fast food’ experience – this was, in fact, the nation’s first true fast-food restaurant chain – without once interacting with a person, with the possible exception of a ‘nickel thrower’: A woman who exchanged your larger coins and/or bills for their value in nickels.

The food was prepared either behind the scenes on the same location or at a central commissary elsewhere in either New York or Philadelphia, the two principal cities where Automats operated. The food was, by standards of the day, healthy and nutritious, and ordinarily pretty tasty, too.

So what happened to the Automats – which, by the way, were based on an earlier automat concept in Germany? A couple of things: The arrival of McDonald’s, Burger King and local variations on the same theme(s) provided a more ‘exciting’ atmosphere and, significantly, drive-thrus. At the same time, in the late- ‘60’s – early ‘70’s, as food costs rose, there weren’t a lot of things that could be offered for a combination of nickels.

Then there was the rent factor: For obvious reasons, Automats tended to located in high-traffic locations. Horn & Hardart at one time operated 40 of their restaurants in New York City, and as the rents rose – as they seem to do with tide-like regularity in ‘The Big Apple,’ their share of overhead, coupled with the higher food costs, made Automats economically unviable.

A company calling itself Bamn! attempted to revive the concept in New York City’s East Village in 2006.  It survived a mere 2.5 years – probably, in part, because the street it was on, St. Mark’s Place, has been ever-more ridiculously pricey real estate since the 1960’s, when it was a popular draw as home to Gerdy’s Folk City, when ‘folk music’ was all the range, then to clubs of more advanced genres, the kind of gift/memento stores tourists flock to, and, for a while, to one of NYC’s hottest jazz clubs, The Five Spot – frequently inhabited by Thelonious Monk.

(I often ‘hung’ there when Monk was in residence – selling nonsense poems written on bar napkins to tourists!)

Eatsa is a truly modern-day version of the automat-type restaurant. It’s brightly lit, it’s décor is plain but in tune will Millennials’ tastes.

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It’s computer-based ordering system – for the sole specialty, a bowl of quinoa priced at $6.96 and topped with whatever the customer orders, from a wide range of choices – is recorded and stored so when a customer returns, his/her previous preferences are  displayed and alternates are suggested as part of the approach to encouraging repeat visits.

So far, there are Eatsa locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nation’s Restaurant News has reported that the chain plans to open at least ten more locations this year.

From that, point who knows?