Homecentered Specialty Foods

In the post-September 11th world, there are likely to be reassessments as to one’s priorities. It will be years before we know how much of the current decline in foodservice sales is due to the recession and how much is due to people staying home out of fear of traveling. On some level, the attacks on America will imprint a desire in people for closer ties to family and friends.

Eating at home more is a way of playing out that desire. From time immemorial, breaking bread has been a way for people to resolve differences and build community.

Since September 11th, there has been a flight, understandable to be sure, to comfort foods. Fried chicken sales at supermarket delis boomed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks.

The challenge for the specialty food industry may be to find a way to encourage people to expand their horizons in a culinary sense – even if they are staying close to home.

It is not an insignificant challenge. To start with, the industry’s marketing is going to be constrained. One can’t promote glamour and luxury with people dying in battle. Beyond that, the fundamental way specialty foods often get introduced may have to change.

After all, it is hard to believe that in the end, immigration won’t be more limited – and immigrants bring in, and consume, a lot of specialty ethnic food.

Many others learned to appreciate food while on trips around the world – and fewer people will be making trips abroad. And when they go, they may be more likely to eat in the Hilton than scurry around town trying the local cuisine.

In fact, an opportunity for growth in the specialty foods industry is likely to be “heritage” brands – old names that bring up good memories. You can see some of these things in stores such as Restoration Hardware, where they will sell Burma Shave and other long-lost brands.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see mass marketers of consumer food products come out with “classic” packaging and advertising from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s – indeed maybe even World War II and World War I.

Effort must be made to assist in the development of a native food culture. Specialty food must be promoted as adding to the spice to life. Whenever possible, native ingredients should be celebrated.

Supermarkets, supercenters and club stores can play an important role in boosting the specialty food industry and enhancing their own bottom lines by promoting “something special” along with every department. There are so many interesting ingredients that can add zest to down-home favorites such as meatloaf and fried chicken. But up till now, mass marketers have pretty much left it to consumers to find this out.

Now the situation calls for the whole industry to work together to make sure our new home-centered lives are quality-food-centered as well.

Fundamentally, the specialty food industry will experience a period of uncertainty because, in a somber time, it has an air of frivolity about it. Who can care about the quality of chocolate when good men have died in crashing towers and others may be called to die on foreign ground?

Yet to gather foods from every corner of the earth, to represent every cuisine, to fuse cultures and flavors – is in many ways a pinnacle of civilization.

The particular strength of American civilization is its ability and willingness to absorb the best of the world and make it distinctly our own. Our strength is that we can gather immigrants and turn them into Americans.

There was a period in the 70s in which many rejected the traditional American imagery of “the Melting Pot” and tried to replace it with “The Salad Bowl.” The idea was that, whereas the melting pot suggested the subsuming of one’s native identity into a homogenous new American identity, the salad bowl would be a harmonious mix of distinct people, maintaining their individuality in the way a head of radicchio doesn’t merge into romaine in a salad.

Well, I like my salads well enough. But the analogy is off. A country such as America, where we are not tied by birth or ancestry, must be fundamentally united by the willingness of people to become Americans. And the primary focus of our national institutions must be to assist that process in happening.

That is why our schools, for example, cannot fall prey to trendy bilingualism but must insist on the primacy of learning English.

It is also why a food industry that satiates people’s desires for flavor and sustenance can be a unifying tool. On Thanksgiving, we can all have turkey. That some will flavor it with cumin and others stuffed with chestnuts is both inspiration and testimony to a great civilization. Tie into that testimony, and the specialty food industry will ride a wave to fortune.