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FRESH FOOD: The news is out

The public's appetite for food news these days seems to be insatiable. That's the good news. The question is, besides spinning your traditional weekly sale ads out into the ether, what are you doing to take full advantage of this feeding frenzy in your local markets?

All the food-related talk would certainly indicate that it's a great time to be in the food business, or at least the food-talk business. Against a bustling backdrop of the Food Network, countless consumer magazines delving into every angle of edibles, food-happy Web sites all over the Internet, and, of course, a number of retailers' own proprietary publications, many of them store-branded, there's certainly no shortage of resources allowing consumers to track down the wisdom to aid their next gastronomical quest or culinary query.

Although increasingly consumers are too lacking in interest and time to read the local newspaper on a daily basis, in many markets venerable food sections continue to play a tremendously important role in connecting readers with food trends and, crucially, retailers.

But rather than limiting potentially lucrative contributions to those local newspapers to weekly sale ads alone, retailers possess golden opportunities for much more meaningful communication with consumers, especially through the editorial and digital arenas.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food editor Suzanne Martinson believes retailers often miss opportunities to bond more intimately with local newspaper food sections and their readers. Martinson is an example of the kind of food editor it would do retailers well to cultivate a relationship with, given her awareness of the local retail landscape.

"We have a nice competitive situation here, and we even have a couple of new markets that are moving into [underserved] poorer neighborhoods, which is good," explains Martinson. "Whole Foods, in fact, went into a 'troubled' part of our city, and it's made a huge difference. It's fun to shop there, with lots of different ethnic groups shopping and working there."

Martinson's article "To win a cook's heart, butter her up," which appeared in the Pittsburgh daily's Dec. 19, 2004 edition, earned her a spot as a finalist in this year's prestigious Bert Greene Awards for food journalism, a contest sponsored by the Louisville, Ky.-based International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).

Singling out produce as the key area "getting better and better" in recent years, Martinson believes most grocers "could try harder to include local produce" in the marketing and merchandising mix. "Not everyone has the time to go to a farmers' market," she notes, and the added convenience and variety that a supermarket can offer would be more than welcome.

Food retailing dynamics

Fresh food subjects are among those that Martinson says generate the most consumer interest. In Pittsburgh, that apparently goes double for cookies. "This is a huge cookie city!" Besides fresh foods, the recently released dietary guidelines, "and companies' sometimes stupid way of reacting to them," will likely generate continued coverage in food pages in the coming months, according to Martinson.

The best food writers are acutely aware of the dynamics of food retailing in their territories. One such writer, among the most successful and astute professional food critics in print, is Robb Walsh, an unpretentious, amiable foodie with culinary credentials to spare. Walsh, former food editor of The Austin Chronicle and former editor-in-chief of Chile Pepper magazine, is currently the restaurant critic for the Houston Press.

A two-time James Beard Award winner and author of the Legends of Texas Barbecue cookbook, Walsh was at presstime also a finalist in the IACP's Bert Greene Awards for his "Sex, Death and Oysters" article, an account of the oyster industry in Houston written last March. He's also a finalist in IACP's American category of the best cookbook competition for Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. The awards, sponsored in part by the California Table Grape Commission, honor the best writing and publishing in the food and beverage industry.

Walsh was on the scene when HEB's Central Market appeared. "I was living in Austin, writing about food for The Austin Chronicle, when HEB opened its first Central Market, and I remember distinctly that I considered it to be a sort of 'earthquake' in the grocery business in Texas. All of a sudden, this store burst on the scene, and it was absolutely nirvana! Sure, there had been attempts at upscale grocery stores before, but Central Market just made them all look stupid."

He applauds industry innovators like Central Market for their efforts in educating consumers about food on many levels, which is a "really good thing." However, Walsh is also quick to note that as a consumer as well as a food professional, he also spreads out his business equally among retailers in the market, including Fiesta Markets; Belden's, a Jewish neighborhood market; Whole Foods; Randall's; HEB; and Hong Kong Food Store, a 75,000-square-foot Asian supermarket.

"On one hand, it's not the most convenient way to shop, but on the other, every one of these stores is specializing in covering a segment that's really appealing. The thing that's so great about Houston is a wide variety of many great grocery stores, and on top of that, many wonderful specialty neighborhood stores."

Supermarket sushi

For his money, Walsh sees takeout prepared foods as the most profound development impacting his local market, one that has become "extremely hotly contested." That comes as no surprise to him, given Houston's status as home to some of the earliest fast-casual restaurant concepts. He cites a recent alliance formed between Kubo's, one of the city's best sushi restaurants, and Central Market; the latter's Westheimer Street store now houses a second Kubo's location.

"I think that's the future of grocery store takeout food," suggests Walsh. "Supermarket retailers are going to have to borrow the expertise of restaurants, which put their name and flavor signature on the food, because right now most supermarket food is just so flavorless that it's not taking off the way they hoped it would."

Even Central Market has work to do in this area. While the operator "has got an enormous case of beautiful-looking takeout foods, I've sampled a lot of them, and just find them way too bland for my taste," says Walsh. "But I think part of the problem is that by trying to appeal to the broadest market, the end result is a very generic product."

Retailers looking for an edge could take cues from leading local cooks. Walsh relays an especially interesting tidbit he learned while writing Legends of Texas Barbeque. "I interviewed people who won and competed in barbeque cookoffs on the subject of ribs. And they all said the same thing: that the secret of great ribs is to use '3.5 and down' -- meaning that the side of ribs must weigh less than 3.5 pounds. You're never going to get good barbeque ribs using anything over 3.5 pounds because they never get tender.

"So I started to notice that all of my grocery stores only sold ribs weighing more than 3.5, and the only place you could find [the slimmer ribs] in town was Sam's Club. I quickly came to learn that every barbeque competitor in Texas has a Sam's card, because that's where you have to go to get the right ribs."

On the whole, Walsh rates the Houston market "as a never-ending journey of discovery, because the more stores customers have to choose from, the more they learn what each specializes in, and the broader the food experiences they end up with."

Courting the scribes

Because of the important role they play in educating and influencing the public about the foods they buy and eat, food editors are often a key audience for many agriculture and food production organizations and companies.

In recent years, for example, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has played host to a number of national food editors/writers, who gain hands-on experience cooking and tasting dishes using specific classes of beef products, for instance, beef value cuts. In the name of educating and enlightening these influential consumer ambassadors, the NCBA has also hosted editors on tours of ranches, production facilities, and research and development labs, all in the hope that the food scribes will in turn communicate their experiences and newly gained knowledge to consumers.

For its part, the Iowa Pork Producers Association recently gathered a group of food editors for a "Heartland Farm-to-Table Tour," designed to show the interconnections within the food production system in Iowa, as well as the state's connection to the rest of the world.

Meet the press

Ocean Mist Farms also realizes the potential of this opportunity and reaps the rewards, by treating professional food journalists to tours of its fields for an up-close look at artichoke planting, harvesting, quality assurance, and cooler operations procedures. In addition to showing them fields and facilities, Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist also makes sure the food experts have plenty of unique artichoke preparations to sample.

Since consumer advertising is so expensive, the grower-shipper puts a lot of effort into ongoing communications to newspaper food editors via regular news releases, fact sheets, and recipe and preparation information. Ocean Mist also follows up with retailers by sending preprinted copies of color releases as part of its ongoing merchandising program to help its customers see what the company is doing to influence shoppers to buy artichokes.

Its release for the fall/winter season focusing on stuffed artichokes was particularly effective for Ocean Mist, notes spokeswoman Maggie Bezart. The communique made its way onto 100 newspaper food pages in major markets including Los Angeles, Honolulu, Little Rock, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, St. Louis, the Twin Cities, Newark, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. "The 'Stuffed Artichokes -- A Satisfying Feast' page would have cost us more than $1 million had we advertised in all those newspapers," says Bezart. "But editorial material such as this page is regarded more highly by consumers than advertising, so we win all around."
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