May 2011 Newsletter

May 16, 2011


This month, We’ve got some news for you: If you think that it’s only other restaurants that are your competition, think again. Consumers can buy food that’s ready-to-eat—or nearly so—in all kinds of places these days, from supermarkets and c-stores to local farmers markets. That means you have to work extra hard to set yourself apart.

We’re also taking a look at the rise of the Southern food trend, which we see as an extension of the comfort food trend with a little regional American culinary tradition thrown in.And Karen A. Brennan, our Marketing & Branding Strategy specialist, shares a witty tale of the cobra, to illustrate how successful branding works in the age of social media.


To your success,

Dean and Danny

Competition: Look at the Big Picture

By Joan Lang

If you’ve never walked into a big Whole Foods, Byerly’s or other high-end grocery store—to say nothing of a specialty emporium like Mario Batali’s new megaplex Eataly , in New York City—you owe it yourself to do so right now, if only to get the message that competition is coming from every quarter in the food business.

Because it’s not just other restaurants in your segment, concept type or even price point that’s your competition: It’s also grocery stores, specialty food stops, food trucks, farmer’s markets, big box stores and even convenience stores that are vying for the consumer’s mealtime dollar.

Nowadays, it seems like everybody that can is offering fresh foods and prepared, grab-and-go meals. In fact, according to the recent Retailer Meal Solutions Consumer Trend Report from Technomic, respondents reported that they were sourcing prepared meals from a wider range of retail foodservice operations than they were just two years ago, with more than three out of four consumers (77%) purchasing prepared foods from retailers at least once a month. And you’d better believe that this was sometimes to the detriment of restaurants.

• 7-Eleven is ramping up its menu of “signature” food items, like pizza-by-the-slice and Angus beef got dogs, on the way to driving to driving foodservice sales that already exceed 17% of total volume

• Mobile catering—read: food trucks—is now a $5 billion industry; in cities like Portland, Ore., these rolling restaurants have become a real force for the brick-and-mortar industry to contend with

• Former Outback Steakhouse exec David Osterweil has started a company called Fitlife Foods , which provides fully prepared, heat-at-home meals with a better-for-you nutritional profile

• Whole Foods is testing a restaurant concept called Osteria and wine and craft beer bars, with no intention of cannibalizing its robust program of beautiful if pricey ready-to-eat foods for takeout

• So-called “business incubators” like North Market in Columbus are springing up all over the country, giving a leg up to specialty foods entrepreneurs who don’t have the means or the facilities to go it alone

In fact, it might seem that the only type of food business that doesn’t compete with you directly is the one that’s too far away. Oh, wait… there’s also mail order.

The South Rises Again

By Joan Lang

The automobile industry may still be troubled, but the fact that former autoworker-cum-caterer Jamawn Woods won “America’s Next Great Restaurant” with his Soul Daddy concept confirms that Southern regional cuisine is definitely having its moment.

What started as a relatively simple wings-and-waffles menu morphed over the course of the season into more of a healthy Southern comfort theme. Soul Daddy’s opening menu consists of classics like country style ribs, pulled pork, baked chicken and a vegetarian plate that allows customers to pick four side dishes from a list that includes cheese grits, collard greens, sweet potato salad and black-eyed pea salad.

The Southern food trend has been a while in the works, from a boomlet in shrimp and grits (once a rather obscure specialty of the Low Country in South Carolina) on menus to a slew of Southern-inspired restaurants in such Northern cities as New York, Boston, and Chicago. The fact of IHOP having put fried chicken and waffles up as an LTO earlier this year is yet another piece of evidence that Southern food is starting to follow Cajun and Southwestern out into the spotlight.


It’s not hard to see why. Southern food is great comfort food: It’s flavorful and fun, and it has a distinctive point of view. It’s also by its very nature low in food costs—pork, chicken, vegetables, starches like cornbread and grits and macaroni and cheese. (Even artisanal grits like those delicious fresh-milled varieties from Anson Mills are relatively inexpensive, not to mention inspiring for chefs who may be looking for an alternative to Italian polenta).

Think of the other delicious and iconic foods that define traditional Southern cuisine: pimento cheese spread; chicken fried steak and fried chicken; sausage gravy and ham; catfish; barbecued meats; fried green tomatoes; red velvet cake; banana pudding; bread pudding. The Southern, touting its “Kickass Bar & Comfort Food” in Chicago, features dozens of bourbons on its Whisk(e)y Menu. Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts—which got a Best New Restaurant nod from the Beard Foundation in 2009—can scarcely keep the boiled Virginia peanuts on its menu in stock. And Seersucker , in the hyper-trendy borough of Brooklyn, serves the likes of the $15 Southern Snack Tray (a kind of latter-day relish plate with deviled eggs and pickled okra) and $10 Biscuit Boxes (four biscuits with seasonal jellies and preserves) to resolutely un-ironic hipsters.

Let’s just hope fried chicken livers don’t go the route of blackened redfish, right into virtual extinction.

What Can WE Learn from the Bronx Zoo Cobra?

By Karen A. Brennan

A 20-inch baby cobra escaped from the reptile house of the Bronx Zoo about a month ago and became an instant news story. OK, it was probably a slow news day, being that it preceded Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations and the capture of Bin Laden, but that only half explains why this event became such a widespread story.

The other half of the story is great branding. How did it happen, why did it happen, and what can we learn from it?

When a tongue-in-cheek Twitter feed emerged that gave the cobra a personality and a voice, the cobra became a brand and finally a cyber phenom. The cobra had 200,000 Twitter followers in less than a week. But I would argue that it was less about media and more about brand personality that drove the overnight sensation.

The @BronxZoosCobra feed was written in the voice of the Egyptian cobra—a young, sassy, fun-loving female cobra with a cosmopolitan flair that tweeted up-to-the minute updates that piqued our imaginations, allowing us to project our hopes and dreams on her and imagine what we might do if we were free to experience the “Big Apple.”

• “Holding very still in the snake exhibit at the Museum of Natural History,” she posted on Twitter. “This is gonna be hilarious!”
• “I should take in a Broadway show. Anyone heard anything about this ‘Spiderman’ musical?”
• “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.”

Well, she was finally found…in the zoo: no adventures, no trip to the top the Empire State Building, no Broadway show, and that might have been the end of the story…except for what happened today. A peacock just escaped from the same Bronx Zoo, and, of course, is tweeting: “The cobra gave me some escape tips.” And so it continues. What ultimately creates resonance, connection and longevity is the power of the idea.

The idea was original, not copycat. The voice seems real, not contrived. The tweets are conversational in tone, not broadcast business messaging. And most importantly, the voice reflects a brand personality that connects on an emotional level.

Not long ago, I worked on a project to develop a personality and “voice” for my client’s social media program. It was smart of them to realize the need for a well-conceived approach to their social media voice by creating a brand personality that could translate to the “voice of the brand” as they engaged in a dialogue with their guests on line.

That’s the secret to successful branding strategy—articulating the brand personality and translating the brand personality to the “voice of the brand,” especially important in this age of social media. This voice connects with consumers in a personal and emotional way, and the connection is what allows the brand to transcend its rational attributes (the cobra was, after all, a venomous snake) and engender loyalty.

Many brands use celebrities to represent their brand personalities—Jeff Bridges for Duracell, Tim Allen for Campbell’s Soup, Queen Latifah for Pizza Hut. As consumers, our radar tells us if they are on-target or off-target. In 2007, Wanda Sykes was selected as the “voice” of Applebee’s, and although I thought she was hilarious, she didn’t quite fit the brand.

The lesson to be learned is the importance of creating a relevant emotional connection to your customers and the discipline of maintaining a consistent authentic voice that reflects the brand personality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Contact Synergy Consultants if you’d like a free consultation to discuss your branding strategy.

Tip of the Month

By Joan Lang

Interested in the idea of a business incubator (a.k.a.) business accelerator)? These programs, which are designed to accelerate the development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services, are sprouting up all over the country, and they’ve been a boon to small specialty food businesses of all types. Often taking the form of shared kitchens, they may also give hopefuls access to other resources such as marketing and administrative services. Here are a few websites to get you started.