The New York Times reports on the demise of neighborhood nut shops in the Big Apple. Luckily, we're a bit behind the times in Grand Rapids and my two Albertus Koeze & Company stores are hanging on.
I've read that setting your blog aside is a mistake, but I've had a good excuse. December is always a stressful and busy month, but last year was the worst as my father began having some health issues and was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas. After two months of struggle including surgery at the University of Michigan, he is now enjoying sunny Scottsdale and the excellent care of the Mayo Clinic there.
Over at my catalog business, Koeze Direct, we anticipate that the economics of mailing catalogs to strangers -- called catalog prospecting -- will continue to get worse and worse as costs rise and response rates -- the number of consumers who actually order -- continue to fall.
What won't go away is our need to find new customers. Like everyone else in the industry, we're hoping that search engine marketing (SEM), the combination of organic search (trying to get a high rank on search engine pages) and pay-per-click (PPC, buying ads that go with certain search terms), will replace prospecting as a source of new customers.
I fear, however, that Google is going to make that hard as they continue to attempt to make searching more personal by adding new features. Douglas MacMillan on the Tech Beat at Business Week writes about Google's new features:
Last Friday, Google quietly rolled out a feature which may have even greater impact on Web users — though many are unlikely to notice. With something the company calls Personalized Search, Google will start showing different search results for different users, depending on which links they have clicked the most in the past. In theory this means that eventually, a car lover and a zoologist typing “jaguar” into the search field will wind up with two different sets of search results.
Search tailored to individuals will no doubt make Google more useful. But what will it do to advertisers? Businesses that have spent years and millions of dollars optimizing their Web sites for search may find themselves gradually shoved out of the top 10 listings for choosy Web surfers who prefer non-commercial pages like Wikipedia and LinkedIn. Ultimately, businesses could decide to spend less money juicing their placement in “organic results” and more on the paid search ads from which Google derives the bulk of its revenues.
The problem for new customer acquisition is a little different. We need to get in front of people who aren't familiar with us. But if Google is sending folks back to the places they have already been, that will be harder and harder. PPC might be an alternative, but big brands with big budgets will probably rule that world in a way they haven't (yet) been able to in organic search.
I sense I have this problem with Google already, as they have many tools to use to "personalize" my results. I remember first using Google and thinking it was a crystal ball. But now it seems more like a mirror.
Just a few days ago I came across a dessert hot dog made with peanut butter and bananas. If that wasn't reason enough to celebrate, today I find a blog post about a peanut butter and bacon hamburger. Better yet, this work of culinary genius hails from my favorite city, New Orleans (where I lived in the French Quarter with my new bride in 1986-87).
I am a worrier. And a pessimist. I admit it. And this is why I worry about the economy for the next few decades. Yes. Decades.
As the EconomicPic blog points out:
Until the recent crisis, consumer credit had exploded, now accounting for ~17% of nominal GDP, about twice the level from 50 years ago. All in, household debt is now more than 120% of GDP, twice the the level of just 25 years ago.
Think about that. It took 50 years for consumer credit to double. It has taken 25 years for total household debt to double. Perhaps we don't have to go back to the debt levels of 1959 or 1984. But we need to get a good deal of the way back, and with consumers representing 70% of US GDP that means household dollars going into debt reduction rather than nuts and chocolates. Or cars, houses, and clothing.
As EconomicPic points out, our options for fixing this are extremely limited. And I'll point out: it will take years and years.
Source: EconomicPic, http://econompicdata.blogspot.com/2009/12/deleveraging-consumer-and-economic.html
It seems I'm not alone. The National Federation of Independent Business says small business optimism is in the tank. Read Bonddad Blog full post here. This is especially bad news on the jobs front, as small businesses are key to future job creation.
The Wall Street Journal has an article on palm oil and the negative environmental consequences of its popularity in foods today. The palm oil problem is a side effect of the move against partially-hydrogenated oils and trans fats, as palm is one of the few oils that is an acceptable replacement for partially- or fully-hydrogenated oils.
I speak from some experience. Whole Foods does not permit the use of hydrogenated oils in their products. For peanut butter products that require the peanut oil to be homogenized or stabilized, palm oil is the only option. We re-formulated our Cream-Nut Peanut Butter Clusters and replaced the fully-hydrogenated oils with palm oil. We now will begin to search for a sustainable supply of palm oil stabilizer.
The food business is full of hard trade-offs between health, the environment, and costs. We like easy answers, but they can be hard to come by sometimes.
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 7, 2009
I am always on the lookout for creative uses of peanut butter in cooking, but most of the time I find the recipes and ideas to be sort of been there done that.
Yesterday, however, the Seattle University Spectator ran a short piece on a new hot dog restaurant. Among its signature items is:
The sweet puppy on the menu currently is a peanut butter and banana dog, which is a beef or tofu hotdog topped with runny, melted crunchy peanut butter and sliced fresh banana.
Not making the cut:
“The worst one we tried [during development] was a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup dog,” Olson says. “Chocolate with hotdogs just doesn’t work.”
Saves me the trouble of trying a Cream Nut Peanut Butter Cluster dog.
In response to my last post, my turkey raising partner sent me the following email. He argues that small scale farming is inherently a communal activity:
It's not only lack of ag. infrastructure, but also the lack of a
coherent and functioning ag community.
Unlike 25 years ago, I have not one farm experienced neighbor to call on
to assist me in anything. Luckily Spaans from SD moved in.
Many farm tasks, by their nature are communal in flavor, haying and
harvesting mainly, but also on a lesser scale, moving stock, stretching
fence, heavy machinery repairs, borrowing equipment in an emergency and
on and on.
There is no one. We are all gone. At best, the neighbors are remedial,
white collar idiots who would all perish of hunger in a month. Do you
think for one second I could call up one of those folks and rely on them
to come down and actually help me, I mean help me in a way that is
meaningful, which means they know what to do? To have them help me rope
down a sick beef, give him and injection and castrate him at the same
It's all ruined and gone bad and there is no saving it.
In an article on heritage turkeys appearing in the Thanksgiving New York Times there is a telling comment:
Mr. Reese ran into problems this year when the slaughterhouse he had used shut, forcing him to truck his turkeys to Illinois and Ohio for processing, increasing his "costs by about 10 percent.
“Our turkeys are very expensive, not because of the turkey but because of the processing and shipping,” he said. “The problem is the infrastructure to support truly honest-to-God sustainable agriculture is not there.”
You don't think about needing "infrastructure" for small scale agriculture, but you do. Here's how I learned this: Two years ago a buddy and I went in on ten turkeys when he came upon a deal for some heritage-breed birds to raise. When it came time to butcher them, we went up to the feed mill (20 miles away) to inquire about getting them slaughtered.
We heard that there was an Amish guy who would do it for a few dollars a bird. Great, because he was our only option other than doing it ourselves. The Amish don't have phones, so we had to drive another 25 miles further up the road to talk to him about it and set an appointment. Then drive home. Then drive the turkeys up there, then drive home. Then drive up there to pick up the turkeys the next day. Then drive home.
The next year we dialed back to 5 turkeys and did the butchering ourselves with the help of a neighbor. This is far from easy. (10 would have been a bit of nightmare. More out of the question.)
This year, no turkeys.
By this story I mean to illustrate that local food requires an infrastructure of suppliers and services to really be practical. This little story just covers slaughtering. Depending on what you are doing -- and at what scale -- there can be issues with feed, seed, farm equipment, supplies, veterinary care, distribution -- the list is long.
As large scale agriculture has come to dominate, the infrastructure that makes small scale food production practical in many communities has evaporated.
Peanut butter and rock and roll. Check out the The Peanut Butter Conspriracy.