Supermarket Confidential: Inside Trader Joe's, TV Dinners and 2024 Food Predictions | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 802
January 18, 2024

Supermarket Confidential: Inside Trader Joe's, TV Dinners and 2024 Food Predictions

Supermarket Confidential: Inside Trader Joe's, TV Dinners and 2024 Food Predictions

This week, it’s our episode all about grocery stores. Writer Benjamin Lorr shares stories from Trader Joe’s and the rise of the superstore. Plus, Andrea Hernández, founder of Snaxshot, reveals her food predictions for 2024 and author Jeff Swystun explains how TV dinners changed the world.

Questions in this episode:

"I'm following up on a previous call I had about my carrot cake recipe that never cooked in the middle."

"I make my own yogurt at home, but it's been coming out too thin lately. Could that be because I switched from local to store-bought, ultra-pasteurized milk?"

"Help my husband and me settle a bet. How long, with regular use, should a good apron last?"

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Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX and I'm your host, Christopher Kimball. Today, it's our episode about grocery stores, how they work behind the scenes, what sells and what doesn't. Plus, the rise of the superstore

Benjamin Lorr: In 1956 when the first American style supermarket opens overseas in Rome, people were shrieking with delight, a woman started running up and down the aisle screaming, this must be heaven,

CK: We’ll find out what new products we'll be seeing in the upcoming year.

I actually did this whole deep dive on the rise of like spiritual beverages and snacks like, you know, instead of a shaman, you have Erewhon.

CK: Stories from the supermarket. First up, we're visiting the freezer aisle.

Song: Pull up a chair America. Sit right down there America. Swanson’s cooking just for you.

CK: So, the question is, how did TV dinners change the world? I'm joined now by Jeff Swystun. He's author of TV Dinners Unboxed: The Hot History of Frozen Meals. Jeff, welcome to Milk Street.

Jeff Swystun: Wow, what a pleasure. I'm really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

CK: There were a number of things going on sort of mid 20th century that led up to this invention of and surge in TV dinners. What were some of the things going on in the culture at the time?

JS: Yeah, you know, macro level, you had the baby boom, you had prosperity. All those things, we sort of note about the 50s. I really like discovering through the research that you know, we sort of have romanticized and idealized the 1950s and sort of happy days and all that stuff. But you know what, people were stressed, there was the Cold War, there was the keeping up with the Joneses. And what really the TV dinner hit upon was, people not only were stressed, they were time pressed. And the TV dinner promised right out of the gate and continues to be speed, ease, and convenience. And so that's what, you know, largely Americans, but other chunks of the world glommed onto here was this thing that could be ready in 30 minutes, three different chunks of food and meat, a couple of vegetables. And people were astounded by the science of it that three different things could heat up to the same temperature, have the same consistency and no fuss, no muss.

Jingo: What Swanson TV turkey dinners, you just heat and serve and you serve big and hearty slices of moist tender Swanson turkey, with grand giblet gravy, and special cornbread dressing, and fluffy whipped sweet potatoes with ___ Swanson butter. Mother Murphy, lucky me my wife uses Swanson’s TV turkey dinners.

CK: Yeah. And there's a direct line back to the late 19th century, when there was a movement to get women out of the kitchen by having sort of community kitchens that would produce food and women, I guess in your research found that they were spending four hours per day cooking food and cleaning up so that that was a consistent problem for a very long time, which this would evidently solve. Also, you also mentioned this is fascinating food was three times more expensive than it is today. And so, cost was also a factor, right?

JS: It definitely was. But I was astounded by that too Chris that roughly when Swanson sort of hit and they were of course the you know, the big one, the coke of the industry, so to speak. And then you had banquet that was the Pepsi of the industry. But you know, 98 cents was roughly the pricing around the mid 50s, when Swanson was really at its height selling about, you know, within two years of production selling 25 million of these things a year. And if you actually did the inflation check on that, which I did, it would put these dinners at around $11. equivalent in 1954 55. But if you go and buy a Swanson TV dinner today, it's about a third of that or half that. So, it was really, really more expensive. And so, people were willing to pay for the convenience of it.

CK: In 1942, you report on a Seagram’s ad that was futuristic talking about what was coming down the road, Deluxe service for tomorrow's homes, cooked to order meals brought right to the door, piping hot on time, ordered a day ahead for weekly menus, etc. etc. So, although the TV dinner is slightly different than this, that idea of having meals piping hot, easily prepared, and you could choose I think choice also was a big thing here right if you could choose among lots of different things that that was actually predicted right during the Second World War.

BL: You know, I love that campaign. I used to work on Madison Avenue for big agency and I came across that campaign. So, Seagram’s did this. It was, you know, to sell their, their liquor, but it was predicting the future from 1942. And my God, were they accurate. You know, they got the cell phone, they got plant-based products that would substitute meat. They hit all on that. Yeah, and they hit on this one. But Chris, you mentioned choice and TV dinners did that TV dinners introduced much of America to Asian food specifically, you know, Swanson's take on Chinese food. And but we saw that through the 60s to the Mexican dishes, they had to temper the hotness of traditional Mexican food. So, you know, it conformed or was fine with American palates at the time, but really, TV dinners were the ones that introduced international cuisine to the majority of the country.

CK: Well, yeah, some version of international cuisine

BL: Well, yeah, no, no, I'm, I'm being generous in my description.

Jingo: …take you away from the everyday. To a world where the food makes you want to stay. …real sensational international frozen dinners from Swanson.

CK: So, lots of other companies started doing this. How did Swanson's just beat the competition? Because they got out there first in mass production. Is that what happened?

BL: I think it was a couple of things. One, Swanson had been kind of a creamery or meat supplier, they already had like kind of the distribution contracts. And I believe they had initially like, you can make all the jokes you want about TV dinners overall. And I'm pretty sure I've heard them all but back then when you look at what they were producing, it wasn't this sort of really mass-produced stuff, it almost looked like an artisan meal, you know, the meat looked like it had been hand carved. So, there was quality to it as well. But really, they could get out because they had distribution. And for the first year, they sold something like, you know, 5000 or 30,000 units, and they were encouraged. The next year, they sold 10 million, the year following 25 million. And literally, you know, this is a company that was doing about 70 million in sales back then, which was, you know, very respectable, across all of their different businesses. But Campbell’s saw them and bought them in 1955, and in all stock deal they just went the TV dinner is the future and you know, Campbell's owned them for decades.

CK: So, if someone hired you today, to sell the concept of an updated TV dinner, or however you want to package that, how would you go about selling it.

BL: So, if you handed me the brief today and said, you know, we've got a new product, we really want to break out, we want to hit the same sort of numbers that that Swanson had at the beginning. You got to hit on a few things. I think this is a fist this is five fingers coming together. And I'm I'm kind of doing this off the top of my head but it's got to be you got to speak to the the healthy ingredients, you got to speak to the exotic nature that you couldn't prepare this at home by yourself, kind of like the meal kit positioning, you're not going to have dishes, you're going to have it in a short period of time. And it's going to taste good. That would be you know, the marketing fist on that product. That's the way I would approach it.

CK: You'd have to package it in a way that feels upscale and exciting, etc.

BL: Yeah, I you know, really, it's funny ConAgra the ConAgra CEO said you cannot diminish the naming of a product, the importance of it and the packaging of it and the brand Le Menu that came out in the 80s I love Le Menu. My mom went back to work in the 80s I was just finishing high school. She was a fantastic cook and all of a sudden, she was gone right she was back in the workforce and our freezer was full of Le Menu’s. And you know to feed my brother neither two left at home. But Le Menu at the time was selling for like 12 bucks. And I think you were paying about five out of the 12 bucks for the plate. It was like a corral plate that you would buy almost like for picnics. It was of that quality but reusable.

Ad: Le candlelight. The music, the flowers, Le Menu, oh Le Menu you know breast of chicken parmigiana succulent and tender with zesty tomato sauce.

BL: They had sirloin tip one was one of the the entrees. They were absolutely fantastic. But it also highlighted you know a great lament with TV dinner aficionados around the time that microwave came in. People really thought that they went downhill with the microwave and for obvious reasons that things didn't heat to the same consistency. People wanted to put their aluminum one in the oven for the 30 minutes because it really came out better. It was better, tasting better consistency versus the zapping that we all did.

CK: Well. There's another answer for that, which is that it's 30 minutes of cocktail hour.

BL: Ah, that's right. That's exactly right.

CK: Put it in the oven. You got 30 minutes for your cocktail. Maybe that helps organize your evening, Jeff. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.

BL: Thank you. It's a great fun for me too cheers.

CK: That was Jeff Swystun. His book is TV Dinners Unboxed. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course, the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also, author of Home Cooking 101. So, Sara, so when you go to the supermarket, have you come across anything that, you know just blew you away? It was just really a fabulous new product.

Sara Moulton: Yes. fire roasted corn. It's fantastic.

CK: Is this frozen?

SM: Yes, really. So, I'm a big fan of frozen vegetables anyway, or some some let's put it that way. But this fire roasted corn is really good. Highly recommend.

CK: Why are you whispering?

SM: Because I'm so excited. The other thing that I've discovered that I like, and you know, Greek friends or cookbook authors and chefs have embraced it are mostly home cooks, frozen spinach, not the chopped-up kind. I've also found the whole leaf frozen. And you know, you have to squeeze out the liquid, which I do in my ricer.

CK: Hold on, hold on. You had me with a fire roasted corn, you don't have me with frozen spinach, why isn’t fresh spinach better than frozen.

SM: Because the frozen has already been shrink wrapped. I mean, you know, you know how you take a huge bag of spinach, and you cook it down. It's maybe enough for one, (right) But when you buy it frozen, it's essentially already been (blanched already). Yeah, well or by freezing it, it's reduced. You know, also, again, it's at the height of its freshness. It's a beautiful color. You barely have to cook it. I mean, not that you wouldn't anyway. And it's great in recipes like spanakopita or, you know, some sort of pie I throw into soups. So, it's a nice ingredient to have in the freezer yeah, so there's two of my new favorites.

CK: Well, you got me with at least one of them.

SM: Okay. I can't imagine which one.

CK: Let's take a go.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: David Shay

SM: Hi, David. Where are you calling from?

Caller: I'm calling from Huddleston, Virginia.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: Well, this is a return call. Oh, I called earlier and asked for some advice on baking a carrot cake. Okay. And after our call, I concluded the recipe was fine. And although I did buy a new double oven, that wasn't the problem. It was user error. Plain and simple.

SM: All right, well, can you just, you know, refresh our memory about what was the problem with this carrot cake and what we advised?

Caller: Oh, sure. The problem was, it really came out soupy although the edges looked like they were almost done.

CK: Yeah, I remember this. The center was a mess. Yeah.

Caller: Yeah, and so I think I was relying more on the doneness of the outer edges than the middle. So, I just did the tried-and-true test. ignored the outer edges and stuck a fork in the middle.

SM: You followed the instructions?

CK: No, don't ever follow the direction man.

SM: Here's the thing, Dave, I tell people the first time you make a recipe, follow it exactly. You know, even if it's counterintuitive to what you know. Chris is going to disagree with me on this one. But sometimes, and this came from years of testing recipes of home cooks at Gourmet magazine. Sometimes those people know something you don't just because they've done a trial and error. (Sure) you need to start by following the recipe exactly and then you can depart from the text

CK: And sometimes the person who wrote the recipe is a complete idiot. (Of course) and if you follow the recipe, I did a Sacre torte I won't say who wrote the recipe. And she had you melting chocolate and then adding a bunch of water to it. And so, I was like this does not look good. Because you add water to chocolate, it ceases. And I had it about $30 worth of chocolate in that pot. And I added the water and it seized. But you know, yes, I agree in general, but you also have to use common sense.

SM: So, what happened then Dave as you just cooked it longer.

Caller: So, I did you know, and they also give you sometimes it's like a 10 minute range of how long you cook it. But again, I was really relying primarily on the fork in the middle and I you know when it's getting near the end of the range. I keep an eye on it. And I will tell you since then I have made three carrots and one red velvet cake, and they were pretty dang good.

SM: Well, yeah

CK: Wait a minute, what happened to red velvet cakes, red velvet cakes is one of my favorite cakes of all time. It's like nobody. It's the missed of culinary.

SM: Maybe it's the red food dye.

CK: Well.

Caller: You know, truthfully, when I made mine, I didn't quite put enough in it. I mean, it was good but it wasn't that deeper red color and my wife. I wouldn't have made it but it's one of her favorite cakes too.

CK: You can make it. There's something called coccinella. It's an insect that it's been used for red coloring, so you can get a natural version of that. (Oh, that's cool). Yeah. Let me ask one other question. Did you end up changing the oven temperature so it's a little lower or you just went with the recipe?

Caller: I, you know, I went with the recipe, they all say 350. (Yeah, that sounds right). You know, I went back, and I looked at a few recipes real quick. And it's not the recipe might have a standard cake recipe. Oh, one quick thing. You talked about seasoning chocolate a few years ago on a Food Network show. There's a woman in the last round making desserts, and she was from England. And she was making milk and chocolate. And it seized up. Now I don't know how much. But she said, I know the solution. And she poured honey in it. And it worked. And she actually won.

SM: Oh, wow. Well, that's a happy story. But your story is a happy story too there Dave.

CK: I’ve just got to say, though, I give you credit. You're one of the few people who have called in and said it was user error. Yeah, because blame you blame your spouse. Blame your kids blame. Blame your recipe, blame the talk show host. But you actually took credit. Yeah. Good for you.

SM: We applaud you for all of that. Okay. Well, thank you.

CK: That’s very refreshing.

SM: Thank you. Yeah.

Caller: And I thank you for your help.

CK: Good luck with the red velvet too. Yeah.

SM: All right.

Caller: Yes sir. Ok. Take care bye.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Steve from Kittery, Point, Maine.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Yeah, so like a lot of people during the pandemic, I took on a new hobby, and I started making my own yogurt heading into the pot. So, it's super easy. I found the culture, a yogurt culture i like, my wife found milk from a local farm. And so, we started making it and it was super easy, consistent, and I'd strain it to make it a little thicker. A couple of times, I couldn't get access to this local milk. And so, I'd go to a grocery store and just buy name brand. And it just didn't work. It would be like kind of milk like consistency. So pretty thin. But it never set totally. And so, I just started wondering, what's the difference? And the only thing I could point to was this local milk was pasteurized, and the store brand was highly or ultra-pasteurized. And so, I was wondering if that was the issue?

CK: Well, they should take all the ultra-pasteurized milk and throw it out. I mean, it's just awful. Years ago, milk killed people, right? Because it can go bad, there's a reason for it. And it's a health reason and it'll keep a long time. Besides the flavor problem, I have heard that ultra-pasteurized milk in particular, is problematic. You know, it's all about the proteins in the milk, getting denatured to sort of like you know, a tangle or a nest of dried pasta, right. And then you cook it and it all untangles, and then it can reconnect, right? The casings denature. They relax, and they reconnect to form a structure, which makes something thick, like a custard or yogurt. Also, you're using whole milk, I would assume when you bought it at the supermarket. Yes. Yeah. My guess is the fat content of the milk you're buying for the farm probably is even better. But it's something about heat and casein and protein and something's going on there. So, it's hard for it to come back together to create that essentially gel. Sara?

SM: Yeah, I agree. I mean, ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to a really high temperature for only a couple of seconds. But it's like 282 (280). Yeah. And so that really changes its nature also gives it sort of a cooked cheese taste. I've had problems also with ultra-pasteurized cream and trying to whip it and having it go to butter before it ever becomes cream. So, I think we agree with you that you've isolated the culprit is the ultra-pasteurized milk. So you got to just avoid that.

CK: You know, I grew up on raw milk. It has a taste. And if you buy even pasteurized milk, there's not much flavor in it either. And my guess is, I wouldn't make yogurt unless I could get really good milk. Right. What's the point? (Yeah, I agree). So, I'm with you.

SM: Yeah.

Caller: I guess I'm lucky that I got this pasteurized milk. If I would have failed the experiment the first few times I probably would have given up and not made yogurt.

CK: Right. I mean, real yogurt is phenomenal.

SM: Thanks, Steve.

CK: Take care.

Caller: Thank you for taking the call. I love your show. Take care.

SM: Okay, bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you're having trouble in the kitchen, Sara and I are here to help. Please ring us anytime. 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or just email us at questions at Milk Street Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Carrie from Virginia.

CK: How are you?

Caller: Good. How about you all?

CK: Pretty good. How can we help you?

Caller: I have a question about aprons and how long with heavy use they should typically last?

I am. I am here. I'm Carrie’s husband Daniel and I am the primary cook in the family, and I am the one who is pretty quickly destroying every apron that we get. So, we're trying to settle on just how long these aprons should be lasting. And I think I've gone through about four in the past five years. So, we're just kind of trying to settle debate about if that's unreasonable or not.

CK: Well, I mean, the first question is, what kind of apron are you buying? If they're made out of flour sacks, I guess they wouldn't last. But I mean, there are two kinds there will last essentially forever, like a waxed cotton, right? The kinds of things you buy what like a British hunting jacket or something, I have one like that. And I don't think you could destroy that no matter what you cook like. And the other is a leather, there's a place that makes leather aprons, and that's not going to fall apart. If not, then just get a really, really super heavy, almost canvas style fabric. Let me just ask, when you cook, what are you doing to destroy these aprons?

Caller: I work from home and love to cook. And I'll say that I'm in this, these aprons, you know, several, maybe two hours a day, on average. I've had a variety of aprons. I've had a few durable chefs works once. I think I have one of the Milk Street KF ones, which is my favorite, but you know, all them sort of eventually got holes in the front of them. I mean, I don't know how often are you washing them Carrie?

Caller: Probably not as often as I should. I think maybe a couple of weeks, they just go through on their own or with rags, you know, I'm not bleaching or anything.

CK: You could look at it differently. You know, the other point of view is you're basically saying an apron lasts a year, right you've gone through four aprons and a few years something like that.

Caller: Yes

CK: That's not so bad. If you're expecting it to last five years. Maybe it's your expectations are the issue here, it's not the apron.

SM: Yeah, no, let me ask a question. Your husband does all the cooking or most of the cooking?

Caller: Most of the cooking but with a capital M. And he does the dishes too. I acknowledge I'm very spoiled.

CK: Buy him an apron every birthday.

Caller: And I'll say this. Carrie’s about to have our fourth child so she puts in more than enough work around here as it is.,

SM: I should say.

Caller: So, I'm happy to keep going through these aprons too.

SM: Okay

CK: You got off easy.

SM: You did actually. Now I'm switching gears here.

Caller: It's more a debate we were having about how often with the typical use one does go through them. I was wondering if the aprons that you all use in your recipe development that are getting used all day every day. As those get

CK: They get trashed, we end up with dozens and dozens of them for two hours a day to use one apron for a whole year is great, perfectly fine.

SM: Perfectly fine.

CK: Alright guys. Enjoy.

SM: Thanks for calling.

Caller: Thank you very much.

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Coming up the story of the world's first supermarket and much more. That's in just a moment. This is Milk Street Radio, I'm your host, Christopher Kimball. My next guest is Benjamin Lorr. He's the author of The Secret Life of Groceries, the Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket. Benjamin, welcome to Milk Street.

Benjamin Lorr: Hey, thanks so much for having me excited to be here.

CK: Grocery store supermarkets, you have some terrible things to say. You have some really interesting things to say about them. So, let's go back early on to the early 19 century. You make the case that cardboard and corrugated cardboard in particular, had a lot to do with the growth or the invention of the supermarket.

BL: Yeah, I mean the revolution in packaged goods that happens in the mid 19th century really changes everything. And you don't really think of cardboard boxes being the stuff of revolutions. But this is like we're talking invention of the wheel type stuff for the gateway to modern society here, suddenly you have a way of making small, individuated products. And prior to that grocery stores existed in bulk it was all giant barrels of dried fruit that the grocer would chisel out from behind his counter. And then along comes the individual container. And it really shifts how consumers interact with goods. And this is not just cardboard, there's innovations in canning, in glass. And when you have individual products, they need a name on them, they need some type of identity. And that really gives birth to the brand and gives birth to the idea of a consumer who goes in looking for a particular item. You're not looking for crackers, you're looking for Utz, you're looking for Nabisco.

CK: And you point out this is amazing in 1900, the Nabisco is selling more than 100 million boxes of Uneeda biscuits a year.

BL: Yeah, and Uneeda biscuit comes from this possibly apocryphal story where Robert Gare, from Brooklyn invents the first automated cardboard box distribution center and Nabisco comes to him with these biscuit products. And he goes, you need a name for these biscuits. And they don't think that this is an important thing. So, they just slap the name Uneeda onto the box. And it goes on to be what you just said this humongous blockbuster product. So, because people could suddenly ask for something by name instead of just getting biscuits.

CK: It's interesting though, if if you look at studies, time and time again, they tell us that we think we want choice. But some of the happiest people in the world are the people with the least amount of choice. (Oh, 100%.) Like if you came from Russia, you know, mid-century or even back in the 80s or 90s. And you show up at a supermarket? You know, like Khrushchev did it one time. And the 30,000 or 40,000 skews would be confusing.

BL: Oh 100%. Look, I think you hit the nail on the head with the disorientation that this world produces when people walked in the first generally recognized like first supermarket. This is 1930 in Queens gentleman named Michael Cohen opens this thing up, it's only 6000 square feet. It's tiny. Like right now you have 100,000 square foot superstores. But so, this 6000 square foot, when people first walked in, they complained about being dizzy from the options. housewives would turn to their husbands and say, I'm going to faint these are like from press reports. There was a sense of overwhelm. In 1956, when the first American style supermarket opens overseas in Rome. This is again straight from press reports, people were shrieking with the light, a woman started running up and down the aisles screaming this must be heaven. And you know, the pope that a few days later makes an announcement from the holy see on this like miraculous thing. So, disorientation and overwhelm are exactly one what the store constructors were going for, but to what was created.

CK: So, you present two sides of the supermarket. I guess the argument here is on one hand, the supermarket, American supermarket is an amazing concept with anywhere from 10,000 to 50, or 60,000 skews, you get relatively fresh food, you're not probably getting poisoned too often. It's an amazing thing. On the other hand, there is a real dark side. So, let's start with the dark side.

BL: Well, the dark side of this supermarket is that it really reveals a lot of our what I would call or preferences, right? People are constantly choosing based on price. They're making choices on convenience, and quality, high quality, they want high quality, low price and extremely convenient. If you notice those three things don't quite mesh. They don't go together. You don't get all three at once. Sorry. And when you start demanding all three at once it cascades through the system. And it gets taken out in ways that I think we all don't like to look at or think about, but it gets taken out of the environment. And it gets taken out of labor.

CK: Well, you talk about this individual in the Thai shrimp industry. Tun Lin right and the quote is he's led to a room with 25 others, the door is opened he's locked in. It is only now looking around to the 25 other men in the room. Tun Lin realizes something is wrong. And that something was pretty horrific, right?

BL: Yeah, yeah. Tang Lin is a traffic migrant who essentially gets sold onto a boat it he becomes I mean there's really no other word in the English language to use but slave labor. He is beaten to work he's not got paid, he watches men around him who are his friends get killed and kicked off the boat. He's he's imprisoned. It's not an exchange like indentured servitude, where if he works long enough, you'll get off. He's just kind of captured and forced to work. And it's pretty hard to reconcile this stuff is happening and that it's connected to the supply chain. And I think what's really interesting is it's connected to the supply chain in a way that nobody wants, but nobody can get rid of. And that's kind of a profound point.

CK: So let me ask this question. We all know the retail supermarket business is a very low margin business one to 2%. (Yes) So this is a cycle where you have to buy cheap in order to maintain even a tiny little margin to make a profit. That seems to be the cycle here. Right? So how does that get solved?

BL: It's really hard.

CK: It doesn't,

BL: It doesn't get solved. I mean, look, first of all, there are people working within the food industry who are desperately trying to solve this problem. And I don't mean to undercut them. But I have low confidence in most of their ability to do this at scale. The book is intentionally written without the like, last chapter that every nonfiction book has, where it's like, oh, and here's the solutions for a better world because I was like, I'm not comfortable putting that in there. I don't want to be another voice saying, oh, by the way, if you just do this one thing, we can figure out how to solve everything. But I think what's been under discussed is right now, the way quality and food standards are enforced in this country is largely been privatized into an audit system, that is a joke. And nobody will really stand up and give us a full throttle defense of the audit system. So, we need systems in place, I think the government is probably the place that would do that. There are ways of like raising worker voice through unions and collectives that I think have some real power that don't involve the government for people who steer away from that. But, you know, we need to put some enforcement teeth into the food system, right now you can abuse people in food, and like, the only people who will show up are auditors. But if you're using trafficked labor, you don't need an auditor to show up. You need a policeman to show up. And you need somebody who can enforce that with the law. And I guess that's missing in this picture, like a regulatory structure that enforces some standards that we all believe in.

CK: Okay, so so let's chat about Trader Joe's. Your story about Trader Joe's, I just love this story. Because you know, the little guy wins. So, Trader Joe's, I'm quoting you has the single highest sales per square foot of any retail grocery chain, basically doubling its nearest competitor Whole Foods. It does that business while absolutely dominating rankings for customer satisfaction, and employee well-being. So, there are chains that really seem to be doing many things. Right. So, could you just quickly tell the story of Trader Joe's?

BL: Sure. And I should caveat, like I think Trader Joe's does some amazing things, right. I don't think that any of the problems we discussed in terms of like the overseas supply chain, they do better than anyone else. They're absolutely caught in that same dynamic. What Trader Joe's does, right, well, they've I think Joe Coulombe, who founded Trader Joe's, back in the mid 60s, it really approached groceries completely different from the dominant model. And he does that around quality. He does that around understanding food. And he does that more than anything by understanding the people who are going to buy Trader Joe's. So, whether you love Trader Joe's or hate Trader Joe's there is like a Trader Joe's person, like I think everyone can can kind of like picture who the Trader Joe's person is, and Joe Coulombe, who founded Trader Joe's pictured that person obsessively. He went around and did demographic surveys of Southern California. And he took all of that. And he founded his store based around some observations that he was making at the time, the biggest one of which was that the GI Bill had just passed, America was just exiting Korea and entering Vietnam and he saw that a whole new generation of soldiers were going to be coming home from Vietnam and getting a college education and that college educated people were going to want new things and they were going to become this over educated, underpaid class of people.

CK: Well, he also the but the other thing you write about, which I thought was the most interesting is the correlation between education and alcohol consumption (yes) is about as perfect as one can find in marketing. And so from booze and travel, it was just a small leap to Tiki. So, the first store, you know, had ships bells, oars, netting, half a rowboat. Employees wore Polynesian shirts and Bermuda shorts. The manager was called Captain, the assistant manager first mate etc. So, he, he really went down the rabbit hole. He wasn't just there going to be educated on new things. He turned that into an actual experience, right?

BL: Yes, 100%. And he got himself educated on alcohol in a way that transformed. So, Trader Joe's in California was founded around alcohol. And Joe learns about it obsessively. He starts going to every vintner, and getting bottles and then uncorking them around headquarters, and they would do tastings. And it's it's a depth of a food knowledge that if you're at a traditional grocer, you never develop because you're treating food like a product, and you're competing for it on price. And what Joe started doing was saying, you know what, I'm not going to compete on price. I don't even want to shelve the same items that my competitors are shelving, I want to shelve items that are distinct, and therefore people can't make a price judgment because they can't straight up, compare it. And he does this first and foremost with wine learning a lot about wine, but he goes right down the line, and you see it like a shift from olive oil, where he can't really compete to avocado oil, or peanut butter, where it's absolutely impossible to compete with like Jiff and Skippy. Trader Joe's is the first place to start making almond butter on mass. And it really invents almond butter as a consumer item because they just couldn't compete on price with peanut butter. But they knew that this kind of overeducated under paid consumer would be tantalized by the idea of a slightly adjacent product like almond butter.

CK: So, here's a guy comes along and does the impossible, right, he's going to get outrun by 711. And he just comes up with an idea, well, hey, maybe we should give people something more interesting and something that they want and will charge more money because we're not competing on price. And we get to pay our employees and have a decent wage, etc. So, there is hope there, right? I mean, that sort of makes sense. And Costco I just read, they have a tiny percentage of the skews that Walmart has, for example, but they sell 15 times more of every product. So, they have unique skews, things that maybe are harder to find.

BL: And again, a very high wage per employee.

CK: Yeah. So those are two very successful examples.

BL: Yeah, they really invent reinvent the the gross, I mean, I could have written a book on, there are a chapter on them as well, the whole club membership scheme, where you, you're not playing the game of price competition, because the person you're serving is the people who are in your club, you're in the Costco club. And the most important thing is to get the Costco club members to renew their membership. And so then (Because 85% of their profits come from the membership). Exactly. And so, if the club membership is like, yeah, we want to shop in a place where people make a decent wage. And we don't want to have a scandal attached to this club where there's, you know, shrimp tainted by slave labor, like Costco has a different incentive structure for enforcing higher qualities of standards and ethics. Again, I don't think I don't know enough about Costco, frankly, to speak with authority on them. I don't think that they're somehow have escaped from all the ills of global grocery. But the club model is fascinating and well worth exploring.

CK: Well, on that note, on that slightly hopeful note

BL: the well worth exploring a little piece of optimism. I don't know.

CK: Well, I mean, you know, 100 years ago, or back in the 50s, and 60s, everyone was predicting peep, millions of people will be starving by the year 2000. Right. And modern agriculture and distribution supermarkets essentially, solved the problem.

BL: Yeah. And also, I look, every time you walk into a supermarket, you are walking into a miracle, you're walking into something that would stagger the greatest kings, emperors, right through history had nothing like this. And it's something that's right. 10 minutes from your house, walk in and you're struck by the incredible abundance. And I think there's something to be grateful for there. Even if there is an incredible dark side. I don't think it's responsible to overlook the miracle that it does exist.

CK: Benjamin, it's been an up and down. discussion. I think we ended with an up. Thank you so much.

BL: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a real pleasure.

CK: That was Benjamin Lorr, author of The Secret Life of Groceries. Supermarkets are all about choice. Some carry over 50,000 different products. Yet a study published by Harvard Health says the choice can lead to unhappiness if you have too much of it. The more choices there are the smaller percentage that seemed to be just right. Now as a kid, I remember four TV stations, CBS, NBC, ABC and channel 13. The Late Show played the same movie every day for an entire week. Today there are 599 scripted TV series, 500,000 movies, and 200 streaming services. Amazon has over 12 million products. That's why when I go out to dinner, I choose restaurants with limited menus. I just can't stand making the wrong choice. You're listening to Milk Street Radio after the break our supermarket predictions for this year that's coming right up. I'm Christopher Kimball you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Right now, I'm joined by Andrea Hernandez to share her predictions for the grocery store this year. Andrea is the founder of Snapshot, a food and beverage newsletter on Substack. Andrea, welcome to Milk Street.

Andrea Hernandez: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited.

CK: So, let's get into your list of food predictions. It's just really a great list. First off gorgeous packaging and pretty pantry labels. You know I see this all the time. Like with canned fish, for example. The packaging is just getting better and better.

AH: Yeah, I like to say we're living Andy Warhol is biggest dream. Like if you think about it him in the 60s, he started experimenting with mundane canned goods like Campbell's sort of like as an art. And what's crazy and I like try to tie it back to like how millennials grew up as the Instagram generation like everything like the foodie culture, everything became about like signaling. And it's so funny how that culture permeated into consumer-packaged goods. And even so how we're building and designing our houses are back in 2021 Pinterest, like wrote about how cabinets are going out of style. What people are pinning and searching for in like their home renovations in the kitchen is like going bare shelves and why do you want to have bare shelves, it's because you want your pantry items to be seen. Like the fact that we have pretty canned beans. Like there's a company called Heyday and if you look at it, like the packaging is all pretty is very like millennial coded. Even Heinz and these bigger brands are updating their packaging because they realize that they can Trojan horses with aesthetics. It's like oh, that's what Millennials want. We'll give it to them.

CK: Savory drinks, veggie spritzes hot sauce seltzers. This is something I know nothing about. Tell me about it.

AH: Yeah, so I guess it's because of the whole like anti sugar and like sugary drink kind of like crusade. But it's been fascinating to see this sort of rise in the savory palate profile. It's kind of like rebranding of V-8 but making it millennial like cool. There's this company called Salvari they're literally doing like carrot celery spritzes is like literally sparkling water that's like flavored with vegetables. And you have this drink called Aura Bora this brand. They literally for Thanksgiving last year they launched, and it went like viral. So funny. They launched this green bean casserole spritz. I will tell you it's surprisingly really good. And then this year they did this olive oil spritz that also tasted very briny. You obviously have the rise of pickle seltzers pickle everything.

CK: You mentioned here in terms of cocktails, the Peking Tom and I'm love old fashions. It's an old fashioned made with duck confit, Absinthe and lapsing tea. I'm not sure if I really want duck coffee flavor in my old fashion, but I do like the idea of of less sugary drinks. That's that's good. So, grocery stores You say now are brands. So yeah, there was the A&P and Colin ins and all these other things. But now, I guess you're saying like Erewhon. Which, by the way, in LA's, I have to say an amazing store. I was out there a couple years ago. And I, every night I go back to the store for an hour, and just walk around because it was so incredible. But to all of these stores now, these grocery stores as brands, do, they all have a very clear point of view about merchandising, and in product selection and who they're going after.

AH: Yeah, I feel like everybody's trying to be a sort of like the Erewhon. I like to call the Erewhon followers, I like to call them snack boys. So, it's like these people actually care that they're spending $22 on a jug of raw milk, and they want people to know it.

CK: But to be fair, I'm going to have to defend them for a second, I will say that the selection of products you don't find anywhere else. And yes, insanely priced. But as a shopping experience, it is pretty amazing.

AH: Yeah, they actually have like this, like sort of cohesive brand experience from like, the way that they designed the store or how they place their produce. The veggies have to be like, aesthetically pleasing. Yeah. And like the fact that every grocer has merch now, like, it used to be like a grocery, it's a utility, right? You just go there, and you get what you need. But now the whole experiential grocer, kind of movement, where it's like the actual branded merge the tote bag, the like, actual selfie mirror that people can post that they went like, imagine your parents like taking a picture at the grocery store. And like, actually, like, that's something that is just so unheard off by the older generations. But that's so common, that we have taken something that was very functional was like it serves this purpose. And now we've added on this, like, sort of experiential level to it. There's even a grocery store that I saw that's opening in Georgia, that's going to have a mini golf because they're like really banking on like, we want you to live inside this grocery store. So, like whatever we have to do to get you to spend more time here.

CK: Well, I, you know, okay, I can play both sides of this, I'll argue, on one hand, you know, there's no reason that grocery store has to be boring, right? I mean, you can turn anything in entertainment, and I think, as a culture, were really good at even going to the gas station making that fun. So, you know, I see no reason to criticize companies for doing that, because it's, it's good business. On the other hand, it makes you think that the consumers us we don't have any other experiences in our life, right? Like, like buying stuff is about as good as it gets, in terms of, you know, we're not out there fishing, or hunting, or we're not fixing our car, we're not driving across the country, or whatever we used to do. Our experiential life is extremely limited. And maybe we simply transpose that to the $24 miso, you're buying in Erewhon. Right. I mean, I mean, that that's, your experience is in shopping now. That's the main place other than social media. That's the main place where you're having experiences. So, it's very smart business. But I think it also feels a need, right?

AH: Yeah, I do believe that. But it's so funny because I do think as our generation untethered from like organized religion, I actually did this whole deep dive on the rise of like spiritual beverages and snacks. So, like, you can find some chocolate bars in Whole Foods that says like, this chocolate bar was made with like this hurts and it's meant to raise your vibrations. This is like, like Palo Santo brewed water, you can now find kava, sparkling kava is like supposedly a psychoactive, like root, you can actually find this brand called Lilo, all across New York, even inside like LaGuardia, but it's funny to see, like, the way that our generation again, is really trying to bring these things that are like ancient traditions, like, you know, instead of a shaman, you have Erewhon. You know, like, you can just go and get it from your local grocer at this point.

CK: For in some of its pure, I mean, you have to go back to the late 1800s. With all of these, you know, medicinals.

AH: Yeah, I joke that, you know, because of all the rise of like, the functional drinks, like, honestly, at this point, I'm not surprised if coke would just like, do a whole 360 and just be like, yeah, we're putting cocaine back in coca cola.

CK: Or hint at it. Yes, that’s even better. So, the thing that occurs to me if I was one of these food manufacturers, is because of social media and other things, the rate of change is now exponential right. So how do you manage a brand? I mean, just think of Kellogg's in 1896 it was two Kellogg brothers. So, they had a good 100-year run, where things were pretty stable, at least for a lot of that time. And you could add new products, but it was a pretty predictable business. Now, things change every six months, every year, every two years. I mean, three years from now, if I call you up, we have the same conversation, you're going to have a very different list of trends. So, it's going to be pretty hard for food manufacturers to create new lines, design everything, get shelf space and then two years later, whoops, you know, all of a sudden sea moss has fallen off the radar screen.

AH: Yeah, it's really interesting because the snack daddies like I like to refer to them or big food companies. They're realizing now like they can't innovate fast enough. Like you said, everything's changing so fast, like, oh, everybody's doing adaptogenic nut butters, okay, let's try to do our ourselves. And so, like they realize that they can't innovate fast enough. So, they are like shedding things and actually spoke to someone at Pepsi Ventures about this is really interesting, because they're like, we're going to wait it out. They're like, we're, before we get into, you know, I don't think Pepsi is going to be like launching. You know, see moss drink anytime soon, because they actually are trying to see whether it's this fad or not. So, like, a lot of these snack daddies are realizing like, oh, we could also just see if things reverse and just go back to how things were, so I guess just give it time.

CK: Andrea, this was this was fun. Thank you so much.

AH: No, thank you so much for having me.

CK: That was Andrea Hernandez, founder of Snack Shack. That's it for this week's show. Please don't forget you can find more than 250 episodes at Milk Street Radio wherever you get your podcasts. You can find more about Milk Street at 177 Milk There you can become a member, access our online cooking classes, and get free shipping on all orders from the milk Street store. You can also learn about our latest cookbook, Milk Street Simple. Please check us out on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, senior editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Theme music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.