Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The Rise of Manitoban Sushi
By David G. Young
Omaha, NE, January 17, 2012 --
America's manic pursuit of the illusion of wholesome freshness is making times hard for the Hostess Twinkie.
When Hostess Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week1, it was just the latest blow for America's processed food manufacturers. Decades after the creation of the Hostess Cupcake in 1919 and the iconic Twinkie in 19302, the bakery's products have become symbols of the excessively processed foods that dominated 20th century America. Widely believed urban lore says that a Twinkie lasts forever and can even survive a nuclear war, despite company claims of a mere 25 day shelf life.3
The turn of the 21st century has been a tough time for processed food makers in America. In 2002, the Omaha factory where the Swanson TV Dinner was first manufactured in 1954 was closed down4 and later demolished for a performing arts center. In 2004, a film about overeating at McDonald's, Super Size Me, became the third highest grossing documentary film yet produced.5 And an unrelenting series of health studies about the perils of high fat diets, especially trans-fats, led to a campaign to rid America's schools of high calorie snack foods.
By end of the 20th century, the word "fried" had become a taboo in America. In 1991, Kentucky Fried Chicken renamed itself as KFC, and spent the next two decades floundering with several non-fried products including "Rotisserie Gold" and "Kentucky Grilled" in an effort to shed its high-fat image.
Over the same period, market trends toward organic and other natural foods have been explosive. Organic food sales in America grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.6 Today, the mantra is for eating wholesome local fresh foods with as little factory processing as possible.
To be clear, this retreat from processed foods is purely a rich world phenomenon. In developing nations, rising incomes and the entry of women into the workforce are creating new markets for ready-to-eat foods. It is in these markets that American fast food giants are growing like gangbusters. None has been more successful than YUM! Brands, the parent company of KFC, which has over 11,000 outlets outside the United States.7
You can find a KFC location within line of sight of the Great Sphynx in Cairo, across town from the Taj Mahal, and in over a dozen locations in Hanoi, where smartly dressed professionals use the shiny Western-oriented restaurants to engage in a little capitalist-style conspicuous consumption.
But the consumer enthusiasm KFC in communist Hanoi is not shared in the capital of the free world. Increasingly yuppified Washington, DC has seen ten KFC outlets close down in the past decade, with only two remaining within the city.8,9 And while the national trend has been less pronounced, it has been serious enough that same store sales have declined every year since 200710, and the CEO of YUM! Brands has suggested closing up to 10 percent of KFC outlets in America.11
America's disdain for the likes of KFC and Hostess goes beyond reason. Witness the explosive growth of boutique cupcake shops around the United States. Starting in 2007 in New York and Los Angeles12, high-end cupcakes selling for nearly $4 with tax quickly spread to Washington, DC, where people wait around the block at the tony Georgetown Cupcake. The trend has spread to middle America, too -- a new gourmet cupcake outlet opened in Colombia, Missouri just before Christmas.13
But don't expect to find a Hostess Cupcake at any of these outlets. You can buy a whole box of eight of the lowbrow treats for the same price as one in a boutique. Yet the nutritional content of cupcakes -- whether made by Hostess or a boutique -- is virtually identical. A cupcake is but a delivery system for carbohydrates, sugar and fat. And eating a cupcake after a lunch of grilled chicken is nutritionally equivalent to eating a piece of KFC while abandoning the cupcake altogether.
Defenders of high-end cupcakes will point out that the freshness of the product and the quality of its ingredients make them much more enjoyable than their processed cousins. Perhaps. But I can't help being skeptical about boutique cupcake fans' yearn for freshness given that those who I know are also voracious sushi consumers -- another fresh product that has swept North America in the wake of the revolt against processed foods.
Today, trendy sushi is so ubiquitous that it simply cannot maintain its freshness and high quality of fish that is key to the product. If you are eating at one of the 511 places serving sushi in Winnipeg, Manitoba14 -- about 1200 miles from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans -- then you're probably not eating the freshest or highest quality fish available.
Such products give the illusion of freshness without actually delivering. Given such an alternative, I'll take a square, fried and overly processed McDonald's Fillet O' Fish any day. At least it was frozen fresh.
Full Disclosure: David G. Young is a shareholder in YUM! Brands and an afficionado of Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken (whenever he can still find it.)
1. Los Angeles Times, Hostess Files for Chapter 11, January 12, 2012
2. Chicago Tribune, Bad times for Twinkie Maker, January 11, 2012
3. PR Newswire, Hostess Goes Bananas, June 17, 2007
4. Omaha World-Herald, Pinnacle Foods to Cease Operations at Downtown Plant, February 27, 2002
5. BoxOfficeMojo.com, Documentary 1982-Present, January 2012
6. Organic Trade Association, Industry Statistics and Projected Growth, June 2011
7. Yum! Brands, 2010 Annual Report, April 8, 2011
8. Author's memory. Closed KFC stores in the District of Columbia include: Adams Morgan, GWU, Capitol Hill SE, Florida and North Capitol , 14th & U, Navy Yard, Riggs Road, Benning Road, East Capitol St.
9. KFC.com, store locator, January 14, 2012
10. Yum! Brands, Ibid.
11. KFC continues to challenge Yum!'s U.S. sales, June 14 2010
12. Slate, The Cupcake Bubble, September 3, 2009
13. The Missourian, The Velvet Cupcake opens in The Tiger Hotel, Decmber 24, 2011
14. Google Maps, Search for "Sushi" in Winnipeg, January 14, 2012