Lost Food Stories

These guys get my award for best commercially available pickle. They’re from Manitoba and, besides what’s in the jar, I like how they sell themselves. The man wearing the double breasted suit on the label is clearly a man of honour. In fact, he is Manny Finkleman, son of Samual Finkleman, Elman’s founder.

I know all this, not because they are my friends, but because I went to their website where I knew I would find the whole story. But how many people do this?

Stories are the marketing strategy of the era. Stories sell things and they’re a natural for the food biz. They do a great job of conveying the passion behind a product or company. As the writer of stories, I’m just sorry they get lost on the way to the grocery shelf, as they invariably do. The very person I write for, the consumer, rarely gets to know.

The Story is Lost

What typically happens is the producer makes a product then, and at considerable expense, has some marketing materials made in the form of a sell sheet (this tells the retailer about the line, what sizes, and how much). Included in the sell sheet is a glossy, glory picture of the product as it will look on the retailer’s shelf.

The company story is lovingly included because it’s so important to the maker. This isn’t just true for companies with smaller feet than a multi-national. The multi-nationals roll out new products in the same way – except with far bigger budgets. The story, no matter where it comes from, is very immediate.

Now it’s time to sell. The product and print material are in the hands of the salesperson. Maybe the salesperson is the owner who made the product, maybe the product maker hired someone to do sales, or maybe the maker has a distributor who does the selling.

Anyway, the sales person shows the retailer the great new product and the retailer, wanting to keep customers interested, says sure. Everything has gone well except that the lovingly made print material gets forgotten.

Maybe the buyer went for coffee leaving the staff to put the product on the shelf. Most of the time these people aren’t paying attention to the product; it’s just a jar or a box or a bag and it has to fit with the other jars, boxes or bags on the shelf.

By the time the retail customer comes trolling the grocery aisles – in a rush, in robot mode (marketers say we purchase the same 185 products over and over) – they’re hardly paying attention to the pickles. If a shopper does register them, do they whip out their phone to read the company website where the story also lives? Ha. It’s 6:30. Tired people just want to get home. They buy the other pickles, the ones they’ve seen on the billboards since they were six.


What’s a writer, marketer, food producer, wholesaler, retailer to do?

How are we supposed to get the story to the consumer, who, by the way, likes knowing? Well, we could train the floor staff to know and care about food, then they could pass on the back stories. You’ll notice this approach in specialty food stores like Dean & Deluca and natural food stores like Choices Markets. Story is part of a product’s value – how it’s made, where it’s made, what motivated the maker.

Food tastes better when it’s personal. And since stories are classically an oral tradition, there’s every reason to have people on the grocery floor passing them along so they don’t get lost.