Yogurty Goodness

The resident economist shot over a random post yesterday from Slate about NPD Group’s announcement that the Food of the Decade is (drumroll please)…yogurt.  According to Harry Balzer of NPD, the percentage of Americans who consume yogurt regularly went up from 17% in 2000 to something like 28% by the end of the decade.  That’s a lot of yogurt.  And not surprisingly, marketing has had a lot to do with that, with companies having introduced over 1,200 new yogurt products to the market since 2005 according to market research firm, Mintel.

We’re all familiar with the game-changers:  Yoplait’s tubular Go-Gurt, which you can freeze and stick in a kid’s lunchbox, made yogurt more accessible to kiddies, and then of course there were those seriously seductive claims by Dannon’s Activia that bifidus regularis was gonna make you poop as regularly as Jamie Lee Curtis, the Redeemer for all the Constipated.  Despite all the snickering, Activia’s move to start a public dialogue on how frequently we move our bowels paid off big time, resulting in over $130 million in sales its first year followed by a 50% increase in the second year.  Furthermore, the yogurt trend is far from over.  Compared to the decades-long obsession with probiotics and the relentless campaigns against constipation that I’ve witnessed in Japan (to say nothing of Germany), the Activia Challenge represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much more yogurt (and yogurt-based products) we could potentially sell in this country by leveraging the all-important issue of blockage.

It’s a discourse that’s still fairly new to American consumers and so I don’t blame them for being skittish about discussing their poo health the way, say, Gillian McKeith does on primetime television in the UK on her hit show You Are What You Eat. There’s Gillian at dinnertime, analyzing obese people’s poos on her special German loo and making them get colonics on national television!  If the popularity of products boasting high fiber and probiotics content is any indication, it’s really just a matter of time before Americans get up to speed and become just as poo-literate as many other parts of the world.

And seriously, why is Yakult, the Japanese probiotics brand known for their mini aluminum-sealed daily yogurt drinks, not widely available here?  It’s available pretty much everywhere else in the world, but for some reason it’s hard to locate in the US outside of Asian grocery stores.  Yakult’s line-up of probiotics products would do incredibly well in this market because it tastes delicious, comes in packs that make it easy to consume daily, and the research behind it goes decades further back than anything launched in 2005 could possibly claim.  I mean, check out this Yakult commercial with Ken Watanabe – it looks more like an ad for medication than one for drinkable yogurt.

To keep up the momentum in the next decade, major yogurt brands are gonna have to do more than just come up with nasty new flavors like Red Velvet Cake to add to their already over-crowded lineup.  They’ll have to keep on talking about regularity, for a start, and innovate by taking cues from niche premium brands like Siggi’s Icelandic skyr and Liberté’s Six Grains yogurt, which are way more on the right track with their distinctive offerings.  More on Siggi’s some other time…



At the risk of turning this blog into nothing more than a list of things I covet, I am posting these Domsai by Matteo Cibic which I first encountered at The Future Perfect on Great Jones Street.  Perfection must be shared!  It took some serious self-control not to walk out of there with one of these, but it was the holiday season and I’d already spent a grip of money on things that now escape my memory.  Plus I could already hear the resident economist lecturing me about the perils of spending hundreds of dollars on what he calls stuff.  I call them objets d’art but this is where we differ and never the twain shall meet.  Big sigh, big groan.  You only regret the things you didn’t buy.

Coca-Cola’s Green Bottling

There was an article in yesterday’s WSJ that discussed Coke’s new “PlantBottles” which are partially made out of sugar cane.  They hope to sell two billion of these by the end of this year.  I would hope that by now most of us are aware that plastic bottles are a problem.  There’s a toxic island of plastic twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific, and the chemicals found in PET bottles have been linked to infertility in women among other bad things.  The world’s major bottled beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have all been responding with technology, like plant-derived plastics and “lightweighting” — a strategy that involves using less plastic in each bottle.  All this helps to reduce their carbon footprint, but given that much of the problem is the sad fact that a majority of these bottles don’t end up recycled, I don’t see it having nearly as much impact as encouraging people to refill their own bottles à la Brita and Nalgene.

Last summer, Coca-Cola Japan launched a new brand of water called ILOHAS that is packaged in super-lightweight plastic bottles.  LOHAS,which stands for “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability,” has been a huge buzzword in Japan for the last few years and it’s frankly rather misleading (and predictable) of Coca-Cola to appropriate that term for a line of bottled waters.  As much as I think that these easily crushable bottles that contain less plastic than conventional bottles are a step in the right direction, it seems dishonest to generate such a green aura around something that is so inherently un-eco as drinking water out of petroleum-based plastic bottles in a country that has perfectly fine drinking water coming out of its taps.  But hey, an improvement is an improvement, and as long as people are going to continue to buy bottled beverages it might as well be contained in something that will take up less room when smashed up in a landfill or floating in the ocean somewhere.  I predict that once the price points come down on home carbonators like SodaStream, we’ll start seeing some real progress.  Let’s hope that starts happening sooner rather than later!

Bring on the Romance

Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us — that marketing miracle, second only to Christmas as an opportunity to move merchandise.  On this day, single people around the world are made to feel like crap (no doubt contributing to a spike in Ben & Jerry’s sales), while those coupled up are bombarded with intense pressure to express their devotion in monetary form through products and services all made doubly expensive especially for this day of luuurv.  As an ex-Marxist ex once told me years ago, I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day.  No Virginia, there is no Saint Valentine.

So if there ever was a promotion that resonated with the cackling cynic in most of us, surely it must be this amazing one currently on offer at White Castle.  That’s right, this Valentine’s Day you can book your own private booth at a nearby White Castle and get table service while eating sacks of sliders under candlelight.  You can even buy special Valentine’s Day T-shirts and fuzzy pink blankets.  The whole thing seems too ridiculous to be true, but that’s exactly the point, and why White Castle is brilliant.  As a brand they are much more of a mythical idea than a gastronomic reality for most consumers.  Think of how much free publicity they got from being the unicorn of fast-food establishments in Harold & Kumar.

Of course if you have actually been to a White Castle, you know that those little tiny burgers made from 3mm-thick slices of Spam-like protein hardly replicate the feeling of goodness and satisfaction that washes over you when you’re just imagining the brand.   The idea totally trumps reality.  The fact that White Castle is self-aware about this is what makes them the favorite black sheep in America’s fast-food landscape.  Like the Snuggie, it’s betting (correctly) that more people will respond with humor to what they represent than to what their product actually is.  The corniness of this Valentine’s Day promotion will most definitely get some unlikely people through the door that day, and what’s more, there will be a ton of organic buzz generated from it with people posting online photos of themselves being cheeky-romantical with a slider in each hand.

Tower Records Revisited

The digital age quickly turned Tower Records into a Towering Inferno, and last year saw even the Virgin Megastore in Union Square permanently shutting its doors.  So it’s quite a remarkable opportunity that starting tomorrow we’re invited to enter the old Tower Records store on Broadway and 4th for one last farewell to that convivial era of buying music with others in bricks-and-mortar megastores.  The good people of No Longer Empty, a non-profit arts organization that revitalizes unused public space, has curated a month-long multimedia exhibition called Never Can Say Goodbye involving more than twenty artists to recreate a fantasy Tower Records, complete with record bins and a live performance stage.

As someone who once stood outside that exact same Tower Records for hours in the winter of 1997 to get an album signed by Blur, I am sure the experience will be a nostalgic one.  However, don’t let all the funeral dirges make you forget that there are still some awesome independent record stores still cranking out high-fidelity tunes and experiences.  After bidding adieu to Tower Records, hit up Other Music just down the block where you can buy a limited edition copy of the latest Vampire Weekend album.  Ya, it’s worth it.

The Caveman Cometh

Fascinating article in the NYTimes this weekend about a small subculture of people who mimic paleolithic lifestyles by eating mainly meat, fasting periodically, vigorously exercising by sprinting and leaping, and in some cases donating pints of blood to recreate blood loss after an attack.  Man, I knew butchers were trendy but this just takes carnivorism to a whole new level!  Young Japanese herbivore men should take note…

What’s In Your Netflix Queue?

The NYTimes have put up an interesting visualization of the Netflix rental patterns of 2009’s most rented films broken down into neighborhoods in a dozen US cities.  It’s fun to play around with and underscores a few things we probably already had inklings about:

  • Very few people care about “Mad Men” outside of NYC and other hipster-heavy cities like Minneapolis.
  • Despite our famous love of dogs, New Yorkers clearly have better things to watch than “Marley & Me.”
  • New Yorkers are unfamiliar with malls and therefore have no interest in renting “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”
  • The popularity of Tyler Perry films is a surefire indication of the concentration of African-Americans in any given neighborhood.

Basically, relevance matters. People tend to want to watch characters demographically similar to themselves.  That’s why the film “Last Chance Harvey” about aging boomers finding love is significantly more popular in the demographically older suburbs, while “Obsessed,” a “Fatal Attraction” remake starring Beyoncé is popular only in the Bronx, Newark and parts of outer Brooklyn where many African-Americans live.  Might sound like an argument for how depressingly narrow-minded we are, but then again you have to consider that one of the most frequently rented films of last year was foreign (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and that the popularity of “Milk” was by no means limited to gay neighborhoods, to say nothing of the non-teens secretly renting “Twilight.”  So what have we learned?  There’s something for everyone.  A really great movie will sell regardless of ethnic/racial considerations.  Everyone loves vampires and anything Brangelina touches.

Brooklyn Flea at One Hanson

Lobby of One Hanson Place

Hurrah!  The Brooklyn Flea is coming to One Hanson starting this weekend.  Affectionately known to locals as “the penis building” for its suggestive shape, One Hanson is an incredible Brooklyn landmark and the Flea will provide us with a great opportunity to see the inside of this former Williamsburgh Savings Bank building known for stunning mosaics and stained glass windows.  Would have loved to buy an apartment in this building but alas, it was way over budget and now (shocker!) the building is going rental.  Now that the scaffolding has come down from the Atlantic Terminal entrance across the way, I’m looking forward to the continued revitalization of Hanson Place.

One of my favorite new Brooklyn stores is a Japanese florist/knickknack shop called Saffron that opened a few months ago at 31 Hanson.  It’s hard to describe this beautiful little addition to Fort Greene as it’s not a typical florist — their hyper-curated selection focuses more on wildflowers and unusual stems so you won’t find giant bouquets here.  They also sell things like antique copper kettles, vintage kimonos, local artwork and miniature cacti alongside the cut flowers.  It’s all incredibly subdued and tasteful — and reminds me of some of my favorite shops in Tokyo, so I suppose I’ve got a cultural bias for this kind of aesthetic.  In any case, check them out.

Flowers from Saffron in Fort Greene