When Bad Owners Happen to Good Brands

I’ve spent the past few weeks subsisting mainly on energy bars, which is fine. I enjoy the guilt-free experience of eating what are, essentially, candy bars.

I started dabbling in Clif Bars about a month ago. Perhaps you’ve seen them. They come in delicious flavors like mint chocolate, crunchy peanut butter and oatmeal raisin walnut, each weighing in at around five grams of fat and 240 calories. They look like bear dung, but they stick to your stomach and knockout hunger like Muhammad Ali did Sonny Liston.

While I’m happy to make a meal of a Clif Bar, I take umbrage to Gary, the owner and founder of Clif Bar & Company, who has taken it upon himself to get his Jack London on every chance he gets. On the back of each wrapper, Gary attempts to relate one of his outdoor adventures to the principles of his company. His intentions are good, but his execution leaves his brainchild looking pretentious and holier than thou.

Here’s what Gary wrote for the back of this oatmeal raisin walnut I’m gnawing on:

“While trekking in Nepal, I met up with an expedition about to climb Dhaligiri, one of the world’s highest peaks. I figured that with more than 200 porters the expedition must have been traveling with at least 20,000 pounds of stuff. Expeditionary climbing takes an enormous amount of energy, equipment, and people, to put just a handful of individuals on top of a mountain. My friends and I prefer to climb alpine style; we move quickly, carry light packs, and leave no waste behind. Each campsite is a beautiful destination in itself; not simply a means to an end. I don’t believe in reaching the top at any cost — in climbing or in business. Clif Bar’s journey resembles alpline climbing. We try to travel light and are committed to keeping our company, products, people, community, and the earth healthy.”

So, basically, Gary is a mountain ninja and you should eat his energy bar because it intends to keep the earth healthy.

Wait, what?

This is where owners, founders and CEOs so often go wrong. Rather than put faith in their product, they, themselves, try to be the brand. The Donald Trumps, Richard Bransons and Mark Cubans of this world — one-man brands — are few and far between. Their personas are so finely calculated and executed, we put faith in everything they touch. Gary, on the other hand, pens some shitty prose which only comes off as condescending when you consider the $1.69 you paid for his Clif Bar paid for his trek through Nepal.

Gary’s anecdote does nothing to improve his product, which I will continue to eat begrudgingly. My girlfriend’s mom says, “Well, why don’t you just not read the wrapper?” Good point, but it’s the company’s fault when their are parts of the experience a consumer must avoid to enjoy the product, even if it’s something so small as reading about Gary’s hang-gliding adventure in the Pyrenees.

Urban Agriculture Taking Off in Portland

Whether a result of the recession, increased awareness around food ethics or old fashioned environmentalism, urban agriculture is taking off across the country. That’s evident in Portland, Ore., where I’ve met several people who have taken their backyard operations to a new level.

The idea is simple: If you don’t like how food is being produced, produce it yourself. This has led many to cultivate gardens and raise farm animals in the least likely of places — urban backyards and rooftops.

I interviewed my friend, Josh Leake, who decided to construct a chicken coop just about a month ago. He’s built what some have called the best chicken coop in Portland. None of his chickens — he’s got nine of them — have matured enough to lay their first eggs, but in waiting, he’s become something of a hobby farmer.

A cool (and very urban) side note: Josh has a webcam set up inside his coop and you can view it at portlandchicken.com. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to “live feed,” doesn’t it?

KFC’s Double Down is a Dream, Not a WMD

Anytime a fast food restaurant serves an item named after a gambling term, you know it’s going to take some flak. Such is the case with the Double Down, KFC’s audacious bread-free version of the chicken sandwich .

That’s right — there’s no bread to be found with the Double Down. Just two boneless chicken breasts (fried or grilled), two slices of Monterey jack and pepper jack cheese and two strips of bacon. The chicken breasts, themselves, act as the bun, and that’s why this sandwich is so buzzworthy.

While KFC is pushing all-in on this innovative combination, many are up in arms about the Double Down. Yesterday, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) went so far as to release the following statement about the sandwich:

Dietitians with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are asking KFC not to advertise to children its newest product, the Double Down sandwich, and to post a warning on the high-fat sandwich about its potential ill effects on children’s health.

The Original Recipe Double Down tops out at 32 grams of fat, 540 calories and 1,380 milligrams of sodium. The grilled version is just 23 grams of fat, 460 calories and 1,430 milligrams of sodium. Compare that to a McDonald’s Happy Meal featuring a cheeseburger, small order of French fries and 12 ounces of Sprite, which amounts to 24 grams of fat, 640 calories and 1,040 milligrams of sodium.

OK, so maybe you don’t want to raise your kids on Double Downs.

Regardless of how disastrously unhealthy the Double Down is, I think it’s the shock of seeing a sandwich without bread that’s really getting people. Something about it seems so barbaric. Something about it makes me feel like a neanderthal for wanting one, like I should grab my club and drag my knuckles all the way to KFC, point to the picture on the menu and say, “Me. Want. That.”

What’s so dignified about a bun, anyway? McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese checks in at 42 grams of fat, 740 calories and 1,380 milligrams of sodium, but it’s got a traditional bun, so no one says boo. The Colonel gets reckless, sees thinks bread has become arbitrary, invents something — God forbid — new to fast food, and suddenly, rumors start to swirl KFC has aligned itself with Al-Qaeda.

I’ve already taken time to write about childhood obesity and what efforts should be taken to help make kids in this country more healthy. I won’t argue against the claim fast food restaurants have an obligation to offer health options on their menu. I just feel like if the Double Down had a bun, it would be just another stupid KFC sandwich we pass on in favor off the all-you-can-eat buffet.

There’s a lot of painfully clever hyperbole built around how eating just one Double Down can harm your health. Please. We’re Americans. We’ve been making poor health decisions on some scale our whole lives. The Double Down is a novelty snack, not unlike cotton candy, Pop Rocks or spaghetti on a stick. Of course you’re not supposed to eat it every meal.

Anyone who’s stupid enough to think otherwise probably gave up fast food for fear of future persecution by an Obama death panel.

Trader Joe’s Traitor

There’s a Trader Joe’s roughly one block from my apartment complex, and while I always knew it was so close, it took me six months to find the desire to shop there. We live across the street from a Fred Meyer grocery store and my girlfriend gets a nice little discount as an employee. I was able to put off shopping at Trader Joe’s for six months.

What happened? What changed? Charles Shaw wine, my friend, or what’s better known as “three-buck Chuck.”

I’ve never fancied myself a wino. I bartended for just over two years at the kind of place where your whole bloodline would be shamed if you asked for a glass of merlot. I’d grown accustomed to Bud Light, vodka-Rock Stars and shots of Jameson. My glory days have passed, so I’m OK with being a wine drinker now. And if it’s going to be wine, why not cheap, quality wine?

You could say I’m a Trader Joe’s shopper now, but I’m usually there for just the one thing. But, since we live across the street from a Fred Meyer and go there almost daily, I’ve become a little bored with always buying the same things. I thoroughly believe that switching the store where you buy groceries will ultimately change the groceries you buy. It’s a layout thing and it’s entirely subconscious, but it’s also about selection. Trader Joe’s and Fred Meyer offer a lot of the same foods, but only a few of the same brands.

Can I subsist on Trader Joe’s alone? Obviously, their meat offering leaves a lot to be desired, so immediately, I’m doubtful. Not to mention the clientele, which unlike myself seems to consist of people who, when it comes to fine dining, know their shit. I’m from the Midwest where all meals must consist of three things: meat, vegetable and starch At Trader Joe’s, people dig exotically grown produce, obscure condiments and products that are somehow made without gluten, sugar, corn, animal products or flavor. Every time I go there, I feel like a tourist.

But I embrace Trader Joe’s. Is that weird? I think it’s just as simple as tasting something different. We tried out their store brand yellow-corn chips and chipotle salsa the other night. Chips and salsa — hardly a unique blend. But, their interpretation was a knockout. The chips tasted a little like salted mud flaps, but that was some of the greatest salsa I’ve ever had.

I used to scoff at those I would see at Fred Meyer with half their groceries already purchased from Trader Joe’s. I’m a big believer in one-stop shopping, so I never saw the point of making multiple stops for food when you can get it all at one place. But the past month has schooled me otherwise — you gotta shop around.

An old friend just added me on Facebook. He’s living in Columbia, South Carolina. I couldn’t help but notice he’d joined a Facebook page called “Bring Trader Joe’s to Columbia, SC.” Before I kicked up my wine intake and became a Trader Joe’s apologist, I would’ve thought this page pure idiocy.

Now, I can’t imagine living somewhere without a Trader Joe’s.

Food for Thought

I’m watching some show on the Food Network right now where a bunch of bozos are competing to see who is this best chef according to a group of judges who’ve clearly turned the tables after spending their whole childhood getting bullied. This is fascinating and terrible at once. Why am I watching this?

I would love to be a good chef. (Or is it “cook”? What’s the difference again?) I’d like to be a great maker of food. Problem is, every time I see a recipe, I think, Man, that’s a lot of ingredients. I don’t have any of those things. I could purchase a nice shirt with what this meal could cost to make. I think I’ll have Subway.

I’m 25, so you’d think by now my repertoire would’ve expanded beyond simple pastas and breakfast foods. I’ve had every opportunity to learn my way around the kitchen, too. My parents? Excellent chefs, each in their own right. They came from great chefs, as well. It’s not that the torch wasn’t passed on. It’s just that while they were busy conducting alchemy in the kitchen, I was less interested in the process and more in the outcome. Needless to say, I’ve been a little chubby my whole life.

Tonight, I’m making spaghetti. No, not from scratch. I bought a jar of Prego spaghetti sauce with red peppers and garlic. I’ll enhance the sauce with a few of my own fixings, though, including chopped red peppers, crushed red pepper, garlic salt, ground beef and a 6 oz. can of tomato paste, so I can stretch the sauce for leftovers. Maybe that’s my problem — I’m a food economist. The main goal with each of my recipes is to make as much food as I can for as cheap as possible. I understand how this strategy may not coincide with the making of a gourmet meal. The goal with my arrangements are to cover two plates and fill a Tupperware container.

My girlfriend isn’t a food snob, thank god. Some time ago, she bought a recipe book and started keeping record of recipes she wanted to try or recipes she had successfully attempted and liked. She claims her parents never made much while she was growing up, which is evidenced by the way she kind of recoils at the sight of turkey sandwiches. My girlfriend really likes my spaghetti recipe, even though I call it “spaghetto,” much to her annoyance. She likes what I make and I like what I make. That makes it hard for me to feel like there’s any real room for improvement.

The quality of a meal or a chef or a cook is all subjective. That’s why I’m confused by this stupid competition I’m watching on the Food Network. Here the contestants are, doing something they love, vying for a dream job or some cash prize, and they’re being eaten alive by a team of judges who are, presumptively, somehow better or more accomplished. It seems silly to me in the same way a $40 meal does, because in the end, we’re talking about food, which to my knowledge all ends up in the same place, anyway.