Category Archives: Family

Hu Hot is Pretty Much All That as Americans Expand Their Tastes

We tried a great little restaurant last night in the Little Apple (that’s Manhattan, KANSAS, if you’re keeping score at home). Bottom line: Tasty and fun but slightly overpriced.

Hu Hot is the latest iteration of the Mongolian grill for the American masses. Greater numbers of people seem ready to embrace the concept of putting your food in a bowl and carrying it to someone so he can cook it for you while you stand there and wait for it. There have been others before it, but Hu Hot might have the timing right.

The Spoon’s most important observation about the concept is that it delivers intense flavor, an exotic menu and an interactive experience in a relatively small physical footprint. This location was tucked away in the front corner of a shopping mall, and it was not roomy inside. Two servers, two cooks and one go-fer in the back had a crowd of 60 diners easily covered.

To give you an idea of the overall experience of eating at Hu Hot, we’d tell you that the food was fresh and hot. The flavors were true to their respective Asian heritage of Thai, Sechuan and Japanese. It was a bit more down to earth than P.F. Chang’s, like they’re not trying to impress anyone.

A bowl of rice and your choice of soup or salad accompanied the meal.

As far as preparation, stuff that was supposed to be gingery was gingery, and stuff that was supposed to be crispy was crispy. But there were some twists, such as just enough chili in the fried spring roll to sting your lips a bit. Tasty.

When it came time for throwing sauce on the stuff in the bowl, we chose pork and pad thai noodles with a few veggies. While traditional Mongolian grills have stuff like “garlic water” and “sa cha,” Hu Hot allows you to play around with combining flavors like Black Thai Peanut, Yellow Belly Curry and Feed the Hordes Hoisin to create crazy-tasty fusion.

Make your own or try it The Spoon Way: 3 ladles Black Thai Peanut, 1 ladle Feed the Hordes Hoisin, 1 ladle sweet red chili, 1 ladle ginger. A very nice Thai-style complement to pork pad thai.

The actual cooking was like any other Mongolian grill, if you’ve seen it. Two guys with spatulas turn your stuff over and over on a large round grill until it’s done.

Try the appetizer sampler to share with your family or group. The most compelling item is the potsticker that’s fried Rangoon-style.

For dessert, the 5-layer chocolate cake, called Choco Khan, will rock you.

Stylish AND Cheap Sells; Good Advertising Helps

Just because we advocate appealing to people’s heightened dollar-value consciousness doesn’t mean we necessarily advocate abdicating style, fun and intellectual and emotional appeal.

What do these things have in common?

a. Burger King Whopper Jr.
b. Taco Bell bean burrito
c. McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty
d. Wendy’s Small Frosty

We’ll give you a hint: They’re all available for about a buck on the value menus of their respective QSRs (quick service restaurants).

In a recent post, we talked about how fast and cheap seem to be winning out, at least if three-year stock performance is any indication.

But as we’ve also discussed, being fast and cheap, even under the threat of rising prices and reduced productivity, isn’t enough. Consumers want it all, remember? And they’re always right. You have to be cool, stylish and lifestyle-relevant while satisfying the more mundane elements of the value equation.

So, once again, we sing the praises of the Golden Arches. “What makes them so great?” You ask. Check this out.

Hot (at least half the time) food, wrapped in paper and set on a tray is nothing special. That’s where advertising comes in.

Food, any kind of food, fast food included, has numerous close substitutes. And regardless of what we tell ourselves, there’s only so much we can do to the product itself. We can improve service, make the experience more exotic and, importantly, we can create an expecation or reinforce a decision with the use of properly placed, relevant and compelling advertising.

In a world with hundreds of different fast food options, McDonald’s makes people feel good about having just visited one of the chain’s thousands of locations by reinforcing their choice with messages like the Chicken Dance commercial.

It may not get you to run right out and by an Extra Value Meal. But it will reduce the cognitive dissonance that many people feel before, during and after eating at the restaurant. “I really want the burger and fries, but I know that later I’ll feel like I could have made a healthier choice. Still, it’s always so satisfying.”

It doesn’t hurt that this particular ad is tagged with a shot of a seemingly healthy wrap, Dasani bottled water and a fruit/yogurt parfait. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that many of us won’t be ordering that particular combination of menu items.

But that doesn’t matter. McDonald’s has given us the options, shown us how much fun their brand adds to our lives and simply asked us to make them a part of our lives. It’s not a push-y strategy at all. They’ve even toned it down on the promotional offers, specials and movie tie-ins. It’s not all about product and price.

If McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can do it, smaller competitors who trail them better take notice.

Vacation Snack Odyssey Day Six: Betty Crocker, meet Betty Rubble

Dear Betty Crocker,

We’d like to tell you about how much we love your brownies. We love them so much that not even the absence of an oven will keep us from their moist, chocolatey goodness.

Our love for your brownies inspired us to not only make an heroic effort to cook them on the road, but also to think of new ways food can transport people to another plane or at least go with us on our adventures. As food marketers, we should challenge ourselves to dig deeply into our customers’ habits to see where we can fit better.

Come to think of it, not only would it make sense to see a Betty Crocker ad with families enjoying your wonderful product in all kinds of settings outside the home, but how come we’ve never seen a freshly-baked Betty Crocker brownie in the store? But we digress…this letter is about how much we love your product and the lengths we recently took to enjoy it.

While staying in a rustic cabin on the Arkansas River in Colorado, we got a hankering for brownies, but we didn’t have an oven. So we built one.

First, we dug a 15″Lx10″Wx3″D hole. Then we gathered up a bunch of smooth, stackable stones. Then we stacked them in a rectangular formation about a foot off the ground. We put large, flat stones on top to create the roof of the oven, as shown here.

While the Spoon fired up the charcoal inside the makeshift oven, Mama Spoon and the Littles mixed up the Betty Crocker brownie mix according to the instructions on the box. They put the mix into a disposable 9″x13″ aluminum baking pan.

When the coals had burned down to a red-hot condition, we placed three flat stones on top of them so the pan would not be directly on the heat.

We placed the pan full of brownie mix on the stones and put our camp griddle over the remaining hole in the top of the oven to keep the heat inside.

Three hours later, our slow-cooked brownies were ready for a late-afternoon snack. As you can see, the our effort was rewarded richly.

Thanks, Betty Crocker!

Vacation Odyssey Day Four: Breakfast—The Most Important Snack of the Day

Does it count as a snack if you eat it for breakfast? When does it stop being a snack and become a meal?

A meal should fill one completely. Maybe breakfast is less about filling the tank and more about providing enough fuel for the initial spark that gets the engine going for the day.

If that’s the case, then let’s take a look at some of our favorites, and why they’re our favorite snack and/or brand of snack.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s easy. Pretty much everybody likes it. It’s a fantastic family cereal. Cereal, even with added sugar and corn syrup, is hard to beat for a meal, in-between snack or, as designed, for breakfast.

Odwalla Bar! Nourishing Food Bar. Huzzah! Four words: Eight grams of protein. An energy bar that tastes good and still packs a nutrient-rich punch. We like the chocolate chip peanut bar. This bar is also worthy of applause because it’s a natural product-line extension for the people known for being natural, energizing and body-friendly because their juices were rich, tasty, funky and minimally-processed before it was cool. (Available online from Amazon and many grocery stores.)

Pie or brownies. These unbranded little daisies are great vacation breakfast food that’s easy to eat, pleasing to the palate and full of quick energy, plus carbs. There’s a reason why pie is served at rest stops on long bicycle rides. We’ve already seen “breakfast” and “energy” cookies for on-the-go professionals and sportos. Heck, Snickers has an energy candy bar. So we think some smart food marketer should come up with breakfast brownie or pie that has health and energy benefits but plenty of sweetness!

Courtesy gotmilkbottles.com

gotmilkbottles.com

got milk? It’s still a commodity, so we’re not going to lie and say anyone has done a good job of marketing their own brand (except maybe Borden, Shatto-two brands with whom we work-and a select group with an enduring brand, family focus or locally-grown point of differentiation.) But you gotta have the cold, creamy white stuff to complement the snacks we’ve covered above. As Cosmo Kramer would say, “Delicious. Nutritious. Outrageous!”

Vacation Snack Odyssey Day Three: Does a Bear Like Snacks?

Apparently, the answer to that question is an unqualified “Yes.”

Early one morning of the trip, the Spoon walked out and discovered a mess from what looked to be a week’s worth of trash strewn all over the driveway, about 50 feet from where it should have been in the storage shed. (See photo above.)

And not far from the three-dimensional multimedia collage was a telltale sign that the culprit was of the ursine variety. That is, this bear left an apparent sign of his approval of the feast in the form of a nice pile of bear scat.

So in the spirit of our vacation’s theme, we give you the bear’s list of favorite human snack food.

  1. Coca-Cola. This seemed to meet with the bear’s approval, judging from what looked to be teeth marks in the cans that had previously held the corn-syrup equivalent of sweet nectar. Maybe the folks in Atlanta have a new spokes-species.
  2. Cantaloupe. Again, something sweet seems to be what pleases. Or at least it was worth ripping the door off a shed to get to. Of course, most of what was left in the trash had been peel, so a little roughage was seemingly in order, as well.
  3. Bacon drippings. Yep. The bear likes a little porkbelly grease. Given the similarities between the omnivorous habits of humans and bears, perhaps there is a product line extension opportunity in here for the hog producers and packers: Bear Hollow Bacon Drizzle. Mmmmm.

A Small Town Grocery Store and So Much More

Whether it’s Washington, D.C., or Lamar, Colo., (pictured here), Safeway does so many things right. We’ve worked with Safeway for a few years now, but we’re always observing new things.

The small-town version of the store proves you can be small town and still stock the essentials and so much more, from an extensive line of yogurt to gourmet soft drinks to select Washington cherries for pies or for eating out of hand.

With a little local color, of course. The assistant manager insisted on helping with our groceries (including four six packs of Henry Winehard’s root beer because it’s not available back home) and kept them aside while Mama Spoon finished some other shopping. And you’re not going to see the extreme low prices on meat that’s getting close to expiration date in every market. It just feels right here.

The Safeway store brands, such as Rancher’s Reserve and O organics find a home in this Colorado town as easily as in the Safeway at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

The multi-tier, segmented private label approach is one thing that sets Safeway apart. You may have heard that the company is even trying to sell its own labels in other channels in an attempt to give the brands a life of their own and build equity in the Safeway masterbrand.

Fortunately, you can cash in on those Safeway card savings even if you live outside a Safeway market area. For someone who grew up with Safeway, only to see it leave the Midwest with the likes of A&P and others, it’s nice to be connected to a familiar brand. So we’ll keep that Safeway card as handy in the wallet as the Dillons card on the key ring. Because the Spoon believes in supporting really good brands.

Vacation Snack Odyssey Day One: Replenishment is Important

Oberto natural beef jerky and a bag of Art and Mary’s potato chips, after a big breakfast at the Famous Serveteria sustained us well. But 200 miles into our 500-mile trip, it was time to top off the gas tank in the Honda Odyssey and top off the road pantry with our favorite snacks. Here are our selections by team member:

The Spoon
The cooler was already loaded with plenty of cold citrus green tea (Big K, the Kroger private label beverage, is a surprisingly good substitute for Lipton when the Dillons market runs out of the name brand). This trip inside the truck stop called for something salty. Oh, yeah: Corn Nuts. It’s vacation. Corn Nuts: For when you’ve got 300 miles to go and you don’t care if your breath smells like dog food.

Try the barbecue-flavored snack size. With a mild taste and 200 calories, it’s a great shot of grain-based energy that awakens the senses and complements a cold beverage SO nicely.

Mama Spoon
After driving the first leg of the early-morning trip, Mama Spoon was ready for a nap, but it wasn’t long after catching a few winks that she was up and downing a quart of G2 from Gatorade.

She has discovered the hydration and electrolyte infusion is the perfect preventative medicine for altitude sickness, which can result in headaches and fatigue.

Little Spoon 1
This pre-teen consumer treats selecting a snack like picking Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club competition. After much deliberation, he picks up a snack-size bag of Doritos QUEST chips. These are the ones that challenge you to guess the flavor and win a prize. So we’re almost to the register, and he changes his mind. He goes back for the Mounds bar, instead. “Why?” you ask.

“Well, the DARK chocolate was too hard to resist,” he says. “And the coconut was a different flavor to throw into the mix.” Note to parents: Don’t let your kids search for “mounds” on the Internet. Specify “mounds candy bars.” We’re not even joking.

Little Spoon 2
There are a couple of reasons why this kid’s nickname is Sweet Tart. One reason is she loves sweet and tangy candy. Sour LifeSavers juicing gummies were an easy choice for her. They come in a bag. They’re not messy.

As a parent, now that you’ll appreciate that they keep a kid pretty busy and quiet for awhile, too.

Vacation 2008: The snack food frontier

Four days and counting, and the Spoon takes it on the road for a two-week vacation of hiking, fishing, horseback riding, fishing, sleeping, fishing, sightseeing and, of course…driving. Lots and lots of driving.

And nothing goes better with all those activities than all of your favorite snacks. Here’s what the Spoon is packing for the trip:

  • Oberto natural beef jerky
  • Archer Farms real fruit strips (pomegranate is the tastiest)
  • On the Border restaurant-style chips and salsa
  • Odwalla chocolate chip peanut butter snack bars
  • Homemade granola
  • Pink lady apples
  • Roasted, salted pistachios
  • Ocean Spray Craisins
  • Plenty of Lipton diet citrus green tea for the Spoon and Little Spoon 1 (Mama Spoon likes Diet Coke; Little Spoon 2 prefers Harvest Surprise)

It’s always great to stock up on your favorites before you leave town. But part of the fun for a true snackie is checking out regional brands, flavors and preparation methods unique to the areas one is visiting.

There are still a few regional potato chip outfits. For beverages, root beer is a fun one because regional bottlers and microbreweries are keeping the tradition alive. And we might just fall in love again with an old favorite like Doritos or Slim Jims on a 7-11 stop.

Vacation is a perfect time to snack. If you’re active, you’re burning off the calories, and it’s fun to fill your tummy with snack foods during the day so you can save up for a delicious dinner at a local restaurant.

While we’re on the road, we’ll also keep our mind open to ways food marketers can capitalize more fully on the great American road trip.

Meantime, look for guest posts on marketing food to men interspersed with our reports from the road.

And, as always, we want to hear from you. What are your favorite vacation snacks? What’s the most unique food you’ve found on the road that you can’t find anyplace else?

Happy snacking!

Exotic tastes create new waves to ride

We are a nation of immigrants, creating a deliciously diverse menu of flavors and textures that can be combined in nearly limitless ways to form a sumptuous array of culinary delights to make Bacchus green with envy.

And then there’s the McRib. But, seriously, folks. It’s all a part of a collective gastronomic heritage that is uniquely American.

That brings to mind a story. There was a little girl. We’ll call her Lakshmi. She came to the US from a magical island that was once called Ceylon, famous for its pearls. Her father told her that it was important to try American foods, so he prepared french toast, following instructions carefully until it came time for the toppings. Lakshmi and her family substituted ketchup and chilies, preferring a savory finish for the mildly sweet toast to the overwhelming sweetness of syrup, powdered sugar or fruit sauce.

The moral of the story? Take note of the buying power of the Sri Lankan-American audience? Not really. Add chilies and ketchup to the dipping choices for your french toast sticks? Now that’s getting closer.

There are probably as many flavor combinations and possibilities as there are people on the planet. The tastes of the American consumer are becoming more varied, more adventurous, more sophisticated, more discerning and more individualistic all the time.

This is happening for three reasons: First, people are coming here from other countries. Second, Americans are increasingly interested in other cultures. Third, many of us just simply like a little variety and “spice” in our lives, and food is a good vehicle for it.

The wonderfully elegant thing about this tendency is that you can address consumers across many demographic boundaries (income, race, age) with many of the same flavor profiles.

Finding a place for tamarind on your menu or in your product, for instance, might satisfy the palates of Latin Americans and people of Indian descent, while firing up the waiting taste buds of consumers who may never have been exposed to the flavor.

This is a great instance of your creativity converging with consumer tastes. Go have fun and take advantage of it.

Profiting from inflation: What does Wall Street tell us?

Wondering how gas prices are affecting dining habits in the US? Let’s take a look at stock performance in the quick service restaurant (QSR) sector, compared with family casual/grill and bar.

McDonald’s stock has nearly doubled in price since this same week in 2005, going from $30.99 a share to $60.16 as of Wednesday’s close.

Interestingly, unleaded gasoline prices have done the same, going from $2.32 a gallon this week in 2005 to a record US average price of $4.11 yesterday, according to AAA. Pretty strong correlation. Not causation, but consider some additional evidence.

Over that same period, Brinker International (owner of Chili’s) stock has fallen from $27 to $18. DineEquity, the parent company of IHOP that acquired Applebee’s last year has fallen even more precipitously.

The Street tends to price value appropriately. There are exceptions, but these performances seem to line up with fundamentals.

That is, fast and cheap is better when most-not all, but most-people are on tight budgets and tight schedules that are tightening daily due to inflation and our culture of busy-ness.

The plight of Chili’s, et al, is a reminder that food marketers must react quickly to unanticipated changes.

We can all learn from watching these two markedly different parts of the foodservice sector. It’s a good lesson in finding opportunity within challenges. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s just tough. Our business model isn’t built for this kind of market.” We have to find ways to compete.

We can do it. Let’s talk about it.