What's in A Food Word?
written by Oliver Dameron
What’s in a food word? Over the last decade plus, we’ve been watching the explosion of the modern American food movement. The concepts of organic, natural, and local have been trending strongly for years now and are now undeniably mainstream. Huge names like Tyson, Horizon, and Walmart operate in this phraseland as much as Straus, Point Reyes Farmstead, or Barinaga Ranch. Overall, while this doesn’t seem fair to the smaller producers, it is perhaps not a terrible thing. In fact, the widespread adoption of these terms is likely a long-term positive. If big companies talk that talk, they either have to back it up with some measures of sustainability, or risk the wrath of ever-more-brutal Twitter or MoveOn campaign exposing their falsities.
But when a phrase first used by small producers becomes mainstream, it loses much of it’s original descriptive (or differentiating) value, which is definitely the case for organic, natural, and local. For instance, how would you really know if the natural chicken breast in your cart came from the farm depicted on the left or right?
So, in the last couple years, we’ve watched those previous food catch words give way to a new set: artisan, handmade, craft, and small batch, just to name a few. These words have come into use in order to again differentiate the efforts and products of smaller producers from their industrial giant counterparts. When you look at these words in a cluster, it’s interesting that this cluster has a totally different sensation from the former set. Rather than focusing on the idea of farming without pesticides or hormones, or sourcing products from nearby — concepts very central to the generic notion of food sustainability — this new set of words has a definitive focus on ‘small’. The power of these words, and the intention behind using them, is that the industrial system, and the companies that operate within it, physically can’t make things in small batches, or by hand.
A valiant effort no doubt, but none of these terms are protected — except organic of course, and even that is under considerable assault — and therefore they are subject to the same disparagement. Cue Domino’s Artisan™ Pizzas, which pisses on and misrepresents the word ‘artisan’ so badly, and at such a dominating scale, that it almost renders it meaningless for people actually making things by hand. [The image on the right shows you that even Domino's feels a little bit bad about misusing the term.]
Artisan, in it’s most basic dictionary form, means “a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand”. The application of the words skilled or making during the process of throwing some premade, packaged ingredients in the oven is questionable for sure, but it’s true that ultimately a Domino’s worker touches the pizza with their hands, so there you go.
And in an even more perplexing use, check out this photo I took on Market Street a couple months ago. WTF? What does that even mean???
So, if any Tom, Dick, or Harry can flaunt these terms in attempt to ring in the specialty consumer ear, what are actual artisans and the industries that support them to do? After all, let’s be honest, spenders can be pretty savvy, and they need proof of differentiation before spending more on their products.
First things first, as a small food business, you definitely don’t want to tie yourself too closely to a trendy term because it can easily be highjacked — and even trademarked — by large corporations, or just plain fall out of fashion. Think of the hundreds of cafés that opened in the 90’s whose name includes Java. The first two pages of a web search show Java Café, Java Coffee Shop, Java Beach, Java City, Java Express, Shot of Java, Java Mammas, Jammin Java, Java Central, Java Joes…you get the picture. The term was adopted so quickly and widely that it became meaningless.
Mission Cheese has taken this lesson to heart. For it’s first three years of existence Mission Cheese boasted ‘Celebrating American Artisan Cheese’ as it’s informal tagline, but we’ve recently simplified it to ‘Celebrating American Cheese’ for reasons that are obvious given that you are reading this post. Fortunately for us, and for the global palate, small-production American cheese, as a category, is reaching the point where quality, diversity, and abundance are affording merit-based recognition, which reduces the degree to which producers must rely on the notion that they are artisans in order to sell their products.
The logical question that ensues is ‘Are descriptive adjectives about production off limits for a small company?’. That answer is, of course, no. But small businesses that tie their brands too closely to such words run the risk of legal battles to protect themselves. I get nervous for companies like North Carolina’s Small Batch Beer Co., Florida’s Artisan Cheese Company, Canada’s Artisan Craft Distilling Institute, and the UK’s Handmade Cider Co. How is it possible for these small businesses to maintain the meaning of their name amidst the ongoing terminology onslaught? Smaller producers can strike back against misuse of terms that denote smaller production (see the lawsuits against Tito’s Handmade Vodka), but I personally wouldn’t be interested in a legal battle with Domino’s or Coca-Cola!
What I deduce from this whole thing is that terminology used for differentiation, while obviously valuable, is fickle, erratic, and ultimately unreliable. Lasting differentiation for small food and beverage businesses can only be achieved with authentic storytelling, which is only achievable if there are real stories about history, products, and producers. Large corporations can co-opt small batch terminology but not small batch authenticity, and this is the chink in their armor. Real artisans impart real stories, and real storytelling delivers lasting differentiation.