This week, the most important voices in food, beverage and agriculture focused on:

  • The innovation and nonconformity ruling the beverage biz.
  • The confusion about wearing masks at restaurants and grocers near you.
  • The tall tale of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story.

“As long as people continue to view the convenience of having 30,000 options of what to eat at a moment’s notice as paramount, this is how the developed world will continue to get their food.”

Wendover Productions documentary “The Incredible Logistics of Grocery Stores” (YouTube)

Head of Cannabis, Meet Chief Drinking Officer

The “B” part of the “F&B” conversation kicked in with discussion of innovative (and offbeat) beverage products, new money and interesting leadership titles. The segment is perennially fertile ground for experimentation inside a very crowded and competitive marketplace. Here’s what caught our attention:

  • In what started as an April Fools’ joke, BrüMate and adult beverage maker Crook & Marker launched a pickle-flavored hard seltzer. USA Today quoted Dylan Jacob, BrüMate’s chief drinking officer: “If you think this is bold, wait until you see what else is in the works.” Love the umlaut Dylan.
  • Boston Beer Co., parent of the Sam Adams brand, has launched a cannabis division. According to CEO Dave Burwick, “We believe non-alcoholic cannabis beverages could represent a new frontier of innovation and want to be ready for future opportunities in the U.S.”  Paul Weaver will lead the division with the title “head of cannabis.”
  • With a major innovation in a category that has been slow to change, Tea Drops is making bagless tea a reality thanks to a new round of funding (Food Business News).
  • Vegan oat drink company Oatly went public with a $10 billion IPO on May 20. Investors Business Daily captured the numbers.
  • Food Politics blogger Marion Nestle summarized a recent UConn Rudd Center study on what parents know about kids’ juice drinks. The conclusion? Not much. In addition to calling out added sugars, Nestle advocated for up-front labeling for diet sweeteners and percentage of juice content.
  • Food & Wine showcased a collaboration between Entenmann’s and Pabst as the 175-year-old brewer promotes its hard coffee product: “This is disruptive deliciousness at its finest, upsetting age-old traditions at brunch, [dessert], afternoon tea and beyond.”

Mask Confusion

On May 16, the CDC updated its guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state [or] local …. rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” Leading voices in retail and foodservice offered a mix of reactions to the announcement.

  • The Washington Post interviewed independent restaurant owners, many of whom fear that mismatched national and local laws will result in confusion.
  • The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union worried that the change could spark a return to conflict: “Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures.”
  • Meanwhile, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that Starbucks and Chipotle loosened their mask policies. As of May 21, they stand alone among national foodservice chains.
  • Walmart and Costco immediately lifted mask requirements for vaccinated workers and customers where local rules allow (Business Insider).
  • Kroger, which initially stated it would require masks until all employees received vaccines, dropped its mask requirements on May 20.
  • Food Navigator asked whether a mask-free environment would bring online shoppers back to stores. It seems they missed the part where online shopping allows you to stay on the couch.

Flamin’ Scandal

Ahead of the June release of the docudrama “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive,” there is mounting evidence that Richard Montañez’s rise to fame at Frito Lay is largely urban legend. Unsurprisingly, many reacted to the news.

  • On May 16, L.A. Times writer Sam Dean asserted that “Montañez didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos,” based on an internal investigation conducted by Frito-Lay.
  • Frito Lay responded to The Times inquiry: “We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market.”
  • Eater admitted, “Of course we wanted to believe the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos guy.”
  • Chef and culinary celebrity Alton Brown tweeted a bold opinion: “I will never cook anything that tastes better than a bag of #cheetos.”
  • Before the story broke, NPR’s Planet Money interviewed Montañez on May 12, crediting him with changing the global snack market. Since its airing, NPR disclosed that “statements made in this episode have been called into question. We are reviewing the story to determine whether any changes are warranted.”
  • As attention escalated, Frito Lay posted a statement on May 19, thanking Montañez for his ideas and leadership in his 40 years with the company.
  • Providing further evidence that fiction spreads faster than fact, a Fox affiliate’s coverage of the debunked origin story garnered five times the social media engagement of the LA Times’ exposé.

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Mo’ Chicken, Mo’ Problems

Despite a national shortage of yardbird, new combatants keep entering the chicken sandwich wars. Pilot Flying J introduced two new chicken sandwiches at its travel centers (Meatingplace), while Burger King hopes to rival Popeyes with its own version (Bloomberg). Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s also added to the competition by releasing three different variations, including biscuit and waffle versions of the chicken sandwich. And this just in: Pringles debuted a Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich flavor (Thrillist).

Pizza Ex Machina

In Rome, a pizza vending machine appeared earlier this month, prompting “curiosity and horror.” Reuters shared coverage of the new “Mr. Go Pizza” machine that kneads dough, sprinkles on toppings, and cooks the pizza through a window from which customers can watch. A tough concept to sell to local pizza aficionados.

Flat-pack Pasta

An article in Inverse described flat-packed pasta, which expands and contorts into familiar shapes when cooked, while saving as much as 60% on packaging space. Developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab, this Ikea-like innovation “begins to spring from its flat-packed shape into a delicate flower.”

‘Like Soft Shell Crab’

With Brood X of cicadas poised to make its every-seventeen-year appearance soon in 15 states, The Associated Press offered guidance on … how to eat them. Reporter Mark Kennedy interviewed “bug chef” David George Gordon, author of Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, who “advises home cooks to gather the cicadas when they’re nymphs, before their body armor hardens and while they are still soft and chewy, like soft shell crab.”And we thought “head of cannabis” was an odd job title.