Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Organic Pasta Saga

We have been selling Organic Pasta, made in the USA (Actually, made in California) since we started in business 16 years ago.

It was originally made for us by a small, family producer, that ran into trouble when is passed from one generation to the next.

One day about 10 years ago, I flew to LA to pick up our commission check, but when i got to the plant, the owner told me he had to get a certified check for $10,000 to PG&E so they kept supplying electrical power to the plant, and we never did get that check....and soon after, they were out of business.

We then switched to another pasta manufacturer in LA. First they were owned by a meat company, then got sold to a conglomerate, then got sold to a guy in the Asian noodle business. He told me at one point that he thought he could do well with pasta, because, like Asian noodles, they were made out of flour and water.

The first change he made, other than raising prices, was to cut back the number of SKUs (grocery lingo for 'stock keeping units') We went from 25 shapes to 8 or 9.

Up until then, i used to joke around that I wanted to be the Orzo King, because we had Organic White (Semolina) Orzo and Organic Whole Wheat Orzo, and I also wanted them to come out with Organic Rainbow Orzo and Organic Multigrain Orzo. Alas, it was not to be.

Then the new owner decided he didn't want to produce bulk pasta in our Natural Value brand...he wanted to come out with his own brand and simply take our business away. I told him that we had worked hard for 16 years building up our pasta business, and that we would sooner go somewhere else than turn our business over to him in exchange for.... nothing.

At first, it looked like we were going to have to source our pasta from Italy. They obviously make good pasta in Italy, and the pricing was very attractive, but Jody and I want to continue supporting American farmers and American manufacturers. We're proud of that. We feel like we're doing our part in helping our country and our people.

Right now, though, we are in transition, and will be out of product for another 2 weeks until the new US producer's product hits the market.

In the meantime, I still dream someday about being the Orzo King :)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Natural Products Expo

Natural Products Expo has come and gone.

It is always fun for me to see people I have been dealing with - buying from, selling to, competing with, or simply friends - from over 30 years. Sometimes, when I am with "real old timers", I joke that our random group of 3 has 100 years of natural food industry experience.

I am going to devote some blog posts to the show happenings....stay tuned!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Well, I finally did it...1095 lifetime Marriott nights...3 years of staying in Marriott Hotels...

Name: Gary Cohen
Account number: xxxxxxxxx
Member Level: Platinum
Total Membership Nights: 1,095

I am definitely headed for more...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wal Mart

I consider myself a student of retail...actually a student of business. I like to say that I have a degree from the University of the Street.

The biggest company in the world is Wal Mart.
How did Wal Mart get to be the biggest company in the world? By supplying consumers with what they want to buy at affordable prices.

Now, Wal Mart today is a very different company than the one Sam Walton started years ago. And lately, their "same store sales" - which is how retailers measure how their stores are doing - have declined in the US.

Why is that?

Well, before I answer, I need to say...I have my hands full running my own business without trying to help Wal Mart's business :). However, I will try.

Lately, it seems, Wal Mart has strayed from the things that made them famous...namely, offering brand name, quality products at prices consumers can afford. Now, instead of giving consumers what they want - the stuff they have been buying - they are stocking what they think consumers should buy...

In my opinion, that is a mistake.

If "my" local store - and I'm not just referring to Wal Mart here - stops carrying the products I am buying, I am going to shop elsewhere. Apparently, that is what is happening.

Just because they are the world's largest corporation doesn't mean they are immune to making mistakes. Years ago, A&P, a grocery chain on the east coast, was so dominant, they had to sign a consent decree with the Federal government now to use their monopoly power. And K Mart used ti be far larger than Wal Mart....but neither of those companies is anything close to what they were decades ago.

It's very humbling to realize that tastes are's hero can be tomorrow's loser.

For us, it boils down to something I tell the manufacturers we work with: We are a buying agent for our customers and their customers. We are constantly looking to sell quality organic food and non-food products...based on what our customers tell us they want. Anyone who forgets that basic philosophy is headed for trouble. And as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Distribution, Trucking

I don't remember where I first heard it, but I adopted the slogan as my own...

"You can eliminate the distributor, but you can't eliminate the cost of distribution."

Meaning, there is a cost to getting a product from manufacturer to consumer...

Most products are sold by distributors. They purchase from a few or a few thousand different manufacturers, and they sell those products to hundreds or thousands of different accounts.

We sell our products to about 25 different distributors in the natural, specialty, pet food and retailer buying group "channels." Our goal in working with these distributors, is for them, and their customers, to purchase and sell our products to consumers.

We also work with one - count 'em, one - buying club...though we hope to do more business with buying clubs in the future.

Distributors as a necessary evil. We couldn't possibly sell all of our products to every retail account directly...and there is a cost involved in creating those sales. We do our best to try and minimize those costs to keep our products priced competitively.

We are rolling out some new products....more on that next time

Friday, November 12, 2010

News story - Tower Falls the Wrong Way

News story: Tower Falls The Wrong Way

I never did well in science in school.

As a senior in high school, I had to take Physics, because I needed 2 years of science. I couldn't bring myself to disect a frog so I didn't take biology, so I took chemistry and physics.

Well, I didn't do well in physics.

I remember some of the problems we worked on: if a train is approaching going 100 miles an hour, how soon after it passes will you hear the whistle?

But the one I liked the best:

If a bulldozer is pulling on a tree with 150 pounds of pressure and a 65 degree angle, and another bulldozer is on the other side of the tree, pulling with 125 pounds of pressure and a 75 degree angle, which way will the tree fall?

My answer - I don't know - I'd look in the Yellow Pages for an engineer (when I was in high school there was no Google). But I knew for sure I wasn't going to say, well, I am an expert at Physics, and I know - for sure - that the tree is going to fall THAT WAY!!!! And to prove it, i will stand under the tree on the other side!!!

Well, it looks like even engineers can get it wrong...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


It's been awhile since I have posted about BPA - Bisphenol A - so I thought I would do an update.

It is certainly the topic that I get the most consumer emails on.

I do have a little good news to report.

It seems like the can industry is moving towards using alternatives.

For the longest time, our canners - relying on information from the can industry - said "there is nothing wrong with BPA." When I would get these emails from my suppliers, I would write back and say "you are on the wrong side of the need to be looking at alternatives."

Of course, in reality, it isn't that simple.

The can manufacturers turn out - I don't know - hundreds of thousands of cans per day...maybe millions...all coated with BPA.

The canners themselves have huge warehouses - millions of square feet that I have walked through. Right now, with the harvest over, they have filled, unlabeled cans of tomatoes, corn and other vegetables. Then during the year, as they ship out product to the customers, they start buying empty cans to put in the warehouses, in anticipation of next year's crop.

In other words, none of these can manufacturers have the capability to produce a year's worth of cans in a week or two before next year's harvest. They are making cans year round.

So where are we at today?

A consumer wrote to me this morning "...Is there someplace I can go to find information on putting pressure on the can manufacturers? Do I just need to be hassling my grocers, or are they at the mercy of their distributors..."

The can manufacturers are the ones in the middle. They have heard, loud and clear, that they need to start using alternatives to BPA. We have been told that a certain percentage of our Organic Tomato cans are BPA free...maybe 20%. We were also told that we can't order product to come in with BPA free cans...that it is going to take a year for the old cans to work their way through the system.

As to putting pressure on the can isn't just us - the organic folk - that want BPA free cans. They are hearing it from Wal Mart and the other big guys. The main difference, though, is we are telling our suppliers that they can increase our cost to cover the BPA free cans. Wal Mart and the other big guys? I can't speak for them...but Wal Mart didn't get to the size they are at by saying to their suppliers, "sure, go ahead and raise your prices to us..." if you know what I mean.

The canners themselves have produced - and put into their production sample rooms - cans without BPA. They want to be able to look at year old cans of beans, two year old cans of beans, and see if they maintain the same shelf life as they had with cans with BPA.

And that is an update as of today