Monday, February 21, 2011

Rant: Beating a Dead Food Horse

We don't need another cupcake store.  There are already too many of them, and frankly, most of them produce a mediocre product.  Yet, for unknown reasons, it remains a trend, so we probably will see more cupcake stores open up in the near future.  But why beat a dead food horse?

The problem with food trends is when they get overdone, when too many people jump on the bandwagon and the trend becomes too ubiquitous.  Often, the trend started because the product was more unique, but once it becomes commonplace, it loses much, especially when most of the imitators offer an average quality product.  Though competition can be good, we certainly do not need everyone competing with the same product.

It is easy for a place to ride on the coattails of a trend, to hope to garner customers by giving them a product that is already hot.  But it can also be a very lazy way to run a place, and in addition, you have much more competition.  For example, try to start a cupcake bakery now and you already have tons of other bakeries with which to compete.

Let me use another example, the suburban town of Wakefield. It has a population of about 25,000 and already had several Italian restaurants.  Yet within the last year or so, even more Italian restaurants opened, most within about a half-mile or so.  How many similar Italian restaurants does one small suburban town need?  Why would a restauranteur decide to open another Italian place, when there is already plenty of competition?  It doesn't seem to make good business sense.   

It is much more difficult to be an innovator, to be someone who starts a food trend.  It is certainly riskier to do that, but also can be much more rewarding.  The uniqueness will be a draw for customers, and your competition will be much less.  Plus, it will be more satisfying, knowing you are a leader and not just a follower.  So why don't more people try to do this?  Is the easy way that compelling?

Let's consider the whoopie pie.  It appears to be on the verge of becoming a food trend, yet it is still in its infancy.  A few pioneers are taking the chance on it, trying to produce high-quality products to entice consumers.  Whoopie pies are nothing new in of themselves, yet they are ready for a major surge in popularity. Those who capitalize on it now will likely succeed, while those who wait until it has become ubiquitous, will be those beating a dead whoopie pie.            

The same applies in nearly any field, including blogging.  Will you be a leader or a follow, an innovator or a copier?  Will you take the easy route, or try to be a pioneer and blaze your own way?

I would rather be a pioneer.


Frederick Wright said...


+1 on that sentiment! Except that being a pioneer requires a bit of courage and daring. And the banks who finance a lot of these businesses don't have any of that. They want a proven business model, not something original. Factor in the absurdly high commercial rents in this country (particularly Boston) and the Byzantine licensing laws, and you'll get owners who are loathe to take any chances on anything. They want a formula!

The endless proliferation of cupcake shops, froyo joints, sushi mills, pizza places, and burger kraftworkery can all be traced to this.

Which is why my heart leaps whenever someone tries something actually original - like Clover in Cambridge or Vapiano in the Theatre District - it represents creative thinking and hard work. Whether I personally like the place or not, I can at least respect their attempt.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your comments. And I agree with your addition, that money is a significant factor. Though it seems strange that the banks would greenlight a business with so much potential competition. Though it may be a proven model, the competition also acts as a significant limiting factor. Yes, we should also give respect to those pioneers, even if we don't personally care for their foods.

Frederick Wright said...

Richard - my current hero (heroine?) is Joanne Chang, who is brilliant and simply doesn't care what anyone else thinks. Myers+Chang makes you realize how stale and repetitive the rest of the Boston food/drink scene can be.

Now that every former mutual fund manager has his/her own cupcake bakery, I think we can safely move on and perhaps try something new?

Richard Auffrey said...

There are lots of reasons to like Joanne Chang, from Flour and Myers & Chang, to all her charity work.

It is certainly time to move onto something else besides cupcakes. Let's see more whoppie pies!

Mara Hislop said...

Did you read the interesting take of Chef Luster on your post? He says pretty much that "innovators" are the quiet crowd who labor ahead. I'd be interested in your response.