How Big Business Ruined 'Artisanal'
Maybe it was when fast food companies such as Domino's and Dunkin Donuts started acting like their food was handmade by an army of flour-dusted grandmothers, or maybe it was when the a Brooklyn food festival last month forced people to wait two hours in the scorching sun to pay $10 for a tiny schmear of foie gras.
A lot of people believe it was the day the gourmet mayonnaise shop opened in Brooklyn and became a thing that you have convince people from out of town that--no, really--it actually exists, and it's not a joke we made up to poke fun of a particular breed of extreme foodieism.
Whatever it is, there is a definite sense out there that the "artisanal" food movement has finally jumped the organic, cage-free, milk-rubbed shark.
As many as 800 new foods have dubbed themselves "artisanal" in the past five years, an exponential jump from previous years. Even Panera Bread has started calling itself "artisan fast food." The too-precious attitude toward even the most processed of foods is making some commenters, restauranteurs, and marketers wonder: If all our food is special, is none of our food special?
The Atlantic Wire's Jen Doll declared the word "artisanal" dead on May 30 in a mock obituary that lamented the word's rise from son of a "hardworking craftsman who could avail little to his son in terms of the nurturing the young boy required," to its stature as a "debased" and "meaningless" buzzword. Doll writes:
Artisanal, a word that fought early in his career to ensure recognition of craftsmen for their important contributions to society before later being drafted into the creation of a worldwide gourmet branding glut, died Wednesday at his brownstone in Brooklyn overlooking a small gourmet mayonnaise store.
The same day, The Daily News declared RIP Brooklyn, tracing a line from the noble poetics of Walt Whitman to the lyrics of Jay-Z to their perceived mawkishness of a store that charges $8 for fancy mayonnaise.
On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Lewis Black unleashed his particular form of vitriol at mass-produced foods coopting the "artisan" label, from Dunkin' Donuts' bagels to shredded grocery store cheese.
"Here's a good rule of thumb," Black says in the video. "If your product is served by dumping it out of a plastic bag into a bowl of microwaved chili, it's not artisan. If it takes less than 30 minutes to make and deliver, it's not food."
Jokes aside, there is some serious concern for food businesses that labels like "artisan" don't hold quite the punch they used to.
"You can design a pizza that says 'this is an artisan pizza' and have some (advertising) copy, but you're not going to get any loyalty beyond that," says David Bernard, co-founder of Mythmaker, a brand identity firm that grew out of Odwalla, a health-beverage and food compay, in the 1980s and mostly works with small, organic, and environmentally conscious companies.
"When big companies coopt these ideas of 'artisan' it does make it more difficult. You've got to give them something beyond that: Show where it comes from, what it is, how it's made."
One sign that the public is suffering artisan fatigue is the backlash against big food festivals. The first Great GoogaMooga, a festival from the organizers behind Bonnaroo, was held in Brooklyn's Prospect Park--a giant meadow smack in the middle of perhaps the epicenter of the 'organic everything' movement--last month and was meant to celebrate the idea that "food is the new rock." On the free side of the festival, attendees were frustrated to find themselves waiting in long lines for a small but pricey bit of food--well, if there was any left. On the VIP side, attendees were so disappointed in the lack of sufficient options that organizers offered to refund their entire $250 admission fees.
Right after that, another foodie event in New York City took a big stumble. After originally offering a food crawl at a price of $550 per ticket, Bon Appetit's Brooklyn Grub Crawl slashed its price by more than half to $250.
Bernard says people in the branding world see this as a sign that "artisanal" is just the latest buzzword–along with "organic" and "all-natural"--to go from small kitchen earnestness (a marketer's dream!) to a diluted mass-market tired and buzz-less word.
"Companies with all kinds of weird stuff have been throwing out 'all natural' forever," he says.
That makes it more difficult for the companies actually producing items with an authentic story behind them to stand out.
"When your language or your look gets co-opted then you've got to do something else," he says. "Suddenly it becomes suspect."
A big subject of scorn among people who consider themselves actual artisans is the big brands such as Tostitos and Domino's that have started offering their mass-produced "artisan" style products, such as the latter's "Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie" pizza.
But Domino's considers itself in on the joke, not the butt of it.
"That's kind of why we took the approach we did, which was more tongue in cheek, as far as how we debuted the artisanal pizza," company spokesman Chris Brandon says. "We're poking fun at the way that people have begun to use 'artisan' more in marketing, and stuff like that."
Indeed, when the line debuted in October, the company released a commercial showing a supposedly gourmet chef bumbling his lines when trying to describe the pizza before cutting back to Domino's actual pizza chef.
"We were poking a little bit of harmless fun at the way it's being used," Brandon says. "We didn't take ourselves (or) the artisan designation too seriously."
But still, the square, thin-crust fancy pizzas are sticking around as (at least semi-) permanent menu items, and the company is taking them seriously enough that they're not letting customers substitute toppings.
"We believe so much that these set recipes that were so good we wanted people to experience them as they are," he says.
For actual boutique food-makers and start-ups, the hope is still that discerning customers will be able to tell between something that just uses a perceived-as-hip buzz-word and a product that has a real story behind it. In that vein, the gourmet mayonnaise shops of the world are still on the side of good, Bernard says.
"If you are say Frito Lay and you want to do an artisan cookie, that's really hard to do. You cannot authentically claim that, because you're going to invent a story," he says. "It's going to be a Chef Boyardee, it's going to be a Grandma's Cookie. You're going to have to get the real-life Mad men to invent a narrative for you."
TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor
Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.