By Peter Bailley '74
As we admire the apples at County Fair Foods on South Western in Chicago, store owner Bill Baffes '64 reveals how his independent grocery achieves a reputation for what one online reviewer calls "awesome produce."
"Customers have become more sophisticated," says Baffes, who majored in English at Knox. "We want to give customers what they want, so we are very demanding. We buy the best, and we get the best deals."
Between us and the origin of our meal stretches a large, complex logistical network. Food is transported, handled, processed, packaged, advertised, and marketed, and Knox alumni are active in all facets of what has become a world-wide business.
Today "food miles" and food processing are both stuck with a bad rap. But without them we would not have the foods that many of us want-and some desperately need. The main ingredient in Mary's Gone Crackers -- organic brown rice-is grown less than an hour from the production facility in Gridley, California, built by Mary Waldner '73. But she had to go 3,800 miles to Ecuador to find a key ingredient for her company's famous gluten-free crackers.
"Quinoa was a staple of the ancient Inca diet," Waldner says. It also is high fiber, high protein, a complete protein and, most importantly, gluten-free. That's a life-changing detail for those who, like Waldner, are allergic to gluten, a ubiquitous food ingredient. Waldner-a psychotherapist who majored in psychology at Knox-says that she, with husband and company co-founder Dale Rodrigues, had to rediscover long-lost secrets like quinoa and build their own new factory to prevent contamination by wheat or gluten.
"I never expected to be making crackers in my 50s," Waldner says, ‘but it fits with my passion for health and consciousness."
Waldner's company won the 2008 Outstanding Cracker Award from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade; boxes of Mary's Gone Crackers and Waldner's other organic, whole grain product-Sticks & Twigs-are distributed worldwide, including the United States, Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, and Australia.
Just like food miles, food packaging doesn't deserve its bad rap. Writing in the early 20th century, the famed ad man and chronicler of Knox history Ernest Elmo Calkins '91 (that's 1891, not 1991!) asserted that packaging revolutionized food safety. Prior to the package, Calkins wrote, virtually every food was "weighed in the same brass scoop, handled by the grocer's hands, and wrapped up in paper on which the cat had been sleeping all the afternoon. . . . The package drove out the bulk product to a great improvement in cleanliness and health."
Today, we also rely on hard science and detailed directions. "McCain Foods tests materials throughout the entire processing flow," says Mariann Scott '63. Scott is a microbiologist and food safety tester for McCain, which makes a raft of widely distributed breaded products. "Our testing starts with incoming raw materials, including batters and breaders, raw vegetables, cheeses, and water. We test during processing, and we test samples of finished products."
A biology major at Knox whose prior positions include naturalist in a Wisconsin state forest, Scott has worked since 2001 for McCain, which has won recognition for its testing processes from the American Institute of Bakers.
Beyond product testing, McCain also "monitors the effectiveness of our cleaning procedures by swabbing and testing equipment and environmental surfaces for bacteria-staph, coliform, and E coli. Incoming materials are also tested for Salmonella, and environmental swabs are tested for Listeria," Scott says.
Tests occur every eight hours, every two hours, or every hour, depending on the product, Scott says. Because some tests take five days, products are warehoused until results come back. Both extensive laboratory testing and meticulous record keeping take place before any packages-such as one of McCain's biggest sellers, Brew City Onion Rings-are dispatched to consumers.
Starting in the late 1800s, packages revolutionized another ubiquitous aspect of our pre-meal: advertising. Calkins wrote in his 1905 book Modern Advertising that, unlike bulk foods, which were the original generics, packaged foods provided a place where they could be identified, and thus advertised.
Calkins himself is credited with some of the first advertising that did not rely solely on the name or picture of the product. For an early 20th century ad campaign, Calkins created a famous character, "Phoebe Snow," and some 60 rhyming poems, or jingles. He cautioned students of the ad business that "the jingle in the advertisement is something which must be very well done, indeed, to be good at all."
"Very well done, indeed," is an apt description of the catchy jingle for Country Time Lemonade -- he one that "tastes like good ol' fashion lemonade." The phenomenally successful beverage was brought to market by Jim Kilts '70, when he worked for General Foods.
Kilts began at General Foods in a summer job between high school and college, and continued with the company after Knox. "We had a situation where the business was stagnant with Kool-Aid," Kilts said in an interview with the alumni magazine of the University of Chicago Craig School of Business. Customer research revealed that adults consumed nearly 60 percent of all Kool-Aid: "We saw this as a great marketing opportunity."
Kilts said they "looked at the entire beverage market through the consumer's eyes, not ours, to find out what we could bring to the world of powdered beverage mixes."
What Kilts brought was Country Time Lemonade-one of the most successful new food products of the 1970s. He would follow that with another mega-hit, Crystal Light-one of the most successful new food products of the 1980s. In addition to skill at research and development, sensitivity to consumers, and a talented creative team, Kilts, a history major, told a Knox audience that he "had a lot of being in the right place at the right time and getting the right assignments."
Timing is also critical for fresh produce. "We get deliveries every single day of the week," says Bill Baffes at County Fair Foods, which was rated #1 in the Chicago area for customer satisfaction this year by Consumer's Checkbook magazine.
We head for the checkout lane, confident in the freshness of our bag of apples. "You need to have a passion for what you're doing. I was born into a mom-and-pop store, and I always wanted to own a grocery store," says Baffes. "What we're selling is confidence. You gain the customer's confidence by doing the right things, every day." •