Why modern food brands evoke the intimacy of a cooking club
In the 1980’s in Belgrade, there were a number of state-owned bakery stores (“pekara”). One of them was in the building I grew up in, and it was operated, as it was wont in Belgrade bakeries at the time, by a family of Kosovo Albanians. Our pekara is still there, now owned and run by the two sons of the original operators. It is more than a place where someone goes to get bread, sometimes literally. Back when the main annual holiday was The Day of the Republic of Yugoslavia, people would bring pigs for the festivities to be roasted in the high-temperature baking ovens. (How was that even legal is beyond me). Recently, on his regular morning visit, my father shared the news of my upcoming book with one of the sons who was behind the counter. “She was always an excellent student” was the reply, expected only from people who have known you your entire life.
Once commonplace, then anomaly at the time of mass brands, personal relationships in food retail are making a comeback. There is a new wave of food companies (and influencers) who are building their business around wanting you to know who they are, where they come from, and what they are about. They want to know the same about you.
“I started Fly By Jing in 2019 to bring the flavors of my hometown Chengdu to the world,” says Jenny Gao of Sichuan Chili Crisp sauce company Fly By Jing in her thank-you-for-your-order email. “My inspiration was ‘fly restaurants’ — the soul food of Sichuan — old school hole in the wall eateries so delicious they’re said to attract people like flies. Once you get your order, I’d love to hear what you think and what you’ve got cooking.” It’s a smart move: a vividly painted picture of Chengdu’s underground food scene combined with a community-building call-to-action.
The consumer massive pivot to home cooking means that the food and drink market is rearranging itself according to the same aspirational lines as fashion or design. A high-quality condiment is an obvious luxury and a signal of one’s connoisseurship and refined taste. But there’s something else, too: purchasing a sauce from Fly By Jing accumulates social value through support for an actual maker: an independent business run by a real person with a real life. This is a far cry from status or taste signaling acquired by buying Angelina chocolate or Laduree and as a consumer motivation, it’s new.
The drive behind it is not just the trust and comfort of a continued relationship. It is an economy where social ties, social status and social knowledge are valued higher than impersonal transactions. Father Foods, launched by influencer Fatherkels (Kelsey Calemine) is “a delivery only restaurant serving sandwiches and charcuterie boxes available on all of your favorite delivery platforms.” The pivot is as radical as it is expected: people do not go to restaurants for its kitchen, but for the mood, vibe, atmosphere, and others who are there. The restaurant kitchen can these days be literally anywhere, and it is. Ghost kitchens provide the budding social media entrepreneurs with a backend or the hardware; the frontend and the software is the person with a story and their community. Connecting them are the food delivery platforms.
Growth motor for the modern food brands is not price or even a quick customer acquisition, but a direct relationship with people they know and who know them. Their value innovation is to decouple kitchen (and cooking) from a place of its sale and consumption, effectively changing the meaning of a “restaurant.” In its place is a new value curve, introduced by the likes of Fly By Jing and FatherFoods that revolve around the draw and the benefits of a direct and intimate relationship and a community, combined with the messiness, joy and struggle of running a single-operator business.
Just like the future of fashion retail is often found in its past, the future of food retail is going in the direction of cookouts with an Instagram account, influencers with sandwich stores or a grandma in the kitchen and a grandson with a website. A cursory scan of food Instagram accounts opens up a hidden world of pastrami sellers, burrata mongers, Japanese sauces and Sichuan spices. We are reversing back to the time before brands, where people were buying from people.
Nearly a century ago, consumers found it desirable to go to the newly opened supermarkets and buy their food there, enabled by mass production and birth of consumer brands. The impersonal, heavily branded relationship with food and its producers is reflected in the aesthetic of traditional CPG packaging, communication and pricing strategy. Supermarkets were assurance of food quality, lowest prices and greatest choice.
Local markets and good stores almost nearly disappeared, only to be revived in the modern aspirational economy as signposts for craftsmanship, entrepreneurship and environmentalism. Today supermarkets stock their shelves with DTC brands, which is a way for companies like Fly by Jing to scale. But quick scaling is not the growth model that companies like Fly By Jing seem to be after. In the value versus volume scenario, the modern condiment brands follow the luxury strategy, where the food quality and price contribute to the bottom line more than its wide distribution.
The new localism is about companies having the luxury strategy without having the luxury brand. Food quality is guaranteed by a personal story, not by a conglomerate. The economy that’s shaping up in our kitchens is part social-club, part market. We have already seen this dynamic in centuries old Spain’s secret food societies. There, a personal relationship is the main draw and the backbone of status, which is social and cultural, not economic.