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Friday, 9 September 2016

The food truck and the oriental guerilla: the growing influence of the food multinationals on our daily lives

One could call this a successful attempt to do guerrilla marketing.

Unilever, the large Anglo-Dutch food, hygiene  and personal care multinational is sued by the organizer of the ‘Rollende Keukens’ (i.e. rolling kitchens) food truck festival. The giant company is suppoenaed for illegally hijacking this explicitely non-sponsored and artisanal festival with industrial products from its Conimex oriental food line. These products were sold via a food truck, that was owned by a festival participant, but ‘stealthily’ operated by Unilever.

The following snippets were printed in daily newspaper Het Parool.

“Ten years ago we started with ‘Rollende Keukens’. The event is becoming bigger and bigger, but it is still established upon small entrepreneurship”, according to organizer Igor Sorko of Rollende Keukens.

With the steady growth of the festival, the number of application requests from the big brands is growing. “Every year we turn down dozens of such applications. In March, two months before the festival weekend, we were approached by Conimex. They offered a substantial amount for being allowed to distribute food samples on the festival terrain. Also that offer we turned down, as it violates our principles.”

Therefore Sorko was flabbergasted when he read on various blogs one week after the festival, that Conimex had been present on Rollende Keukens after all, with the ‘Hurry for Curry’ foodtruck.

“What happened? Unilever had asked a foodtruck entrepreneur, via a marketing bureau, to create a truck on their behalf, register himself for Rollende Keukens and thus participate in the festival with (candid) Conimex products”, Sorko explains. At that moment, the brand behind this foodtruck was not revealed.

However, in hindsight we found out that there had been a whole media campaign around this event, with a website, a Facebook page and purchased adverts etc. ‘Nobody knew it was us, but we were present on the Rollende Keukens with our truck’, they boasted. When we noticed that, we went crazy.”

While the uninformed reader could argue what the fuzz exactly is about, it is for me a tell-tale signal that the giant food companies and fastfood chains don’t take prisoners in their battle for total control of the consumer market. And as a matter of fact, I can understand Igor Sorko’s anger and flabbergastedness.

These are strange times: it is a world of globalization and open borders and increasing power for the large multinational food and personal health companies, like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, Danone, Coca Cola Company and Monsanto, to name a few of the most important companies.

At the same time there is a strong craving among people for locally produced/grown food products of artisanal, handmade quality. Food that gives people a ‘heritage-ish’, ‘back to the barn’ feeling of long lost times. Food and snacks like homemade and handmade pizzas, sausages, hamburgers, handcut chips (aka French or Belgian fries), sandwiches made of artisanally baked bread and other finger food of artisanal, locally produced quality. Such food attracts a growing amount of people that are longing for the different flavours and the artisanal quality of the food of their youth. Hence, the foodtruck festival is a textbook example of this somewhat nostalgic, but very vibrant development.

When such a festival is ‘stealthily’ hijacked by one of the worlds largest industrial producers of food products – and as such the total opposite of what the festival endorses – in order to promote their own product lines, this violates the very foundation of this ‘back to basics’ development. And while the suppoena from ‘Rollende Keukens’ will probably become a mission impossible against the legal firepower of Unilever, it is a strong warning signal for the rest of the world that the food multinationals are playing for keeps.

In earlier times only the supermarkets and the well-known fast food chains – which were not so widespread over the country yet – were the domain of industrialized food production and there was still much room for traditional, quite artisanal snack bars, icecream parlours and cafeterias.

However, during the 21st century especially Unilever has intensified its presence in the whole distribution chain, with Unox soupstores, Bertolli lunchrooms, icecream parlours with Unilever scooped ice cream and last, but not least the ‘Broodje Unox’ (i.e. sausage roll) shops at the Dutch amusement parks, train stations and (musical/societal) festivals. Some of these experiments were a failure (for instance the Bertolli lunchrooms), but  especially Broodje Unox seems to be a big success.

Together with the tsunami of American fastfood chains that flooded The Netherlands, the number of places were people could eat real homemade, artisanal fastfood and snacks diminished substantially.

And that is not all: also the Dutch hotels and restaurants have become more and more in the grip of industrialized food producers and caterers, through the sales and usage of fully prepared, catered food as well as semi-finished products for soups, sauces, meat and vegetables. That is very convenient for cooking, but not always good for the taste and quality of restaurant and hotel food.

What most large food multinationals have in common, is that they both try to save an extra penny on expensive ingredients by replacing them with cheaper ones and make their food more preservable, so that they don’t have to throw away outdated stock.

Relatively expensive or unstable ingredients, like (double) cream, wheat flour, mushrooms, herbs and spices and real chicken/beef broth extracts are often replaced by cheaper or more stable ones, like salt (lots of it), sodium glutamate, citric acid, skimmed milk powder, modified starch and yeast extract, as well as artificial flavours and preservants.

This delivers a cheaper, more stable and preservable  end product, which nevertheless has a strong taste that is akin to the original product or even surpassing it. But it has nothing to do with real, artisanal cooking, using only real ingredients.

And can you – as a customer – tell which hotel or restaurant uses only real ingredients and which one uses industrially prepared food and semifinished products? Only the people with the strongest noses and the best trained taste buds can, but others are eating inferior products without knowing it.

Or do you really think that the “19” ingredients of McDonalds French fries are meant to give you a better eating experience than a handcut, hand-peeled and hand-baked potato of a superior potato species could?

This is for me the reason to support Igor “Don Quixote” Sorko in his battle against the windmills of the large food multinationals: a battle that he probably can’t and won’t win, but at the same time a battle worth fighting for. 

And perhaps, when you want to eat something really surprising ? Go for Sorko’s foodtrucks at the next ‘Rollende Keukens’ festival! But please don’t ‘Hurry for Curry’, as it might not be the real deal!

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