Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fun Food Exploration

When is the last time you entered a grocery store and didn't want to leave? For residents of the Pittsburgh region, this phenomenon happens on a frequent basis. That's because the Giant Eagle Market District is so much more than a supermarket; It's a destination and an interactive experience where customers can sample new products and watch chefs create a new recipe all while shopping for everyday groceries.

In November 2009, Giant Eagle, a grocery chain with more than 200 stores throughout western Pennsylvania, central and northern Ohio, northern West Virginia, and western Maryland, opened its third and largest Market District store in the Robinson area of Pittsburgh. The 150,000-square-foot supermarket carries more than 65,000 different products, including 250 kinds of national, microbrew, and premium beers. The store employs more than 650 people and boasts a certified aesthetician, a nutritionist, and professional consultants among its staff to aid customers at any time.

In addition to meat, seafood, deli, and bakery sections, the store offers a produce department complete with a hydroponic garden where lettuce and herbs are grown on the sales floor, and a cheese department consisting of 400-plus varieties of imported and domestic artisan cheeses from around the world. The store also possesses an impressive eatery with a hot and cold buffet bar, a Rösti bar, a crêpe station, made-to-order salads, an array of fresh satay, wok, and curry meals, and a coffee, juice, and smoothie bar. Before leaving, stop by the candy shop for some cotton candy, chocolates, or gelato made on the premises right before your eyes.

The Market District, however, is not only for shopping. The store often hosts events like cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs, lectures by food experts, and health and wellness sessions led by nutritionists and medical professionals. The store caters to non-foodies as well. Want to learn your way around the kitchen? Sign up for one of the market's classes through its cooking school.

In the months since its opening, the culinary playground has received numerous accolades. The store is LEED certified and received the Progressive Grocer's 2010 Green Grocer Award in March for its environmentally friendly efforts. Progressive Grocer also named the Market District its April 2010 store of the month in a comprehensive article in its magazine.

The Market District is magnificent and truly a grocery shopping destination – one you must visit if taking a trip to Pittsburgh.

If you've been to the Market District, share your thoughts on this superstore in the comments section. Tell me what you like about it, or what you think the store might still be missing. If you're not in the Pittsburgh area, I'd like to hear about your favorite local market.

Friday, June 25, 2010

10 Questions or Less with Chex Mix

One of my favorite parts about writing this blog is the opportunity I get to interview those in the field with unique jobs. These individuals are changing the industry with their innovative thinking, and today's profile illustrates that concept. This week, say hello to an old friend.

Name: Chex Mix
Company: I work for myself. I refer to General Mills as "the Creators," but they aren't my employer exactly.
Job Title: Snack Mix, Party Goer, Travel Companion
Years in the industry: 30+

1. How did you get into the business? It was family work, my mom's side of the family had plenty of experience with this kind of work (they are all pretzels).

2. What drew you to this line of work? When I was first born, like any youngster, I had aspirations to be a staple. I realized in high school that would never work for me. I like variety too much. So when I embraced who I was at heart, a snack food, things started to fall into place for me.

3. What do you love about your job? I love the freedom I have to just hang out with people. I really love the travel (prefer road trips to air travel, but hate the high prices that are tacked on me at the airport).

4. Talk to me about your childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of American homes, mostly being made by moms with their creative recipes. It was great; always felt like I was born into classic Americana.

5. Tell me about your family. Mom and her whole side of the family are pretzels. And she is a salty one; don't cross her. Dad's side of the family is where all the variety comes from. Rye crisps are my dad's dad and Chex is on his mom's side. Grandpa Chex had it rough, as his family didn't always approve of him mixing it up with snacks. He comes from a line that is pure cereal. Grandpa Chex was a real hero in breaking down the snack/cereal barriers.

6. I hear you went to school with Beef Jerky and Little Debbie. Who else went to your school? All snacks went to the same school. I was best of friends with Bugles. All candy attended a magnet school after junior high, so we didn't seem them much after grammar school.

7. Whom did you escort to prom? This is at the core of the conflict that Beef Jerky still has with me to this day. It is a complicated story, but the short answer is that it was a group date with Little Debbie, Bugles, Twinkies, and Trail Mix.

8. How would you describe your fashion sense? You call them flavors, I call them outfits, and I am lucky enough to have General Mills as my stylist.

9. What's the best thing you've ever eaten? Snacks don't eat, it would be kinda weird if we did. It is in our nature to be consumed, so I love being eaten, but have never done it myself.

10. As everyone's favorite party snack, you're invited to many soirees and hear a lot of pick up lines. What's your favorite? The favorite one I recently heard was "Baby, you're so fine you make me want to get a job." It was delivered by a guy who was obviously employed, so the ironic humor made it a winner. I clapped a couple of pretzel arms together in applause, but there was too much laughter for anyone at the bar to hear or notice me, which is typical.

Chex Mix, I know you have some vacation plans and parties to get to, so thanks very much for your time! I look forward to continuing our conversation on Twitter. (You can follow @Chex_Mix there, too.) For now, I'm off to eat you in cheddar...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grooms Get Creative

Seven years ago today, my husband and I exchanged our rings and our "I do's." The day was perfect. The ceremony was flawless, my dress was dazzling, the flowers were gorgeous, the music was exceptional, the weather was superb, and the reception was downright enjoyable. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing, especially my favorite part – the cake.

I ordered my cake from a local bakery, and have seen many cakes since my big day that pale in comparison to the cake I chose for my wedding. However, one thing that I did not have at my wedding was a groom's cake. While these cakes are quite popular in the south, the trend has been catching on across the country in the past few years, and more and more grooms have been getting creative, designing cakes that express their personality, interests, or hobbies.

These cakes don't have to be expensive, though. A Little Debbie fan constructed a cake of his favorite childhood treat for his wedding and posted this photo to the company's Facebook page.

Hostess, makers of snack cakes like Twinkies and Ho Hos, are encouraging couples to use its products to celebrate their start as husband and wife. In addition to groom's cakes, and wedding cakes, Hostess has ideas on its website for inventive favors.

If candy better fits the personality of the bride and groom, companies like Pamcakes can turn towering tiers of sweets into a layered "cake."

When it comes to cake, I say the more, the merrier. Bring on the groom's cake at all weddings!

What's the most creative groom's cake you've seen? Leave your thoughts, photos, and links in the comments section.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fun Friday: What's Your Favorite Candy?

June is a busy month! You can now add one more title to the next few weeks: National Candy Month. Who doesn't love a sweet treat? Tell me, what describes your candy personality?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Candy Man Can

Last month, more than 14,000 confectionery and snack professionals descended on Chicago for the 2010 Sweets and Snacks Expo. Buyers, international visitors, exhibitors, and industry experts spent three days discovering new products and uncovering merchandising solutions.

The Expo also featured a gourmet marketplace highlighting gourmet, organic, and natural products. Attendees gained valuable insight through sessions boasting keynote speakers from SymphonyIRI Group and The Coca-Cola Company, as well as host and producer of Food Network's Unwrapped, Marc Summers.

Consumer packaged goods companies introduce thousands of sweets and snack items each year in the United States, more than any other food category. So, what yummy deliciousness came out of this year's event? Here is just a sampling of the creative treats shoppers can expect to see in the coming year:Get a sneak peak of upcoming Halloween, Christmas, Valentine, and Easter candy on the Sweet and Snacks Expo New Product Showcase and find out when snacks like Campfire Marshmallow Zebras, Snyder's of Hanover Dark Chocolate Covered York Peppermint Pattie Pretzel Sandwich Dips, Hershey's Drops, and Reese's Minis are coming to a supermarket near you.

Read a complete wrap-up of the event from the Chicago Sun-Times and learn more about this year's trends and new ideas to the marketplace from the event's sponsor, the National Confectioners Association.

What sugary goodness are most excited to taste? Leave a message and let me know what item you look forward to trying.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gifting: Dads, Grads, and Weddings

It's that time of year – Father's Day is one week away and graduation and wedding seasons are in full swing. As families and friends try to seek out thoughtful, useful, and creative gifts, Best Buy seems to have devised a unique solution. The company's "Pitch In Card" provides gift givers an opportunity to combine their resources to present one large gift to a lucky recipient.

Here's how it works: Your dad, grad, or wedding couple can visit the Best Buy website and add items to their online "Wish List." Once friends and family members have an idea of what the beneficiary wants and/or needs, they can join forces to contribute any amount at any time to a "Pitch In Card." This gift card never expires and is free to create and use in retail stores and online. Card balances can range between $5 and $9,999.99.

Benefactors can create a card online or pick up an enrollment kit at their nearest Best Buy location. Credit cards, Best Buy gift cards, a PayPal account, and Best Buy store credit can all be used toward the "Pitch In Card." Reward Zone program members also earn points when they add funds to a card.

The Best Buy "Pitch In Card" makes for easy group gifting, and can also be used for charitable giving. When hopeful gift recipients create their online account, they are able to send notification e-mails with a personalized message and theme to potential donors and set a timeframe for contributions.

Card recipients have no excuse not to send their thank you notes; they receive an e-mail notification each time someone chips in for their card and can view this information any time in their account summary.

Personally, I think this idea is perfect, especially for guests attending an out-of-town event and unable to travel with bulky gifts. It also allows for the dad, grad, or wedding couple in your life to receive the perfect present they have had their eye on, but may be too pricey for one person to purchase.

What do you think? Will the "Pitch In Card" catch on? Would you like to see more stores offer such collaboration among gift givers? Weigh in below with your comment.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Iced Tea for Two

Ah, June. As the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, finding ways to stay cool gets more difficult. There is no better way to relax on a hot summer's day than to sip on a cold drink, making June the perfect time to celebrate National Iced Tea Month.

Consumers often choose bottled iced tea as a quick, flavorful, and refreshing thirst-quencher. With its many health benefits, tea has become a popular beverage. In fact, a report released last month by the Beverage Marketing Corporation noted that ready-to-drink teas were the fastest-growing category of refreshment beverage in the United States last year.

From white, green, and black to oolong, herbal, and infused, iced teas are available in many different varieties. Beverage companies are using their creativity to invent even more unique taste sensations.

Take for example, Lipton, which introduced a line of sparkling green teas in berry, strawberry kiwi, and diet strawberry kiwi flavors just last month.

Snapple also welcomed two new blends into its iced tea line with help from Celebrity Apprentice contestants Holly Robinson Peete and Bret Michaels. As part of the show's final challenge, each competitor formulated a Snapple brew that incorporated their charity's mission. Robinson Peete played for the HollyRod Foundation, which provides families in the autism community with access to affordable treatment. Her Compassionberry Tea combined passion fruit and strawberry with "The Best Stuff on Earth." Michaels, a lifelong type-1 diabetic, competed in support of the American Diabetes Association, sponsor of camps for kids with diabetes. His winning Diet Trop-A-Rocka Tea blended peaches, pears, and cinnamon with "The Best Stuff on Earth."

In recent years, iced teas have benefited from health and buying trends. Shoppers recognize Honest Tea for its all-organic ingredients, as well as Sweet Leaf for its all-natural products. Consumers are flocking to AriZona's line of green tea with ginseng and honey and Nestea's red tea with pomegranate for its antioxidant advantages.

How do you enjoy your iced tea? Freshly brewed or bottled? Flavored or "au naturel?" Share your favorite concoction below in the comments section.

Friday, June 4, 2010

An Ode to Donuts

Whether you prefer jelly-filled, sprinkle-topped, or sugar-dusted, donuts are a delightful treat morning, noon, or night. Today, we celebrate these sweet pastries in honor of National Donut Day.

Visit Dunkin' Donuts on Friday, June 4, and get a free donut of your choice with the purchase of any beverage. To pay homage to its product and acknowledge the holiday, the company will also announce the winner of its second annual "Create Dunkin’s Next Donut" contest. The chosen creation will be sold at locations across the country this fall. What's more, Krispy Kreme stores across the country will offer one free glazed donut to every customer on this day.

In addition to being tasty, donuts are trendy as well. Specialty shops like Portland's Voodoo Doughnut and Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle have become popular tourist destinations.

Thanks to brands like Entenmann's and Little Debbie, donuts have become popular at home, too, with crullers and kid-friendly donut holes bringing smiles to adults and children alike.

Fresh off the line or bought at a supermarket, donuts are delicious and worthy of their own special day.

Who makes your favorite donut? Tell me all about the best donut you've ever eaten by leaving a comment.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Your Picture Here

With so many products available online and in stores, how do manufactured goods stand out in the crowd? What if you could put your face on that product? Today's companies are doing just that, not only allowing consumers to customize items for gifts, celebrations, and fun, but also bringing people together by showcasing shoppers' personal experiences.

Jones Soda, the Seattle company known for its annual limited edition Thanksgiving turkey and gravy soda, created myJones in 2002. With myJones, customers have the opportunity to create their own personalized drinks and bottles, complete with soda flavor, label photo, and under-the-cap message. Buyers can use any of their own photos and choose from eight drink flavors, including blue bubblegum, cream soda, and fufu berry. The soft drink company prides itself on a "your photo, your soda" philosophy, and encourages fans to post their own pictures in the Jones Gallery for a chance to appear on a future bottle, which could be sent to grocery stores around the country.

Other popular items among consumers looking to personalize are "My M&M's." Shoppers can individualize the chocolate candies from Mars, Incorporated, with words, faces, logos, and colors to promote a business, celebrate a graduation, or announce the arrival of a new addition to the family.

Finally, potato chip maker Lay's recently launched the "Happiness Exhibit" to document happiness across America. The bags add a personal touch by displaying a photo submitted by a Lay's supporter. To date, enthusiasts have uploaded nearly 19,000 photos with one goal in mind: to prove that happiness is simple. The campaign, however, is multi-faceted. The chip's new theme, "Happiness is Simple" pays tribute to the brand and its ability to bring people together for simple pleasures while highlighting the product’s basic ingredients of potatoes, oil, and salt.

Tell me, have you ever purchased a personalized food favor or gift? How did you or your guests react? Also, have you seen bags featuring Lay's Happiness Exhibit in stores? Leave a message and share your thoughts.