Menus Get the Message Out

How to become the authority on eating inexpensively

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The Davis (Calif.) Food Co-op has long held a strategy of winning by becoming the “authority on everything.” We’ve spent literally years cultivating that strategy, answering countless peculiar phone calls from individuals and entities alike, with particular emphasis on lending a cheerful hand to the media, even Fox News.

It’s slightly sad, but not entirely unexpected, that the economic meltdown has caused that strategy to pay off in spades. After all, no matter what the public perception of what co-ops are about, the fact is we’re experts in how to eat inexpensively. Many co-ops were founded as a way of helping members out of hard times, and all of us (even in our infinite diversity) share a common pool of everyday wisdom about eating on the cheap.

At the same time that the meltdown created a need for information on how to cook a wolf, it cut down the ranks of those who could provide that information: newspapers reduced staff, schools cut back on funding, and already overwhelmed public services sank a little deeper into the morass.

This lack of helpful information became headline news in Davis when our local Food Bank ran a challenge, inviting donors to attempt to buy food for one person for five days (15 meals) for the same $20 that food stamps provides.

Our local paper, The Davis Enterprise , sent a fairly young, inexperienced cook to a large conventional chain store for their article on the challenge, with predictable results: a diet consisting almost entirely of oatmeal, hot dogs and red beans—unseasoned because, “Spices were way too much, especially since I needed such a small amount.”

I knew as I read the article that hundreds of our 9,000+ member households were reading those same words, and thinking the same thing I was: “Why on earth isn’t that kid shopping in bulk?”

Within 24 hours, I was prowling the aisles of our store, filling a basket with careful selections—and repeating the story over and over to our members, who were madly in favor of defending our honor. Within 48 hours, I emailed the editor of the paper to let her know I had a follow-up article and photo if she could use them. She emailed back immediately and enthusiastically.

Our response article ran on the front page, and our members went wild. I’ve written for our own newsletter for years and have had a number of articles in that same local paper, but I have never before received a response like that. It was clear that our members felt a strong emotional connection to the idea of our store providing good food at the best price. Long-time member Barbara Anderson wrote to say, “When I read Jonathan Edwards’ story last week, my first thought was, well, heck, his first mistake was in the store he chose to shop at. And I nearly sat down to write a letter to the editor, recommending that next time, he try my favorite store; but your article did a much better job of making the case than my letter would have done—you have recipes! and a shopping list!”

A week later, I repeated the menu/shopping process for our own newsletter for a follow-up article illustrating that the process was reproducible with a completely different menu. Again numerous members approached me to talk about the article. This time I heard a common theme in their comments: while they appreciated the exercise in sharp frugality, they wished that there were a slightly more generous version of the menu that they could use.

Weekly menus
Not entirely coincidentally, I had money in my budget to produce week-at-a-glance menus. These handy guides were common in the 1970s, when many women’s magazines provided menus, recipes and shopping lists. Our particular menu is billed as “12 for $40,” aimed at providing six dinners for two people for under $40 per week (see pages 24 and 25). We provide the menu, recipes and shopping list on a double-sided, three-hole-punched sheet of paper.

Our menus are retro in concept, in economy (one menu featured Rudi’s Hamburger Buns, a CAP storewide special, in four meals to use up the entire package), and even in recipe choice (tamale casserole, anyone?). But they’re decidedly modern California in ingredient choice. While vegetables always comprise the largest part of the shopping list, meat is an occasional guest star, with a vegetarian option listed, and bulk beans and grains are solid supporters.

The first week, we made 100 copies of the menu and displayed them on the white board at our main entrance. After running out several times, we learned to make 250 copies on the first day of the menu, and we frequently do a second run in midweek. After multiple requests for back issues, we set up a simple file on our demo counter so shoppers could help themselves to missed issues or check ingredients for a recipe they liked last month.

This would be a happy story if it ended right there, but it got even better. Two weeks into the menu process, I contacted that same editor and asked if they’d like an occasional column on the program. They quickly accepted, and one of our menus now appears monthly in the paper. This gives us an opportunity to introduce people to the co-op and also a bit of a soapbox for co-op issues. In September, during our eat local challenge, I shopped the featured menu using only local ingredients to illustrate the cost difference—a mere $5.01 more on six nights of dinner. That provided a great opportunity to discuss the perceived versus actual cost of eating local, and the benefits to our community.

After the second Davis Enterprise article appeared, I received a call from the Fire Department. After years of courting them at city employee events, they were now ready to take us up on our offer to teach cooking classes to the fire stations—a sizable audience given six stations with three shifts working at each. The following week, the Sacramento News & Review , a weekly paper, called looking for a writer for a monthly local foods column.

Would this chain of events have been possible without 14 years spent building the “authority on everything” brand? Probably not. If we had to start this from scratch, finding recipes, building menus, and writing words, it would more than likely have been cost prohibitive. Because we’ve spent years developing recipes (for demos, cooking classes, farmers’ markets and in-house publications), I spend only about two hours each week developing the menu. And because we’ve taken every opportunity over the years to assist local media, we have a reputation of delivering fast, accurate and interesting work—something for which we thank a number of co-op marketing directors!

How to Become the Authority on Everything

Build media contacts: We send out press releases once a week, which keeps our name right there in the editor in-box. This is probably the single most useful thing you can do, provided your press releases are always well written and accurate.
Offer to help: When your contacts call you, offer a little more than they ask. “Do you need a recipe to go with that piece? A photo?” If you offer it, make sure you follow through, and fast.
Save your work: Take it from the voice of experience. Archive everything you’ve done in a ­uniform format. If I’d done that, I would have saved hours of searching and reformatting.
Use available tools: If you’re just starting out, don’t be afraid to use the tools we’ve all built: CGIN ( cgin.coop ) has a vast library of resources and supports a multitude of listserves that allow you to connect with other co-ops. Why reinvent the wheel?
Make your work product serve multiple uses: Can you turn your in-house brochure into an article? Offer your recipe cards to the farmers’ market? Teach the same cooking class to seniors and schoolchildren?
Foster staff potential: You need people who can write, speak in public, and take good ­photos. Chances are that you have them already right there on your sales floor. Offer staff the chance to represent your store at events, by writing things you need, or filling other slots outside their usual work. Yes, some of them will do better than others. You will find people who can do what you need—and they already know and love your co-op.

See other articles from this issue: #145 November - December - 2009