Ah, year’s end: a time to pause and reflect … on all the many billions of dollars we pour annually into pitching, producing, processing, packaging, promoting, and pigging out on food. As the industry is particularly prone to self-congratulation for its successes, we thought it appropriate to create a new kind of award—one that honors the profound cynicism, tone-deafness, greed, and sometimes shameful behavior that is part and parcel of a sector driven by money, power, and politics. (Did we say money?)
With that, we proudly announce the first annual New Food Economy Epic Food Fails Awards.
Congratulations, winners. If we were giving out our equivalent of gold statues for the worst startup, branding, idea, and sector, you’d all be going home with a Burger King crown and a bottle of Soylent.
Lifetime Achievement Award
First, and not least, the Lifetime Achievement Award goes to the restaurant industry. For all you’ve done to foster and promote a banquet-lined, millionaire-boys’-club culture, where labor is cheap and human dignity even cheaper. Toques off to you.
The winner: Juicero | Raised $118.5 million
Juicero always felt less like a product than a pitch for venture capital: What if someone made a Keurig, but for juice? Founder and raw foods devotee Doug Evans—previously known for botching the Organic Avenue chain of juice bistros, which peddled $10 cayenne-infused lemonades at locations across New York City—was on a mission to simplify home juicing the way the Keurig had coffee, with an expensive machine and tons of disposable one-use pods.
In a secretive three-year funding campaign, Evans managed to raise a stunning amount from tech titans (Google Ventures), established CPG companies (Campbell’s), and celebrities (Carmelo Anthony) before bringing the product to market in March 2016. From there, things quickly went south. The tech press marveled that the Juicero contraption itself was too costly—as much as $700 for a wifi-enabled version—and that the juices themselves, at $5 to $7 dollars each, weren’t any cheaper than the fresh-pressed juice made before your eyes at Liquiteria. But the final blow came in April, when Ellen Hust and Olivia Zalewski of Bloomberg magazine discovered that the machine itself was unnecessary. Though Jones had claimed the machine exerted enough force “to lift two Teslas,” the magazine found even a physically average, ink-stained reporter could squeeze the bags open and drink the juice directly. Juicero was a $118-million bust.
By September, the company decided its product was not salvageable and announced an imminent shutdown. It offered a device refund so that peeved Juicero owners could get their money back. But the credulous financiers who made the whole thing possible? They were out of luck.
Runner-up: Bodega | Raised $2.5 million
In September, Fast Company ran a profile on a Silicon Valley startup named “Bodega.” The headline? “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The fallout? Incendiary and immediate. Twitter feeds were filled with romantic anecdotes about how integral bodegas are to “community.” Headlines bemoaned yet another technology that would take over human jobs. And in an epic takedown, former Eater editor Helen Rosner tore the company to shreds in a methodical, merciless essay that called the company out for being not only “rash and thoughtless,” but “ethically and culturally bankrupt” and “poorly constructed.”
(For what it’s worth, Rosner penned the year’s most scathing update in a post-publication addition to the piece: “Bodega co-founder Paul McDonald posted to the company’s blog this afternoon apologizing for any offense caused by their name,” she wrote. “McDonald did not mention Bodega’s business model, which remains terrible.”)
The outrage ran high, but the stakes remain low. As Jenna Wortham pointed out in the New York Times’ podcast Still Processing, “No one’s going to use this Bodega. But people will actually start using [Amazon] Prime to get Whole Foods. And that is a bigger deal.” Bemoan Bodega all you want, but the real threat to physical convenience stores is online shopping and immediate delivery. It’s just easier to blame Big, Clueless Tech than our own insatiable appetites for instant gratification.
Worst botched branding
The winner: Pepsi’s “Resistance” ad
2017 could be officially dubbed “Our Resistance Year.” But even though January opened with the multi-city Women’s March—both a response to Trump’s election and a rally for women’s rights—for years before that, protests against police-involved shootings of mostly African-American men and women had morphed into a movement that felt like one long, painful, and persistent march for justice in cities across the country.
Ding: branding opportunity! Someone in a boardroom at Pepsi Co. headquarters must have heard the people’s rumblings and grumblings, and decided that there was nothing more universal to capitalize on than the struggle against institutional racism and sexism. (Sure makes us thirsty!) Thus, in April, the “Pepsi Resistance” ad was born. It starred model du jour Kendall Jenner as a member of the crowd, and was promptly Twitter-shamed for its tone-deaf and toothless execution.
In the ad, “protesters” hold signs bearing the most generic of taglines—“Join the Conversation” and “Peace,” for instance. In its bizarre final moments, Jenner, confronted by a police officer in all his riot gear, hands him a can of Pepsi. The image alluded to the iconic Reuters photo of protester Iesha Evans at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana Black Lives Matter protest, standing with quiet dignity face-to-face with a pair of burly and heavily armed officers.
Jenner’s move is cheered by the commercial’s cast of protesters, and the ad concludes with dancing, smiling police officers, and glamour shots of cold Pepsi cans dunked in ice.
Pepsi’s … um … lack of situational awareness was widely panned for missing entirely the point of resistance: Protests aren’t held for protests’ sake but to demand concrete political change. Civil rights figures including Deray McKesson and Bernice King denounced the ad, and within 24 hours of its release, Pepsi had pulled it and made an apology.
This fall, two restaurateurs in South Africa decided to name their ramen shop “Misohawni.” The term originates from a scene in the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket, during which a Vietnamese sex worker uses it to solicit two American clients. (The line was also was relentlessly sampled in popular music, beginning with its rapid-fire recitation in 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.”) To top that off, Misohawni’s Twitter bio reads “cumming soon.” The public was not pleased, and declared as much on its forum of choice, social media, where some women reported having been sexually harassed with the term, while others demanded an apology and name change. Eventually, the owners conceded and changed its name, but not without resistance and defensiveness. This all transpired in a highly charged cultural climate, and at the same time America’s restaurant industry is reckoning with its old- (and really bad-) boy reputation.
In July, Becca Brennan, a former lawyer from Canada, opened up Summerhill, a “boozy sandwich shop” in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Eater reported on its opening, noting that in Summerhill’s press release, the restaurant had boasted about its bullet-hole-ridden wall, presumably to conjure some sense of raw authenticity. Because, you know: cultural vapidity is one of many charges usually levied against gentrifying entities in historically significant neighborhoods. (Others include driving up rents and pushing out low-income residents.)
As it turns out, the “bullet holes” were just cosmetic damage. Brennan took a lot of heat for pushing the myth with one hand while benefiting from the economic forces that displace with the other. Summerhill ended up facing protests, an onslaught of one-star Yelp reviews, and accusations of racism. Brennan’s unbowed response at a town hall, “I’m sorry I have a sense of humor,” only enraged the neighborhood more.
But if tone-deaf marketing of trendy food joints is misery, Summerhill certainly has company.
In Colorado this month, a coffee shop called ink! (exclamation ink!’s) advertised one of its Denver locations with a sign that read “Happily Gentrifying The Neighborhood Since 2014” on one side and “Nothing Says Gentrification Like Being Able To Order A Cortado” on the other. It, too, faced protests. The charge? Sloppy satire, really. If Summerhill and ink! had intended to slide seamlessly into their neighborhoods, both ended up landing with a thud.
The winner: Andrew Puzder
Remember that time an anti-minimum-wage-increase, burger-and-boobs-loving, pro-robots-replacing-humans, former fast-food executive was going to be our Secretary of Labor? Yeah, that was cool.
A visitor from another planet could’ve spotted all the reasons former Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder wasn’t a good choice to head the department tasked with ensuring worker welfare, protecting our benefits, and providing opportunities for profitable employment. That’s why President Trump dismissed Puzder’s nomination in favor of a far superior steward of our American workforce—a candidate who would defend workers’ rights against a rising tide of aggressive corporate interests. Oh, wait. That’s not at all what happened.
Instead, facing widespread opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress, labor unions, and progressive advocacy groups, Puzder withdrew his own nomination in late February, one day shy of his scheduled Senate confirmation hearing. The president then announced his replacement, former federal prosecutor Andrew Acosta, in a now-infamous 70-minute media-bashing ramble, during which he told us exactly zero about Andrew Acosta.
This bi-coastal mini-chain banked on the following concept: Grain bowls and laundromats get married, birth a cashier- and server-free dining experience (think: quinoa automats!), and urban professionals drop major lunchtime coin to dose their superfoods without the inconvenience of humanity. It’s so cynical it’s almost good. Except it wasn’t. Eatsa’s five locations shuttered in October.
Runner-up: Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino
Some runs are limited for a reason. Or two. In the spring, Starbucks rolled out the Unicorn Frappuccino, a sickly-sweet concoction of white mocha, three kinds of pink and purple sweeteners, and rainbow-sprinkled whipped cream. The Lisa Frank-colored delight was meant to be photographed, and, evidently, not consumed: the Washington Post said it tasted “like sour birthday cake and shame.”
As if that wasn’t disgusting enough, word spread that Starbucks’ creation wasn’t merely “inspired” by ultra-saturated images made to be shared on social media. A cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn sued Starbucks in federal court, alleging that the coffee behemoth had straight-up stolen its drink, sans the natural ingredients. The cafe sued for $10 million in damages, claiming that its customers assumed its Unicorn Latte was the knockoff, and not the other way around. The Starbucks menu item disappeared in April, but the bad taste never went away.
Runner-up: Papa John Schnatter
Remember Guido Barilla? Or Dan Cathy? Those two food company CEOs gaffed in years past and lived to tell the tale. But this year, foot-in-mouth disease actually took a victim: John Schnatter, the eponymous CEO of Papa John’s Pizza.
As we reported in November, the trouble started when Schnatter blamed the Tennessee-based chain’s lower-than-expected earnings on NFL players who’d been protesting during the national anthem. (Papa John’s is a major sponsor of the league.) Whether or not he really wanted the company to take a stand, and not a knee, is a mystery; what’s clear is that there was a price to pay, not to gain, for getting political.
After word of the comment got out, the company’s stock fell to an 18-month-low, and as a show of solidarity, white supremacists decided to adopt Papa John’s as their pizza of choice. Was the Papa right to make that claim in the first place? None of the other sponsors that advertise with the NFL seemed to think so. Ultimately, neither did the company’s board of directors.
Worst food sector
The winner: Delivery—featuring Munchery (raised $125.6 million), Maple (raised $29 million), and Sprig (raised $56.7 million).
2016 was a tough year for on-demand food startups, with the closing of over-capitalized meal-by-app services (see: SpoonRocket) as well as layoffs and cutbacks for established players (see: Postmates). But 2017 was the year the food-delivery bubble finally burst.
The bad news arrived right on time, in early January, with major staffing cuts at Munchery—a startup offering subscriptions to “chef-crafted,” home-delivered meals in select cities across the country. By March, according to Bloomberg, Munchery was giving its early investors “convertible notes” in place of equity, and seeking last-ditch loans in a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, having burned through almost $120 million in seven years.
That bloodletting set the tone for the rest of the year. The first fatality: Maple, a food-delivery service backed by the celebrated chef and restaurateur David Chang, shuttered in May. Like Munchery, Maple was a kind of delivery-only restaurant, one with an ever-changing online menu, a roster of star guest chefs, and no public-facing storefront. The goal was to make fine-dining-caliber offerings available at home (with menus chosen specifically to withstand the rigors of bike delivery and still look appetizing and toothsome), and Chang’s know-how and considerable celebrity helped the company rake in tens of millions in venture capital.
In the end, though, the financials just didn’t check out. According to a Recode analysis of leaked company financial documents, the picture was dire: $9 million in spending compared to only $2.7 million in gross revenue in 2015, of which food costs ate up a whopping 63 percent.
By 2016, Recode reported, the company was eking out a tiny 30-cent profit for every meal. But it was too little, too late: “It became clear that we needed to close the Maple operation here in New York and look for a partner with scale—one that would allow us to leverage all that we had built across a broader platform,” the company wrote in a note on its website announcing the decision to close.
In other words: Are you there, Amazon? Google? Uber? It’s me, David.
That same month saw the closure of another meals-on-demand company, one with uncanny parallels to Maple. Sprig was another food delivery company that cooked meals in-house, trucking them out to local homes. It, too, had raised almost $57 million, including from Silicon Valley investors like Accel. Serving San Francisco and Chicago, and employing more than 200 people across both cities, Sprig’s mission was to provide healthy meals that beat even fast-food chains in convenience, if not cost—Business Insider mentioned spending $17.75 for a single vegetable wrap.
Sprig had initially positioned itself as the streamlined, scalable delivery company VCs had been looking for. But by the end, Bloomberg reported, as the company was “burning through” $850,000 a month and seeking a buyer, no one bit. “The demand for Sprig’s convenient, high-quality food was always incredibly high, but the complexity of owning meal production through delivery at scale was a challenge,” Gagan Biryani, the company’s CEO and cofounder admitted, in the closure announcement.
As we’ve written before, the economics of home delivery are punishing. Though Americans seem to love the convenience, no one’s figured out to make the model work on the backend—at least not in a way that will earn investors glorious heaps of cash. Amazon, we’re looking at you.
We hardly knew ye, 2017 worst food failures—but we won’t exactly miss ye. With one exception. The year was a tough one for media as well as for food, and one of our favorite print quarterlies was among the fallen. There had never before been a magazine like Lucky Peach. Part lit mag, part art journal, all shot through with recipes that ranged from gourmet to tongue-in-cheek, LP devoted itself to thinking critically about food at the meeting point of culture, pleasure, and survival. We’ll miss great writing like John Birdsall’s essay on the magnificent queerness of American cuisine, or John Jeremiah Sullivan on fruit jarring and memory, or Andrea Nguyen’s seductive history of pho. We break a little each time we inadvertently click on one of your dead links, only to be confronted with the white screen luckypeach.org. Some choice selections live on at Medium, but 2018’s food media landscape will be drabber without Lucky Peach’s dash of spice.