The Quick and the Dead

How the convenience culture is killing America

Posted Apr 26, 2016

Several recent columns published here have focused on the concept of food value (Part 1 and Part 2 links here). While for the vast majority of the timeline that is human civilization, the primary driver in this equation was quantity; over the last century quality has become the defining variable.  Real, authentic, and wholesome food that supports the human body and the human gut microbiome that has co-evolved to co-metabolize such a diet with us; is clearly revealing itself to be the cornerstone of health and wellness. It is the bulwark against the disabilities and diseases associated with the modern Western diet. Such comestible choices are also a decision that remains entirely within our purview.

Copyright Red Tail Productions, LLC
Source: Copyright Red Tail Productions, LLC

The oft artificially preserved, highly processed, pre-prepared, and pre-packaged food-like stuffs that make up the majority of the modern Western diet are highly correlated with a number of maladies. Such illnesses are not prominent in cultures in which such a gustatory approach is not prevalent. Dietary approaches like the Mediterranean diet have demonstrated the ability to profoundly make an impact on such disabling end points.

Mediterranean cuisine focuses on fresh, quality foods based upon a regimen that includes whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, fish and seafood. The Mediterranean diet also includes moderate alcohol consumption. This combination of vino and victuals has resulted in both the prevention and reversal, in certain groups, of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a number of other untoward conditions.

A recent publication reinforces the benefit of such a method, not only in preventing a first heart attack or stroke; but in preventing recurrent events in those diagnosed with disease. Such secondary prevention highlights the magnitude of benefit conferred from undertaking a true food value, as opposed to food as fuel (or caloric/quantitative) approach.

This latest study examined over 15,000 patients with known, stable coronary heart disease (CHD) from thirty-nine countries enrolled in the STABILTY trial. This was a study that examined the effects of darapladib (a selective lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 (LpPLA2) inhibitor) therapy. Those indulging their appetite with a Mediterranean attitude saw an approximately 30% reduction (10.8% in controls versus 7.3% in the most intensively immersive Mediterranean group) in heart attack, stroke or risk from death due to cardiovascular causes (MACE). Specific foods associated with a lower risk of MACE included fruits, vegetables, fish, alcohol, dairy food, and tofu/soybean.

But as Booker T. Washington noted, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” Tasty food and the healthful benefits of nourishing and genuine ingredients are no exception. It takes a bit of interest to read a label, a smidge of effort to source your sustenance, and perhaps a dram of desire to rally your inner Emeril into the kitchen. All in all, it is not much effort when measured against the return on such an investment. But we have become a culture of convenience. When we drive around a parking lot for forty minutes to park six paces closer to the entrance to the gym, something is askew.

And the restaurant industry has gotten the message. We want it NOW, quality be damned! According to Yum Brands CEO, Greg Creed, who oversees Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC brands, the motto is that “easy beats better.” In the bloody arena in which eateries compete for your discretionary dining dollar, many choose a strategy based on convenience. They believe this is more important than quality or better tasting food.

To back their claims that this is a winning strategy, Taco Bell points to sales over the last several years that have been buoyed by such an approach. Instead of competing by offering higher quality -and thus often more expensive- ingredients; the focus is on convenience.  This is predominantly reflected in the areas of delivery and digital innovation. While trained chefs work long hours sourcing and preparing prime ingredients to prepare a meal both sumptuous and salubrious; industrial chains assemble intestinal incendiaries with ever more facile delivery systems.

In addition to building more brick and mortar stores in the quest of ubiquitousness, there is a focus on delivery.  In fact, delivery was the number one demand from their customers. In addition to home delivery, ordering was made simpler and more efficient by taking the process on-line and mobile. That way when you order your flat-line fries with an emoji sent at digital speed, you can group text EMS on the request! Convenient AND efficient!

Taco Bell’s sister company, Pizza Hut, also adheres to the “easy beats better” philosophy. Last year Pizza Hut executives switched their focus from making a pizza that customers might actually enjoy eating to simply cutting down delivery time. The result was an impressive 5% same-store sales growth. With 46% of the carryout orders originating from digital channels, the consumer demand is on convenience not quality. Despite impressive numbers, competitors Papa John’s and Domino’s exhibit even greater digital dominance with over 50% of their carryout orders originating digitally.

Creed observed that in the past Pizza Hut had not paid much attention to making life easier for customers as it focused on being "better." Sales slumped even though Pizza Hut was often listed as a consumer favorite. Turns out that the public is fickle and thirty seconds are not only for sound bites, but for real ones, too. People, even those that prefer Pizza Hut pizzas, are only willing to wait about two minutes longer to receive their share of the pie. Since Pizza Hut takes more than two minutes longer to deliver than its competitors, focus shifted to faster. It is not about better ingredients, a better pizza or product. It is about the illusion of instant gratification and emotive entitlement.

And nothing satisfies more than supersizing that instant delivery.

Perhaps the most important feature on the convenience train and the one thing that drove the sales boom at KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut in the most recent quarter was an emphasis on inexpensive quantity. KFC released the $5 boxes, Taco Bell boosted sales by 8% with a new $1 breakfast menu, and Pizza Hut bolstered growth with a $5 flavor menu. Such marketing continues to blur the distinction between value and number; between worthwhile and worthless.

Creed remarked that there was a time when the way to beat the competition was to have a better product. He now believes that convenience trumps quality. That is a lazy argument for lazy minds, but one that is all too easily proven true in the face of ignorance and wilted effort. Like some modern Circe these peddlers of misconception prey upon weakness. Rewarding our languor with disability and disease, they transmogrify us from Pizza Hut through our own acedia into Jabba the Hutt.

Such collusions of convenience may be consumed, but not enjoyed. Heed well the siren song of expediency. Strive like Odysseus and make the effort of authenticity; for you are what you eat:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”[1]

[1] (Tennyson, 2003)

References

Choi, C. (2015, December 11). Yum CEO says Pizza Hut needs to be more like Uber. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from ap.org: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/99d47250ef45434186c37a0c974c9632/yum-ceo-...

Stewart, R. A., Wallentin, L., Benatar, J., Danchin, N., Hagstrom, E., Held, C., . . . White, H. D. (2016). Dietary patterns and the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events in a global study of high-risk patients with stable coronary heart disease. European Heart Journal, doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehw125.

Taylor, K. (2016, April 21). Why 'Easy Beats Better' is the new motto at Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from Yahoo Finance: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/taco-bell-pizza-hut-focusing-160957778.html

Tennyson, A. L. (2003). Idylls of the King and a Selection of Poems. New York: Penguin Putnam.