In the ‘good old days’ before food labelling, sell-by dates and competitive brand promotion,
you placed yourself at the mercy of your local village store manager. After the
painful wait for the previous customer to bid his farewells and finally let attention turn
your way, you placed your trust in the nice old guy who knew his store and his supplies.
You often ended up with more than you bargained for, with a tip thrown in on the best
and freshest deals of the day, a few extra ingredients to spice up that special recipe and a
summary of the latest village gossip.
The intelligence of the ‘system’ – the management of a wide range of foods and ingredients
– was human: a customer’s questions dealt with personally and a cumulative
knowledge of their needs and interests allowing a truly personal service to be offered.
The model doesn’t scale well, however. Customers today want wider choice and availability,
better prices and faster service, so the supermarket revolution was born. The
downside for customers was the need to ‘internalize’ that grocer’s wisdom and assess
their purchases for themselves: the shelf stackers could point you to the flours but would
be hard pushed to tell which one was best for waffles. Even if they did have an opinion
on the matter, they probably wouldn’t have been allowed to express it, for fear of being
seen to promote one brand over another.
Then is there is the question of quality and trust. In many countries, it has taken major
food quality and health scares to prompt public authorities to interpose themselves
between producer and consumer and insist on food labelling, quality control regulations
and inspection. In parallel, the growth of the fast food outlet offered ‘no-questionsasked,
no-answers-given’ solutions to the busy and/or unimaginative: fast and cheap,
benefiting from economies of scale and industrial-style production, as long as you
accept the pre-determined and pre-packaged realization of someone else’s flight of