How To Sell Food To People Who Aren’t Hungry

There’s a great scene in, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” when the Wall Street trader turned inspirational speaker invites an audience to sell him a pen he holds up before them.  In succession, two men suggest that the pen is well priced, sleek, and lasts longer than other pens.  The trader scoffs at them and looking at the pen he says, simply, “You need this pen.”

In the world of arts, it’s the same.  Agents and producers–the people who must sacrifice time and effort for projects that may not monetize–operate on a realistic, short sighted business model.  Which is: This year people are buying shoes with laces, they aren’t buying shoes with buckles.  I can’t sell your buckle shoes.

But of course the huge hits in artistic fields were and are the works that aren’t anticipated and aren’t like what people are buying.  “Star Wars” was rejected by every major movie studio.  “The Sopranos” wound up on a then relatively unknown cable company called HBO.  “The Book of Mormon” was not an obvious choice for investors.  Ben Lerner’s brilliant novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station” was published by Coffeehouse in Minnesota and wound up as the book to read.

No Brian Epstein, no Beatles.  No Jay Z, no Kanye.

And so it goes with food.  What’s sold is the stuff that people are buying everywhere, whether it’s fancy-pants tasting menus that are a complete hodgepodge, or very cheap ingredients with lots of salt and fat that create enormous profit: Burgers, tacos, hot dogs, ramen, pizza.  The challenge is to come up with food that is so delicious that people will leave home to eat it, but isn’t like what people are already buying.

Why?  Because at the moment you least expect it people will stop buying what everyone else is buying and you’ll bust.  Or be old fashioned.  Or out of business.  Or corny.  Talk to me in ten years: Farm to table?   Celebrity chefs?  Yo-yo.  Hula hoop.

And local?  That’s a good one: Do you wonder why Hadley asparagus, Atlantic halibut, Maine scallops, etc. end up in NYC rather than most high-end Boston restaurants?  The NYC restaurants pay more for the ingredients because they are better able to sell them to their customers.  So much for local.  Local only if the farmer or producer accepts a price lower than what he or she gets elsewhere.

The best agents and producers and chefs are like that Wall Street trader: “You need this.”

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