Rena’s expertise in every aspect of food, from recipe creation for the home cook to food service design to the taste preferences of individual markets, was apparent in every conversation. Equally apparent is her warmth and enthusiasm for sharing her prodigious experience.
We started having extended chats about the food business, specialty food brands & marketing, the challenges of grocers, the changing tastes in America, and hype versus reality. These conversations have been so insightful and enlightening, we thought we’d share them with our readers.
Angela: Let’s talk about the changes in home cooking. McCormick is doing a campaign to encourage home cooking and experimentation with their FlavorPrint campaign. Is home cooking driven by the economy?
Rena: It’s more than the economy. I think people are more interested in what they’re eating. And now many people in a single household have different eating habits.
Everybody has their own eating style. Everybody has what’s perfect for them. Are they no carbs and high protein? Are they vegetarian and protein alternatives? Are they vegan and no dairy? It is a world of everybody satisfying their own personal needs.
Here’s a perfect example, we did a wedding over New Year’s. There were probably not even 100 people at this wedding and we had 22 separate dietary requirements. That is what’s happening today.
People are defining themselves through how they’re eating. And there is a huge amount of people, I think, that take their lunches to work now so that they get exactly what they want to eat. And yes, it’s about money but it’s more about them. It’s more of a statement. It’s like driving the Prius.
Angela: So what’s that mean for home cooking? You’re putting a lot of pressure on somebody to create a meal if everybody wants different things.
Rena: Well, it’s interesting. I went to a dinner party. The husband loves to smoke meats and fish. So he always smokes venison and stuff like that. He’s a meat eater. Everybody else in the family, a mom and three girls, one’s a vegan, one’s a vegetarian, one will eat vegetarian, but is also a carnivore.
So one daughter who is in her late 20’s, prepared her own food. She did things like a barley risotto with kale. Everything she did leaned toward how I think that age group is eating now. They’re eating whole grains. They’re eating more greens. They’re conscious about not eating meat every single day of the week. There’s that different balance of getting your proteins, not only just through carbohydrates, but also getting it through things like a tofu or quinoa or lentils that type of thing.
The thing is when (my husband) Gary and I went to the Culinary Institute there was only the Culinary Institute. That was it. Today, every little town has their own culinary schools. So today everybody is spitting these chefs out, educated cooking people.
People are choosing this industry because it’s like a palette and it’s so now they’re looking at it like art and you’ve got these young kids experimenting wherever they want to go. We have in Philadelphia some of the best vegan restaurants anywhere in this country.
Angela: Is that changing food shopping?
Rena: Absolutely. Shoppers are more educated than they’ve ever been. You realize this. Everybody on a national level knows more about food than they have ever known in the whole history of this country to think to Top Chef. You may not agree with the nuances of those programs, but the essence of what those programs have brought to the table is they understand that mom and pops, there’s still a place in the world for mom and pops and each corner has something that makes them really special.
We used to see a quote, “international aisle” running six feet. Now, the international aisle is the whole length of the store and it has gone from being just Latin and American-Chinese and Thai, to, well now I can get anything you can possibly imagine between mirin and yuzu, the incredible, incredible combinations and incredible variety of stuff.
I was looking at dressings and sauces and there was everything, chipotle lime, every buzz word, every pop, everything that would grab somebody’s interest and they were interesting combinations and they were way beyond Heinz or Wishbone.
Angela: Are specialty brands really driving that now? Because they used to be the filler, it used to be that the stores had the major brands and then they’d fill in around the edges.
Rena: I think it’s because store brands have become the new brand. Like when you go into Wegman’s they have a brand of every staple from chicken broth to cream cheese to jelly. I find that the national brands are playing a much smaller role and every day they get smaller and smaller. Whereas before you used to only buy the store brand because that was cheaper.
But it’s great for specialty products because, for example, I was talking with one of the guys at Acme. I just couldn’t find something, something stupid like chipotle peppers and he said, “Yeah, we just eliminated hundreds and hundreds of these small labels or these little items and brought in their own.” Because he said, “We make more money, face it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but I want the chipotle peppers.” So then I went back and over a period of time, it’s been over the year now, they’re starting to bring some of these specialty brands back so they can keep the range of offerings. They clearly removed too many.
Angela: Then what does it mean for small niche producers who are the people we work with?
Rena: It’s their time. This is their time. This is absolutely their time. Yeah, they’re going to grow. People are for the first time ever far more willing to shop for the little guy than they are for the big guys.
Mee the expert: Rena Coyle
Here’s what Rena’s done to acquire some of her experience:
She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then apprenticed with Master Pastry Chef Albert Kumin for the opening of the twenty-two restaurants in the World Trade Center including the crown jewel Windows on the World. During her five years with Inhilco, the operating company for the World Trade Center, she was pastry chef for Windows on the World, opened and managed The Bakery in the Big Kitchen, created Inhilco Catering (corporate catering), and was the merchandising manager for all the Inhilco restaurants and retail stores.
Next Rena collaborated with Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times’ restaurant critic, developing and testing recipes for all her books and N.Y. Times’ articles. She also began researching the origins of American food, an interest that later became the foundation for Glorious American Food (Random House, 1985), which earned the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook of the Year award. Rena went on to write a series of children’s cookbooks: My First Cookbook (Workman, 1987) and My First Baking Book (Workman, 1989), which were named best children’s cookbooks by the New York Post and the New York Times, and Baby Let’s Eat (Workman, 1989), about feeding baby and family together.
She also wrote feature articles, and for ten years, penned a weekly syndicated column, running in 275 newspapers, on cooking with kids and families. She has collaborated or ghost written another dozen books, including What to Eat When You’re Expecting, published by Workman in the spring of 2005.
Her writing led to national cooking tours, and television features for Good Morning America and CBS Morning News. That led to her stint as the culinary producer for the PBS series, Baking at Home with Julia, Julia Child’s last television series. Oh, to have been in the kitchen with those two!
In 1986, Rena jumped to the agency side as Director of the Food Center for Ketchum Communications. There she created new products and recipes for clients, trained spokespersons for on-camera interviews, ran focus groups, and of course, kept writing. Rena has developed recipes and product lines for Bird’s Eye, the Dairy Board, Ore-Ida, Dole, Chiquita, Kraft and Campbell’s Soup. Chances are, if you’ve cooked from a published recipe in the past 15 years, Rena had a hand in it.