Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Breakfast Cereal and the Vicious Circle of Untimely Quality Declines

I was briefly interviewed (via email) by a reporter writing about shifting trends in breakfast...specifically, the downturn in cereal sales.

I told her it didn't seem mysterious to me. The public is moving away from highly-processed empty carbs. Furthermore, while breakfast cereal has had a long run (most of the famous brands launched prior to 1955), it seems a bit of an anachronism these days.

The reporter asked what I eat for breakfast, and I replied:
Oatmeal, egg-white omelets, and granola-and-yogurt. Cereal-wise: Nature's Path Heritage Bites, Kashi Indigo Morning or Honey Sunshine with high quality milk. I used to really love Corn Flakes, but Kellogg's downgraded flavor/quality years ago. Trader Joe's version was better for a while but eventually they downgraded, too. There's a puzzling (and tremendously counter-intuitive) tendency for quality to decline in the face of a category's declining popularity.
That last part (which won't possibly make it into the final article) is of great interest to me. I'm pointing out a vicious circle seen in many sorts of undertakings. Quality tends to plummet the moment interest starts to fade. For example, precious few restaurants maintain standards as they conclude they're not catching on. Right at the point when they most need to show their best side, they present their worst (I can't count the number of times I've been treated brusquely in completely empty restaurants). Similarly, newspapers have seemed more poorly-written and edited - generally off their game - ever since that sector's future came into doubt. And most couples split up not from discord, but from the sourness which arises the moment malaise is detected in ones partner.

I wrote about this effect last year; how at the very moment when we most need to double down and persuasively prove our value, we (and our institutions) tend to go the exact other way. We are, alas, not a species predisposed to rise to occasions.

Consider this classic line from Albert Brook's character in Broadcast News:
"Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"
I'll re-quote per that last link from the chronicle I wrote for Slate about the noble, inspiring final weekend at Bo, the lamented Queens Korean restaurant, a sharp counterexample which deeply moved me:
...the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.

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