Monday, May 29, 2017

Creative Amnesia and Granola Decline

I once wrote about a terrific small brand of granola which trumpets itself as all about The Love, man. It was made by hippies who'd earnestly bought into the rap. And who was I to argue? The love truly was palpable!

The founder appreciated my praise (I was the first food writer to take notice), and sent me a couple of emails reaffirming the love that goes into their loving with the love and how they love that I love the love they love into get the idea.

A couple of years later, the company had grown, and I noticed they'd made it onto the shelves at Whole Foods. I bought a bag, and, predictably, the special touch had not survived the growth required to scale into a business this size. It tasted like pretty good commercial granola.

I sent a brief note, asking what happened to the granola. The founder wrote back with intense apology. Must have been a bad batch! She sent me a great big box full of love love love love love. Sure enough, every bite was good-not-great.

I tried to explain to her that when the sentiment of love becomes untethered from actual love lavished into an actual thing, it becomes mere marketing shtick. I wished her well, affirming that this is the inevitable way of things. I once played in a band with the founder of Magnolia Bakery, and her cakes and pies (just pretty good even during the bakery's heyday) were deliriously wonderful when she used to bake them by hand. You can't have your cake and fully capitalize on it, too.

I don't believe it penetrated. She figured her believing was what made it good, and the money coming in was confirmation. The granola what it is.

It's not very interesting to point out that when operations scale, they lose that certain (dare I say "loving"?) touch. What I find interesting, though, is that even someone who knows what it is to produce something sensational - who did it once, and who therefore understands the required effort and care - would be shocked by the observation that great effort and care are required. Why is that surprising? Why would you attribute quality to magical thinking when you yourself know what it takes?

The baker of some of the best French bread in the country - a guy who has tinkered with every iota of every baking minutiae, finally managing to bake loaves a nanostep from burnt, from leathery-crusted, from noticeably salty, and from over-dense - is hoping to branch out into cookies. He gave me one to try.

I told him they need perfecting. He seemed confused. "What, you think they're too sweet? Too crunchy?" I replied, "No, not necessarily either of those things. But there are a thousand micro-decisions to be made here before they're truly delicious, and you've just whipped up some cookies. They can't possibly be great yet. You need to sweat and work and consider and polish. Why would you, of all people, not realize this?"

He was nonplussed. He hadn't made any obvious errors, and, hey, they tasted pretty good to him.

Again: how can someone who's discovered what it takes to produce greatness be surprised that any old thing doesn't turn out great?

This is how people who've never done anything great talk. They assume they could easily do so if they tried, with just a bit more than their usual middling, grudging effort. Just by virtue of their own fabulousness and full-heartedness. I get that. Everyone's a latent superstar in their own mind. But I do not understand how this can be the mindset of someone who's seen the falseness of those assumptions; who's reached a peak and knows the agonies required.

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