"Tanning Salons" Versus "Edible Art": What is Artisan Bread?

This is a follow-up on the entry on VPN Pizza.  It results from this interview by a blogger with Eli Colvin, head baker of the MODEL Bakery in California, and Don Sadowsky, whom the interviewer identifies as a "bread pal."  Don happens to be my bread pal, too, which is how I found the interview.

A lot of the interview has to do with the question of whether there is a definitive standard for what constitutes "artisan bread".  As I argued in the prior article, in the end these are two words in the English language you're not going to get complete agreement on.  Don sums it up nicely:

Artisan bread has a cachet that is well deserved, and lots of big boys want in on it. Should we care that a lot of factory bread has the label “Artisan”? “Natural”, “Gourmet” and similar designations have been so debased that they mean nothing (if they ever had any real meaning), though people may react subliminally. Same thing with artisan?

Australia has an Artisan Baker Association, which, much like VPN for pizza, sets standards for bread.  While its name is obviously generic, it has a whimsical logo that most likely gives it a strong trademark in Australia, or anywhere else.  Indeed, it has members in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York and even Alaska.  It's a mark that could mean something to consumers, but of course there is a lot of excellent bread in the marketplace that doesn't have that mark. 

In Britain, there is the Real Bread Campaign, which has a comprehensive FAQ about its goals.  It coined the term "tanning salons" to apply to bakeries in large grocery stores that simply bake pre-prepared loaves.  Sadowsky asks,

Are the people who shop at grocery store “tanning salons” people who might otherwise shop at an independent bakery, or are they merely moving from the prepackaged bread aisle to the “artisan” aisle? I read over and over again about the decline of small bakeries, but I don’t know if it’s just that people won’t spend the money for handmade bread period, regardless of what kind of bread they find in the supermarkets.

That's not a question that will have the same answer for everyone who buys bread in a supermarket bakery.  Like it or not, the availability of bread that meets these standards is not, and is unlikely ever to be, universal.  The families you can see doing their grocery shopping, sleepy kids in tow, after midnight (the only time the parents working two jobs have time to shop), is not going to have a chance to sample Eli Colvin's bread.  Even those who might shop when the MODEL or its peers is open don't all live in what he calls a "progressive food area".  And even he has taken to using machinery for some of his production, just to keep up with demand. 

As a lifelong home baker I entirely agree with Eli that "bread is edible art."  I grew up in a home where the paintings on the wall were by my dad and my son grew up in a house where the bread in the kitchen was made by his dad.  But not everyone is going to get there. 

VPN and Pizza: The Right Way To Deal with Food Claims

An article in Thursday's Wall Street Journal reminded me of a point I’ve been trying to make for years but didn’t have a good hook to do so.  Now that this idea is in print, I do, so here goes.

 

The article concerns a group called Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which gives pizzerias certificates called VPN or Vera Pizza Napoletana.  Tutta Bella, a pizzeria located just a few blocks from my house, has one. 

 

The WSJ article goes into great depth about the process by which the VPN certification is awarded.  It requires one to pay a fee, attend a class and use equipment and ingredients that meet a certain standard.  The Tutta Bella website has an excellent list. 

 

But there are two characteristics of VPN designation that make complete sense to me: 

 

·         It is a purely voluntary designation awarded by a private organization--you either qualify or you can’t get it.

·         It uses a relatively strong trademark that does not try to arrogate to itself words that others should be free to use--VPN does not stop someone from saying “we serve Neapolitan Pizza”, but if you don’t qualify for VPN, you can’t say you are VPN.

 

The difference between VPN certification, and many other certifications in the food industry and elsewhere, and all the litigation that ensues over terms like “natural”, is huge.  In fact, the original title for the story I wanted to write was “Don’t Make Artisan the New Natural”.  It was suggested by this article in the Seattle WeeklyArtisan, like natural, is just a word in the language that no one should be able to appropriate to their own product, but which should not have sufficient meaning that someone can claim they were deceived to discover that, say, Dunkin Donuts is claiming its bagels are “Artisan.”  Some people decided to make complaints about this, which is all well and good, but in the end that’s a lot of work for the legal profession and doesn’t really help consumers much.

 

The guy who made that bagel complaint listed the things he did that made his bagels, in his opinion, “artisan.”  I happen to do all of them for my own bagels except I don’t turn over the bagels in the oven, just as my pizza would meet VPN standards, as described by Tutta Bella, if I had a wood oven and used fresh yeast.  And they still taste just fine without those amenities.  The difference between VPN and something like the “Good Food Merchants Guild” is the difference between a valid trademark and something that really can’t be a trademark.  You simply can’t trademark the phrase “Good Food” any more than you can trademark “Artisan”.  They’re just English words. 

 

Create standards and enforce them.  Create a novel mark and enforce it.  Publicize your mark and make people associate it with a standard of quality and a valuable experience.  That’s the recipe for getting the issues of what food meets a particular standard out of the courts and onto consumers’ tables.

 

Hershey and Mars Battle Over the Color Orange

The Hershey Company and Mars Inc. are fierce competitors.  They have clashed with each other in the past over Hershey’s asserted rights in the color orange, when Hershey sued Mars for using orange on the individual wrappers for its Dove Promises peanut butter chocolate candies. Matters recently came to a head again, when Hershey sued Mars for trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. This time, the lawsuit claims that Mars’s Dove Promises outer packaging infringes Hershey’s trademark in the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups orange packaging design.  Hershey claims that Mars is trading on Hershey’s goodwill, and that the Dove packaging will confuse consumers.

Days before Hershey’s lawsuit, Mars filed a declaratory judgment action in the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, claiming that Hershey does not own exclusive rights in the color orange for peanut butter confections. Mars argues that orange is used industry-wide to designate peanut butter flavors.

What’s your opinion?


These lawsuits bring up a couple of important points.  First, color alone can be a trademark. Therefore, designers and marketers should be careful not to tread on any well-known colors used by competitors. Second, companies should consider developing trademark or trade dress rights in colors that are important components of the brand. A manufacturer can add a powerful element to its overall brand identity and trademark rights by selecting a unique shade of color and sticking with it over time.