Lessons From a Tag Sale

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering when I’m going to get to the point of this personal saga. Here it is: In this selection process, I created groupings, classifications, color stories, and themes. I was stocking our new home, but it was very much like buying for a store.

When you buy for your store, it should be with an eye to how and where each piece will be displayed.


When you shop in a showroom, items are usually grouped together; the implication is that they should be bought as a group and displayed in the same way in your store. It is expected, of course, that your customer will buy the group as is. Needless to say, it rarely works that way. In reality, there are always some winners and some losers in these grouped selections. If you’ve been in business for a while, you know the difference — that’s why you’re still in business! So select the goodies, forget the baddies, and choose companion pieces for the goodies, keeping color, material, concept, and size in mind.


For example, if you find a great group of Delft blue accessories, but only five pieces are truly terrific, consider solids to fill out the selection. Look for matching blue pieces, or think about picking either gold, terra-cotta, or lemon yellow accessories to enhance the blue-and-white pieces.

Size counts. In order to create interesting displays, you should try to buy pieces in a variety of sizes. Ideally, there should be a gradation from short to tall and small to large in your table, shelf, or window display.

Lights and darks need to be balanced. If you have a group of all-black accessories, break it up with another solid in a light tone. As my recent experience taught me, black and gold work well together.

The need for balanced colors also applies to multicolored arrangements. If you have a rainbow of colors in one classification and they really work well as a group, check out your brights to make sure they are scattered evenly throughout the display. Yellow and white are the two colors that “pop” and can be used to lead the eye around the display. Don’t concentrate the cools in one place and the brights in another if you want the rainbow look. If the rainbow effect doesn’t work visually, group cools (blues, greens, and violets) together and warms (reds, oranges, yellows, and browns) together.


One-of-a-kind items are great if you have pedestals on which to show them, or windows that allow you to highlight individual pieces with mini halogen spots so that they glow. In some cases, you can find ancillary pieces that work with a one-of-a-kind object and create a grouping. The “find” becomes the focal point, and the extras are there to enhance in glory. The extras should be items that work both visually and practically with the fab piece. For example, if you find a one-of-a-kind teapot, put it on a buildup next to cups and saucers that work with it in terms of color, style, or feel. If you have a ceramic cat, place it next to a (rinsed out, empty) cream carton for a fun display. Unexpected elements add interest and personality to your displays … and your store.


In preparation for my tag sale from hell, I pulled together pieces that worked as a group. For example, I put together all the silverplated trays, all the Chinese items, all the wood, all the ceramics, all the glassware, all the paintings, and all the lamps. This strategy works well for a tag sale. Unfortunately, in a store it can look pretty boring. However, if you prefer this type of merchandising, there is a way to give it life. If all of your classifications are neatly displayed around the store — on tables near the walls, in the middle of your store, and in focal areas — create boutiqued tables. On one table, place a lamp, a tray, a ceramic piece, a glass, a painting (on a small easel), and other items that work together visually. Combine them through color, theme, style, or just good intuition. These boutiqued tables will teach your customers how to purchase multiple pieces that work together.


Of the more than 100 accessories I had at my disposal for my tag sale, at least 75 were gold or black, in some form or another. You’re lucky in that you have a vast array of colors to work with and can easily keep your displays from looking dull or uninteresting.

color test

There are several ways to pull together a great color story.

  1. The first method is the easiest: Work with only one group from one vendor. That’s simple.
  2. Second, you can opt to do a monochromatic color story showing shades and variations of one color, such as bright orange, peach, terra-cotta, or yellow-orange. Monochromatic color stories are head-turners! The items in this “story” can come from across the board. Use anything that works visually. With this method, practicality is secondary.
  3. Third, you can employ a combination of two neutrals with one bright (yellow, orange, hot pink, lime green, electric blue, or red). This will make for a strong display and will give people ideas for decorating in their own homes. Using contrasting colors can also be effective, provided it is done in small areas. Combine hot pink with lime green, yellow with purple/blue, or red with light blue. Being brave with color can produce some great results. Of course, it can also look awful. If you are unsure of your combinations, ask the opinion of a fellow worker or a customer whose taste you admire. They will usually tell you the truth, and will appreciate the fact that you respected them enough to ask.


CATCHY THEMEA themed display is much more than just a presentation according to classification. A theme is similar to a boutiqued technique. You want to pull pieces together that make sense, and then perhaps add a touch of whimsy. For example, when I was working with one great children’s gift store in Essex, Massachusetts, I suggested combining all the rockets, planets, stars, moons, and robots for a “space experience” window display.

At Chris’ house, I combined early childhood mementos such as a photo, a silver spoon, and baby shoes with some current memorabilia, including his MBA diploma, a vase, and a bowl. Somehow, all of the items fit together nicely, and told a story at the same time.

On one table, I did a themed display of vases — all sizes, shapes, and colors (although many were black or gold or bore Chinese patterns). To add interest, I threw in some matching bowls (round, but shorter than the vases). I then propped a Chinese print behind the grouping to serve as a backdrop.

After the four-hour tag sale, we walked away with a little over $700. I’m convinced that the displays had something to do with that. Of course, the fact that it was an indoor tag sale held in the midst of monsoon-scale rains may have contributed to our success. But I learned two things about tag sales and decorative accessories that day: One, instead of “early birds,” the people who come two hours early to a tag sale should be called “vultures”; and, two, no matter how bizarre and unattractive some pieces may be, the market for decorative accessories is alive and well.

Linda Cahan is the principal of Cahan & Company, a retail visual design company in Fairfield, Connecticut. She is a member of both the Society of Visual Merc

Love and lifestyles

Gift store operators can generate better-than-average revenue from the proper merchandise of their bridal registries. Some of the items that could be marketed effectively are picture frames for the bridal portrait, rings and jewel boxes, and an assortment of wedding invitations. Retailers can also offer items that will reflect the varied religious and other backgrounds of the couples.

Rings and jewel boxes

Rings and jewel boxes

Rings are an important part of weddings and are one of the oldest wedding traditions. The wedding ring is a mark of both spiritual bond and commercial contract. Usually, it’s a diamond engagement ring for the bride with both bride and groom receiving rings for the popular double ring ceremony. You don’t sell wedding rings? But do suggest that the bride list a ring holder or small jewelry box on her registry. Both are excellent shower gifts. If it is to be a “couple” shower, as so many are, listing a jewelry box for him would be a nice gift suggestion. How about ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machines as an excellent wedding or shower gift?

Invitations vary


One of the greatest changes in the rituals of weddings involves wedding invitations. The classic traditional engraved invitation, with black ink on fine-grade paper, is often by-passed for pastel borders, floral designs, theme-related or photo-featured invitations.

Today, invitations often include the names of both his and her parents, or all parents and step-parents if there has been divorce and remarriage, plus, in many cases, the couple’s names as well, “jointly” inviting you to share in the happy occasion. The joint effort is as old as invitations themselves, but “new” again in this decade.

While many brides will opt for the “new age” invitations, those selling invitations will need to know the “why’s and wherefore’s” of traditional invitations to advise the bride on what is the “preferred” way.

Then there is the matter of showers. Friends throw “him and her,” “his or hers” and “her” showers. A “him and her” gift registry shower list would include do-it-yourself tools or kits and gifts that could serve the couple jointly, such as clocks, cookware, small appliances, games, gourmet baskets, breakfast trays and travel diaries.

“His or her” shower gift suggestions include mugs, breakfast trays, bath and desk accessories and informal patterns of dinnerware, flatware and stemware. Traditional shower gifts for brides include lingerie and personal gifts such as a purse mirror, lipstick caddie and items for her dresser.

Gifts for varied backgrounds


Couples in 1996 will often celebrate their differences in religion by having a marriage ceremony that includes the blessings of dual officiates and the lighting of a Unity Candle, which brings disparate backgrounds in religion into harmony. Are you prepared to meet these needs by having Unity Candies and pedestals available, as well as a Bridal Mail Box for collecting gifts of money brought to the wedding, shower and guests registry books, pens, wedding planning books, cake tops and sixpence? Marriages today may be multi-racial, multi-religion and multi-family. If there are children from another marriage, do you suggest a family medallion for each child to help the child relate to the new marriage in a positive way.

Since many of today’s brides and grooms both work, couples are pitching in together to make an apartment, condominium or house a home. They blend decorating ideas from their years alone into one creative environment. Cooking, cleaning, children or children-to-be demand their combined energy. Many find that “take out” food is an alternative to cooking as they settle in for some quality time. Wine glasses, lap trays, napkins, mats, napkin rings, fun dinnerware, flatware and stemware are appreciated, so suggest them.

For the do-it-yourself couples, gifts such as coffee, espresso and cappuccino machines, bread-making machines, blenders, mixers, kitchen gadgets or any small appliances make the perfect gift.

Favourite Gifts

The all-time favorite hobby of Americans today is gardening. With many “gardens” planted within the confines of a window sill, patio or balcony, your bridal registry should capitalize on the trend by displaying an array of garden-related items. There are water fountains, bird baths, statuary, bird feeders, planters, cachepots, vases in all shapes and sizes, tools, sundials, wind chimes, watering cans and herb kits with seeds and pots. They should be a part of today’s bridal registry suggestions.

Fiscal reasons for registries

The bridal market encompasses $35 billion, as measured by 159 products and services. Since the bridal market represents only 2.6 percent of all U.S. households, amazingly it accounts for 11.5 percent of small kitchen appliances, 10.4 percent of linens and domestics sold, and up to 75 percent of all fine china dinnerware sales. The bridal couple clearly represents a disproportionately high share of all total retail sales.

There is a reason: high acquisition rates in a short period of time, particularly when compared to established households. The bridal couple must acquire a wide array of products and services within a brief period of time. They have a deadline no other customer has — the wedding date. It’s during this period of compression that marketers must have an impact on these prospects with their messages.

Today’s couples have grown up during a period of the greatest prosperity and affluence in our nation’s history. In entering their lives, their aspirations and expectations have never been higher. Nor has their ability to fulfill them been greater. They belong to a generation of young women and men who are the most sophisticated, highly educated, economically capable consumers in history. Career-oriented, acquisition-conscious, confident of themselves, today’s newlywed couples are determined to begin their new lives together with the best of everything. Is your store prepared to meet their needs and expectations with your bridal registry?

DORIS NIXON, a registered bridal consultant, is director of educational services for the National Bridal Service, Richmond, Va., which provides advertising, training and merchandising services to more than 400 member stores. Mrs. Nixon is co-author of the books “Your Wedding and How to Enjoy It” and “Make Room for the Groom.” A leading retailer for many years, she is considered an authority on creative table settings. She will be happy to answer your questions.

Home sweet office

The great advantage to working at home is that you can put your personal stamp squarely onto your daily work routine. You don’t have to rush for the 7:02 train every morning (or even be awake at 7:02). You don’t have to wear a dry-cleaned suit every day, engage in petty turf battles or drink bad coffee.

home office

It means you can work uninterrupted for five hours and then take a lunch-time stroll with your dog or pick up your child from school. Yet, so often, people who work at home forget that their personal stamp also extends to the work environment they create. Few put the same thought and effort into their home office design that they put into organizing their day. To work at home means you can create your own comer office-a space that’s inspiring, efficient, yours. The key to a great home office is designing an environment that meshes with your work style and is a reflection of your tastes and your home-whether that’s French country, chock-a-block with collectibles, or chic, sleek and urban. So play Rachmaninoff (or rap) as loud you like. Hang a piniata from the ceiling if you want to. Create the space where you can work at your peak. After all, you’ll never be more in charge than you are now.


This home office was carved out of a high-tech, custom-designed family media room, The work space fits in neatly with the room’s overall design, using the same color scheme and artwork. At the same time, it is separated physically by a partition that is high enough to hide office clutter and low enough to avoid creating a feeling of claustrophobia.

family media room

Overhead lighting, task lights at the desk and sunlight from a window behind the desk area also divide the work space from the rest of the room, which has much more subdued and diffuse lighting.

A Wall of storage extends the length of the room on the right. At one end, it houses a copy machine, files and office supplies, and at the other, the family’s collection of audio/visual equipment. To prevent overheating of both electrical equipment and the room, a special air circulation duct built into the cabinets draws heat away toward windows and air-conditioning.

Architec: Nunziato Miuccio of Martin E. Rich Architects. Interior design: Bonnie B. Cohen. Desk accessories from The MoMA Design Store. Artwork on walls done by Tom Slaughter.


Claiming a tax deduction for a home office has become so common that the IRS now has a form 8829) just for this purpose. An estimated 4 million taxpayers filled it out in April. The form and a publication to help you fill it out, Business Use of Your Home (587), clarify the requirements for claiming a home-office deduction:

Your home work space must be used exclusively and regularly as either your principal place of business or as your company’s second office, which you use to meet with clients, patients or customers in person (but not for record keeping or billing). A home office does not have to be a separate room in your house, just a separate area, such as an alcove.

  1. Exclusive use means that you cannot use the space for any purpose other than your business. (This does not apply if you run a daycare facility in your home, however, in which case regular use is the important issue.)
  2. If you are not self-employed, a home office is deductible only if its use is necessary for your employer’s convenience, not yours.

The new IRS form requires you to calculate the exact percentage of your home used for business (number of rooms or square footage) and base your rent or mortgage deduction as well as any other home-office deductions (utilities, insurance, repairs, etc.) on that percentage. You must list the full amounts spent on these items as well as the percentage that you are deducting. Be sure to keep careful records of all your expenditures. To order IRS Form 8829 or Business Use of Your Home, call 800-TAX-FORM.


This home office is proof that a work space doesn’t have to look functional to be functiortal. Traditional wood paneling gives the room a country, house ambience. Antiques, rich pattern on chairs, wallpaper and curtains, and copious books lining the wall all add to the room’s warmth. The paneling and bookcases also insulate the room from noise-an important feature since doors at each end of the room open onto the front hallway and the kitchen. The antique refectory table-used as a desk-the wooden chairs and the area rug are all tag sale or flea market finds.

The tranquil view of the garden outside and personal touches like the birdhouses, family photos and flowering bulbs create a peaceful work environment. Late each afternoon this office becomes a study room in which the children of the household can do their homework.

Interior design: Lyn Peterson, Motif Designs. Fabric and wallpaper, from Recollections by Motif Designs


When setting up an office in your home, it’s easy to overlook some of the details, such as telephones, electricity and air-conditioning, that have usually been someone else’s responsibility. But now you have to be your own facilities manager. Don’t forget the following:

  1. TELEPHONES This is your business’s most basic and important equipment. Your professional credibility depends on clients being able to get through to you, or an answering or fax machine, when they need to. Yet failing to install enough phone lines is a common mistake. Order enough to support all your needs including a fax machine and modem. It’s less expensive to get three lines at one time than on three separate occasions. Also, if you request a business account from your phone carrier, it could cost you considerably more, but you are likely to get very prompt repair service when you need it, and you can list your number under your company’s name.
  2. ELECTRICAL POWER Take an inventory of all the equipment you plan to use, and make sure your circuits can carry the electrical load. A computer is likely to consume the largest amount of electricity. It’s often wise to devote a separate circuit to computer equipment. And think about getting an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) device, which will allow you to save items on disks if there’s a power outage. Determining which walls have properly grounded, three-pronged outlets will help you decide on furniture layout. Try to come up with a solution for keeping wires out of sight and under control, like drilling holes into a desk through which you can thread them.
  3. CLIMATE CONTROL Be sure the temperature and humidity of your work space can be maintained at moderate levels and that the ventilation is adequate-particularly if your office is in an attic, basement or garage. These precautions are for your comfort and well-being as well as the safety of your computer equipment, which will not function properly in extreme temperatures or high humidity.
  4. ZONING RESTRICTIONS Find out if it’s legal to work out of your home or if you need a special permit or license to do so. Zoning ordinances, landlords or co-op boards may restrict residential units to just that. Find out about any restrictions before you’ve spent time and money on renovations and advertising for your business.
  5. INSURANCE Contact your insurance broker to discuss any special insurance needs. While you may be able to extend your homeowner’s policy with an additional rider to cover your business equipment and protect you from personal liability, a basic small-business policy will provide much more extensive coverage and is probably worth the few hundred dollars a year it will cost you.


bedroom ideas

This home office was created by partitioning the master bedroom of an apartment with a floor-to-ceiling wall. The work space created is small (less than 50 sq. ft.), but a window cut into the wall above the desk lets in natural light from the bedroom windows and creates the illusion of more space. So do the all-white surfaces and a large wall mirror in the bedroom.

Every inch of the office serves a purpose. just behind the desk, which is made from a Large piece of chipboard set on tressles, is what used to be the bedroom closet (see close. up photo, left). it’s been converted, with shelving, into convenient storage for a fax machine and office supplies.

Shelves also line the wall be. side the desk for easy reach of the telephone, answering machine and reference books. A door in the wall to the bed. room and a separate one leading to the apartment’s hallway provide complete privacy and a quiet work space away from family activities.

Architect: Brian Burr File folders from Sam Flax, Shoe Box art files from Exposures. Recycled stationery and bed blanket from Terra Verde Trading Co.

Interior Design and the Profession

IF YOU THINK it is a fact that artistic people are not business people, you must remember that the client is also aware of this fact, which can result in the designer being put at a disadvantage. Artistic people are more vulnerable. For that reason I recommend finding and working with the best legal and accounting minds.

How to Become a Successful Interior Designer?

interior designer

It is not enough to want to do beautiful things for other people. A successful interior designer should have goals, one of which is to achieve the lifestyle that he or she is advocating or designing for the client. A successful job is when the client and designer are both satisfied aesthetically and financially. JAY SPECTRE Designer, New York

THE OPPOSITION has been nurtured in the schools where anything other than design is a lesser breed, if not mongrelian. Those smart enough to go on for a business degree generally discover they would be wise to forego the profession if they intend to marry, have kids, buy a home, and have change left for bus fare. Those of us trained in the “hairshirt” approach to design in the early forties (i.e., if you’re making money you cannot be contributing to society) are in for the joy of it, but are having a hell of a time financially. The rise of contract design has forced the schools to be a little more holistic in their approval to an approval curriculum. NORMAN R. DeHAAN, AIA, FASID Chicago

BASED ON WORK WE SEE depicted in the professional journals and on visits throughout the land, we believe the state-of-the-art of our profession is the highest in recent history. Furthermore, it has been our experience that major design occurs when we, as practitioners, have direct access to the highest level of authority. As top-level management abrogates its responsibility and leaves critical decisions to the age’s new creation, facilities management, quality deteriorates. POWELL, KLEINSCHMIDT Architects, Chicago

The Basic Requirement of an Interior Designer

THE DESIGNER NEEDS a basic grasp of these business fundamentals…

  1. first and foremost, the clients must be well-served;
  2. secondly, happy employees are more productive than unhappy ones;
  3. lastly, suppliers need to be treated with respect and need to feel confident that they will be paid for their product or labor.

One goes into this business because he wants to design beautiful furniture and create wonderful rooms. A designer should make the time to attract and develop a clientele, but most importantly, he must have the time to think…to dream…to create. BRUCE GREGGA Designer, Chicago, IL

THE NOTION THAT artistic and business skills are necessarily in conflict is simply the perpetuation of a myth. There are any number of examples of great and famous historic figures, musicians, actors, artists and architects whose skill in both was legendary. In our own times, the myth is fed by the inclination of students, practitioners and teachers to take advantage of the idea that incompetence in one area is an evidence of superiority in the other. Most often, in our fields, it is the claim of idiocy in practical matters that is used to bolster a matching claim for genius in the creative realm. What nonsense!

Design education has a responsibility, a responsibility that the best schools and educators have long recognized, to insist that the practical (including business matters) and the artistic abilities must both be developed in a way that makes each support the other. Excusing a “no head for business” attitude in the hope that creative genius will compensate makes no more sense than encouraging a design bumbler because of outstanding business skills. We are surrounded by the work of professionals whose success results from the latter situation. JOHN PILE Author and Educator, New York

WHILE I DO BELIEVE that many interior design professionals are not properly trained, I cannot accept that good business practices and good design are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Indeed, one could suggest that they are not only mutually compatible but perhaps even necessary to a successful career.

The problem is not how to properly teach business ability, but to start teaching it in the schools: with business, ethics, legal, and estimating courses. Incorporate business principles in the design studio by critiquing each project as a real job with real problems, using realistic budgets, and demanding and inquiring clients.

The problem is that students are taught “designer arrogance,” and are left to learn about the real world when they start working. On the job training is haphazard at best: the design department only designs, and the production department only produces. What if you are a designer who can write proposals, produce, and perhaps even have some knowledge of costs and materials? You are most likely shunted to the ‘business’ side of the office, set for life trying to keep your ‘designer’ partners out of hot water.

The business contribution to achieving innovative, quality design: making the successful, profit producing, proposal to the client; bringing the design in on time and under budget; and satisfying the client’s needs; is as important to the design process as the original concept. That is what needs to be taught in design schools. LENORE M. LUCEY, AIA New York

Artistic and Business Abilites

ARTISTIC AND BUSINESS ABILITIES are compatible–they are certainly not mutually exclusive. One must recognize interior design as a profession, and not as a form of art or as a business. A professional education for the field of interior design should be predicated upon a solid liberal arts baccalaureate followed by professional education.

The realization places part of the responsibility for educating young designers on the shoulders of their employers. And, indeed that is the way it is in all professions. Schools must not let themselves be pushed into the position of becoming mere service stations to the professions and to the business community. Accepting this point of view, it follows logically that design education is the joint responsibility of educational institutions and the profession for which they prepare their students. ARNOLD FRIEDMANN Educator and Author, New York

THESE DIVERGENT AGENDAS would blend more gracefully if education met its responsibilities. It should be as imperative for design students to learn about and respect commerce as the reverse for business students. These integrated attitudes should be structured into the learning process by assigning architecture and interiors problems that foster an awareness of how economy and imagination interact and business projects that accomplish the same objectives. For example, in artistic development, use and financial restraints can be treated as the inspiring subject matter of art, providing the student is persuaded to accept such conceptual challenges.

A new and revised education should weave art and business together at every stage of a student’s development. The issues of separation would thus disappear because the value of one to the other would generate a common language where neither is compromised and both enhanced. JAMES WINES, SITE New York

Food in America

Food in America

That food be good for us is a major concern but often at odds with what we actually eat. By some accounts, “natural” and “organic” foods are the wave of the future. But just think of the labeling quagmire, and how murky are the definitions for those “healthy” words.

To some observers, the food we eat is heading down the road of cross-culturalization and internationalization. We’re open to trying more and different foods than ever before.


“Right now, we are going through a period of digestion,” says Anne Rosenzweig, chef/owner of Arcadia in New York City. “We’ve been bombarded by so many influences. The ’80s were a decade of so much experimentation. But everything is cyclical. What’s happening now is a retrenchment. But each time we retrench, we return with a much broader concept, a much wider acceptance of many different cuisines.”

If retrenchment, not in economic terms alone, but in social terms, too, equals a renewed desire for simplicity and comfort in the foods we eat, that desire seems in evidence everywhere. “Just after the war broke out,” continues Rosenzweig, “my most popular menu item became roasted chicken,” she says. Potatoes–and kale–adds Rosenzweig are the two most important ingredients in her kitchen now.

By some accounts, however, the move toward food that seems wholesome and unpretentious is a fad just like any other, created by the media.

“Meatloaf never died, at least not in the home kitchen,” says professor Judith Goode, a cultural anthropologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, who has a special interest in food. According to Harry Balzar, an analyst with National Eating Trends, a division of the NPD Group in Park Ridge, IL, the five most popular restaurant foods in 1983 were, in order: french fries, hamburgers, ice cream, side-dish salads, and pizza. Today, they are largely the same: french fries, hamburgers, pizza, chicken, and ice cream.

“Restaurant people and journalists create the fads,” says Goode, “but ultimately they talk to themselves,” she adds.


Top Restaurants in America

The media, of course, is no small part of the force that shapes our taste and yen for certain foods. There are at least 50 newsletters alone about food and restaurants published in the United States. In 1990, about 500 new cookbooks were published, according to Grace Kirschenbaum, editor and publisher of the newsletter, World of Cookbooks. The food sections on local and national newspapers number in the hundreds, magazines in the dozens.

The media molds our likes and dislikes, creates fashions and fads, informs us on nutrition, health, and technology, and often, in the process, feeds our obsession with those concerns. But, if we are a complex society, we are also resilient and resistant to media hyperbole.

“The food press plays an enormous role in what takes place,” says Jon Rowley, a restaurant consultant in Seattle. “Our impressionability is greater today than it’s ever been. We are susceptible to trends and fads because the media transmits them instantaneously. If something like infused oil gets written about in the New York Times, which now has national distribution, the influence of that article is very great,” says Rowley. “But,” he adds, “we are also more discerning today. We are less foolish and we don’t believe so easily.”

“In the last two decades, the media brought food to a level of culture it never had before,” notes Mark Erickson, executive chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. “In the ’80s, everything was excessive. It was our adolescence. Now, we’re moving into adulthood, and we’re learning not to be so affected by the fads and crazes.”


Dolores Custer, a prominent food stylist, agrees that the media’s reach is pervasive, but she also suggests that other, less obvious, forces influence our attitudes and awareness toward food. “The advertising and public relations world strives to influence us in subtle ways,” she says. “Food boards, for example, work hard at developing recipes for their products and sending them to newspapers all over America. We are affected a lot more than we think by advertising.”

Food MagazineCuster also gives a glimpse of some of the processes at work behind the scenes. “Usually, the ‘look’ of food is created in editorial–magazines, newspapers–then moves to print ads and then to television,” says Custer. “Now, for example, food isn’t presented as clear and clean as it used to be. The softer look is in. Plate presentation has changed. When I started 13 years ago black, white, and strongly colored plates were in. Now, I’ve shot a spate of tapestry backgrounds. We’re into homey, comfortable presentations,” she says. “But,” she adds, “food is treated in a much more upscale way today than it was, say, 15 years ago.”


Largely because of the far-reaching influence of the media, and also because of concerns for health, among other reasons, Americans are more sophisticated about food today than they ever have been. We are certainly more knowledgeable and more demanding.

“There has never been more good food available in restaurants than there is today,” says Tim Zagat, publisher, along with his wife, Nina, of the Zagat Survey.

“I see the desire for food that tastes good trickling down to every facet of the industry,” says Rowley. “Among chefs, operators, and consumers, there has been a newfound interest in getting closer to the production sources of food.”

“From the end of World War II up until the early ’80s,” says Erickson, “the mechanization of our food system grew so quickly that it became depersonalized. The distribution system was set up to feed people, but not necessarily with food that tasted as good as possible. Now, I see a new awareness and appreciation for foods that come from our own backyards–local markets, for example–and also fresh and fast from the source. For me, the most important change in the last few years has been the advent of overnight mail–picking up the phone and having fresh fish flown in from Fiji the next day. Good fresh food is much more accessible today than it was five or 10 years ago,” Erickson adds.

From a consumer’s perspective, locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, may be easier to find today than 10 years ago. According to the New York Times, the number of farmer’s markets grew from 1,200 to 2,000 across the nation between 1980 and 1990. American Demographics magazine reports that U.S. consumers will spend $1 billion to $2 billion to buy fresh food directly from farmers this year.

But to some observers, availability doesn’t necessarily ensure that we’ll be eating better.


Says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food authority based in Boston: “As a society, we’re moving away from food, where it comes from, what makes it good and not good. It’s an instinctive thing we seem to be losing. It’s not so much that we’re not staying home and cooking,” says Jenkins. “It’s that our attitude toward food has changed. There’s a sense at large in the country that food will either make you sick or make you fat.”

Jenkins touches on something that is at the core of our attitudes toward food and eating. On one level, Americans seem to be obsessed with health and nutrition issues: fat, salt, and cholesterol, and the safety of the food supply in terms of chemicals and pesticides. By and large the market has responded. Notes Rowley: “If a restaurant hasn’t adapted its menu to reflect Americans’ dietary concerns, then it has missed the boat.”

As an avid observer of the American supermarket, Rowley also has noticed a substantial shift in the types of product on supermarket shelves. “Fresh squeezed juice is taking the place of whipped creams,” he notes. In 1990, there were more than 13,000 natural-food centers in American supermarkets, according to a USDA study. Health foods were estimated to account for more than $10 billion in revenues by the end of last year, according to American Demographics.


But, there is a dichotomy between what we say we want to eat–in restaurants and at home–and what we actually do eat.

diet in americaIn the fast-food segment, which perhaps has been hardest hit by Americans’ vocal concern with diet and fat, products perceived as healthful have been swiftly introduced. McDonald’s low-fat burger and KFC’s skinless fried chicken are among the most obvious examples. Burger King sells one million of its grilled chicken sandwiches on an oat bran biscuit a day. “For the first time,” says Rozanne Gold, a New York City-based restaurant consultant, “consumers’ behavior is catching up with their awareness of diet and health.”

Some observers, however, would counter that view. Barbara Thomas, group research director at the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, talks to several thousand consumers a year. “Health is a burning issue,” she says. “But on the other hand, people are so tired of all the do’s and don’ts. We’ve found that not as many people watch their diets as talk about it. The ones who do it out of choice are in the minority. The ones who make a change in their diets are generally the ones who are forced to because of medical reasons. I guess what Americans really want is a magic bullet.”

If there is one person in the country who seems to have a knack for knowing what Americans want, it is restaurateur Richard Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. in Chicago. He agrees with Thomas. “I pay a lot of attention to the medical people,” says Melman. “If they can come up with some way, a pill or an easy, safe procedure to control fat and cholesterol, people will go back to eating hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and french fries guiltlessly. Instinctively, people don’t want salad and fish.”



Beyond the issue of diet, which gains momentum as the population ages, looms another worry in the minds of many Americans. “The single-most important issue that faces us today concerning our food,” says Jenkins, “is the safety issue.”

Thanks to technology, at no other time in history has the food supply been of such consistently high quality. Yet, concerns are growing that the chemicals and genetic engineering techniques used to achieve such quality may ultimately cause much greater harm than good. “The big burning issue,” says Jeremiah Tower, chef/owner of Stars in San Francisco, “is health. I don’t mean the fads. I mean pollution and the way food is mass-produced.”

According to a survey conducted three years ago by the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, DC, for example, 75% of Americans thought herbicide residues were a serious health hazard.



Biotechnology and other forms of technological tampering with our food supply are also areas that breed fear in the minds of many Americans.

Irradiation is a good example. Although the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation for poultry recently, virtually none of the chicken on America’s dinner table undergoes the procedure. Says one industry spokesperson: “None of the major poultry farmers in the country wants to be the first to do it. Consumers are afraid of it.”

The public may be voicing its concern over tampering with the food supply, but whether consumers are actually acting on those concerns is another question. What we say and what we do are often miles apart. What motivates our food choices and dictates our eating habits are neither diet nor safety issues, but time–the lack of it–and money.


Americans spend an average 34.31 minutes at the dinner table, according to Dinnertime USA, a survey of 750 American adults at every age and economic level published in 1989 by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The average amount of time spent preparing dinner is 55.74 minutes, and convenience-driven foods make up many of our dinnertime choices. Of the 750 respondents queried in the survey, 51% use canned products when preparing dinner. About a quarter rely on frozen foods, and one in six relies on take-out for some part of their meal.

When it comes to restaurant dining, overall, approximately 42% of the food dollar is spent outside the home.

Convenience has always been a major force in the American psyche. Today, the pressures of the workaday world have shaped not only what we eat, but the very way we view food in our lives. Yet, like every other observation one might make about who we are based on how we eat, the assessment depends on who is doing the observing. By some accounts the pleasures of the table are in danger of extinction; to others, old-fashioned values–family and shared dining–are alive and going strong.

“There are two things happening,” says Professor Goode. “We’ve given up our old food ways for convenience, and to compensate we’ve created dishes, foods that we think hark back to some nonexistent golden age.”

More and more, Americans are glomming onto ways to save time. The take-out phenomenon is a case in point. But, according to Goode, “What we forget is that food has always been a medium for social interaction. Especially in restaurants, traditionally the dining occasions have been celebratory. What’s happening now is that eating is becoming something to do for the sake of getting some fuel.”

In direct contradiction to Goode’s view was a New York Times article lauding the comeback of the family meal. In the FMI survey, all indicators point to the fact that for most Americans mealtime–at least dinnertime–is an important part of the day. Ninety-five percent of the respondents to the survey said that dinner is the only time they have to be together as a family. On average, American families eat together 5.89 times a week, according to the survey. More than half eat together every day.

What do any of these statistics or opinions really say about who Americans are based on what and how we eat? Without wanting to equivocate, it’s difficult, nearly impossible, to tell. We are a nation of paradoxes, to say the least.

So, without begging the question further, one thing may be said for sure: A picture’s worth a thousand words. Herein lay 52 of them, cut from the broadcloth of food across America.