Sunday, October 26, 2014

FOOD FOR ALL ERA 8: Going Bi-Coastal

It was the Spring of 1987, one year after our Redlands kickoff in the Gerrards and Lucky stores, followed by a 12-store pilot project and the Lucky launch in Southern California which we were still installing and which would enable us to reach 187 supermarkets by the end of the summer. Calls and letters had been coming into our little office at 112 E. Olive from the time we first set up displays. One of our food industry advisors suggested that we contact a newly formed nonprofit organization made up of retired industry executives, the Food Industry Crusade Against Hunger (FICAH). This group, for good or ill, will be intertwined with us in a common destiny, but we will have to wait a decade for that story to play out. The name they chose to fight world hunger should give a clue or two to their mentality. But they, like us, were responding to the growing global crisis of food insecurity. They were raising money to fund international projects run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I discovered that one of the retired executives in this food industry version of "old boys' network" lived in Southern California and had been CEO of Vons Grocery Company. When I met with Ken Olsen he listened patiently for a few minutes to our desire to get FICAH's endorsement and help in expanding our program, after which he informed me that he had his own idea for a Holiday fundraiser using coin boxes at the cash register under the FICAH banner, and he felt our program would be a distraction. He wasn't really open to considering working with us non-industry up-starts. But he didn't discourage me from going to their board meeting in Washington, DC in June. Since I had already wrangled an invitation I decided to go anyway.

But how?! We had not yet figured out how we were going to finance our operation. We had hoped that getting the retailers on board with FOOD FOR ALL would attract sponsors and funders in the vast food industry support system: the manufacturers, brokers, suppliers, advertisers, etc. Now we learned that we would be approaching the same companies that our FICAH friends were asking for donations. They were the "who's who" and we were the "who're you?" But this was nothing new to us. I had "friends in low places" (sorry Garth).

So I found myself again in the upstairs back office at Gerrards Cypress Center. "Paul, I am at a loss. We have an invitation to FICAH's board meeting. We need to get our idea in front of food manufacturing executives to get financial support for expansion. We are putting all the check stand donations into grants for fighting hunger. Any advice?"

Paul thought for a moment and then: "Let's give Bill Christy a call. He knows lots of people in the industry." Bill Christy was CEO of Certified Grocers of California, a large wholesaler supplying independent stores and small chains. Based on his friendship with Paul and his interest in our idea from the start, he agreed to write letters of introduction and make phone calls to executives he knew at General Mills in Minneapolis, Kraft Foods in Chicago, Kellogg's of Battle Creek, Michigan, and General Foods in New York. Paul then offered to pay my way on this cross country trip, up to a thousand dollars. In 1987 this would cover the entire trip. I got appointments with three out of the four industry leaders.

So, armed with my sample FOOD FOR ALL displays, letters of endorsement from everybody I thought would matter to these guys, and my one business suit worthy of making presentations, I headed east on Southwest Airlines, which became my airline of choice for the next decade. I was fortunate to have family, friends and colleagues all over the country, from my church and ICA days. My daughter lived in Minneapolis so I could bunk at her place while visiting the General Mills contact. Kitty Cole and the Myers, Sally and Kermit, in Chicago put me up on numerous occasions when in town for the big annual Food Marketing Institute conventions, and on this occasion, the meeting with Kraft Foods. I was on my own flying into Detroit for the drive to Battle Creek to meet the Kellogg folk. Neill Richards and his wife Jessie, who lived in New Jersey, would put me up many times on my east coast journeys.  Neill will play a most important role in keeping our program going in New York and New England.

General Mills Mpls


I made passionate pleas for support to these food industry giants on this trip. I came back with a feeling of failure, not a red cent pledged to advance our cause. It was not a total loss, but it would take a few years before their mild interest would produce fruit. The most illustrative story I have from that series of meetings was the one with Mr. William (Bill) Lamothe, CEO of Kellogg's of Battle Creek. I rented a car at the Detroit airport and made the two hour drive to Battle Creek, this delightful small town in middle America. I found the Kellogg's headquarters, a five story large red brick building right in the middle of Battle Creek. I entered a large atrium with an escalator running in front of me to the top floor. After identifying myself I was directed to the moving stairway, to be met at the top by the Vice President and head of the Kellogg's Foundation, a very pleasant and welcoming woman who greeted me warmly and escorted me to the executive suite of offices where she introduced me to Bill Lamothe, who impressed me as a slight man for an industry giant, and to the President of Kellogg's US.

Kellogg's of Battle Creek

The three of them sat with me for an hour and a half, asking questions about our program, its progress and our plans for the future. They seemed genuinely interested and trying to find a way that the company could be helpful to us. At one point, Mr. Lamothe made a pointed statement: "You know, if we really wanted to, we could put your FOOD FOR ALL cards into every one of our cereal boxes." That comment seemed to be his one thought about how they could help us, and it sort of hung in the air for a moment and then: ". . . not that we are going to do it." When it came time to end the meeting, Bill Lamothe, the CEO of Kellogg's of Battle Creek, said: "Wait a minute." He went to a cupboard at the side of the meeting room and pulled two boxes of cereal off the shelf. Handing them to me with an air of pride, he said: "These are two of our newest products we are introducing this year." He was giving me a gift. "This is the new Muesli." I did not blink an eye, although I was internally swallowing hard. "Thank you for these, and thank you for your interest in having me come to Battle Creek," was all I could muster. He then walked with me all the way down the long escalator right to the front door. As with the other companies, it would take a few years before this visit would bear fruit. But the irony of the meeting and the result did not escape me. Of the many chances to meet these "captains of industry" in the coming years, this story stands out in my memory.

By the time I got to Washington for the meeting with the FICAH board, I was a thoroughly humble nonprofit executive. And having my expectations lowered also meant I had nothing to lose. So I was pleasantly surprised at the warm reception I was given by FICAH's executive director, who was actually a guy with years of experience in the NGO world internationally. I was also welcomed and encouraged by the board officers, especially their president Dick Katzenbach, a retired CEO of Fleming Foods. Dick and I would maintain a cordial correspondence for the next decade. I was assured that FICAH had interest only in supporting international self-help projects, but warned that board member Ken Olsen was committed to spreading his Holiday coin box project, which might make it more difficult for our fledgling program.

National Mall

The FICAH board meeting was being held at the same time and location as a newly formed coalition of non-governmental organizations, such as World Vision, Save the Children, Freedom From Hunger, and many others. It's name was INTERACTION, and was headed by Peter Davies, formerly President of Freedom from Hunger. I was fortunate to get introduced to heads of many major nonprofits involved in anti-hunger efforts, and since FOOD FOR ALL's mission was to support these efforts through grants, they were all interested in what we were doing.

At the end of this week-long cross-country "junket" I was wondering if I had calculated all the obstacles that would possibly arise and whether we could muster the resources to meet them. As I was spending my last couple of days walking around the Capitol mall, soaking up what I could of our nation's history, I wondered just how they did it, the founding fathers (and mothers--don't forget Abigail Adams and Martha Washington). They encountered far more resistance than we had. What kept them going? And they were building an entire new country! We were just trying to get a couple of industries to adopt a new idea: the food industry and the anti-hunger industry, and, though it's a stretch to say industry, supermarket shoppers across the country.

I happened to remember that one of the letters we had received when the first test of FOOD FOR ALL was publicized in Supermarket News, almost a year before, was from a grocery chain in New England. I called the office to get the address and phone number, thinking I might as well at least touch base while on this side of the continent. The letter was signed by Daniel J. Lescoe, Vice President, Marketing of Waldbaum's Food Mart, Springfield, Massachusetts. I dialed the number and asked for Mr. Lescoe.

"This is Dan Lescoe."

Hi, Mr. Lescoe, this is Milan Hamilton of FOOD FOR ALL." (That was as far as I got).

"What took you so long. We've been ready to go with your program for a year now."

I had been in Springfield, Mass in the seventies when I was with the ICA and working for Monarch Life, whose home office is there. But I was in Washington. So Mr. Lescoe suggested that we meet for lunch the next day in Hartford, Connecticut. "There is an express train to New York and you can catch a commuter train and be in Hartford by Noon. I'll meet you at Frank's Italian Restaurant, just a couple of blocks from the station." That was an invitation I could not refuse.

Franks of Hartford

Somehow I made it to Hartford in time, found the restaurant, and during an hour and a half meeting, on a lunch napkin, planned the launch of FOOD FOR ALL in all 36 Waldbaum's Food Mart stores along the I-95 corridor, from Greenfield, Mass to New Haven, Connecticut, including all the logistics: racks, installation, employee orientation, advertising, and whatever else I thought was needed. Every time I brought up an issue that sounded to me like a potential hindrance to success, Dan would respond with "Don't worry about that. I'll handle it." That included any costs involved. And the wonder of it was, I believed him. We planned to introduce FOOD FOR ALL for the 1987 Holiday season, kicking off Thanksgiving week. This gave us a few months to make all the contacts in the local nonprofit world. Should be easy.

I returned to what was now the national headquarters of FOOD FOR ALL, Inc. with no money, no clue how we were going to finance a bi-coastal program, no firm commitments for food manufacturer sponsorship. But strangely, I felt a little like Rocky dancing on the steps. I had been in the inner sanctums of some of the leaders of the food industry. I had stood in our nation's capitol gathering courage for what lay ahead. I had been to New England, the cradle of liberty. I had almost the same feeling as in 1978 completing all of those Maine Town Meetings, a part of the massive volunteer bicentennial project the ICA conducted. After all, we now had more than 200 supermarkets participating, on both ends of the country. And No One had as yet come right out and said to us: "This is a crazy idea. It won't work."

But we have our work cut out for us.

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