Contributing Monkie Sarma Melngailis
Published on December 15, 2008
Eating a raw food diet is still considered alternative. On the fringe. People don’t understand it. What is so hard to understand? Food that naturally grows from the earth, fed by sunlight. No one disputes that fresh fruits and vegetables are full of good things, and that generally, people should be eating more of them. Everyone seems to know now that nuts are good, full of “good” fats. Flax, sesame, hemp and more… most would recognize that these are also good foods. Yet, if I went on a road trip across the U.S., I know that there would be long stretches of driving where I would be hard pressed to find places where I could conveniently find and purchase natural and clean food. I would likely encounter a lot of people who would find my eating preferences unusual and odd. But I wonder, if I eat a raw food diet, does that mean that so many others out there are on a processed food diet? Are there enthusiastic processed foodists? For these people, is there an inspiring magazine called “Get Processed”?
I used to drive out of New York City to Maine very often in the summertime. To get to a small waterfront town, we passed through Augusta, the capital of Maine. Turning off the highway, it was a short drive through the center of Augusta to get to the road which took us further east to the shore. On this very brief stretch is one fast food shop after another. Literally. And not just one of each. I would count three Dunkin Donuts.
Dunkin Donuts is America’s largest retailer of coffee by the cup, selling 1 billion cups per year, or 30 cups a second. They also sell, of course, donuts. I don’t know how many donuts they sell, but according to their website, if you lined them up end by end, you would circle the earth 5.8 times with donuts. If we knew the average length of a donut, we could extrapolate for the exact number, but the point is, they sell a lot of donuts. With 7,000 locations worldwide serving 3 million customers a day, they also must sell a massive volume of their other food products, such as muffins, cookies and bagels. Their list of “breakfast sandwiches” is a giant jumble of various combinations of the words egg, sausage, cheese, ham, bacon, croissant, bagel and biscuit. You can choose from a long list of “beverages” such as a 500 calorie Vanilla Coolatta with which to wash one of these down. Or you could have coffee – but if you don’t want plain old coffee, they have blueberry flavored coffee. Blueberry coffee? Does that actually appeal to anyone? Out of morbid curiosity, I want to go sample some.
I have become somewhat obsessed with Dunkin Donuts, and will herein explain the reason. Years ago, I worked in private equity. We bought companies. Then we’d make sure those companies grew much bigger. Then we’d sell them and usually make lots of money. The original founder of this particular group, called Bain Capital, is Mitt Romney, currently running for President of the United States. Having already spent a couple of years in the trenches of “Wall Street,” I was accustomed to being around a lot of sharks in sharp looking suits. However, the people in this company were noticeably different. It was comprised of generally really nice people, and I always considered this to be a reflection of how lovely a person Mitt Romney himself was. He was lovely to be around, usually smiling, extremely down to earth and genuinely warm-hearted. OK, and yes, he’s totally charismatic and Superman-handsome too. But the point is, the partners of this company were extraordinarily smart, I was very well taken care of, and always felt a great deal of fondness for all the people I worked with. Also, because of Mitt’s Mormon faith, it was generally off limits for the company to invest in any businesses related to alcohol or tobacco, or anything else overly controversial or ethically suspect.
One day, about two years ago, I came across the news headline that Bain Capital was part of a group purchasing Dunkin Donuts for $2.4 billion. Immediately my heart sank. I sat there feeling so bad. A huge chain selling primarily refined sugar, icky fats, lots of chemicals, and caffeine? I know these people, and I like them! And they are directing not only massive amounts of money but also their collective quality brain power towards Dunkin Donuts? Really? This just simply bummed me out, on many levels.
If one is in the mood to be alarmed, simply go to dunkindonuts.com and look at the Nutrition tab. Writing this essay, I have just done this for the first time ever and am now even more wildly insane over this whole thing. I clicked on the most harmless looking thing I could find, the “garden salad,” and found an extensive paragraph full of more words that I don’t recognize than ones that I do. They should call it a “laboratory salad.” Onward to the most offensive looking thing I could find. The ingredients listed for the “Bacon Lover’s Supreme Breakfast Sandwich” is so long you have to keep scrolling down the screen to read it all. I am fascinated. What is Disodium Dihydrogen Pyrophosphate? It says it’s added to maintain color. I googled it, and guess what? In leather treatment, it can be used to remove iron stains on hides during processing! How handy. Also, in petroleum production, it can be used as a dispersant in oil well drilling muds. Well that sounds just lovely, but I still don’t know what it is or where it comes from. What about Sodium Hexametaphosphate? This is a mixture of polymeric metaphosphates of which the hexamer is one, and is used as a sequestering agent. Right, of course. Google it, and you will find that it is a substance used in the industry of soap, detergents, water treatment, metal finishing and plating, pulp and paper manufacture, synthesis of polymers (fantastic, I will keep this in mind next time I am synthesizing polymers), photographic products, textiles and scale removal. Scale removal? Well, these descriptions should add that it is also apparently used to mysteriously enhance supreme breakfast sandwiches, produced for and widely consumed by bacon lovers.
Anyway. Not long after I read about this deal, I happened to get together, on separate occasions, with a partner and former partner of the firm with whom I remained in touch. They are both insanely smart, really great people that I respect very much. I asked, in a very lighthearted way, if they had any qualms about this particular deal. I pointed out that it seemed to me potentially worse than investing in a tobacco company, since there is at least a very clear awareness by the public, including very young people, of the very damaging health effects of cigarettes. There are warnings on the boxes. There are gross-out ads on TV showing amputations or close-ups of charred lungs, making their point very clear. But there is not yet any similar sort of awareness by or communication to the public, particularly young people, of the very harmful effects of the refined sugar, refined white flour, gnarly fats and chemicals, as well as the coffee/caffeine, that comprise everything that Dunkin Donuts sells. Nor of the truly addictive nature of these substances. Artificial, unnatural, highly processed food makes people sick. This industry of fast food/junk food seems to be where tobacco was years and years ago – still reaping the benefits of a still very much uninformed consumer base.
Back to the question I posed to my friends. Both gave me exactly the same answer, which was to say that this comparison I was making to the tobacco business was precisely what made this such a “good deal,” because, “everyone is already addicted.” Ouch. I didn’t know what to say.
What disturbs and upsets me is the fact that the expansion of this emporium of grossness is being propelled by the brainpower of some of the very brightest business minds. And they’re nice people! I simply don’t understand. It’s become this very personal thing for me now. I want to stop them. Every time I pass a Dunkin Donuts, another splash of fuel lands on the flame of ambition that is burning inside me.
Furthermore, it was not long ago announced that the wildly popular food TV personality, Rachel Ray has signed on to appear in ads and marketing for Dunkin Donuts. One of my favorite writers and another food TV personality, Anthony Bourdain, was quoted in The New York Post as saying the following:
“She’s got a magazine, a TV empire, all these best-selling books – I’m guessing she’s not hurting for money. She’s hugely influential, particularly with children. And she’s endorsing Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s like endorsing crack for kids.” Bourdain adds: “I’m not a very ethical guy. I don’t have a lot of principles. But somehow that seems to me over the line. Juvenile diabetes has exploded. Half of Americans don’t have necks. And she’s up there saying, ‘Eat some [bleeping] Dunkin’ Donuts. You look great in that swimsuit – eat another doughnut!’ That’s evil.”
I agree with him. It seems evil. I want to change things. I want it to be just as easy to drive through any town and find some good, organic, tasty raw, plant-based snacks and foods as it is to find highly processed snacks and foods. And eventually, easier. I have in fact dramatized this in my brain as a battle between good and evil. I feel like the underdog. In Dunkin Donuts, I see an opponent with a lot of money, power, and now also armed with people that I know, so it has further become personal, and somewhat conflicting. Maybe I feel like Luke, when he found out that Darth Vader was his father. Anyway, this will not likely be an easy victory. However, making deliciously appealing products and marketing those products well, along with everything else still tucked up my sleeves, I think I will help to eventually significantly shift the demand. And then maybe Dunkin Donuts and others will be forced to retreat, or begin to change their ways. This is what I’m working towards. And do I think the force is with me? Yes!
P.S Like I said, not easy. sarma at oneluckyduck.com if you want to help us. And you know you can go to oneluckyduck.com if you need snacks while you think about it. And THANK YOU! : )