What Supermarkets Can Learn From the Food Network

Food has become the new universal language — and it’s not just about cooking.

November 16, 2012

In 1993, TVFN (Television Food Network) was born out of a discussion between a couple of senior executives at The Providence Journal newspaper and Johnson & Wales University, also based in Providence, R.I. Next year will mark the cable network’s 20th anniversary, which supermarkets should celebrate.

While you may not be a fan of all their programming, or their celebrity chefs, there is little doubt that the network has fueled and expanded America’s interest in food and cooking at home and at the same time created major brands of foods and cookware that now sell in most supermarkets. Their path has not been easy.

I was a member of the pre-launch TVFN team and traveled the nation with Trygve Myrhen (then president of The Providence Journal) presenting the concept to cable operators and would-be financial partners. These television execs were not convinced that there was a market for a 24/7 food network; but in spite of the concern, cable operators signed on to join the Journal  including Tribune Company, Cablevision, Adelphia and Scripps-Howard, and the network launched in the fall of 1993.

The lesson we can all learn from (what is now called) Food Network is that through a revolving door of CEOs and rotating ownership the network’s programming continues to evolve and meet the needs of its viewers. Viewers change — they get younger, hipper and more ethnically diverse. They wanted French culinary instruction from Julia Child in 1993 on TVFN and today they want to watch how a restaurant cleans up before the health inspector comes to close them down.

Food has become the new universal language — and it’s not just about cooking.

The rise of food shows on many broadcast and cable channels coupled with the enormous growth of food blogs has set a strong foundation for sharing food experiences. Food trucks tweet their locations and flash food raves assemble underground at midnight. Mommy, daddy and grandma bloggers offer helpful cooking hints, recipes and supermarket shopping tips. And restaurant patrons pull out their mobile phones to snap photos of just about everything from burgers to artesan breads. It is about connection, conversation and a sense of community.

Some grocers already speak the language of food to their shoppers — and do it very, very well. As we continue to see more people buying foods in other channels it might well be time to look at the lesson of TVFN and focus on speaking the same language as our shoppers.

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