Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tuesday Food Politics: Panera vs. Burrito Edition

This is a special Tuesday edition of Food Politics...

Is a burrito a sandwich? A judge in Massachusetts says no.

The gist: Mall has contract guarantee with Panera that no sandwich shops will compete. Panera thinks new burrito shop counts as a sandwich shop, sues, but judge disagrees, stating that, "A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans."

A few thoughts:

1. Do I have a problem with the ruling? No. It's Panera's fault for not being more specific in their initial contract. And a burrito really isn't a sandwich.

2. Is this kind of contract anti-competitive? Yes. Does that mean it should be illegal? No. Food is a competitive market, and Panera doesn't even have a food monopoly in the mall, just a sandwich monopoly. This doesn't rise to the level of an anti-trust violation, but as Greg Mankiw points out, this is a good example of businesses trying to impede competition. Pro-free-market doesn't always mean pro-business.

3. What's the larger point here? Food definitions matter. But they often defy common sense, particularly when the government gets involved. In Florida, Uglyripe tomatoes can't be exported in the winter because they're not round. In the UK, a chocolate-covered Jaffa Cake is taxed if it's a biscuit (= cookie this side of the pond) but not taxed if it's a cake. What counts as "fast food" to those trying to restrict what establishments can be near schools? Panera? Chipotle?

4. Does the Platonic ideal of a sandwich exist? This armchair philosopher says no. One trend (some would say fad) in fine-dining is the deconstruction of classic preparations into pure components that are often transformed or reinterpreted. What would a judge think of the tomato and corn "salad" I had at Manresa for my birthday last month? There was certainly no lettuce, and in fact the whole dish was liquid except for two small tomatoes. It is simply impossible to define a static boundary between sandwich/not sandwich or salad/not salad. In fact, some of the most interesting cuisine plays with our perceptions of those bounds.

5. What's the solution? Leave the food decisions to the chefs and the diners, not to the bureaucrats. There's no reason for Florida or the FTC to be deciding what is and what isn't a tomato. If consumers want to buy the Uglyripe, they'll buy it. If they want their tomatoes round and red, they'll buy them round and red. While this hands-off approach won't work in every case (Panera vs. Burrito being one), it should certainly be the default.

But that's just one freedom-loving frugal foodie's opinion...

Hat tip: megnut and Greg Mankiw.


Leslie said...

Big news today about the UglyRipe tomato, did you hear? The New York Times ran a story in it's "Dining Out" section today:

The tomato's creator started a blog too: www.santasweets.blogspot.com

Good news for foodies & tomato lovers!!

John V said...

Yes, I did see that great news in the Times. I just love the anti-consumer attitudes of the Florida Tomato Committee and Governor Jeb Bush. Like we aren't capable of deciding on our own whether a tomato tastes good or not? And of course there is no such thing as a "Florida" tomato anyway!