Meeting-ectomy is a word I invented last summer. When I first said it to my daughter, Sophia, she pondered for a moment and said, “You got rid of your meetings?”

Yes, I decided that I had too many meetings at work every day, and it actually prevented me from getting any meaningful work done. Do you feel that way sometimes?

I got concerned about all my meetings when my co-worker, Aldo, told me that in business school, they call meetings “The Monster,” and warn graduates to beware of them when they get out into the real work world. The Monster takes over and you can’t get anything done.

So, after a frustrating week of feeling like I was getting nothing done, I declared that I was giving myself a Meeting-ectomy.

Here’s how I did it:

1. First I let all my direct reports know that I was cancelling our weekly meetings, permanently. I let them know that I trusted them to do their work and empowered them to get things done on their own. They could come to me for guidance and we would continue to talk, but only when there was something important. No more regular weekly meetings. (I put this all in an email so I didn’t have to have another meeting!)

2. I decided to identify my top three priorities for the balance of the year. I wrote them down. Then, I sent an email to all my work colleagues and shared those top priorities with them. (That way they knew what I was working on and could support me.)

3. I let everyone know that I would move any needed meetings to only one day of the week. I chose Friday, which is casual day at my company. So in jeans, I could handle a day of meetings, if needed.

I tried it first for about six weeks to see how I survived without regular meetings. Funny thing happened. I loved it! All my people loved it! I got all my work done.

And the best part was that the bottom line of my company improved… and I felt good about my accomplishments.

So, if you are currently feeling like you aren’t accomplishing enough, consider a meeting-ectomy. Or, if you know of someone who SHOULD have a Meeting-ectomy, please pass this blog along to them.

Meetingless in California,

Garry and I have a favorite local restaurant, called Preveza. The cuisine is Mediterranean, which means the menu has both an Italian and a Greek flair.

The last time we dined there we chatted with the owner, Nicolas. I told him how much we enjoy the food and the service. I also told him that one of my favorite things about the restaurant was that I could tell they used whole head lettuce and cut it up themselves, instead of buying processed, pre-cut lettuce like many other restaurants. I love how his salads taste really fresh.

That’s when he started talking about lettuce prices. Like most restaurants, Nicolas buys his produce from a small distribution company who delivers door to door to many of the local restaurants. The small company probably buys from a produce wholesaler on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, who has purchased the produce directly from the growers.

This chain of supply is what makes the produce business so unique. If you are a single restaurant, you almost have to buy from a local company versus directly from growers, unless you buy in large volumes.

“Last year, lettuce was so much cheaper,” Nicolas ranted. “This year I am paying over $30 a box for lettuce when last year I was paying around $15.”

I explained that the high prices are likely due to a spreading fungus that’s affecting lettuce crops in Yuma, Arizona — a major growing area at this time of year. A story about the situation recently appeared in one of the produce industry newspapers (The Packer):

Iceberg lettuce prices nearly doubled in the third week of January as supply took a bigger than normal winter hit from the sclerotinia fungus. “There have been some limited outbreaks of (sclerotinia) in the past but this is the first time it’s reached this magnitude anywhere that I’ve heard of in my 30 years in the business,” said Mark McBride, sales manager at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce. 

“Yuma’s worse than the Imperial Valley,” said Michael Boggiatto, president of Salinas-based Boggiatto Produce, which grows romaine in the California valley. Both regions – and commodities – have been hit. “This sclerotinia is a different strain,” Boggiatto said. “It appears to be airborne, not soilborne, and affects the upper plant instead of the root. People have gone through entire fields and not harvested, it’s so bad. But some fields aren’t affected at all.” 

“The weather back East has kept people from going out, but as much as demand is down, supply is down even further,” he said. It’s not a doomsday scenario, but limited supply is making for an active market. “Our production total is probably off 10% to 15%,” Boggiatto said. “Most guys are probably between 10% and 20%.” “Industry supplies for both (iceberg and romaine) will be well below normal for the next few weeks,” McBride said Jan. 21. “Customers are struggling to make their orders and they have to pay a higher price,” Boggiatto said. “As long as you’ve got reasonable supply you can come out OK.” 

So what does that mean to you as a consumer? It means you will probably see higher prices for whole heads of Iceberg and Romaine lettuce for a while. Sizing of the heads may be smaller. This is a great opportunity to try other varieties of lettuce. Try cabbage, spinach or baby lettuces for a while.

Bagged salads may not change in price, due to the pricing contracts with processors, but you may notice that the bagged lettuce does not last as long as it usually does.

Nicolas concluded our conversation by adding, “At least the lettuce is not $60 a box. I remember when that happened a few years ago.”

You may remember when lettuce got so expensive and supplies were so limited that some retailers hung up informative signs in their produce departments explaining the high prices and lack of supplies.

And so goes the produce business. So, maybe next time you hear a story about a freeze in Florida, a pest invasion in California, or floods in the Central Valley, you’ll think about how it will affect farmers… and the produce you get at your local supermarket.

And now you know!

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Satrina0

Karen and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse

Alice Waters is probably one of the most renowned chefs and restaurant owners in the world. She resides in Berkeley, California, and is one of the most delightful, genuine and authentic people on the planet, in my humble opinion.

There appears to be a halo around her sincere, bubbly smile.

I’m not sure when I first met Alice, but I believe it was at an American Institute of Food and Wine event in Santa Monica, California. Mom and I were there on a Sunday afternoon (more than 25 years ago) and chefs were arranged all over the dining room of Michael’s Restaurant, sampling their favorite foods.

I recall exactly what Alice Waters served. Fava beans mashed with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Served on baguette. Yum! It was the first time I had eaten fava beans and the experience was amazing.

Being somewhat of a foodie, I have always wanted to dine at her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse, but never seemed to make reservations in advance of my trips to the Bay Area. Alice and a few friends opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and I learned that it was named the Best Restaurant in America in 2001 by Gourmet Magazine. Chez Panisse is also known for using only local, seasonal and organic foods and the menu changes with the seasons.

Since I was going to be in San Francisco for the Fancy Food Show, I was determined to mark this item off my bucket list, so I called a few weeks ago and was able to secure reservations in the Chez Panisse Café. I have to admit, I thought it would be disappointing to eat in the café upstairs instead of the regular dining room, but at least I could say I finally dined at Chez Panisse.

My friend Mary and I were greeted at the door by a charming Maitre D’. The atmosphere and décor was woodsy and warm, with the feeling of a log cabin. Our service was impeccable. (Check out our menu for the evening.)

The Cannard Farm rocket (arugula) salad with lemon, ricotta and roasted almonds was light, flavorful and perfect. I really did savor each bite. The short ribs had amazing flavor and the coffee was hot and lovely. (I often judge a restaurant by their coffee, as I am pretty picky about it.) We both ordered dessert: Mine was the Pink Lady apple and apricot jam tart with crème fraiche, and Mary had panna cotta with candied yuzu compote. Both were delicate, well balanced and absolutely delicious.

I really enjoyed dining in the “Café,” as there is great energy on the top floor and we struck up a conversation with the couple next to us. They have been coming there regularly for 15 years. Every night the menu changes and tonight’s menu was inspired by Waverly Root, an author I have long admired.

As luck would have it, Alice Waters arrived at the restaurant while we were dining, and the Maitre D’ made a special effort to let me know that she was there and promised to make sure I was able to say hello. At the end of our fabulous dinner, as we headed toward the stairs, I found Alice. She was charming and genuine as always and I waited while she autographed a cookbook for a guest. Alice took her time and added some illustrations to her signature — a truly personal touch.

If you are ever in the Bay Area, you MUST go to Chez Panisse. It is no wonder it is one of the best places to dine in America.

Bon Appetit!

P.S. This is my 100th blog post!

It was kind of scary yet exciting to have an interview with the infamous New Yorker magazine. Because our company is a resource about specialty produce, it’s not unusual for us to get calls several times a week for interviews. Last week was a busy one – I did an interview with both the Wall Street Journal (see the story here) and The New Yorker.

New Yorker writer John called our company because he was doing a story on a tropical fruit. (I can’t tell you which one, as I am sworn to secrecy until the story is published). He contacted us on Monday and my interview with him was set for Wednesday mid-day – reporters almost always have a short deadline. I never know how the interview is going to go, so I always give myself a pep talk before they call, and close my door, and shut off my email, so I am not distracted.

John had kind of a gravelly voice and got right to the point. “Karen, I am doing a story on XXXX and I want to know how your company decides how to market a new item and how all that works.”

Needless to say, I explained to John that I really couldn’t divulge our company marketing strategy, but we did talk for about 20 minutes about the product he was profiling and the challenges he was facing in writing a story on a rather obscure fruit. I find it is always better when talking with a writer to be honest, yet careful that I don’t say something that I might regret — as nothing is ever “off the record.” We actually brainstormed on what his readers would enjoy learning.

As our conversation was ending he told me that I should be a writer! I laughed and said that I actually write a blog and invited him to read my last post about why Pine Nuts were so expensive.

Shortly after I hung up, I got a lovely email from John (he liked the blog) with a link to one of his favorite stories. He said “I’m sending a link for a story you might find interesting as a food person: a piece on a Michelin inspector. (Supposedly the first such interview with one of these famously anonymous critics!)

The Michelin hotel and restaurant guide is more famous in France, whereas in the United States we are used to the Zagat guide for restaurants. Nevertheless, if you are reading What’s on Karen’s Plate, you certainly have an interest in food, so I invite you to read John’s article here.

I wrote John back and told him that I was quite impressed with his Michelin story. After all, if a chef would consider committing suicide over their Michelin rating, they must be pretty impressive critics.

Read on!

I refuse to call them “New Year’s Resolutions,” because there is no one who wakes up on January 1st and is successful at changing their habits that fast.

So, my BFF and I “set goals” for the new year. We each make a list of our personal and our professional goals. We start talking about them around Christmas and I am hoping we will have a chance to share our goals for 2011 with each other by the end of this week.

I find that by sharing my goals with someone I trust and getting their input and feedback, I am more engaged in the process.

She tells me when I’m being too optimistic with them — I am a chronically overly optimistic person — and when I am not challenging myself enough.

And part of our goal-setting process is that we touch base on them every month or so.

Actually, one of the keys to success of our goal-setting process is that we both resolve to make our goals S.M.A.R.T.:

S: Specific
M: Measurable
A: Achievable
R: Realistic
T: With a timetable

Setting goals isn’t for everyone. Some people don’t like to make the commitment. Some people don’t like to write them down, and for sure they don’t want to share them with anyone.

When I walked into my daughter’s bedroom this weekend, I noticed a checkerboard of Post-it notes on her wall. Each note said things like: Exercise twice a week. Stay positive. Eat healthy.

I asked her if they were her goals. She told me no, they were her reminders.

So, this is YOUR reminder.

Think about it.

This is the question my friend Tina recently asked me. Seems like there should be an easy enough answer, right? It must either be a shortage of supplies or an excess of demand. Well, it’s a little bit of both.

The most sizable commercial production of shelled Pine Nuts is really concentrated in just a few places in the world — the most significant being China (although some say they are grown in Russia and brought to China for processing). It appears as if most other sources of Pine Nuts are localized, like in Italy, Spain and a small amount in the United States. And, the shelling of the nuts from the pine cone is so labor intensive, it’s no wonder that the biggest supplier is a country whose labor costs are the cheapest.

Over the past decade, we have seen an incredible increase in demand for Pine Nuts. I guess you can thank the Food Network for that. Whether it’s for authentic holiday Pine Nut cookies, or a fresh pesto recipe calling for Pine Nuts instead of walnuts, the more Pine Nuts are called for in recipes, the more demand there is for them in supermarkets. And the more demand there is for a labor-intensive product….the higher the price we pay.

An interesting byproduct of the increased availability and consumption is the number of complaints we hear about Pine Nuts. The top two complaints are:

1. A bitter taste in your mouth after eating Pine Nuts — also known as “pine mouth.” Contrary to popular belief, it is not food poisoning or rancid pine nuts, but rather a tendency for some people to experience a bitter taste sensation or “taste disturbance” after eating them. Although we don’t exactly know why this is happening, it’s possible that Pine Nuts harvested from certain pine species may be to blame. More research is needed. At this time, the FDA hasn’t published anything official on the phenomenon, but here are some links to recent articles about “pine mouth”:
Washington Post: Another reason to eat local: A ‘taste disturbance’ caused by Chinese pine nuts
ABC News: Some Pine Nuts Lead to Temporary ‘Pine Mouth Syndrome’
Journal of Medical Toxicology: “Pine mouth” syndrome: cacogeusia following ingestion of pine nuts (genus: pinus). An emerging problem?

2. Going stale. Did you know that Pine Nuts really should be refrigerated? Because of the high oil content in the nuts, they have a natural tendency to become rancid over time. To prevent this, you should keep them refrigerated (or frozen) when storing them.

So, if you love Pine Nuts, be prepared to pay a dear price for them. And prices can vary greatly, because it may depend on where the pine nuts are grown, how they were harvested, etc.

But one thing is for sure. The special flavor you get from adding freshly roasted pine nuts to a recipe is unique and special. Here is my friend Tina’s favorite Pine Nut recipe:

Capellini with Tomato Pesto
From “Quick Vegetarian Pleasures” by Jeanne Lemlin
1/3 cup Pine Nuts
6 ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1/4 finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound capellini

Serves 4

1. Lightly toast the Pine Nuts in a 350-degree oven until golden, about 5 minutes.

2. To make the sauce, combine the Pine Nuts with all the remaining ingredients except the pasta in a medium bowl. (This step may be completed up to 24 hours in advance, covered, and chilled. Bring to room temperature before mixing it with the pasta).
(**Note from Tina, I don’t put the pine nuts in until close to the time I am using, as I like them to keep their crunch.)

3. Bring a 6-quart pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Before draining the pasta, beat 2 tablespoons of the boiling pasta water into the sauce. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot or drop it into a large bowl. Spoon on the sauce and toss quickly. Serve immediately.


After the movie of the same name came out in 2007, I have heard the term “bucket list” thrown around quite a bit. I never considered making one for myself until I attended an executive seminar in September along with a few of my other CEO friends and our spouses.

We were told we had 20 minutes to make our list. The goal was 50 items. I was able to write down 38 things I want to do “before I die.” Others in our group struggled to think of 10.

Then I got the following email from a client over the holidays:

“I don’t have too much left on my list. This year I have been helping people do things they never thought possible. It makes me feel good when I see the reaction on their faces. Currently I am in a leadership class at my company, and last month’s class was on doing our bucket lists. I started on my bucket list in 2001 after getting diagnosed the first time with melanoma cancer. In my class I had everyone in tears, not on purpose, as I explained to them that they should be working on their list long before life deals them a shot and then they have no time to do the things they always wanted to. I live each day like it’s my last and I enjoy making those around me happy.”

Whoa. That email stopped me cold. I read it aloud to my daughter at dinner as it came across my BlackBerry and we paused and took a deep breath.

…Make the list BEFORE life deals you a shot. Help other people do things they never thought possible…

I am now rethinking MY OWN bucket list. The majority of the things on my list are about me, a few of them are about helping others. I think I want to be more balanced.

Have you considered making your own bucket list? Besides the regular items like “Visit Morocco,” and “See the Great Wall of China,” what about including things like, “Helping out at a homeless shelter several times a year,” “Mentor a student or another colleague for THEIR benefit.”

I keep my handwritten and dated bucket list right on my desk. In the next month, I will have crossed off two items on my original list. I know it will feel good. I’m sure I will be adding a few things to my list this year.

I hope you’ll take a moment to start your own bucket list. And keep it nearby, as you never know when a great idea will come to you.

Happy New Year!


This was the headline of a produce industry newspaper I received last week. It sure got my attention.

With all the torrential rains in California and three back-to-back freezes in Florida during recent weeks, you may not be thinking about strawberries right now, but I can guarantee you that berry farmers and supermarket and restaurant buyers are not only thinking about strawberries, they are probably “freaking out” a bit.

The two primary growing areas for strawberries in North America are California and Florida (and Mexico). They are a very high value and labor-intensive crop. Strawberries are hand-harvested and some of the best growing areas are on really expensive real estate (Oxnard and Watsonville, California, for example). Plus, fresh strawberries are one of the top-selling fruit items in U.S. supermarkets! So, if there are no strawberries to sell, it has a negative impact on the bottom line of the supermarket.

Farmers do their planning for the upcoming growing season as long as 12 to 24 months in advance, or longer, as they often times have to lease land, lease water, order seed, order plants, hire labor…and then get commitments in advance from their largest customers so they know how much to plant.

Like all fresh produce, no matter how much planning goes on, we are ultimately at the whim of Mother Nature. So, what will happen if there is a virtual shortage of fresh strawberries for a few months? Here’s how I see it:

The produce industry is well known as “price takers,” rather than some commodities (like steel or oil) which are “price makers.” A price maker can add up all their costs and come up with a selling price, and that’s the price for which they sell their product. And if no one buys it, they have two choices: they can wait until someone buys it, because it is not perishable and won’t go bad, or they can lower their price to make a sale.

For price takers, like in fresh produce, we don’t have those options. If we don’t sell the product, it just goes bad and we get nothing. (In the case of fresh strawberries, they can freeze them, but the price they get will be far cheaper than in the fresh market.)

Because of this, there are wide fluctuations in prices. Last January the price (at the farm) for an 8-pound carton of fresh strawberries ranged from $24 to $28 — plus freight and all the costs associated with getting it to the store. However, I just checked this morning, and after all the rains in California and the freezes in Florida, that same carton of strawberries might be fetching more than $42 per carton — almost double the price from last year. So, don’t be surprised to see a clamshell of strawberries for $9.99 in your store – if you can even find them! And you might find smaller clamshells for a while, so they can spread supplies around to more customers.

It all boils down to Economics 101: supply and demand. And who will get the few strawberries that are available? The highest bidder.

That may not always be the supermarket buyer. It often times is the high-end restaurants chefs and their foodservice distributor suppliers. Restaurants HAVE to have those items listed on their menu and they usually can be more flexible on the price they are willing to pay. So in the next few months you might only see fresh strawberries at high-end restaurants, or gourmet grocery stores who can charge “any price.”

Without sufficient supplies of strawberries, supermarkets may feature other fresh berries, such as blueberries and blackberries which come from other growing areas. Or if there are not enough berries at all, they will just build bigger displays of bananas, apples, citrus and grapes and other fruits. You might also see fresh strawberries being flown in from different parts of the world, such as New Zealand or Holland.

As you can see, the produce industry is an amazing and ingenious business. When confronted with the biggest hurdles and obstacles, we are flexible and innovative.

So next time you go to the supermarket, and notice the availability (or lack of) and prices of fresh produce, please understand that Mother Nature has really wreaked havoc on many of our farmer friends, and that we are doing the best we can.

But, keep eating all the fresh produce you can. It’s good for you!

Food for thought.