A Chicken-Shit Tale of Super-Market Marketing

By Ted Friedman
Tuesday July 12, 2011 - 12:50:00 PM
The photo Berkeley Bowl doesn't want you to see. Mary is in the middle, surrounded by her husband, and sons; and doesn't the label leave out the word "chicken" from "organic breast?"
Ted Friedman
The photo Berkeley Bowl doesn't want you to see. Mary is in the middle, surrounded by her husband, and sons; and doesn't the label leave out the word "chicken" from "organic breast?"

If you really want to know about it, this chicken-shit story began at my neighborhood meat counter. Some readers say my stories are chicken-shit anyway. 

Now I provide the evidence to prove their point. 

The sign at the meat counter said, "Mary's Organic Breasts." Signage at my store is often missing words. 

So I ordered one breast, saying "if it's okay with Mary,"(for me to take liberties with her breast). The butcher asked,"Don't you want two?" 

Sounds of two boys laughing. 

I told Mary the whole story about that breast recently when I called her at the family farm in Sanger, California, in Fresno County, the nation's "Christmas Tree City," soon to add yet another slogan—Home to Chickens That Chill. Mary loved my breast joke and I now love Mary. 

Berkeley loves Mary, too, judging by the success of her Pitman Family Farms products and their wide adoption in Berkeley super-markets. Andronico’s made Mary their only chickens supplier after she and her family made a personal presentation to Andronico's buyer. The butchers at my store cook Mary's chickens at home and give them high marks. 

I called Mary recently with some ideas about marketing air-chilled chicken as "chickens that chill". I could see—in my mind's eye—the TV ad or You Tube: chickens looking hip. In fact it's been done. 

But Mary was so busy filling orders—after a New York Times business-section front-page story, Oct. 22, had praised her farm—she had no time to promote her wildly successful chicken (and other fowl) business. 

And to think, Mary only recently was plucked from foreclosure. Her son saved the family farm by instituting standards for humane growing, according to Mary. 

The Times article also saved the farm. It promoted Mary's in language even more lurid than mine: announcing Mary's plans to "use carbon dioxide gas to gently render the birds unconscious before" before they are—slaughtered. 

Mary doesn't like the word slaughter. "We don't slaughter our birds she says. We treat them the way the French do," she told me. Chicken-death with French compassion and dignity. Besides, "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong." 

Here was where I told Mary a chicken-slaughtering story from the 1940s, before Mary's time. There was a chicken-slaughterer in the alley behind my dad's wallpaper and paint store in Springfield, Illinois, where birds were decapitated live and dropped into a bucket where they continued to twitch to death (hence the phrase, "jumping around like a chicken with its head cut off.") 

I peered into the slaughtering shack once and saw unsanitary, cramped conditions, and dirty cages smeared with chicken feathers. And the smell! 

Mary has changed all that. 

Mary invited me out to the farm, but advised me not to show up with any viruses and warned that I'd have to wear a special coat to protect the birds from me. And I thought I was the good guy. 

My last words to Mary: "Keep me abreast" of news from the farm. 

Then I had to hit the ground running to cover the chicken-scene in Berkeley. Mary had said that Berkeley was a big share of her Northern California fowl business. Mary's rules the roost at Andronico’s stores where Mary's is the chicken of choice with customers because they have no other choice. 

But at Berkeley Bowl, Mary's doesn't even get into the main meat case. Rosie's and Happy Dan rule that roost. We can only hope Happy Dan is not Colonel San but has happy chickens who are not tortured before they die. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQehQ_e2xGk 

But surely the Bowl has thought of that. Yet they ordered me to not photograph the chickens. (See accompanying photo.) 

Do those chickens have an agent? I've shopped at the Bowl since 1970, when it was The Bowl (in a former bowling alley), and not just an improved Safeway (the Shattuck store was once a Safeway). Yet, here's a gap where I do not interview some Bowl flack about how kind Happy Dan is to his birds. Who knows what he's happy about? Call me a biased reporter. 

Whole foods, which is having trouble with its new phone system, was not easy to reach, and they have a chain of command which links you to corporate public relations. 

Whole Foods is stoked on Mary's, using it for their in-store rotisserie chicken and passing out succulent samples of what you can achieve with the bird in your home oven. 

When you sift through the list of humane growing standards met by Mary's, you might marvel at how well-treated the birds are. They not only roam, but spend their lives only at Mary's. I couldn't help envying them. Wasn't the movie "Brewster McCloud," about a guy who wanted to be a chicken, or was it just a big bird? 

What about "Big Bird"? They're all chickens to me. Let's go with Foghorn Leghorn; now there's a chicken with moxie. 

I'm not saying I want to live as a chicken; I'm just saying that if I did, I'd want to be at Mary's doing my chicken-thing. Don't get me clucking. 

Now to redeem my offer to say some things about chicken-shit. This misunderstood poop makes the best fertilizer known to farmers, according to Berkeley legend George Kalmar, now a successful Vermont pig farmer (and he's Jewish). 

Perhaps we care about our chickens because they are sustaining us and they are seriously cute. 

Bon appetit. 

Ted Friedman reported this from the south-side; but come fall, he's headed for Mary's farm to bond with his peeps. Stay abreast with his tweets, berkboy@twitter.