"Three home cooks compete to prove that their product has what it takes to become the next supermarket brand." That's the concept of the new Lifetime reality show Supermarket Superstar, as explained in the first episode by host Stacy Keibler while images of consumers' favorites -- from Chef Boyardee's canned beef ravioli to Orville Redenbacher's Pop Up Bowl -- roll on the screen. From the get go, viewers fully understand what's at stake. Participants are not talking about fancy gourmet food or a celebrity chef's restaurant. They are giving a shot to the real bread and butter of food business in the U.S.: the packaged products that can be found on the shelves of your local bodega, grocery store, or supermarket. The show tries to bank on the growing popularity of food and on the equally increasing numbers of people who decide they have the vision, the abilities, and the chops to take their love for cooking or their side activity -- for which they receive compliments from family, friends, and at most a small circle of clients -- to the next level.
Every episode is dedicated to a different category of food product. Competitors pitch their idea to a panel of professional mentors: the founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, Debbi Fields; renowned chef and (in the words of the host) "retail visionary," Michael Chiarello; and "branding guru and food product pioneer" Chris Cornyn. Taking into account their comments and advice, the participants then get the opportunity to tweak and perfect their proposal in a professional test kitchen (with the help of a real-life R&D expert), present it to a focus group of consumers, and design the packaging.
In each episode, A&P supermarket buyer Tom Dahlen decides who will win $10,000 in cash and $100,000 worth in product development to get professional samples of the contestant's creations. In the end, the winners of each category get a chance to have their product picked and distributed in the A&P supermarkets and their affiliates all over the U.S. It is the same attempt to connect reality TV with the real world of business that we have seen in shows like the short-lived America's Next Great Restaurant and Fashion Star, both on NBC. Winners do not only hope to achieve TV fame, but may also get an opportunity to make it to the big time.
In the first episodes, we see competitors vie for the win in the categories of cakes and global cuisine (whatever that means in a supermarket aisle). Peach cobbler cupcakes, alcohol-laden "cake buzz," and kung pao chicken chimale (Chinese tamale) are among the products that are offered for the audience's enjoyment, alongside their sometimes colorful makers. With her big smiles and her warm demeanor, Ms. Fields plays the cheerleader for the contestants who get their dose of reality check (quite an oxymoron, as this is a reality show) from Chiarello and, above all, Cornyn. But then again, the roles of the sweet and harsh mentors in reality competitions have long become a mainstay of the genre, allowing for drama, tears, and overall good entertainment. That said, Chiarello's and Cornyn's observations, together with Dahlen's questions, provide a window into the actual business of selling food.
However, anybody working in the food business would understand the shows lives in the realm of fantasy. No single entrepreneur simultaneously works in research and development, marketing, and packaging design unless they are at the very beginning of their adventure, in which case their products would definitely not land in the big distribution. The negotiation skills necessary to simply secure circulation and introduce a new product on supermarket shelves are not part of the competition, although they would be a great talent to master. As we are in the realm of televised fantasy, Dahlen plays the role of the fairy godmother, as the winners for each category compete for the final prize that will take them from the small screen to the reality of supermarket shelves all over the country.
The show allows the audience a glimpse of the brutality of the food business, beyond the romanticism that often surrounds the sector. Pricing is the bottom line, beside good ideas and great flavor. Food trends come and go. By the time a new product hits the shelves, after the necessary time for research, manufacture and distribution, it may already be out of fashion. It is a cutthroat business, fought to the last cent in front of the "masses," the Holy Grail that this reality shows dangles in front of competitors.