Food and Innovation

October, 2015

Berlin -- The fast-food chain McDonald's has put up billboards all over Berlin, trying to convince us that its food is really "bio" (organic). Or at least the meat is. The campaign is an effort to stem the closure of its franchises in the face of changing consumer preferences for fresh, healthy food. In my neighborhood there are few such franchises anyway, the result of an effort over the years, mostly successful, to keep chains out. The fast food of choice here is the Döner Kebap, sold out of hole-in-the-wall storefronts.

Meanwhile, the food processing giant ConAgra is leaving its Nebraska headquarters in favor of Chicago. It, too, is looking for a way to turn itself around in response to changing consumer demand. ConAgra is moving into the Merchandise Mart, the famous old riverfront warehouse where its employees can mix with innovators like The Good Food Business Accelerator, with connections to companies that have thrived on offering healthier food.

The ironies are head-shaking. ConAgra tore down the historic warehouses in Omaha's Jobbers Canyon. Now it moves into a giant warehouse. ConAgra partnered with the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln seeking an atmosphere of food innovation. It remains in that partnership; perhaps it will send to Lincoln some of what it discovers about innovation in Chicago.

Nebraska state taxpayers spent tens of millions to keep ConAgra in Omaha and are putting millions into the NIC. That spending does not look so good in retrospect, although I believe support for NIC will eventually prove to be a wise investment. But the lesson to be drawn right now is that at least ConAgra doesn't think much of NIC for looking to the old, failing ConAgra as its innovation partner.

Unpleasant as all this is, it may be for the best. Our diets need a shake-up.

Twenty-fifth Anniversary of German Reunification

October, 2015

Berlin -- Twenty-five years ago, on October 3, 1990, Germany reunited. I was living then in southern Berlin at Zerbsterstrasse 42, working hard on a writing project. But the weather that historic day was splendid so I ventured over to the Brandenburg Gate and to the Palast der Republik. What a crowd. What a celebration.

Today, October 3, 2015, is another cloudless sky so I left Mariannenplatz, near the old Berlin Wall, and headed west to central Berlin to see anniversary festivities. Unter den Linden was full of tourists. Strasse der 17 Juni was full of carnival booths. The area is not the same. Couldn't be. Lots of people under twenty-five, for one thing, who could not remember.

This time, nearby Gendarmenmarkt was much different for me as I walked by the dome of the French church. A few weeks ago I discovered that my paternal grandmother's family has roots in northeastern France. They became part of the migration of Protestants out of France and Germany to British colonial America in the mid-18th Century. Other French refugee Protestants (Huguenots) migrated to Berlin. The French cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt dates from 1784. That's when my migrating ancestors, the Wimers, were acquiring land in Virginia, now West Virginia. The French migration to Berlin made up a third of the city's population at the beginning of the 18th Century and grew to twenty thousand. Likely there are common ancestors among my family and the Berliners of today of Huguenot extraction. This is also a reminder that Berlin has always been a destination for refugees, which helps explain the current welcoming attitude toward today's newcomers from the Middle East.

Today over at Potsdamer Platz, just a short walk from the American Embassy, there was a discordant note questioning the purpose of German reunification. A huge banner proclaimed that the border was lifted so that the countries could wage war together as one. ("Die Grenze wurde aufgehoben, damit wir gemeinsam wieder in den Krieg ziehen.") Pamphlets and posters identified the non-celebrants as former East Germans who still take the view that their country was annexed.

The biggest difference for me over twenty-five years is the new presence of the memorial to the Holocaust victims, which occupies acres of former no-man's-land stretching from the American Embassy almost to the site of Hitler's last bunker. It is like no other. My family and I looked out over the expanse in 1989 from a wood observation scaffold, never imagining what the future would hold.