What's for dinner, America? Harry Balzer knows

Analyst has spent 28 years tracking how our eating habits have changed and helping the food industry adjust

June 28, 2006|By ROBIN MATHER JENKINS | ROBIN MATHER JENKINS,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Harry Balzer has staked his career on something he himself doesn't take very seriously.

He's not a foodie.

"I just eat to live," he said, unreeling his 6-foot-4-inch frame into a kitchen chair in his home in North Barrington, Ill. "It's never been about the food for me. It's about the information."

Now, information: That, Balzer takes very seriously. He is a vice president at NPD, a company that provides statistical information on how people behave.

In Balzer's case, those statistics, delivered to clients worldwide, reflect how - and what and why - Americans eat.

"There are 300 million of us in this country now," Balzer said. "The thing to remember - the thing I tried to teach my kids - is that we're always more alike than we are different."

His clients include food manufacturers, retailers, stock analysts and restaurant chains. His interpretation of the data he has studied over the past 28 years can make fortunes for companies that listen and cost fortunes to companies that don't.

Balzer can't help himself: The stuff just spills out. For example: "Did you know that Hispanics are twice as likely as non-Hispanics to use spices or seasonings in their kitchens?" he asked. "But as they acculturate, get more comfortable here in the States, they start to use fewer spices and seasonings. They start to cook like we do!"

Balzer, so lean and trim, chuckles. "Everybody you talk to is on a diet, right? Shouldn't we be getting skinny? Well, we're not. We're not getting thinner. Instead, we're shifting our ideals of beauty. Now we think heavier people are more attractive.

"And coffee? We drink more coffee now, right? No, we don't," Balzer said. "What no one's looking at is that there are fewer of those mom-and-pop corner cafes than there used to be, but more Starbucks. Actually, coffee consumption has remained about the same."

Those facts also appeared in NPD's 20th "Eating Patterns in America," the annual report that Balzer has overseen for the two decades since it began. The first "Eating Patterns" was 134 pages; the 2005 version had 470 pages. Compiling the data for "Eating Patterns" - and drawing conclusions about what the data signify - consumes a quarter of Balzer's year. (He spends most of the nine other months on the road visiting clients who will buy the report.)

It is, NPD says, the only report of its kind. Some industry observers regard the report as a key strategic weapon. For Balzer, it's not only serious, it's also the source of endless "gee whiz!" moments.

"His information helps inform strategy and product development," said Gayle Fuguitt, vice president of consumer insights at Minneapolis' General Mills, one of Balzer's customers.

"Harry has had the luxury of working with the same data set for most of his career," Fuguitt said. "He can tell stories about how things have changed over a longtime horizon. Understanding macro trends like that will help us grow our brands, like Cheerios."

Balzer, 55, joined NPD, then called National Purchase Diary, in 1978. Given the title of client service analyst, Balzer was the company's fourth hire.

Every year, Balzer and NPD ask people to take part in regular surveys to gather data. "We'll give books to 3,000 families at a time," Balzer said. "They'll have volunteered to take part in a more lengthy survey in some smaller survey earlier.

"So we'll give them a book and ask them, for example, to write down everything they ate and drank for 14 days. Then we take back all the books and compare the data to previous compilations. Somewhere in my office, I have a bunch of books that surveyed what people ate and drank on Sept. 11, 2001. We haven't done anything with them yet, but we've got them."

Once the data have been collected, "I go on vacation to `Harry's Cabin,'" Balzer teases, indicating the screened porch off the kitchen. There he spends about three months synthesizing what the data mean.

Then Balzer sets off on a marathon of travel, during which he visits more than 70 clients and gives as many as 100 speeches a year. Many of the speeches are to clients, of course, but a lot are to industry groups, such as the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association or the American Meat Institute.

In his spare time, Balzer said, he's a three-mile-a-day runner and a golfer. "I'm competitive against myself," Balzer said, "not so much about other people." But mostly, Balzer thinks about you and me and the way we use food, said longtime friend Bob Siegel, a food-service industry consultant in Chicago.

"Harry's a good example of a man or woman who gets described over the years as a person defined by what he does," Siegel said.

Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune.

55%

[ The percentage of all dinners that are prepared by women on a typical night. That's unchanged since 1998. Restaurants are second, accounting for 18 percent of all meals. Men take care of 11 percent of all dinners.

No. 1

[ The item the verage American is most likely to have between meals is ...gum!

46%

The percentage of in-home meals last year that included at least one fresh, preparedfrom-scratch dish - an all-time low that is down from 56 percent in 1985.

No.1

The favorite snack of children younger than 6 years old is fruit. Don't be surprised. Parents still control the intake of toddlers and babies. Once they have their 6th birthday, however, look out!

22%

The percentage of meals purchased at a restaurant last year in which we did not even get out of our cars - a new high.

No.1

The top food ordered by women in restaurants is french fries. (And you thought it was salad.)

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