New Yorkers love their pizza slices. They eat them while running down some New York avenue on the way to work, or even while working, the sauce dripping down their wrists and into their sleeves. Slices became New Yorkers’ preferred style of pizza because of the urban lifestyle of Manhattan, with its short lunch hours and mobile culture.
The New York pizza slice exists through a serendipitous combination of technological advancements and consumer lifestyles. When Italian immigrants came to New York in the early twentieth century, they brought their tomato sauce and flatbreads with them. But back then, the only tools for cooking those flatbreads were wood-and coal-fired ovens. At 900 degrees, they were and still are—too hot to allow for the revered, reheated slices.
Twenty years later, a new baking technology laid the framework for the New York slice as the arrival of natural gas deck ovens transformed the pizza trade. Now pizza bakers could use small ovens with low temperatures to reheat single slices, and in the decades following, New Yorkers adopted their slices.
The pizza slice perfectly conforms to the needs of New Yorkers who want a quick lunch they can eat on the run, with one hand. That simple slice of pizza can reveal the machinery behind the way our food supply chain works—and where it’s going.
Modern food supply chains are complex systems, juggling many intermediate steps as raw ingredients transform and combine on their way to warehouses, transported by trucks, trains, barges, airplanes, ships, and even bicycles. Sometimes, food products are processed several times—cleaned, chopped, packaged, cooked, or combined into sauces—and all in different locations and by different middlemen. There’s even a reverse food supply chain with its own logistics. Raw ingredients lurch, sprint, crawl, wait, and gather through a series of transformations called “farm to plate.” The “to” is what makes feeding cities possible.
The story behind how our global food system evolved could fill several books. The history of agriculture alone deserves a deep dive since it gives us an idea of how far we’ve come in terms of how much we can grow on a single acre of land. But in this book, the story about the middle part—the supply chain and its path from farm to plate—is our hero. Confronting all sorts of monsters and enemies, that chain of events somehow manages to get us fed, more or less, every day. So before we dig into our pizza, let’s define what we mean when we talk about food supply chains and logistics and take a brief look at how they developed into the system that fills our plates today.
The Evolution of Chain Logic
Food supply chains consist of a series of linked activities that occur while moving food from producers to consumers. These activities thrive on logistics. “Logistics” comes from the Greek word logistik, which means the art of planning for the purpose of moving goods and the related organization and equipment. It also relates to a French term, logistique, used by Antoine Henri de Jomini to describe the “practical art” of moving armies in The Art of War (1838). Jomini defined a commissariat as the coordinating center of an army’s food supply. He thought of food as an essential fuel for military strategy and argued that a deficit in an army’s food supply would lead to defeat in the field.
In that spirit, Jomini laid out the rules for keeping armies fed around supply depots that drew upon the resources of invaded regions. He believed an army would take about a month to occupy a region based upon that region’s ability to feed it. So beyond just moving stuff from point A to B, a logistics-based supply chain uses strategy, optimization, operations management, and quantified performance measurements. Today military and government research projects continue to develop logistics for feeding armies, and the innovations that originate in their labs often find their way to our grocery store shelves—energy bars, for example—or at least our camping supply stores, where we find freeze-dried meals that resemble military Meals-Ready-to- Eat or snacks originally created for NASA’s space station.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the newly developed idea of scientific management led to practices that optimized workflow by carefully measuring and maximizing the use of time, labor, and standardized parts and practices while eliminating waste. Frederick Winslow Taylor, an early twentieth-century mechanical engineer, led the movement, and “Taylorism,” as his theory was called, led to further improvements in the production and transportation of products from factory to consumer.
The idea of optimization became quantifiable, and we began to scientifically optimize the time and distance between farms and plates. When computers arrived during the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of logical, rational workflows got an extra push through the acceleration of data processing, followed by the development of computer-based forecasting and materials planning systems. MIT scientist Jay Forrester led the research that later benefitted food processors and manufacturers to improve workflow. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that supply chain management emerged, leading to supply chain centers in academic institutions. Food logistics acquired its own professional organizations, conferences, and academic departments. Automation joined with scale (large, centralized operations) to produce the global food supply system we see today.
During the same period, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the development of ice manufacturing and refrigeration led to what is now called the “cold chain.” The food supply chain differs from other supply chains in its requirement for careful temperature control. Entrepreneurs such as Augustus Swift revolutionized the meat supply chain by utilizing refrigerated rail cars and vertically integrating all aspects of meat production.
The arrival of railroads and shipping containers contributed two of the most significant changes in the food supply chain. Railroads began to move food across long distances beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and shipping containers, developed by Malcom McLean during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed how food moved on ships, trucks, and trains. The integration of these transport networks eventually became our international, intermodal food distribution network.
With these new technologies, the industrialization of our food supply gained momentum and became global. Starting in the nineteenth century, farms and food processing companies grew in size. By the end of the 1800s, companies such as Unilever, General Mills, Nestlé, and Campbell’s Soup Company represented the emergence of what we now call “Big Food.” Back then size was the optimizer. Centralized facilities and aggregated activities enabled more food to be produced at lower costs.
Throughout this period, machinery gained ascendancy over humans as productivity became the objective. Henry Ford discovered that by using assembly lines he could mass-produce automobiles. Food companies adopted assembly line production practices and industrialized our food system.
By World War II, the world’s food system had gained more technology and logistics knowledge as a result of the necessities of warfare. Those assembly lines moved faster and produced food manufactured with more ingredients from laboratories than from the soil. We had become experts in producing food at scale with logistics and supply chains to match. The combination of size and scale with industrialization through the use of science and technology has given the world record-breaking food production at lower costs. Now all we need to do is to distribute all that food while making it more nutritious, maintaining freshness, and increasing access to consumers at all income levels while minimizing waste and any harmful impact to the environment, including humans. We’re on the right path to solving for all this, but not without some unintended consequences. We don’t really know yet how food, tech, and humans will accommodate each other. What do we know is that by keeping our eyes on four key ingredients that enable our food supply chain to operate today, we will increase our chances for success.
Four Ingredients That Keep Food Moving
Unlike many consumer products (such as electronics), food is fragile, emotional, cultural, and apt to expire on the way to our plates. Tacos aren’t TVs. Scale and automation have gotten us fed so far, but not without assists from other interrelated ingredients. These are reliability, trust, adaptability, and technology.
The path we imagine our food takes to get to our plates is very often different from the real story. Our nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, Food+City, tells stories of how the food supply chain works in a small magazine that often contains a road map for all the ingredients in a recipe or a simple food item, such as pizza. Turns out, it’s never really a simple road map. It’s full of logjams, detours, and dead ends. And those maps point to the four essential ingredients that keep our food flowing to our plates, illustrating how reliability, trust, technology, and adaptability overcome these obstacles.
These four ingredients are evident in all the stories in this book, and they will drive the design for our future food supply chains and distribution networks.
After visiting cities all over the world to learn about how food supply chains work for the simplest meals, I discovered that no matter how simple or sophisticated the supply chain, every link required our four ingredients in service of one common goal: to transport food from farm to table quickly, inexpensively, and sustainably while ensuring food safety. These ingredients enable our food to move from producer to consumer and interact in ways that optimize the system that delivers our food to our tables. Simple menu items can reveal how those who work in the supply chain business optimize a complex system by leveraging these ingredients.
Logistics experts in every part of our food supply chain strive for consistency and reliability. Reliability is requisite because consumers expect some degree of consistency in products they consume. They expect price comparisons based on comparable characteristics: a kilo of walnuts should contain walnuts of consistent size, texture, and taste; and those few slightly brown bananas hidden at the bottom of the fruit basket will probably move to the waste bin. A reliable supply chain allows for consistent pricing and quality, which helps meet consumer expectations and minimize food waste. Commuters who head to Joe’s pizza shop won’t pay twenty dollars a slice, nor will they eat a Margherita slice that has a rubbery crust one day and a perfectly crisp crust the next. And that slice had better be the same size day after day.
Reliability and consistency dovetail with predictability. Procurement managers expect food deliveries to show up at their loading docks on schedule. Air cargo brokers need that fresh Alaskan salmon to be ready and sufficiently packed for planned flight schedules. Spontaneity doesn’t cohabit with reliability much, and when it happens, it costs. When a food supply chain is reliable, it can minimize the risks and waste involved in delivering food to cities.
Joe’s pizza provides a rich landscape for an exploration of our food supply chain. Grain, oil, meat, vegetables, and cheese converge on one menu item, offering stories of how multiple ingredients travel through the supply chain. The late Salvatore Riggio opened Pizza Suprema, a shop located just outside Madison Square Garden, in 1964. Now his wife, Maria, and their son, Joe, operate the shop, delivering hot slices to commuters who spill out of Penn Station.
I visited with Joe and Maria, meeting them one lunch hour as they sat working through invoices and other paperwork in a corner booth at the back of their pizza shop. Maria is petite, bright, and alert. Her eyes constantly scan the shop, signaling her wait staff to clear used plates and glasses and watching for napkins left behind by hurried lunchtime customers. Joe is built like a wrestler—in fact, he does wrestle, but only as a hobby. Now he’s a family man, returning to the family business.
Both Joe and Maria are meticulous in the ways they choose to optimize their business. Before our pizza begins its journey to Joe’s shop, he has to order the ingredients through a process called procurement. He decides what to purchase, whom to purchase it from, and at what price. If he’s lucky and smart, he can keep just the right amount of pizza ingredients moving in the supply chain without waste and added expense. If he isn’t so smart and fails to optimize his operations, moldy cheese piles up in warehouses and coolers, and those Penn Station commuters move on to Joe’s competitors. Technologies, from warehouse management systems that include artificial intelligence for predictive inventory supplies to scanning and tracking tools that help manage shipments of ingredients, play into Joe’s ability to sustain his business for all these years in New York City’s very competitive food service industry.
Sourcing, as procurement is often called, can be local or global and draws upon technology, trust, and reliability. Joe buys his flour from General Mills, grown in North Dakota and milled in Buffalo, New York. The flour, called All Trumps 50111, is enriched with potassium, iron, potassium bromate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid, and it is a blend of wheat and malted barley flour. It’s perfect for pizza, and it utilizes individual supply chains for all those enrichments. He gets pecorino cheese from Italy and mozzarella cheese from Wisconsin. His Stanislaus tomatoes come from California through a foodservice distributor, probably Sysco. Having multiple sources for an ingredient that’s critical to his operation can lower risks and costs, but it adds complexity to tracking and food safety verification. And that’s where trust comes in.
Trust comes with experience, as we learn from our own friendships. Food suppliers rely on the transit of assets and funds in exchange for products humans consume. Relationships, as with many business exchanges, are critical when it comes to food, since one bad apple could kill someone. Not only is food safety a requirement for the supply chain to operate successfully, but the delivery of quality and quantity across the globe is also much easier and more efficient when you know whom you’re dealing with.
Sometimes trust will even trump convenience or price. One sesame seed buyer in Istanbul, Turkey, buys his seeds from Nigeria—from a man he has done business with for more than twenty years—rather than buy seeds from an unknown producer in his own country. And Mustafa, the owner of a fish and chips shop on Farringdon Street in London, depends upon close ties in the Turkish immigrant fish and chips community for all his supplies. He’s not alone—many of the fish and chips shops I visited in the UK rely on Turkish suppliers for ingredients and equipment, since the trust among Turkish business owners runs deep and allows transactions to flow smoothly—often based on just a handshake.
Fortunately for Joe, years of working in the pizza business has also built relationships that run deep. Trusted networks of suppliers come from years of trading employees, stepping in for one another when problems arise, keeping secrets, and obeying the rules of credit and other financial transactions.
Joe gets his ingredients using the operation of food supply chains we’ve had for decades. He may decide to purchase cheese at a higher price from a local farmer because he wants to support local businesses. He may also decide to buy cheese from Italy at a higher price because Italy is the only source of that particular cheese; or, he may choose to purchase cheese thousands of miles away at a lower cost because the product he sells is price sensitive. Joe trusts his suppliers, and his customers trust that he will find the best ingredients at the best cost so that their pizzas will continue to be safe, tasteful, and affordable. The people sourcing our food rely on those trusted relationships that determine the resiliency of the supply chain. Our food supply chain will continue to rely on trusted relationships between farmers and buyers and between product companies and processors.
If the four ingredients (principles, not the kind Joe puts in his pizzas) are important to keep our food moving along the supply chain under regular conditions, they become absolutely critical when things go wrong. During my visit to Pizza Suprema, we talked about Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City in 2012, disrupting everything. The shop closed for four days, limited mostly by the lack of power. For the pizza man, the first thing to go wrong in a power outage is the cheese inventory. Flour, canned tomatoes, spices, and olive oil can last for weeks. But cheese goes bad in days—even four days.
To make matters worse, Joe’s cheese supplier, Grande, couldn’t get its trucks to his shop because of road closures and traffic. Of course, even if the trucks could’ve gotten through, the lack of power would have spoiled the shipments. Keeping the shop running would require another of our key ingredients: adaptability. So Joe called up his pizza business friend in Brooklyn, who still had power, and he got some shredded cheese to replace the cheese normally delivered from his supplier in Wisconsin. That adaptability is an example of the flexibility and durability that allows the supply chain to get food to our plates in spite of interruptions and breakdowns. By acquiring the cheese from his Brooklyn friend, Joe was able to resume his business in four days, which is a miracle considering that some New Yorkers were still, in 2013, not back to business as usual.
Even “business as usual” belies the complications of delivering a simple menu item and illustrates how those four ingredients operate to keep the supply chain moving.
Excerpted from Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating by Robyn Metcalfe, Copyright, The MIT Press, 2019.