Newest twist to downsizing: Price same, portion smaller

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2001

A piece of old news is front-page stuff again, with a twist. You might remember a flurry of stories a few years back about manufacturers of consumer goods downsizing their products: You pay the price you're accustomed to, but your bag of potato chips, your can of tomato soup or roll of paper towels is ... lighter than you remember. In the industry, the practice is known as a "weigh-out." As in, a weigh out of facing up to a price hike. You see, the folks who fill our supermarket shelves generally don't make a point of advertising a new, smaller portion of Brand X for the same old price.

To be fair, manufacturers say that it's tougher than ever to get consumers and retailers to swallow price increases, and that they're left holding the bag for rising raw-materials costs. A bag that, I suppose, they then pass on to us -- with a little bit less inside. It's all detailed in a recent New York Times cover story, our national paper of record (still admirably hefty after all these years, but also more expensive), letting us know that weigh-outs are back with a vengeance in corporate America.

This space has been used before to decry the steady, undeniable decline in service we've seen over our lifetimes -- how your average homicide is likely to get solved before you get some help in certain stores; let us now lament the reduction in product.

And here's the twist, this time around: Frito-Lay and Procter and Gamble aren't the only ones doing it -- Mom and Pop have gotten into the act, too. These days, in diners and restaurants and other small businesses across the country, it's Honey, I Shrunk the Goods.

Take my local coffee shop, a place I'd grown to count on for a big, honest cup of joe. Not latte, not mocha cappuccino, but plain, good, black coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe in. That's just fine with me, except I've seen that big, steaming mug or paper cup morph into a demitasse. It tastes like the same old coffee, but now it looks like espresso.

OK, some of you might say, but you, Rather, work in New York, where everybody's working some kind of angle. Well, as some of you might know, I hail originally from Texas. A place well known for taking matters of size seriously. Where big is a point of pride. Where when you say "petite," people think of Pettitte, that tall, local boy who went up North to pitch for the Yankees.

I admit it. I, too, thought Texans would be immune to Vanishing Food Syndrome. Until, that is, a recent encounter with a chicken-fried steak that more closely resembled a chick-fry. For those of you not familiar with chicken-fried steak, it's a tough piece of meat that the cook pounds into thinness, if not tenderness, before deep-frying. The deep-frying makes it Southern, and the pounding leaves it flat as a pancake. It spreads out -- already making less seem like more. The catch is, a respectable chicken-fried steak has to cover the plate. This one did not. Not even close. I'm told that's not unusual anymore.

Which all goes to show, I guess, that there's still no such thing as a free lunch. You can throw in breakfast and dinner, too. If we're not willing to pay more, we'd better be prepared to eat less. As for the establishment in Texas, they might take a tip from the coffee shop in New York: smaller plates.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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