Supermarket Superstar 

When The Price Is Right debuted as a game show, its genius was that it picked something universal. Everyone goes to the supermarket, and most try to budget, so people were probably more likely to know how much a can of baked beans cost over who the sixth American president was. Shades of the supermarket’s universal appeal peeks through in Supermarket Superstar, a new Lifetime reality show co-produced by the Weinstein brothers, whose Project Runway made the successful jump to the Lifetime network six seasons ago. The new show attempts to be the culinary version of that runaway success, kind of a cross between a cooking competition and The Apprentice.

Each week, three contestants will bring their own recipe in a culinary category, like sauces, spreads and dips, or the “fast-growing category” of global cuisine. The debut episode features the easily palatable “Cakes.” The original recipes are critiqued by a panel of three: entrepreneur Debbi (Mrs.) Fields, who looks so amazing at fiftysomething she must have a portrait of herself crumbling on a cookie package somewhere, “mega-star chef and retail visionary” Michael Chiarello, and “branding guru and food product pioneer” Chris Cornyn. The contestants then take this advice and use it (or not) to revise their original recipe in the deluxe test kitchen, which interestingly includes a scanner so they can figure out their price point as they go along.

Our first “Cakes” contestant is Latrice, who is going through a divorce, and so needs this product to succeed so she knows there’s light at the end of tunnel. No pressure. She offers a peach cobbler cupcake, because she’s from Atlanta, which involves putting a peach cobbler on top of a cupcake. Mrs. Fields loves its peachy flakiness, but Chef Chiarello isn’t sure how to eat it “as a consumer.” Um, with your mouth? He explains that as a chef he tends to stack textures light to firm, which makes sense, so he suggests inverting the whole thing, putting the pie crust on the bottom, where the pie crust belongs.

Cornyn declares, “Latrice? The cupcake. It’s just. Been. Done.” The cupcake is over, people! He thinks selling baked goods to the consumer at this point is going to have to be something really special, so she should concentrate on the peachy part. Latrice, on the other hand, feels the cupcake is here to stay. Hear, hear!

Contestant number two, Melissa from California, is dressed, frighteningly, like a grownup version of Strawberry Shortcake. Not surprisingly, Melissa has had a “colorful” life, including working at theme parks and the circus. Now she throws kids’ baking parties, which actually sounds like a good marketing ploy, and offers for her product the cookie cupcake, “combining the best part of a cookie with the best part of the cupcake, where every bite is the best bite.” (The cupcake is back!) Even Mrs. Fields wants to know Melissa’s story behind her crazy character. Chef Chiarello finds Melissa’s butterscotch-chocolate-oatmeal-raisin combo palatably confusing.

Our final baker, Sean, also from California, calls himself a cake bartender, offering “cake buzz,” little bundt cakes that contain about two shots of alcohol apiece. Good Lord. He describes, “butterscotch schnapps and cognac, it’ll pull your wig back.” He wants people to “have your cake and drink it too.” The whole tasting table seems to get buzzed just off of the fumes, and Cornyn points out that they’re looking for something to be mass-produced, so having a cake you need an I.D. to be able to purchase could be problematic.

In the test kitchens, we learn that alcohol is expensive, as Sean’s fancy cognac gets his cakes up to about ten dollars apiece. So far he’s not making that much money off of them: not the best business plan. Chef Chiarello and Andrew Hunter, “one of the country’s top research and development experts,” beg him to at least consider replacing some of the alcohol with a much less expensive cognac extract, but Sean didn’t come all this way to listen to experts. Latrice did, though, as she successfully transforms her cupcake into a loaf cake and flips her recipe as Chef suggested. Melissa also gamely tries to listen to Chef, when she’s not all aflutter that he’s calling her “Princess,” and after narrowing her cookie cupcake flavor down between butterscotch and chocolate, she picks . . . butterscotch. Big mistake, as Chef and Hunter point out: “95 percent of people are going to pick chocolate, and butterscotch only a few.” That’s some scientific data, there.

Next, Mrs. Fields takes the revised product to a test group, which in this case is made up of three newlywed couples. Everyone freaks out when they learn their cakes are going to be tasted by newlyweds. Just because they went to a few tastings, they are now renowned cake experts? They’re newlyweds, shouldn’t they be happy and therefore fairly agreeable? Mrs. Fields is in charge of the focus group and charms the table, but for some reason the show makes the brides wear veils with their regular clothes, in case you forgot they were newlyweds. There is no excuse for this. Latrice’s new peach cobbler cake is declared the winner of the first round, and Sean is sent home. Lesson: Ignore the mentors at your peril. The parting line for this show is, “We’re not going to develop your product.” It’s hardly a “You’re not the Biggest Loser” or a Trump cobra-strike “You’re fired.” It’s the kind of comment that should be greeted with a shrug and, “OK, no hard feelings.”

Latrice and Melissa now get to develop their brand with some graphic designers, picking logo fonts and colors. Then they present their whole package to the big scary supermarket buyer (the show offers random shots of him throughout the episode, glowering like a lost Sopranos extra). Melissa is pitching a party in a box with an at-home baking set. Great concept, but as predicted, she made the wrong flavor choice. “You lost me at butterscotch,” says the buyer, the anti-Jerry Maguire.

Latrice fares better with her peach cobbler cake, but as the buyer points out, she’s aiming for the frozen food market, which has some stiff competition. Oh, just say it: Most people head straight for the Sara Lee. She still has the better product, though, so she defeats Strawberry Shortcake and gets $10,000 in cash and $100,000 worth of product development. In the show’s eventual grand finale, all the category winners will come back and compete: One product will be sold in A&P stores and their affiliated chains across the country, an opportunity that “could be worth millions.”

Great opportunity, but there are many more missed here. Keibler announced that the test kitchen was supposed to feature not just price and taste, but nutrition and shelf life; neither of the latter were addressed, and both would be pretty interesting. As would more information from the supermarket buyer on exactly what makes a consumer pick one product over another. Instead, we are treated to a round-robin of reality show clichés, serenaded by the usually overly dramatic reality competition music: “I can’t afford to make any mistakes,” “This is my only shot,” “This is where you bring your A game.” What, no “I’m not here to make friends”? And of course, the obligatory crying in the kitchen. There’s always crying in the kitchen.

Random observations:

  • This show is great for supermarket trivia, if that’s what you’re into. Cornyn reports that supermarkets have grown on average 20% over the past 15 years, I would have guessed larger; most new supermarkets seem ginormous.
  • Also, guess what PAM stands for: Product of Arthur Meyerhoff. The product placement on this show is just a little off-the hook.
  • In the upcoming global food episode, we do see the chefs concentrate on sodium content in the test kitchen, and an argument for chicken thighs over white meat, so at least future Supermarket Superstars will pay some attention to nutrition and further attention to budget.
  • Ex-wrestler/Clooney acquaintance Stacy Keibler states she’s on this show because she’s interested in creating her own snack line, but the show could get literally anyone to read those cue cards like she does. And when she has to wing something like, “Melissa, we can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with,” with a tight little smile, she really can’t sell it.

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