What I Learned From Sweet and Low: A Family Story By Rich Cohen

Date Read: 05/15/2018

How strongly I recommend it: 8/10

See Book Here

Sweet and Low is the bittersweet, hilarious story of Ben Eisenstadt, who invented sugar packets and Sweet’N Low, and amassed the great fortune that would later destroy his family. It is a story of immigrants, Jewish gangsters, and Brooklyn; of sugar, saccharine, obesity, and diet crazes; of jealousy, betrayal, and ambition. Disinherited along with his mother and siblings, Rich Cohen has written a rancorous, colorful history of his extraordinary family and their pursuit of the American dream.
Basically as I go through any book that I read, I underline interesting ideas/quotes/paragraphs and then later come back through the book to get the lessons gleaned from these underpinnings and try to figure out what they mean to me and apply them to my own life.
Here were the most interesting lessons in the book for me:
*Combining Two Things For Invention: Rich Cohen said “my grandfather was not the man who invents the new thing. He was the sort of man who takes two things that already exist and combines them in a new and interesting way.” This is how most innovation is done anyways, think of the printing press, which Gutenberg combined a coin punch and wine press together to make. Think of two seemingly disparate things you can combine to make something new and interesting.
*Slide Downhill, Instead of Trudging Uphill: Sometimes businesses just take off, no one can exactly explain why, but they just do: right timing, right product, right market, right packaging, who knows! Cohen writes that his grandfather the founder never thought his business (producing Sweet N’ Low packets) would even support the family, but by 1996 they were producing 50 million packets a day. This has held true in my own life, my first business was such a struggle, it was going well, but we fought tooth and nail for every customer and every bit of growth, then we launched a second line and suddenly it just took off, it had a life of it’s own and we finally felt like we were sliding downhill versus trudging uphill. I’m not saying to quit your current business, whatever it may be, but maybe there’s another idea that will have a lot less resistance to growth.
*Be Anti-Fragile. Rich’s family’s business Cumberland packing bought it’s cyclamate (preservative) from Abbot Labs, and his grandmother was hanging out with all the other mother’s at the park who were the wives’ of the executives at these corporations, so she heard about the ban before anyone else did, and also heard that Abbot Labs wouldn’t fight the ban so they knew they had to reformulate a product before anyone else even knew of the ban. As all these other brands packet sugar companies went out of business: diet rite, sweet mate etc) Sweet N’ Low already had another formulation ready to go and became the #1 product over night. They benefited from the ban. This is the exact definition of being anti-fragile and benefiting from chaos and a tragic event.
*Chasing Gangsters With Other Gangsters: Rich says “chasing gangsters with other gangsters is how you get yourself into trouble. Because after the gangster solves you problem, he stays.” Many people don’t learn from this and think they can solve one problem with another problem, an example from my life would be when we first started our company we had a co-packer who did our meals because we couldn’t afford a kitchen but it was also a restaurant so anytime the restaurant got busy he took care of himself first and screwed up our meals, and now that we had enough cash, we put a little money down on a new place, but had the rest paid for by a new chef who would open this new kitchen just for us so we could focus on growing the business, but of course the same thing happened and soon we would get calls at 4AM that our meals for our meal delivery business weren’t going to make it out. We replaced one self-interested chef with another self-interested chef and then he became our problem.
*Image Is Everything: Seattle who manufactured Aspartame had an image problem, they’d been through government issues and were also stuck in the diet market for people who wanted to lose weight. That summer of their launch, they put their new product “NutraSweet” in a gum-ball and send mailed them in an envelope to all kids across the country. It became an instant hit, as every kid talked about them, of course no one who was dieting ate gum balls, so they we’re branding themselves outside of the diet market and taking on sugar itself. Soon they had deals with coca-cola, Pepsi etc and they were the highest-selling sweetener on the market…all because of how they branded themselves and created their image in a unique way.


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