What Does Artisanal Mean?

Photo: the impulsive buy/Flickr.

Have you seen the commercial for Domino’s new Artisan Pizza? Fabio Viviani, a top-four finalist on Bravo’s season five of “Top Chef” jokingly tries to make the pizza sound like it’s really artisan. The camera cuts to a Domino’s employee who sarcastically says, “Ya, that will sell pizzas.”

Everyone knows there isn’t a real artisan in every Domino’s chain creating wood-fired pizzas with fresh, local ingredients. Even the box for the pizza says in very large letters “We’re Not Artisans” and explains that the pizza is made with the kind of “passion and integrity to convince you we are.” Then, the box is supposed to be signed by the person that made the pizza. Really. I’m not kidding you. The fake artisan signs the pizza box.

Domino’s isn’t the first chain to call its food artisanal. Panera Bread describes its breads as artisan. Wendy’s offers an egg sandwich on a honey-wheat artisan muffin.

None of these foods are truly artisan. So what is artisanal food? What does deserve to be called “artisanal?”

Merriam-Webster defines an artisan as “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods.”

Domino’s, Panera Bread, and Wendy’s do not sell limited quantities nor do they make their artisanal items in traditional methods. Calling their food artisanal is an obvious attempt to entice people interested in the food movement.

Most of us won’t be fooled. I’m not concerned that someone who usually makes his own pizza topped with local cheese from grass-fed cows and lots of vegetables is going to decide that Domino’s Spinach and Feta Artisan Pizza (pictured above) is a good substitute.

I am concerned about what is going to happen to the word artisan, though. It means something special. Something artisanal is hand-crafted by someone who took the time to learn a trade like woodwork, knitting, baking or cheese making. Marketers are watering down the word (and dumbing down our language, but that's a post for another day) in their efforts to twist the words of the food movement to sell packaged and fast food.

Two years ago, Lay’s co-opted the word local when it started advertising its potato chips were made with local potatoes in markets where some of their potatoes came from. Technically, they were telling the truth. But they were cashing in on the locavore movement and trying to imply that their chips were part of that movement. Again, most people weren’t fooled, but it cheapened the word local as it applies to food.

As the food movement grows, mainstream marketers are going to try to grab more pieces of the real food pie, and those of us in the movement are going to have to keep pointing out that they might be using our language, but they aren’t going to fool us.

Where have you seen the words and language of the food movement being used by mainstream marketers?