Grocery; The Buying and selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman. Abrams, 2018 paper.

Michael Ruhlman has analyzed the spaces in a mid-sized grocery chain based in his hometown of Cleveland, Heinen’s Grocery. A tour of the store reveals much about how we preserve our food, what a grocery store of that size stocks, and who determines the inventory.

A grocery store, at least the one in which I shop, is arranged by the degree of refrigeration needed to preserve an item. Thus the meat and dairy items are refrigerated and frozen items are in the outer perimeter of refrigerators and freezers. Good portions of what we find in a grocery store are items that need various degrees of preservation, though not necessarily refrigeration. Most items in Heinen’s Grocery that need cold storage are located with that in mind. Soaps, spices, and canned goods have much longer expiration dates and occupy the center of the store. Paper products can go almost anywhere, but are kept together.

Shopping carts. They haven’t always been around. At the store where I shop they come to the check-out-counter quite full. And judging from these full carts, most grocery shopping is done only once a week.

Ruhlman reports that decisions about stocking new items are generally made at the suggestion of the representatives hired by wholesale companies. Or the store’s buyers may attend trade shows and find new items there.

Food fads come and go surprisingly fast; customer demand generated by lots of advertising. At one time Swanson’s TV Dinners were popular. They have largely disappeared. Hydroponically-grown leaf letter has replaced iceberg lettuce. Several kinds of lettuce are combined, washed, and bagged. Eggs! From a regular dozen eggs to organic, cage-free, Omega-3, and half or full dozen of all those egg options.

The typical customer at Heinen’s is likely to buy food that has been partly prepared. Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday of the year and involves eating turkey “with all the trimmings,” available to the grateful family.

Health crazes come and go: granola bars, avoiding GMOs (genetically modified organisms), grass-fed rather than corn-fed beef. Antibiotics and hormones that have gotten into the food we eat and the water we drink are to be avoided. Hence bottled spring water. Low sodium for those avoiding salt. Reduced caloric consumption.

Confused? There have been several successful books that give advice on eating and, therefore, shopping: Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire; How Cooking Made Us Human, Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar Fat; How the Food Giants Hooked Us. And other suggestions in Michael Ruhlman’s selected biography.

My father was a grocer in Garwin, a small Iowa town serving a farming community of 2000. The R & T Store – Rider and Thomas – was half groceries, half “dry goods,” the latter a mix of work cloths, small gifts, and other non-grocery items. The store delivered twice a week; the deliveries were the fulfillment of orders that had been placed over the phone. To entice its customers, the R & T offered specials, money losers for the store.

My father spent his days in the store but, like many of his customers, he kept a garden that produced food for the family table. He had an asparagus bed, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and string beans.

We rented a large “locker drawer” where mom kept frozen foods including chickens and food grown in dad’s garden.

There were two other, smaller, grocery stores in town; but, in general, dad avoided competition with other retailers. There was a butcher shop, and hence we had only cold cuts and several cheeses. The R & T was next to the major “anchor store” in town, the post office.

In the R &T Store there were a lot of food items that weren’t packaged. That included sixteen different kinds of cookies, often “sampled.”  Customers brought their own jugs to fill with vinegar for pickling. My mother canned tomatoes as well, and stored them in our basement.

Farm wives that did a lot of baking bought flower by the fifty pound bag. Butter and cream were obtained from the local creamery. (Homemade ice cream made from real cream!) We acquired the eggs that we sold from farmers.

Eventually an A & P Store opened in Marshalltown, a small industrial town seventeen miles distant, and it began to challenge the R & T Store. After many years dad sold the store in 1956 and it survived another 10 years through another owner. Would the R & T be recognizable as a modern-day grocery business? Yes, I think it would. Although the R&T store was in a much smaller town than Cleveland and was operating twenty years earlier, my dad’s grocery was run in much the same way as Heinen’s.

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