Tuning Up - Autumn 2023

A Clean, Well-Ordered Place

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An ode to the grocery store

By Steve Yarbrough | September 5, 2023
Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

When I was going to college, I worked off and on for several years on the night crew at a Sunflower Food Store in Cleveland, Mississippi. We came in an hour before the store closed and began unloading the trucks that arrived from the company’s warehouse, and we left before the store reopened the next morning. I stocked the baking, grain, and pasta aisle and then, near the end of each shift, spent an hour or so either sweeping and mopping the floors or burning paper and cardboard packaging in the incinerator room, where the temperature often reached 140 degrees. Unlike a lot of guys on the crew, I always assumed the job was temporary, that I would move on to greater endeavors. But I actually came to like the work and developed a sense of pride in it, and I learned a lot—not just about the grocery business—from the manager, an exacting taskmaster named James Williams.

Mr. Williams, who died in 2020 at the age of 82, made it clear at the outset that he would fire you for any one of several transgressions. The first was stealing. If I wanted a Twinkie during our break, he told me the day he hired me, I would have to pay for it; if he found out that I’d filched so much as a 10-cent package of Nabs, he’d let me go without remorse. Once I’d been trained to order stock, another cardinal sin would be to run out of staple items before a holiday. If there was no Duncan Hines Butter Golden on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, customers could buy the Betty Crocker version or even bake a different kind of cake. But if I ran out of, say, cooking oil, he’d put me on notice, and the next time it happened, I’d be looking for other employment. Ditto for over-ordering nonessential items and letting them expire. Last but by no means least: every item on every shelf had to be fronted. He would walk my aisle first thing every morning, and he expected to see two solid walls of readable labels, everything right side up, no visible gaps anywhere. He said he would not tolerate sloppiness, that our customers deserved better.

We weren’t the only grocery store in town. The nearby Kroger was much larger and part of a huge national chain, whereas we were strictly regional. Kroger offered more choices and, if memory serves, even had a bakery and a deli. At first, I assumed that Mr. Williams’s  lecture about what our customers deserved merely reflected his desire to keep his own job. But after I worked for him a while, I began to see things in a different light.

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