Grocery Stores: 'The Best Of America And The Worst Of America'

May 15, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 7:50 am

Grocery stores in America have changed from neighborhood corner markets to multimillion-dollar chains that sell convenience — along with thousands of products — to satisfy the demand of the country's hungry consumers. What caused this transformation? And what will our grocery stores be like in the future?

Award-winning food writer Michael Ruhlman, author of more than 20 books — including the best-seller The Soul of the Chef and co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook with chef Thomas Keller — examines this phenomenon through the story of the Midwestern grocery chain Heinen's. His new book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, not only offers insights on how we produce, distribute and buy food, but seeks ways of understanding our changing relationship with what we eat and how we get it.

To talk about some of these issues, NPR's Ari Shapiro of All Things Considered met with Ruhlman at a Harris Teeter grocery store in Washington, D.C.


Interview Highlights

We're going to dig into the store and wander around its various sections. But just standing here at the entrance, you can see a bit of produce, a bit of prepared food, a magazine rack, charcoal. Is there something you didn't know before you started researching the book that you now see in a different way?

The sheer quantity of stuff that we buy and that's available to us. It represents the extraordinary luxury that Americans have at our fingertips, seven days a week.

We are in the first section that most people usually walk into in a grocery store: produce. It was so interesting to read about the time that you spent with the produce buyers behind Heinen's — the chain in Cleveland — and the debates they had about whether the cantaloupes were sweet enough, whether there were enough plums, whether anybody would buy the stone fruit after back-to-school in September ... the things that we as customers never see.

We don't. We just expect it to be here: "I want peapods for my stir-fry tonight. Where are they, I expect them to be here." And [the store] wants you to have them. If you come there and they don't have peapods, they're going to lose a customer. The business is run at such a narrow margin that they really want to keep their customers, which is why you're almost always asked at good grocery stores, "Did you find everything you need?" Because that's one reason why people don't come back.

Let's work our way to the packaged stuff in the center. In a typical grocery store, how many different products are you going to find?

There are about 40,000. In the past couple of decades it's gone up from about 7,000. Food manufacturers have found that they can increase demand and sell more products if they give you more variety. For instance, barbecue sauces: Caribbean jerk, sesame ginger, Hawaiian, teriyaki ... when's it going to end? There's got to be a limit as to how much we can actually absorb and choose from.

I get the sense that you feel a little conflicted. On one hand, the grocery store is the embodiment of the greatest pinnacle of human achievement, and on the other hand, it's row after row of depressing, processed, sugar-filled junk.

Yes. It's the best of America and the worst of America right here in one bright neon-lit landscape. My father died shortly before I started [researching the book]. He loved grocery stores, and that's part of why I [did this.] I think the grocery store is sort of a nostalgic place. We want to think the people who care about our food care about us. It goes back to that corner grocery store. But I don't think they do anymore.

So far, it doesn't seem like grocery delivery has really taken off. Do you see that changing?

I do believe more people will get their commodity groceries — the Cheerios, the cranberry juice, all the stuff in the middle of the grocery store they will get it delivered, because it's all the same no matter where it comes from. The whole center of the store is going to go away or it's going to be filled with specialty goods. That's my hope. Grocery stores are going to shrink and become more specialty stores, and they're going to sell better food.

Is that, in some sense, a return to what it was like in the early days of the grocery store?

That's exactly what it's returning to — when a small grocery would sell a variety of very special hand-picked goods.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Michael Ruhlman is a bestselling food writer. His books include "The Elements Of Cooking" and "Ratio." He's also collaborated with some of the best chefs in the world on cookbooks like "The French Laundry Cookbook." For his latest book, he took on the American supermarket. It's called "Grocery: The Buying And Selling Of American Food." So I met Ruhlman just down the street from NPR headquarters.

Michael Ruhlman, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And welcome to the Harris Teeter grocery store in Washington, D.C.

MICHAEL RUHLMAN: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: I wonder - we're going to dig into the store and wander around to the various sections and talk about some of the things you write about in the book. But just standing here at the entrance where you can see a bit of produce, a bit of prepared food - there's a magazine rack; there's charcoal barbecue - is there one thing in particular that stands out to you that you didn't know before you started researching the book that now you see in a different way?

RUHLMAN: The sheer quantity of stuff that we buy and that's available to us. It represents the extraordinary luxury that Americans have at our fingertips seven days a week - unlimited food, but we don't even think about it.

SHAPIRO: Let's walk into the store and see what we find.

RUHLMAN: OK.

SHAPIRO: All right, we are at what tends to be the first section most people walk into in most grocery stores, produce, surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables.

RUHLMAN: Mangos and pineapples and lemons and oranges and limes and different kinds of oranges. Look at how...

SHAPIRO: And also pre-cut oranges and - yeah.

RUHLMAN: Well, this is how they get rid of fruit that's going bad before it goes...

SHAPIRO: Cut it up and put it in plastic.

RUHLMAN: Yeah, they want to avoid shrink - it's called in industry parlance - waste. But still, it looks pretty good doesn't it? I mean...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

RUHLMAN: The broccoli looks good. The asparagus looks good. It's in season. It's fresh.

SHAPIRO: It was so interesting in this book to read about the time that you spent with the produce buyers behind Heinen's, the chain in Cleveland that you write about, and the debates they had about whether the cantaloupes were sweet enough, whether they were getting enough plums, whether anybody would buy the stone fruit after back to school in September, even if the peaches tasted great, they wanted apples - that sort of thing that we as the customers never see.

RUHLMAN: We don't, we just expect it to be here. We just expect it in all its variety. We're - you know, I want my pea pods for my stir fry tonight. Where are they? I expect them to be here. And they want you to have them. If you come there and they don't have pea pods, you're going to go somewhere else. They lose a customer.

The business is run at such a narrow margin that they really want to keep their customers, which is why you're almost always asked at good grocery stores, did you find everything you need - because that's one reason why people don't come back.

SHAPIRO: Should we work our way to the packaged stuff in the center?

RUHLMAN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: In a typical grocery store, how many different products are you going to find?

RUHLMAN: There are about 40,000 of them in a typical grocery store. In the last couple of decades, it's gone from about 7,000 to 40,000.

SHAPIRO: Why?

RUHLMAN: Because food manufacturers have found that they can increase demand. They can sell more product if they give you more varieties. For instance, barbecue sauces - it's an overload of, you know, Caribbean jerk, sesame ginger, Hawaiian, steak and chop, teriyaki, signature steakhouse.

SHAPIRO: Why are there so many barbecue sauces? Who buys this many barbecue sauces?

RUHLMAN: I have no idea. I have no idea. But...

SHAPIRO: And yet, if people weren't buying them, presumably they wouldn't be here, right?

RUHLMAN: They wouldn't be here. Yeah, it's crazy. When's it going to end? I don't know, but there's got to be a limit to how much we can actually absorb and choose from.

SHAPIRO: I get the sense that you feel a little bit conflicted about what goes on here at the supermarket, that it - on one hand, it is the embodiment of the greatest pinnacle of human achievement. And on the other hand, it's row after row of depressing, processed, sugar-filled junk.

RUHLMAN: Yes. It's the best of America and the worst of America right here in one bright, neon-lit landscape.

SHAPIRO: Was that how you viewed it before you wrote the book, or did you really discover that in the process?

RUHLMAN: I think - I was just fascinated by where all this food comes from. I write about food. I care about food. I get on my high horse about the importance of cooking your own food. I thought I should know where this food comes from. My father died shortly before I started looking into this. He loved grocery stores, and it's part of why I went back to the grocery store.

And I think that the grocery store is in a way a sort of nostalgic place. We want to think the people who care for our food or offering our food care about us. You know, it goes back to that corner grocery store. But I don't think they do anymore. So yeah, conflicted - I am.

SHAPIRO: Let's - to wrap up, let's go somewhere where we're not hearing the stereo quite as loudly.

RUHLMAN: OK.

SHAPIRO: So far, it doesn't seem like grocery delivery has really taken off. People still do go to grocery stores. Do you see that changing?

RUHLMAN: I do believe more and more people will get their commodity groceries - the Cheerios, the cranberry juice, all the stuff in the middle of the store - we'll get it delivered because it's all the same no matter where it comes from.

This is all going to go away, this whole center of the store is going to go away, or it's going to be filled with specialty goods, or that's my hope. Grocery stores are going to shrink, and they may become more specialty stores. And they're going to sell better and better food.

SHAPIRO: Is that in some sense a return to more of what it was like in the early days of the grocery store?

RUHLMAN: That's exactly what it's returning to, more like what it used to be, where a small grocer would sell a variety of very special hand-picked goods.

SHAPIRO: Michael Ruhlman, thanks so much.

RUHLMAN: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Michael Ruhlman is the author of "Grocery: The Buying And Selling Of Food In America."

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