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Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America Hardcover – May 16, 2017
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Because he doesn’t have a horse in this race, Ruhlman can be neutral or critical as needed. He slams the food desert of the center aisles of supermarkets, yet admits he buys some of this poison himself because he likes it. He is critical of agriculture, but finds much to praise in a new generation of farmers who prize quality over quantity. And he digs at medicine and nutritionists in a front al attack: “Fat isn’t bad, stupid is bad.”
We learn the economics of the business, how size matters, how grocers find products, and how they run their stores. The business has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. We might not have noticed because we’re in those stores every week. It’s a trillion dollar business in the USA. From the hot take-out meals (and even restaurants and bars) to the organics and the gluten-free, the mix is anything but stagnant. And it’s up to 40,000 items now, from the 5000 when he was a child. Beef sales are way down, fish is way up. Fruit is no longer seasonal. Frozen food is still blah, and there are still hundreds of sugary breakfast cereals and snack foods to wade through. Sadly, grocers are forced to stock them all because customers will go elsewhere if their particular variety is AWOL.
There are aspects he has missed, like what grocers do with stale-dated foods. There’s nothing about community involvement, how the stores weave themselves into the fabric of the neighborhood. There’s no mention of all the games grocers have played, like specials and Green Stamps and loyalty programs. Or home and online shopping. And he never addresses customer complaints, like why there are 24 checkout lanes when only four are ever open at once. And it really could use some photos.
Grocery is a kind of love letter to Cleveland, Ruhlman’s hometown. He goes back to the grocers of his youth, and makes them the focal point of the book. On the one hand it is cloying, but on the other he had to make some grocer his example, so why not the chain he grew up loving? The people are dedicated, passionate and talented, and the stores are institutions. Overall, Grocery is a rare insight into the state of the business and the state of our food.
Ruhlman discusses some of the history of the retail food business going back more than a century. Twentieth-century giant A&P rose and eventually fell, and change in the industry has been constant—Walmart and Whole Foods have been drivers of change in recent decades. The author focuses on Heinen's, a Cleveland-area chain, and recalls their history in Northeast Ohio. "Grocery" notes how competition between stores and chains of stores affect decisions of individual grocers.
Healthy eating is en vogue in some quarters in America today, and the author describes how chains such as Heinen's make room for healthier products on their shelves to compete with other retailers. Ruhlman talks with the consultant physician for Heinen's on a trip through the store, discussing the poor eating habits of many in the last forty or so years and how they contribute to food-related illnesses, focusing much attention on the detrimental effects of excess sugar.
Ruhlman has chapters in the book about the meat, produce, and frozen foods departments, looking at the operations of each. The author also notes how food producers get their products on grocery store shelves and looks at the forces likely to change grocery stores in the near future, including the rising market for prepared foods, hydroponic farming, and the impact of Amazon.com.
The book closes by discussing the opening of a new Heinen's location in downtown Cleveland and just what the opening of a sizable grocery store can do for such an urban area. This volume even goes over how groceries should be properly bagged and debunks some of the myths about how grocers supposedly try to trick customers. "Grocery" is a thorough look at a topic some might wrongly think mundane, and those of us who worked in a grocery store at some point during high school or college would find the book an especially good read.
Best, Jim from Jersey