Walking out of the Berkeley BART station I encountered a small group of peace protesters, standing on the curb with an Earth flag and some signs, asking cars to honk in support. I couldn't help but notice two of their dogs clawing at one another and growling. Their owners, two young hippie types who looked like they hadn't bathed in weeks, stood there oblivious.
"Why don't you try to make some peace between those dogs?" I sneered.
The light changed, I started walking.
"Why don't you try to create some peace between those animals!"
"They're just being affectionate, they love each other!"
A few steps later the bigger dog started barking loudly and fiercely at the other animal and one of the owners had to pull back on the leash. It kept up and the dogs started really going at it. I kept walking, checking the dogs every few seconds.
At first I felt sort of smug. And then I wondered: Just what the hell was my point? So, because their dogs are fighting they aren't allowed to oppose the war in Iraq? How old and curmudgeonly can I possibly be?
So then I get home and there are some papers slid under my door from the landlord. One is a notice of rent increase. It's going up 1.5 percent plus three dollars.
That's not very much at all.
But when I saw my new rent I actually got angry for a few seconds at my landlord. Like an $11 per month increase is some big hardship. I actually considered pulling out a calculator to see if she was screwing me over, until I realized that she obviously is raising the rent just 1.5 percent plus three dollars.
Am I becoming, slowly, one of those Berkeley neocommunist hippie gadflies? I don't even support rent control but I was getting all huffy about a 1.5 percent hike and the greed of my landlord. Time to go back to yelling at protesters.
I bought a bunch of groceries at Safeway. I love Safeway. I can get 8 cans of soup for $10. A twelve pack of Diet Pepsi was like $2.33. Hot cocoa was $1.50 for 10 packets. A pound of thick-sliced bacon for $3.50.
These prices are incredible to me. You see, for too long I shopped nowhere but at Andronico's, Berkeley's pseudo-gourmet chain of supermarkets. I say pseudo because if you want truly good produce or cheese or certain other high-end goods you really have to go elsewhere. But Andy's will set you up with more exotic produce than a regular grocery store and is with-it enough to stock Acme bread and some decent goat cheese and some decent wines. You just have to pay through the nose. Anyway, Andronico's is much closer to my house. And when I didn't go there I would go to Berkeley Bowl, an overgrown produce collective where the parking is impossible and everything closes at 8.
Don't even get me started on my hideous community market, Berkeley Market on Telegraph, which is interested only in selling low quality, overpriced wine and beer to students, and maybe some chips and cookies to boot. The only bread they carry, in all seriousness, is Wonder bread, including Wonder Wheat, which needless to say is a lot like white bread with food coloring. They do not reliably stock staples such as bacon or cheese, despite ample shelf and refrigerator space. Several cases are given over to sodas and sugary drinks, however.
Safeway is open late and has low prices and ample parking. It is not fashionable in Berkeley to love cheap and convenient, but I love it. One buys many groceries that are not gourmet. Or at least I do.
It is also not fashionable, really not fashionable, to love big national chain stores around here. People in San Francisco have been fighting such establishments like mad. One candidate for mayor, Matt Gonazalez, has built practically an entire political platform around the issue.
But I do. I love Safeway and I wish we had a Wal-Mart. I mean, a nice, somewhat urbanized version of a Wal-Mart, but a Wal-Mart nevertheless. Talk about convenience and cheap groceries.
Did you know economists believe inflation would be substantially higher without Wal-Mart? Or that Safeway is actually headquartered in the Easy Bay, and has been in Berkeley since 1927?
I know Wal-Mart has come under fire because it is not unionized and does not provide much in the way of health benefits. Would I want to work in a Wal-Mart? No. How would I feel about working in one of the independently-owned markets in the Bay Area? Even worse. These owner- and family- operated stores are staffed by people working long hours for little pay, probably less than minimum wage in many cases. Such is the life of the immigrants who tend to own them. And as a worker with limited disposable income, I would rather shop someplace that tries to keep prices low than in the snooty overpriced aisles of liberal bourgeois decadence at Andronico's.
Amid my grocery shopping, and as my mind wandered to the various markets in my supposedly gourmet neighborhood, I couldn't help but be profoundly disappointed at the utter lack of business initiative in the grocery industry.
With Wal-Mart putting tremendous pressure on price at the low end of the market, one would think the supermarket chains would seek competitive high ground, look for a retail model that would justify prices above and beyond what prevails at the low end.
I mean, I just read a great New York Times article that talks about how grocery and other retail customers really seem to feel that retail checkers and workers offer no value. In fact, consumers said they preferred to bag their own groceries than interact with retail workers at all, because the workers so often are hostile or belittling or otherwise negative.
The behind-the-scenes managers don't seem to be doing much, either. Business 2.0 magazine ran a story in February (magazine subscribers can read ithere) about category management, which is basically a practice whereby retailers like grocery stores allow vendors, like certain food product manufacturers, to make inventory and selection decisions about a certain portion of the store. This practice, the article said, is "now standard practice at nearly every U.S. supermarket, convenience store, mass merchant, and drug chain," because those stores figure the manufacturers have done more research on consumer tastes and trends than they have. The retailers, in other words, are saying they are in no position to know what customers want, even though they are the point of contact with the customer. From the article:
Manufacturing executives who have worked as category captains speak of what a gargantuan task managing a category has become. These days captains handle not only product assortment but also promotions and shelf layouts. SC Johnson reportedly employs six people just to manage Wal-Mart's household cleanser category. "As a retailer, you get the best minds in the business working for you free of charge," says a former category manager for a major consumer-products manufacturer. "Why not take advantage of that?"
But now is the time when we as consumers need more help from grocery stores, not less, more interaction with staff, not less, and more original and independent thinking and research on the part of retailers on behalf of consumers, not less.
The new grocery consumer, someone in his early 30s or late 20s, even older, is not prepared to use the supermarket in its current form. As a generation, we have less training in how to cook, as domestic arts were undervalued by our parents. We have less time to cook, as both women and men are working, and working longer hours, and since we're staying childless and single longer, choosing to spend more non-work time doing non-domestic things, like hanging out with friends or screwing around on the computer or watching movies or seeing bands or whatever it might be.
On the other hand, we tend to have more disposable income than older generations since, again, we're working long hours and not having kids. So rock-bottom Wal-Mart prices, while appealing, are not necessary. What is necessary is something that makes more efficient use of our time than say a contemporary Safeway or Andronico's. And something that appeals to the more yuppified tastes of younger people, who fancy themselves more sophisticated about what goes in their tummies.
The solution for many young people is simply to eat out a lot or to buy prepared meals. The beneficiaries of this trend up until now have been restaurateurs, largely in the fast-growing casual dining sector but also outside of it, not to mention frozen food makers and fast food joints. But supermarkets can cash in, and I'm not talking about expanding the deli section.
Supermarkets need to become highbrow one-stop shopping centers for food. Right now, to make a dinner, I need to get a recipe (bookstore or Internet at home/work), buy the food (one or more grocery stores or markets) and, often, buy some sort of kitchen supplies, like one of those blenders that works right in the pot or a cheesecloth or a zester or some additional pan I don't have. This required multiple trips to multiple places and consumes way too much time.
When I walk into the grocery store, I want, first, help figuring out what to make for dinner. There should be a wide assortment of quality cookbooks, well-chosen, and there should be an equally selective assortment of single recipe cards free or cheap for the taking, possibly licensed from the cookbook publishers or from gourmet magazine publishers and selected by store staff based on what is in season and in stock.
Once I have figured out what I want to make, the store should help me pick ingredients. The olive oil section, for example, should have accurate and comprehensive information on the difference between first cold press and other presses, between Italian and Spanish and American olive oils. I want a wine steward I know and trust and maybe have met recommending wines, with a clear explanation of why and of what meals the wine might go with. I want indications in the produce section of what is in season and what is going to be hard to get in a few weeks. I want information in the meat department on cattle handling conditions at the various meat suppliers and on who is pumping in hormones and who isn't, who feeding grass and grain, which fish has the omega-6 fatty acids and which doesn't, and why I should care or not care about each of these issues, and where are the tradeoffs between taste and the environment. It is astounding to me that, as much as food has been politicized, grocery stores continue to label products like meat and produce with just a few words and leave it at that.
To the greatest extent possible, this information should be objective and informed, not slanted toward selling more expensive products. I want to feel the store is my advocate, helping me savvily navigate the many manufacturers vying for my money, not making a brazen and transparent grab for cash.
After I have selected my groceries, if I need to buy some sort of gizmo or high-end pan or fancy knife or other Sur la Table type offering, it should be available in a section of the supermarket, one that is substantially sized. If I have some dumb beginner's question about a recipe, like whether liquidizing is the same as blending (yes) or why I can't get the curds to separate from my cream (it's ultra pasteurized) when trying to make the cheese, it would be nice if there was a chef hanging around somewhere.
With Jamie Oliver, Marcella Hazan, Alton Brown, Rocco DiSpirito and others thriving in the new food media spotlight, with Food Network stoking interest in cooking, food has become theater, and supermarkets have the chance to turn themselves into the theme parks and stages. There are a few notable exceptions, like Draeger's on the peninsula south of San Francisco, which reportedly (I've not been) comes very close to the ideal I describe above, but so many supermarkets, and certainly all the major chains, remain mired in an unhappy purgatory, substantially more expensive than Wal-Mart and substantially unappealing and/or inconvenient to those of us with culinary aspirations beyond Lean Cuisine and grilled American cheese sandwiches on enriched wheat bread.