Tag Archives: retail studies

End of an Era

Jenny Glazer is moving on from the Rainbow Cheese Department and it marks the end of an era. Not only is she one of my favorite people and a friend from before she started working at Rainbow, but she helped make our department what it is today.

I think we were dressed up for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving here. That used to be our annual tradition:
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First off, I should mention two other folks. We had such a solid core of people involved in transforming our cheese section from an afterthought to a destination that it seemed like nothing would ever disrupt it. Six of us worked for more than a decade together making all the decisions, doing most of the cutting, wrapping, and talking, generally figuring out from scratch what to do next. I do not want to make this a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn essay but things are easier to figure out now. The adversity of just trying to find accurate information on cheese bonded us together.

I still remember when the Cheese Primer came out. I hear it mocked now by newer cheese folks but it is impossible to overestimate how important that book was to so many cheese people at the time. Sure, it’s out of date and the American section, with the hindsight of all these years, is embarrassing in its brevity, but it was the only relevant cheese book published in the US in decades. It was pre-internet and we were starving for the information in there. I think we all bought copies the first week it was out. It encouraged us in our love of cheese and the feeling that we were accomplishing something.

Kelly Parrott was the first to leave. It was expected because she had been talking about moving back to Oregon for years. I should have written a tribute to her when she left because without her attention to detail, her task-masterness and her cheese experience from Natures (A Portland grocery bought by New Seasons) I am not sure we could have progressed so fast. Kelly, if you are reading this, know that we still talk about you and when wrapping especially pretty things often ask, “How would Kelly wrap this cheese?”

Kelly and Andreas at the Cheeseworks Warehouse. No more Mimolettes to bowl…
andy and kelly

Anna Costa left us once when she decided to live in the North Bay and make cheese at Redwood Hill. She eventually came back though, and worked a few more years behind the counter before the wrapping got to her and she moved upstairs to HR and our Board of Directors (I still blame all those years of working at the burrito place, not the cheese 😉 ). I never wrote a tribute to her because she is still at Rainbow, still making it a better place every day. As for the cheese department, she brought her early FFA education and cheesemaking skills in addition to being pretty much the nicest person I have ever met in my life.

Anna and I showing off the mold on a (non-Vella) Dry Jack and our new cheese cooler jacket:
anna and g

Jenny, moving to Pittsburgh, PA after 16 years at the store brought so much to the cheese that it is difficult to encapsulate it all in one blog entry. She had no previous cheese experience but she had more enthusiasm than anyone I can think of. She summed up the act of selling cheese in a up-from-hippie natural food store in the way I still think about it today. We are the permission department. Much of the rest of the store is about avoiding bad things and we are the ones who say, “Have something with tons of butterfat. Have something that tastes great just for the sake of eating something that tastes great!”

Pete and Jenny in the early years:
peteknife

We often had the same brain about things. When one of us would propose something like keeping a cheese registry, the other would often say, “I was thinking of something like that too!” She was as committed to cooperative ideals as much as me and, even having worked at the store a long time was able to, be a bridge between new and older workers. She is a person who can always find common ground and, quite honestly, that ability is rare and will be next to impossible to replace.

Jenny’s love of sheep cheese is also something that will not be forgotten. Back in the day, around the time when Prince de Claverolle changed its name to Istara Ossau-Iraty, Jenny would sample out that cheese so much than when any customer came in saying that they tasted a sheep cheese and couldn’t remember the name we all knew exactly what it was. Jenny befriended customers and had a legion of regulars. They will be bereft without her.

Her descriptions were also unmatched. Long-time readers should know that she is the “Anarqueso” mentioned in my book who described peeling the paper off of Taleggio as “skinning the zombie.” Zombies weren’t even cool back then!

I will also miss her so much personally that I feel like I am still in denial. We’ve known each other close to 20 years and we’ve been able to share so many things in our lives. We can fight and get over it. We have seen each other at our worst. We have seen each other at our best and I think we were always, in the end, there for each other when we needed to be.

Goodbye Jenny. Mariah and Pete and I and all the “new” awesome folks will carry on what you helped start. I hope Pittsburgh is awesome!

fourincheese

The difference between a cheese professional and a well informed cheese enthusiast

There are times of the year I associate with bad cheese. Usually it is after a holiday, when a distributor has bought too much of something perishable that didn’t sell. Buyers are alerted to these deals with flyers titled things like “Hot Sheet”, “Killer Deals”, and “Margin Builders.” This is definitely risky buying for the most part. You can make good money and still put things out cheap, but when these go bad, they go bad in a hurry.

(Not the cheese I’m talking about today, but the internet loves pictures)
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The week after Thanksgiving can be one of those weeks. So, I was quite surprised when I had a week of bad cheese, and none of it from those kinds of sales. I don’t want to go into detail here (sorry), partially because I am still negotiating credit on some of this stuff. But instead of a ““Gordon’s purely arbitrary cheese obsession of the week” entry, I was inundated with cheese that made my tongue hurt.

The first thing that was killer was about 200lbs of cheese that a distributor ordered and then – because of their own corporate machinations – sat on for two months without attempting to sell. The cheesemaker asked me, as a favor, if I would take it all and sell anything I could at whatever price I could. I was excited because I love this person’s cheese, and I figured anything salvageable could be amazing. Sadly, not of it was.

When I think of awful blue cheeses I think of bad Spanish Cabrales. Not good Cabrales, mind you. I love that. But when Cabrales gets too old it turns dark, even nearly black at times. The paste gets as hard and shardy as shale and it is too intense to even swallow. And of course I’ve tasted this. The difference between a cheese professional and a well informed cheese enthusiast is this: I have tasted almost every cheese at its best and at its worst. This salvage blue: probably the worst blue I’ve ever tasted.

Partly that’s because it started out strong but nice. When I first put it in my mouth I was thinking about calling the maker, encouraging them to age their cheese longer, even special ordering extra aged wheels and selling them as something like, I don’t know, Gordonzola Extra-Aged, Select Reserve Aged for Extra Time. The cheese trap was sprung. A moment after this fleeting thought, the cheese turned on me. What was strong became bitter. What was fruity became excess fermentation. What was butterfat became rancid. This was up their with bad Cabrales in intensity. This was a cheese I couldn’t spit out fast enough.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only bad cheese of the day. Another cheese, one of my favorites actually, came in like it was trying to trick us. Out of 24 wheels, only 3 were sellable. The three that were sellable were awesome and, unfortunately the one we tasted upon arrival was one of the few good ones so it wasn’t until we sold a few that we realized that there was something very, very wrong. Unlike the good examples, which were complex, rich, earthy, and awesome, the bad ones were diaper-smelly, bitter, cloying and intense.

This cheese – a department favorite – cast a pall over the rest of the day. We almost cried at the disappointment of its badness. This is a cheese that we all love to recommend when we have it. Its great potential turned to evil was a metaphor we didn’t want – or have time — to contemplate on the retail floor.

Retail entitlement culture

I’m a cheesemonger. That means I am a retail worker with a pretentious title. I have to deal with the things that all retail workers need to deal with, the most annoying being the occasional customer with entitlement issues.

Things are actually better now. During the dot com boom, some customers would literally time discussions and then tell you how much money you cost them by answering their questions and addressing their concerns. San Francisco retail is much better than Marin retail because you actually mostly have reasonable people who have occasionally in their lives heard the word “no”.

The thing that causes the most problems is our return policy. We have tried to have a reasonable return policy for reasonable adults. To be totally honest with you, Dear Reader, I argued 15 years ago that we just needed to give up, that we should just take all returns because you never win arguments with customers, indeed, you never want to have arguments with customers. It stresses the workers and makes customers not want to return. I get the concept, I really do. Even it really is a triumph of capital over society.

I’ll give you an example from a few weeks ago. A customer came in and started fiddling with a certain product. I don’t want to name it, but let’s just say it’s cheddar. After a while he came up to the counter and said, “I bought some of this and it was bad. Can I exchange it?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I actually bought quite a few. I didn’t open them but they all look bad.”

“You bought a few? Was it when they were on sale?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we’ll give you credit for what you paid. Obviously they cost more at regular price.”

The wrong answer. This unleashed a stream of Whole Foods this and Trader Joes that. Anywhere else he could just give people his word and they would give him product in exchange, no questions asked, no matter what it now cost. During this onslaught, I started to think about timing.

“Wait,” I said. “These haven’t been on sale for months. When did you buy these?”

Another onslaught was released. “Why does it matter?” “Don’t you stand behind your product?” and, my favorite, the telling me how to do my job one, “Other stores return these to their distributors and get credit from them.”

The thing is, while our store is not always the best about customer service, it comes from a place of treating people as equals all the way down the line. Ethically, I am not going to go to a distributor and say, “I need full price credit for this perishable product that I bought on sale which a customer says went bad sometime in the two months since he purchased it. No I can’t really say for certain it was kept refrigerated.” I may authorize the return, but I’m not going to ask someone else to pay for it. I don’t work for a national chain bully.

But beyond that, why is this acceptable anywhere? God help us when the pinko commie worker-owned co-op is the only place left arguing for personal responsibility. Seriously, it’s a societal problem when this is condoned as normal behavior. If I was in this situation I would think, “I bought too much of that perishable product. That was dumb,” and throw it away.

I wouldn’t think, “Someone else must pay for my error in judgment!”

It goes without saying that most people aren’t like this type of customer. I will state here, for the record, that I actually like and feel kinship with most of the customers I talk to on a daily basis. People with this attitude of entitlement, however, are a real problem, yet they take up so much time and energy, and cause such annoyance, that it’s easier to give in and just give them credit rather than treat them as human beings with functional brains who made specific – and in these cases, poor — choices. What does it cost us, as a community, when many retailers treat community members, as if they are spoiled children.

The customer is not always right, sometimes demonstrably so. Saying this is retail suicide, but continuing to pretend that they are – privileging the consumer over other parts of the food system – may, on some small but insistent level, be societal suicide.

Discrimination

“I would like to file a complaint. I’m being discriminated against.”

As an urban grocery store worker — unless you work in one of those neighborhoods so fancy they might as well have gates — you develop a tough skin. Now, I’ve written about retail workers as the new social service agents before, and to me this adds to that point. For our own protection, we have to sniff out the bullshitters right away.

At a co-op conference years ago, we once dismayed some fellow cooperators by our attitude. During a presentation, a co-op grocery worker from a small college town started crying while re-telling a story about a crazy customer who asked them (repeatedly and somewhat threateningly), “Do you have to be a lesbian to shop here?”

The Rainbow workers in attendance started laughing. She tried to turn the tables, asking, “What would you have done?”

The response, pretty much in unison, “Kick him the fuck out of the store!”

Because – in this day and age of underfunded safety nets and general despair – that kind of random abuse is a common occurrence at places, especially where odd-looking people are not kicked out right away. We are a store that is a beacon for the odd, so we get more than our fair share. Our freak flag still flies even if a lot more classes of people want natural foods than did in 1975.

Abusive customers are common enough that over a decade ago we voted to give the power, on a shift basis, to one worker in the store at all times. A permanent ban needs to go to an elected committee, but our Front End Coordinator has the power to kick someone out for the day: immediately and with no appeal.

True, this is partly because it’s really awkward to try and hold a vote on such things while trying to run a store. Someone always used to pipe in with, “She’s just off her meds,” or “He’s a Nam vet, you have to cut him some slack.” But it was a common enough problem, that we had to give someone what is – for us – almost unheard of power.

So anyways, I was still putting on my apron last Saturday. I had just walked in the door and the counter was crazy. Right away I saw trouble. Now, being a drug addict and a shopper at our store is, generally speaking, just fine. Some people can manage these things and lord knows many habitual drug users could use vitamin supplements and fresh food. But when someone gets right up in your face, has little bleeding wounds from over-scratching, is holding half eaten food, and is being followed by two of your co-workers (one of whom is the aforementioned Front End Coordinator), the benefit of the doubt is not with them.

“I would like to file a complaint. I’m being discriminated against.”

Let’s also note, for the record, that this is a white woman being pursued by my co-workers who are Black and Latina. “Well then, maybe you better leave,” I said. Flustered and twitchy she hurried away without another word.

A minute later, when I thought of it, I wished I had added, “Being a junkie thief is not a protected class!” I will try and remember to use that next time.

Later I found out she had a novel way of drawing our collective ire. Instead of just eating out of the bulk bins or off the produce shelves like a normal junkie, she was actually taking food out of other people’s carts and eating it!

It’s true, we do discriminate against that.

I caught the Biter

I caught the Biter.

On and off for a couple of years we have found cheese on the shelf that has been bitten through the plastic. It’s always the Monterey Jack or Mild Cheddar but otherwise there’s no discernable pattern. There first time I saw it happen I just assumed it was rats, the cheesemongers’ nemesis. However, upon closer inspection we realized the teeth marks weren’t rodent, but human. These cheeses weren’t eaten, just bitten into at every corner.

Now, OCD biters are not unheard of. Awhile back we had a produce biter who we had to kick out of the store. Eventually her therapist contacted us and we worked out a deal where she could shop with supervision while she tried to get her problem under control. But she didn’t like cheese. This was a new biter.

We sometimes get acts of sabotage in the cheese department. We assume its vegans of course. Sample toothpicks stuck into cheese on the shelf, cheese hidden out of refrigeration, that kind of thing. We don’t get too much however, because our department also takes care of the vegan “cheese’ and – if I do say so myself – we have the best vegan “cheese” selection in the city. Besides, a vegan wouldn’t bite into cheese. Though a freegan might…

Shoplifting prevention is not my strong suit. I’m easily distracted and, really, just don’t have the heart to figure out which nice, frequent customers are ripping us off and probably have been since 16th St. Still, I could tell that there was something mischievous when I saw a girl about 8-9 years old furtively looking around. I had just tossed two big pieces of Jack in the garbage from human bite marks so I was on alert. Sure enough, she went behind the big Parmigiano Reggiano display, picked up a piece of Jack, looked around, and went for the chomp.

“Hey!” I yelled. She couldn’t have been more red-handed. She looked up at me and I just said, “You can’t do that. Take me to your parent.” She led me halfway across the store and hid between her Mom’s legs while I told her Mom what was up. Mom was mortified and kind of shocked but she apologized profusely and made her daughter apologize also. Then she came back to the counter five minutes later and had her daughter apologize again to everyone working in cheese.

One can wonder or worry about the mental state of the girl or the hard road ahead for the mom, but there really isn’t enough information available from the incident to draw any conclusions. I’m just happy to finally have this mystery solved

Smells like dead rat, tastes like heaven

The cheese department and the produce department get along well at our store. For the last 13 years we’ve shared a backstock cooler, route questions to each other, and have happily coexisted on the south side of the store. The only time this peace is ruptured is when we cut a particularly stinky piece of cheese.

I’m not talking an every day stinky cheese, or a small, washed rind cheese that goes from box to counter in five minutes. No, I’m talking about problems, projects, and Alpine cheeses with super sticky washed rinds.

I’m not going to mention the name of the cheese that caused the problems last Saturday. I don’t need to be corrected with any “I don’t think it smells that bad”s or, worse yet have the cheesemaker or importer give me a hard time. The fact is, once it’s cut down the rind to cheese ratio makes it much less intense so most customers would never notice the way it smells when it first comes out of the cooler and gets unwrapped.

On Saturday however, people noticed. It was one of those days that we were so swamped with customers that our production slowed to a standstill, letting the smell of this little “mini-Gruyere” really get out into the atmosphere. Shoppers were wrinkling their noses. Children were asking their parents, “What’s that smell?” The produce workers were complaining.

One by one they came over to our area and asked, “What is that?” I assured them that it was cheese and that it was ok, but they were cutting me with their eyes every time they passed. One finally said, “Are you almost done with that? I’m feeling my gorge rise!”
Even after it was wrapped and put on the shelf, its smell lingered. Even an hour later my favorite vegan co-worker walked by and she noticed. Head on a swivel, she looked around the store. Then she started moving boxes around and looking under produce displays. I went over to her to let her know everything was ok.

Before I could speak she whispered, “I smell a dead rat.”

“It’s just cheese,” I said.

“No, that’s dead rat. I know.”

I walked her over to the compost and pulled out the paper that had once held our smelly Alpine friend. I held it up to her face.

“UGH! Ack!” Then she looked at me with all her vegan wrath and said, “What is wrong with you people?”

Finally, a moment to spare…

Hey there. Perhaps I should have mentioned that I wouldn’t be posting in the last couple of weeks of 2009. Cheese enthusiasts are forgiven for not assuming that, but cheese professionals should have expected it. After all, between the food holidays and New Year’s parties, no person who really works in cheese retail has any free time.

Year after year I am surprised by vendors, reps and cheesemakers who try to conduct business during the last two weeks of the year. The best thing I can say about them is that they are bored and trying to find something to do. But seriously, every year some people try to call me up/drop by to talk about non-timely matters. Do they not understand that I am trying to sell their cheese for them?

Even the best-laid holiday staffing plans fall apart. Every year there is illness, family emergencies, (drunken) accidents, vacations etc. If those things have no happened to me personally, be assured that they have felled other members of our department. We have to cut (roughly) $10,000 worth of cheese a day this time of year just to keep pace and that is while doing about 5 times as much hands-on customer service. I don’t wanna hear about anything not directly related to that until January 2.

Three weeks ago: The backstock is overflowing!
backstock cooler near x-mas 2009

The following is a list of acceptable reasons for cheese professionals further back in the distribution chain to contact a cheese retailer at the end of December:

1. Changes to delivery schedules
2. Bringing in emergency replenishment of stock
3. Amazing deals that need to be bought right away
4. Bringing in presents: chocolate, booze, cheese, or holiday cards
5. Personal shopping

Seriously. That’s it.

A few years ago a certain rep turned up at the store the day before Thanksgiving. That is traditionally the biggest day of the year for grocery retail. Our little prep area was jammed with workers. The customers were elbowing each other out of the way to get to the counter. At least 5 different cheese conversations were going on. This rep walked in – completely oblivious to the commotion — a started talking to me, actually interrupting someone who was asking me what kind of Gruyere she should buy. My co-workers had to push past her to get to the cheese case. She was all, “Hi there, I brought you a schedule of promotions for February. Can we discuss them?”

I looked at her. I took a deep breath and – despite the fact that she was the only rep I had who often came through with free Niners tickets for me and my co-workers – I said, “Get out of here! Don’t come back til January! Look around you. What are you thinking?”

She looked surprised but backed off, murmuring some kind of sales rep pseudo-apology as she left. I was immediately re-engulfed in customers.

I don’t actually know what happened to her. Either she lost her job or got transferred to a different region (not because of me! I never mentioned this to anyone until now) but I never saw her in the store again .I’ve never gotten any more free football tickets either. But it was worth it.

Timmy, the P’tit Basque shepherd, gets in the holiday spirit. See how he is at home, in his apartment, and not visiting retailers:
DSC00497