Secret Life of Groceries : The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
by Lorr, Benjamin

Introduction: Between the Ice and You1(12)
Part I Salad Days at Trader Joe's
Part II Distribution of Responsibility
Part III Self-Realization Through Snack
Part IV The Retail Experience
Part V When I Look in My Window: Backstage in the Theater of Retail
Part VI The Bottom of the Commodity Chain
Afterword: The Long Road from P'aon to Amazon-Whole Foods259(14)

"In the tradition of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, an extraordinary investigation into the human lives at the heart of the American grocery store What does it take to run the American supermarket? How do products get to shelves? Who sets the price? And who suffers the consequences of increased convenience end efficiency? In this alarming expos‚e, author Benjamin Lorr pulls back the curtain on this highly secretive industry. Combining deep sourcing, immersive reporting, and compulsively readable prose, Lorr leads a wild investigation in which we learn: The secrets of Trader Joe's success from Trader Joe himself Why truckers call their job "sharecropping on wheels" What it takes for a product to earn certification labels like "organic" and "fair trade" The struggles entrepreneurs face as they fight for shelf space, including essential tips, tricks, and traps for any new food business The truth behind the alarming slave trade in the shrimp industry The result is a page-turning portrait of an industry in flux, filled with the passion, ingenuity, and exploitation required to make this everyday miracle continue to function. The product of five years of research and hundreds of interviews across every level of the industry, The Secret Life of Groceries delivers powerful social commentary on the inherently American quest for more and the social costs therein"-

BENJAMIN LORR is the author of Hell-Bent, a critically acclaimed exploration of the Bikram Yoga community that first detailed patterns of abuse and sexual misconduct by guru Bikram Choudhury. Lorr is a graduate of Montgomery County public schools and Columbia University. He lives in New York City.

Some food books leave a bad taste in your mouth. In the muckraking tradition of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001), Lorr goes on a deep dive into the nesting doll that is the American grocery experience. While confronting readers with the question of "our food, our selves?" he reveals the stark realities of how challenging it can be to capture a market segment (Trader Joe's), what it takes to get a new product onto shelves (Slawsa), how products actually get to stores nationwide (Lynne the trucker) and how horribly intertwined our consumption is with human trafficking, global structural inequalities, and dangerous farming practice (Thai shrimping). It's commodities all the way down, Lorr suggests, and readers may find a dangerous urgency-especially amidst COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders-to the deep psychological dependency on a well-stocked supermarket. Lorr's exploration of the systems and individuals that create the modern grocery store will move readers to ask far more probing questions about what they're putting on the table. For fans of Michael Pollan's work and Michael Ruhlman's Grocery (2017). Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Where do we spend 2% of our lives and a big chunk of change? At the grocery store, the object of this diligent investigation. In his second book, Lorr digs behind the scenes at the grocery store. Much of his discussion centers Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, his thesis forming as his narrative moves along: "A grocery store is a finely tuned instrument to serve human whim, and the diversity of human whim often allows it to do double duty, serving one through the act of serving another." Yet a grocery store is also a place where the staff is anonymous and usually not well paid—one man who's worked a fish counter for years laments that he makes only $15 an hour—and where customer behavior is as spoiled as the ancient bits and pieces of fish and seafood that lie buried under the shaved ice. "One of the first things you realize working retail grocery is that people, in general, are hideous and insane," writes Lorr in his wide-ranging, entertaining blend of journalism and sociology. The narrative is peppered with interviews with a broad cast of characters, including truck drivers, food entrepren eurs, and cashiers, almost all of them underpaid. The author notes along the way that food prices, in real terms, have fallen by nearly three-fourths in the last century at the expense of food workers. He also looks closely at how stores came to be as they are, with their sometimes-tangled tales—e.g., when "Trader" Joe Coulombe became a wine expert largely so he could ease an alcoholic manager out of his job or how the Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly chain long ago "invited [customers] in to frolic among the abundance" while draining their wallets. In the end, what Kitchen Confidential¬ did for restaurants, Lorr's book does for supermarkets. You won't look at a supermarket shelf the same way after reading this sharp-edged expos√©. Copyright Kirkus 2020 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.


Let’s look beneath the ice-chipped surface of a fish counter at a Whole Foods in New York City. This happens every other month after closing. The customers leave, the checkout crew changes into street clothes, the store goes into lockdown to prevent its own employees from robbing them. Shifts change and the ceaseless shitty Hall & Oates music stops and is replaced by silence. Night workers, a motley rainbow of low English, low skill, low smile workers, come in, kneepads over long pants, to restock the shelves like a reverse midnight harvest. They stoop over, heads down, in their KIND bar tm shirts, or whatever other functional and empowering edible shelled out sponsorship money, kneeling there, glumly stacking yogurts. At the fish counter, the seafood team begins. Fish are removed, latex gloves gripping them two at time—fillets and whole fish, sloppy little bastards— and tossed into the plastic tubs that are their nightly home. The mussels are bagged, the shrimp scooped together into mesh cages. Next the metal trays come up. These are little more than decorative housing, and are promptly sprayed down to remove a day’s worth of sweat and oil and torn pieces of flesh that sloughed off from handling. Below the trays, a thin plastic webbing for grip, then a layer of ice: once individual chips, now grown hard as a skating rink from periodic thaws and re- icings during the day. The surface is littered with the typical debris: fish parts, crumpled-up stickers announcing wild caught!, errant cockles, cracked mussels.
Usually that would be it. Aprons would be stripped off, giant foul garbage bags of fish guts and butcher paper would be lugged to the dumpsters in the back. But on this night, the one that comes every other month or so, the case itself is cleaned. An order has come down from high, seemingly at random. And so, for the entire length of the 38- foot case, the employees hack the ice into large chunks. It is exactly like shoveling snow in the winter and they use big thick shovels to do the job. Standing up on metal platforms to get leverage, they chop straight down, chiseling out 2’ x 2’ x 2’ blocks that they then systematically take out like giant sugar cubes to be melted in the back. It is reasonably physical work and soon they are sweating. Once the top layer is removed, they begin anew on the layer below: gridding it out, chiseling, pulling out cubes. Beneath this second layer, the ice is more crunchy, less frozen. It’s an old freezer and inconsistent and it only takes a few scrapes before you get to streaks of brown. A few more and the smell comes. It is horrible and not at all of decomposition but of fecal waste maybe sweetened slightly, thick in the air like you are exhuming something dangerous, which perhaps you are. Soon after the smell, the streaks of brown darken and the ice turns with entrails and smashed pieces of shell, the shovel uncovering squid tentacles, crab antennae, all two months old, rotten, buried under there, each scrape revealing some new purple color, and the odor is such that you really cannot breathe it long. So neither team member does, instead spelling each other by rushing off to do other tasks like melting the giant cubes under hot water or just standing to the side and muttering how the fuck does it get like this?
Then, at a certain scrape of the shovel, the bottom of the case is revealed. Stainless steel. But it’s streaked green with bile, gray with pancreatic froth, pink with clam flesh, all strung out and mashed in the ice slurry. To the extent that they are recognizable, the contents are inexplicable and vaguely horrifying. No shrimp were stored in this section of the case, so why the rotting pile of shrimp casings? No whole fish either, so why the set of red lacy gills? Months of slow melting and cracks in the ice and the chaos of retail have allowed it all to accumulate down there in a weird gutter of seafood waste compressed beneath four and a half feet of ice.
Eventually the ice and slime are removed and a high-blast hose with a separate nozzle for green concentrated soap is sprayed against the stainless- steel bottom. The water so there is steam, your glasses fog up, and the rot slithers down drain. The shells cluster in cracked bits and are removed by hand. Finally, now somewhere closer to one a.m., the case bottom clean, even gleaming, and the team goes back to the giant machine along the north wall to return with heaping shovels of virginal white snow. Clean ice, the cleanest you’ve ever seen after and they pile it in heaps into the case, building back the buffer between the wet semi- rot that will be the bottom of the case and a top retail surface downy and clean. When they are finished, the ice sparkles. No more skate rink, each chip separate and glittering in the light; the perfect platform to sell good fish. The smell, once choking, is not just muffled but nonexistent. A very real and solid barrier has been erected. And once the floor has been sprayed down and mopped across with a giant squeegee, the entire scene will feel like a dream. Tomorrow morning the fish will be laid down again in their metal trays, cut parsley and trills of red peppers arranged on top. And it won’t be unhygienic in the least. It will be undetectable and irrelevant. There will be a thick wall of ice separating the retail surface from the depths below. And in this way—the very real way the fish case at Whole Foods on the Bowery can be simultaneously appalling and perfectly hygienic and safe—it is a fitting metaphor for the grocery business as whole.
This book is about the grocery store. About the people who work there and the routes of supply that define it. It is the product of five years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of hours tracking down and working alongside the buyers, brokers, marketers, and managers whose lives and choices define our diet. The five years were a time of dramatic upheaval. Walmart seized organics. Amazon seized Whole Foods. The promise of automation loomed over trucking. Minimum wage laws shifted, giving employees the promise of a new salary floor. Yet, what I found, whether talking to Whole Foods executives about the Amazon deal or to new Amazon employees as they stocked shelves, was that during this upheaval the most primal drives in the industry weren’t so much disrupted as elevated and laid bare.
What emerged is a fascinating and largely hidden world. In 2018, Americans spent $701 billion at supermarket- style grocery stores, still our largest food expenditure by a wide there are 38,000 of these stores across this land, and the average adult will spend 2 percent of their life inside one. They are the interface most familiar and least understood in our food system: bland to the point of invisibility, so routine they blur into background. And yet the grocery store exists as one of the only places where our daily decisions impact—make us complicit in—a system have come in equal parts to scorn and see as savior. We’ve been happy to let more impersonal aspects of our food system—from industrialized slaughterhouses to farm bill subsidies—take up the share of investigation and critique. But to understand how and why our food gets to us in the form it does, the grocery store is a powerful entry point. It is not only the way that most of us are introduced to the system, tagging along with Mom as she shops, it is perhaps the best opportunity to understand the system on the terms of the people who operate it on our behalf.
In the retail store, the deboned bulk chilled chicken breasts, or Granny Smith apples, or long fillets of frozen salmon, or whatever other food you want to imagine—arrive in their cardboard boxes, vacu-sealed in a marvel of plastic packaging, and when you click your box cutter down and reach to take them out, they cease being food. Another transformation has occurred; they are product now. Merchandise. SKUs. Listen to the retail managers and assistant managers talk among themselves: the word “food” doesn’t come up; it is an irrelevant, unhelpful, even illogical way to discuss the work of a grocery. To these men it is always product. And so, an item within the grocery matrix loses its identity as food and becomes product. It is liberated; its transformation is no less critical to the project of civilization. Now it is defined by the cubic inches of its packaging, its price per unit, and the velocity of its sales. It is not until much later, the moment the customer comes pushing their cart down the aisle and reaches out for that Styrofoam tray, that our chicken becomes food again. It is a tenuous thing, but suddenly it has a new owner and a new meaning; now it will be eaten, and everything that matters about it has changed to reflect that fact.
And when you start digging into precisely how the people in grocery think, you find one thing open and waiting in the center: the maw. That voracious, devouring hole we feed three to thirty times a day, swallowing and salivating and stuffing, ceaseless in its demands right up to the point we lie in a hospital bed and it gets temporarily assisted by a polyurethane tube. The maw to me, like the sun above interfacing with the chloroplasts below the leaf, is more than just a mouth: it is a secular revelation, a complex of destruction and creativity, anchored in need. It is the sensory cells of the gut. The neuronal charge to acquire. The curiosities, comforts, and cravings we convince ourselves are necessities. It—like the Vedic concept of Self/ self—comes in the universal as well as the personal, each of our unique pie holes mere tributaries to some more tremendous vortex right at the heart of the human project. And it is this maw more than anything that animates the wonks in the grocery back room, poring over their spreadsheets, deciding how to stock our shelves. More than greed, health, altruism, grocery wants to serve. The fact that we make serving that need so complicated, the fact that it ends in the contradiction that is the Whole Foods fish counter, beautiful and vile at the same time, should not be an invitation to scorn the system—or ourselves— but an opportunity for introspection and perhaps even growth. And ultimately it should upend our perception of grocery to remember it isn’t about food, it never has about food— food is the business of eating— grocery, we’ll see, completely different; it’s the business of desire.

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