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Long time readers may remember my ex-co-worker/clown stripper entry from a few years back.* Well, Pinky showed up the other day at the store. She was all hunched, tweaky, and sniffly and was trying to quietly pass by the cheese section and into the backstock area. She had a bag, but I couldn’t tell if she had any products in it. I yelled out to her to stop as she shuffle-sneaked past.

“Don’t you remember me? I used to work here.” Pinky said. “I just need to use the bathroom.”

“Oh, I remember you. But you can’t go up there. You don’t work here anymore.”

She had every intention of just blowing past me, but four or five other workers -- who had just finished dinner – were blocking the stairs. Actually, she was blocking them too. Impasse. One of them, who just happens to look really, really tough, said, “This is workers only.”

Pinky saw that she wasn’t going to get past and that she was all of a sudden drawing a lot of attention. She also, between me, the workers on the stairs, and the people doing produce prep, was outnumbered 10 to 1.

“Whatever, Show-off!” she yelled non-sensically as she huffed away.

Luckily on of the produce workers followed her and saw her trying to get into our other backstock area across the store. This made her excuse even less believable since – as an ex-worker -- she knows there is no bathroom on that side of the store. She left then, before we had to officially kick her out.

Sigh. Another day at an urban grocery store…

*It's a very good story for context. I recommend this link.


May. 28th, 2009 09:24 am
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After 15 years of cheese selling (my anniversary was May 18!), it’s not like I think I’ve seen it all, but I feel like I have a general handle on the questions I will get. Last weekend however, one threw me for a loop.

A guy walks up to me and says, “What’s your margin on cheese?”

“Are you asking as a customer or as a food professional?” I respond. Something about his manner is odd, not the least of which is that there’s no lead up to this question at all and he asks as if it were just as normal to ask this as “where’s the brie?” I ask this question mostly because I want to know if he understands the difference between margin and mark-up,* and also because I want to try and figure out where he’s coming from.

“Food professional.”

“I’ll answer your question, but I find it strange – if you are in the food business – that you can’t tell by looking at the prices. There are not a lot of secrets in the food world. We pretty much all know what each other pay for things. Where do you work?”

“I work at a company that sells products online.”

“Ok, so you want me to tell you how we do our pricing but you won’t tell me where you work or why you are asking. I mean, I’m standing here at my workplace so you know where I’m coming from but you won’t give me any information about yourself and you expect me to tell you what are generally considered trade secrets. Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd?”

“I didn’t mean it that way. I work on the computer systems.”

“Ok, for what company?”

“…” Clearly this is a secret for some reason.

“Ok, here’s the deal, our cheese margins are between 35-50% which is low for the industry. What our margin is depends on how much labor goes into a cheese. Does that answer your question?”

“(Looking at a two-year aged gouda) I just find it strange that you can sell cheese for $15/lb. Why don’t people just buy it at Costco?”**

It’s certainly not limited to selling cheese, but this is how people get themselves into trouble. If he had identified himself as a customer I would have been much friendlier, answering the question after I generally explained the issues behind cheese pricing: high labor to sales ratio, higher cost of refrigeration that regular grocery, need to cover shrink, etc. as well as the fact that pricing also reflects that people can ask questions to workers who get paid a living wage (with benefits) and therefore tend to have more knowledge and experience than people at other stores.

By puffing himself up, he unknowingly violated the unwritten rule of the food trade which is that the first thing you do when asking questions to someone else in the food trade is identify yourself. He thereby put himself in the category of people like the sales rep who once called me up pretending to be a customer asking me about Cheese X*** and saying that we really needed to carry it and that he and all his friends would buy it etc. Liars and time-wasters are the most reviled people in the business. That doesn’t seem like an unusual concept.

*Margin is the percent you make after subtracting the wholesale price of a product. It is related to – but different from – the mark up. For example, if we pay $1 for something and our mark up is 50% we charge $1.50. Since .50 is the amount we net, 33% is the margin because .50 is 33% of $1.50.

**It’s not that this is not a valid question. It’s simply that a cheese professional would know the answer to this. This is food retail 101.

**Since they dealt with him quickly and appropriately, I will not ID the company.
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After doing the beer/cheese thing on Saturday, I actually went back to the Artisan Cheese Festival as a vendor on Sunday. It wasn’t awful, but I kinda doubt I’m going to do it again. It may be fun for the other cheese folks to talk directly to the public at a big event, but I get to do that every week.

I was working for Rainbow, but sampling and selling cheese from other cheese folks who couldn’t be there. I didn’t mind the selling. The fact is it’s an honor to sell Franklin Peluso’s cheese: he’s a 3rd generation California cheesemaker and his Teleme is a Northern California tradition. Similarly, selling cheese for Dee Harley so she can tend to the kids* is doing my part to help keep a small cheesemaker visible when she doesn’t have the staff to spread herself so thin. I also got to cover for Sheana’s new “Delice de la Vallee”, the first local goat /cow blend fresh cheese while she was teaching a cheesemaking class. The Fest was well-attended, for about an hour it was actually pretty hard to move inside the booth-filled tent.

Attendees were confused by our booth because everywhere else cheese folks were there representing themselves and instead I had three different companies at one table. I had to make sure to distance myself from the cheesemakers too. For example, Franklin would be too polite to explain the confusion over the name of his cheese the way I did, especially to all the Italian Americans who grew up with it but haven’t been able to find it for awhile. “Peluso’s Teleme is the original name, but Franklin Peluso sold the company awhile back. The new owners didn’t make cheese of the same quality and that’s why it has been hard to find over the last few years. Most stores – including us – discontinued it. Franklin returned to California and started ‘Franklin’s Teleme’ which is the real thing and the one you want.”

Also, some representative from Costco came up to me and wanted Dee Harley’s information. She seemed nice enough until I told her that since Dee was selling mostly off the farm these days -- and was limiting her farmstead dairy to around 200 goats -- that I really doubted she had enough cheese to sell to Costco. “Oh, “she said, “Do you know that? Are you related to her?” Just trying to help you not waste your time, really. Sorry about that.

The most amusing part is that Sheana Davis’s first name is pronounced “Shawna”. All day long people would come by looking for their “friend Sheena”. I would try to correct these folks through example, “No, Shaw-na is teaching a class right now.” But then they started correcting me! One person actually said, “For your information, I believe it’s pronounced ‘Shee-na”. I swear I’m not making this up

Included in the price of admission was a lot of beer and wine sampling so the last hour and a half was filled with placating drunks. “Oh wait! I had this cheese before. But it was harder, a different color and made with cow milk. Why did you stop making that one?”

Unlike a bartender, I did not receive tips for this.

As an attendee I’m sure it’s a great event. What’s not great about being able to taste and buy pretty much all the California hand-made cheeses plus a few rare ones from Oregon and Washington? Plus all you can drink included with admission (and one’s ability to push through crowds)? It’s definitely something worth going to. I love working with the public, I just like my public a little more sober and focused.

*Kids as in “Bleat, bleat!” not “Mommmmmmmmm!”
**If you want to read more about the actual events – and not my whining and complaining – check out Bryce’s blog Canyon of Cheese.
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Our cheese area is way too small for the volume of cheese we sell. While this makes our financial statement look great, it contributes to the too-many-rats-in-the-cage feeling that our store gets when it’s crowded. The crowd around our sample table jams up the area like fallen trees on a country road. Shopping carts and people take up so much space when we’re really busy that getting from produce to cheee is like crossing the Bay Bridge at 5 PM. Sometimes we have to wait long periods of time to stock cheese we’ve cut and wrapped because the area simply can’t fit another person. I took a picture at Thanksgiving 1996 (just months after we moved into our new store) amazed at how busy the area in front of cheese was compared to our Mission St store. Now I see that view at some point almost every day.

When we cheeseworkers do get out to stock the cheese coolers on busy days it’s often one question after another from customers too quiet or shy to get our attention over the cheese counter. That’s cool. It’s one of the parts of my job I enjoy most, actually. The problem is that the customers get a little close sometimes.

Maybe it’s the desperation in the air these days but customers were more stressed than usual in this holiday season. It wasn’t that more customers than usual were rude, it’s that the ones who were rude were really rude.

I was answering a customer’s question at one point in late December when someone started hitting me on the back. I thought it was some friend or coworker, but no, it was another customer. I turned – surprised that I didn’t recognize the person and before I could say anything she said, “I have some cheese questions? Can you answer them?”* I told her “no” because it’s against the rules to touch a cheese worker without consent.

Even more obnoxious was a guy who came in – possibly a little fucked up already – looking for cheese for a party he was already late to. He kept picking up pieces of cheese, studying them, and then tossing them a few feet away in the cooler as if he couldn’t bear their sight. I was already coming around the counter when he saw me, “I need the right size piece of brie, can you help me?”

“Yes, but if you keep throwing cheese around the case I’m going to throw you out of the store.” I put a medium-sized Fromager D’affinois in his cart and used my I-dare-you-to-say-something look. He thanked me and walked away, coming back ten minutes later to apologize to my co-worker for “upsetting” me.

Then, just the other day someone came in and asked for the “Sky Q” cheese that he had read about on the internet. After I thought for a second I said, “Ski Queen”? I explained what it was but he said, “No, that’s not it. I know they carry it at the East Coast Whole Foods stores, you probably just haven’t heard of it yet.” Then he asked for ricotta. I tried to explain that if he was looking for whey-based cheeses, that it probably was Ski Queen Gjetost he was looking for. However, since I was contradicting the internet, he didn’t trust me and went with a sneer and empty hands.**

But I knew I was starting to overreact to the retail pressure when a customer came up –obviously dismayed—and asked for a “softer Parmesan” than the Parmigiano Reggiano. There are obvious answers to that question: Domestic Parmesan, Argentine Parmesan, Grana Padano etc. but I couldn’t let go of the premise inherent in her question – that she wished to deny one of the main traits that makes Parmesan Parmesan. In a moment of self-righteousness I wanted to stand in solidarity with the identity struggle of Parmigiano Reggiano. I whispered to a co-worker, “Do we have any drier water?” and neither of us could stop laughing until I finally left the cheese cutting area.

*If I were reading this entry I would try to figure out this behavior. I’d think maybe she had been waiting for help and had been ignored or something. You’ll have to trust me, I have a developed skill for this, she was not there when I started talking to the other customer. She just didn’t want to wait her turn.
**Which isn’t the worst thing. Norweigans aside, Gjetost isn’t for everyone.
gordonzola: (Default)
Probably the most ironic thing about my book (out in March now, btw. The publication date has been moved up) is that it starts with me detailing a recurring dream I have. Everyone who knows me knows that I refuse to listen to people’s dreams (unless I am in them) and I almost never talk about mine. But this is the time of year that my stress dreams of rotting cheese, overfilled coolers, and falling Reggiano towers interrupt my sleep.

This is pretty much a dead week for anyone not in the grocery business. I even know non-profity people with the whole week off. But for grocery stores in the US, Thanksgiving is the most intense week of the year. From today at 1 PM until tomorrow at 10 PM I will likely be at work for about 22 of the 33 hours. Come on by but we may be a little dazed.

I already have a pocket of lists, scrawled notes, and cheese signs for my shift today. This morning I’m just trying to get a little laundry done and to rest up from the previous week of cheese craziness. Last week was preparation; this week is about putting it into people’s carts. The days go by fast though, that’s for sure.

Anyways, [livejournal.com profile] anarqueso and I will be hosting our 3rd annual Zeitgeist post-work meet-up on Wednesday night at 10:30 or so. Rain or shine. Bring an umbrella if the weather is bad and we’ll bring garbage bags to sit on. Come on by. Hell, you can even get there early and get us a big table. The grocery workers will be the ones drinking quickly and mumbling to ourselves.


Oct. 3rd, 2008 06:12 am
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A co-worker killed himself yesterday. We weren’t that close. Indeed, I probably fought with him more about work issues than any other single co-worker I’ve had over the years. But I never stopped liking him. Really, he was mostly a sweetheart, an exasperating one to be sure, but a guy with a good heart. We could fight over x-mas music in the store, seasonal allocation of space, his ridiculous assertions about his department’s worth to the store -- and often in buyers meetings I would be the main force opposing him – but we’d run into each other at the Eagle or at the park near where we both lived for a long time, buy each other a beer and enjoy each other’s company.

In my co-op political work one of my main goals is to discourage the idea that our workplace is a family. For too long at our store -- and in too many other co-ops -- bad people and dysfunctional workers use that dynamic, much like in real families, to manipulate others, get their way, and skate on infractions that would get them fired from any other workplace in the country. This isn’t the time for that essay, but as I thought about the fact that, while that is true, it also only needs to be my co-op political line because there are so many ways in which that line is blurred already.

When death hits the store it’s clear that we are not a regular retail workplace. True, we didn’t close for the day, but workers stopped and took the time they needed. Some people left and there will be no discipline or reprisal. People made a quick altar* and began calling other co-workers who needed to know. Today was a coupon day** which generally means we are all at full speed, stressed and hurried. But when we got the news people cried, hugged, and talked and basically, no offense,*** ignored the customers as much as possible. Death didn’t make it us-and-them exactly, more just… well… like we’ve taken a loss and aren’t quite ready to talk about it to outsiders yet. It made us even more clannish than usual.

A few years ago a different co-worker was run over by a semi while riding his bike in a funeral procession for a bike messenger. That hit the store in the same way. That day -- and if memory serves me right it was right before Thanksgiving -- we even had a spontaneous moment of silence that someone called for over the intercom. I will never forget all of us stepping away from our work areas in response. The customers were confused but stayed quiet too, sensing that we weren’t playing, that something was really wrong.

I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but it seems like all the people I’ve known who’ve killed themselves -- either quickly or slowly -- were done in by their demons. I don’t want to expose or speculate on Tom’s demons but I know they were there. Still, it was a surprise. Many times I’ve known people who died too young but there was often an element of yeah-I-saw-that-coming about it. Not here. Tom was fairly resilient, or at least seemed to be. No one I talked to saw this coming though all agreed he’d had it rough recently.

Demons. We all have them to some extent, so what make some people’s so much harder for them to bear? I would never claim all demons to be equal but some folks certainly seem to be able to bear more than others. One person can bear a bad thing that can send someone else over the brink. Of course, these things are never really comparable because we never know all the demons that someone else has had to bear previously, right?

It was a hard, sad, confusing day at work today and I can imagine tomorrow will be the same as more folks find out or get to talk about it for the first time. If you are shopping, (and it is another coupon day) be nice and be patient.

***One of the things I love best about the store is that any worker can put a picture and a candle at the front desk to honor someone who recently died. I have done this myself too many times: Joe Strummer, June Jordan, Del Martin, Wendy O Williams, Ron Apple…
**Luckily after 5:45 almost everyone was home watching the debate so it was pretty slow tonight.
***I know I saw a few of you. Sorry if I didn’t seem happy to see you but at first it was all-engrossing and too much to try to explain
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In years past, we have often gone to co-op conferences where it was clear that some of the things we have to account for as a large urban grocery store are different from smaller town co-ops.* An incident yesterday sums it up.

A co-worker noticed someone who looked a little crazy** acting strangely upon entering the store. He had a big Macy's bag with them which is a good sign of a bad shoplifter. Co-worker was keeping an eye on him and I guess he noticed because he came up to her and opened his bag. "Look!" he snarled from his toothless mouth.

She assumed he was just showing her an empty bag to prove his innocence so she was all, "it's fine"

Then he snarled louder "LOOK!"

She looked. He was carrying four rats with him. She started screaming "Get out! Get out! Get out!" Seemingly satisfied, he wandered towards the exit.

Later that day I was relaying this story to Formaldhyde and he asked, "Were the rats alive or dead?" I had assumed alive and hadn't even thought to ask. He had assumed dead.*** I had to call my co-worker at home. "The rats… were they alive or dead?"

"Alive. Chocolate brown. They looked like pets. Uh, did you really call me at home just to ask me that?"

"Of course," I said. Oral history is the life blood of any cooperative.

*I could have sworn I wrote about the anti-oppression workshop I went to where someone tearfully spoke about a customer saying meanly, "Do you have to be a dyke to shop here or what?" and how all my co-workers laughed. But I can't find it. Anyone remember that anecdote or should I tell it again?

**Our standard of "crazy" is pretty high. Just take my word for it here.

***[Poll #1090300]
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At the holidays, I need to watch my tone when dealing with customers. There's a lot of things I can get away with saying to customers (though not nearly as many as [livejournal.com profile] anarqueso can) but at this time of year, the food holidays, I get tired and my timing gets thrown off.

A customer came up to me on Saturday with a piece of Parmesan. He asked if there were any smaller pieces. It was a $4 piece but we cut to any size so I said, "Sure, no problem."

The problem was that he wouldn't give me the cheese. I reiterated in different ways that cutting cheese is what we do, that it was no problem, that I was happy to do it, etc, but he still wouldn't hand the piece over.

"Well, you know, it's just me… I'm only making one meal… I don't eat much cheese…" he said, still clutching his "too-big" piece just out of my reach. Other customers were lurking, waiting to ask questions. My co-worker was on break.

I knew that I had to break the impasse. I said, "Hey man, you don't have to justify it. Just hand it over."

Now, like I said, I can generally pull off a line like that with enough of a jokey tone that the customer gets a hint that they need to look at what they are doing but can mostly laugh a little at the situation. Unfortunately on Saturday, exhausted from too much work and too much mourning, I think it sounded kind of harsh. I think this because the other waiting customers, well… didn't actually recoil, but they did shift their weight away from me and get wary looks on their faces.

That poor single man customer with the ginormous piece of parmesan just wanted a little social contact and understanding. I wrote years ago about the role of the retailer as the new social service worker, and here it was. Mister Giganto-Parm just wanted to be heard, to be seen. I denied his essence by treating him like a problem to get done with.

But then, as I started cutting, he said, "Can you just cut me off the tip?" indicating the almost rindless pointy center-bit.

I guess subconsciously I had known something was wrong with that customer.

"No," I said.
gordonzola: (Default)
We operate on dual levels of cheese knowledge sometimes since we are a grocery store cheese department. About a year ago we started carrying cheeses aged by Pascal Beillevaire. He's an affineur in France, meaning that (mostly) he buys cheese form other sources and then ages and babies it until it is perfectly ripe. These are simply the best French cheeses we've been able to buy since the ones from Chantal Plasse became harder to come by.

Here are some, to give you an idea:
beillevaire cheese

Anyways, I mention that we operate on dual levels because I can be talking to someone about some nasty soy "cheese" one minute and discussing how Beillevaire has three different aging caves in France, one for each type of cheese he sells the next. The Auvergne for blue, Savoie for mountain cheese and in Machecoul for the soft-ripened ones.

Also though, people who love cheese in this country have a high learning curve. There are lots of unfamiliar names and, if one has never traveled to the cheese's country of origin, the names are even more intimidating since they are often related to regions or towns. People mis-remember names quite often so nicknames naturally develop over the course of cheese retailing.

The Beillevaire cheeses we've had the most often have been two soft-ripened, raw milk goat cheeses. The Cathare is flat, ash-covered, a little moldy, and round, and the Couronne Lochoise, while also ash-covered and round, is taller and has a hole in the middle. Both are aged 60 days and then air-shipped immediately to the Bay Area. Neither are super pungent, though they do scare the cheese-nervous, but both have a complex flavor that intensifies as you eat it: tangy, fruity, milky, earthy, awesome.

Very quickly, the Cathare became known as the "Moldy Pancake" and the Couronne Lochoise as the "Moldy Donut".. That does beat the heck out of the original customer nickname for the Cathare which was "Cat Hair". But maybe Moldy Pancake only sounds better to me because I'm too close to the cheese.

Beillevaire was in town the other day and we got to hear a presentation about his cheese and the process of affinage. Videos of cheese being made, of cheese shops in France, of cute cows and dairy farmers. Total cheese porn. I love my job sometimes.

beillvaire 1
(l-r) Someone I don't know, Pascal's translator (she is also a cheese importer herself but wasn't there in that function), Pascal, and lots of amazing cheese

(I had other things to say here, but I just got called in for a cheese meeting I forgot about so I'll just post this for now)
gordonzola: (Default)
One thing I notice when I go to cheese events is that the term "Cheese Guy" is very common. It seems like not only every city has one, but that almost any store that hand sells cheese does. "Cheese Lady" also has some adherents. Cheese Goddess and Cheese Gal do but to a lesser extent.

Some professionals have staked their claim on some alter-egos like Cheese Dude and Cheese Diva,* though it's more of an everyone-in-the-industry-knows rather than a trademarked one I think. I'm pretty sure that the Madame du Fromage has a business license attached to it and I think the Cheese Chick does too. An internet search even shows a "Cheese Impresario" which makes me laugh but I guess technically it's an ok use of the word. Still, I picture her traveling around with a Disney-ish cheese orchestra that plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or something.

I love getting called Cheese Guy in public and I know I've mentioned that before. I think Gordonzola serves me well as a cheese name, and it came from my co-workers, though it's gotten more use as my punk name because I used it to write for MaximumRocknRoll.

My revelation during this conference is that though I've pretty much told no one in the cheese business about this blog but they've found it! When gordonzola.net gets really launched soon, I imagine even more of them will. Plus our workplace is revamping our website and will soon (Rainbow time soon = probably before 2008) include blogs. That should be a fun and tasty recipe for disaster.

What is it about cheese selling that lends itself to this affectionate name-calling? Is it the talking to the customers, and trying to discover their cheese needs and desires? Is cheese so intimate that the moments we share together create a special bond? Does cheese get marked up so high because it includes the cost of illusionary friendship? Do retail other jobs get this as much?

*Who I had no idea read my journal until she said, while sitting on a panel I was moderating, said, "Doesn't everyone read Gordon's blog?" Hello KSF! Glad you're reading.
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My co-worker DivideByTwelve stood in front of the refrigerated raw food snacks. They are in a back-loading cooler unit which means someone works in the cooler behind the display stocking product. DBT was talking to that worker but, much like those folks who talk on the phone with those tiny earpieces, was just looking like she was crazy. We're all used to that here, so the customers around her just ignored it and went about their shopping.

But not me.

"Hey DBT," I yelled. "I know that the raw food is alive, but it's not sentient. It doesn't really understand what you're saying!"

All the customers around her became wary and moved a few steps away. All the co-workers laughed.

It was almost as much fun as grabbing the cooler workers arms as they stock and watching them freak out until they realize your not a random creepy customer, just a creepy co-worker.


Feb. 4th, 2007 11:19 am
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"How do you get to be the cheese buyer here."

He is a late 40s white guy, non-descript except for slightly crazy eyes. He is excited about the cheese. He is talking to my co-worker, Garage Rockstar. "You have to get a job here," she replies. "But of course he'd have to quit first."

We've just gone through a week of the food show where lots of grocery folks from all over the country were in town, looking over the store, taking pictures, digging for info etc. Is he a leftover from the show? Someone with experience who actually is looking for work? Someone who's using cheese a medium for their mania?

"I might just have to take a contract out on him. Would that be ok?"

"Well, that's up to you, I guess," Garage replies. She laughs. I laugh. It's the humor of relief, knowing that we don't need to worry anymore what we say to him. It's not codified, but when someone crosses that kind of line, anything goes.

He saw it in our faces. The customers can sense it really, even many of the crazy ones. Not that they've gone too far, but that our retail worker tone has changed. We're ready to go on the offensive.

"Do you know anything about cheese?" I ask. Garage stops work to watch him. He seems suddenly antsy.

"Well, I'm trying to learn. How do you find these cheeses? You do such a good job." Awesome, Now he's trying to suck up to us.

"Sales reps, trade shows, the annual cheese conference…"

"Oooh, there's an annual conference? Can anyone go?" Crazy Eyes asks.

"It's mostly trade, but you can go as an enthusiast," I reply.

"How do I prove my enthusiasm? "

"You write an enthusiastic check," I answer.
gordonzola: (cowboy hat)
Sometimes I forget that the counter is important. Sometimes when I am in other grocery stores I forget I don’t work there. Sometimes I’m inappropriate in public.

There are some retail positions, in certain times and places, where being rude or suggestive is part of the fun. Sassy greasy spoon waitresses, Judy May’s Sandwich and sports memorabilia shop, selling cheese… I know [livejournal.com profile] anarqueso will back me up on this. You have to pick your spots, but there’s something about the urban retail experience that makes people amused at a snarky cheesemonger. Maybe it’s a way for the customer to pay penance as the buy something decadent.

However, it doesn’t work at all when you are not selling cheese. I almost didn’t post this because I am a little embarrassed about it. I don’t usually act like this in public.

I was at the Ferry Building in the little grocery store they’ve got there. I had been selling cheese all morning and then rushed to the Ferry Building for the annual California Artisianal Cheese Guild meeting. I just needed some water.

The guy in line in front of me was a bear. He was even wearing a t-shirt from Daddy’s Bar in the Castro. Even though I don’t really sleep with boys, I think of bears as my people in a general way. Except for the muscle bears, they’re pretty much my body type. I feel solidarity.

Anyways, he was buying produce and he told the woman working the counter that he was buying "Squish".

"Squish?" she asked. She wasn’t a native American English speaker and she seemed confused.

"Oh," the customer said, "It’s squash but my boyfriend makes me call it squish because he says I always overcook it." He laughed. The cashier laughed. They both looked at me so I laughed too.

Now, I fully admit that I was in the wrong. From behind the counter I would be witty and flirty. Waiting in line, I was just a creepy customer. I said, "Oh is part of the punishment for overcooking the squash that you have to explain why you call it ‘squish’ in public"

He gave me a nasty look, said nothing, and walked away. The cashier laughed though.

Mr. Bear man, if you are reading this, sorry!
gordonzola: (Default)
The days before Thanksgiving blur. Even while at work I can’t remember clearly whether I had some customer interaction earlier that day or earlier that week. I worked at least part of every one of the ten days before Thanksgiving trying to keep the vendors in line and make sure we didn’t run out of essentials. And of course it didn’t work. Pre-orders made months ago didn’t show up. Re-orders of things we were sampling out just didn’t arrive. I adjusted, buying other cheese. And of course 500 lbs. of the original sampling cheese showed up on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when it’s too late to do anything but annoyingly take up space in the backstock cooler that we could barely walk around in anyway.

There aren’t really good customer stories on the day before Thanksgiving because the customers are pretty much beaten down. The needy ones realize that the sheer volume of other people in the store makes the social service-retail interaction impossible. The big-gathering shoppers have some kind of internalized guilt about putting off their shopping until the last minute so they are resigned, not demanding. The foodies just put themselves in our hands saying, "I need five cheeses for before dinner. Fill my cart."

Every grocery store in the country runs out of things by Wednesday evening. I used to get bummed and think it was just us, but then I went to the local Safeway one time because I’d forgotten something and it looked like people had been preparing for a hurricane. Shelves were bare. Coolers looked like they were suffering from alopecia. Everyone was walking around dazed and if they were in nightgowns it would have been very Stepford.

The only memorable exchange I had was depressing. A woman came in with a unopened cheese she had bought the day before. It was a hard cheese, an aged Asiago, but she wanted to exchange it because it had been cut a week earlier. I explained to her that once cheese leaves the store we don’t re-sell it and that we would have to throw out the old piece. I offered to let her taste it because, honestly, I knew it would be fine. But she started talking about how her husband had demanded she return it and she got a scared edge in her voice I didn’t like at all. She was freaking out a little, mentioning her husband in every sentence, so I decided to do what I could to prevent domestic violence and just give her a new piece.

But mostly it was, "I need three cheeses" and off they went with some combination of Brillat Savarin, Vacherin Du Jura, La Tur, Ossau Iraty, and Humboldt Fog. For the record I brought Vacherin, L’etivaz Gruyere, Montcabrer, Pecorino Ginepro, and Leonora to my family gathering. There were only 5 of us this year, so I didn’t need much.

[livejournal.com profile] anarqueso and I did make it to Zeitgeist and impressed the workers there with our trashbags for the wet benches and our umbrellas for the occasional bit of rain. [livejournal.com profile] tuliphead joined us and another co-worker for more beers than I realized. The rest of you missed out.
gordonzola: (Default)
I knew it was a family of trouble but I really needed to go on break. It’s not that I didn’t think my co-worker couldn’t handle it, it’s just that it’s nice to have two people around with the crazies. I don’t even know what set off my internal retailer alarm, but there was something. I think it was the amount of space they were taking up for three people and the fact they were shouting back and forth at each other. Still when I left they hadn’t actually done anything wrong that I knew of.

It was two adults and an early-teen child. The man was using one of our sit down carts (they’re called mart carts). They seemed to be moving on so I told my co-worker I’d be back in a couple of minutes. She was post-frazzled when I returned. Evidently they weren’t leaving, they were settling in. They kept grabbing cheese samples with their hands even after my co-worker told them not to. She actually had to remove the plate they were so actively not listening.

But then dad got out of his mart cart and put his daughter in the driver’s seat. He was teaching her how to drive it in front of the cheese cooler, the most narrow aisle in the store. The cart jerked back and forth nearly hitting other customers because this was Saturday afternoon, the busiest part of the busiest day of the week. My co-worker had to come out of the cheese area and lay down the law, "You can’t do that here! Stop!"

Finally they moved along. A few minutes later the Front End Coordinator came over. The FEC, despite being a wonderful launching pad for jokes about feces, is the person who, among many other things, deals with problems that come up in the store on any given day. They give shoplifters the boot, talk down extra irate people, call the ambulance or cops when needed, etc. Anyways, she asks us if we saw the family of trouble. It seems dad was wearing something loose-fitting enough that his business kept popping out and the customers were complaining.

She found them and pulled the wife aside, describing the problem. She was unfazed and unembarrassed, simply promising to "take care of it." And she did.

Meanwhile we were brainstorming all sorts of ways we could have handled the situation worse. We could have gone the more hippie food co-op route and said something like, "While tragically society tells us that our bodies are shameful and need to be hidden away, we must ask that your penis and scrotum remain inside your clothing. If you need pants, please see a male worker. Someday perhaps we can all enjoy body freedom and we are working for that day."

We have been working on it as a store, but historically there have been incredibly passive aggressive pages made over the intercom. You know, instead of going up to the person gorging on some expensive bulk food , making an announcement that eating in the store is prohibited. Like I said, we don’t do that anymore, but it is in our collective memory.

I pictured a combination of that passive aggressive page combined with the daily "lost cart" page. The one that asks customer to check and make sure that they actually are pushing the cart with their groceries in it and not someone else’s. You’d be surprised how many people lose their carts.

"Attention customers just a friendly reminder. Uncovered genitals are against store policy. Please take a moment, look down and check your genitals. Are they covered? If not, please take corrective action. Thank you, just a friendly reminder."

Another co-worker with a flair for pithy phrases said it best with her version though. It was pretty much the same except started with the phrase, "Customers, are you feeling a personal breeze?…"
gordonzola: (Default)
I am good at the type of retail I do, generally. There’s a very quick window in which to read someone before deciding how to talk to them and what cheese to recommend. There are any number of clues, of course, even disregarding the obvious cheese customer profiles which are really about class (and race) anyway.

I didn’t actually read the first guy wrong so much as it was early and I stumbled over my own words. He was part of a gay couple and they were shopping for brunch. We had only been open for an hour and he was the fourth man I’d seen wearing a "England" sweatshirt. So I said, "hey, why is everyone wearing England sweatshirts today? Is it a World Cup thing?"

The look on his face told me what I needed to know. Not only did he not follow the World Cup but I had just told him his sweatshirt was unoriginal, non-fabulous, and trendy among heterosexuals. I overcompensated by giving him and his boyfriend extra cheese samples.

My next mis-read happened almost imediately. A het couple came in and the man was doing the talking. They were looking for a picnic brie so I recommended the Fromager D’affinois, a factory-made cheese but a good one. It’s mild and super oozy. It was the wrong guess.

As the Specialty Cheese Shop Manual tells us, "The major customers of specialty cheese shops are the higher educated, more affluent and better traveled members of the community – in short, the leaders." (SCSM 1981) Now, I don’t care about that kind of profile, but sometimes the customers do. There’s a status some attach to their cheese purposes, not surprising in a country where consumer identity is so strong that about all the left can do is be a social force for making people feel guilty about their purchases (but that’s another entry).

It was like I slapped him. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was insulted by being offered a factory made cheese instead of a handmade one. "No, I think we’ll go with the Brie de Meaux," he said, letting me know I knew less than he did and cutting off the conversation. . Of course, in this country it’s actual name is Fromage de Meaux because it’s not made with raw milk, but ignore that.

The above description sounds nastier than it actually was. He was fairly subtle really, but I’ve worked with the public long enough to recognize it. Back when I was younger and punker customers would just outwardly show disdain, now I have to read the clues. It was just that one wrong guess can ruin your credibility to some folks. Sure, no great loss on a personal level. But I had lots of fancy cheese to sell the guy if I had guessed right.

Some retail days are like that. For the rest of the day I just gave out samples and let the cheese do most of the talking.
gordonzola: (Default)
At no other time of the year is my life so consumed by cheese. Before I worked in a grocery store I never really thought about Thanksgiving preparations. Sure, I dreaded going to buy food because I knew it would be crowded, but I never really thought about its effect on the grocery workers.

Which is not to say you have to. Things are so busy that it’s hard to remember individual customers once they’re gone. I know I’ve seen a lot of LJ folks over the last couple of days but you’d have to remind me at this point. Dressing up, yesterday was kiddie cowboy hat day, helps deflect potential problems but there were still some creeches in this week. Some guy told me that a certain cheap factory-made brie was not ripe and wouldn’t be "for four days". Dude, if you can really tell if a brie will be ripe in exactly "four days" you wouldn’t be buying the cheap crap.

Needy McNeederson came in too, pushing her cart and stopping right in the middle of the area that says "Workers Only". It’s the main traffic aisle of the store, and the intersection of Pallet drive, Walk In Way, Cheese Lane, and Handtruck Road. Despite the fact that workers and customers alike were rushing around like they were in the agitation cycle of the wash, she wanted to have a conversation about the interview I did for KALW about coops. I haven’t even heard it, and I deleted the info about when it airs and when it gets put on the website, but she enjoyed it evidently. She said, "It makes me want to work here except that everyone hates me."

I said, "I have to go into the cooler now."

And I wasn’t lying. A whole wheel 85 lb. of Parmigiano Reggiano? Gone in a day. Pt Reyes Blue, Stilton? We cut ‘em yesterday, we’ll cut ‘em again today. Gruyere, Whole milk Mozzarella? We need more. 1000 lbs of Basque Pilota? 260lbs left, which should make it through Thursday. Brillat Savarin? Gone. Chantal Plasse cheeses? Gone. Pont De Bique? Gone. Chevrot? L’edel De Cleron? About to run out.

I will not inflict my cheese dreams upon you except to mention their mundanity. They are not dreams of swimming in creamy vats avoiding the icebergs of curds. They are not about milk maids and stable boys working up sweats. They are not even towers of Parm or rotting brie. They are about rearranging the shelf of 40 lb. cheddar blocks and pushing stacks of cut cheese onto the retail floor. It’s like when I briefly did lawn work 20 years ago. I’d work all day and then go have dreams about laying sod. Sleep is supposed to be my time!
gordonzola: (Default)
I just heard a "funny" follow up to my entry of a few days ago about the woes of the urban grocer. Evidently, the guy who took all the cheese samples and started washing his hair in the sink stood out on the sidewalk in front of the store for a bit after we tossed him. He was plaintively telling the passerby, "They had no reason to kick me out. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just conditioning."
gordonzola: (Default)
Is there more desperation or has the desperation just found that we are easy marks? Back when our store was in its old location and we shared a building with one of the city’s biggest rehab organizations, aggro was common. I had to physically break up fights a couple of times and got the usual death threats from junkies because we wouldn’t let them touch our customers.

It’s not that bad, but in the last few weeks we’ve had a lot of weird incidents involving visibly fucked up people. Returning from helping [livejournal.com profile] jactitation with her groceries, I saw someone trying to run through the store followed closely by our uniformed guard and the Front End Coordinator. I say "trying" to run because while he was making running motions, he was moving in slow motion. Total "$6 Million Man" flashback except without the sound effects and matching track suit. Instead, we just heard his raspy breath. And noticed something wrong with his long, wet hair. Was it soapy?

It was one of those times where you’re watching someone who obviously thinks they are playing it cool but everyone else is staring. It reminded me of the time I was walking home past the edge of the Valencia Gardens project and some old, frazzled junkie had attracted the attention of the cops. I was waiting for the light to change and he had just noticed the police cruiser tailing him. He quickly stumble-walked around the corner dropping a baggie in the sewer grate as he walked by. Except that his motions were so exaggerated that he might as well have yelled to the cops that he was THROWING AWAY DRUGS NOW. And that he missed the grate by a good five feet. The teenage girls standing next to me even started mocking him, "Ooooh, you are smoooooth ". Even the cops were laughing.

The guy in the store, was so out of it that he actually tried to get one last free sample as he was getting chased out. When he was refused the kombucha, matte energy drink or whatever, he started trying to make a big deal about it. "You won’t serve me because I’m homeless?!?!" Yeah, yeah.

I was curious so eventually I found out what happened. He entered the store and immediately went for the cheese samples, picking up the whole bowl putting half in his mouth and the rest down his shirt for later. When a cheeseworker yelled out to him and went to retrieve the bowl, he fled to the bath and body area where he started washing his hair in the sink. By then security was on him so he headed towards the entrance, dripping bubbles as he walked.

Last week was just as bad when a woman walked in with no pants, no underwear, no nothing except a regular-sized top. She headed to the cosmetics area and started doing her face up using testers. Some guy came in soon afterwards and was yelling at her to leave so she wasn’t really there that long. But the funny part was that the security guard actually saw her come in and did nothing. For reasons having to do with insurance that are beyond the scope of an LJ entry, we have to hire an outside company. When asked why he didn’t do anything the guard replied that last week (during the Dore Alley Fair) there had been a lot of naked people in the store so he thought it was ok.

We had to admit he had a point.
gordonzola: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] spoonfeeding was hanging out, eating cheese, and mocking people as is her wont. Some customer came up next to her and lurked, in that finish-your-social-conversation-and-talk-to-me way. Which was fine. Because I was at work and he wasn’t being obnoxious, just letting his needs be known.

When Spoony F finally took a breath, I asked if he had a question.

"Yes," he said holding up the cheese from our sample table, "Is this the cheese you’re sampling?"

Now this question doesn’t bother me like it bothers [livejournal.com profile] anarqueso or [livejournal.com profile] ilipodscrill. No, it doesn’t make sense that we would put a different cheese on the table, alone with the cheese samples. Yes, there is a sign on the table which says the name of the sample cheese which is marked on every piece of cheese. And yes, the pieces obviously will look similar to the samples since they are the same cheese. But cheese makes some people nervous and just enough times when I was about to (or actually after I already did) answer sarcastically I found they were holding a piece of some other cheese another customer had dumped on the table when they tasted how good the sample was.

"Yes," I replied, It was the Dutch Pradera, a 3 year old gouda.

He looked unsure. "So it’s from Dutchland?"

I knew if I looked at Spoons I would lose it because I was sure she was making a face. "It’s Dutch cheese… from Holland." I said with my eyes on the curious customer.

"So it’s not from the US?"

Did he want Dutch cheese or was he looking to avoid it? Was he a Bircher or a only-buy-local environmentalist? I honestly didn’t know what he was looking for but something about his vibe made me not want to ask. I trusted my decade plus of cheese selling instincts and gave out the minimum. "No."

"It’s imported?" My co-workers were pretending to be engrossed in their work but I knew they were listening to every word and trying not to laugh.


With that he gave me a suspicious look, put the cheese back on the table, and walked away.

I don’t think he was even out of earshot when Spoons said, "You know, sometimes I think you make up these stories…"

For the rest of the day everytime a cheeseworker would bring out a cheese to cut, someone else, usually me, would ask, "Is that from Dutchland?" and we would have to stop working from the laughter.


gordonzola: (Default)

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