This week, full-time supplements editor and part-time food maven Linda Falkenstein takes us on a tour of those fonts of comestibles - supermarkets. In "Shoppin' Around," our cover story, she tours Madison's mainline grocery purveyors. She does not deal with the ethnic, such as Asian and Latin stores, that have become more numerous recently.
In the 20th century, the concept of the American supermarket became something of a modern marvel - a veritable cornucopia. It displayed a bounty unimaginable in most nations. The rest of the developed world eventually caught up with the phenomenon, but you can still drop the jaw of a foreign visitor by running him through the typical American food store. We, as in so many other things, blithely take it all for granted, in part because our moms have been wheeling us down the aisles since we were toddlers.
I spent my time on the inside of the industry, working as a stock boy in an A&P supermarket during my high school years. I learned some valuable skills there: breaking down boxes, stocking shelves and pushing impossibly long caravans of shopping carts back to the store from the parking lot. I also learned some life lessons from the experience, like watching the produce manager romance his comely female assistant while avoiding the scrutiny of the store manager. A courtly older Southern gentleman, the manager seemed not beyond squeezing a few melons himself.
Times continue to change. A&P, the store brand name of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, was once the largest supermarket chain in the U.S. with over 16,000 stores and $1 billion in annual sales. It was the basis of the great Hartford family fortune. But as things go in the food chain of food chains, it is now more of a regional entity under a number of brand names, including the original, and owned by a German company.
And supermarkets themselves have changed; now they're as likely to sell a variety of prepared foods as they are the basic foodstuffs. We didn't have such things in my day in my store. Good thing. Given the notoriously slim margins that grocery stores operate on, the night stock crew would have eaten that A&P out of business before its time. As it was, there was not much damage we could do pilfering a few grapes and bananas along with the occasional box of dry cereal. But man, could we stack those cans.