Grocery by Michael Ruhlman

One of my friends recently mentioned how supermarkets are great tourist destinations. It’s true. Supermarkets show you how locals live. What do they eat? What’s more expensive and what’s less expensive? How do people pay? Supermarkets are for everyone, so they offer what the average person needs and wants. This revelation, combined with the increasingly large role supermarkets play in my life now that I actually have to procure dinner everyday, prompted me to read about the grocery business. It brought back memories of my year consulting for various grocery chains. Some facts I had known already, some I had never really thought about. This book was about the people who run supermarkets, and it was interesting to look at the shelf from their point of view, versus the assortment tool we built that made data-driven decisions. They go out and befriend suppliers. We crunch sales data and optimize metrics through #machinelearning. In some ways, grocery looks like an industry stuck in the past, but if I walked into a supermarket from 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be able to get half of what I purchase nowadays.

1) Walmart has 26% of the US grocery market.

This is not a TIL, but it’s hard to comprehend. In major cities, it feels like Whole Foods is taking over the world. Walmart is almost 20x. I’d say that the only time I’ve bought groceries at Walmart – in Alaska, it was quite enjoyable.

2) A&P is considered the first American supermarket.

I’d never heard of A&P, the Walmart before Walmart. Few cool facts: advent of the private label to build trust; product shelving revolutionized by tin cans and cardbox; large size increasing purchasing power

3) When the Whole Foods store in Austin was flooded in 1981, customers used their own money to restore it.

Also heard on the How I Built This episode on Whole Foods. The author gives John Mackay a lot of credit for getting farmers to grow organic and says he has singlehandedly changed how America eats. If we’re talking about organic food, then I agree. Organic is almost the default now (biased I know).

4) Haagen Dazs started in Brooklyn and was named to sound Danish.

Mattus was a Polish Jew, and he knew that people in Brooklyn discriminated against a lot of ethnicities, but not the Danes. On an unrelated note: I haven’t had Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream for probably two years, and it’s still the best mass-produced ice cream.

5) Other than COGS and labor, credit card fees are the largest expense for Heinen’s.

Never feel bad churning.

6) Refined grain is basically sugar.

Refined grain means the germ and bran are removed, leaving pure starch. So Frosted Flakes = sugar + sugar. If there’s one thing I’ll take away from this book, it’s to not eat processed food. That’s really hard at 11PM though.

7) Canola oil stands for “Canada” and “ola.”

I have a giant container of canola oil from Costco that I will never finish. I always thought canola was just another plant. It’s not easy to be a smart consumer when companies are either obfuscating facts or overcharging you for your health consciousness.

8) Private label products are made by other companies and marketed as the grocery store’s brand.

How had I assumed that grocery chains actually manufactured private label products themselves? It makes no sense.

9) Iceberg lettuce are called such because they were covered with crushed ice while being transported to the Midwest on trains in the 1920s.

I can’t tell my lettuces apart, probably because I hate them all.

10) Supermarkets have produce available all year long by sourcing from different places throughout the year.

Or, they can source from suppliers who themselves work with farms all over the world. Apparently Driscoll sources from east coast, west coast, Mexico, and even Argentina and Chile. I’m guessing they source locally in the summer. The raspberries at work have been amazing.

After years of dining plan meals and team dinners and mediocre room service, supermarkets are making a comeback in my life. Even with eating out often and ordering Blue Apron, I still get a lot of value out of supermarkets. That’s partly because they’ve evolved. The best example is the take out sushi at Whole Foods, which is actually high quality and very convenient. Or, as this book pointed out, the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. At a normal supermarket, I don’t even bother with the frozen section, but at Trader Joe’s, I only go to the frozen section. Next up: Amazon Go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *