As we conceived of this grocery-themed issue, our minds naturally went to the tech-laden big-box stores. But then we remembered how grocery began: the small, independent mom-and-pop shop. Here’s a selection of our followers’ favorite small groceries — some stores are thriving, while others are shuttered, perhaps depending on economic realities of the communities they serve.
As i was leaving for the Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle in October, my toaster broke. The ashen heating elements failed to flicker for one last slice of bread. In fact, all toasters — those kitchen staples since 1893 — may be on the way out.
Based on what I saw at the Summit, toasters — and practically all other kitchen appliances — are about to be unfamiliar in every way. Manufacturers promised that my appliances will recognize my face and voice to know my food preferences and biomedical data to produce the most perfect toast the world has ever tasted. And it won’t be a toaster, but a device that may toast, boil, sous-vide, fry or braise. Transforming ingredients into meals will be the goal of our new Smart Kitchen.
Imagine this: Your kitchen in 2030 will use voice activation to operate the handful of kitchen tools and appliances that remain after designers remove wires, Instapots, trash cans and microwaves. Your kitchen will be smaller and wireless, maybe even portable. Croatian startup Dizzconcept makes portable, pop-up kitchens that fit into any space. Perhaps our new homes will come without kitchens, and we’ll simply select these movable, modular, personal kitchens to drop into our new spaces.
Countertops will be charging surfaces for your devices. Screens will be voice activated (so you don’t have to touch a screen with fingers sticky from the syrup dispenser). These new surfaces will show what’s in your refrigerator and pantry, with data about the shelf life of all perishables. Your fridge will sense when you need to buy more milk — and will order it for delivery when your house knows you will be home. Garbi, another startup, is working on a trash can that recognizes what you discard, sorts it for recycling and reorders items.
Recipes will be personalized. No more single recipes from that book on the shelf, printed on paper, that may be good for someone but not you, with your recent calcium deficiencies and preference for mild flavors. Your kitchen will know what’s in your pantry and will design what to cook based on its knowledge about your health and preferences. Big Data for food has arrived.
Where does that leave grocery stores and restaurants? Many will be left out of this new food landscape, while others will get smaller and prepare food for delivery services. Still others will become experience centers, with more grocerants (restaurants in grocery stores) where you select your ingredients and the grocery store chef cooks it for you to eat in the store. Grocery stores, themselves smarter because of all the customer data they now own, will be fulfillment centers, some modeled after Amazon, and many integrated into Amazon’s platform.
Because your kitchen will be so smart, it will become a commerce center. You will shop from home, with tools such as augmented and virtual reality that give the sensation of being at the store. You will smell and touch what you buy, without the headache of parking or standing in a checkout line.
Perhaps these new kitchens will be maker spaces, educational centers that will teach us how to cook, what to cook and inspire us to tell stories around our food making. We’ll be content makers for a new media — food — a far cry from the static food photos we post on Instagram. We’ll stream our cooking experiences in our kitchens.
And who really likes to peel potatoes or chop onions? Food printers now produce fresh food from organic ingredients, freeze-dried and pulverized. The Last Mile is now no mile at all.
Kitchens, grocery stores and restaurants will be hubs for innovation. The engineers and designers at Bosch, GE, Kenmore and Siemens are fiddling with a whole new world in our former kitchens. Appliance makers have become hardware and software companies. Grocery stores and restaurants will fill new roles as they adapt to these new “platforms,” as our kitchen counters and frying pans will come to be known.
We might miss the joy of cooking. Or the satisfaction of making. Or the delight of creativity and the unexpected. Where along the road of automation will we pause? As our kitchens change into service centers that defrost and heat food delivered to our home, will we yearn for the temperamental toaster?
Dody and Steve Hiller are “mom and pop” of a small grocery store in Rockland, Maine, a fishing village turned tourist town. Fishermen still live and work there, but a few decades ago the town looked toward its art community for income and began shedding its image as a working waterfront.
South End Grocery has endured these changes, competing with modern mega-markets and maintaining a close connection with its community. The store thrives in a city whose 7,000 year-round residents have an annual median income of just $30,000, despite its new persona as an arty destination.
On a steamy summer day, customers form a long line at the lone cash register. The Hillers’ store is the third-largest grocery store in Rockland behind Shaw’s and Hannaford’s, two big supermarket chains. Despite its competitors’ being so large, South End seems to carry much of what they do — and more. You can find baseball memorabilia in one case, aisles lined with beer-packed coolers that share space with bananas and a bustling deli at the back of the store.
A bright blue runner leads customers through its single doorway, in which one often finds a community volunteer, raising funds for the animal shelter or a bereaved family that just lost a child to cancer. Sharing their space is one way the Hillers maintain a connection with their customers, about 75 percent of whom are fishermen. When the economy crashed in 2008, the Hillers saw fishermen struggle to make ends meet and decided to address their needs, seeking lower-priced products whenever possible.
Dody runs the deli area, which is responsible for 60 percent of their revenue, preparing meatball sandwiches and breakfast sausages. Son Shawn manages the bookkeeping and tech side of the business and boasts an impressive knowledge of local craft beers, which may be the reason South End is the top seller of beer kegs in the region.
Steve is the logistics guy, always calculating how much to order and when, then figuring out where to store it. He’s always on hand to meet vendors and distributors who pull up outside. In fact, if truck drivers roll into town too early to deliver their loads at Shaw’s, they rumble down to South End, where Doty greets them with hot coffee.
When a Walmart store came to the area a few years ago, the Hillers thought their store might be threatened. But their business recovered and carried on as usual, holding steady every year since then. Their biggest fear is the arrival of a Dollar General Store. Chances are, though, it won’t come with its own mom and pop.
He’s standing near the fresh herbs, staring at a forest of tiny green bundles, scratching his head, looking up and down from his phone. I offer some help, and he asks, “Where’s the basil?” After I help him choose a perky bunch, he thanks me and mumbles, “I hate shopping for vegetarians.” He’s wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Instacart logo.
Twenty minutes later I’m back in the produce section, and the man is still staring at herbs, looking defeated. “She wants fresh sage, not dried sage. What is it with these vegetarians?” he grumbles. In his defense, none of the herbs are labeled. I point out the fresh sage and wish him luck.
Those increasingly ubiquitous personal grocery shoppers roaming the aisles at a supermarket near you are paid a per-order bonus in addition to the minimum wage they earn per hour. The more orders they can complete in an hour, the more money they can make. But when they can’t find the right fresh herbs, like the shopper I encountered, their slowed quest results in fewer completed orders that day: in other words, money left on the table.
“If you do enough orders in a day and you’re really fast, you can make a lot of money,” explains a different Instacart shopper nearby.
Personal food shopping services have grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. In Austin alone, six companies offer a range of personal shopping and delivery services at more than 10 stores. Nielsen’s Food Marketing Institute predicts that by 2025, 70 percent of consumers will be purchasing consumer packaged goods online. According to One Click Retail, Amazon already holds 18 percent of all online grocery sales.
That said, grocery shopping can be deeply personal. Customers have habits, preferences and quirks that retailers must accommodate with their third-party hand-picking-produce abilities.
“Ask anyone at HEB if they’ve had to find tahini and they’ll tell you, yes, it’s the hardest thing to find, and everyone wants it.”
As one shopper explains, “The people at Whole Foods are, well, ‘Whole Foodsie,’ ordering $50 jars of honey” and giving picky instructions about their produce. Because of this fastidiousness, online grocers started out offering only consumer packaged goods — pantry items like rice, beverages and breakfast cereals. But lately, most businesses have developed strategies for also offering fresh produce.
Still, online grocery shopping has room to grow. Less than 10 percent of customers in North America buy their fresh groceries online, according to Nielsen. Companies like Instacart have developed technologies that enable customers and shoppers to communicate as the shopper moves through the store. It’s a handy way to reassure customers that they’re getting exactly what they want. But shoppers may find their flow disrupted by picky comments such as, “Can you make sure to get the salmon that’s fourth from the back with the horizontal grill marks?” Or more frustrating: “I’m allergic to that brand.” Customer demands can get extreme, and shoppers feel the need to be polite even as they try to round up everything on their list.
Each company operates slightly differently for shoppers, who tend to stick to one company and one unique store. One exception is Burpy, which operates like the Uber of grocery delivery. Burpy shoppers may fulfill one order with products from a variety of stores. Shoppers are also paid differently depending on the company, ranging from minimum wage with bonuses per order, to flat hourly rates, to tips only. Shoppers generally work flexible schedules, which makes it an attractive second job or a good fit for students.
Regardless of payment criteria, speed matters. Shoppers create efficient strategies for moving through stores. Texas regional grocer HEB even has a digital platform that sorts a customer’s order according to the store’s unique layout, creating a “perfect workflow.” But despite deep store experience and superior technology, some items are still elusive to shoppers.
“Tahini,” one shopper says. “I’ve worked at five HEBs, and every time it’s a wild goose chase. I think it likes to hide itself. Ask anyone at HEB if they’ve had to find tahini and they’ll tell you, yes, it’s the hardest thing to find, and everyone wants it.”
Even when shoppers find everything on the list, customers must still get the groceries home. Because customers see only an itemized list, they often don’t realize how large their order is — an especially risky scenario when it’s for a pickup service or orders from Costco. Sizable orders of bottled beverages pose serious challenges.
“They pull up, and we’re dragging out three carts of groceries, two of which are full of bottled water, and they pull up in a VW Bug,” complains an HEB Curbside shopper. Amazon Fresh shoppers experience the same problem: “People will order 40 boxes of La Croix seltzer, and it’s crazy! You need eight shopping carts and that’s a lot of work.”
Despite the interconnected relationship between shopper and customer, an interesting disconnect remains. Shoppers frequently work in stores in which they do not personally shop, and often shoppers are asked to select items out of their comfort zone, like fresh herbs or fine wine. It begs the question: Can personal shoppers overcome these barriers to make this platform the future bread and butter of grocery shopping?
The plastic grocery bag as we know it today comes from Sweden. Working for a plastics company called Celloplast in 1965, engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin developed a technique for sealing a folded tube of plastic and punching out a hole to create sturdy handles.
The polyethylene bag was waterproof, less likely to tear than paper, cheap to make and light to ship — and so cheap that stores have been giving them away since Day 1. Alas, they are so light that they blow into trees, fences and waterways with ease.
These single-use bags that revolutionized the retail world have now polarized it.
As one of the more visible forms of litter, plastics bags have over the past decade become the target of environmentalists around the world who advocate banning them. Some of the bag bans passed in cities such as Austin have been challenged by lobbyists and lawmakers who argue that plastic bags are more useful than they are harmful to the environment.
Even though bag bans in places like China and California have led customers to reduce all bag use by upwards of 70 percent, critics cite numerous studies that have found that manufacturing and shipping paper bags is two to three times more harmful to the environment than making and moving single-use plastic bags.
For example, a single truck can transport two million plastic bags, but it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags. That works out to five to seven times more cargo weight on both sides of the chain — i.e., coming to stores as new bags and transported in the waste stream — as well as added greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists use what is called a life-cycle assessment to determine the global warming potential and environmental impact of how different kinds of bags are made, transported, used and recycled. The United Kingdom’s Environment Agency compared different kinds of bags for a life-cycle assessment study in 2011 and found that you’d have to use a paper bag four times for it to be more environmentally friendly than a standard single-use plastic bag. And what’s more surprising? A cotton bag would have to be used at least 173 times. In other words, because of the intensive resources used to make and manufacture cotton bags, you’d have to use a cloth reusable bag 173 times to have the same environmental impact as a single-use bag.
But there are other factors to consider in that study: Plastic bags are more toxic in aquatic environments, and they break down into micropieces; however, paper bags require more water, energy and chemicals to produce, which can be toxic to the environment during the manufacturing process.
As is often the case, the solution may not be a simple binary choice between paper or plastic. For example, in some countries with bans, such as Morocco, you’ll find flimsy recycled paper fiber bags that feel like soft fabric and are biodegradable, while Canada is leading efforts to create a recycling stream for existing polyethylene bags.
Even if the bag bans don’t last, the effort to use more sustainable, reusable packaging to move our food will continue. That requires changing consumers’ and retailers’ behavior, no small feat in the grocery business.
A cotton bag requires more resources to make and transport than a plastic bag. So many more, in fact, that you’d have to use it 173 times for it to be more environmentally friendly than a plastic bag. But, plastic bags are much more toxic to aquatic environments.
Few pieces of hardware are as synonymous with a good time as a keg. And while other carbonated fluids are stored in these aluminum or stainless steel tanks, when we hear the word keg, we think of one beverage: beer.
Nationwide, breweries opened at a rate of nearly three per day during 2017 — 997 in total — and each brewery has its own fleet of kegs. Each one of these vessels has a salmon-like lifecycle in which it leaves its homeland full of life and returns home depleted. Unlike a spent salmon, an empty keg can jump back in for another round. But like all too many migrating fish, many kegs never make it home. Of those 997 breweries that opened in 2017, 165 went belly up. For a company that’s barely covering its costs, keg loss can make the difference between a red or green bottom line for the year.
When a keg is filled at a brewery, it is ready to go out into the world and do its job dispensing beer to the people. A distributor facilitates its journey, which may include a retail outlet such as a bar, restaurant or liquor store — the first stop before its destination at a party by the lake or other #goodtimes. If all goes well, and everyone keeps their word, the empty keg will eventually return to its home brewery. If not, and the keg never makes it home, the brewery that owns it foots the bill.
An American-made stainless-steel keg can cost a brewery more than $100, and the average annual keg loss nationwide is about 6 percent, says Tim Cognata, business development director of the beer services company Satellite Logistics Group (SLG). This transformation from stainless steel to statistic ends up costing a lot more than the $30 deposit normally collected when the brewery lets a keg go. For a small brewer, he says, replacement costs for kegs can add up quickly and take a big bite out of the profit margin.
SLG offers a service called KegID, introduced in 2012, which uses scannable barcodes to keep track of a keg’s movements, including timestamps at various stops in the keg cycle and notes about maintenance and contents.
If a keg is not returned, services like KegID provide concrete data for tax-loss purposes. Even though breweries may lose more than 5 percent of its fleet of kegs, Cognata says, most breweries are writing off a mere 1 to 2 percent drop in keg numbers because they don’t have the documentation to prove greater losses. If breweries had tracking data for each keg, they could claim all of those lost vessels without worrying about facing a penalty for overclaiming, in the event of an audit.
The same data that allow a brewery to prove its loss to the IRS can also serve as evidence with which to confront a distributor for losing kegs. Sometimes a retailer collects a larger deposit than the brewery charges the retailer, which can be especially bad for keg recovery. Regardless of the reason a keg is lost, and whether or not it’s found, breweries are happy to be armed with the data KegID provides, says Cognata.
“KegID has an invoice function where you can bill a distributor for the residual value of a keg, minus the deposit,” Cognata explains. “Most distribution contracts state that the distributor is responsible for any lost assets. We provide the concrete data so that conversation can happen: ‘We sent you X number of kegs, and Y came back.’”
Thanks to that hard evidence, Cognata says, when distributors know a brewery partner uses KegID, kegs start coming back.
Other technologies are being deployed toward similar goals. A handful of well-to-do breweries are welding GPS transmitters to their kegs to track their every move — but it’s extremely expensive (think satellite phone versus cell phone). In 2009, New Belgium Brewery began attaching Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) to its 100,000 kegs. RFID is a different way to keep track of information similar to what KegID stores.
“(RFID) lends itself to keeping track of whole pallets of cargo rather than individual kegs,” Cognata says. New Belgium has since moved from RFID to SLG’s tracking technology.
The ability to closely track these mobile assets adds up to big cost savings for brewers. Today, more than 200 breweries use KegID, from well-known national micro brands like Sierra Nevada to well-named niche labels like Moustache Brewing Company.
When the container is worth almost as much as the contents it holds, it pays to keep track.