What’s Happened to my Grocery Stores?

Rating 4.00 out of 5

Original: May, 1999

Betty and I must really be getting old and cantankerous. For the past year or so we have noticed a serious decline in the quality of food being sold at our favorite grocery store.

groceryI’m going to name the stores that we have tried to shop in because ours are probably exactly like the same ones you shop in. Since 1981, we have shopped at a store named Randall’s Flagship. This is one of those fancy, locally owned Houston store chains where they have a bakery and deli and all sorts of amenities that appeal to many people. I always liked the store because they always had very fresh meat products that carried the USDA “heavy beef choice” label. Besides, the store always smelled nice and was spic and span. I’m a meat-eater and it is difficult for me to sit down at a meal that is prepared for vegetarians – although, I also enjoy fresh vegetables with every meal.

Last year we heard the news that the Randalls chain of stores in Houston was being sold to the Safeway conglomerate but they were not going to change the name. I don’t blame them – Safeway stores in Houston were closed long ago due to their crummy operation and lousy foodstuffs. Well, it should be no surprise that Randalls is rapidly going down the same proverbial tube that killed off the old Safeway chain. Slowly but surely the shelves of can goods are now sporting the Safeway brand (what ever happened to Del Monte and some of the more well known brand names?). Of course, Safeway buys their cheap can goods from some slop farm in Pookeepsie and it neither tastes as good nor is probably as healthy as the more well known brands that Randalls used to carry. The quality of meat isn’t fit for my doggie pal Rascal and I’ve recently had to throw out $25 sirloins because you couldn’t cut them with a hacksaw. Occasionally, the store will get some good produce if it is in “season” but for the most part their tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and celery look as if they were plowed out of a field in Lower Slabovia and hauled to Houston aboard an oil tanker that leaked. Much of it looks, feels and tastes like wax.

Since Randalls is obviously no longer the same quality store that we used for 2 decades, we agreed to try some other stores in our area trying to find one that we liked and which still had quality food. We have a Krogers, an HEB Pantry Foods, a Fiesta and an Albertsons, all within 3 miles of our house. The first week we tried Krogers – a beautiful new store that “tries” to attract affluent shoppers. There is no question that the physical store is very pretty and inviting, well maintained and sanitary. But, here again, the store stocks their shelves with 3rd-class, Kroger brand foodstuffs. I’m sure that they get their supplies from the same Pookeepsie farms as Safeway and each just glues their own label on the cans. When they do carry name brands, they might have 4 cans shoved to the back of the shelf – so as not to be visible without really looking deep into the bowels of the shelves. And, the store always charges MSRP for the name brands. This discourages us from buying them and instead selecting the “store brand” which is half the price but far inferior. We found that their meat was just as horrible as what we were now getting at Randalls but their produce did look and taste a lot better. For a while, we kept buying our meat at Randalls and
everything else we would buy at Krogers. Obviously, this meant driving to and shopping at two different stores. I don’t know where you live, but in Houston, that isn’t a fun experience. Wondering if we could score at a single store we tried Albertsons – another beautiful physical plant – but still stocked with Pookeepsie green beans – just sporting another store brand label. And, their meat is absolutely horrible. Even their hamburger meat disappears when it is cooked – turning into a fatty, oil residue that could keep a 1947 Dodge running like new.

As a last resort yesterday, Betty drove a little further to a Fiesta grocery store. They advertise heavily in our area that they have the greatest selection of vegetables anywhere in Houston and that is probably true. Unfortunately, the quality sucks. They cater to the Mexican population and have some of the strangest produce that can be found anywhere – thinks like stunted leeks, poi and maize. Well, she came home with what they called Red Delicious apples (currently in season) but they were no bigger than a plum. The Deliciousbreed of apples that I once locked my jaws around were huge, firm and deeply red, juicy apples from the Pacific Northwest. I always looked forward to the autumn months when these apples would hit the stores but we can’t find them at Fiesta – the so-called produce capital of Houston. Betty bought us two T-bones that I plan to charcoal this afternoon. Something tells me that Rascal won’t even chew on the bone when were done. She paid over $25 for the two steaks and had the butcher cut them special for her. Of course, Fiesta also shelves their own brand name can goods – which also probably come from our famous Pookeepsie farms.

I don’t know what has caused the decline of my grocery stores but they have all fallen into the same marketing trap. It seems as if they can make greater profits by packaging and selling their own brand of can goods and other products like soap and toilet paper. It doesn’t matter that the quality of what’s in the packages is rotten. For example, I compared a can of Safeway corn to a can from Del Monte and you can actually see the size difference in the individual kernels of corn – one looks stunted. I can also tell a definite color difference – one a healthy yellow and the other somewhere between white and gray with splotches of yellow. I guess that when Del Monte makes up a batch of corn they will sell off the batches that do not meet their quality specifications. The same probably goes for green beans and even pickles. The Pookeepsie farms buy up what the major manufacturers would throw away and glue new labels on them – selling them to these idiots who think they know how to run grocery stores. It must all have to do with profits – darn the customer satisfaction.

Well, Betty and I are facing a dilemma. Where will we shop? Must we drive to 2 or even 3 or 4 different grocery stores in order to get the quality of food that we deserve? One sells good produce, another sells edible meat and still another sells name brand paper products. And, the prices vary all over the place. One store sells corn cheaply, one sells charcoal cheaper, one sells a better ice cream and almost none of them sell really good beef. What’s a person to do? In these times of prosperity it would seem to me that people would want quality from every product that they buy. Why do people crowd the same horrible stores week after week? Do people really shop at several different stores in order to get the best that each store provides? I doubt it. It is probably that people begin to accept mediocrity and won’t come down hard on the family grocery shopper – usually Mom. Or, they don’t care for exceptional quality – maybe having never tasted it.

There is another store chain in Houston named Rice Epicurean and for about 9 months they had a store in our area. Since we live in a reasonably nice part of town, we thought that the store would really succeed. They carried very fancy products that cost a lot more than regular stuff, and they were located directly across the street from the Randalls’ store that we used. The one time I went into the Rice store I could never find common items like pork and beans or Morton’s salt. Instead they had some can of LE PORK ‘N BEANS canned in the southern part of France and which cost $3.50 per can and the only salt they carried was IMPORTED SEA SALT from South Africa. Of course, Rice folded within 6 months. What is so difficult about managing a grocery store and earning a profit?

The only store still using paper bags anymore is Randalls and they stopped using them until their customers almost revolted. Heck no, all of the stores now use those horrible little plastic bags and when we get home we need to make 50 trips to the trunk of the car just to get our groceries into the house. But, I would like to personally slug the idiot in the nose that came up with such a stupid arrangement for getting groceries home. Even when we do what we consider a small shopping trip we end up filling a grocery cart way up to the top. When you have to put all of those items into little, teeny plastic bags to get them home it doesn’t make sense. At least a nice paper bag will hold 2 or 3 times what one of the little bags will hold and it reduces the number of unloading trips we have to make to get ‘em in the house. And, I don’t give a hoot about the GREEN issue when it comes to my toilet paper or my grocery sacks. I want the best.

I once had a friend in the grocery business and he always said that the profits earned by his stores were usually very small. He said he was lucky to earn a 19% profit (overall) at the end of the year. He said that each item sold only had a very small profit built into it but that the quantity made up the difference. He told me that this was typical in the business and no matter who sold the groceries, that the profits were essentially the same. But, since his stores did a huge total volume the profits were actually quite healthy even if they were less than other types of business. It used to be that insurance companies operated on a 22% profit margin and if they could keep their loss ratios down so that they could operate at this level, all was well with the world. The reason – insurance companies relied on huge amounts of cash flow. A 22% profit to an insurance company was far healthier than a widget maker who only sells 10 widgets at a 400% profit per widget. Grocery stores are now micro managing every jot and tittle in order to squeeze another decimal point of profit out of the kitty. Instead of selling a quality bean product they either try to sell one from France (which costs like the dickens but tastes great) or they sell one from Pookeepsie farms which costs far less and also tastes like it was cooked and canned in swamp water. I don’t understand why they don’t sell the NORMAL brands that we have become used to – a typically averaged priced brand that everyone should/could/did enjoy.

It doesn’t stop with beans and corn. Today, the average grocery store also sells prescription drugs and, of course, their own brand of Pookeepsie Vitamins. Who really knows where they get their pills or tonics. They probably come from an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma where the federal government cannot intrude into the Indian’s QUALITY formula. Their One-A-Day rip off (packaged to look identical to the real thing) is probably made from bat wings and human puss. Who knows? They are not subject to FDA approval or even inspection. It is the same with all of the so-called alternative medicines being sold in America. If all of our consumables go the same way as our groceries, it is likely that before long we will all be living on throngs of bacteria sealed into the cans and bottles we purchase. Just once, I would like to go into a FIRST RATE grocery store once again – a place where I can find all of the name brand products that I have enjoyed for a lifetime. I’m tired of shuffling through the shelves looking for Del Monte green beans and Campbell’s Pork ‘n Beans which are covered up by the Pookeepsie, no name, brands. I’m tired of throwing out meat that couldn’t be chewed by JAWS. I’m tired of looking at dwarf Delicious apples and lemons that look like cow buggars. It is ridiculous, in this day of prosperity, that we must endure unrighteous marketing decisions. If I am prepared to pay the price that it takes to get quality foodstuffs, then why is it so difficult to find somebody who will sell it to me?

The greed to make higher and higher profits seems to be permeating American business – not unlike the greed that overtook Wall Street in the early part of the 20th century. It wasn’t enough that John D. Rockefeller owned Standard Oil and became the richest man in America. He also wanted to own absolutely all of the oil pumped and sold in the world and to become the world’s richest individual. Who knows why he was so inclined – unless it was pure greed. Many times these types of people yearn for the POWER that can be gained from their business deals; they probably couldn’t spend all of their money in ten lifetimes. But, Rockefeller couldn’t water-down his oil and make more profits or I’m sure he would have tried. Grocery stores have learned that they CAN water-down their products and increase their profits. All they need to do is put inferior products on their shelves and in their refrigerators and people will still buy it – no matter how crummy it is. I just don’t understand that rationale. When I used to travel to the Texas-Mexican border towns I would see the food vendors operating from the little wagons and street stands. All you needed to do was follow the flies if you wanted to locate food. The locals didn’t seem to mind that the food they put in their mouths was covered in fly poop. This was normal for them and the bugs in their guts ate the germs and kept them from getting diarrhea. If you or I had eaten the junk, we would have suffered days of the TOURISTA and the back-door trots would have made us as sick as dogs. Ultimately, I’m convinced, the lousy foods that we are consuming will have some sort of impact on our bodies as well and without sounding crazy, we might also get to the point where very, very good foods will no longer be tolerable to us. Who knows, we might eat a real good Delicious apple someday and it will give us the trots.

I suppose that this observation is not too important to many of us because we seem to continue to shop at these stores who’s managers are taking away quality, one can at a time. I was shocked to see some potato chips that were made and shipped from Honduras. I don’t know about you, but Frito-Lay makes a pretty darn good chip and it only cost 18 cents more than the Sandanista brand for the same sized bag. Do people really count their pennies that closely? It seems unlikely that the quality of each of these brands is the same – or even close. I used to work near to the Maui-Wowie potato chip factory in Lahaina Maui, Hawaii before it burned down to the ground. I was very interested in how they cut and deep-fried the potatoes so I walked through their plant one day. The entire warehouse-sized plant was filled to the brim with pallets of potatoes – some rotting in the sun on the parking lot – gazillions of them. We all complained of the strong, rotten odor that all of these potatoes caused so the factory started running 3 shifts in order to cook them all as quickly as possible. No fooling, they dumped rotten potatoes in with good ones and cooked it all – nothing was wasted – even the potato skins. I’m surprised that they didn’t throw in the burlap sacks that were used to ship the potatoes in. The chips were actually pretty good tasting but I wouldn’t eat another one after I saw what they threw into the huge vat of cooking oil and passed off as edible. Standing there in Randalls looking at the chip shelf, I could just imagine what came in the Honduras chips. They probably didn’t charge extra for the germs and goobers that clouded their cooking oil and crawled around in their packing plant. WAY YUK.

I sincerely hope that things don’t deteriorate any further but I’m inclined to think that they will. As long as consumers don’t yell at the top of their lungs for grocers to stop this practice and return good old American quality to the shelves, the time may really come when we will want to import our foods from other countries – like Canada. Obviously, huge conglomerates are buying out farmers – we hear about it every day. Farms, long owned by families for generations are being taxed out of existence because of the so-called DEATH TAX. When the only folks growing our food are the same people who own the Pookeepsie farms, we won’t have any choices at all. All of our food will soon be substandard. Last week I went along with Betty to our Randalls’ store and I searched and searched for some Cokes. All I found was some Colas, made – who knows where by who knows whom. There wasn’t a 6-pack of real Cokes anywhere on the entire 25-yard long row of soda pops. I really found that to be interesting. Obviously they do carry Cokes but there sure weren’t any on their shelves at 9 am Saturday morning. Instead, the no-name Colas sporting the Randalls’ label filled the shelves. I guess that they over-ordered and wanted to sell off their brands before calling Coke to replenish their stock. But, it’s not just can goods and colas that are overtaking the name brands. I even saw brooms, soap, cheese, milk, eggs, batteries and mops with their no-name labels. I saw frozen fish dinners (a real rip off if you’ve ever bought any of this goop) with the Randalls’ label. It won’t be much longer when all of their lousy crap will be the only stuff they sell. It really is sad.

I wonder what the major brand manufacturers are trying to do to overcome this invasion of their shelf space. I know that shelf space is highly prized in the retail business. Store managers used to get kickbacks when they would let some product or another get the most beneficial spaces in their stores – you know, like on the ends of isles and at the checkout stands where they can setup their displays and grab impulse buyers. I guess managers now want BMW’s and large screen televisions for the same perks. Well, Betty and I made an executive decision. We’re just going to quit eating.

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