On Saturday mornings across America, dedicated snackers have a routine they like to disguise as mere shopping. They pile into big chain stores, weighing down carts with gallons of milk, loaves of bread, lunch meats, and produce for their families. Between selections and reflections upon the scribbled lists they keep pinioned under purses and bags in the baskets of their carts, they pluck a light breakfast of gratis nibbles from the card tables and trays tucked among the store’s aisles and displays. The free samples — cheese cubes with toothpicks, tiny paper cups of soup, chips with dips, and so forth — make shopping for groceries a lot more fun than trolling malls for mattresses, knee braces, and power tools. You know this because — at least from time to time — you’ve done it too.
Yet, while the rampant snacking rarely inspires you to purchase exactly what you’re tasting, it does sufficiently whet the appetite: you’re hungry when you arrive, and the eating of very small amounts doesn’t tide you over, but merely makes you hungrier — and more likely to buy snacks to inhale on the drive or bus-ride home. It’s a bit of a trick, and those without a strategy risk giving more than they get — a prospect as appealing as fossilized melba toast.
As a kid, I eagerly went along on weekend shopping missions with my parents, knowing I’d have to ferry bags of groceries into the house upon our return. Compensation came in the form of foods I didn’t normally get at home. That was enough. I was raised on whole grains and garden vegetables, and Kroger housed a cornucopia of processed, unhealthy delights: breakfast sausage crumbles, ice cream scoops in miniature cones, warm biscuits, and wedges of frozen pizza crisped up in a toaster oven.
When I was young, I liked free samples. Now, as an adult, I truly love them, in no small part because I have to buy my own groceries. When I am out shopping, I aim to eat enough samples to render lunch unnecessary — so I’m tempted to buy less, not more. I suppose munching a little breakfast before leaving the house would serve the same end, but that would be, of course, somewhat less free.
On weekends, you can often stuff yourself at Safeway. Trader Joe’s is also a pretty good bet — when the sample window opens to reveal masala mashed potatoes, green chile taco bites, or some other wretched pre-packaged fantasy convenience food the company has dreamed up. The locally-owned, community-conscious small fry Bi-Rite has snacks too — namely tidy slices of fruit and pieces of fancy cheese with helpful cards revealing origins and suggesting uses and pairings. I like asking — on rare occasion — for a sample sliver of the deli’s meltingly smooth $99 per pound jamon iberico de bellota.
In San Francisco, however, Whole Foods is by far the best destination for handouts. At least that’s what I once thought.
Now, in the minds of many, especially around these parts, Whole Foods is an evil company run by an asshole with unsavory ideas about health-care and unions — not to mention an undedicated relationship with local farmers and producers. When the new Whole Foods opened up in Noe Valley back in late September, protesters demonstrated, unleashed antagonistic blog post diatribes, and stenciled derogatory slogans across the store’s asphalt parking lot.
The arrival of a Whole Foods — even a piddling small one like Noe Valley’s — throws a neighborhood’s shopping patterns entirely out of whack. A Church St. stand-by for over one hundred years, Drewe’s Brothers Meats emerged as a major battleground in the neighborhood ruckus. Within a month of its opening, S.F. Weekly and SFist reported that Whole Foods had decimated the family-owned store’s business. The owners claimed they’d have to close shop by the middle of 2010 if sales didn’t pick up. Detractors, of course, saw blood on Whole Foods’ hands and screamed, whereas naysayers weighed in to bash Drewe’s for lazy customer service and general grumpiness, floating the fairly inoffensive idea that healthy competition serves mom-and-pop operations as well as conglomerates in the long run. Me, I’m a knee-jerk sucker for the locals — like everyone else, I suppose. Whole Foods isn’t a company you want to brag about supporting, yet the convenience of meeting all your organic, grass-fed needs in one fell swoop, on hurried occasions, cannot be denied.
I’m hoping the holiday rush for turkeys, ducks, hams, and geese is giving Drewe’s the restorative jolt it requires. At the same time, Whole Foods can be hard to pass up when the tummy is rumbling like a V8 engine. The expansive stores — exempting small specimens like the one in Noe Valley — permit gluttony without fear of scrutiny by hard-charging managerial types — and the rows of delicious seafood soups, the mountains of cheeses, the olives — well, they’re all just so free.
Or so they once were. On my few 2009 forays under the green-and-white awning, I was reminded of childhood excursions to the grocery store — except Whole Foods’ offerings, however compromising the chain may be in other respects, taste so much better than the samples I relished then. Its pizza is a reasonable approximation of the classic form, not ketchup-caked cardboard. The aforementioned soups — Thai curry with shrimp, crab gumbo, and so on — have a palatable freshness. However, this past weekend, I arrived to survey the terrain, and found it far less fruited than I’d remembered — fairly barren, actually.
At round 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 29th, my girlfriend and I visited the Whole Foods in Potrero Hill. We scooped up flimsy paper cups of coffee and headed for the cheese department. We found nothing unprotected by plastic wrap, just a faint parmesan-y whiff wafting through the air. We turned to the olive bar. A sign welcomed samplers, yet no toothpicks were visible. Shit, I thought as we wandered along the deli’s glass expanse: are the sample-bearers taking the holiday weekend off? Nothing — no pizza, no pretzels, no dips. We spied a table decked out with pre-packaged popcorn in fancy flavors like truffle and white cheddar, so we stopped and filled up a few napkins. The bread aisle was dry. Near the dairy case, my accomplice spotted samples of fruit-infused probiotic-heavy kefir yogurt shakes. I stopped and had a peach, which was fine. The seafood soups were there but we saw no little cups with which to slurp up sample sips. A few bowls of apple slices brightened up the produce section, along with segmented clementines. That was it. Our stomachs were now not only rumbling, but whining and gurgling, making awful sounds — like a rodent after an unfortunate encounter with the front wheel of a speeding Volvo. We were in a fearsome pickle, caught between hunger and our original stubborn intent. We dashed down to the SoMa store on 4th St., but the situation there was even worse. Toothpicks flanked the olive bar. We each ate one — me a green Castelvetrano, her a small gherkin — a sad, wrinkled metaphor for our increasing perilous state. As scents from the salad bar and buffet counters gathered around our heads, an odd, overwhelming sensation took hold. I smelled roasted meats, mac-and-cheese, and mashed potatoes. The scents were not separate; they converged and came together — like Power Rangers forming a Megazord — to create one large and powerful one, something indistinct yet gripping. My head started spinning as I glanced at the deli with its wrapped slabs of meat, the glittering slicers, fat sandwiches changing hands, and smiles passing from customer to clerk and back again. My vision was blurry now. Word of our scheme must have somehow spread. We’d been duped. There were no samples here. I had to eat something though — and not just because we needed a receipt in order to validate our parking stub. My accomplice was faring no better. In a burst of energy, we fled, racing through check-out with a block of cheese and some tortillas with which to make a little lunch back at the lair.
It had been a close shave; we’d suffered a few nicks, and my sense of the sample universe had been overturned. While the momentary hunger remained unsated, a cool prickly wave of relief nonetheless crashed down from my head across my torso and arms as we squealed out of the parking garage and hurtled down Howard, towards home. I was thankful. We were lucky to have gotten off so easily. The purchasing could have been worse, much worse. We could have actually gone shopping.