Grocery by Michael Ruhlman

Anyone interested in where their food comes from, how it gets to the grocery store, and how these stores operate should read Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. To illustrate how grocery chains operate, the author focuses on a family-owned chain with 22 stores operating out of Cleveland. We are presented with a brief history of grocery store/retail food operations and how they must adopt to a rapid change in consumer and product profiles. The chain the author uses as his model appears to be gravitating to the upper-end part of the business. In this fascinating work, Ruhlman provides insight into how chains determine which items to stock. We also learn how such establishments interact with their suppliers and how they entice consumers to shop in their stores through clever marketing campaigns and in-store merchandising.

Grocery is at its best when describing how supermarket chains operate. “Checkout” is the best chapter in the book where the author carefully observes the actions of baggers and then puts what he learned into practice at the end of a checkout lane. He shows us that bagging groceries is not nearly as simple operation as it might seem. Since reading the chapter, I have been watching the baggers of my grocery purchases to grade their performance. Some are much more skilled and attentive than others! Ruhlman also provides an excellent chapter on the logistics of buying, distributing, storing, displaying and moving fresh produce. Grocery chains are accused of “nefarious” practices to push shoppers to buy what they don’t want and need such as using lighting and music to seduce us to overfill our shopping carts and placing high-value items at eye level. For the most part, the author defends the industry from the critics, but he does suggest that grocery stores be held to a higher standard because they sell food, a necessity of life.

The book, however, is at his worst when tearing down the American food supply. Ruhlman stands firmly against processed food except when it suits his needs. He admits to occasionally buying and eating objectionable products when he needs them for convenience or comfort. What he apparently doesn’t seem to realize is that large numbers of susceptible consumers need to buy and eat these products over a long time just so they can be available on the shelves when he wants and needs them. As a chef he disdains anything that is pre-prepared, even though he notes that any grocery chain that wants to remain in business must provide such products even though they are not moneymakers for the stores. The author suggests that gluten-free is a scam for anybody not a celiac. Unfortunately, he again ignores the need for a market of these products by non-celiacs to keep them on the shelves at a reasonable price for those who must legitimately eliminate gluten from their diets. He does not seem to have similar concerns about potentially misleading health associations with such terms as all-natural, non-GMO, and herbal supplements.

Although Ruhlman is against processed foods, he has some clever dodges when he does not want to consider some products as processed. Foods mass produced by large corporations are immediately suspect, but ‘handcrafted’ ones by smaller companies are given a pass. Other foods that he seems to exclude as processed include those that have been fermented or meet the requirements for being organic. Do these products violate one of Michael Pollan’s rules by being made in a plant rather than grown on one? Are products like bottled kimchi and organic tomato sauce in a can processed? Coffee, tea and wellness items appear to be acceptable processed products. Frozen foods come under strong criticism for their lack of flavor and nutrition. He has little respect for conventional nutrition, claiming to know more about the healthiness of foods than conventional nutritionists. He does rely, however, on a “self-taught nutritionist” to supplement his knowledge on the healthiness of foods.

Grocery is very informative, but there are some statements Ruhlman makes that I consider misleading. He states that before passage of the Nutrition and Labeling Act of 1990 we could not tell which ingredients were present in a packaged food. While the act did help standardize the ingredient list, an ingredient statement was required on labels well before 1990. He has a nice description of food deserts, defined by lack of access to a supermarket, but then he then turns around and describes food deserts within a supermarket. Such a comment is not helpful and merely serves to confuse a serious issue about the lack of choice in foods for consumers with low incomes. Finally, he accuses ice-cream manufacturers of selling air in their products. The incorporation of air into ice cream is what gives it the nice creamy sensation when we eat it and is called overrun. The churning of homemade ice cream is done to provide overrun.

There are some thought-provoking statements that merit consideration in the book. Ruhlman believes that anyone who chooses to eat meat should witness a kill operation. I concur. I have seen cattle, hog and chicken slaughtering operations and still eat meat.  He objects to food being called healthy. Food is nutritious or not while people are healthy or not. I like to think of a diet being healthy, but, as indicated earlier in this message, I’m not so sure what he means by “nutritious” food when he does not recognize mainstream nutrition. Finally, the author bemoans the lack of cooking skills we have as Americans making it his mission in life to get more of us back in the kitchen fixing our own meals. I hope to revisit this proposition in future posts.

In reading Grocery, I detected a thread of foodie-elitism throughout the book, probably due to the author’s day job as a chef. For an alternate perspective I suggest The Angry Chef by Anthony Warner, a book that I will be reviewing on this site next year. I recommend reading Grocery to learn more about how grocery stores operate, most of which applies to small, family chains as well as large national ones. On the other hand I suggest taking his criticism of processed foods with a grain of salt, looking carefully at how he classifies products as processed or not processed.

Next week: Why Supermarket Power Matters by guest blogger Shane Hamilton

FYI: I saw an article from Food Business News about how to communicate with consumers without offending the food evangelists. I could not resist the temptation to respond.

9 thoughts on “Grocery by Michael Ruhlman

  1. There is so much cognitive dissonance in the processed/not processed dichotomy. I have yet to hear someone complain about pain au chocolat as too processed. How come? But doritos and hot dogs, well… 😉 Thanks for the review. I’ll have to lobby my local library to get a copy.


  2. I like the name of your website. It caught my attention because everybody in the mainstream seems to be anti processed foods, organic crazed nowadays. Like you mentioned in your article misleading health associations with such terms . Great review .


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