Served

Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

Served: I Get Paid to Write About Cheese (And Other Wonderful Things)!

20080616-servedbug.jpg9 to 5-ers always seemed to me an exotic bunch; a traditional office job, an elusive "normal" endeavor for "normal" people. And here I am, at an office, at a desk.

I don't have my own office yet (even the company's execs share), or even my own little desk space to call home. But that will come in time, or so I'm reassured. One of the bigwigs told me it took several months before he landed a computer of his own. That made me feel better.

One week ago, I was behind the cheese counter in my baseball hat and chef's jacket, selling cheese to a woman concerned she might be allergic to rennet. I explained to her that pretty much all cheese contains rennet, whether from traditional animal intestines, plants (often thistle), or a synthetic imposter. She insisted digging through our gorgeous tower of cheeses to hunt for ingredient information at the bottom of the cheeses. The beauties are mostly imported from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, and are without such stickers. She dug anyway. It was like Jenga. Cheeses and cheese signs were tumbling.

When my focus briefly drifted from the undeterred lady and our toppling display, I noticed one of the big bosses was standing across the cheese counter. He seemed amused by the events of the moment. He just came to say hi, and that there might be a job for me.

Six weeks ago, I had embarked on what I had thought would be six months of grocery store operations bootcamp. That meant six weeks behind the cheese counter, three behind the deli, a few in IT, a few in the butcher shop, etc.

"We would hate to cut your training short," he told me, "But you might need to start sooner rather than later."

The next day, I had a phone call from the Marketing VP. The day after that, I showed up to corporate HQ. I left the baseball hat at home.

Master of Sign Writing

I am still without a job title, but I have a mission, a first project. I will be composing signs for our cool products and making sure the signs and the products get to live together for all the world to see. This seemed at first like a small task. How hard could it be to write an enlightening, witty, pithy tagline for some cheeses and olive oils and tapenades?

Until I saw the spreadsheets. We're talking thousands of products. I got a taste of the enormity of the scope on my third day, when the cheese buyer called me into her office.

"Go through these," she said while handing me a stack of pages of cheese descriptions. "We don't need a novel on the life story of the cheese. Just enough to answer the question: 'Why should I buy this?'"

At first, it was a snap. Of course you should snatch up this superb brand of Camembert. It's from Normandy, the homeland of Camembert, and this one's the real deal—funky, mushroomy, earthy, luscious.

And then I got to Camembert number two, Camembert number three, Camembert number fourteen. The first few were a cinch. Then I got increasingly frustrated. How many times can I use the word earthy? How many times can I use the word silky? And why should anyone buy Camembert number seven, when they could buy numbers ten through twelve?

Camembert is just the start. Some of us like to brag that we are curators of the world's best food museum. We've got laundry lists of deluxe, imported anchovies. Olives you've never heard of. Fruits you've never seen. And they all need signs that say, "You didn't know you needed me in your life, but you do! Oh how you do!"

Writing the signs is step one. I've got to be in constant communication with the buyers, so when they get in this new airy olive oil torta from Seville, I can make sure the customers know how delicious and addictive and life-altering the product is.

There is interface between graphics, to make sure the signs are made and typo-free. Down the road, I will be working with the store managers to make sure the signs are where they should be, and that their products are arranged for maximum visibility. And if they want to move the Long Clawson Stilton to its own pretty little table, it better have a shiny sign telling all the world: "This is good, serious stuff!"

What's Next for Served?

So that's what's next on my professional journey. I will still be dispatching here weekly, but Served will have to morph a bit. If you have any insights or inspiration for my column's direction, please chime in!

About the author: Hannah Howard is a restaurant professional turned grocery girl. She loves pickles, recently returned to New York, and has a new baby blog.

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