Served: A Day at the Grocery Store


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.

20080616-servedbug.jpgWhen I get in, the guys (they're all guys) are processing a medium dog-sized wheel of Jarlsberg. That means someone is slicing the hole-y cheese into neat wedges with a wire, someone else is wrapping the chunks in slick saran, stacking them, weighing them, and labeling them. In a few minutes, a third guy will build a careful Jarlsberg sculpture on the shelves. First in first out, so the old Jarlsbergs will be emptied and reassembled in front of the new one. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Cheese as Far as the Eye Can See

There are some 700 cheeses. They include little wheels of pungent Langres (refer to a cheese as stinky only if a customer does so first) and bigger Langres that must be cut and wrapped. There is Fromager d'Affinois, the ultra-filtered double crème, and their goat and sheep's milk cousins.

There is a laundry list of Brie-ish cheeses: Brie de Meaux, Prince La Fontaine, St Andre, Brillat Savarin. There are little buttons and logs of chevres from many different producers, some plain, some coated in ash or herbs.

There are dozens of goudas. Young goudas, goudas about to celebrate their fifth birthday; goudas of cow, goat, and sheep's milk. We've got a whole aisle of cheddars. We have hard, rich cheeses from Sardinia with layers and layers and layers of flavor.

We have tangy, sheepy, sweet-tart wheels from Portugal. We have salty, mild cheeses from Greece and salty, strong cheeses from Bulgaria. The fresh Mexican cheeses. The Pyrenees cheeses. The gruyeres, the comptes, and their relatives. Sweet ricotta and savory ricotta. Let's not even get started on the kosher section.

There are the crazy cheeses with dried fruits and nuts and flavors up the wazoo. Stilton with ginger and mango, wensleydale with cranberries, havarti with caraway, all sorts of truffle cheeses, cheddar flavored like buffalo wings. Also: toffee cheese! Really? Really.

We've also got artisanal cream cheeses, creme fraiche, butters from around the world, and cheese curds from upstate New York.

Then there are the non-cheese things we sell. Pates and foie gras. Australian fire-roasted tomatoes, orange zest-infused slices of membrillo, and halvah.

Day in the Life

The routine is as follows: pack and process cheese, help customers decipher between Sbrinz and Tomme du Jura, find out for a distressed mom where we have sauerkraut ("but not in bags!!"), weigh out precisely 1.2 pounds of pot cheese for an ancient lady with a big smile, field calls from cheese wholesalers, nibble on caramelly Piave, dole out samples of Etorki, joke with guys at the deli counter next door.

The newest training cheese employee will cut his finger slicing a chunk of farmers' cheese for another old lady. We see a lot of old ladies. He will bleed through his latex gloves and be rushed to the ER.

The lady will start to holler. After all is sanitized and a new block of farmers' cheese procured, she will instruct me on how to package her purchase. She wants the plastic wrapper removed and the cheese repackaged in paper, then the cheese-wrapped paper placed in a quart container. Then she wants the quart container wrapped in plastic!! She will walk me through the process and wonder how our trainee's poor bloody finger is, and remind me to wrap the plastic very securely. I will tell her, "Have a wonderful day!"

Twenty minutes later, a cashier will return the deserted farmers' cheese, all painstakingly and strangely wrapped up. I will turn to my coworker and say, "Really? She made me do all this and didn't even take it?" How cruel.

And Ben will laugh and say, "I'm sure we can convince another old lady that this is the best way in the world to store farmers' cheese."

"No!" I urge him, "Don't do it! We'll create another monster!"

People will wander by and inquire about samples. We'll sliver them a bite of Drunken Goat if we have it out. If not we'll ask, "what do you want to try?"

A lady will want the stinkiest cheese we have and be disappointed by Stinking Bishop and Grayson alike. A French kid no older than ten will tell me we don't have the best brand of Roquefort, and that this is a tragedy. An Israeli couple will seek my advice on the best stuff with which to fill up burekas, a young father will ask for help cheering up his cheese-loving daughter who just sprained her ankle playing soccer.

A designer-clad woman will tell me, "hello, don't you remember me?" and I will tell her, "I remember you, but I don't remember what cheese you like." She will shoot me a look of ire.

A big cheese delivery will come right as the early evening rush gets really crazy. We will throw the boxes of cheese across the store, nearly missing heads and shopping carts. Nobody will get hurt. Now there are boxes everywhere, wheels of cheese stacked up, and we are fielding questions and selling taleggio and wrapping cheese like nobody's business. We are on fire.

I will sell a $110 wheel of manchego to a Japanese businessman. A man will taste seven cheeses before deciding on nothing. A woman will whip out her notebook, fire cheese questions, and start scribbling notes. I will leave tired and smelling cheesy and feeling good. Another day at the grocery store.