“You have a master’s in design and you work for a grocers?” my mother shrieked in disbelief. Deprived of a college education, she lived vicariously through her children. I was neither the doctor, the engineer nor the lawyer she would have liked to see and I found myself responsible for her shame and humiliation. “anyway, either way (designer/artist or grocer) you’ll die poor”! she said. Thanks Ma, for the vote of confidence !
I worked in design studios for years, until late-night production and demanding clients conflicted with child rearing. As a graphic designer, no salary was hefty enough to pay a caregiver or baby-sitter. After three to four years at home, two babies and a zillion diaper changes later, I had to get out. A job at a small local grocery store allowed me a flexible schedule. I came home for snack, homework (that came a little later), dinner, bath and bedtime stories. I sometimes worked weekends while my husband (also a graphic designer) took over parental duties. The joy of watching my girls change and grow was more rewarding than the career path I chose initially. Furthermore, I purchased all my groceries at a discount and I was often offered delicious samples to take home for my family.
Learning the retail business was new and different—I am all about new and different. I quickly became part of the grocery crowd. Product sourcing, trade-show ordering, purchasing and merchandising fascinated me. It came naturally: armed with a trained eye and a discerning palate, I developed a knack for predicting consumer and market trends. I read everything on the subject of food. I witnessed, firsthand, the growing industry of gourmet and natural products. My love for food was slowly becoming an obsession and materializing into the making of a career. It was also then that I started writing a newsletter for the store (the grandparent to this blog?), complete with stories, recipes and illustrations. (BTW this was pre-internet and SM days).
After the small gourmet grocers, I joined the ranks of Whole Foods Market. I worked for the very first WFM store in the mid-Atlantic region. At the time, it opened under the name of Bread & Circus, the name of a North-East chain that WFM had purchased. WFM was highly suspect. Rumors ran wild: The company was a cult, the store was built on an ancient sight of a native American burial ground. The store seemed jinxed in its first few years. It would be in poor taste to go into detail. But I will say that store leadership brought in Feng Shui specialists who smudged every corner, hung crystals and mirrors from every ceiling, turning the store into a shrine, adding insult to injury by fueling those budding suspicions and turning them into a solidly notorious reputation.
My rebellious soul enjoyed being part of this “cultish” company that believed in being humane to animals and kind to the environment. A progressive form of management allowed each team member to be involved in the decision making process on their teams and to bend over backwards for each and every customer. This was not the union-led grocery business that this region was accustomed to. Any team member could be rewarded monthly for customer service excellence. We could be nominated “rising stars” if we lived up to expectations. After all, team member happiness was part of the company’s core values. I was starry eyed and converted. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago.
The love affair eventually got old. The company grew too fast too soon. Profits took precedent, core values were taking a hit while team members scurried around trying to work harder and harder. We hung in there, diligently trying to keep it real and keep smiling. The growing pains forced WFM to lay off 1500 employees in one fell swoop last October. I was one of them.
Although I still have to work, I’ve chosen to stay away from retail. I want my week-ends back. I want to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be stories to tell eventually. But like with PTSD, memory is selective and I prefer not to dig up the most painful. I’m just grateful to have survived the trenches: Fifteen years of missing family-time during the Holidays, while keeping customers from falling apart and trying to stay cool and level-headed among the chaos, the insanity and the hysteria of holiday shopping.
What can I say, Ma? I simply got sucked into it: jumped on that treadmill and didn’t get off until they kicked me off. But I can breath now and I will figure out something and keep on going. That’s what I do. I’ve grown a little cynical and a tad blasé. But I can mine my memory-bank for anecdotes and stories to tell, some delightful and some disturbing. I may be penniless but I have amassed a wealth of knowledge, resources and inspiration. I will also cherish the many amazing encounters, relationships and friendships that I have developed with some of the most unique and wonderful people, customers and colleagues alike.
Another story for another day.