Retailers

Q&A: 'The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket'

Author Benjamin Lorr casts a penetrating eye on Trader Joe's, seafood certification and the changing role of food
The Secret Life of Groceries
Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Lorr

Benjamin Lorr’s new book, "The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket"(Penguin Random House), casts a penetrating eye on the industry through stories of people impacted by and influencing today’s roaring food economy. In it, we get inside the mind of Trader Joe’s founder, experience the desperate thrills of a determined food entrepreneur, clean the seafood counter at a Whole Foods store, and hear a few harrowing stories from the road, including an unforgettable account of an independent trucker hauling whipped cream to an Aldi warehouse and a one-handed Burmese fisherman aboard a shrimp boat in the Andaman Sea. It’s a tale that executives in the industry may find difficult to confront but won’t likely be unmoved by. The following interview with the author was excerpted from a conversation Nov. 18 and edited lightly for clarity.

benjamin lorr
Benjamin Lorr photograph by Lucy Walters

Jon Springer: Let me start by congratulating you on a tremendous book. It is really well-written. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s dark. Can you talk a little bit about how this idea came to be?

Benjamin Lorr: I guess there’s two entry points. I’ve just always been fascinated by grocery stores. I think they are phenomenal. It’s almost a hallucinogenic experience walking into them. The almost surreal, vivid colors, the amount of choice and abundance. And I think I was just fascinated by scratching the surface on that. That was the big-picture motivation.

My last book was on bikram yoga. I was with these people doing lots and lots of yoga training, and then one day they’d let us out to go get groceries. And we went to a Trader Joe’s. The yogis were so excited about the prospect of going to Trader Joe’s, it felt like kids at an amusement park. And that was the moment that I just was like, "OK, there’s something going on here." I’d never seen people get this excited about the concept of a brand, and that kind of unlocked it for me. I said, "This is something I want to write about." There seemed like there was some connection between the farm world and this cult of yoga and the food world, and how food has shifted in terms of meaning in our lives to being a kind of personal signifier.

The industry is fascinating to me for some of the same reasons you mentioned. I must say though I’ve covered this industry for about 20 years, and I still don’t have the access to tell the stories as deeply as I’d like. To what extent was your experience the same, and were there stories that you might have liked to have told, but simply could not, because of access issues?

Actually, there’s a part of the book that got cut, in the very late stages, about that. I had a vignette that showed that while bad things are hidden in the grocery industry, good things are hidden too, because it’s such a press-shy industry.

I was at a seafood conference, and I sat down at a table with the head of sustainability at a big retailer and some other grocers, and they were talking about how difficult sustainability was, like whether or not putting indicators of visibility in the supply chain [on packages] would affect things like prices and whether that would lead to displacement. You could tell there was this incredible urgency to do this, but they were weighing how these changes could affect things.

It was this incredibly sophisticated conversation that was completely motivated by good intentions on the part of how to fix things. And then at one point, they looked up at me and they were like, "I hope no one’s sitting at this table is from the press." I was like, "Oh, I’m from the press." And they just got up and left. It was like the most amazing thing because here I’m thinking, "Oh, this is a story I want to feature because it just shows how there’s really good actors on all sides." This isn’t some greedy industry motivated by heartless profit-making. But they were so threatened by my presence they just left!

I would talk to people in QA (quality assurance) and it was like the sixth level of the temple of secrets, you know? It was just so hard to get them to open about the things that I know that they were working so hard on. And when you talk to the NGOs (non-government organizations) on the other side, they would have great sympathy for these people. They were never demonized. That was very much about the frustration and the kind of idiosyncrasy of this particular industry, that I attributed in the book to the being burned by insensitive press so often.

I’ve been in that situation more than once myself. You mentioned quality assurance in seafood. One of the interesting points you bring up in your book is that it’s so problematic. Can you explain a little bit about your perspective on that?

My perspective on the audit regime and certification is that it’s a very frustrating thing. I searched for what I considered better models and solutions, and I didn’t find tremendously good ones out there. I think people are just incentivized in awkward and counterproductive ways in the current audit system, starting from the fact that manufacturers have to pay for these audits themselves, and that it’s a competitive marketplace in which you can shop for auditors. And therefore, [auditors] are kind of both selling themselves on being the most rigid, thorough, and exemplary in audit, at the same time as being something that is friendly to the manufacturer. In addition, there’s just fundamental problems with audits as a mechanism of quality control. It’s a snapshot, as opposed to something that gives you kind of more detailed look at the supply chain.

There certainly have been great reforms in food safety in conjunction with audits and big tort judgments, but … it’s just a snapshot approach. Somebody showing up at a factory one day might not look for wages withheld from people six months before, and who don’t speak the language, and are feeling threatened. It’s just not going to get you very far. And so why does this unsatisfactory system exist? The conclusion I come to in the book is that it does serve the interests of consumers—we can feel better about what we buy—and it serves the interest of the store, because it indemnifies them. And it serves the interest of the manufacturer. It just doesn’t actually serve the hidden stakeholders of the planet/people that it’s portending to protect.

I really enjoyed getting to know Joe Coulombe of Trader Joe’s. One of the things that opened my eyes was you relayed that he refers to the sale to Aldi as an "amputation." Wow! Do you get a sense of why there are so few visionaries in this industry? Or maybe there are, and Joe just happened to be one that succeeded?

That’s a good question. So I think that the quick, pithy answer is that Joe is a fantastic human being. I did get the impression that he was something of an exceptional mind, and that he has a work ethic and kind of a quirkiness to him. One of the first things he asked me about myself was whether I was left-handed—I think that’s in the book—and he goes on to say the most important thing to know about a person is whether they’re right- or left-handed because left-handed people are slightly dyslexic and see the world slightly differently, and sometimes that’s profitable. And he was left-handed. Whether that is true or not, I think it speaks to his comfort with like nonorthodox thinking, and his ability to think out of the box paired with a brain that was absolutely a sponge for information with incredible recall. That’s just a rare combination.

I have to say that if he had gone into just about any field, I wouldn’t be surprised that he would have done well. But I think nonorthodox thinking was particularly important in the grocery industry where, especially at that time, everyone was playing the same game. And there was a comfort level in that game because it was a very stable industry at that point. People didn’t see the disruptions that were coming, and there was no incentive to disrupt the balance.

I do think that there were probably a lot of other Joe Coulombe-like visionaries out there who didn’t get their act together in quite the same way, or despite their visionary tendencies got crushed by consolidation, and then found themselves at home in a much larger organization without being at the helm.

Your book puts us in the in the passenger seat of a tractor-trailer traveling overnight to an Aldi warehouse. One of the things we’re writing a lot about now is automation, whether that’s in warehouses or things like self-driving delivery trucks. And that almost seems like a great idea after reading that.

It’s a tricky thing. One of the things I learned writing this book was just how massive trucking is. It’s the No. 1 employer of people in the majority of states. And as miserable as these many of these jobs are, the displacement of [autonomous] trucks will be an earthquake to the number of jobs that are lost.

To me, the great message of that section was just how it vividly portrayed an abstract policy, like deregulation, into the life of somebody. So often, we hear about these terms—this industry got deregulated, we’ve increased competition to benefit consumers—and they’re just abstract concepts. There’s no doubt that deregulation has gotten us cheaper freight, and there’s no doubt that cheaper freight trickled into lower prices. The flip side of that is this woman’s life, and the fact that she is making poverty wages despite working 70 hours a week in a job that is uncomfortable at best.

Whether robotic trucks are good or not is one of those questions that just makes my brain explode because it seems like there’s no right answer in our current economic framework. And I don’t say that as a flaming leftist looking to blow everything up, but if the No. 1 profession in a majority of states gets automated, it seems like a really terrible thing, but at the same time those jobs currently are essentially treating humans like automatons. The status quo is nothing to be defended. Like many aspects of this book, I didn’t walk away with a winning solution that I’d want to take to legislators, but rather a kind of appreciation for how much work is going in to create the system that we benefit from.

Another thing that you describe in the book that I can relate to is walking onto a trade show floor like Expo West with 10 billion products and all these food entrepreneurs, and thinking, how many of these new products are ultimately going to fail? Though, you talk to an entrepreneur who actually makes a little bit of a success. It’s a "Slawesome" story, if you will.

She was an incredibly intelligent, hardworking person, and frankly, I didn’t know whether she was going to succeed or fail until pretty late in the game. And I think with COVID, it’s actually an open question with decreased demand for specialty items, people crawling back to comfort foods, and they don’t necessarily want discovery at a grocery store—they want to get in and get out and get big quantities of things. So I think for someone like Julie, it’s been tough.

What I think it goes to is the idea that food is now so much more than food: It’s this representation of the self. We’ve managed to use it as a signifier for so many virtues, whether that’s obvious ones like health or indulgence, but also ancestry and connection to kin and family, or the fact that you’re just a unique person out in the world, and you require your own special unique thing. And in many ways I feel like all those entrepreneurs are the embodiment of all our desires out there. It may be a cliche point, but it was pretty impressive to walk into the Expo West food show halls and see it’s actually embodied in human beings, this kind of madness.

My work goes out to professionals in the industry. What would you hope that a CEO of a big grocery company who reads your book takes away? Have you gotten any reaction from people in the industry who’ve read the book, and what have they told you?

I’ve gotten a lot of emails, actually. I was very nervous putting it out because I’m acutely aware that I’m a writer, not an expert. But I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people in the industry, who just said things like, "You nailed it," and, "I’d like to thank you for putting this out there." Which was pretty important psychologically, given the level of secrecy we discussed.

In terms of a message to people on the inside, I think one of the big messages in the book, for everyone, is to look all of these ways that our own incentives don’t align with a just, dignified society, and the way that we can all be operating in ways that make sense for ourselves, but produce pretty terrible ends. And I think I tried to paint that in a very vivid picture, so you couldn’t look away. You couldn’t abstract that into a concept. You had to deal with the person on the other end of it.

So I think I would just hope that people in the industry can take that perspective. It doesn’t mean overhauling the way they work, but it does mean understanding the material consequences and the follow-through for the ways that they’re kind of looking out for their own neck, and what effects that has on other people.

It wasn’t a very prescriptive book, and I didn’t want it to be a prescriptive book because I didn’t feel like I had the prescriptions to offer. I also feel the grocery industry has a lot to be proud of. It is a dark miracle. That’s the subtitle for the book for a big reason: What they’re offering is something that has never been seen before in the human project, right? If you showed a caveman a grocery store, they would lose their minds.

I think better conceptualizing the audacity of that may help people in the industry realize that it’s not completely necessary. Joe Coulombe’s idea that continuous goods weren’t necessarily the only way that consumers could conceptualize a grocery store, and his comfort with stock-outs and discontinuity, and individual messaging to customers about products. Those were OK. And dealing with lower volume is okay. We’re not going to collapse just because we’re not creating the greatest miracle of all time. In fact, if you’re like, Joe, you may even create something that flourishes on a more human scale. So I think spreading that message would also be something that I would hope people can take away from the book.

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