Really, I’m hopeful, because I see more and more people curious about food, and concerned about what they eat and how to feed their family and how to cook. I am optimistic. But it’s going to happen slowly. It happens over the course of a decade. It’ll be really interesting to see what a grocery store looks like in 10 or 15 years. I would imagine that the center of the store will shrink as more and more people buy their commodity purchases online and get them delivered to avoid having to lug it all home.
Pinsker: What other things will you be looking out for at grocery stores in the next five or 10 years?
Ruhlman: Better and better food, higher quality, food that’s better-farmed, fresher. Again, I just see things getting higher and higher quality as we become used to better food. Whole Foods shows that there’s a market for this kind of food—better cheeses, better wines, better beers, better produce, better meat, cleaner fish, all of that.
Pinsker: You also talked about how some grocery stores are building out wine bars, dining areas—social hubs, basically.
Ruhlman: That’s a trend we’re seeing in grocery stores generally, and it’s done by the grocer to get customers into the store. I think it works nicely, because it’s nice to hang around a lot of food and abundance. I think that’s a trend that will continue to grow, and I think it’s a good trend.
Pinsker: Your book focuses on Heinen’s, which is a medium-sized, relatively upscale chain. As you were planning out your reporting, did you approach bigger companies like Safeway or Kroger, or did you deliberately pick Heinen’s?
Ruhlman: I deliberately wanted something small, so it would be manageable, and they were the sort of the perfect size—not so small that it was just one store and unrepresentative of the industry, but not so massive, like Kroger, that I'd get lost in a sea of Krogers. And I wanted something of quality. I didn’t want to hang out at a shitty store. There was also the emotional component of, it was my store, where I’d been shopping. I didn’t know the guys who run Heinen’s before I started doing the book.
Something I didn’t find out until I started researching grocery stores and trying to reach people, is how secretive the whole industry is. It’s very difficult to get these guys to talk. There’s a nice review of the book in Supermarket News by a guy who covers food retail, and he wrote that he was astonished by the amount of access I got, which makes me realize that it wasn’t just me—this industry is very secretive. I think they get nothing but bad press. When there is press at all, it’s negative. So I think they’re just sort of trained that way. Anyway, my point is, Heinen’s gave me extraordinary access and were very open and honest at every turn, and that certainly made my job easier.
Pinsker: By the end of the book, you’ve made it fairly clear that you think Heinen’s is a net-positive force in the food world, and that it embodies what other chains might be moving toward. Do you think that an approach like the one Heinen’s takes could scale beyond a mid-size chain, or beyond customers who are fine spending a lot of money on food?