Grocery Stores: An American Miracle

In a new book, the author Michael Ruhlman ponders the “extraordinary bounty” that’s available at relatively low prices, seven days a week.

A display of fruit at a grocery store
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

The scale of the American food system is something to marvel at: There are about 38,000 grocery stores in the country, which together bring in roughly $670 billion in sales each year.

But to better understand this system, it’s useful to break it down into its component parts: every sticky conveyor belt, every misting rack, every refrigerated dairy case. That’s essentially what the journalist and cookbook writer Michael Ruhlman does in his recent book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. In the book, he profiles Heinen’s, an upscale, midsize chain with locations in Ohio and Illinois whose sales numbers are a bit more comprehensible. At one Heinen’s where Ruhlman hangs around for his reporting, in the suburbs of Cleveland, roughly 12,000 customers make their way to the checkouts each week, each typically adding $35 to $50 at a time to the store’s $675,000 in weekly sales.

Grocery encompasses more than sales data, though. It is also a study of grocery stores’ business model, a memoir (Ruhlman writes at length about his father’s love for browsing supermarket aisles), and a history of how modern-day grocery stores came to be. Ruhlman plots their development from the late 1800s, when they stocked about 200 products, to today, when they typically have more than 40,000 items. During that span of time, the grocery store has swallowed up a series of small businesses that people used to shop at one at a time—bakeries, butcher stores, delis, liquor stores, florists—and put them under one roof.

I recently spoke to Ruhlman about his book, the state of grocery stores today, and where they are heading—which components of it might die off, whether high-quality products can compete with cheap and convenient ones, and the grocery store’s centrality to the debate over what Americans should be eating. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joe Pinsker: When you walk through a grocery store now, what are the things you see most differently compared to before you did all of the reporting and research for this book?

Michael Ruhlman: The thing I see most now is just the extraordinary bounty of what’s in a grocery store. We tend to walk by so many different things without thinking of them, just grabbing what we typically grab, but now I see the bewildering variety of foods that are available to us not just occasionally but seven days a week, pretty much whenever we want them. It’s something of a miracle that we created a system like this where we have nutritious food available to us all the time, at a relatively low, reasonable cost. I didn’t expect to appreciate grocery stores as much as I do now. That said, they’re loaded with a lot of things that are bad for you—unhealthy and nutritionally bankrupt foods—as well, so there’s the good and the bad.

Pinsker: I was going to say—it seemed in the book like you were ambivalent about all the variety.

Ruhlman: Sure. I mean, it’s all there because we’ve asked for it to be there, because we’ve bought this stuff and they’re putting more of it on the shelves. As our desires and beliefs change, slowly the grocery-store aisles change. They fill up with gluten-free foods when we want gluten-free foods; they fill up with exotic fruits that are now available to us. And they fill up with convenience food, which is so often nutritionally bankrupt. It’s up to us to know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad, and I think that's fine. But Marion Nestle, the NYU professor and nutritionist, would disagree, saying that the onus should not be on the consumer, because food is so important and we’re up against a $17 billion marketing campaign by the major food manufacturers. But to me, the onus is on us. We can’t rely on anybody else to do it for us; we need to think for ourselves.

Pinsker: But even if consumers started to think for themselves, do you think they would move away from cheapness and convenience? In the book you interviewed an industry analyst named Harry Balzer, who was skeptical about this because, in his words, people are “basically cheap and lazy.”

Ruhlman: These things will always be in competition, and if you ask Harry Balzer he’ll say it’s just never going to happen: We’re just getting cheaper and lazier by the hour, and it’s always going to be that way. He would say the stuff that saves us time is the one thing that’s always going to rule the market, because he first thought it was a matter of time and money, but then he realized, “I can always make more money. I can’t make more time. So therefore time is a bottom-line factor.”

That means it’s going to come back to our reevaluating how we spend our time. That’s where I think the critical part of the equation comes in. We have to acknowledge that it’s going to take us a certain amount of time to get the food, prepare it, enjoy it, and clean up afterwards, and it’s going to be worth that time spent. I don’t think we’re there yet. Some people are. It’s going to take time, and we’re going to have to get used to caring a little bit more about our food if we want it to be good for us.

Pinsker: In the book, you make the argument that the grocery store, more than food activism or the farm bill or the restaurant industry, is the thing that can effect the most change in how food is produced and sold in America. First, can you say what you think is wrong with the current system, and second, why you think the grocery store could be instrumental in changing those things?

Ruhlman: Well, a lot of food is made cheaply and from monocultures of corn and wheat and soy. It’s done as cheaply as possible with all kinds of additives, and that processed food is so often nutritionally bankrupt. I think that the major food producers are going to try and make better food, because the consumer wants it. I’m sure the major food producers would prefer that people be healthy, and it’s not as though they’re trying to outwit them and make them unhealthy. They don’t really care one way or the other—they just want to make money.

So, I think that through consumer demand, we’re asking for better food and to be better informed about what’s in our food. The grocery store is where we buy most of our food, more than $600 billion of it. So when you have more than $600 billion—or $1 trillion overall in all food retail, which would include convenience stores and Target and all the places that sell food, not just supermarkets—that’s a lot of buying power. If you shift a substantial portion of that money toward organic produce, you’re going to see more organic produce. Because grocery stores are where we make our food-purchasing decisions, they will be what affects change more rapidly than any other section of the food industry.

Pinsker: Yeah, there were a lot of times in the book when you demonstrated the importance of individual-level purchasing decisions. As you learned more about the business side of grocery stores, did you get more optimistic about the power of voting with your dollar?

Ruhlman: Well, just as I said before, it’s consumers’ choices that the grocery stores respond to. They run on such tight margins—1.25 percent to 1.5 percent, usually—that they have to be very careful, and they have to respond to the consumer. That’s partly why you see so many different products on grocery-store shelves. If somebody wants something, and they can’t find it, next time that customer is going to go to a store that has it.

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?

Ruhlman: That’s probably the best question—whether or not a company like Kroger or Publix can do what a smaller chain can do. I don’t know. I don’t know how the CEOs run those companies. They may be doing this already, but if they created small chains within chains and gave their managers the responsibility and opportunity to stock higher-end products and look for those specialty cheeses and great wines and higher-quality produce, yeah, we could do that on a larger scale.

I think a great example is John Mackey and Whole Foods, which I talk about in the book. He really did change things. He changed the way beef is created here and he made it so that farmers could create things organically and make a living. That’s a sea change in what’s available to us. And all that stuff that Whole Foods made available to their select clientele is now available to everybody in grocery stores. Grocery stores are copying it, and that’s why I think Whole Foods is in trouble—there’s nothing to distinguish them anymore except higher prices.

Pinsker: My last question is a bit of a strange hypothetical. Let’s say you get your wish: America’s food system instantly becomes more sustainable, it abandons soy and corn monoculture farming, companies start making far fewer heavily processed products, and so on. If that all happened, do you have a sense of what that would look like compared to now, in terms of land use, toll on the environment, and cost? There’s a utopian vision that you and others have proposed, and it left me curious what the system would then look like in practice.

Ruhlman: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. We’ve created a system that is designed to offer the American consumer anything they want at any time of the year they want it. We’re getting blueberries from Uruguay for people who hunger for blueberries outside of the springtime, when they normally grow here. Would we want to reverse that? I don’t know. We would only do so if, again, people made that decision not to buy blueberries from Uruguay or strawberries from Chile. They wouldn’t offer them if nobody bought them. So that’s one way that it would change.

What would it look like nationwide? You know, this country is so vast, so big, that even after studying this for two years it’s hard for me to fathom where this is all coming from, how it actually works. Just the volume is hard to get your mind around. To imagine how it works in a hypothetical situation is difficult because it’s hard to imagine it even now.