The shiny new grocery store beckoned. At night, its enormous glass windows were a siren of light and activity that called out to anyone driving by. And once inside, you’re hit with aisles of colorful packaged goods that practically jump out at you as you push a virgin chrome cart across those glossy new linoleum tiles.
Generations of marketing guarantee that consumers not only know the brands, but even the jingles behind the packages on the shelves. (The brands at eye level, in particular, are familiar, but the ones above and below are attractive challengers with fresh new names that imply sustainability and a green outlook.) This is the Pantheon not of food, but Madison Avenue.
Friends told me it was worth a visit, so I happily stopped at our newest Pantheon one night on my way home after a long day in the kitchen. It was everything they said and more. More choices, more square feet, and even more hours open for convenience. You just knew it was state-of-the-art in every sense, starting with the production of the inventory itself.
I left soon after finding what I needed, but the entire experience made me scratch my head. What was it that bothered me so much? I found exactly what I wanted and was out the door in just 10 minutes. I purchased exactly what I needed, so why did I feel so empty?
As I unpacked my shopping bag in the kitchen, it dawned on me that I hadn’t interacted with a single person at the store. Not even one. I saw plenty of other people, but the entire experience right down to the self-service checkout was devoid of human contact. I wasn’t looking to make new friends, but I wasn’t looking to avoid humanity either.
So this is what it means to be a modern food retailer today. From beginning to end, it’s the height of efficiency, but also impersonality. Fast food is no longer just a category for drive-thru hamburger chains. Today, the mentality pervades our entire food cycle right down to the grocery store. To this consumer (and, others, I suspect), the experience feels hollow and unsatisfying. It has all the charm of eating from a vending machine.
And now the expression “farm to table” seems inadequate. We assumed humanity would always be part of that equation, but now even that ingredient is being minimized. As the world eagerly awaits the advent of drone delivery and the wider adoption of app-driven instant pick-up, I count myself among the contrarians. I still want to know the people who are feeding my family, including all the ones who help my food make its way to my kitchen. The earnest employees I see each week at farmers markets have earned my trust in ways that no advertisement or FDA seal can.
Long live real food and the real people dedicated to it every step of the way.