Book Notes: The Secret Life of Groceries

Book Notes: The Secret Life of Groceries

I recently finished reading The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (link). I learned about the book from a review by Nick Summers published in The New York Times.

The book was a rollercoaster of stress, intrigue, and sadness. It is organized in six parts with stories following specific characters in different parts of the American supermarket supply chain.

What follows are notes and quotes organized by chapter.


  • "This book is about the grocery store. About the people who work there and the routes of supply that define it."
  • "appalling and perfectly hygienic and safe—it is a fitting metaphor for the grocery business as whole."
  • "ten thousand minnows piled up in silver ribbons, left for days, as they waited to be transformed into the protein base of the aquaculture pyramid."
  • "We spend only 10 percent of our budget on food, compared to 40 percent by our great-grandparents in 1900, and 30 percent by our grandparents in the 1950s."
  • "we now grapple with a series of problems entirely unprecedented in the history of humanity: of too much food, of using food to distribute ethical responsibility, of food as a proxy for control in our own increasingly detached lives."
  • "an item within the grocery matrix loses its identity as food and becomes product."

Part 1: Salad Days at Trader Joe's

In the old days of the general store, the wealthy would often be charged more, as items weren't priced, but also given fresher meat and produce. In some stores a tab would be kept and families may only pay a few times a year after harvesting their crops.

Saunders, the founder of Piggly Wiggly, was inspired by the cafeteria. Cafeterias, which were new in the late 1800s, gave each customer a tray and had them walk down the line collecting food. This was the precursor to the supermarket.

  • "One day, watching beady-eyed piglets charge a trough, Saunders decides the piggies are laughably similar to customers charging an overwhelmed clerk. In honor of all his piggy little customers, he names his new store the Piggly Wiggly."

On the grocery industry:

  • In 1937 the shopping cart was introduced by Sylvan Goldman.
  • "when Khrushchev toured Washington, D.C., in 1959, the supermarket brought a temporary détente to the Cold War."
  • "legacy affairs: family businesses that follow the prototypically American progression from heartwarming, bootstrapping, backstabbing founder to eager scientific expansion in the immediate offspring to a sluggish, almost hostile complacency in the third and fourth generations."
  • "The word “retail” comes to us from the Middle French word retailler, meaning “to cut into pieces,” more etymologically related to the English word “tailor” than anything having to do with sales."
  • "it was suggested that if all owners agreed to longer hours—à la Green—the chain could be called 7-Eleven."

The Story of Joe Coulombe and Trader Joe's

Joe is a very friendly guy and it is hard to know if he's more of a calculating businessman or wholesome self-taught founder. He is a master of using the wink to create confidence.

Joe was hired by Rexall to figure out why Owl (a drugstore) was failing. He figured out 7-Eleven was the cause and Rexall asked him to copy the chain and beat them. Joe decided he would beat them by paying as well as local unions and getting the best talent. The chain isn't doing well and Joe buys Pronto using all his family savings and a loan from the bank. Pronto eventually becomes Trader Joe's. The store had almost no turnover when Joe was running it.

  • "Trader Joe’s, just like trader Joe, has perfected the ability to project integrity while simultaneously offering a very similar class of mass-produced goods that its competitors offer."
  • "you are the precise demographic Joe targeted way back then—the overeducated, underpaid, and inquisitive; the customer who understands and cares for the world foremost by understanding and caring for themselves"
    • "For Joe, private label needed to be an extension of the store’s identity. It would allow him to create a parallel stock of items that appeared to exist outside the national homogeny, simultaneously, continuously produced, but more precisely targeting his demographic."
  • "Trader Joe’s has the single highest sales per square foot of any retail grocery chain, basically doubling its nearest competitor, Whole Foods."
  • "He [Joe] picked up the grocery flag from merely large sizes and low prices and marched it forward, planting it back down firmly in our hearts."
  • Isn't the most healthy
    • Many of their best deals are on frozen or heavily processed foods
    • "Two different food safety experts I spoke with told me the unofficial FDA nickname for the chain is Recall Joe’s."

Some things that made Trader Joe's Successful:

  • Joe focuses on finding products with a high value to size ratio.
  • It was profitable to sell items in limited supply (like extra-large eggs). Other stores wouldn't touch these because they were afraid to run out and disappoint customers.
  • Joe found a loophole in the regulations of wine pricing that nobody else noticed (pricing controls didn't apply to imported wine) and was able to have the best deal on wine.

Trader Joe's couldn't compete with others on peanut butter, so they decided to make almond butter and basically invented it as a consumer product.

Theo Albrecht of Albrecht Discount (aka ALDI) decided to buy Trader Joe's. Joe sold it on the condition that he would stay as CEO and the store wouldn't be changed too much. Tension built and before long Joe resigned. Joe now talks about the sale with a nervous sadness.

Part 2: Distribution of Responsibility

Lynne, a truck driver

  • "'I recommend you get yourself a Gatorade bottle.' She looks me up and down. 'Wide mouth for you.' I don’t believe that I react to this. 'Stop looking pale. I’m just fucking with you. Nothing in those pants looks like you’re a wide mouth anything.'"
  • "If I [Lynne] ever lost my CDL for anything, they’d have to put me in the ground. This job is misery, but it’s the only thing in the world for me."
  • "At first this seems like an interviewer’s dream. A subject overflowing with commentary, dripping with color."
  • "She [Lynne] simply doesn’t recognize or care about the social cues I am sending out—or actually combative, using words as a weapon."
  • "I [the author] know things have taken a dark turn when I consider getting earplugs for hanging around a woman I am ostensibly here to interview."
  • "Lynne estimates she grossed $200,000 last year—that is a rough calculation based on miles driven—but that she took home less than $17,000."
  • "I [Lynne] know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Because I am locked into this contract and I can’t afford to believe anything else."
  • "Lynne also tells me that at a truck stop she never makes eye contact with a man."
  • "[when Lynne reported sexual harassment] the company was like 'Maybe you misconstrued it,'"
  • Lynne has so many fees come out of her paycheck that she often only gets the minimum paycheck of $100, just enough to keep her surviving off the cheapest food available.
  • She hasn't been home to see her family in many months because they won't let her take routes that go that way. The author theorizes that this is to help keep the truckers from quitting when they get a taste of home.

The Industry

  • People see ads to work as a well-paid trucker. They'll get a one way ticket to the training and hotel paid for.
    • Once they get there they are promised a great job if they just sign a contract for training that you can pay for later, $3,000 - $8,000.
    • After they finish the training there are often no "jobs" available but they are offered to be independent contractors and get their own trucks via lease-to-own programs.
    • "Lease-to-own programs in OTR trucking seem like both [very difficult and designed to fail] to me."
    • These desperate people sign up and now have huge loans they have to pay and are at the mercy of the company to assign them jobs. These jobs are often extremely poorly paid and have nearly impossible deadlines.
    • After all the fees their paychecks often come out to almost nothing but they have a guaranteed minimum pay of ~$100, just enough to feed themselves and keep driving.
  • "Jimmy Hoffa was a teamster first and foremost, and the strong, if corrupt, union he led was able to wrest a middle-class salary with benefits from that cohort."
  • "From the golden ’70s, the trucker suddenly found himself in the red and green ’80s, the colors of the now essential methamphetamines drivers gobbled by the handful"
  • "Your possessions are on top of each other [a trucker and their co-driver], your needs are on top of each other, your sexual desires and rage and annoying quirks are on top of each other."
  • "That fresh apple you bite into has typically been sitting in dormancy for close to a year."
    • "The core of this control [of produce] comes from regulating ethylene, a gaseous plant hormone that causes ripening and color development. Within the right conditions, suppressing ethylene keeps fruit in a suspended state of development."
  • "Seeing almost any product in bulk is debasing."

Part 3: Self-Realization Through Snacks

  • "the twin attributes of successful specialty: mystery and superiority."
  • "[people] stand up in sudden inspiration to snap a photo of a PowerPoint slide"
    • I relate to the author's confusion of people taking photos of seemingly useless slides.
  • "Slawsa is as intuitive as it is baffling."
  • "Perhaps she is good-natured without being good-humored. Perhaps she is good-humored without having a good sense of humor. ... It is a laughter at her own foibles, where you are kind of worried for her"
  • "[many grocery stores have] a “slotting fee,” which is a pure cash-for-placement exchange.""

Part 4: The Retail Experience

Lorr (the author) got a job at Whole Foods to get the inside scoop.

  • New employees must complete a twelve-hour orientation about the mission and philosophy of Whole Foods.
    • "concussive effect of repetitive dull content"
    • "Passing the probation vote [to be hired at Whole foods] requires a two-thirds majority in which each team member fills out a skills sheet anonymously ranking our abilities."
    • "We [Whole Foods employees] are told to apologize for any and every mistake, especially if it isn’t our fault, unless, of course, the customer is complaining about injury or food-borne illness"
    • "Andy gives us a secret phrase to use whenever we are stumped: “Sounds important.” It can be deployed almost universally to respond to questions we don’t fully understand, hectoring we don’t necessarily deserve, demands for advice we don’t particularly have"
    • "Mr. Green is the Orwellian name for the Whole Foods internal security team"
  • "Human Capital Management, or “just-in-time scheduling”"
    • "somewhere in the last ten years, just-in-time manufacturing morphed into just-in-time scheduling."
    • "He [Walter] only opens once or twice a week so he never completely adjusts to any schedule."
    • "Another [study] found that 60 percent of retail workers said that they needed to be available to fulfill every work schedule that might be assigned in a given week"
    • "There are professions where we expect people to be “on call”—doctors, first responders—but they are compensated for that both financially and in civic respect"
  • "organic does not mean healthier, but rather is an option to pay extra to limit the externalities of production"
  • "we pluck melons just on the verge of rot and take them into the back room, where a woman who speaks no English stands all day carving them up into chunks and packing endless grab-n-go containers."

Part 5: Theater of Retail

  • "I kept thinking of the medieval practice of simony, where the wealthy could pay money to be released from their sins."
  • "Government regulation of our food is as spotty as a fourteen-year-old boy’s first beard"
  • "These audits rarely occur unannounced, instead unfolding with all the spontaneity of a doctor’s appointment. ... [because] People don’t hire you to blow up their deals."
  • "It [the pig farm] was not filthy, nor a hellscape. It was instead an intensely alien, highly functional place for animals to live a sad, short life before they were set to die."
  • "Anthropologist Daniel Miller studied purchasing decisions of Britons and Trinidadians and came to the conclusion that most people didn’t even know whether they liked something until after they shared it with others."

Part 6: Bottom of the Commodity Chain

The horrors of shrimp

Tun-Lin is a man from Myanmar who makes his way to Thailand only to be sold into slave labor on a shrimp boat. He left Myanmar not even knowing what a factory was, only that if you work hard you can make good money. He watched his best friend die on a shrimp boat and then get kicked over the side. After five years of slave labor on the boat he simply asks the captain if he can leave and is set free. This chapter goes into much more gruesome detail about what life was like aboard the slave ship.


  • "NGOs estimate 17 to 60 percent of Thai shrimp includes slave labor like Tun-Lin in its supply chain"
  • "This is called transshipment at sea. It saves fuel for the larger refrigerated fishing vessels, and it allows some boats to stay out almost indefinitely. Resupplied by others, they turn into floating prisons for trafficked workers."
  • "Rule number one when hiring people is you do not hire locals. They will want to go home. They will have families. You want someone who will live here twenty-four"
  • "Peeling shrimp is delicate labor, and despite all advances in technology, nothing can yet do the work better than small, nimble fingers."
  • "The [commodity] word comes to us etymologically from the French commodité, meaning convenience"
  • "thirty years ago, fresh shrimp epitomized class. They cost more than steak"
  • "since 1980 prices [of shrimp] have fallen while production has increased some 3,000 percent."
  • "It turns out for as of yet biologically unexplained reasons, a female shrimp who loses a single eyeball gets fast-tracked through puberty"
  • "A cycle of spectacular growth, overnight riches, and then sudden collapse came to define the Asian shrimp industry."
  • "[dropping an unpopular supplier or food is] catering to the aesthetic sense of consumers who don’t like to be associated with ugly things"


  • The Whole Foods philosophy is far more Texas libertarian than it ever was East Coast liberal. This comes from the early organic movement which saw the gov as failing to regulate agriculture and corrupt.
  • "Whole Foods was the leader in progressive activism in the food industry. Then somewhere by mid-2016, everyone I knew doing that type of work got sacked.""
  • "Humanity can’t just play defense. We need a good offense too."
  • "[a Trader Joe's purchaser told a story about] visiting a factory selling extremely profitable “handmade pies” that he watched get unloaded from a truck, unboxed, and reboxed into different, more “handmade” packaging. When he rushed back to tell Joe, the only response was one of those chuckles and, “Oh, maybe don’t go visiting any more suppliers without calling ahead first.”"
  • "What did you do once you became a better version of yourself? Where did all this self-improvement lead? The answer was always back to more yoga"
  • "it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are"
  • "Thai producers who have poured themselves into costly reforms only to watch buyers balk at their new prices and seek cheaper product elsewhere"
  • "He [Tun-Lin] says he will open a store. A big store with lots of food the people in his village haven’t seen."

New Words

  • Foible - a minor weakness in someone's character.
  • Apostasy - the abandonment of religious or political belief.
  • Simony - buying or selling religious privileges.

Photo Credits: nrd