Still Life With Stilled Life: The parallel universe of Grocery Outlet can make even the toughest philosophers quiver.
The Philosophy of Products
Surrealism is alive and well in the aisles of North Bay discount supermarkets
By Matt Pamatmat
In the perennial holiday children's film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer--featuring Burl Ives as the snowman narrator, goofy animation and an unexplained overabundance of purple clay--Rudolph discovers an entire island of defective, unpopular or just plain weird toys: the Island of Misfit Toys. I felt a little like Rudolph when the Grocery Outlet supermarket first opened in the wake of Safeway's disappearance from the Fourth and College location in Santa Rosa a few years back. Inside the Grocery Outlet, bizarre, dusty products fill the store like misfit toys, just waiting to be bought and taken home by someone looking for bargains or the shopper who simply delights in finding an item too curious to pass up.
In fact, what Grocery Outlet offers is a trip to the surreal. The store carries items that never took off with a finicky populace, have dangerously close expiration dates or are simply better sold as discount items. This can be good for the frugal gourmet or bargain-hunter: many costly items such as honey, alcohol, medicine and cereal, can be found here at very reasonable prices. I once scored a beautiful little jar of smoky-sweet Peruvian honey that was some of the best I've ever had. And for a family on a tight budget like mine, a place like Grocery Outlet is a godsend for keeping food bills under control.
There is also a part of me that is fascinated with American culture both high and low, and what the products we shop for say about us as people. At Grocery Outlet's store in Petaluma, near the sluggish, diarrhea-colored Petaluma River, I discovered something called Treet, a Spam-esque can of "luncheon loaf" that boasts a "baked Virginia ham taste!" I stood in the aisle holding this little metal can for a good few minutes, perplexed, while my son wiggled and grooved to the in-store music.
I have similarly harvested a massive box of inexpensive green tea, a bag of food-service gloves for 35 cents, rock-solid frozen game hens, crumbled bleu cheese, Mexican mangos, 2001: A Space Odyssey on VHS, a Dora the Explorer umbrella and ninja Halloween costume for my son, a Zagnut candy bar and Circus of Fear on DVD. (I justified this last purchase as research for a novel I'm working on about a traveling carnival.) But the movies were only $3 and hardly needed justification; on most visits, I only pay around $20 for some nice bags of goodies that are as useful as they are fun to show my wife: "Honey, look at these strange things I found today!"
The thing that is so interesting about Grocery Outlet is that, whether we know it or not--whether we like it or not--grocery shopping occupies a good percent of our postmodern lives. We have to do it, and the time we spend doing it adds up, just like the amount of time spent driving, eating, sleeping, waiting, etc. Our shopping experiences seep into our subconscious and help constitute shared culture. Grocery Outlet is just as much an aesthetic experience as it is a necessity. Where else can one find a bag of "ends and pieces," a package that either contained licorice or sausage (to this day, I am still not sure).
Then there's Big John's Beans & Fixin's, a packaging marvel that is actually a large can and a small can taped together, the larger can holding the beans and the smaller the "fixin's." The latter is simply tomato paste, spices and sweeteners; the directions say to heat up the beans and then add the "fixin's." The big question is: Why doesn't everything come in one can if it's going to get mixed together anyway? Perhaps this is why Big John's is for sale in Grocery Outlet and not at a higher-end market.
East Coast writer Paul Lukas is fascinated with products he calls "the bizarre, the beautiful and the thought-provoking." In fact, Lukas has taken things a step further, self-publishing a small magazine called Beer Frame, in which he analyzes strange products with an eagle eye and trenchant wit. He went so far as to call up Colgate and ask what the difference was between "Whitening with Tartar Control" toothpaste and "Tartar Control plus Whitening" toothpaste. Of course the customer-service rep didn't know. These are the little details of life that most people take for granted or don't think about, which Lukas calls "inconspicuous consumption."
Inconspicuous consumption, according to Lukas, describes the art of "deconstructing the details of consumer culture--details that are either so weird or obscure that we'd never see them, or so ubiquitous that we've essentially stopped seeing them. This can mean anything from a bizarre canned good, like sauerkraut juice, to [an] . . . object that we've always taken for granted."
I am frequently teased for using my degree in philosophy to analyze products, sometimes to a maddening degree. Like me, Lukas would have a field day at Grocery Outlet. Not only are some of the products unintelligible, but others are wonderfully absurd, such as the milk brand that the Outlet carries, all of which products--from nonfat to half-and-half--are emblazoned with "Hoppy" the cowboy. This smiling cowpoke claims that each type of milk is "Hoppy's favorite." How can this be? How can Hoppy choose nonfat, 2 percent and half-and-half all as his favorites? Items such as this make me curse myself for getting that goddamn philosophy degree, though I know I'm better for it, as it helps me decode some of society's confusing messages and peculiar products.
Shopping at the Outlet is also simply fun, as much for the people-watching as the enigmatic products available. A recent ad by a popular natural-foods market claims that its stores provide "progressive food for progressive people." It made me wonder what kind of food Grocery Outlet offered for what kind of people. "Strange food for strange people"? "Curious items for stay-at-home dads with philosophy degrees who think too much"? In the Petaluma store, I saw an old man shopping in a blue sport coat dating from the Carter administration and a hat that said "Hang Loose."
At the Santa Rosa location, I was in the vegetable section when a street preacher came into the store, talking to himself/no one/everyone, loudly booming his sermon on Jesus and salvation while inspecting avocados. At the Grocery Outlet, this is not as out of place as it would be in one of the mainstream groceries. Grocery Outlet is also especially attractive to those who don't need anything fancy or name-brand. A box of PBR is only $10, and cans of beer are sold individually. Drunk is drunk, right?
Grocery Outlet may not be the place to shop regularly, but it is interesting to stop by once in awhile. There was a character in Don DeLillo's White Noise who was fascinated by generic products: white labels with stark black lettering. (Yes, Grocery Outlet has plenty of those.) This character believed the products we made said volumes about who we were and the times we were living in. A trip to Grocery Outlet says to me that life is as weird as it always was, and is perhaps getting more so. And if you figure what the ends and pieces are actually from, please let me know.
Grocery Outlet has two Sonoma County locations; 80 E. Washington St., Petaluma, 707.763.2700; and 1116 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.566.0530.
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From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.