Mr. Manners: Don’t Block The Aisle (Grocery Etiquette)
As a young boy, I loved going with Mom and Dad to the grocery. This was a Sunday ritual, after mass at Mary the Queen. I remember when UniMart opened at the Greenhills Shopping Center in 1969. It was larger and more spacious than our favorite Cherry Foodarama on Shaw Boulevard, and had this blaring piped-in music with the jingle that resonates in my head till today—“Unimart, Unimart, Unimart hey!” (Enrique, my nephew, now with ABS-CBN Global, used to say Uni na na).
The coffee shop had laminated tables that showed the planets and the universe at a time when space travel fascinated me. It was the period of the space race, and of the Apollo, and with that came the modernization of things past.
Dad loved cold cuts, and this was quite new in a grocery. They had ham, bologna, salami, sausages—they were unique for a time. It wasn’t Santis, but it was a start. The proverbial bologna (baloney) sandwich that I would see on television was real! White bread with mayo, mustard, and pickles, as I recall, Dad would make it for me.
Then, there was pan de bara, or French bread. He used to call it pan de sobaco or kili-kili. He would get liverwurst and mix butter, add some spices to make a pâté, and slather it on. He was so happy to have it, and happier that I enjoyed it. I guess it brought back a lot of memories for him.
As a kid in Madrid, his mom, my grandmother, Abuela Trinidad, would give the children a baguette to bring along under their armpits. And also buy sandwiches in Ferpal on Arenal (and it’s still there, I wrote about it in my Guide to Madrid).
This was a time when Magnolia had strawberries and mangosteen ice cream in the frozen section right by the deli. In fact, Magnolia had tubs of whipping cream. All together, this was the perfect dessert to a Sunday lunch when we got home after shopping. Dad would drive on Sundays, and we would pile into the red Toyota Crown Royale Saloon station wagon, or the Kombi. Gab and Adele would spend Sunday lunches at the Compound in Wack Wack (the Valles side) so it was Angela, Nong, Ton, and I with our parents. A trip to the grocery was always a central part of our weekend. Pushing the cart through the aisles was an honor for me! It was when we got to buy something special that we were able to choose. Dad would pay for it—it wasn’t on Mom's food budget—and he would give his Diners Card!
My mother was a practical woman. Unlike her siblings, she did not go to college, and she was destined to be an entrepreneur. Dad worked his way from an entry level job in San Miguel to become a Vice President and Division Manager, when being a VP meant something. It was not always rosey. Our home, before I was born, was stricken by a fire, and they had lost everything. Dad had to take out a loan to help build Ortega (this was 208 Ortega, in San Juan) while Mom sewed curtains, and eventually worked for an ex GI Tom Hart who had contracts at the US Bases for jukeboxes, pachinko, and other game machines. She helped Dad in sending us to school and having food on the table.
She was never working much on a budget. She said, "Why bother if there wasn’t any money to budget to begin with?" There was the fan business that allowed more income. My parents made it a point for us to go to good schools, eat well, and even play golf because it was important. They taught us that all the money in the world cannot buy you integrity, breeding, and style. We didn’t have fancy cars or clothes like my cousins nor have the opportunity to travel, because they wanted to make ends meet.
Hence, going to the grocery was much like people going to the country club. As Dad did better, moved up in the ranks, and the businesses were doing better, we enjoyed traveling, dining out, and having club memberships and nicer cars.
On our first trip to the Bay Area, to Palo Alto, in fact, I experienced my first trip in an American grocery store. Dad was going for his check-up in Stanford. He had a multiple bypass a year earlier, and we went to accompany them. This was during Martial Law, and we needed to get clearance to travel. We entered a grocery near where we stayed; it was the Stanford Motor Inn. My first reaction was ”My god, what a big px store!” “EVEN THE TOILET PAPER IS IMPORTED!” Yes, I was quite the provinciano. For us then, unlike today, there were very little imported items in Unimart or Cherry. For imported products like Tang, Gerber, Kellogs, you needed to go to an import store patterned after the US Base PX or postal exchange as I recall they were situated near Broadway and N. Domingo. Or if not, a trip to Angeles, Baguio, or Subic markets would get us to buy Smuckers or Skippy’s!
As time passed, and Dad left us for the grocery in the sky, Mom had her turn. Mom had lung cancer, and I stopped schooling to take care of her. Years later, it came back, I stopped work to bring her back to Stanford. The local grocery, Safeway or Longs, was always a place where she loved me to wheel her after her radiation therapy. Let’s say she just enjoyed going through the aisles. She did not stay with us long after that.
Never have I ever imagined that I would live in the Bay Area, working with TFC (The Filipino Channel)—moreso, a block from where my dad was cremated. I was five stops to the office in Burlingame, in the nexus of Hong Kong Flower Lounge, Le Petit Camille, Millbrae Starbucks, and Safeway. Entertaining visiting firemen from Manila, at the ABS-CBN Staff House in Millbrae, made me a familiar fixture at the grocery.
Back home in Manila, I never gave much thought to grocery shopping. Acay usually did it, and it was just based on a list. I was too busy working, and Margie as well. As I retired, I took more interest in the shopping, and would make frequent stops to the store. MarketPlace in Rockwell is as fancy as it can get, and unlike, Unimart of 40 years ago, is swooshy and very up to date. (I have yet to visit the new Unimart).
For me, grocery shopping can be much of an out-body-experience, or a way to zen out. In Rockwell, it can be much of a social to-do. The mix of Titas in their Balenciaga trainers and LuluLemons, the yayas in crisp uniforms, the slew of barong-clad bodyguards, the smattering of expats, and the occasional guys make it a study in an ecosphere!
This weekend, as I was preparing for this column, I decided to give the local store a walkabout, and yes, after sipping a diet Coke and eating a turkey cranberry sandwich from the deli, it may not be as commonsensical as I thought.
For me, doing the grocery is a leisurely activity. I can take my cart and push slowly down the aisle, and check out what is new, on sale, or interesting. For others, it's like going on a full-on combat. To some, it’s like a rushing colorum bus trying to make boundary on the skyway (you know how that ends).
Here are some things I picked up from grocery shopping:
Push the cart, and treat it like a car.
Aisles in mall groceries (like Rockwell, tighter at Central Square) are tight. So keep to the right. Try to keep a space open. If you do meet someone, push yourself out to the larger spaces or tell him or her to catch up at the checkout (yes, it can be hard, specially if its brand new hot-off-the-press gossip, which Mr. Manners frowns upon). Like I say, manage your footprint, if you have a huge bag; put it in the cart, so you don’t hit anyone. And try to move along as fast as as you can. Again, this isn’t EDSA and cart rage is really boorish. Learn how to yield. Should someone be coming from the other direction, and there is a stalled cart (ahahaha), give way. It is not the end of the world. As with driving, come to a stop and look both ways before maneuvering your cart into the main aisle. Those already in the main aisle have the right of way.
Looking for something? Park the cart and walk over.
Should you need to pick up an item, leave your cart on the side and go for it. It isn’t rude to reach for it in front of them, as long as you give fair warning. Stand next to the person and excuse yourself and announce your wanting to get another bottle of peanut butter. Like, “Excuse, allow me to reach over and get that huge bottle of Skippys’s.” Say it before you do it. The person may get the hint and move. Don’t just grab it, or take something over the person's shoulder. You may be in for a swat, or a can on your head!
Don’t manhandle the merchandise.
Filipinos tend to touch and smell fruits and vegetable. I got screamed at as a young boy in Madrid when I started fondling the fruits (sounds funny), and they said if you touch it, you buy it. Well, it’s okay to check if the watermelon is ready, or the mango is soft, but keep it to a minimum. Pick out what you need, and place them in their plastic bags, so their weights can be checked.
We tend to overdo the freebies like in S&R. It’s okay to check out the new items, but bear in mind, it’s a sampler, not lunch! I have seen people wolf down the whole sampler and ask for more!
Be mindful of what you are buying, and return items.
Don’t leave a mess. We’ve all had that moment of buyer’s remorse when you realize that you don’t actually want that ice cream. If you decide to pass up an item in your cart, don’t just leave it on a random shelf, do it yourself or—being here in the Philippines—ask the bagger to do it, with extreme apologies. Particularly for perishables, your moment of laziness may result in that food spoiling. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this one myself, but I’m working on it!
Don’t block the aisles.
Like driving, where you need to keep in your lane, think about what would happen if you stop cold on the highway. So keep moving, or park your cart. Like I pointed out, I can’t emphasize enough how this simple action can make a better day for everyone.
The grocery is like home.
Everyone has a bad day, but when you deal with the grocery staff, be nice. They are doing their jobs. I like chatting with the butcher and the fish people and they bring out stuff from the back freezers and prepare for me. I like all my proteins in trays so I can store and pull them out easily. They remember kindness, and will go out of their way for you. The staffers want you to come back, and the baggers, too. Sometimes, they know what you need even without asking. I often go to buy ingredients for paella, and when I tell them that, they quickly put my usual items together. The baggers also help because they remember brands you like! Remember: tip your baggers, and think about how much you have spent in the grocery, so don’t be a scrooge.
When you are being checked out, be ready, and try not to be on the phone.
We all have lives. I get it. If it is something so important, then we will understand. But be prepared at the checkout. Fall in line. If you have a priority card (advantage, sapphire, you get it), use it and get to that lane. Bring out the cards you will use. Decide if you want to cash in your points. Help the cashier with your items, or if you have a bagger, tell him how you want it packed. Bring reusable bags, they are helpful to the environment, and Gina Lopez won’t be at your back.
There are a host of other observations I have made, but let's stick to these for now. Manners are no longer just about keeping your elbows off the table or biting the spoon. It is very fluid in a society that is allowing the decay of the moral fiber of our being. I feel very strongly about being civil and kind. Why not be a good Samaritan, and allow someone with less items that you go ahead? Or let an elderly person pass through? Everything comes back to you, my parents would always tell me.
Dad would have loved the deli counters in groceries today. I can’t believe I would see the day when we have paletas of jabugo cut to your needs on the spot. Or even a better-than-average cheese selection. I know Dad would have loved the fresh pan de bara at Erik Kayser, and pâté campagne from the cold section. Did I mention beurre de baratt? Let's make everyone’s daily life a bit better. Give way, be kind, and always be mindful. See you at the grocery!
P.S. Please, please respect the express lane, okay? If not, you could be the next Internet sensation!!!
Photos from Pexels and Twenty20