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Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

We visit the grocery store on average twice a week, every week, all year long. Next to housing and transportation, many families biggest expense is groceries, often costing around ten percent of household income. Yet, what we do really know about the place that provides much of what we eat?

James Beard Award-winning food writer Michael Ruhlman takes a deep dive into the world of the grocery store in his new book, “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America” (Abrams Press).

As he began his research, Ruhlman found that not much had been written about the prominent place grocery stores play in our lives and he has a theory why: “People don’t think about them very much, we aren’t reflective about grocery stores. If we think about them at all, we think of them as sort of being a chore. In fact, they’re really a marvel of civilization. To think that this country can get all the food it wants, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the grocery store, it’s quite an achievement and I think we need to appreciate it.”

Ruhlman decided to tell the story of the evolution of the grocery store by focusing on Heinen’s, the area’s chain of stores where his family shopped and which he continued to frequent during his many years living in Cleveland. He lives in New York now.

“It is a family-run chain that was small enough to get a handle on, and it was big enough so that I could get a picture of what the grocery store was all about,” Ruhlman said.

Ruhlman discovered that the most difficult part of running a grocery store is managing a business with a razor-thin profit margin. In the case of Heinen’s, the company makes over half a billion dollars a year. But only four to five million dollars of that is profit.

“When that is all you make in profit, you have very little room to grow so it is very tricky from a business standpoint to stay viable,” Ruhlman said.

Ruhlman also noted that online grocery shopping is a cause of concern for Heinen’s.

“There’s all kind of changes in our food economy, just staying on top of that is a non-stop business,” Ruhlman said.

Listen for Dan Polletta's interview with Michael Ruhlman Wednesday at 12:33pm and 1:40 pm during Here and Now featuring the Sound of Applause on 90.3.

Michael Ruhlman will be in Cleveland the week of June 5th for these events


June 5  Heinen’s, Chagrin Falls, 20 Shopping Center Dr, Chagrin Falls, OH 44022, 5 – 7pm. Signing

June 6  Heinen’s of Downtown Cleveland, 900 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44115, 11am-1pm. Signing

June 6  Heinen’s of Pepper Pike, 30849 Pinetree Rd, Pepper Pike, OH 44124, 5-7pm. Signing

June 6 Loganberry Books, 13015 Larchmere Blvd., Shaker Heights at 7:30pm. talk/signing

June 7 AHA! (Arts and Humanities Alive!) Outdoor Book Festival, Playhouse Square, 6pm. Talk/Signing

Hear the full interview






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