COOKED AND RAW PRODUCT . . . and the customer from Hell.
Looking back over my years in the retail food business, and in particular the time spend in the employ of Giant Stuff Mart, I realize that I had a whole lot more enjoyable interactions with customers than the other kind. And for the most part I remember those folks with a great deal of fondness and affection.
As with every rule however, there are exceptions.
One busy Sunday afternoon, a middle-aged guy with a sports team baseball cap approached the meat and seafood counter. I could tell at a glance that he was not a happy camper, first from his face, contorted and twisted into anger as it was. Second, from the fact that he elbowed a couple of waiting customers out of the way to get to me. Third, from the stench of alcohol emanating from him. I didn’t have an idea in the world of why he might be angry. I couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary happening in the past day or two.
Turned out he wasn’t mad at me—yet.
“Does anyone in this (bad word) store have the slightest idea of what the hell they’re talking about?” he loudly enquired.
Naturally, my Irish sense of humor kicked-in.
“Well, I’ll take a shot at it,” I responded. “Sometimes I’m a little smarter than your average bear.” Of course, I knew I was probably egging him on a bit, but danged, sometimes you’ve just got to have a little fun on the job.
“Where the (bad word) do you keep sliced ham? You know—slices of ham from off a ham,” he explained, apparently in an attempt to clarify his request.
“No problem,” I replied. “Down the end of the meat case. Individual slices of either bone-in or boneless ham. Individually wrapped too. Family or single-serving size.”
“No—not them!” he almost screamed. “I’ve already looked at those. A (bad word) clerk sent me there first. That’s not what I want. I want slices of ham,” he said—even making slicing motions with his hand as he said it.
“Oh, Okay,” I said. “Now I understand. You want the deli department. Just to your right, against the wall.”
Now he was so mad he was almost jumping up and down. “No, you (couple of bad words) moron! I want sliced (bad word) ham. He continued to make absurd and exaggerated slicing motions with his right hand. Kind of looked like karate great Chuck Norris warming up for a movie scene. “The stupid (bad word) deli kid didn’t know what I was looking for either. He sent me here. Doesn’t anyone in this (really bad two words) store know what the (bad word) they’re talking about!”
At this point I probably should have simply called the manager and dropped it in his lap. After all, that’s why they got the big money—around fifty cents an hour more, matter of fact. I didn’t call though, because, darn it, I was just enjoying myself way too much.
“Cubed ham?” I asked
“No—idiot! Not cubed ham. Sliced ham. What do I have to do to make you morons understand?”
“Do you mean like ham in a can that you slice after you open it?” I innocently enquired.
“Maybe you could try a regular meat market,” I offered—trying to be helpful.
“I don’t need a meat market,” he shouted. “I used to buy it right here in this (bad word) store before they changed everything around.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t have an idea in the world what you’re looking for.”
By now his reddened face looked like it was going to explode.
“You incredible imbecile,” he half shouted, turning and stomping away. Honestly, I thought that was the end of it. I went on to helping the next customer. It wasn’t the end. He was back in about five minutes. I could see him coming—fast—all the way down the middle aisle.
And he had something in his hand. I was happy to see that it wasn’t a gun.
Finally reaching the seafood counter, and again pushing a couple of people out of the way, he slammed down the package he had been holding on the top of the counter. And I mean hard. I think they must have heard that package hit all the way across the rather expansive sales floor. The package burst at the seams under the force of the blow.
“Just what the (insert a long string of really bad words here) do you call this—you (bad word) idiot?
I took a quick glance at what was left of the sliced ham in the package, and replied without hesitation—“Lunch meat. Aisle four.”
It could have gone either way for a second or two, but instead of coming over the top of the counter for me as I expected, he simply spun on his heels are stormed away. And of course, right to the customer service department to file a formal complaint against me. I spent the better of the next fifteen minutes or so explaining to the lady store director, Adele Pensler, why I simply hadn’t called a member of upper management to deal with the irate, drunken, and largely unhinged customer, instead of further inflaming the situation.
After trying a couple of unpromising lines of self-defense with her, I finally got off the hook by simply explaining that sometimes a guy’s just gotta do what a guy’s gotta do. She simply shrugged, gave me a pained look, rolled her eyes and walked away. I figured I was probably going to be fired, or at least suspended, but as a matter of fact, I was wrong.
I never heard another word about it for as long as I worked in the store.
It was days like those that made the job fun, and was largely what kept me working there for so long as I did.
The ham that he was looking for was cooked ham, and brings us rather nicely to the next part of our food safety voyage of discovery.
As it turned out, he was actually buying cooked product in the safest form that it is to be had—prepackaged. And here’s why. That ham was cooked, sliced and prepackaged at the wholesale food processing facility where it was created. It was meant to never leave the package until the ultimate purchaser took it home, opened it up, and used the contents. It doesn’t get too much safer than that.
Sure, there are all sorts of horror stories about food processing plants, but by and large, they are very few and far between. Compared that is, to the same product being handled several more times by some very questionably safety-conscious retail-level grocery store employees. The recipe for disaster here could hardly be greater.
You see such products all the time. Especially in the deli. There, most of the food products you see for sale arrived at the store in what they call bulk packages. Then, they are opened and some of the contents are put out for sale. The rest are returned to the walk-in cooler waiting for future use.
It might, or might not, be safe. But for it to be safe, you have to depend on the department employee to safely, and cleanly, handle the product. That includes the dating of the unused product, the safe storage of the unused product, and the rotating of the unused product. Lots of areas here for things to go wrong.
My best advice? Most of the things sold in the full-service case at the deli are also sold as smaller individually prepackaged items in the self-serve case. Trust me when I tell you—these are by far and away the safest form for you to buy your potato salad, macaroni salad, and cole-slaw in. Many, many fewer hands have been involved in the preparation of these products, and the expiration date is always printed right on the side of the container, for all the world to see. And that date is placed there right at the processing plant, on the very day that it was made.
The deli is one of the best places in the store to get a really bad tummy-ache. Or, something a lot longer lasting—like death. Just the one simple expedient of sticking to prepackaged items can go a long, long way to reducing the potential for a food poisoning incident—right in your own home.
I remember a few times myself, standing in front of the deli case and looking at the wonderful displays of ready-to-eat items. One of the deli gals at the time was a friend, and as I would enquire about the quality and safety of one food item after another—she would simply shake her head yes or no. I was warned away from a lot of questionable items that way. And I can also promise you—not many of the general public are going to get such warnings.
For most—you’re on your own. And good luck.
It’s the same throughout the store. Prepackaged meats are less handled and by their very nature safer than anything packaged in the store itself. The same goes for seafood—and triple so if it is a cooked product that you are purchasing. The reason is simple: many pre-cooked items are never reheated, and therefore any harmful bacteria is not going to be killed. Raw items, or at least most of them, are going to be made safe by the cooking process. Even thoroughly reheating pre-cooked items will often times not render it safe, if it happens to contain harmful pathogens introduced by improper food safety handling techniques.
The very safest seafood is without any question whatsoever, that which is quick frozen on the ship where it was caught. These days, even the pre-cooking and quick freezing processing is actually done on the fishing vessel. Quicker and cheaper for the fishermen—and a whole lot safer for you.
If you are going to insist on purchasing pre-cooked seafood items that have been thawed at the retail store and then placed in the full-service case, at least look very carefully at just what it is you are buying. One, first and foremost—look for darkening of the product. Two, and right behind number one—look for a shiny or slimy appearance to the product. These are two really good indicators of product that has set out for far too long.
And product you most definitely do not want on your dinner table at home.
Watch those expiration dates on packaged items like a hawk. Employees are supposed to go through all of the stock daily to cull out expired or near to expiring prepackaged items. Does it happen?
Not by a long shot.
Look a long time at prepackaged product that arrives at the store frozen, but is then thawed by store personnel and dated as to expiration. I have seen a lot of toying around with those dates to reduce shrink. Are they always unsafe? No. Can they be unsafe? You bet. If I were you I would mostly trust the prepacked items that are dated at the processing facility, rather than at the retail store.
Remember, as always—the life you save might be your own. Or that of someone you love even more than yourself.
Next up—Ready to eat, and ready to cook food items. And worst of all—in store prepared sample items.
Or, as I like to call it: A roadmap through a food safety minefield.
Thanks for reading today. Back next time with Chapter Nine: Ready to Eat, and Ready to Cook Product . . . or, Through the Minefield.
Until then . . . goodnight.
Dumb Joke of the day:
Why didn’t the melons get married?
Because they cantaloupe