In the grocery world, Black Friday comes on a Wednesday. The day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest (think: top two) days, industry-wide. Shopping carts and baskets are filled with predictable wares, from crescent rolls to sausage to sage. Everything (from creamed corn to staff) is beefed up in stores the week prior to Thanksgiving. And the typically segmented marketplace — including conventional, specialty, discount, and natural — comes together for a singular goal: to help customers get out the door, preferably with everything they need in one stop.
I can honestly say I have no idea how a typical shopper feels when facing shopping cart jams, bursting-at-the-seams parking lots, and French fried onion scavenger hunts. As soon as I was old enough to purchase food for Thanksgiving, I was already engulfed by the grocery life, and my many colleagues and me, the day before Thanksgiving means adrenaline- and coffee-fueled magic.
It's filled with backroom turkey bowling (best with frozen, not fresh birds), pizza delivery (through the back door), and sometimes even (rumored) mimosas in the meat department.
My first Thanksgiving after leaving the retail side of things revealed a hole. I missed the chaos, the bagging Tetris, the conversations with customers as I carried groceries to their cars. That first year, I made up excuses to head to the grocery (including taking part in three meals) to reconnect.
Grocery people wear many hats this week. Here are a few of the roles they play that go way beyond stocking shelves during Thanksgiving — all reasons to be thankful for them this holiday.
Your grocer is your tour guide and problem-solver.
No one knows the Thanksgiving dinner as well as your grocer. They’re prepared with cooking advice, shopping lists, and substitution suggestions. Grocery veteran Matt Brown (who recently opened his own market in rural Ohio) says the day's about guiding customers through all their Thanksgiving problems, "You're always going to have that one customer come in who didn't order a turkey, didn't order the sides, and is cooking Thanksgiving for the first time. They're getting ready to feed their entire extended family. They need you to tell them how long to bake a pie or cook a turkey."
Your grocer is your event planner.
It's not uncommon for grocery stores to host demos, wine tastings, and even yoga classes these days, but the logistics of these events are minuscule compared to prepping for a day when literally every customer is coming to purchase the same 25 items. In an event-planning mindset, the days prior to Thanksgiving are more like the State Fair than a bridal shower. Grocers are hanging signage, staffing greeters at the doors, and painting floor graphics to guide traffic to pre-ordered turkeys and special orders.
On Thanksgiving, your grocer is a soothsayer.
Most grocery folks can recite the most-forgotten items on Thanksgiving from memory. Brown's list is quick: "It's normally been butter. Celery. Gravy. And heavy whipping cream, 36 percent."
Pro Tip: Ask your grocery what you're missing in your Thanksgiving basket. They'll tell you.
Your grocer is your personal shopper.
For independents, heading to a chain store prior to the rush, or even in the middle of the day, is commonplace. I once paid a friend to drive 250 miles round-trip to pick up two cases of Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn from a distributor who had shorted the store. From Brussels sprouts to frozen pearl onions, markets are willing to lose the margin by buying retail from a competitor to make sure the customer doesn’t leave disappointed.
On Thanksgiving, your butcher is an athlete.
Many stores store their turkeys in trailer trucks behind the store. There's just not enough cooler or freezer space in the regular footprint of the store to hold the number of turkeys purchased the days before Thanksgiving. This means, of course, that an elaborate behind-the-scenes relay race occurs with each turkey handed to a customer. From running to tossing to yelling out the poundage ("20-pounder, coming through!") the spectacle is mesmerizing.
Everyone in grocery is an optimist.
For most people I know in the grocery industry, the fun of Thanksgiving isn't about the money that comes in from all those full shopping carts. (Profit sharing isn't the norm in the industry.)
"It's not about the money," says Brown, "Not from my standpoint. It's about seeing the customer happy, and that they chose your store to prepare them for the biggest food day of the year. It's the one day of the year everyone is happy to go to the grocery store. It's a fun day for the customer and the store associates' interactions. Nothing can go wrong that day.
"You don't want to go home. You're so tired, but you want to stay. You want to be there to help everyone, to help them get everything you can. Because the next day, you will be there to relax."