Amazon is buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, an acquisition that will likely shift how dads—and everyone else—shop for groceries. But Michael Ruhlman, award-winning food writer and author of the new book Grocery: The Buying And Selling Of Food In America, says the deal is part of a larger trend. “People are trying to figure out how to sell food and make money off it.”
In Grocery, Ruhlman examines how we eat and why grocery stores are such an ofterlooked ally in the battle for intelligent consumption. And he frames it all by explaining how shopping with his dad kicked off his lifelong passion for food and cooking. Speaking with Fatherly, Ruhlman elaborated on what he learned from diving headfirst into the supermarket business and what Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods means for the industry, before sharing some advice about how to help kids learn to make smart choices in the checkout line.
In Grocery, you describe shopping with your dad. How did your father’s love for the supermarket shape your work?
I had no idea how impactful my father’s love of grocery stores would be until I started writing about them. He loved grocery stores. He loved grocery stores because he loved to eat, and they were a world of flavor and opportunity, and a land of wonder for him. He helped me appreciate the wonder of grocery stores, which we take for granted too often.
Since then, you’ve become something of a grocery expert. How did that happen?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert. I don’t there is an expert out there. It’s just a vast, sprawling business. I could have written 10, 12 different books on each department of the grocery store. I could have written a book just about the business side of the grocery store. There’s just so many facets to it. But you learn a lot when you just hang out at a grocery store. I packed groceries, I went on excursions to food expos, ranches, fish auctions. I learn about something by hanging around.
What’s the difference between a “grocery store” and a “supermarket”? I always considered them synonyms.
There’s no literal difference. Supermarkets and grocery stores are interchangeable. It used to be that a grocer or grocery store sold shelf-stable products and the green grocer sold produce and the butcher sold meat. Today, the “grocery” in the grocery store is a department at the center of the store with goods on the shelves. We lost the distinction [between “grocery” and “supermarket”] in the 30’s when King Kullen opened his first supermarket, a market with all departments under one roof.
But there’s also a connotation to the words “grocery” and “grocery store”. It conjures a notion of something more friendly and personal than a supermarket, which is impersonal. We call [people who work in supermarkets] “grocers”, we don’t call them supermarketers. “Grocery” is nostalgic. It takes us back to a time when we knew the person who sold us our food.
Your book describes how our relationship with the supermarket has changed. Can you walk us through what it was like for a working dad to grocery shop in the 1950s, and how that has evolved to the present day?
Well, in the 1950s you didn’t see a guy in a grocery store. It was the women who did the shopping, because they weren’t working yet. They would shop during the day. As women entered the workforce in the 60s, you’d see men and women loading up baskets on Saturday, because it was the only day they could shop. Both of my parents worked, and union rules had grocery stores closing at 6:00 PM on weeknights and closed on Sundays, so the only time they could do their food shopping was on Saturdays. That’s what Saturday was for—gathering all the food for the entire week and putting it away.
And then the food market fragmented in the ’80s. Stores were bought up by multinational corporations, and you could shop anytime you wanted. The big change is that food retail is fragmented and it continues to fragment with online retail, Fresh Direct, and now who knows what’s going to happen next. Amazon just bought Whole Foods…
Exactly! Do you think the Amazon-Whole Foods deal is part of a trend? Will it change how we consume?
It’ll definitely influence how we shop, I think, but that’s just part of a larger trend. People are trying to figure out how to sell food and how to make money off it. Whole Foods had to be in great trouble, which is why the acquisition is great news for Whole Foods and, I think, I a big headache for Amazon. We’ll see. Whole Foods changed the whole food system. It created new products, a range of organic options, hormone-free beef, but now everyone has that. Supermarkets have it, and have more of it than Whole Foods. The only thing to distinguish Whole Foods now is that they cost more—and that’s not a good way to distinguish yourself. I’m interested to see what happens with this acquisition. I have no idea.
What’s likely to come next? Any predictions about the future of grocery shopping in America?
Continued fragmentation. Increasingly different ways to get our food, increasing numbers of products, increasing quality of that product—all those things. And they’re going to be higher-quality because we’re demanding higher quality. We’re starting to realize the importance of food so I think it’ll be done well, if only because of the power of consumer demand and where we put our dollars. We the consumer determine what’s on our shelves more than the grocer does. The grocer just responds to us.
Any advice for dads who want their kids to grow up mindful of the food they eat?
Shop with your kids. Show them what’s good and what’s bad. If you don’t know, figure it out.
And cook with your kids. That’s how we change the food system—we teach our kids to cook. I had my daughter whisking sauce when she was in a backpack. So it’s never too early. As soon as they start to show interest, let them know what good food is, and show them. Once they’re tall enough to reach the stove, it’s time to show them how to cook an egg or make a simple tomato sauce, boil some pasta, make some dough. Doughy stuff is great for kids. It’s simple. Don’t think cooking is hard.