Testing My Good Nature

Michael Nagrant / 10.18.06

sunflower market
I fetishize grocery stores like Imelda Marcos reveres shoes. For Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City,” it might be Manolo or Jimmy, but for me, it’s Fox and Obel. Grocery shopping is my compulsive athletic competition.

I visit an average of three stores weekly. Trader Joes for cheap staples, wine deals and the Maitre Pierre Alsatian Tarte (at $4.29 you couldn’t even afford to buy the gruyere cheese to make your own). Then there’s a specialty run to Whole Foods or Green City Market for farm fresh produce and, finally, a stop at Dominick’s.

Yes, Dominick’s. I’ll lose my gourmand card for this, but the other guys don’t sell pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets (I know the hottest places in hell are being stoked for me, but there’s something inescapably tasty about cardboard pastry filled with spicy chunks of pseudo-meat) and Kraft Mac and Cheese (whatever’s available elsewhere can’t beat the powdered stuff).

I also regularly hit up Gepperth’s for my carnivorous desires and Dirk’s for my pescatarian needs. My record, for a dinner party last year: seven grocery stores plus fresh masa from a Pilsen tortilleria for sopes. Damn you Rick Bayless!

So when the Sunflower Market at 1910 North Clybourn opened, I was lining up like the White Sox faithful for 2005 World Series tickets. Sunflower’s got a large parking lot, which is nice respite from a section of Clybourn that rivals the traffic on the construction-riddled Dan Ryan. My fevered bliss was pitched.

Just inside, towers of organic apples and sun-dappled heirloom tomatoes burst forth from their containers. I dashed into Sunflower’s walk-in crisper and surveyed a candy-colored assortment of beets and bushels of leafy greens. As I grabbed for a bunch of rippled arugula my hand was suddenly doused by a spray from the overhead misters. Unlike Dominick’s, there was no fake rumble of thunder and a cheerful warning.

As I left soaked and cold, I noticed a woman fumbling with a digital scale. She beckoned to me with a distressed look on her face. Sunflower Market has self-help stations so you can weigh and tag your groceries before checkout. The woman didn’t speak English and had no idea what to do, so I looked at her vine-ripened tomatoes, checked for the item number and plugged it in. The machine spit out a price tag. Now it was my turn. A couple of non-existent PLU’s for the beets and ten minutes later, my produce was ready for checkout.

According to the store this is completely voluntary, but everyone else is doing it. By having a bounty of these stations littered throughout the section, the message is clear: if you ignore this directive, you will likely be the only schmuck who plonks down unlabeled goods.

I needed some cheap ground beef for Cincinnati chili, but all they had was expensive lean hormone-free grass beef. No problem, I was going to Trader Joes anyways.

Organic milk was on sale. The small “regular” label said $2.99, but there’s a fat green label that said “Save 50 cents”–awesome, so $2.49. Then I grab the milk and read the label closer, $2.99 is the sale price. Sunflower’s specials labels are poorly designed to make you think you’re saving more.

Dejected I ran for the checkout counter. The cashiers were backed up with long lines, but, sure enough, there were plenty of empty self-checkout stations.

Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Sunflower Market and other random bottom-dollar merchants, listen up: You think that we think you’re providing convenience, but we know what you’re really doing is making us do all the work ourselves, cutting down on your minimum-wage payrolls, and passing none of the savings on. If you want me to self-checkout, give me a discount.

Waiting in line for the “real” cashiers, I noticed a thumb scanner next to the credit-card machine. The cashier informed me that that they can scan my thumb and link it to a credit card or checking account. Do I really want my grocery store to store my biometrics? Maybe I’ll just have them do a DNA work-up too and they can send me coupons for orange juice, should I be on the verge of scurvy.

With a final total of $57.19 for a modest amount of produce, dairy and grass-fed beef (I caved), my wallet was sweating.

Trader Joes and Whole Food’s have an incredible selection compared to Sunflower, there’s no self-checkout and, as if the company water is laced with Paxil, there’s a whole army of eerily happy hipsters waiting to bag and tag for you. For now I’m done with Sunflower, and more than happy to live with Whole Food’s derisive nickname and hand over my “whole paycheck.”

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity Chicago.