I never thought of myself as a merchandiser. In fact, I didn’t know the first thing about what went on at supermarket check stands, except you put your grocery items on the belt and the checker rang them up and put them in your bag. As I began to learn about all the products that were placed in view of customers right there at the ‘point of sale’ and tried to design a display rack that would fit in to each setting, I realized that somebody had to install them and maintain them. That is the job of the merchandiser, either store employees or someone from outside paid by a food distributor.
I also discovered that the space at the check stand is the most expensive and sought after spot in a supermarket and we were asking retailers to give us that real estate gratis. But we had no budget to hire people to do the installation and maintenance of our displays. And I soon discovered that store employees had lots of tasks to occupy their attention. It was not going to be realistic to expect them to take care of re-stocking our FOOD FOR ALL cards. We had to devise a way to support our program. This was my job and apparently no one else was going to take it on--the ultimate on-the-job training program.
Not that I was unwilling. I had designed the very first displays, clunky heavy metal jobs with adjustable brackets to fit on top of the magazine and candy racks. The cards had dye cut oblong holes that hung on removable metal pegs. The racks cost us about seven dollars each, which is fine when we had about a dozen supermarkets involved. But now we were faced with supplying a few hundred supermarkets with an average of 10 check stands. Fortunately I had acquired some friends in the industry who helped design some more appropriate racks which were attractive and also cheaper. And we were hoping that retailers would step up and manufacture their own racks to hold our cards. I don’t remember who came up with the ingenious idea to make a simple white-coated wire with three pegs that could be attached with two metal screws to a magazine rack, but he was a genius in my book. Then the cards only needed a small hole drilled in the top center of the cards and they would hang just as easily as our old cards. That meant we had to have all new cards printed. We hadn’t paid Lucky Stores for the last million cards that their billing department kept sending us invoices for.
With this as our credential, we charged ahead with expansion plans. What was in our favor, at the beginning of our fiscal year 1989-90, was a phenomenon that would impact our future, for good and ill, called “mergers and acquisitions,” a trend in the food industry that would be accelerating in the coming years. Lucky Stores was in the process of being acquired by American Stores, Inc., based in Salt Lake City, which had already acquired the Alpha Beta chain in Southern California. We approached Alpha Beta at the very beginning of our test program and were placed “under consideration,” as we were by other retailers, including Stater Bros., Vons, Ralphs, Albertson’s, etc. Now, due to some unfathomable twist of fate, we got the go-ahead from Alpha Beta to install FOOD FOR ALL in their 160 stores in Southern California, followed soon after by Lucky Stores Northern California Division’s 153 supermarkets (we had actually clandestinely got their 7 San Leandro stores to test the program in preparation for this expansion).
I already mentioned that I was not a merchandiser. So I wondered, “How were we to install our displays in another 400 supermarkets by Christmas 1989?” To our good fortune, Mike Mathers, an Alpha Beta executive, stepped up to the plate and arranged for the printing of a million FOOD FOR ALL cards, manufacturing of racks, and installing displays in all of their stores. Not that we were off the hook. We had to arrange for the packing of 160 boxes with all the displays and cards to be picked up and distributed to their stores. So we just recruited about 20 volunteers, asked my Mentone Congregational Church if we could use the church building, and one Saturday packed up all the boxes to be picked up and delivered. We were now operational in another 160 stores.
The installation of the program in 153 northern California Lucky Stores was not so easy. As I mentioned earlier, I was not a merchandiser. Nevertheless, I found myself in my 1970 VW bus, loaded with displays and FOOD FOR ALL cards, driving the I-5 to northern California, personally installing displays and FOOD FOR ALL cards in Lucky Stores, sometimes in the middle of the night (many supermarkets were open 24 hours). I loved it! San Francisco was my “home turf.” I “left my heart in San Francisco” many years before. My VW bus made it through many merchandising trips during this and the coming years. I was still a full time volunteer, but I had no complaints.
Don’t get me wrong. While I was having all this fun, our people were working too. Linda was writing grants and recruiting and training volunteers to sustain the grassroots programs that undergirded our program expansion. Diane Adams, our Coordinator of Volunteers was pulling off a World Food Day event involving 2000 volunteers at our participating supermarkets. Pepsi and Louis Rich supported the promotion, as well as several California radio stations. In New England, Walbaum’s Foot Mart continued its support by giving all proceeds from their annual food show to FOOD FOR ALL, and involving their employees in promotions. We were able to keep the program alive with a part time staff person and donated office space in Hartford.
By the end of our fiscal year in June of 1989-90, 650 supermarkets were participating; grants to anti-hunger agencies surpassed $1 million; there were 26 local grant committees; hundreds of local organizations, and 14 international projects were grant recipients. Ten Consensus for Action Think Tanks on Hunger were held (of the 40 over three years), resulting in new strategies to address hunger.
Five food manufacturing companies had come forward in support of the FOOD FOR ALL program. Most notable of these was Hunt-Wesson, due to the connection with Frank Quevedo, Director of Corporate Relations, who would become a significant member of our Board of Directors and a good friend in the coming years.
At the fourth annual meeting of FOOD FOR ALL, attended by 35 persons, the stage was set for a major effort to reach out to the food industry and the public. This was followed by a January 1990 planning retreat of our Board of Directors and advisors, at which a campaign was announced to extend FOOD FOR ALL to all retailers in Southern California. This was to include the media, celebrity endorsements, and grassroots education.
During the fiscal year 1989-90, our Board of Directors was increased to 12 members, including Beverly Archer, actress, and John Benner, Senior Vice President of Lucky Stores, who is to become a trusted friend and eventually Chairman of our Board of Directors. Others from the food industry are Lynda Trelut of Nob Hill Foods, Bill Christy of Certified Grocers, Dan Lescoe of Waldbaum’s Food Mart, and Bob Inadomi of JonSons Markets. Neill Richards, an original supporter and member of our Funds Distribution Advisory Board, as well as Director of Hunger Programs of the United Church of Christ, also joined our Board.
The Food Industry Advisory Board of nine added Frank Quevedo of Hunt-Wesson; our Funds Distribution Advisory Board grew to 13, and the Public Relations Advisory board had 11 members.
FOOD FOR ALL staff held at eight (again, plus yours truly, still a full-time volunteer). Our most notable staff addition during the year was Lisa Dewey, a young and enthusiastic woman who came to us because she wanted to make a difference. Lisa was hired to coordinate our newly conceived supermarket employee involvement program and Southern California store expansion effort. This was one of those initiatives that took longer to bear fruit than we anticipated. Lisa left us after a year to go on to a successful teaching career, but many of the connections she made produced results in the form of supermarket employees who became Store Ambassadors and chairs of Local Grant committees for several years to come. We remain close friends with Lisa and her husband to this day. This has been one of the side benefits of the thirteen years of our involvement in FOOD FOR ALL, that we have maintained these friendships through the years.
So a good deal of my time during our fiscal year 1989-90 was devoted to learning the merchandising trade: many hours, days, and weeks on the road in my trusty 1970 VW bus, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of a rainstorm, once in the middle of a snowstorm, driving from supermarket to supermarket, with just my Thomas Bros. map book (we did not have GPS or cell phones). Arriving at a store, checking in with the store manager, working around the checkers and customers, beginning to install a display only to be told “you need to move to another aisle—we need to open this lane.” This was all part of the on-the-job training experience of a FOOD FOR ALL merchandiser.
The learning did not stop with installation and maintenance. When one of our store ambassadors would call with a frantic “All the FOOD FOR ALL displays are gone,” we discovered that supermarket chains had a schedule of total replacement of front ends. When this happened, store managers were notified, a crew arrived in the night and replaced everything—except the FOOD FOR ALL displays. After a couple of years we became adept at keeping in closer touch with store operations personnel, to try to get there in time to salvage our precious donation cards.
Another lesson we learned early in the year: The Alpha Beta rack designer came up with his own idea—a ‘spinner’ rack with our cards hanging on rotating hooks. The trouble was that many stores’ check stands were very close to the front entrances with sliding doors. On windy days we would often find our cards ‘spinning’ right off the racks. Then employees would solve the problem by wrapping a plastic grocery bag around the cards. Problem solved—theirs, not ours.
Thankfully, while I was learning to be a merchandiser, I had people who were continuing to build the support systems for the next phase of FOOD FOR ALL. Stay tuned.