The price of bananas is displayed on a digital price tag at a 365 by Whole Foods Market grocery store.
The modern American supermarket might stock up to 50,000 items. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

In his new book, Michael Ruhlman charts the overlap of food, commerce, and identity.

On Saturday mornings, Michael Ruhlman’s father would post up at the family’s breakfast nook in suburban Cleveland, scribbling the week’s grocery list on a legal pad. The lists were rambling, but the younger Ruhlman often wondered if his father derived some pleasure from forgetting one or two things. Those omitted items required a return trip to the supermarket—another chance to gawk at the bounty on the shelves.

In his new book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, Ruhlman—the acclaimed author of Ratio and The Soul of a Chef—backgrounds his familial lore with exhaustive reporting. The result is a sort of love letter to the institution of the grocery store, and to characters who have helped meet a basic and primal need. Over the course of 22 chapters, he chronicles the foundations and the changing face of the grocery industry, from mom-and-pop corner stores to modern monopolies and the outfits that fall somewhere in between.

Selling food is indeed big business—for proof, look no further than Amazon forking over $14 billion to acquire Whole Foods. But more than that, Ruhlman argues, the process of buying groceries in America—ambling, on average, once or twice a week through cathedrals of food—illuminates more than just our bellies’ whims. The supermarket is ground zero for debates about health, sustainability, and sustenance in its myriad forms. “Though we aren’t often reflective or thoughtful about grocery stores,” Ruhlman writes, “they are in truth a barometer of our country’s collective state of mind.” CityLab chatted with Ruhlman about the history of feeding cities and the future of the grocery store—and our relationship to food—in the on-demand era.

Bring us up to speed about how people in U.S. cities have shopped for their groceries.

In the early part of the century, no matter where you were living, you had the greengrocers, where you got produce. You had your grocery stores, which sold shelf-stable goods stuffed in boxes and cans and jars. You went to a butcher for meat, you went to a fishmonger for your fish, and you went to a dairy store for your butter, milk, and cream. In cities, that just sort of hung on a little longer, and still is possible because of the population density and the density of stores. New York City and other densely populated areas are kind of unusual animals in the grocery world. They sort of operate on a different level.

I remember getting our milk delivered when I was a child in the '60s. But that ended. Most people don't get their groceries delivered. Most people still have to go to a store to get them. Online delivery [today] is a sliver of the entire amount of money we spend on groceries.

But that share is growing. As many as 1 in 4 American adults have purchased a meal kit in the past year, and a recent report from Nielsen and the Food Marketing Institute forecast that consumers would spend $100 billion on online grocery purchases by 2025—that’s about 20 percent of the whole grocery pie. Is meal delivery the future of urban grocery shopping?

In Manhattan, where I live, a lot of people use Fresh Direct, and a lot of people do the meal kits [such as Blue Apron or Sun Basket]. People can get delivery from their D'Agostino [a local chain of upscale markets] around the corner. They have all kinds of options. And now they’re going to have more and more options than ever before. In cities, [food delivery] will really work. It's a headache to bring home a lot of heavy groceries. People are very busy; people don't cook quite as often.

That said, I think you’re always going to have the dilemma of wanting the convenience of delivery but wanting to actually pick out and see and hold the fresh produce, the steak, the pork chop that you're going to purchase and not rely on somebody else choosing it for you. That's going to be the biggest hurdle for online grocers.

Tell us more about the relationship you map out between urban planning and the arrival of the supermarket model, which was fueled by the uptick in car ownership and availability of sprawling warehouse spaces.

Arguably the first supermarket chain, King Kullen [which opened in Queens in 1930], put the grocery store off the main street, off the shopping area, where normally a grocer might go. They put in a parking garage off to the side—guaranteeing good parking, that was key.

Even in the 1930s, we see that moving [supermarkets] out of the dense, commercial area into a less-populated area was beginning. That certainly played out in a major way in the 1950s, with the highway system and cars taking over American life. The expansion out away from cities to the suburbs allowed for bigger stores, bigger parking lots, and cars to transport a lot of heavy goods back to your house.

Was the supermarket model ever a good fit for cities?

I don't think the big supermarket model works in a place like Manhattan, because real estate is too scarce. The D'Agostino I go to is probably 2,000 square feet or 3,000 square feet. Your typical suburban grocery store can be 90,000 square feet.

The supermarket model is difficult to make work in bigger cities, because the real estate is so expensive and the grocery business has such an extraordinarily slim margin—around 1.25 percent. If you do $100 million dollars in sales, you only do $1 million in profit. That's not really a good business model. So it's just much more difficult. [In New York City,] Whole Foods is going heavily into prepared foods and becoming more like a social place, [with] a restaurant-like atmosphere. That's how they are trying to differentiate themselves.

One way to ease those space constraints might be through adaptive reuse projects. You chronicle one in Cleveland, in which the disused Cleveland Trust building was reimagined as an outpost of the local Heinen’s chain in an area where development projects were hoping to lure new residents. What lessons could be drawn out for other neighborhoods that are either right-sizing, expanding, or trying to alleviate food deserts?

Well, they're still learning and they still don't know if it's going to work. They'll need the population of that part of downtown Cleveland to grow. They knew there were not going to make money, and didn't do it for that reason. They weren't going to make it for a while. From that standpoint, it's not a good model.

I use the example of a grocery store in Louisiana, in a food desert: It stayed open a year and then it closed, even though there are lots of people who need it around there. It's a very hard business. Urban food deserts and rural food deserts are big problems. And it's clear that people who live there are more sick and tend to die earlier than people who live near easy access to fresh food in grocery stores.

Do you think online delivery services can play a meaningful role here?

Possibly, but that food is pretty expensive: You've got to pay for packaging, you've got to pay for transportation. It's hard to make the numbers work. Until we diminish the cost of door-to-door delivery, it's not going to help these people. It's hard for them to afford fresh food period, let alone boxed and delivered to their doorstep.

A&P was vilified for gobbling up smaller shops as its empire expanded nearly a century ago. Any lessons there for today’s grocers about how to survive behemoths like Amazon?

Some people will say it's going to hurt. It can decimate the mid-level, smaller family chains. Other people think that Amazon will do to groceries what they did to bookstores, which is initially sort of wipe out the bigger ones, like Borders. But right now, for those people wanting curated books and interaction with other readers, many independent bookstores are thriving because of Amazon. That's that's the other side of it. It could be a boon for these grocers. It certainly could make them change their whole business model, becoming more and more specialty-goods oriented.

Whole Foods was once a niche store: It sold organics before they were mainstream; same with gluten-free goods. Now those are everywhere. Is the key to carve out an ever-narrower niche?

They may need to focus on getting a higher and higher quality product, the kind of product that you can't get anywhere else. Whole Foods did do that originally, until everybody started bringing in stuff you get at Whole Foods. [As a result,] the only thing that distinguished Whole Foods from other grocery stores was higher prices. And that's not a good way to distinguish yourself.

I think there will have to be more, not necessarily niche, but they're going to have to be more refined—become more like a specialty-goods purveyor.

For you, food seems to function as a proxy for a bigger value system. What does the present moment in the grocery world say about us as a country?

It definitely shows a population that cares increasingly about its health, how it feels, and is looking for better products and better information about ways to eat that make us feel good and not shitty. I'm very hopeful about the quality of the food, that it's only going to get higher.

But only if people buy it, right? You talk a lot about customers voting with their dollars.

Well, but they are. We buy a lot of shit, too, of course. But that's why Whole Foods is possible. It was more expensive, but people wanted the stuff and they they changed the food system. They made all that healthful stuff available to grocers, as well. One grocery store changed the way we eat in America.

What does it suggest about us as a society if these stores disappear?

All I know is that it will continue to reflect in greater ways who we are, what we desire, what what we’re confused by, and any number of cultural facets that define our characters. You know, the food we buy is who we are. What's in the grocery store tells us who we are.

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