I miss a lot of things in the COVID-19 World. I miss seeing my friends, I miss taking road trips, I miss eating out. One of the things I miss most, at least the way it used to be, is grocery shopping. For most of my adult life, it’s been an almost spiritual experience. I know that sounds strange, but hear me out. It’s a connection to my late father, Tony Martin, who would have turned 66 on May 3rd. He worked in the grocery business his entire life so it surrounded me as I grew up.
My grandfather, Hardy Martin, ran a Red Bud store in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Today, 140 E Main is a Simple Simon’s Pizza…but in the late 60s/early 70s it was the store where Dad learned about the grocery business from his father.
After leaving home, Dad continued to grow in the industry with Wells Food Market, Bestyet Foods, and a few others around northeast Oklahoma. Although he never went to college, he had a mind for data. You could ask him how much a can of Del Monte green beans cost a decade earlier and he could tell you. “He was a caring, thoughtful person to work with and a natural leader,” recalled a former coworker.
When I was born in 1981, Dad worked at Hobo Discount Foods in Claremore. Dad was hired in as management and worked hand-in-hand with the owner, Les Horner; in fact, Dad was so successful in running the store it became the highest volume store in the area. Sometimes they had to let people in a little at a time to stay within fire code.
When Les was ready to open a store in Tulsa he tapped Dad to be Store Director over both locations. This new store was going to be unlike any other grocer in the city: large, open, and operating so that the competition couldn’t match their prices. Price Mart on Admiral Blvd opened at 6925 E Admiral Place in 1984.
When a third store was on the horizon, Horner Foods decided they needed to put a formal office together. Dad was promoted from store director to head buyer for the organization (he had some business cards made up once that listed his title as Grocery Operations Director, or G.O.D.) Soon after, our family moved to Broken Arrow. His new job entailed negotiating prices with vendors, setting sale prices for the stores, laying out the weekly ad, and more.
Every year, the family would head up to Springfield Missouri for the annual ‘Associate Wholesale Grocers Food Show’, a convention where new products were showcased and deals were struck between buyers and sellers. I won a Nintendo Entertainment System there one year by achieving the top score on Super Mario Bros. The next year, I was not allowed to compete. One year, I ran to Mom and Dad to tell them one of the bakery booths had a birthday cake for someone that had the exact same name as me. Turns out Dad had arranged for it, as we were there during my birthday. I was so shocked to see my unusual name that logic never occurred to me.
Dad worked constantly. Every night he would bring home a briefcase full of work and sit at the kitchen table. On weekends, he would bring home two catalog cases’ worth of dot-matrix spreadsheets that listed internal products and pricing. He would often walk competitors stores with a micro-cassette recorder in his pocket, reciting prices under his breath as he wandered. He would replay those tapes while poring over the endless stacks of green-and-white paper, making notes. He made a deal with Coca-Cola once that was so lucrative that the Dallas manufacturing plant ran out of sugar.
For two decades, my father helped grow Horner Foods to fifteen stores, including the larger Price Marts and smaller Apple Markets in northeast Oklahoma. The company employed nearly 1,000 throughout the region. I’d get to go into the office with him on Saturday mornings and get a Coke out of the old bunker-style machine. Other times I might tag along for a late-night inventory in Claremore or Jay; as long as an adult was present, I could push the button on the cardboard box crusher in the back.
My first paycheck came from Horner Foods. When I was 15 1/2, I worked a temporary job as an inventory scanner at the Price Mart in Broken Arrow, just two miles from home. I took a hand-held scanner gun around the store and scanned the bar codes on the shelves for every item, comparing listed prices to the ones in the central database, making corrections as needed. After I turned sixteen, I became a full-time employee tasked with entry-level duties such as sacking and stocking.
I remember being so incredibly nervous to use the airphone. Surely you’ve heard it while shopping: there’s a tone over the intercom and then a message. Perhaps it’s a call for more checkers to come to the front. Other times, it’s a request for someone else to pick up on one of the two internal phone lines. “Jim Buckmaster, Green Line!” It’s an easy way to quickly communicate with someone in such a large space, but for a shy kid it’s nerve wracking.
After about eight months, I switched jobs and started working at a local video store. I never worked in the grocery business again. In 1999, Les Horner retired; our family moved to Topeka, KS where Dad served in a similar role to Falley’s / Food 4 Less. After he and Mom got divorced in the mid-2000s he worked as a diverter for United Wholesale Distributors in Lake Ozark, MO. Basically, he would buy a product that was cheap in one region and sell it to a buyer in another where it wasn’t as cheap. He really missed being in the stores, though.
In November of 2010, just two months before he died, he started working part-time for Acosta, Inc as an in-store merchandising rep. I remember trying in vain to help him set up the Windows phone they gave him to use in the field.
Today, all that remains are memories. Reasor’s bought the Price Marts when Les retired. The original store on Admiral is a Planet Fitness and the 31st and Mingo store is a thrift store. The Broken Arrow location was recently shuttered. Threee stores are still open as Reasor’s: Claremore, 71st and Sheridan, and 41st and Yale. The latter is within walking distance of my house. This brings me back to where I started: grocery shopping as a cathartic activity.
Right now, you can’t just go in and shop leisurely. To protect yourself and others, aisles are one-way. Masks are to be worn. Gloves are encouraged. Some products are simply not available. We disinfect everything we bring home before storing it. These are all important and necessary things to keep loved ones safe. I am happy to comply. I get stressed out when people aren’t taking it seriously; I get upset when people talk down to me for wearing a mask.
I miss wandering the aisles and hearing my father’s voice.