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Market Disrupted: How Piggly Wiggly Revolutionized Grocery Shopping

Walking the aisles of your local supermarket may feel like a pretty mundane task. But 100 years ago, it was downright revolutionary.

On September 6, 1916, hundreds of curious shoppers came out for the opening of a new grocery store at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. A festive atmosphere greeted them, complete with a beauty contest and a brass band. Smartly dressed employees handed out flowers to the ladies and balloons to children. The store—located on a busy commercial stretch just three blocks east of the river—was the perfect excuse for some afternoon shopping, and maybe a stroll along the waterfront.

But what drew so many people that day wasn’t the location or the festivities. For weeks, they’d seen billboards and read newspaper ads about this grocery store with the funny name that promised an entirely new shopping experience—one that would, according to its owner, forever change the retail grocery business.

SETTING UP SHOP

Up until that point, retail stores all operated according to the same model: Customers placed their order with a clerk, who would then gather and bag all their items and total up the cost. With its "self-service" model, the Piggly Wiggly on Jefferson Avenue would do away with the clerks and let customers do something they’d never done before: select the products themselves.

Upon entering the store, shoppers found themselves standing before a brightly lit showroom floor. After walking through a swinging door, they followed a pathway that led them through four aisles stacked high with more than 1000 products—everything from canned vegetables to cornflakes, bags of flour to jars of preserves. National brands like Campbell’s soup and Walker Baker & Co. chocolate bars sat within arms’ reach. For the first time, they could pick their own produce and weigh it on store scales. A refrigerator case with cabinet doors invited them to pick out a tub of butter or a bottle of milk. Instead of ordering flour by weight, to be measured out by a store employee, they found pre-bagged flour in neat stacks. All of the prices were clearly marked with tags hanging over each item, allowing customers to perform a side-by-side comparison of different brands.

Once they’d selected their goods, shoppers arrived at a counter where an employee manned an adding machine and a register. Cash was the only accepted payment method. After paying, shoppers then received something else many of them had never before seen: a printed receipt.

An ad from 1928. genibee via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Grocery managers throughout Memphis thought the Piggly Wiggly was a joke. But the man behind the concept, successful businessman Clarence Saunders, was very serious. The Virginia native built his career in the cutthroat Memphis wholesaling business. He rose quickly through the ranks by excelling at two roles: salesman and business consultant. And he brought those skills to the Piggly Wiggly. Retail customers came to rely on Saunders’s considerable business acumen, along with the many products he offered. When paying a visit to stores, Saunders would often walk the floor with managers, pointing out where they should hang a sign or move a product to maximize sales.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Saunders shrewdly surveyed the grocery industry, and what he saw was waste—wasted money, wasted space, and wasted time. Grocers had forged valuable relationships with their customers, but the quality of their goods was inconsistent at best. They also frequently neglected to list prices, which meant employees could (and often did) charge two customers two completely different amounts. Look at a clerk the wrong way, and he might upcharge you a few cents. And even though grocers offered helpful services like home delivery and store credit, they would typically charge a third above the manufacturer’s cost for each item—a grossly inflated markup, Saunders thought.

The biggest waste Saunders saw in the grocery industry was labor costs. Funneling every order through the store clerks meant long wait times during busy hours. When the store wasn’t busy, clerks were essentially paid to socialize with one another. Get rid of the counter clerks, Saunders thought, and you get more customers picking out more products at any given time, and without paying idle employees during slow hours.

In newspaper ads for Piggly Wiggly, Saunders laid out the reasoning behind his self-service model (with a dash of humor):

"Piggly Wiggly knows its own business best and its business will be this: To have no store clerks gab and smirk while folks are standing around ten deep to get waited on. Every customer will be her own clerk, so if she wants to talk to a can of tomatoes and kill her time, all right and well—and it seems likely this might be a mighty lonesome chat."

The businessman also smartly linked his concept with blue-collar values and good old American self-sufficiency. Shoppers didn’t need to be waited on; if they wanted something, they should be able to reach out and take it. A pre-opening advertisement proclaimed, "Piggly Wiggly will be born in a few days … not with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a work shirt on his back."

THE BUSINESS OF CHANGE

Shoplifting was a concern—one his competitors frequently raised in ridiculing the self-service model. They found it preposterous, too, that Piggly Wiggly didn’t accept store credit, and didn’t offer home delivery.

Saunders, though, believed people would follow the rules. Moreover, he believed shoppers would quickly adjust to Piggly Wiggly’s way of doing business because it offered lower prices and more, cleaner, higher-quality goods than competitors. "Your food at Piggly Wiggly will not be dropped on the floor, knocked over by the clerks; not scattered all over the delivery wagon nor stepped on," another advertisement read.

A Piggly Wiggly circa 1918. Steve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Some customers found the self-service model confusing, while others refused to go along with it. In another advertisement (Saunders was a voracious ad buyer), Saunders told the story of a shopper who refused to handle a stick of butter, and instead went across the street to a competing grocer, where she paid more to have the same product taken off the shelf and bagged for her.

Most people, however, were more than happy to do the work of shopping. They loved the wide selection of products—four times that of a typical grocery—and thought nothing of paying three cents to rent a basket to carry with them through the store (Saunders would eventually do away with this fee). They appreciated the price tags on display, and returned frequently to see if they had changed. They were quite pleased, too, with the low prices, which reflected just a 14 percent margin above the manufacturers’ costs.

NATIONWIDE BUY-IN

Everything about the Piggly Wiggly on Jefferson Avenue was ahead of its time, from the huge selection to the shopping baskets to the tiny hooks fixed over each product that allowed employees to quickly swap out price tags. Even the lighting—long, flat fixtures attached to the ceiling that illuminated every aisle—was revolutionary.

Within just a few months, Piggly Wiggly had sold $80,000 more than the average grocer did in the same time period, while also slashing business costs by more than two thirds.

Saunders had sky-high ambitions for his self-service grocery. Just weeks after opening the first Piggly Wiggly, he opened a second across town, calling it "Piggly Wiggly Junior." The next month he built a third location, which he gave the regal-sounding name "Piggly Wiggly the Third." In December of 1916, he opened "Piggly Wiggly the Fourth." Over the next two decades, The Pig, as it came to be known, spread across the South and the Midwest, eventually reaching more than 2500 stores by the 1930s. Competitors eventually caught up with the self-service format, and after various mergers and acquisitions Piggly Wiggly's reach was whittled down to the 600 or so that exist today.

An ad promoting the cash registers Piggly Wiggly used so successfully, from 1962.
roadsidepictures via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Saunders, unfortunately, wasn’t along for the ride. He exited the company in 1923 following a stock market fight in which he drove up the price of Piggly Wiggly’s stock and was deemed to have cornered the market. He opened a chain of stores under the name "Clarence Saunders, Sole Owner of My Name Stores," but struggled during the Great Depression and had to close. In 1937, he tried to reinvent the supermarket again with the Keedoozle, an automated format that quickly fizzled out. Convinced machines were the future of food retailing, he developed the Foodelectric, an even more complex system that would help customers decide what products they wanted to buy. It remained unfinished by the time he died, in 1953.

Despite his struggles late in life, Saunders had already paved the way for the modern supermarket. Innovations like the shopping basket, refrigerator case, and cash register became industry standards. On a larger scale, the self-service model helped groceries evolve from corner stores into high-volume, low-margin supermarkets. Products expanded as manufacturers vied for customers’ attention, and aisles quickly filled up with colorful packages, signs and other promotions. Brand recognition became big business as companies got rich selling everything from shaving cream to pancake batter.

Next time you're shopping, imagine, if you can, reaching out and grabbing that can of soup or that box of cereal for the first time. It might elevate the experience, if only just a little bit. It might even take you back a century to a small but mighty grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee.

Banner image credit: Whatknot, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Additional resource: Clarence Saunders and the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise & Fall of a Memphis.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

Original image
REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images
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Food
A Famed French Chef Is Begging Michelin to Take Away His 3 Stars
Original image
REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

A Michelin star, which rewards excellence in cooking, is a huge deal in the restaurant world. Aside from the prestige the ratings convey, they drive significant business: In 2010, Eater reported that a Michelin star could result in up to a 25 percent increase in sales for a restaurant. But the honor isn’t always welcome.

In a rare move, a French restaurateur is asking to be stripped of his three Michelin stars. Chef Sébastien Bras, whose family restaurant in Laguiole, France, has appeared as a three-star eatery in the Guide Michelin France since 1999, has asked to be removed from future editions of the influential guide, The Guardian reports.

A Michelin star—or three, the guide's highest designation—can create a lot of anxiety for a restaurant. That increase in business isn’t always a good thing. In February 2017, a tiny, casual French restaurant that employed only four waiters was listed in the Guide Michelin France by mistake (another restaurant with the same name should have been included). It was unprepared for the sudden influx of customers who showed up expecting an award-winning meal.

In a Facebook video, Bras announced his decision to ask for his restaurant to be removed from the guide. He said that while the award had given him great satisfaction over the years, it also created a huge amount of pressure, since the restaurant could be inspected at any time without warning. Bras plans to continue cooking, just without the prestigious designation.

However, a representative from Michelin told AFP that the removal process isn’t automatic, and the decision would have to be considered by the executive committee that awards the stars.

He’s not the only one who has chafed at the honor of a Michelin star. In 2014, a Spanish chef returned the star awarded to his family restaurant outside of Valencia, saying being in a Michelin guide gave patrons specific expectations of what his food would be like, stifling his creativity. Other chefs have also chafed at the expectations a Michelin star creates around their food, including the owner of a French restaurant that wanted to transform into a more casual eatery and a Belgian chef who said that after his restaurant appeared in the restaurant guide, customers were no longer interested in the simple food he wanted to serve.

[h/t The Guardian]

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