Disclaimer: My wife wanted me to tell you that I was not a loser in High School. In fact I was awesome, awesome I tell you...
When I was a teenager I was into Stephen King. I was a sad, lonely boy and I used to read his books between sessions of Dungeons and Dragons and being rejected by girls. In hindsight it seems pathetic. But what you don’t know is that I was actually preparing for my inevitable confrontation with a parallel universe.
While other young men were enjoying the superfluities of life (dating, driving, not living with their mother), I was developing the psychological resilience needed to function in another world - a world similar to our own but profoundly different. After all these years, my journey to the hinterlands of space and time is finally complete. I give you, my intrepid readers, .
It opened last month, innocuously enough, where the old Circuit City used to be near Smith Haven Mall. There was little fanfare and I don’t remember seeing even the standard “grand opening” signs posted on the sidewalk out front. It was just there one day; doors open for business, as if it has been there all along. I found myself drawn to the place, pulled there by some strange gravity, until I finally wandered in.
In one of Stephen King’s novel, I believe it was a Dark tower book, the main characters travel into another book, The Stand. I know it is convoluted, but bear with me. The Stand is set on earth, but a version of reality slightly different than our own. For example, in the scene I remember, they are walking through a deserted supermarket parking lot. Most of the population has been wiped out by a plague and all the cars are simply abandoned. One of the characters, who is from our reality, starts to read the names of the cars. He notices that there are Toyotas and Fords, but also made up ones like Stewarts or Maharishi (I don’t remember the exact names, but you get the gist). They looked like our cars, the lines were the same, the colors and shapes, but they were also horribly wrong and alien because they were so different and yet so mundane.
By this point you are probably saying, jeez he was a loser in high school. That’s mean. It is also beside the point. You should be asking what does all this have to do with the new supermarket that opened in Smithtown? Well read on...
When we walked in, all the products looked like the stuff you would see in any normal store on Long Island. The isles were Spartan, they had a BJ’s or Costco feel, but for the most part if looked like an ordinary supermarket. It had perfectly normal displays, things groups together in a logical way, even the colors and packaging was correct. But there was something very, very wrong.
My daughter was the first to notice it. She picked up the familiar yellow and blue jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Only it wasn’t Hellmann’s, it was Bermans. Berman’s mayonnaise - right there on the label - the Hellmann’s label. Even the font was the same. It took a moment to sink in. I looked at the Gatorade display - but it wasn’t Gatorade. Same thing with the saltines, baked beans, chips, you name it. It was one of those moments where the world spins and all the air gets sucked out of the room. My mind simply couldn’t comprehend what is happening, it had to reboot itself.
I must have lost consciousness for a few seconds, I don’t know. The next thing I remember was feeling cold. I came to lying on the ground, my cheek pressed up against one of the meat refrigerators. I staggered to my feet and picked up a package of chop meat. It was very cheap, an excellent deal, but I didn’t trust it. All I could hear was alarm bells in my head - MAD COW, MAD COW - over and over in the singsong rhythm of a claxon. My wife was online, buying something that looks disturbingly like cheerios. I rushed over to her just as she finished paying - by debit card or cash since they don’t take credit cards. She was handling it better then I was.
They say women are more mentally tough than men, something to do with childbirth. I don’t know if that is true, but she didn’t even bat an eye when the cashier told her that they don’t supply shopping bags. If you wanted them, you have to pay for them a la carte. I almost stabbed the cashier with one of the imitation slim jims by the register, as I was convinced she was some inter-dimensional monster (think Cthulhu), but my wife simply said thank you and calmly walked out of the store with the box under her arm.
It took a few minutes for me to calm down. It is jarring to fall into a wormhole. They say most people throw up the first time they travel between dimensions, I am happy to say that I managed to keep my lunch down. In reality I was bemused by the store. I had this smug superiority and I felt like I was better then shopping at Aldi’s. Yes, part of me wanted to shop here, because it was really, really cheap. But I also felt that people like me don’t shop at discount food stores. I knew that I wanted to write a blog entry on this. When we got home, while my wife cooked dinner, I went on Google and did some research.
I was shocked at what I found. Aldi’s is a subsidiary of ALDI Einkauf GmbH, a German company that was founded by Karl and Theo Albrecht - the two richest men in German. They have since retired (one died), but Aldi’s, which is divided into two operating regions Nord (North) and Sud (South), is one of the largest supermarket chains in the world. I was sure their products came from the most exploitive factory in China, but they are actually mostly European. Their business model is to keep costs low cost by eliminating extras, like bags and paying fees to credit card companies. They even make you put a quarter into a receptacle on the shopping cart to release it. Your money is then refunded if you return the cart to the kiosk outside the store. This eliminates the need to pay someone to collect the carts from the parking lot. The only place they don’t take short cuts is with the quality of the food.
How do I know this, you ask. Well, I went into the store feeling like that condescendingly smug girl who sings "The People of Wal-Mart" song. I can’t stand her, but I finally understood her. It was comical watching all the plebeians scurry about for their discount crusts of bread. I was more accustomed to eating organic, free-range cake. This self-aggrandizement lasted until I learned that ALDI Einkauf GmbH is also the parent company Trader Joes.
Yes, that Trader Joes - Mecca of suburban bourge-ness and edgy alternative to Whole Foods. The store staffed with college hipsters and stocked with tapenade and wild caught / flash frozen king salmon. According to the Internet, the food is sourced from the same vendors and shipped from the same warehouses. Aldi’s uses a different private label name and packaging then the products destined for Trader Joes. The only material difference is that the priced are jacked up because the latter is "gourmet."
Two things occurred to me. First, I am shockingly easy to manipulate. I like to think of myself as this worldly, urbane, New Yorker. I am smarter then the average sheep and far to sophisticated to fall prey to some marketing campaign. I am proud of my on my counter culture rejection of popular opinion and dedication to intellectual non-conformity.
I have to be honest, it broke me down when I found out that is all crap. Some very smart people, smarter then me apparently, design a food store that caters to my specific self-image, and I didn’t even know it. My own self-importance and Trader Joes’s fancy labels and cute hippy cashiers blinded me. I also realized that if I shop at Aldi’s I could save about 40 percent of my weekly food budget.
Between being manipulated and the chance to save money, I feel like I should apologize to Aldi’s. I don’t know how to perform an act of contrition to a supermarket, but it is a good start is to say that I am going to try to do my weekly food shopping there this weekend.
I call on you to abandon your illusions of supermarket privilege and join me on the barricades of brand liberation. Be the Marius to my Val Jean, and let the people sing the songs of hungry men - just sing them at 40 percent off at Aldi’s. Viva La Revolution!
I hope you enjoyed this week’s entry. Please check out my other blog at http://littlejimmysfood.blogspot.com. I am currently publishing a series on my favorite places on the East End of Long Island. Part two of my East End trip should be up shortly. Please let me know what you think about Aldi’s and anything else that is on your mind. I look forward to hearing from you and responding to you comments.
Aldi Supermarket, 139 Alexander Avenue, Lake Grove, NY 11755