Grocery Store Guru

All about the grocery industry, from a store level perspective.

Is “Meat-atarian” a word?

If it’s not, it should be.

I’m not saying I don’t like veggies – I really do. But I just can’t call it a meal unless there’s some meat involved. Right now, I’m on a diet plan that’s really meat heavy. If I don’t lose 40 pounds or so in short order, I think my doctor is going to flat out punch me and this diet has worked for other people that I know.

So, this morning I’m hanging around the meat counter at the grocery store, salivating, picking out meat to buy. As I’m drooling over a striploin, I overhear 2 customers beside me while they’re looking at some steaks. “Don’t buy those ones, they’re not red” is what one said to the other… the steaks went back to the shelf. What a pity, I thought, as I put those same steaks in my basket. They just put back what are most likely the most tender steaks on the shelf.

Thinking back to my time in the grocery stores, I remember very fondly stopping by the reduced meat section every night on my way out of the store. Some of the best cuts of meat (particularly beef) would be sitting on the shelf with a reduced sticker and I’d happily snap them up. They weren’t reduced because they were going bad, but because no one would buy them since they didn’t “look right”. The great majority of people that buy meat at the grocery store don’t really know how to tell if the steak in their hands is good or not.

Have you ever noticed that when you go to a good restaurant most steaks are graded “Prime”? And have you also noticed that you can’t get those steaks at the grocery store? Ask any meat manager why, and they’ll tell you – customers wouldn’t buy them. Has nothing to do with the price – it’s what a prime steak looks like before it’s cooked.

So here’s a couple of quick points on how to pick up a good steak (or chop, or fillet, etc.):

1.     Colour of the meat matters a whole lot less than you think.

True especially with beef and with pork. Pork chops can range in colour from a deep pink to almost beige, and it’s not a reflection on how that chop is going to taste when you cook it (as long as all the other signs are good). The deep red colour you see in your steak doesn’t have to do with the meat as much as it has to do with the blood. When you cut into beef, it exposes the red blood cells to oxygen, and the meat “blooms” that deep red colour. Once the steak is packaged, it will only keep that bright red colour as long as there is sufficient oxygen in the package with it.

Next time you’re at the store, take a look for the vacuum packed eye of round roasts (most stores have them now). You’ll see that the meat isn’t bright red – it’s a deep brown. Hold one up to the eye of round steaks on the meat counter… it’s the same cut of beef, but the difference in colour is striking. If you ever do take home one of the vacuum packed whole eye of rounds, try this out – cut it in half, and leave it on the cutting board for 5 minutes. When you come back, it will have taken on the red colour of the steaks that were on the meat counter.

Me, I look for the steaks that are brown. Chances are they’re a bit older, and the meat will have broken down a bit more, making the steak more tender than it’s bright red friends. This is especially true when I’m buying a tougher cut like outside round or flank.

2.      But the colour of the fat matters an awful lot.

As a general rule, meat spoils in this order: fat, bone, meat. I always look for the cuts of meat that have bright white fat on them – the exception being chicken, which occasionally has a yellow colour to the fat depending on the cut. I’m sure to avoid anything with a greenish tinge to it, unless I’m going to use it that day, the fat inside the meat is still bright white ( the off colour is only on the “fat cap”, where I can trim it), the meat is reduced, and the bone (if visible) is bright white. If the bone is starting to go off colour, I don’t think it’s worth the chance.

3.     I need a well cut piece, too.

This may sound silly, but as actual butchers fall by the wayside and are replaced by “journeyman meat cutters”, it’s become more of a problem. Your cut of meat has to be consistent, or it’s not going to cook properly. I can’t tell you how many top sirloin steaks I have seen that are cut like a wedge – thin on one side and thick on the other. When you try to cook it, part of your steak will be well done and part of it rare – medium. It seems that some of the boneless pork chops are suffering the same fate… I love my boneless rib chops, but not if they’re more like a lump of random pork than an actual chop. More than once I have bought a cheaper, tougher steak rather than spend the extra money on a poorly executed better cut that I know isn’t going to turn out right no matter how good I am on the BBQ.

4.     The fat on your cut matters, but not the way you may think.

This is the reason no grocery store carries prime beef steaks – there is so much marbling in the steak, most customers would never buy it. They see the fat and think it’s not a good piece of steak, and then will spend good money at the restaurant on the same thing. Fifteen years ago, eye of round steaks and the round steaks (Full, inside and outside) were really cheap… now they’re not that much cheaper than the better cuts. Why? Because people see steaks with little to no fat on them on the shelf, think that’s a good thing, and buy them. As the demand went up, so did the price. You want your steak to have as much marbling as possible – marbling are the thin streaks of fat that are in the meat. It’s this fat that breaks down while your steak is cooking and keeps the meat tender and moist.

The fat you don’t want is the “fat cap”. If it’s fat you’re just going to trim off before you cook it, you shouldn’t be paying for it – if there’s more than 1/4″ of fat it’s not an acceptable cut. This is a favourite trick of meat cutters when something’s on sale – I notice this a lot when the striploin steaks go on sale at the discount banners… all of a sudden, there’s WAY more fat cap than you would ever find on a regular priced striploin.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll show you how you can tell where your store brand meat products were made!


September 23, 2012 Posted by | At the Store | Leave a comment

Why is There Always a Line at the Cash Registers?

This question is usually what I hear right after “I couldn’t find anyone to help me in the aisle I was in”.

Hate to tell you this, Mr. or Mrs. Consumer, but you take part of the blame for this one. Okay, a very small part.

There are 2 key facts at play here.

First, it’s a basic truth in almost any business that the largest controllable expense (I.e. not a fixed expense, like rent) is labour. It costs an awful lot to have an employee, and it’s not just the cost of whatever their hourly rate happens to be. Each employee costs the employer in CPP contributions,  EI premiums, WSIB premiums, and so on (PS I’m in Ontario, Canada… these are the payroll taxes we pay, but no matter where you are the employers are paying some sort of taxes and premiums…). Walmart had a chart in their lunch rooms that laid it out bit by bit – you may think you’re making $10 an hour Mr. or Mrs. Employee, but we actually pay out over $14 an hour to have you here! Aren’t  you lucky?.

Second, is that grocery retail (and retailers in general) have trained their customers to make buying decisions based almost solely on price. They use loss leaders on the front page of the flyer, use numbers the size of my hand to show you the amazing price… and we fall all over ourselves to buy whatever happens to be on that front page. I bet every one of us could walk into our kitchen or pantry and pick up something that’s been there for months, that we bought only because it was on sale for a great price…. how do you use Navel Beef, anyhow?

Your friendly local grocer knows that he’s going to lose a ton of money on those loss leaders. To make up for the loss, he’s going to have to spend less money this week… and the only really large chunk of change he can control is wages. The end result is that there are less employees in the store, trying to service an increased number of customers falling over themselves to buy what’s on sale.

How do they get away with it? Well, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, you’re a predictable lot. You get very annoyed when you’re standing in a long line at the registers, with a buggy full of the $1.99 cases of bottled water and nothing else. In fact, some of you may even get angry and ask to see the manager (please don’t take it out on the frazzled cashier – they’re making minimum wage for the most part, and dealing with angry people for an entire shift does not make for a good day to begin with). I’d come over, listen to the angry rant, apologize…. but I can’t change anything about the situation. I’m sorry Ma’am, all of our cashiers are already working a cash. Some people would even tell me they’re never coming back! They can’t believe the terrible service!

Here’s the important part:

I would always see those same people back next week, cart full of whatever’s on special. Never fails. Doesn’t matter how many people get angry, shake their fists, yell and scream…. the next flyer, the store is full again. Today’s customers are so price focussed they’ll put up with almost anything to save the extra buck. The stores know this, and the cycle continues. Cheap prices, no staff.

Now, don’t get me wrong… this is no lament for the poor grocery corporations. They’ve done it to themselves, deciding that they’re going to compete on price alone (with a couple of very notable exceptions). Think about it… these are multi million dollar corporations, and they don’t do something that almost every other corporation does – advertise. All they do is send you a flyer every week telling you about their great prices.

One major exception is Loblaws…. but what do they advertise? Almost exclusively PC products. And if you have read my (very first) post about store brands, you’ll understand why. The other big exception to the price focussed major grocers is Longo’s. They’re only around the GTA/Golden Horseshoe here in Ontario, and they avoid most of the price mud-slinging… for those of you who don’t know, I consider Longo’s to be the best run grocery company in Ontario, by the way.

I’ll close this out with a quick story. A while ago, I was the assistant store manager of a grocery store in Toronto’s west end. It was a store of the discount variety and awfully green looking. Anyways, we had Nestle bottled water on sale for $1.99 2 weeks in a row. It was a loss leader – each one cost us $2.83 to bring in. We sold 12 TRUCKLOADS of water each week… each truck was 24 pallets of 84 cases of water (you can do the math, it still hurts my head). The store was insanely busy – constant lines at the registers, what staff we did have were re-filling the water display almost constantly. You couldn’t move in the aisles for all of the people shopping. Volume and sales were through the roof. These 2 weeks ended up being the highest sales weeks for the store in calendar year 2010.

Both weeks, the store lost money.


January 19, 2012 Posted by | At the Store | Leave a comment