By Eli Greenfield
Getting a job at Key Food was easy as pie. Yes, you know the store I’m talking about. The one on 187th and Broadway where all the Jews go to shop for kosher meat and challah for Shabbat (Sabbath). Yes, that one! Well, as I was saying, getting a job there was super easy. I walked into the store and asked if they were hiring. After being pointed in the direction of the hiring manager, I was ushered into the corner and asked a few questions.
“Are you over 18?”
“What’s your availability?”
“Sunday through Friday.”
“Fill out this paperwork and you’re hired as a cashier.” It was that simple.
I came back the next day for training wearing the required long pants and sneakers (I got sent home to change once when I walked in with slides), donned the loose employee jacket, and waited for directions. I was told to stand in front of the register while an experienced cashier whispered instructions. Sounds simple, right? Just scan items, put it in the bags, and wait for them to pay. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. First off, did the customer bring their own bags? Key Food, as per NY state law, does not provide plastic bags. You have to bring your own. Well, what if you forgot to bring a bag? You have to carry it all in your hands? No, Key Food has a solution. You can purchase these flimsy, no-handle, paper bags for five cents each. Or, you can purchase a reusable bag for a dollar, but as most of us have countless of those bags already and simply forget to bring it to the store (for the tenth time), we purchase the paper. So, lesson number one, ask the customer if they need bags. If they do, type in the special bag code, 9095, to charge them five cents per bag.
The next thing I learned was that produce does not scan. Every product has a code to it that must be entered. If I was lucky, there was a sticker on the fruit containing the code. Most times, though, I had to hunt through my trusty produce sheet containing every fruit and vegetable known to humankind and its four-digit code. Fun fact, all supermarkets have the same codes. Are you buying an avocado? The cashier will punch in 4225 or 4046, depending on whether it’s a tropical avocado or not. A cucumber? 4042. Pepper? This depends on the color. Either 4889 (red), 3121 (orange), 4689 (yellow), etc. It’s all about the numbers. An experienced cashier can rattle off the codes to every fruit or vegetable down to stuff like yuca (4819) or sweet potato (4816). But a newbie? They’ll be perusing the produce sheet, desperately trying to find the darn code. But the codes weren’t the first thing I learned, oh no. The first thing I learned was what half of these vegetables are called. Do you know what arugula is? I certainly didn’t. And good luck trying to tell the difference between cilantro and parsley. My first line of defense was asking the customer the names of the produce. “Bok choy! It’s Bok choy!” I never heard of such a thing in my life, but if that’s what the customer says, let me check the produce sheet. Sure enough, there it is. One customer claimed her vegetable was called “peanuts.” Now that’s just too far. I may not have known what artichokes are, but I know what peanuts are, and this leafy vegetable ain’t it. So, I turned to my second line of defense, the floor manager. After I finished my nine hours of training, all questions and problems that arose were directed to the floor manager. There were always two of them chilling by the cash registers waiting for problems to smooth over. I called over the manager who told me the name of the vegetable (and no, it was not some sort of peanut leaf).
Speaking of the manager, there were two phrases I quickly picked up. “Override,” and “price check.” These phrases were only to be yelled, followed by a manager perking their ears and walking over. Let me explain. You, the customer, put down a zucchini to scan, and I accidentally typed in the wrong code — I need an override before you pay. Did you decide last minute you actually don’t want the item I just scanned? That’s fine, but we now need an override. Any mistake or mess-up needs an override in the form of a manager loafing over and scanning their manager card as I mumble what happened to cause it. So, if you’re not sure if the chocolate you picked up fits into your budget, don’t wait for the cashier to scan it before you decide. Ask for a price-check, which gives you time to see the price and determine if it will be staying in the store or gracing your stomach.
The next phrase is “price-check!” This is when you bring an item to the register, and for some reason, it’s not scanning, or you saw the price on the big screen facing the customer and did a double-take, spluttering, “that’s not $8.00, it’s $4.50!” I yell, “price check!” causing the manager to breeze over asking what the item in question is. I hold it up, and they go to the shelf to check the price. Sometimes the customer will be right, and the cashier will mark it down to the lower price (necessitating an override), but if the price is $8.00, don’t bother arguing. You won’t win.
Now that we’ve covered the basic training, let’s run through the other random tasks and turn to a more exciting topic, the customers. If I was by my register, waiting around with no customers, the manager would eye me. What that eye meant is, “you better find something to do, or I’ll find it for you.” As a cashier, I would work mostly six- or seven-hour shifts a couple of times a week (anywhere between 20 to 32 hours), with only a half-hour break in the middle. The rest of the time, I was expected to be on my toes (literally, the first few weeks of standing non-stop were tough), working diligently. The first most immediate thing to do was to return the carts and baskets to the front door. As there was no cart corral near the exit, customers would simply leave their cart by the register and the cashiers would return them to the corral at the entrance. When I was done with that, I would return all the stuff that you all decided last minute that you don’t actually want (which is totally cool, thanks for the unanticipated break). If there are none, I would grab a towel and cleaning spray and wipe down my counter. I would also be assigned to: level the shelves, (a tedious job involving walking down the aisles arranging all the items on the shelf toward the front, so they look more appealing), help stock new shipments, empty the bottle machine, or box crushing (which is actually really fun. There is a big four-cornered machine in the backroom (employees only) where I toss in boxes until it’s full. I then press the big red button, which activates the crusher, slowly bearing down onto the boxes until they’re crushed to a pulp. The power in that machine is exhilarating. I was also assigned any other random task the current floor manager finds for me. And now, to the customers.
Considering the diverse nature of the neighborhood, our customers were equally diverse. Many of our customers spoke Spanish as a first language. Many times, I found myself saying, “sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.” I was tempted just to nod and smile, but then they would ask me a question in Spanish and I’m busted.
No matter the culture, there were always similar types of customers. There were the customers who’ve been coming there for years, usually older, staring at the screen as I scanned the items and prayed they all came out as expected. There were the customers who knew the drill cold, handing me their Key Food card together with their reusable bags, and the customers who looked at me aghast saying, “you don’t supply bags?!” Most customers fell somewhere in the middle, polite, pretty much on point, and totally unmemorable. Then there were, shall we say, the more interesting clientele. First, there were the “Karens,” who waged war on the “no plastic bag” policy. After fuming about us charging an inconceivable five cents a bag, they came up with a loophole. They started taking (free) plastic produce bags and using them for everything, from tin pans to cleaning products. When Management found out about this, they were not OK with it. We received strict orders that anyone using produce bags for anything other than produce, meats, or frozen items, shall be charged the large amount of five cents. Oh, this caused a couple of “Karens” to blow their top. “It’s illegal! Get me your manager,” one customer screamed at me. At least I wasn’t the cashier who had someone curse out her and the manager, leaving us all shaken. It was these types of customers who held up the line, indignant that they were being charged twenty-five cents too much, who cursed us out when it took “too long” for us to empty the bottle machine, and had to be kicked out for not wearing a mask (your shirt pulled up to your face is not a mask, but I’ll let it slide just this once).
Then, there was the conspiracy theorist who announced to the cashiers that there was a gang of thieves who moved from upstate after ravaging the stores there, and were now targeting this neighborhood. “Be on your guard,” she earnestly told us. “I spoke to the police, the FBI. They won’t listen to me.” There was the Jewish guy who solemnly told another cashier that he was a big rabbi and that his job was to “bless the meat in the back to make it kosher.” Then there was the sad old lady who sidled up to the register with a bag of chips and upon hearing it was three dollars, she informed me that she had the money last week, so she’d take it, along with the difference. I had no idea what that meant, so I again asked if she had the money, but she held her ground, looking at me expectantly while telling me she’ll take the difference. The poor woman came back with the same exact request with the same bag of chips five minutes later.
There were really nice customers too, like the coronavirus tippers (one customer gave me twenty dollars!), the old bubbies (Jewish grandmothers) who schmoozed (chatted) me up, asking me my name and telling me they actually have a grandson who is also named Eli (surprise, surprise), and that one customer who, despite not being Jewish, randomly started schmoozing (chatting) with me in Hebrew and lived in Israel for a while.
Let me leave off with some tips to anyone who shops in Key Food, and really any supermarket. First off, that theory that the stuff in the back of the shelf is fresher? Straight up facts. When I was restocking shelves, I was specifically told to put the fresh stock in the back so the not-as-fresh-but-still-fresh stuff would sell first. Second, always swipe your store club card, and if you don’t have one, ask the cashier to swipe for you. You have nothing to lose and only discounts to gain. Thirdly, please, please, use a produce bag for your onions. Those things shed more than a cat with fleas. It was frustrating to finish cleaning and wiping down my register only to have a customer walk up with a handful of onions and dump them onto my clean conveyor belt. And those blighters will shed all over your car and pantry too.
Don’t forget to take your cash, located below the scanner. Take your change and your receipt. Thank you for shopping at, Key Food!
Photo Source: Eli Greenfield