What’s One Bad Fig in A Bag of Nice Fruit?

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The other day I opened my monthly cable TV bill and found out the company is raising my rate and adding a new channel to the package. It's called the Dust Channel. I'm not upset because I know from firsthand experience that cable companies are by no means the first businesses to charge customers for something they don't want.

In 1958, I went to work at Louie's Appetizing Store in my neighborhood. Louie was my brother's father-in-law, and over the years every college student in our family had worked at his place to help pay tuition. Now it was my turn.

Reporting to the store on my first day, I saw customers jamming the display cases served by six countermen. Another man was busy at the barrels of pickles and sauerkraut and the crates of candies and fruits. The air was filled with the scent of garlic and the sounds of retail hubbub: ka-chinging cash registers, customers calling out their orders, and shouts from behind the counter, "What else besides that?" There was sawdust on the floor and a huge sign on the wall: "Louie's — The World's Largest Retailer of Deli Specialities!" As I stood there staring at the five-gallon jars of olives and red peppers lining the walls, I saw Louie — Lou, to the family — come out of the back wearing an apron.

We chatted briefly, and then he assigned me to my station. The man in charge, Mel, gave me some advice: "Always put an extra ounce or two of kraut in the container when you weigh it. You sell more that way. Try to get rid of the older pickles first. If they say, ‘Give me a nice pickle,' answer, ‘They're all nice.'"

Then Mel gestured toward a shelf under the counter where 30 or so waxy bags were stacked. "Try to use up those bags during the day," he whispered to me.

"Why those bags?" I asked.

"We got half a crate of rotten figs in the back," Mel whispered. "Whenever this happens, we hide one bad fig in each of those bags and then use a bag to make up whatever a customer is buying. When they get home, they have a pound of nice fruit except for the bad fig. They figure it just fell in. They throw it away and forget about it."

"You put a rotten fig in each bag?"

"Right."

"Does Lou know about this?"

"It's his store, ask him," Mel said mildly, handing me an apron. Within minutes, I had sold a rotten fig to some unsuspecting woman. It was to be the first of many.

I never confronted Lou about the figs— after all, I was a coconspirator — but as we were closing one night I did ask him about the "World's Largest" sign. He smiled and shared his marketing philosophy with me. "When the world's largest retailer of deli specialties comes in and tells me to take the sign down," he explained, "I'll take it down." With that he sent his regards to my folks and went to turn out the lights.

I paid my new cable TV bill, of course. By now I have long since learned what people mean when they say business is business. If I want the service, then I'm stuck with the Dust Channel. Hey — at least I know what I'm getting for my money.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus