Life at a Deli


I have some experience working at a deli in a grocery store. I want to describe what this experience is like for those of who have not been through it.

A lot of customers who come up to the deli counter do not seem to be able to empathize with the deli associate to whom they are talking. Some of them have a couple bad habits that a little imagination would cure. For instance, some of them, when they give their orders, will list three or four different items. “I want half a pound of turkey, on the thin side, three quarters of buffalo chicken, a quarter of cooper sharp cheese…” The customer will then walk away to do more grocery shopping. They don’t anticipate that you will have difficulty remembering all of their items, with all the specific details about product type and type of slice. A coworker talks to you, you have a hard time finding the product in the cases, and then the order slips your mind. Another bad habit customers have is not being specific. Some will say, “I want some turkey.” This always causes frustration, unless the person is very young. There are many different kinds of turkey at the deli. There is low sodium turkey, ovengold turkey, Cajun turkey, salsalito turkey, etc. Sometimes, when a customer is not specific like this, I just get the cheapest kind of turkey and give it to them.

Another bad habit that customers have that comes from a lack of imagination and empathy occurs late at night, when deli associates have to close down the deli. Some delis are understaffed, and you have to take customers and close down the deli at the same time. Closing down the deli is actually a complex job. You have to clean and sharpen the slicers. This can be dangerous, and many deli associates have gouged their fingers this way. You have to wash the floors and the sinks. You have to bring in the stuff out in the olive bar and take in the chickens. In the midst of all this, a customer will approach and casually ask you for three pounds of roast beef for their family picnic the next afternoon. If this happens, closing the deli will take awhile and you won’t be getting home until late.

People also don’t realize that what they see when they come to the counter, the display of meats and cheeses, is not the same as what the deli associates see. Sometimes people will see the deli associate searching for some product behind the counter, and they will get impatient. They point out the product in the display case. “Look, it’s right here.” But, when we search for a product to cut it, we don’t pull the one from the display case, except in rare cases. Meats and cheeses are piled behind the display cases, and their location here does not correspond to the location in the display case.

There is actually a lot to do at the deli. People think it is a menial job and that the people stuck working at the deli are there because they lack talent. People falsely assume all deli associates do is cut meats and cheeses. But, there’s more to it than that. Sometimes the store will ask you to sell a certain product to customers. They want you to promote it. There is an element of customer engagement at the deli that does not exist for people in, say, produce. People at the deli make sandwiches and fry chickens. We also have to do something called pre-slice. There is a big structure beyond the deli counter where customers can buy meats and cheeses that are already packaged. This way they can avoid waiting in line. Deli associates cut and wrap all these pre-slice products in between taking customers. You have to take the temperature of the products periodically to make sure that they are in the safe zone—a range of temperatures which will not lead to contamination. Each product has a code, and you have to type it in to print out the tag that cashiers use to ring up your items when you get to the checkout line. On Sundays, the deli gets extremely busy—sometimes seven people are waiting behind the counter. It’s funny to observe how the crowd ebbs and flows. The crowd will emerge all of a sudden. It’s not like there’s a steady stream of one or two people. Instead, there will be no one for a while, and then five people will show up at the same time.



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