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Our Grocery Stores, Ourselves

What stanning for Publix, H-E-B, and Wegmans says about Americans

James A. Parcell for The Washington Post/Getty Images

It’s not like sports fandom makes much sense. If you’ve seen Baseketball (yes that’s a reference I’m making in 2019), Matt Stone and Trey Parker make a point of how ridiculous it is to root for a “hometown” team made up of people from across the world who can be traded at any moment, who are not inherently better just because they represent Indianapolis or Santa Fe or **ducks** Philly. Fandom, no matter where it’s directed, is a little weird, a little more about the person experiencing it than the thing they’re obsessing about. So what does it say when people stan their local grocery stores?

When Rochester-based chain Wegmans announced in 2015 it’d be opening a location in the newly developed (i.e., gentrifying) Brooklyn Navy Yard, people lost their shit — but not because the grocery location would be replacing the spooky, abandoned Admiral’s Row. New York magazine published an interview with a self-identified Wegmans “superfan.” Bloomberg called it a “cult grocer,” and one woman tweeted that she’s driven up to 40 miles to shop at one. J Rosser Lomax, a portfolio manager for Beam Suntory, told Eater his love of Wegmans was a combination of appreciation of the store’s quality and nostalgia. “It was all carefully considered,” he said, “while being affordable luxury in a lot of their goods.”

Wegmans isn’t the only grocery store to get this sort of love. Priya Krishna previously wrote for Eater about the fervor over Texas chain H-E-B, where store loyalty has become an integral part of Texan identity. Publix has its own Reddit page, Facebook pages, zines, and a song. In his ode to the “Pub Sub,” writer Jason Diamond noted “Floridians love the Publix sub as much as their college football teams, Pitbull, and air conditioning during a particularly humid summer.” Talk to anyone from the areas where they’re prevalent, and Stew Leonard’s, Harris Teeter, Piggly Wiggly, Winn-Dixie, and Trader Joe’s (back when it was just a California joint) will inspire gushing praise, as if one could not have possibly survived childhood getting sandwich supplies from anywhere else.

But… we’re talking about grocery stores, people. You know, where you buy your paper towels and a bag of onions and four bags of those thin Tate’s cookies because they were “on sale” and a “good deal” and you were “desperately hungry.” The matrix of decision making over where to shop generally includes criteria like who is cheapest, who is closest, and who has what I’m looking for, not whose brand is integral to my identity. Of all things, why do grocery stores hold these places in our hearts?

Daniel Korschun, an associate professor at Drexel University, waded into the world of grocery store fans for his book We Are Market Basket, which tells the story of the beloved New England grocery chain — more specifically, the story of a grassroots organizing campaign against store management when they ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Workers striked and asked customers to boycott. “Basically, overnight, 95 percent of sales were gone,” said Korschun, “and they maintained that for six weeks.” Eventually, Demoulas was reinstated.

Korschun, a professor of marketing who focuses on corporate reputation, says the extreme loyalty people feel for grocery stores has a few different flavors. For a place like Wegmans, it’s because the store provides a full experience. The new Brooklyn Wegmans, which will take up 74,000 square feet, will feature made-to-order pizza, a deli, and a wine bar. Other Wegmans locations have hosted bands and cooking demonstrations, turning them from mere stores “into a destination for consumers, where they can shop and also meet friends and be social,” says Korschun. It’s likely the reason Wegmans has thrived in the suburbs — no need to get in your car for multiple trips; Wegmans has everything you need. Stores like Whole Foods have gotten in on the “grocerant” trend, turning into a dining destination as much as an errand.

However, the opposite end of the shopping experience can inspire just as much obsession, as you’ll probably know from anyone who has ever talked your ear off about how they can’t survive without eight specific snacks from Trader Joe’s. The California-based chain, known for its packaged foods and half-prepared produce, courts fans not for its expansiveness, but for its efficiency. “Trader Joe’s is generally paring down, reducing, streamlining, and they’re making the shopping experience simpler,” says Korschun. There’s no lingering and sampling. Instead, you’re in and out, or as close to in and out as possible from wherever the line is snaking through the store. And if you live in a dense city, this is probably what you want. You have restaurants and cafes elsewhere. When you need groceries, all you need is groceries, and an entire fandom can grow out of a store just doing what it’s supposed to do.

Because if anything, grocery stores are places of routine. Most people don’t vary how and where they shop that much, so the ties we form with grocery stores are that much stronger than even the restaurants we order out from once a month. Add the fact that this is where we get our food, an essential component of life or whatever, and you have a recipe for fandom.

Certainly, there are differences in quality and experience between stores; a Whole Foods and a ShopRite just feel different. But the greatest factor in grocery store stanning is probably our desire for individuality in an increasingly monocultural society. Capitalism has always sold the idea that consumer choice is what makes you you, that someone who shops at Whole Foods is morally distinct from someone who shops at the Big Y, that every purchase carries a set of other personality traits to map onto oneself. We want our tastes and choices to say more about us, to project a core truth about ourselves to anyone who cares to look. And perhaps we can’t quite admit to ourselves that what makes a Publix sub and a Wegmans sub different isn’t quality, or even ingredients: Looking at the menus, you can order basically anything you want at both deli counters (and at any deli, anywhere). Instead, what’s different is our expectations. We tell ourselves there’s a marked difference between these stores because if there isn’t, then our choices have been determined by the outside conditions of our lives rather than some innate fact.

We’ve always performed our individuality, but it’s hard to ignore that social media has made it even easier to signal to everyone you’re a “Trader Joe’s person” or that no one should even mention Sheetz in the presence of you, a Wawa devotee. This doesn’t mean our obsessions and loyalties aren’t to be celebrated. Life would be boring if we all shopped at the same places, and the thrill I get walking into the animatronic wonderland/hellscape of a Stew Leonard’s is probably what other people have walking into a corner bodega for the first time. Our associations mean both everything and nothing; they’re a sign of who we are, but we have less control over “who we are” than we think. The only real difference between a Kroger stan and a Publix stan is context.

Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that Wegmans is based in Rochester, not New England.

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