As a job advice expert, I get lots of questions from eager 14- and 15-year-olds asking about how they can get a job before their sixteenth birthday. They have what I like to call gumption. A go-get-'em kind of attitude that will surely take them far in life. If they are the early birds, I was a late bloomer. When I was a teenager, my mom had to arm wrestle me into responsibility (some might say she is still fighting that war). She won the battle and I applied for a job at the only place I knew I couldn't lose: the local grocery store.
In the days before convenient websites like Snagajob, there was the ol' fashioned way: pencils, paper cuts and piles of paper applications. I walked up to the customer service counter and was handed a beige four-page application with carefully printed green text. It was a custom job application, not your average, run-of-the-mill Xerox. I filled it out, turned it in, exchanged niceties and walked out.
A few days later I got a message from a hiring manager that oversaw recruiting for a group of the local stores. She set up a time for the interview. I wore a striped sweater and khakis and knocked her socks off. She hired me on the spot with a stellar starting wage of $7 per hour. It might not meet minimum wage requirements now, but in 2000 it was a big deal.
This particular grocery store chain (now closed, unfortunately) was well known for their top-notch customer service. They achieved this by putting every employee, from bag boy to executive, through a four-hour training program. The information covered company history and the importance of great customer service. I remember two things from this training: that Ukrop's was the first grocery store to ever have a valued customer card, and that it's far less expensive to keep an old customer than to find a new one.
After the training class, I was given my first week's schedule. The first day consisted of a tour of the store, employee procedures like clocking in and out, and a whole night of register training. During my register training I was given a list of codes for common produce items that my training manager recommended I take home and commit to memory. Being young and over confident, I did not. Big mistake.
The actual job
It was a pretty awesome first job. You learn to dread the really full carts, I'm not sure why. In your head it seems like less work to check out several customers with a few items than one customer with a hundred. You also learn to appreciate those careful shoppers who put their meat in produce bags, because when they don't you've got to clean the gross meat juice off the belt. After a month or so, you'll learn all the produce codes and they'll pop into your head when you do your own grocery shopping.
The best part
Besides the fact that I made more money than most of my friends, I also got to work with people my own age. We joked around a lot, sometimes sacrificing customer service for conversation, and it made the time fly by. Between talking to interesting customers (it takes a long time to ring up an entire cart of groceries) and messing around with my buddies, I could work an eight-hour shift on the weekend and not even dread going into work. Oh, and, birthdays off with pay didn't hurt either. The great thing about working for large grocery store chains is that the benefits are usually pretty good. They will typically offer the same perks to everyone in the organization.
The worst part
The bag-every-item-of-produce-separately lady. She was seriously ridiculous. She would come in once a week five minutes before we closed and buy produce. She'd double bag every item separately. When I say separately, I don't mean apples in one bag and bananas in another. I mean if she had five apples she had 10 bags (two for each apple). It drove me, and everyone else, up the wall. Finicky customers come with the territory, though.
Some shifts I would get stuck bagging (the worst) and as much as I'd try to avoid it, I'd be stuck carting out groceries in the million degree, humid, Richmond, Virginia summers. The cold I could deal with, but the heat here is no joke. Thankfully, the company let us wear shorts if we had to be outside (the normal dress code was khakis).
I honestly don't know why I quit. I left for the promise of a few cents more per hour, but I shouldn't have. It was a great company. And I'll never forget that the code for asparagus is 4080.