Garlic Toast

When making garlic toast, start with the good bread. Buy the best bread. You need to go to a bakery or a shop with “bread” in the name – in any language. Look specifically for the expensive stuff. With expensive bread you can usually count on quality ingredients and conscientious preparation. The flavor will have character, the crust will be crisp without being crunchy, and you can be sure of its freshness. In a thoughtfully prepared meal, garlic toast will be the easiest thing you make. However, if done right, it has the potential to elevate a delicious meal into the realm of the exquisite. I also have personal reasons for feeling strongly about bread, because of the Bread War at Dad’s grocery store in my youth.

The store was North Hill Foods in Minot, North Dakota. It was an oversized ma-and-pa operation when dad bought it in the late seventies. He had moved his family out of Atlanta, Georgia, pursuing the grocery business. This store had a post office at the quick-checkout counter, which was an early version of the express lane. It also had four regular check-out lines, and a candy counter that would make Willy Wonka die of envy. It had fresh meat & produce, a well-stocked frozen food and dairy department, plus seven aisles of groceries.

It was an independent grocery store rather than a franchise. This gave Dad had the freedom to run it any way he liked, so he made it into a full-service store, previsioning the modern supermarket. Over the years he added innovations like fresh popped popcorn, cooked rotisserie chickens, and arcade games in the lobby. Dad was an idea man in the prime of his life; he was that unique blend of owner-operator, and he ran the place like a gangster.

For example, when he first bought the business, he chose to install department managers rather than run everything himself. In those days, fresh meat was the most important department; customers judged the whole store based on the quality and prices of meat. He needed to have an excellent meat department manager.

Delivery drivers saw the back-room of every store on their route, which made them the eyes and ears of retail operations in the city. This would be Dad’s network for information on competitors, who was making money, and who was in trouble. More importantly, they knew about disaffected managers looking for a change in employment. He let it be known to the local delivery drivers that he was looking for the best meat man in the city. At this, the drivers told him about Glen Lund in hushed, almost reverential tones. They said Glen had just retired from running his own meat market for years and had gained quite a following for his quality cuts, if not his sparkling personality. Glen was that rare meat man who, after over thirty years in the business, still had all his fingers. (Meat cutting was dangerous work.) This was just the sort of person Dad was looking for.

Dad invited him to the store and offered him the coveted job of Meat Manager. Glen declined. He explained that he had grown tired of carrying the responsibility of running his own store. He added that he was drawing retirement money, which he liked very much. Glen said that if he took a job – even part-time – it would cut into his benefits. Dad told Glen that he could set his own hours and run the market any way he wanted. Dad then casually offered to pay him in cash. This suited Glen just fine, and he took the job.

Dad liked to take the whole family out to eat once a week or so, and everybody’s favorite restaurant was Mr. Steak. Dad liked the food, but I think he also liked paying the bill. He paid himself well from the store and liked spreading the wealth. We played The Price Is Right when the check came with each family member putting in a guess for the total cost. Whoever guessed the closest, without going over, won. I remember getting to take the role of Monty Hall for the first time when I was ten. After taking all the guesses, I called out the Actual Retail Price just like Monty, with a loud voice and a triumphant tone. Mom hushed me, but Dad seemed to like it. I think he enjoyed having people near our table know how much money he spent on his family.

Dad was proud of the success he was enjoying at the store. He was also proud of the way Glen was running the meat market, which was a key factor in the store’s popularity. He once called the manager of Mr. Steak, introduced himself, and asked if they’d cook his own steaks if he sent them over just before arriving with his family for dinner. The manager of the restaurant agreed. Dad asked Glen for five special cuts for his family to be sent over. Glen’s response was to prepare five Filet Mignon, lovingly wrapped with the best bacon in the store.

The store also had a special location. The city was originally established inside the Mouse River valley, a striking geographic feature cutting East-to-West across the central portion of the Great Plains. As the city grew, it spilled out of the valley to the North and South. There were no hills. One simply emerged from the valley. Ironically, it didn’t stop the populace from referring to the two sides as North and South Hills. Our store was on the North side of the valley. There were other grocery stores, of course; there was a Red Owl in the center of the valley and a Piggly Wiggly to the West, both corporate stores and both located on the South side of the river. On “South” hill there was Miracle Mart, another home-grown supermarket. As the only grocery store North of the river, our customer base didn’t really intersect with any of the other stores, so competition wasn’t very fierce.

Into this mix came a national chain store: Albertson’s. This was a beast of an organization with headquarters on the West coast and stores in a dozen states and hundreds of cities. They were pioneers of the modern grocery store, recklessly mixing traditional departments with such innovations as an in-store pharmacy, a floral department, and a fish market. They were coming to Minot.

The local newspaper interviewed Albertson’s regional manager in what the Minot Daily News clearly thought was a fluff piece. The manager was quoted as saying they didn’t want any trouble with the other grocery stores, that Albertson’s simply wanted a third of the market. The chain bought land and started construction at a major intersection on South Hill, directly challenging Miracle Mart, but as the quote indicated, they had their sights on the whole city. As construction neared completion, I remember asking Dad if we should be worried. He said no; we were far enough away from them that we shouldn’t lose much business. That was before the war, the Bread War of 1984.

Stores live from sale to sale, from anniversary sales to holiday sales to seasonal sales, but no sale compares in grandeur to the Grand Opening sale. Albertson’s threw a big one; they opened in early Spring with full media market saturation: a four-page circular in the newspaper, TV and radio commercials at all times of the day, and free lunches in the parking lot. Leading all of the discounted items was bread, normally $1.69, now on sale for 99 cents a loaf.

This is what they call, in the business, a loss leader; it is an item so deeply discounted that the merchant makes no profit on the sale, and probably loses money. It is designed to garner a lot of attention, drawing bargain seekers who wouldn’t otherwise go into the store. This was their strategy for capturing a third of the market; get customers in the store for the low price of bread, and they’ll keep coming back for the pharmacy, the flowers, the fish.

Dad set the prices and Mom wrote out the signs. Every week she’d sit down with a production copy of the circular, a stack of glossy cards, and a bunch of magic markers. She’d write out the item and the price in bold, flowing script. That week he had her draw out signs for bread at 99 cents a loaf. He’d decided to match the price. In hindsight, that might have been a bad move. Because of the geography of the town, he was less exposed than Red Owl or Piggly Wiggly, and they faced nothing like the beating Miracle Mart would take. Dad might initially lose a bit of business, but it wasn’t likely that his customers would cross the river – and the bulk of the city – to go to another store for long. He didn’t need to directly challenge the hundred-pound gorilla, but he did so anyway.

Dad knew that at that price, the bread would fly off the shelf. He needed someone to look after the department exclusively, so he put me charge of stocking the bread aisle. This was when I was sixteen. I came in on assignment in the middle of the first day of the sale to find the whole department plundered. The few loaves that remained were scattered carelessly across the shelves. The surviving loaves had been visibly disfigured from being pinched, squeezed, and poked, and then hastily discarded.

When I was on the job, I put them in order, wheeled out the tall bread carts form the back room, and transferred the bread to the shelves. I stocked them two deep and double high, but it didn’t last. I couldn’t keep up with how fast it was selling.

Customers flooded the store, scooping up the cheap bread in a kind of frenzy. The poking and squeezing commenced. They were checking for freshness in the misguided belief that anything stayed on the shelves long enough to go stale. I guess they assumed cheap bread was stale bread. A loaf with any flaw or mark from previous squeezing didn’t sell, regardless of the price. Within a couple of hours, it degraded into disarray again, and I restocked. This went on day after day, and I longed for the sale to end.

The second week of a grand opening sale, if there is one, is usually a muted extension of the first. Some items go back to their regular price, and slightly fewer discounts are rolled out. The overall cuts, however, are less deep. Not for Albertson’s. They opened the second week with 89 cent-a-loaf bread. It was becoming clear that Albertson’s intended to wage a price war for the heart of the city rather than simply win it with reasonable pricing, exceptional service, or any other strategy of an honorable organization.

Dad received a call from his bread supplier notifying him of the lower price. Being one of only two wholesale bakeries in the city, they were caught in the middle supplying product to all the grocery stores. They offered Dad the same rate on bread they were giving everybody else, but it wasn’t enough to cover 89 cents-a-loaf. At that point he started losing money. He matched the price anyway.

1984 was a big year for Dad. His fourth child, my sister Shannon, was born. His softball team, for which he was pitcher, won the city championship. President Ronald Regan was reelected in a landslide victory. And Dad was going up against a national grocery store chain in a price war for his share of the market. It was something he couldn’t possibly win. Nobody wins in a price war. Everybody loses money. But a national chain could afford to have one store lose money for years. How long could a mom-and-pop store lose money?

In an unprecedented move, Albertson’s held their grand opening sale on for a third week, this time with bread at 79 cents a loaf. Dad matched them again. He didn’t want his customers to have any reason to cross town, to cross the river, to climb “South” hill. We lost business anyway, and we lost money with every loaf of bread we sold. This continued week after week throughout the summer, with Albertson’s dropping their price for bread a dime each week, and dad matching them each week. It bottomed out after seven more weeks at 9 cents a loaf.

During the war, like Sisyphus, I stocked the bread only to find it denuded before the next day. It became clear to me that people don’t value a deeply discounted staple; they hate. Those that took advantage of the price cut to overstock their pantries simply had to watch as too-much-bread slowly went stale, moldy, and inedible. Those slightly savvier shoppers who took surplus bread home to stock their deep freeze ended up in similar straights; thawed bread loses something in the phase shift. It never regains its freshness. As the customers chewed on stale bread, they ruefully wondered why they didn’t go down to the store and get fresh stuff and cursed the economics of which they always seemed to be on the wrong side.

Like all wars, this one ended. Albertson’s weekly sales crossed some threshold set by the bean counters on the West coast and put bread back to a more reasonable retail price. The frenzy subsided. They proved they could buy their way to a market share. They also revealed themselves as bullies and never gained the city’s trust, not to mention good will. Once the price war was over, the people of the city mostly went back to shopping at their own stores and Albertson’s steadily lost customers. Within a year, the corporation put the business up for sale and abandoned their bid for this portion of the Midwest.

Dad proved he couldn’t be bullied; he proved that the position he held as one of the city’s most beloved retailers was well earned, but the war cost him. In the aftermath, as the Summer of ’84 gave way to Winter, he quietly leaned on family resources in the deep South for aid. He called in a favor owed him when he came up North in ’72 for an infusion of operating capital.

I, too, proved something. I proved I could dedicate myself to a job despite all evidence that it’s too big for me. I also learned an economic lesson. Within limits, price is directly proportional to value, real or perceived. Buy the good bread and don’t bother about the price; make your garlic toast and be happy for such a valuable product.

Garlic Toast

  • Start with a fresh baguette
  • Slice in one-inch increments down to the bottom but not through the crust, so the whole thing still holds together as a single loaf
  • Wedge a portion of cold butter between each slice
  • Brush the top and sides with melted butter
  • Sprinkle the top and sides generously with garlic salt, parsley and parmesan cheese sprinkles are optional.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes
  • Serve hot in a bread basket

Let the diners tear their slices off self-service style. There will be nothing left but crumbs.

 

Scot Sorrells 2018

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