Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: A lament for Harris Teeter, homegrown grocery

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2013 

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The Kroger grocery store chain said Tuesday that it is buying the Harris Teeter chain in a deal valued at $2.5 billion.

SHAWN ROCCO — News & Observer File Photo

— Hearts crumbled like stale bread the day they sold Harris Teeter. Spirits drooped like an old banana. Faith took on the joyless face of a VIC card torn in half and dropped in a parking lot puddle.

I found my wife alone in the kitchen, weeping into the sink. Tears fell on the kiwi she was peeling.

“Kroger bought Harris Teeter,” she wailed, a gush of emotion that can only come when the final straw snaps, when the Powers That Be take something that truly matters.

There’s nothing more personal than a grocery store, not even a barber. Losing one feels like losing a leg. More 12 legs, packaged together and suitable for grilling.

Harris Teeter was local, a neighbor, owned and operated in North Carolina. The staff wore name tags that showed the year they were hired – many of them going back into the last century. You recognized the guy behind the fish counter, and the woman pricing ground beef and the man who scans your vegetables and never has to ask the difference between collards and kale.

This sale hurts more knowing that from now on, the Teeter ultimate guidance will come from Ohio – Buckeye vengeance for North Carolina claiming the Wright Brothers.

The Kroger brass insists nothing will change. But after 20 years in newspapers, I’ve heard more than a few out-of-town CEOs make that promise. One in particular comes to mind.

I came to this state from Maryland almost 20 years ago, and where I’m from, the grocery stores are named Safeway or Foodway or Eatway. Nobody puts a real person’s name on a supermarket, especially not a friendly, melodious name like Harris Teeter. It rhymes with Derek Jeter, and the store struck me as being just as reliable, consistent and clean as the Yankee shortstop.

Kroger might be a real person’s name, but to me, it sounds like somebody introducing himself with a mouthful of ham sandwich.

There’s nothing wrong with Kroger. It’s much cheaper to shop there. I’ve got a sky-blue rewards card in my wallet right now. I go to the store at Six Forks and Wake Forest roads probably once a week.

But there’s nothing special about it, either. Kroger feels like a store that has 2,400 others just like it.

Harris Teeter is the store for people with tomato sauce slopped on the pages of their cookbooks – people who want a kick out of dinner.

You never have to hunt for leeks or bok choy. They’ve always got four different kinds of shrimp, including those with the heads still on. They sell plain seltzer water in cans – my favorite, dull as it sounds. They’ve got something like 20 brands of coffee – at least two of which are always on sale.

I’m not a food snob. I eat Nabs and microwave burritos. But I appreciate a Harris Teeter onion, big as a softball.

But most important, Harris Teeter always felt like a place in tune with your life.

In Fayetteville, when I was 27, all the young reporters flocked to the Teeter at midnight on Saturday, stocking up on beer before the Sunday Blue Laws kicked in. You know. Just in case.

In Raleigh, as a 40ish parent, I promise my 6-year-old boy he can ride in the big green cart with a pair of steering wheels. He gets a cookie from the Cookie Dragon and a balloon from the Balloon Corral.

Often, there’s a surprise waiting.

Watermelon samples. Tiny cups of wine. Cheese on toothpicks. A free suitcase. Swinging singles making eyes at each other over the cauliflower.

I just don’t see Kroger keeping all of that alive. I’m not sure they even notice it’s there.

I patted my wife on the head and took a slice of kiwi. It tasted fresh and firm, not mushy in the slightest, as wholesome as memories of home.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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