It used to be a black and white decision at the grocery store.
I remember tagging along with my Mom to a local supermarket when I was a kid. The once upscale grocery store was converted, ironically, years ago into a budget Save-A-Lot . In one corner of the once prosperous market were a set of shelves that most of Middletown’s moneyed or middle class wouldn’t be caught near. People might talk. Times were different then in this town. Everyone knew one another and there was a vibrant, robust middle class. Unemployment was a rarity and if it was experienced, it was a short-term event. The paper mills, steel factories, tool and die operations, and local business community was constantly in need of skilled workers.
On this corner shelf of this store were products sporting sleepy-looking black and white packaging that didn’t resort to gimmicky marketing. They said simply “Paper Towels” or “Toothpaste.” In a weird way such honesty in packaging in today’s hyper-imaged world almost seems refreshing. Perhaps it wasn’t like this everywhere, but in Middletown there was almost a stigma to being seen buying these products.
“She buys generics,” someone might whisper disapprovingly at a gathering. And everyone would stare.
“Why is she buying those? Did John lose his job?” and the whispers would ripple through the room.
People wouldn’t stray within 30 feet of those shelves, lest someone thought they were unemployed or just cheap, two stigmas of 1970s that relegated one to the bottom of the social totem pole in Middletown. Today, cheap is chic and unemployment is simply a harsh and forgivable battle scar from a recession-ravaged city on the front-lines of a decades-long economic implosion.
I’m not sure when the plain black and white packages disappeared from stores. Gradually generics have turned into store-brands which are, well, down right appealing in many cases.
The other irony about the disappearance of the old generics is that the people who were plucking black and white labeled products from those shelves and sneakily depositing them into their cart weren’t cheap, they were smart. I’m sure they are the ones today who have the biggest nest eggs and least debt.
Here are some favorite generics which have become chic store brands.
SOBEY’S: One of my first encounters with a store-brand was at the Canadian grocery chain Sobey’s in the late 1980s. I went on a trip to Canada with my grandparents when I was 14 and we discovered their in-house oatmeal cookies. Back then brand name Archway were the King Kong of store-bought cookie decadence. But grandpa and I discovered the oat-filled goodness of a Sobey store-brand oatmeal cookies. We brought back 10 packages so we could enjoy them in the states. It would be almost 15 years before I would make it back to Canada and when I did I made a bee-line for Sobey's.
SIMPLE TRUTH: This is my favorite store-brand. Kroger has been rolling out a line of their own healthy and organics that often taste better, have a cleaner label, and are lower in price than their competitors. I also like their Private Selection line. It used to be that reaching for the store-brand over the better-known name brands was a rarity, but now Rachel and I do that frequently.
HARRIS TEETER: SIGH, why do my food affections always end up back at cookies? Harris Teeter, a regional chain in the Carolinas, makes some awesome store-brand of cookies under their name "H.T. Traders." These key lime white chocolate cookies are as good as non store-brand. Of course, few brands beat homemade, but these are definitely awesome!
Do you have some favorite store brands that you reach for over the Heinzes or Campbells or Tides of the world?