Aldi comes to town

It took Trader Joe’s forever to get to New Hampshire. Now the other half of the Albrecht corporate identity in America has finally arrived, with a new store in Dover.

The nearest TJ’s, for the record, is in Newington, one town to the south of us, with its mall, cineplex, power plant, big industrial park and airfield, and a slew of retailers serving both Dover and Portsmouth.

If you’re familiar with the German-based Aldi discount supermarket chain, you know it’s spartan about low prices, boasting that it undercuts Walmart. Rather than a choice of brand-name products, the shelves present mainly storebrand items – still in the cardboard shipping box. You put a deposit on a grocery cart, if you need one, and you have to pay for a grocery bag, if you didn’t bring your own. And, despite the frugality or stinginess, there are customers who rave about its specialty chocolate and coffee. And those who complain.

The name Aldi stands for AL-brecht DI-scount. And, oh, yes, the owners, Germany’s richest family, have been feuding, providing plenty of gossip. By the way, the cart rental means you take it back to the store for your quarter, saving the company the expense of hiring someone to retrieve it from the parking lot.

The local Aldi doesn’t sell alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets.

~*~

The grocery business has always been competitive, with thin profit margins. Success has depended on volume, for the most part, and niche loyalty, where possible. There’s little room for error.

Regionally, the Market Basket chain dominates. It has the lowest prices overall, wide variety, locally responsive product selection, fierce customer and employee loyalty, and a 1950s’ New England identity. We’re grateful it survived its own Greek family feud and continues with its enlightened leadership.

Meanwhile, the other two players in town pitch themselves toward stylish, but they’re almost never crowded. You might stop there if you don’t want to face the crowd at Market Basket or prefer closer parking, but there’s definitely a sense that they’re not where the action is, despite the corporate decor.

Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford is owned by the Ahold Dehaize group in the Netherlands, which also operates the Giant, Food Lion, and Stop & Shop chains in the U.S. It feels sterile.

Shaw’s Market operates jointly with Star Market out of West Bridgeport, Massachusetts, and is owned by Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s. Its tone is somehow greener or more intimately lighted. Do we really care if it’s the official grocer of the Boston Red Sox?

In Dover, Hannaford and Shaw’s sit side by side north of the hospital.

Intriguingly, Aldi chose to tuck its new store in across the street. Rather than building, it could have taken over the former Staple’s site a bit up the street, closer to both the freeway and to Market Basket. We’re curious about the corporate thinking here.

Our guess is that Aldi figures it can pick off at least one of the two rivals that share its traffic lights. Hannaford has a satisfactory pharmacy, one that my health plan pointed me to. Shaw’s turns out some fine baguettes and the tortilla chips are superb. So we’d miss either one.

For perspective, the Shaw’s in Newington recently folded, unable to keep up with its neighboring Market Basket and TJ’s.

Aldi is closer to downtown Dover than Market Basket, and for some prices, it’s coming in lower. But is that enough to cut significantly into No. 1?

We’ll see.

~*~

For now, I’m viewing it more as a convenience store with low prices. A gallon of milk is a dime or two cheaper than anywhere else … for now.

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The shrinking newspaper page

Cost-cutters have long found ways to shrink the product to meet rising costs or boost the profit. As was said years ago, “It’s getting hard to find a nickel candy bar for a quarter anymore.” I hate to think what it costs now, much less in a vending machine.

Newspaper pages are no exception. The first jolt to tradition came back in the mid 1970s when there was a newsprint shortage. The Canadian suppliers, for whatever reason – a labor strike? – just didn’t have enough to meet demand. One solution was to narrow the width of the page.

In recent years, as the Internet has disrupted the business model of the news industry, the pace of cost-cutting has quickened.

The ones around here are now 11 inches wide, versus 15½ when I started in the business or one paper where I worked where the page was nearly 18 inches wide.

In other words, today’s broadsheet is as wide as a tabloid was back then, only longer. It’s lost two columns of news on each page – or a quarter of its surface. It’s so skinny I wince.

We never had enough room to print everything we wanted as it was.

For some out-of-this world sensations

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father balances his career between work as a professional photographer and as an American authority on Tibetan Buddhism.

This description seemed a tad overcooked for the final serving:

In the end, Baba creates a dozen-and-a-half commercials before returning to his seat between a pair of six-foot-long brass trumpets and a twelve-hour holy recitation.  

~*~

No matter how much I like the image of long trumpets and chanting, the average reader is going to require too much explanation to get it. Oh, my. Maybe it’s a danger of my being a poet, too.

I have no idea about your father, but I can assure you mine was nothing like that. Mine worked as an accountant for a division of a global corporation. He wore suits and ties, and I never, ever got to see the floor where he worked.

Let’s just say Cassia’s Baba had a lot more freedom and flexibility than most.

Could you imagine having a father like hers Or maybe a famous TV actor? How would your life be different?

Among the characters who are, uh, characters

Yes, there’s the colorful brewer they hire in my novel What’s Left.

Thanks to the TV commercials Cassia’s father creates, everybody comes to know him, or at least who he is. As one line, no longer in the book, described him:

Fritz himself turns out to be something of a ham.

~*~

Look around you for similar folks. Tell me about somebody in your community who’s an effusive character. Maybe someone on television or running a store or waiting on tables. We have a mailman downtown who would fit as he dashes and dances door-to-door, often with an impromptu repartee. Expand my range of possibilities!

Considering labor

How do we make a living without seriously compromising our beliefs?  The military-industrial complex has extensively penetrated nearly all facets of American society. Not even the universities are immune. And corporations, in their quest for ever higher short-term profits, incur other moral difficulties. Law? Medicine? And so on. Until we as Friends resolve this, we are likely to face either accelerated decline in membership or inability to maintain our testimonies, which are eroding too rapidly as it is.

Where do we turn? Retreat into farming? Farmers aren’t surviving. As the French novelist inquired more than a half-century ago: Where are the shoemakers in the Society of Friends nowadays?

Professionals, as hired guns: rootless, living by our wits: how fast can you dance, pardner?

Greenback synergy as a revolutionary butterfly

Considerations of just how much her family could both own and effectively manage led them instead to make strategic loans and investments to help local entrepreneurs – people they knew as neighbors and friends. In my novel What’s Left, I was tempted to get into lists of microloans her uncle Dimitri might have made for counterculture ventures, but I backed off instead. There’s enough suggestion of that as it is.

As one line, no longer in the book, expressed it:

More than anything, we’re creating partnership in a network of kindred souls.

Well, I’m still fascinated with butterfly economics and economic multiplier effects and similar arcane concepts, but fiction is more about, well, heart to heart. Big shifts in the final text were made.

~*~

That’s not to say Cassia’s family didn’t also invest as a partner in startups, where it might also lend some of its business support expertise on payroll or taxes before selling its interest to the founders once the operation was up and running. It’s something they did with the bookstore and Manoula’s publishing house.

I could see many of their microloans going to people whose work touched on their own – farmers and gardeners, cabinetmakers or plumbers, recording studio technicians, among others.

Well, what’s wrong with small-is-beautiful?

Imagine yourself approaching Dimitri and requesting up to $100,000 to make the world a better place. (Maybe it’s not even for a loan – the family has also established a foundation that makes grants for worthy projects.) What would you do with the money?

Who says you have to be a kid to be delighted by this?

I know where I’m getting the candy rocks and gummy fish to decorate my gingerbread lighthouse this Christmas. And it’s also a great place for guys to find great little gifts for the significant other in their life, something that usually confounds us. It’s even a fun place to take her on a stroll around town. (Think cheap date.) You can sit in air-conditioned comfort while savoring the yummy ice cream. Or even keep a bunch of kids happy.

We’re hoping Lickees & Chewies Candies & Creamery catches on. It seems to have its act together, blending several types of economically marginal stores into one.

Key to everything is its location, across from the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire and above Noggin’s toys on the ground floor of the historic Cocheco Millworks downtown. The one drawback is that the entry is on the other side of the building, away from those two kid magnets.

But once you’re inside, you’ve entered a whole different world. It smells richly mysterious, largely from the chocolate bakery. There are maps with pushpins where customers indicate where they’ve visited from, and there are metal rings on strings you can swing toward hooks in the wall if you’re feeling playful.

There are more classic games in the sitting area, which includes a large round table suitable for a birthday party, actually. Or just resting or looking at the views out the window.

So one part of the operation is the ice cream counter, with an emphasis on creamery. But remember, this place is loaded with candy, as in toppings.

Then there’s the old-fashioned candy store itself, with about every brand you can imagine. The entrepreneurs don’t proclaim their organization or knowledge of the field, but it’s there – Southern candies in this part, German in that – even before you get to the saltwater taffies. Many of the smaller wrapped bits haven’t been a penny apiece for sometime, but that’s its groove anyway. After all, the idea is to fill your own bag.

Yet another part is the fine chocolatier. This is where to find a gift to impress, maybe even a new client. And there’s plenty of room to grow to the side.

They make the most of the historic textile mill space. The ceilings are tall, with bare wood posts. The lighting is warm, tasteful, with some German Black Forest kinds of surprises befitting a fairy-tale atmosphere in the evening.

It’s been here a year already, but I’ve just discovered it. I’m definitely anticipating getting back before Christmas.

The main entrance does make for an impressive approach. It’s almost like crossing a moat.
Inside is a rich mixture awaiting leisurely exploration.
Lingering is no problem.
Anyone else love fresh turtles? Lickees & Chewies come in almond, cashew, or pecan, for starters.
I want to call this Penny Lane.