Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bruce at Smiths

There is a real-life rockstar in my neighborhood.

His concerts are the hottest ticket in town. He has over 20,000 followers on Facebook, with a loyal core of groupies who thumbs-up nearly every post. Fans of his never turn down his invitations to happy hour, and have been known to line up before sunrise for a chance to score some of his swag. He can hardly go anywhere locally without being recognized or asked for a selfie.

Who is this celebrity?

He's Bruce, Assistant Manager at Smith's Marketplace in West Jordan.

Bruce has worked in the grocery business for 35 years, and four years at this particular location.  If you doubt his celebrity status, ask yourself how many other grocers you know whose face is requested on children's birthday cakes -

Or whose likeness has been used as a Halloween costume -


I asked Bruce's assistant of four years, Jolyne Gailey, for his official job description, but it's hard to narrow down exactly what he does. (Did I mention he serenades customers with his trumpet in the produce department?). His role is to ensure that customers have a positive experience, but don't you dare call them customers. "I don't have customers," he has said. "I have friends who happen to need a few things at my job."

For four years Jolyne has watched those friendships form from the sidelines. Or rather, the deli section. People walk through the door looking for a particular produce or cut of meat, and leave with a genuine advocate. "For Bruce, there is no distinction between business and personal," she says. "Everything is personal to him."

She's not kidding about the blurred distinction. Bruce routinely comes to work early, leaves late, and rarely takes a day off. Recently however, he took his first vacation in years, to Calfornia, where he sent the employees back home pictures of himself at Disneyland and on the beach...In his apron and name tag.

"They brought me in to slow him down," Jolyne says with a laugh. "But no one can slow down Bruce." She said that he uses his job as a chance to silently watch for needs in the community, and then does whatever he can to meet them.

That silence is his charm. Bruce certainly hasn't campaigned for his celebrity. In fact, the attention seems to make him downright uncomfortable, but is the inevitable result of one single, positive interaction at a time.

Take his Facebook account, for instance. After Bruce received the site's maximum 5,000 friend requests, it became necessary to set up 'Bruce at Smith's,' a public page that currently has over 16,000 followers. Last week, among the photos of current cereal deals and soda discounts, he wrote a heartbreaking post about the sudden death of his sister. To the thousands who read it he began, "This is quite personal, but you are my friends, so I'm sharing it with you."

Scroll further through the page and you'll find an outpouring of public affection. Posts of gratitude for picking up someone's favorite Canadian soda, stocking Toy Story ice cream for their kids, or consoling someone's wife in the floral department after her father passed away.

But, just like life, some of the best examples of charity and goodwill can be found off of social media.

I asked my neighbors who shop his store for examples of his customer care, and was flooded with stories.  One friend shared about the time her granddaughter was upset after she missed seeing Bruce dressed as Santa, and when he heard about it showed up on her doorstep in costume.

Another had posted to Facebook that her son got stitches, and shortly after Bruce arrived with bags of his favorite candy.

There were meals delivered to sick parents, and meals delivered to healthy parents because they deserved a night off from cooking. He has brought presents to patients in the hospital, and played songs of celebration on his trumpet after successful surgeries.

When shoppers need something that isn't in stock, he will drive around town until he finds it. He assists with school and community fundraisers, and has walked customers to their cars on rainy days using patio umbrellas from the furniture department.

One mother shared, emotionally, that she was selected as a contest winner on what happened to be the anniversary of her child's death. When she received her prize from Bruce it was with the inspired message that "someone upstairs was shining down on her."

Another shared the time he stopped by her house because her kids had requested he help them build a fort.

All of this has resulted in a customer loyalty reminiscent of a different era. One woman drives 60 miles each way, every week, to shop Bruce's aisles. "It's his genuineness," says Jolyne. "You can't fake kindness like that for that long."

One of my favorite personal observations of Bruce has been the tours he provides for young children, which are in high demand for local kindergarten, preschool and Cub Scout groups. Even if you have nothing on your grocery list, it's worth a trip to the store during one of Bruce's tours just to hear the belly laughs of children when he tells them to close their eyes so he can sneak food from the shelves into their hands, or hides in the dairy fridge to moo like a cow.

And why should kids have all the fun? Every night Bruce and Jolyne host a free event for customers that include unlimited "happy hour" fountain drinks and and Slurpees, or bowls of cereal for the entire family. He hosts Price is Right for womens groups and daily Facebook giveaways with prizes that include delivering ice cream to your door, and washing dishes while he's there.

Bruce has also won a competition or two himself. He's been recognized on the local news and in national contests for his customer care but always gives away his prize winnings, and he takes the same approach to birthdays. If it's your birthday he'll give you free banana splits and a trumpet concert, but if you ask when his birthday is, he'll deflect and changes the subject.

Forgive me then, for publicizing that his birthday is today. But for a store manager who accepts returns as freely as he does, I don't think recognition should be any exception.

"Everyone knows him as 'Bruce at Smiths,'' says Jolyne. "But I like to remind him that Smith's doesn't define him. He's more than the apron and name tag. It's his love for people that defines him."

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's a World of Hope and a World of Fears

When the government shutdown ended last month, it was four days before I heard the news. This wasn't because I was uninterested or insensitive to it. We experienced a shutdown ourselves when we lived in DC and had quite a few friends affected this time around.  I had been pretty attuned to news of a compromise or reopening and yet when it did reopen it took me four days to realize it.

This was because I was at Disneyland, which brings me to the best thing about Disneyland.  It is that from the moment your feet touch the cobblestone on Main Street you lose all connection to the outside world. For the four blissful days we were there I didn't know or care what the date, day or time was, or what had been on my to-do list before we arrived. It didn't matter to me how much anything cost or how often we ate dessert. For once I didn't worry about what my kids were doing or who they were with, whether the federal government was open or closed, and even missed the four days when Jussie Smollett was a victim.

That Baloo is not kidding when he invites you to "forget about your worries and your strife."

This of course is all by design. Every inch of Disneyland - every sight, sound, and smell is meticulously imagineered to shelter you from the outside world and blanket you into a blissful, reassuring 1950's existence. There's a reason employees are referred to as "cast members." Their performances makes you feel safe and respected. Suddenly you're comfortable striking up a conversation with any random stranger. Trash and spills disappear instantly, and renovations and repairs are meticulously hidden from sight (with the exception of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, which looked like a prototype for Trump's border wall).

When I mentioned this immersive design to my 14-year old she said, "I know. I heard that if someone dies in Disneyland, they roll the body out of the park before pronouncing them dead." How magical!

It isn't a perfect system of course. On our second day there, we were standing outside Haunted Mansion when three military jets blasted by overhead. I felt a bit like Jim Carrey in the Truman Show when he found a camera hiding in his kitchen. What is this! Who am I? And yet, it was Disneyland. Even if the jets had been emblazoned with North Korean flags I probably would have just shrugged, bit into my churro, and wondered if it was time yet to fast pass Indiana Jones.

There was another jarring moment on our third day, when a man who rode Space Mountain after us climbed off it mid ride, and they shut it down for a week to investigate. Did you know that a woman was decapitated on the Matterhorn in 1984? Also in 1984, when I was five, Goofy used a photo op as an opportunity to grab by mom's behind. That's a true story, but it's hers to tell.

Anyway, one afternoon on this trip, my sister and I stopped at the Hungry Bear Restaurant for churro funnel cakes and Coke. We asked the cast member serving us where the straws were, and were told that they were "over there, if there are any left." She said that straws and lids have been eliminated from Disneyland and that once the current supply was depleted, they would not be replenished.

Upon hearing this, my sister grabbed a giant fistful of them to stockpile in her purse. We thought this was hilarious but our cast member didn't seem to appreciate the humor and told us, "You know, there is more plastic in the ocean than fish."

More plastic in the ocean than fish? Is she serious? Maybe on the Nemo ride, I thought, but didn't think she would appreciate that humor either.

I was curious after I got home, so I read the press release from the Walt Disney Company announcing that straws and lids were in fact being banned in 2019 as part of their "commitment to environmental stewardship." Several Disney Food blogs reported that the park is considering paper straws and sippy cup lids as an alternative, which I suppose is good news for anyone who visits hoping to feel like a kid again. Perhaps next they can tackle water conservation by strapping us all in diapers.

I am all for environmental stewardship, but this makes zero sense to me. Paper straws, aside from making you feel like you're sucking from a rolled up phone book page, cost ten times as much to produce as plastic straws. And what about the trees required to make them? And subsequent greenhouse gases, global warming, and other factors of environmental stewardship?

Then there is the sippy cup solution, which Starbucks has already enacted. These have to require at least ten times as much plastic to manufacture as a straw. Also, after Disneyland banned lids, cast members began receiving complaints of more frequent spills, so the park switched from their flimsy Dixie-manufactured cups to sturdier Solo ones, requiring twice as much paper. It's all a classic case of overregulation. One step forward, ten steps back.

I want clean oceans as much as Ariel. I would love for us to deflect the plastic from them, clean the air, and create a thriving environment for the next generation. But a ban on straws and lids is a proposal made in Fantasyland that's more effective as a headline-grabbing marketing campaign than sound environmental policy; another imagineered photo op designed to makes us feel good about ourselves.

Which I suppose is why we visit Disneyland in the first place.

A Brother Like No Other

(Written by my mother Susan Foutz, who would like to clarify that she actually has two brothers like no other ) If you lived in Arizona in t...