Hy-Vee will send nine fast-handed employees to the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s 2012 Best Bagger contest Friday at the Iowa State Fair.
It’s fair to say they will have their fast hands full.
The Hy-Vee contingent will represent more than half of the 17-person field, but team members will be pitted against a formidable 6-person unit from Fareway Stores, which has claimed the Iowa bagger crown 16 of the past 17 years and produced a half-dozen national champions since 1986.
“I’d say the odds are in our favor,” joked Phil Grout, an assistant manager in Ankeny and one or two employees from his store to survive a 40-person qualifying round earlier this summer.
Grout says victory will hinge on cool nerves and the ability to accurately gauge the weight of each bag when it’s full.
“That’s where you can get the most deductions,” he says. “You have to have a calculator in your brain.”
The annual contest, which begins at 1 p.m., will draw several hundred spectators to the Fairground’s Budweiser Stage for three preliminary heats and a championship round. Baggers will vie for a $500 first prize and a February tip to the national finals in Las Vegas, where $10,000 will be on the line.
“Iowa’s contest is one of the best in the country, and that’s not an accident,” says the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s president, Michelle Hurd. “Most of the contestants make bagging groceries an art form. It’s amazing to watch and always electrifies the crowd.”
Contestants will bag identical grocery orders consisting of about 40 commonly purchased items, from eggs and bread to celery, cans of soup and a four-pack of light bulbs.
Each bagger is evaluated on speed, technique (the ability to arrange groceries correctly within the bags), the aforementioned weight distribution, and style and attitude, defined as “presenting a neat appearance, politeness and conveying a customer-oriented attitude.”
“The weight is the tricky part,” says Jeff McCollum, assistant manager at Altoona. He barley missed the cut last year but plans to be among the four baggers who score best in the preliminary heats to earn a berth in the finals, which comprises two additional heats. The runner-up earns $250; third and fourth-place winners receive $150 and $100.
“Iowans have always done well at the national competition, winning seven championships in a period of 16 years,” Hurd says. “But the state hasn’t had a national winner since 2000, which is something we’re hoping this year’s state winner can change.”
Hy-Vee’s last state champ was Jeff Kessler of Iowa City in 2001. No one from the helpful smile bunch made the finals last year, when Fareway’s Jacob Laursen of Cresco took the title.
In 2010, Kelly Anderson of the Des Moines Hy-Vee on Euclid Avenue, finished fourth. The two-time company champ turned in the second-fastest time in the gold-medal round but lost critical points for weight distribution.
“It was incredibly hard and incredibly stressful,” says Anderson, now Kelly Kayser, manager of perishables at the Omaha store on North 132nd Street.
Grout, whose wife and children will be at the Fairgrounds to cheer him on, says knocking Fareway from its lofty perch will come down to confidence.
“I’m not going down there to lose,” he says.
Pictured: Matt Munstermann of the Des Moines Hy-Vee on Southeast 14th Street competes in last year’s Best Bagger event; Kelly Anderson of the Euclid Avenue store finished fourth in 2010.
The Hy-Vee team
Thomas Bryan - Ankeny
Bradley Martin - Centerville
Chris Johnson - Algona
Craig Manatt - Marshalltown
Philip Grout - Ankeny
Jeff McCollum - Altoona
Matt May - Windsor Heights
Matt Munsturmann - Des Moines
Ashley Webb - Altoona