A voice breaks through the autopilot of grocery shopping: “Hi, how are you folks today? This is a very fine goat cheese. … ”
Resisting an impulse to make a beeline for the next aisle, lucky shoppers glance up to see Phyllis Olson. She is neither the midway huckster we fear, nor the disengaged script-reader we tsk-tsk. She just wants to offer us the opportunity to try something she thinks we might enjoy, because it’s quite good, easy to serve and on sale that day.
For 15 years, Olson has offered samples at Lunds on Penn Avenue S. in Richfield. She applied for the job at 75. Which, yes, makes her 90.
You’d never know it. Like the best produce, she looks fresher than the miles she’s traveled.
Still, it’s time to call it a career. Her legs are starting to feel it after four hours on her feet. She’s retiring Saturday, pulling one last shift from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering samples of chicken andouille sausage in the meat department, her favorite domain.
“Oh, we’re so sorry to lose her,” said Louise Hall, who supervises the demonstrators there. “One thing, she knows how to cook. And she used to be a teacher, so her presentations are always thorough.
“And she stands there, just ramrod-straight!”
Olson, who is not entirely keen about the fuss being made here, said she just wants to help shoppers. As one of eight sisters, she also knows how to break through the din.
“There are so many new foods on the market these days,” she said. “There’s gluten-free, and seeds and grains we never grew up with. People appreciate some help in learning how to prepare them.”
Samples are a key part of the noodle-thin margins of most grocery stores today. Olson, of Bloomington, still remembers her first demo — a crepe with a filling and fresh raspberries — when she was a “product demonstration specialist.” (Today, the title is FoodE.)
“It was a very messy demo,” she said, of the filling, rolling and slicing. “It didn’t take me long to figure out a better way to do it,” combining a dollop of filling and a portion of crepe in a paper cup and adding a few raspberries, knowing it was the combo of textures and flavors that would inspire sales.
The demo job began as a means to fill her day after her husband’s death. Now, she said, “I have enough things to do to fill my life for the next 10 years,” which is what a recent insurance health assessment estimated she still has on her personal timer.
“I love living life,” she said. “If you meet people with a smile, you will most likely receive one in return.”
And if you decide that the goat cheese is perhaps just the thing to serve this weekend, you’ll get another smile, along with some recognition.
“Thank you for your purchase.”