If you were grabbing some lunch-hour groceries at Wykes Your Independent Grocer last month, you might have wondered why 40 staffers were standing in the bakery aisle, between shelves of cinnamon buns and pecan pies, hugging each other and wiping their eyes.
Bryon Marks is the reason. After 46 years as the store’s produce manager, June 27 was his last day on the job.
He stood near a cake, frosted with icing eggplants and carrots, wiping away tears of his own as he talked about the store. Nearby, Mark Wykes, owner of The Independent, was also crying.
Marks had been at the store longer than Wykes. Longer than anyone had, Wykes said. It was the end of an era.
“I was 14,” Marks says, a month after his non-retirement retirement (he works now for Events and Tents). “Typically that’s too young, but I was big.”
It was 1972, and his mom, who worked in grocery stores for 30 years herself, had taken him into what was then SuperValu and asked for a job for her son.
Marks started out pushing carts and packing bags. When he graduated high school, he was given the job of produce manager.
It was a different job then, Marks says now, sitting in the shade at Rotary Park, wearing a ballcap stitched with the logo for Mission Avocado. Marks has visited the growing facilities for the California-based company, which supplies Independent with avocados. He’s also visited banana plantations (“When you see what all goes into bananas that sell for 77 cents a pound,” he says, shaking his head), and travelled to Costa Rica and Arizona. The trips have been rewards for achieving high sales among the stores in Loblaws’ B.C. division.
The Independent, he says proudly, was regularly at the top of the pile, sometimes even outselling stores in Vancouver. That’s remained consistent. One thing that’s changed is produce itself.
“Back then (produce) was just a tiny little department,” he says. “Maybe a 40 foot rack, three tables … and life was pretty simple as far as, you know, you had head lettuce, romaine and green leaf. You had grannysmith, red delicious, Macs and golden delicious (apples). It was just so simple. Russet potatoes, white potatoes.”
There was also a lot of liberty for him.
“It was like cowboy days or something,” he says of the years he was solely responsible for deciding what to order, what to put on sale. “Back then, it was wide open.”
On Tuesdays, he’d walk to the warehouse on the other side of Ogilvie Street, have a coffee, and plan the following week’s sales. He’d handwrite the order and, on Sundays, drop it in the warehouse mailbox.
The rules were simple: You wanted everything to keep fresh and you didn’t want to run out. But for such a simple set of rules, there was a black magic to it — one that required Marks to consider the weather and its potential impact on highway conditions for trucks coming up from the south.
“I often said I wish I had a crystal ball because it would have made things a lot easier,” Marks says. “People are forgiving but they get upset when there’s no head lettuce.”
These days, someone in Calgary decides what’s on sale. “So you take away a little of that wide-open-frontier kind of stuff,” he says.
Still, Marks says it was fun to the very last day. Partly, he seems to genuinely love produce, talking about the carrots from Yukon Grain Farm as though they’re gemstones (“They were beautiful,” he says. “Just beautiful.”) and reminiscing about certain sections of the store.
“There was this one section, it’s got bunches of beets, kale, we probably had six different types of kale, organic and non-organic. Red, black and green. In the morning, if I could get that one section to look just perfect, and to get it all sprayed down so it was just perfect, I got so much pleasure out of that.”
The best part of the job though, was the interaction with the customers, he says.
“I always thought it was more… ” Marks stops and chokes back tears, calls himself a softie. “I thought it was more my department. It wasn’t Independent. It wasn’t SuperValu. It was a lot of regular people.”
Some of them were on staff with him. Some were the shoppers he said hello to every day.
He thinks those people are the reason Independent survived when the Superstore opened in Whitehorse. At the time, he was told to jump ship and head to the Superstore, like 90 per cent of his co-workers had. Marks said no thanks.
“I just didn’t want to go,” he says. “I said, ‘No I’m gonna stay here and if it’s going to be two years, I’ll do two years and then I’ll go find something else to do.’” Mark stayed. “A few stayed and between the few of us, we made sure that there was customer service like you wouldn’t believe. Personable. And that’s exactly whey we’re still here. Because we’re different.”
He still talks about the store collectively. It’s “we” and “us.” He also admits to still having a difficult time resisting the urge to re-arrange the veggies when he shops there as a customer now. What he’s not having trouble with is being able to sleep in until 6 a.m. rather than waking at 4:15 every day. That schedule meant he was fading by 8 p.m. every night, and had to leave social engagements early to get to bed.
It’s part of the reason he stepped down from the job. Marks still loved it, but he wanted some personal time.
“I tried to make things too good I think and that’s what cost me all my personal time, but that’s what it took to get the job done in my opinion and we did it.”
This year, he’s looking forward to the kinds of things only a former produce manager would look forward to. Simple things, like not working Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, and not scrambling to do his shopping at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
“Now I’m looking forward to going shopping with my wife or the kids, maybe three or four days before. Or a week before!” he says, sounding giddy with the possibilities. “I don’t care when, it’s just going to happen right? Oh, it’s going to be good.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org