The town of Sandstone has 1,600 residents, if you count the federal prison. It's got one grocery store. But the guys who bag groceries there are the best, and they can prove it. Every year, they win the state grocery baggers contest.
Since the contest started in the late 1980s, nine baggers from Chris' Foods have won. And now they're on a five-year winning streak.
The latest winner, Jon Sandell, leaves Sunday for the national championship in Las Vegas, where he'll compete in paper and plastic heats.
Sandell says he's not nervous. "I don't get very excited about stuff," he says. "It's just bagging groceries. I'm used to it. I've done it a long time."
Sandell has been bagging groceries for 34 years, since he was a kid. He used to own a competing store in Sandstone, but he sold out to Chris' Foods' owners a few years ago, and now he's an assistant manager there.
In fact, Jon Sandell has trained the baggers at Chris's Foods who've gone on to win state. In the past he's always let the kids go for the glory rather than competing at the state contest himself, even though he's knows he's faster than they are. He beats them in the store's own contests.
"I told them that when I turned 50 I would do it because I would get sympathy points for my age," he says. "And they held me to it."
It's fun to watch Sandell bag groceries.
On a recent afternoon, there was a bit of a rush at Chris's. Customers lined up with carts full of bread and milk and bananas and Quaker Oats and Creamettes noodles. When a bagger left to wheel an order out to the parking lot, Sandell stepped in and bagged the next load.
It was sort of like watching an athlete. Really. Sandell does things effortlessly that an amateur would have to think about. He's very fast. But he's careful, too.
"You kind of eye up the order and the person that's carrying it, too, and kind of pack it accordingly," Sandell says. "If it's an older person who's not going to be able to carry as much, you maybe want to pack more bags and put less in them."
He says he tries to create a good base at the bottom of the bag and keep everything neat. "I also buy my own groceries and do my own cooking, so.part of it is I guess I bag to my own personal preference, too, how if that was my groceries how I would like them to be," he says.
The co-owner of Chris' Foods, Craig Thorvig, says this kind of customer service is what his store can do better than big stores in the big city.
"In a small town everybody knows you," Thorvig says. "People see you and they know who you are and either you're going to work hard and people will see that or you're not going to do anything and people will also see that, so there's some pressure to be better than typical."
Thorvig says that's one reason Chris' Foods has become a bagging powerhouse. Another may be peer pressure. Now that the store has won five years in a row, the baggers have gotten really competitive.
"Last year for the store contest we had high school students who, it was their day off, and they would come in and work for free practicing bagging customers' groceries to get ready for the contest," he says.
Thorvig himself won the state contest in 1991, when he was in high school and his dad owned the store. He came in third at the national competition. This year he'll be part of Sandell's entourage, cheering in Las Vegas.
To get ready for the competition, Sandell will do a bit of training. The National Grocers Association sent each competitor a list of the groceries that will be used in the contest -- things like pickles and eggs and bread and stuffing mix. Sandell will memorize the items so he knows which ones to put in each bag, because he'll be judged on whether the weight is even. He'll also be judged on speed, appearance, bag-building technique, and style.
Sandell says he's been told that if he wins, he'll be whisked off for an appearance on the Today show. "They'd fly me to New York," he says. "That'd be kind of interesting."