I dream of a bizarro-world grocery store where the shelves are fully stocked, confusing ads are banished and the inefficiency of crying babies, unhurried seniors and flustered moms are nowhere in sight—it’s just me, my cart and a Supermarket Sweep-like blast up and down the aisles in two minutes flat. Of course my fantasy isn’t real, but my recent tour of the CobornsDelivers warehouse in suburban Minneapolis was shocking for the many efficiencies and innovations in a delivery warehouse that’s infinitely more streamlined than anything in your typical supermarket.
My tour guide was Dave Hartmann, general manager of CobornsDelivers and the man responsible for grocery orders going out on time without so much as a bruised strawberry, dented can of beans or sketchy salad bag. He proved his “Minnesota nice” cred as he led me through the corporate offices and into the massive warehouse while greeting every employee along the way.
Beyond the swinging doors is a cavernous warehouse—what I picture happens inside Amazon’s countless distribution centers with humans instead of robots pushing super high-tech, patented “smart carts” around to fill bags and ensure each order is accurate.
Hartmann took me through the towering aisles that were at least 12-feet high. Rather than a robotic wasteland, everybody seemed happy and seemingly not just because I was brandishing a camera. Coborns is a nearly 100-year-old employee-owned company with brick-and-mortar stores across the Upper Midwest under the Coborn’s, Cash Wise, Marketplace and Save-A-Lot brands. Its Twin Cities delivery operation started with the 2008 acquisition of SimonDelivers, which was far ahead of the grocery delivery wave.
Rather than grouped in logical rows—cereals here, canned veggies there—the warehouse aisles are designed expressly for efficiency. Black beans next to pickles and Cookie Crisp appeared to be madness, but Hartmann assured me this is the best way to prevent waste as employees push smart carts with eight orders at a time.
Compared with traditional carts with a slimy handlebar, janky wheel and a crushed up napkin, the Coborns smart carts have a keyboard and computer screen, UPC scanner, a car-sized battery and lights that guide the so-called company shoppers to place the right item in the proper tote box. It was mid morning, so the last two shoppers were packing up the last of that morning’s first shipment—with an average of 750 orders going out each day.
Not wanting to stop the flow of commerce, we left the shoppers and headed to the second level and inside what seemed like the world’s largest walk-in freezer with a note on the door showing the day’s forecast. Hartmann explained the weather dictates how many cold packs are added into each plastic tote bin they deliver each day—it’s all part of a formula. Inside, our glasses fogged up as I met one tough cookie who spends most of his work week dressed for Antarctica packing frozen foods even during the dog days of summer.
Downstairs we passed mega-racks of soda and uber-boxes of cereal as we dipped into a chilly but more hospitable cooler where three employees were sorting through individual packs of berries, with the goal of giving consumers a better selection than they’d pick out for themselves.
“The most painful thing I have to watch,” Hartmann said, as we saw blueberries gently rolled out and wiggled like panning for gold. “I can’t even watch because it’s just so labor intensive … you want every darn berry to be high quality.”
We passed dozens of obese smoked hams, totes traveling on conveyor belts, whirring electric forklifts and enough macaroni salad to graduate the entire state in one shot. We reached the end of the line, where totes are loaded into big delivery vans and unleashed into the community. Awaiting the drivers, they were stacked near overhead the doors, arranged by community and shipment order—temperatures constantly monitored by digital thermometers.
“You can’t just leave the totes and assume everything is good,” Hartmann said as I crawled into one box van. “We use a strong food safety program to make sure even though the chain of custody is broken [when totes are delivered] and we’re not legally supposed to be responsible for the quality of the groceries, we still take that responsibility because our customers don’t care about chain of custodies.”
I asked about food waste, which I expected was a massive externality given the focus on perfect produce. Hartmann told me there isn’t any, because whatever is unused or visually blemished either goes to Second Harvest Heartland nonprofit, a cut-rate lunch wagon for warehouse employees, CSA-style produce grab bags that are proving to be a huge customer success and, ultimately, “the pigs”—just like the movie Snatch. Whatever the case, I never witnessed any food heading toward the dumpster. In fact, I’m not sure I ever spotted a dumpster.
“We have to show and build that confidence among our customers that we’re going to do this very well, hopefully even better than you, not to be arrogant,” he said. “Nothing gets thrown away and we repurpose a lot of our food.”
Hoping for a turn behind the wheel, I asked what happens if an individual egg cracks or anything is missing or incorrect in an order out for delivery. Hartmann said each driver carries a company credit card that can be used to shop, even at a competing store, to ensure order accuracy. “Our drivers are empowered … that’s part of the friendship and relationship that goes on with our customers,” he said, noting that the metro area has its fair share of potholes. “That driver would go out and buy eggs and make it right for them.”
While I was cautiously expecting to either be grossed out, shocked at waste or overwhelmed by some portion of my CobornsDelivers tour, this crabby shopper will be more inclined than ever to pay the $5 fee and have my groceries delivered. When it was over, I had to admit Hartmann achieved his goal with perfect accuracy: proving his employees take more care than I would shopping for myself.
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