« Belly | Main | Common Sayings? »

December 18, 2006

Working on the Line

Last night I worked my first shift at Zingerman's Mail Order. For readers unfamiliar with Zingerman's, it is foodie paradise. Zingerman's began as a local Jewish-style (though not kosher) deli, and has expanded into a gourmet emporium. They still have the original deli location, which sells overpriced sandwiches along with meats, cheeses, oils, vinegars, bagels, and grocery items from all over the world. Next door is a cafe offering coffee, gelato, and pastries. Zingerman's also has a full service restaurant, a creamery, a coffee roastery, a catering branch, a mail order division, and a corporate training unit. During the holidays, Mail Order hires a full-on night crew to deal with the surge in orders, and our friend Shawn has been part of this night crew for the past six years or so. She recruited David in 2003 and it sounded like so much fun that, when he decided to do it again this year, I came along.

We showed up at 3:45 for our "trial shift" and they put us right on the line. The warehouse was much more industrial that I had expected: an assembly line snaked through the bins of products, where one set of workers pulled items off the shelf to put in gift boxes and baskets; then it split into the boxing line and the basket line, where workers packed the boxes and wrapped the baskets; then the assembly line proceeded to the packers, who put the gift boxes and baskets into shipping boxes; and finally to the labelers, who prepared the boxes for mailing.

The production manager assigned me to baskets and David to restocking. I stood at a worktable, where tubs came down the line containing baskets and everything that was to go in the baskets. My job was to pack the baskets decoratively, shrink wrap them, and put them back in the tub and back on the line. Packing the baskets was a bit like playing Tetris: it was sometimes a trick to make everything fit just right. Some of the baskets were easy, like the Made in Michigan, while others were pretty challenging, like the Almost as Good as Grandma's Ultimate. This one is simply a larger version of the regular Almost as Good as Grandma's, which contains a loaf of bread, two brownies, two scones, four cookies, a lollipop, and two small jars of jam. The Ultimate has two loaves of bread, four brownies, four scones, eight cookies, and the lollipop and jams, but it all goes in the same box as the regular version! Packing was fun, though, compared to shrink wrapping, which really was the hardest part. I had always wondered how that stuff worked, and now I know: the shrink bag looks like the plastic wrapping that florists use, but after I taped it around the basket, I "shrunk" it with a heat gun. The trick is to get the wrapping perfectly smooth without burning a hole in it, which happens if you get the gun too close to the wrapping or don't keep it moving. When you get a hole, you have to start all over. It took me an hour to do the first one.

I had a professor in college who used to say that everyone should experience working in a factory, on a farm, and in a restaurant. I can now say that I have worked in a factory, and it has given me a much greater appreciation for the Industrial Revolution. I have never before had a job where I just stood in one place and performed the same task over and over. It felt most industrial, however, on break times. The night shift starts at four pm; at six, the manager yelled "ten minutes" and we all went into the break room for coffee and fruit; at a quarter to eight he yelled "lunch," and again the line stopped while everyone went to the break room for dinner (provided by the management); at 10:05 he yelled "break" and we all had coffee and dessert. Definitely a high class factory, but a factory nonetheless.

While I wouldn't want to do it every day, or as my regular job, I had a lot of fun packing gift baskets. Knowing that I was making somebody's Hanukkah/Christmas gift made me feel like one of Santa's elves.

Posted by eklanche at December 18, 2006 11:03 AM


I hate to say it but I miss it! It was one of those things that helped me deal with the hell that is the holidays. I can't believe it has been 6 years.

Posted by: apete at December 19, 2006 03:59 AM

Login to leave a comment. Create a new account.