An After-Shelf Life

As noted, in defiance of the manual and their training, owners—young and old alike—frequently take loss for their own consumption and offer it to the workers at their stores. The dozen owner-run convenience stores with which i had substantial contact during the course of my research threw away only a fraction of the products that had reached their consume-by date. In each store, staff members were allowed to glean their lunches, dinners, and snacks from the baskets of loss once the products had been recorded. In some of the stores, the owner or owner's spouse was responsible for processing the loss. Immediately after the recording process was complete, they helped themselves to the food that they wanted, placing it on a desk or sometimes in a plastic bag to take home. The remainder of the loss was then made available to the staff. In Daily, where i worked as a clerk, the staff established a pecking order. Veteran staff chose the food they wanted first, followed by junior staff, and finally the new recruits. It was commonly a junior staff member who explained the policy on loss gleaning to the new recruit, frequently adding a comment such as, “this is actually not supposed to be done, but. . .”

In my interviews with store clerks and observations of behind-the-counter activities, there was very little evidence to suggest that the consumption of loss by owners and store staff was detrimental to the work ethic. To the contrary, loss distribution may have helped strengthen bonds and employee loyalty by creating opportunities for backroom commensality. While eating a “loss” lunch during a shift break, one college student who worked several mornings a week at Daily explained how he privately calculated the free foods he received into his hourly wage. He joked that the only time he could afford a convenience store lunch (konbini obentō) was when he worked at the store and received the product for free.

In tokyo, where convenience stores are plentiful and part-time job opportunities are, literally, just around the next corner, young people interested in clerking positions categorize stores according to owner attitudes toward food and gleaning. It is an owner's lenient approach to loss that may help strengthen part-time workers' tenuous commitments to a store. Free food came up when students and furītā (young, part-time workers not in school) talked about why they continued to work at a particular store. It even led several workers i interviewed to recommend clerking positions to their friends when the store was struggling to fill shifts. Such worker-initiated recruitment might be seen as a form of reciprocity for the free meals being given. Loss distribution practices Revealed the kinds of personal networks that workers maintained. A Chinese exchange student who worked night shifts and on weekends at Daily regularly hauled home several bags worth of food and shared it with the other students he lived with in a rundown dormitory-style building a few blocks from the store. The student would sometimes jokingly refer to Daily as his “kitchen.” When the store was short-staffed, the student took on additional shifts and began introducing his friends to wakamatsu as potential recruits. At one point in my fieldwork, five workers out of Daily's twenty-one-member crew were “recommendees” of this one Chinese student.

For certain store owners and managers with family backgrounds in neighborhood commerce, a disposition toward recycling and eating unsold food was a part of the merchant lifestyle, a kind of shopkeeper habitus ingrained in the selling of perishable products. I talked to wakamatsu about convenience foods and unsold product one night while we walked home to our respective apartments after the evening shift. Wakamatsu was on orders from his doctor to reduce his weight and get more exercise and had taken to commuting to and from the store on foot rather than by train. As we strolled along the empty city street, passing convenience stores on almost every block, he reminded me that he was the son of a sweetshop (wagashiya) owner. What gets made doesn't always sell, and consuming and giving away food was, for him, common practice. He recounted a story from the early days of his family's convenience store contract. There was a weekend summer fireworks festival planned not far from where the family had their new store. Tens of thousands of visitors were expected to surge through the neighborhood on their way to the event, and the wakamatsu family adjusted the daily food orders accordingly. Weekends were typically slow times for the store, but because the fireworks would be on a saturday night, wakamatsu purposefully overordered “practically a month's worth” of prepared foods and bottled drinks. So much food was on hand, in fact, that it couldn't be put on the shelves when it arrived and instead had to be squirreled away in the store's walk-in cooler where drinks were stored and chilled. The family anticipated a very profitable weekend.

When saturday arrived, however, the weather was overcast and thunderstorms were predicted by evening. By midday the rain had already started, and the fireworks festival was canceled by the city, leaving the wakamatsu store with a mountain of perishable food and few customers until Monday. Wakamatsu and his family froze what food they could. “we ate nothing but obentō until October,” he joked. What they couldn't freeze they gave away to Neighbors and friends. It was an expensive lesson for wakamatsu and one that even a few neighbors still recall.

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