Have you ever been walking through the supermarket, seen the person giving out free samples, and wondered what an average day in their life is like? GOOD NEWS: You can wonder no longer, because I used to give out free samples in supermarkets and I’m here to tell the tale.
I should preface this by saying that I worked for an outside company that food brands would work with to get demonstrations of their product. Some people who give out free samples are employed by the brand directly, and others work for the supermarket. Not me! I was like a product mercenary, giving out samples to the highest bidder (a.k.a. whoever my supervisor assigned me to). That meant I would be in different supermarkets every day, each with a different set of rules. For example, Whole Foods has a rule that if a customer asks you a question, you’re not allowed to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t work here,” which was a problem, because I did not know and I did not work there.
My first brand was a range of fermented slaws and kombuchas. What’s kombucha? If you have to ask, you’re not going to like it. And believe me, a lot of people had to ask.
Kombucha is fermented tea, and it tastes like vinegar mixed with more vinegar. The one I was giving out samples of came in a range of flavors, like berry vinegar, ginger vinegar, and original vinegar. The reason people drink it is for the probiotics that regulate digestion, but some people really do claim to like the taste, including (probably) the world’s only kombucha-addict three-year-old. Her mom bought four bottles.
People would often apologize to me if they didn’t like it, as though I’d made it myself. And in the event they did like kombucha, odds are they already had a favorite brand. Kombucha drinkers are very defensive about their preferred brand.
Once, when I was giving out kombucha samples in Murray’s Cheeses, a woman came up to me and asked if I could recommend a cheese pairing for a certain wine. When I told her I couldn’t, she told me I shouldn’t have been standing so close to the cheeses, then. It was an odd moment for me, since I’d so rarely been required to have a deep knowledge of something in order to be in close proximity of it. If that was the law, very few people would be allowed to get on planes or swim with dolphins.
After I’d worked with the kombucha and fermented slaws for a while, I was assigned a new product. It was a lactose-free protein shake, and had about eighteen grams of sugar per bottle. This would lead to a scenario where, after someone sampled the shake, I would repeat to myself “please don’t check the bottle, please don’t check the bottle, please don’t check the bottle.” That’s when they would look at the back of the bottle, say “that’s a lot of sugar,” and then put it down and go back to drinking their ice tea that had twice as much sugar. I never once got visibly upset with customers, but the two things I most often wanted to yell were: “Every single drink on a supermarket shelf is just a DAMP BOTTLE OF SUGAR” and “If you don’t already know what kombucha is then there is NO POINT IN ME EXPLAINING TO YOU!”
One time when I was handing out samples in just a regular, random supermarket, Bobby Flay came in. I asked him if he wanted a sample, but he passed, probably because he was shopping for Iron Chef America ingredients, a task I assume he has to do himself.
As you would probably expect, most people who try a product do not choose to buy it. You’d assume that from this experience, I’d buy more of the things I sample these days, but instead I just took it as having earned the right to go on trying stuff without buying it. I suppose if I can leave you with one thing, it’s to be polite to the free sample people. They’ve likely been dragging a cooler all around the city and explaining what kombucha is over and over again.