Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Stale Bread, Hard Éclairs, and Whispering Monik

Armenia is a post-Soviet country. Even after 15 years, it still bears the marks, blemishes, and scars of the Soviet Union. I wish it was a Got-Over-It-Soviet country, but that’s still not the case. In the everyday stuff of life, you will find the infections of Sovietikus (or Sovetitis) still stubbornly clinging. It’s easy to see when you’re shopping for food.

We visited many food shops in Armenia while we were researching our book. They’re Hayastan’s most flourishing businesses. After all, everyone has to eat! But the competition between them is fierce.

Some of the larger food stores are switching to more of a self-service, supermarket-style format, but many shops still require close contact with a saleswoman, usually on station behind the store counter. And each store clerk has her own techniques for moving the merchandise. I call one common ploy the “Strategy of Stale Bread.”

Suppose you are shopping at the bakery counter. You’re looking for some nice, fresh-baked matnakash bread to take home to your family. The saleswoman leans close and whispers, “Don’t take those loaves. These over here are better. They’re not stale.”

The scene is repeated at the pastry counter: “Don’t buy those Napoleons. They’re old,” says the store clerk. “These Éclairs are fresh, delivered just this morning.”

And so, the customer is very happy because she received some insider information, a special favor, and didn’t get stuck with the couple-of-days-old bread or rock-hard Napoleons. But think about it. What’s really going on here is that the saleswoman is creating a network of loyal customers. They’ll keep on buying from her because she gives them access to the best quality products.

This sales strategy works. In Yerevan, I saw a small food shop in my neighborhood that was filled with a long line of customers. There was hardly any room for another person to get past the front doors. Why didn’t some of the shoppers go to the other neighborhood store? After all, it’s larger, it’s close nearby, and it has virtually the same products in stock. Plus, they could get waited on without the hassle of standing in queue. The answer: Because Monik, the store clerk, knows them, and she will point out the very best of the store’s wares.

The first sign of change in this bastion of post-Soviet culture will arrive when some bold shopper has the gumption to ask Monik, “Well, then why do you keep this other bread in your shop if it’s stale? After all, someone is going to buy it. You can’t warn everybody. Know what? Maybe I shouldn’t be spending my drams in a store that keeps stale bread on its shelves and then tries to pass it off on unsuspecting customers.”

The Stale Bread Strategy is a direct descendent of food service during the Soviet times. Back then, you had to create a personal connection with a salesperson in order to obtain any quality food. Additional money had to be offered, too, if you wanted to stay in the shopkeeper’s good graces. There was no other way.

It will be a bright new day in Armenia when you can ask, “Hahts tarma?” and the saleswoman will actually smile and answer, “Our bread is always fresh.” But, if she winks and whispers like she’s revealing some great gastronomic secret to you, well … as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before signing off, here’s a quiz question for you:

Americans say: “Easy as apple pie.”

Russians say: “Easy as a steamed turnip. (Prosche parenoi repi.)”

What food do Armenians invoke when they want to express that something is easy to do?

Post a comment here if you know. But it’s not fair to look in my book for the answer. Well … if you can’t wait for the answer in my next blog, then go ahead and sneak a peek.

Irina Petrosian

ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE, ISBN 1411698659, a culinary journey across the land called Hayastan, by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood.
“Food is the portal to Armenia’s past and present-day culture.”

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Blogger nazarian said...

What I didn't like was buying bread in Vanadzor. There was a kiosk style shop with a lot of bread in stock. But besides the sales lady, there were quite a few flies as well. When I asked her why she didn't cover the bread with some cheesecloth to protect them, she looked at me with absolute amusement and didn't utter a word.

It's really bizarre - there are such places, and then there are places with high level of service as well. I just wonder how do the bad service places survive. My only guess is that the consumers are not really that savvy. If I receive crappy service in one location, I take my business elsewhere.

11:45 AM  

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