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Leader of the pack

To clinch the deal, packing groceries properly takes care, concern and a paper sack, says a Tampa grocer who shuns plastic bags.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003

MIDTOWN -- Robin Fisher knows the ways of the brown grocery sack.

He's a rarity, a dying breed, in the changing world of bagging.

Paper sacks are fading from the landscape of supermarkets everywhere, shoved aside in favor of less costly, more convenient plastic.

Fisher, 30, remembers when paper was the only sack in town. King of the bag world, roomy and sturdy, it protected our groceries like a cozy nest around a baby bird.

Then came plastic. Plastic was light and strong. It had handles. Even little old ladies could carry 10 bags around their wrists.

Homely paper sacks became the exception.

Much like Fisher.

Packing a brown paper bag with groceries -- or rather, properly packing a brown paper bag -- may be a disappearing art, but Fisher has not lost his touch.

The manager at Nature's Harvest Market and Deli in Tampa remains a bagging virtuoso.

He bags groceries almost daily, helping out when the lines get long at the health food market off MacDill Avenue and Cypress Street, in a Tampa neighborhood known as Midtown.

Few people do what he does.

"They give the jobs to kids," Fisher said. "Nobody tells them how to do it."

Fisher said he has had too many bad experiences over the years as a shopper at the mercy of sloppy baggers who treated his groceries like pieces of meat, leaving him smashed cookies, broken eggs and torn paper.

Plastic rarely tears.

Yet Fisher is unnerved by plastic.

"I don't like going into a store, spending $30 and walking out with 20 bags," said Fisher, who wears a ball cap and a goatee.

He first packed groceries at age 17 at Food Lion. He learned by doing. In a month flat, he says, he could build a pyramid inside a grocery bag.

As Fisher explains it, bagging groceries takes care, concern and common sense.

His counterparts throw apples on top of Wonder Bread. Not Fisher. He can tell the tough (canned goods and sodas) from the delicate (eggs and chips).

"I'm picky," he admits.

A few basic rules from Mr. Bagger himself:

Boxes and cans on the bottom. "You have to build a firm foundation," he says.

Glass jars in the middle, to protect them from breakage. Bread on top. Eggs, too, but only if the surface below is flat. Otherwise, they get their own sack.

The cardinal sin of grocery bagging? Mixing cleaning products with food.

Fisher surveys each customer to decide how much to put in one sack.

One recent afternoon he stood at the end of 16-year-old cashier Shelley Forgas' line.

She already had placed a few bananas in a sack, when he leaned over, pulled them out and then filled the bag with jars of iced tea and water bottles. He placed the bananas on top.

Later came Lionel Pizzo, 75.

Fisher carefully loaded the bottom of one bag with a carton of soy milk, ginger snaps, yogurt and wine. Then came the lettuce, bean sprouts and bananas.

Pizzo appreciated the care.

"Sometimes, I have to show them how it's done," he said.

Fisher guesses he will always pack his own groceries, as he does now when he shops, even if, some day, he gets out of the grocery business.

For now, he considers the future.

Nature's Harvest, which uses paper bags because owners think they're more environmentally responsible than plastic, is considering cornstarch bags. They look like plastic, but they break down in a compost pile.

"I'm not in favor of it," says Fisher.

He'll remain loyal to the kingdom of the brown paper bag.

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or .

Robin Fisher

  • OCCUPATION: Manager, Nature's Harvest
  • PET PEEVE: Plastic grocery bags
  • AGE: 30
  • HOME: Tampa
  • FAMILY: Son, Corey, 11
  • WHAT HE DRIVES: Buick Century
  • LEISURE: Fishing and football

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