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Washington’s best grocery bagger headed to national competition

(AP Photo)

Sometimes when you get home with a grocery bag, the eggs are scrambled, the milk is leaking, and the bread is crushed beyond recognition and shaped like a Moccasin. It all makes you appreciate the kind of grocery baggers who recently competed in Washington’s Best Bagger competition.

The event took place in Tacoma and there wasn’t a self-checkout robot in sight. Instead, nine of the best baggers came from all around the state, from places like Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, QFC in Enumclaw, and Rosauers Supermarket in Yakima, none of which have those chips I like.

How do you determine the best bagger? It’s not just about speed apparently, because the groceries still have to be intact and edible afterwards. The judges measured for proper bag building technique, speed, distribution of weight between bags, as well as style, attitude, and appearance. The bags were so well packed you’d just want to stare and never unpack them, unless something had to go in the refrigerator, of course.

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Repeating as champion was Spokane’s own Henry Johnson from Yoke’s Fresh Market, who took home the $2,000 cash prize and in February gets a chance to represent Washington state at the national championship in San Diego for a $10,000 award. His key to being a supreme bagger is something I don’t have the ability to do when bagging my own groceries: Thinking ahead.

“I’d say what makes an efficient grocery bagger is someone who can always be moving their hands yet always be thinking about where each item is going at the same time,” he said.

That aside, not all groceries are created equal and he doesn’t relish seeing one particular item come down the conveyor belt.

“The most annoying item to bag is big loads of meat, especially when the customer wants them in paper bags. It can be a really awkward fit and the meat is usually pretty sticky.”

Cans are heaven, though.

“When I see a large number of cans coming down the conveyor belt I’m genuinely pretty stoked because I know it’s going to be a pretty straightforward and satisfying load to bag. I just double up a couple of paper bags and one by one fit the cans in next to each other; it can be pretty satisfying to do.”

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Washington state has certainly made its presence known at the national championship with four titles, including in 1989, 2013, 2015, and 2016, according to The News Tribune. You might even call us a dynasty.

I asked Henry about something I could embarrassingly win a competition at: Pretending to look busy and acting like I’ve never used a debit card machine before so I can lazily avoid helping the bagger. He didn’t seem too bothered by selfish customers like me.

“It’s my job to bag groceries, I don’t expect customers to get too involved; in fact, I’d rather them not because then I don’t have to be unsure on what they’re going to take out of the load so I can plan out the whole order how I see it best,” he said. “But of course, if they want to help out because they have some specific preferences, then that’s perfectly fine, it can be fun doing it together.”

So if you find yourself at Yoke’s Fresh Market in Spokane, definitely head to Henry’s lane.

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