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'World class' baggers compete in championship

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Kroger baggers, including Tyler Boutwell of Rincon, front right, Adrianne Rhorer of Marietta, and Hunter Lovell of Stockbridge, compete in the store's district bag off championship Tuesday morning at the Sugar Hill store. Nine baggers competed for a chance to represent the Atlanta area at a competition in Florida.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Kroger baggers, including Tyler Boutwell of Rincon, front right, Adrianne Rhorer of Marietta, and Hunter Lovell of Stockbridge, compete in the store's district bag off championship Tuesday morning at the Sugar Hill store. Nine baggers competed for a chance to represent the Atlanta area at a competition in Florida.

SUGAR HILL -- Johnny Brown's voice boomed out above the screaming crowd.

"This is serious, y'all," Brown said. "This is the real deal. Listen up."

The group of hundreds grew quiet, hushing one another.

"No eggs or bread on the bottom. No glass on glass. Build walls, people. Build walls of food."

The words echoed across the aisles, from the produce section to the deli. Some shoppers furrowed their brows, confused by the man and his microphone at the front of the store.

As emcee of Kroger's division "Bag-Off," it was Brown's job Tuesday morning at the Sugar Hill store to lay out rules for the nine district finalists vying for a spot at the state finals.

Brown -- a customer service manager for Atlanta division Kroger stores -- told the eager competitors that their bagging skills would be judged for speed, weight distribution and proper technique.

Participants approached the counters, observing the boxes, cans and bags of food before them. Their eyes darted, taking mental notes.

Audio speakers mounted above them rattled to life, blasting the theme song from "Rocky."

Brown cleared his throat.

"On your marks ... get set ... Bag!"

Stakes were high. The winner from Tuesday's event would go on to represent the Atlanta district in the state finals. The subsequent victor would go on to Las Vegas for the nationals.

Kathie Nance, front end operations manager for the Atlanta division, said all the bagging contests help to emphasize the "importance of the bagging experience for customers. We're trying to provide a world-class service to our customers, so that when they get home they've got nicely filled bags and less bags."

A grocery bagger from Stockbridge ended up taking home top honors, securing a spot in the state finals.

Gwinnett County had good grocery bagger representation from local stores.

Stephon Jewell of Buford and Michael Keys of Loganville previously won their way into Tuesday's competition by besting fellow store employees at their respective locations.

Neither men secured a spot at the state finals, but both said they enjoyed the experience.

"It was fun," Jewell said. "The secret to good bagging is you've got to be confident, not nervous ... just have lots of fun."

Keys said it's important to "focus on structure more than speed, but you still need to try and keep up with the other (baggers)."

Keys said it was interesting competing against others who have mastered the craft.

"These guys and girls were all awesome," he said. "They're good at what they do. I mean, they can bag groceries like crazy."

Following Tuesday's event, Brown explained bagging as "an art form which requires a highly trained mind, a fast-paced brain like no other."

Added Brown: "These men and women (competitors) you saw today are the absolute cream of the crop."