bagging rights

(originally published in the Western Front)

Students shopping at the Sunset Square Cost Cutter in Bellingham can have their groceries packed up by Washington’s best bagger, Harvey Unruh.

Unruh placed first in the Best Bagger contest held by the Washington Food Industry Oct. 18, beating out eight other contestants from grocery stores across the state.

Pitted against baggers ranging from 17 to 25 years old, Unruh, 66, prevailed.

Speed is only part of the process, he said. While some of the younger contestants may have been quicker, Unruh said he planned his strategy before grabbing the groceries.

“As the items come down the conveyor belt, I visualize how they’ll sit in bags,” he said.

Contestants loaded both paper and plastic bags and were judged on their speed, bag building techniques and weight distribution, Unruh said.

Proper bag-building involves placing heavier items on the bottom and building up the sides with non-crushable items, he said. Once these walls are established, the middle area is filled so the bag can stand on its own. Knowing how items sit in a bag is crucial for baggers, Unruh said.

“You don’t want customers mad at you for crushing the bread,” he said.

When an order fills more than one bag, the weight should be distributed almost equally, Unruh said. Being a good judge of an item’s weight comes with experience, he said.

So how did the state’s best bagger prepare for the competition?

“I didn’t really train or anything,” Unruh said. “I actually didn’t know about it until a week before.”

Greg Reedman, a Western graduate and Cost Cutter manager, said he received an e-mail from the contest coordinator a week before the event, requesting a contestant. Fellow employees unanimously elected Unruh to compete, Reedman said.

“Everyone thought Harvey should have a shot at it,” he said. “Nobody knew what to expect, so we just hoped he would do well.”

After winning the contest, Unruh brought his plaque into the store to show his coworkers, said Mary Taylor, Western senior and Cost Cutter cashier.

“Harvey’s normally kind of shy and quiet, but he was definitely proud of winning,” she said.

Unruh was born in North Dakota and moved to Kent in 1968. After working as a sales representative at Interstate Bakeries for 30 years, he retired and moved to Bellingham in 1994, where for the past nine years he has been a bagger at Cost Cutter.

Chatting with customers and meeting new people are the best parts of the job, Unruh said. Besides bagging, he also assists customers to their cars and corrals stray shopping carts in the parking lot.

The recent contest victory has garnered plenty of attention from Unruh’s fans, said Reedman.

“Harvey delivers groceries once a week to the retirement center across the street, and a lot of the elderly customers came in to congratulate him,” he said.

In February, Unruh will travel to Las Vegas for the National Best Bagger contest, trying his hand against the top contestants from each state.

“We’re all excited for Harvey to compete,” Reedman said. “That guy really knows how to pack a bag.”

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