Barb Hroza is an Assistant Manager in the Hawthorne New Seasons meat department.

Barb Hroza is an Assistant Manager in the Hawthorne New Seasons meat department.

Clean the Grinder Between Species

Standing behind the meat counter at the Hawthorn New Seasons Meat Department counter, Barb Hroza’s head is just visible over one of the three scales that sits on the stainless steel top of the meat case. As she works, Hroza keeps a slouchy blue hat pushed back on her head just far enough that her oval face is lightly framed by her dark brown hair, which is pulled back in a low ponytail beneath the cap. Her body, wrapped in a white butcher’s smock and brown apron, and feet nearly disappear behind the thick glass of the case.

“Can I get a half pound of the Mild Italian Chicken Sausage in bulk?” a customer asks.

“Sure.”

Hroza places a sheet of wax paper in her hand and reaches into the case. Looking through her large, black-rimmed, rectangular glasses, she guides the white plastic scoop, which resembles a giant gelato spoon, into the ground mass of meat and spices, carefully weighs her selection in her hand, calculating, before she slides the meat onto the scale. “Beep, beep, beep, beep,” she enters the sausage’s price look-up code (PLU) into the keypad at the back of the scale, watching the digital green numbers closely. The scale reads 0.48 pounds. She sighs.

“Consistently two one hundredths, three one hundredths off,” she said, quickly catching herself and correcting for the tare, or weight of the wax paper, which must be subtracted from the total weight on the scale. The scale now read 0.47 pounds.

Shrugging off the imperfection, Hroza guides the meat off the scale and back into her hand.  In one fluid motion, she pulls the printed label out of the scale, sticks it to her sleeve and tears off a sheet of heavy butcher paper, waxy on one side, “New Seasons Market” printed on the other. She wraps the meat and slides the almost perfect half pound bundle across the counter to the customer.

Turning, she strides to the back right corner of the meat department and pushes through the tall black and grey rubber doors that slap against each other in his wake, moving in and out and in and out, getting quieter with each swing until they fall silent and settle together, still and slightly crooked, one top corner overlaying the other.

Holding a plastic wrapped trough of chicken thighs like a small battering ram, she re-emerges, forcing the doors wide with the container. One door squeaks, plastic on plastic, as it hits the free-standing shelves behind it. With the precision of a practiced motion, Hroza places the container on the narrow steel shelf that juts out from the back of the meat case and peels off the plastic wrap. Sliding the glass door at the back of the case open, she slips the chicken, trough and all, into the rows of meat, neatly filling a rectangular hole. From either side of the chicken breasts extend ranks of similar displays of meat that tilt slightly downward toward the front of the case, displaying themselves for the customer. Chicken thighs, sausages, skewers and a veritable array of other cuts of meat are perfectly lined up behind the thick glass that slants like a giant car windshield over the displays. The meat is organized by type and cut, each individual kind displayed to highlight the one next to it: small round steaks are stacked perpendicular to longer marbled cuts of meat and the chopped-off ends of the five percent beef’s round rosettes point at the ceiling of the case like freshly shorn chia pet hair in direct discord with the more traditional waves of the 10 percent beef.

The meat case at the Hawthorne New Seasons

All of these choices are intentional.

“It is about contrast, about highlighting differences so it’s not just all a wash of red and pink,” Hroza said.

Hroza, who is the Assistant Meat Manager for the Hawthorne Store, is just one in a long line of New Seasons Meat Department workers to have picked up a curious tradition. No one knows when it began. One man, John Miles, recalls how the tradition started at that Hawthorne store, long before Horza.

Miles was first hired by New Seasons to smoke meat. But as soon as he saw the meat cutters and what they got to do, he set his sights on those positions. Meat cutting stimulates the brain, he said.

“I wanted to cut meat, that’s where it takes years to develop the skills,” he said. “And you get to play with a saw and a grinder.”

The work was an instant fit.

“As soon as I started working in the meat department, I knew this is what I was meant to do,” he said.

Not long after Miles was hired, he first encountered the mysterious practice that Hroza and others carry on today. Every time his manager pulled the exact amount of meat out of the case that the customer desired on the first try, he would yell out “Yahtzee!”

When Miles was asked to help open the Hawthorne New Seasons store, Yahtzee came too.

Slowly the tradition spread throughout the meat department staff and grew into a competition to provide stellar customer service. Some customers are very demanding, which fuels the interest in delivering a precise amount on the first try.

“I want to do a good job and I want to get that customer satisfaction out of it,” Miles said.

Yahtzee has several rules: the amount of meat must be placed on the scale the first time, with no corrections, and it must be the exact amount, after the tare has been subtracted.

“The whole thing with Yahtzee is it’s a one-time shot,” Miles said, his tone mater-of-fact.

Yahtzee, he said, is something that comes from practice and repetition and as the week goes, he is more likely to get a Yahtzee because his hand gets accustomed to the rhythm of reaching into the case and pulling out the right quantity of meat.

Although Yahtzee is useful in the busiest moments at New Seasons, its art is most appreciated in slow moments.

“It’s kind of like the wow factor, it impresses your customers and your coworkers and the customer is usually pretty pleased,” Miles said.

For Miles, Yahtzee and his job are about customer satisfaction, but they are also built around a strong connection to the meat itself. When, for example, he gets a very fresh cut of lamb, everything about it, from the relationship he has with the farmer to the smell of the meat itself, is special.

“You can look at it and tell it’s in good shape, it’s good quality and it was a beautiful animal,” he said.

Although Yahtzee still has a place in Miles’ heart, he has moved through the Meat Department ranks, is now Lead Meat Cutter at a different New Seasons store where he seldom has the chance to try his hand at Yahtzee. In spite of his absence, Yahtzee, lives on in the hands of the Hawthorne New Season’s employees and in other stores.

 When Barb Hroza started looking for the origin of Yahtzee, she found an elusive trail of breadcrumbs. The game started long before Miles or she came to the company, but no one seems to know exactly where it came from. All the stores’ meat counters play the game to some degree and everyone has a different story about who in the company first introduced them to the term. Through her search, Hroza came up with four names of people who might have started the tradition. The myth, she concluded, is bigger than Yahtzee itself.

“It’s kind of like the Holy Grail, where did it come from?” Hroza said.

What is more important than Yahtzee’s origin is what the term means to the meat department’s employees.

“For everyone it is about the first time they encountered it,” Hroza said.

And even more than that, she said, Yahtzee is about gratification.

It is a feeling of “total personal satisfaction, a cheap thrill,” she said.

For Hroza that first moment of pure contentment came about three years ago, promptly after she started working at News Seasons’ Mountain Park store.

“The first time it was huh? what’s that?” she recalled.

But she found the practice instantly fascinating.

“Being a ruthless competitor, even as a child with monopoly, it appealed to me immediately,” she said.

Although she doesn’t remember the meat in question from that first time, the feeling stuck with her. 

“This is going to make me sound terrible, but I thought, ‘Of course I got a Yahtzee,’” she said.

She attributes her fast success to an innate ability to know the weight of something in her hand. Like Miles she feels a strong connection to the meat and loves working with it.

“I have a good sense of meat proportion, although don’t ask me anybody’s height and weight. I couldn’t even tell you what my cat weighs, but chicken, I can look inside the case and tell you how much it weighs,” she said.

For her, judging the meat is akin to how people who work in fitness learn to understand the differences in human body types.

“They know that a guy that’s all muscle and weighs 165 is a lot different than someone who’s carrying around a higher fat content who’s 165, you look different, it’s the same thing with meat. I know that sounds a little demented, but that really is the analogy, you know, it’s just like us,” she said.

Hroza feels at home working with meat, but, she cautions, the job is not for everyone. As she navigates back and forth behind the meat counter, taking orders and straitening rows of meat, her back is toward the red stop-sign style plastic plaque that reads, “CLEAN GRINDER BETWEEN SPECIES,” a concept that she recognizes many people would find daunting if not downright disgusting.

Hroza rings up a customer's order

Since that first Yahtzee, Hroza has become an adept Yahtzee player and estimates that she gets between eight and 12 Yahtzees on an average day. Her personal best is four Yahtzees in a row.

But sometimes, there are other days, days when the Yahtzees just don’t come, she said, days when she is constantly a couple one hundredths of a pound off target.

“I’ve gone a day without a Yahtzee,” she said. “A day without a Yahtzee,” she repeated, slowly, her tone mournful.

Yahtzee, she said, is an art form, with multiple levels. Hitting a Yahtzee with ground meat, as long as she takes into account the fact that even when it is ground, meats have slightly different densities, is relatively easy. But, when a customer comes in and asks for something more delicate, like many chicken thighs of the same weight, or wants a piece of fish cut to a specific weight, it gets more complicated. She must figure out how to cut the fish just right and how to judge the smallest differences in weight.

“We’re talking about 100ths of a pound here,” she said.

She keeps in her head the weight of the wax paper, 0.01 pounds and the weight of the plastic container, 0.04 pounds. These tares must be taken into account when judging the meat.

Yahtzee is solitary sport, but one with a good deal of pride and gratification associated with it. Customers are often impressed when Hroza presents them with the precise amounts of meat that they request, and some even enjoy feeling as though they are part of the game. She recalls one such customer who would ask for odd-ball quantities of meat just to see if she could deliver.

“The best Yahtzee I ever got was from my challenger who asked me for 0.41 of a pound of salmon. I felt pretty good about that one,” she said.

Regardless of the Yahtzee, though, Hroza enjoys sending customers home with the perfect cut of meat.

“I kind of joke, but it’s not a joke, the meat makes googly eyes at people, they lean in and say, ‘that’s the one I want,’” she said, leaning forward, one finger extended to demonstrate.

After helping a customer, who asked for a pound of ground beef and ringing up 0.98 of a pound, she shrugs it off.

“Can’t win ‘em all,” she said.

In the end, Yahtzee is just a simple game.

 “It’s just those one of those small fun pleasures that I think all people try to find in the things they do,” she said.