On a recent Thursday afternoon, Kit Mercure is positioned in what she calls the "power aisle" of the Burlington Price Chopper -- the wide, central corridor that divides the store horizontally. On the table in front of her, a silver-colored, doily-covered platter holds an elegant array of mouth-watering goodies: cups of kettle corn, generous slices of ice-cream sandwiches, crackers topped with dollops of veggie and crab dips. Mercure wears a beret, has a red ribbon around her neck and a jet-black apron tied behind her back. Ruby-lipped, she smiles like a hostess.
Cart-wielding shoppers, meanwhile, seem focused on the jugs of generic apple juice and V8 Splash stacked behind her head. But, in fact, they are drawn to Mercure like moths to a light; nearly all do double and triple takes at the free samples, slowing down slightly as they pass.
"Hi, there," says Mercure, making eye contact and smiling even wider. "Would you like to try a taste?"
Suddenly, it's as if she's opened her home to the hungry, and the "diners" visibly relax, stopping to chat and popping bite-sized snacks in their mouths. Mercure is an in-store institution, one of four "Samples & Sales" women who've been whipping up diminutive delights for supermarket crowds upwards of 15 years. She and her colleagues worked at other area locations, before switching to the Shelburne Road store when it opened seven years ago.
In 1984, Price Chopper began its unique, in-house "Super Samples" program. While other large supermarket chains hire outside agencies to promote certain brands, Price Chopper pays Mercure, along with Marlene Hartley, Helen Mischik and Maria Williamson, an hourly wage (with no commission) to nudge customers to pick up the products. Now called "Samples & Sales," the program employs more than 400 representatives at the chain's 108 stores nationwide. They get the gig by responding to newspaper ads or internal postings, and interviewing with a store's manager and "team leader."
"They're extremely important to our store," says Al Davidson, who manages the Shelburne Road branch. "The customers look for them not only for the samples but also for help finding other items."
Magicians with microwaves, electric frying pans and toaster ovens, the Samples & Sales ladies can turn out a tuna puttanesca faster than most of us push our carts from the deli counter to the beer cooler. Aged 56 to, well, some undisclosed year, they've become ambassadors of artichokes, Worcestershire sauce and Italian dressing. They bring new flavors, and sometimes nutty combinations, to the palates of curious customers -- everything from "gooey" burgers to "Easter-egg-hunt" pies to tomato-and-hot-dog soups.
These in-store cooks have lost count of how many recipes they've whipped up over the last couple of decades. "Thousands," suggests Williamson, who's commuted from Middlebury today to dole out George Foreman grilled chicken with barbecue sauce. "I like it here in the meat department," she says, surveying her quarters. "I like to be where the action is."
Like the rest of the Samples & Sales crew, William- son works Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, watching the ebb and flow of customers from a steady trickle to a flood and back to a few drips at the end of a day. During the height of the lunch hour, things can get chaotic. But, the women report, there have been no serious cart mishaps to date. "One of the girls did have a customer hit," says Mercure. "I don't know if it was the table or the display, but I think she broke some dishes that day."
Mercure guesses she gives away between 115 and 260 tidbits from the time she sets up -- typically around 11 a.m. -- to the end of her shift at 4 or 5 p.m. If the menu includes sweet treats, such as Oreo-and-whipped-topping trifles, chances are there will be little to clean up at quitting time. "Desserts go over very big!" confirms Marlene Hartley as she fusses with an antipasto salad. She might have leftovers today; salads aren't that popular.
"Some people don't like cabbage," informs Helen Mischik, also stationed in the power aisle. "Or they'll say, 'I don't like peas -- even though they're grown-ups!'"
What else goes quickly? Soups, peanuts -- such as the Emerald honey-roasted version Mischik is now pushing -- popcorn, pasta, cheeses and seafood. Health-conscious customers appreciate it when Samples & Sales goes organic, with items such as Annie's noodles and gluten-free flour. "There's this one lady who often comes in and she's very particular about what she eats," reports Mercure. "If there's any additives, she doesn't like it, and she makes faces like little kids do."
Over the years these women have seen diets change from fat-free to low-sodium to Atkins, and food trends shift from plain beef or chicken to frozen, one-skillet dinners (big with widowers) and spicy Mexican. "Men love the hot stuff," says Mercure, who's watched chips and salsa disappear faster than Speedy Gonzales. "But we're always told to do the mild or medium, so I don't open the hot jar until someone asks."
These ladies certainly possess creative culinary skills and expertise of their own. Williamson was a waitress in an upscale restaurant for 30 years, and occasionally prepared tableside concoctions for such celebrities as Clint Eastwood and Fleetwood Mac. But here the Samples & Sales team has no say on what they cook up. Instead, the store's corporate office mails them recipes in advance. Sometimes a vendor such as Kraft wants to promote a product. (According to Williamson, Kraft Foods and McCormick are two of the most-sampled brands.) Other times Price Chopper wants to feature its own products, such as the "Snacker Crackers" and ice-cream sandwiches Mercure is serving today. "These are just as good as Hood!" one satisfied customer exclaims.
"See?" says Mercure, after the woman has disappeared down the power aisle. "That's the idea."
As delicious as the melting morsels look to Mercure, a self-described chocoholic, she's not allowed to nibble at her station. The patrons have parameters, too. Children under 13 are forbidden finger foods unless they're accompanied by an adult. Some vendors extend this minimum age to 17, a rule the ladies find difficult to enforce. "You try to tell a college student that they can't have a sample!" says Mercure. And customers are limited to only two samples each -- even the surreptitious ones who casually take a third or fourth lap down the power aisle. And forget trying to pass for your own twin.
The serial snackers can be tiresome, as can the grocery-store music and the bright lights and the smell of seafood. But Mercure seems right at home here. "I'm always glad to see everybody, and they say, 'How come you're always smiling?'" she says, shuffling her feet to a favorite song on the Muzak. "Because I'm happy. Every day I do samples, it's like company's coming."