It's Al's Turn: What's next for Empty Shelf Club?

The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

Here’s a brain puzzler for you: What do mild cheese dip, lemons and pistachios have in common?

Answer: They were all very hard to find in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago.

My wife, Celeste, and I were out shopping for date night recipe ingredients, along with a few other odds and ends. We decided to go to Walmart because we thought we could get all the items there without having to run all over town.

We were very mistaken. It was a long afternoon.

Several items were missing from the shelves – not nearly as bad as it was after the coronavirus spurred all that panic-buying in 2020 – but certain specific items were nowhere to be seen, not just at Walmart but at other stores as well.


And the items that had vanished were head-scratchers. Besides the cheese dip, lemons and pistachios, we could not find club soda, of all things, or phyllo dough shells, or a mini-muffin pan, or aromatic bitters (used in cocktails).

It’s the weirdness of the things that we couldn’t find that intrigued me. Was there a lemon thief afoot who grabbed all the single lemons from the shelves, leaving just the big bags of lemons untouched? Why were regular muffin pans well-stocked while mini muffin bakers were snubbed? Why did Alexandria shoppers snatch up all the mild cheese dip? Are there really that many people who are so averse to spice that they all avoided the jalapeno kind? Is all the bad news driving people to drink bitter cocktails?
Now I know there are a lot more serious issues out there than a few stray missing products. I also know that these shortages are typically fleeting and are related to labor shortages and supply-chain issues. In short, there simply aren’t enough people to “make the goods, move the goods and sell the goods,” according to Jim Dudlicek, a representative for the National Grocers Association, who was quoted in a recent Taste of Home story.

The good news is that you could probably go grocery shopping today and find the items we were searching for with ease. The bad news is that other products may, without warning, join the Empty Shelf Club – maybe a particular brand of food, canned sardines, a type of cereal, cilantro, you name it.

Celeste and I adapted. We bought the mega-sized bag of lemons even though we needed just one; we borrowed a mini-muffin pan from a neighbor; we used walnuts instead of pistachios; we bought a different kind of dough; and we decided to skip the bitters. We finally found club soda and the cheese dip we wanted in our third and final stop of the day.

In a way, the food shortages are a lot like the coronavirus – weird, unexpected, unpredictable and always changing, with a frustrating propensity for wrecking a person’s original plans.

The experience made me appreciate how good we once had it, before COVID and its related complications settled in. A time when you could go to the store completely confident that the things you wanted to buy were all there. A time when a can of soup was half the price it is today (although those prices are finally coming down). A time when a cough or a sneeze by a nearby shopper didn’t cause a panic.

I hope we can get back to those days. Soon.

“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

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