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Yes, There’s A National Award for Bagging Groceries. And I’m Your Reigning Champ

The inaugural National Grocers Association “Best Bagger Championship” in 1987 — aka “The Texas/Oklahoma Checkout Shootout” — featured two contestants and Terry Bradshaw as the master of ceremonies.

The same event is now held in the Grand Ballroom at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas and helmed by the Food Network’s quirky cake bro Duff Goldman. Apt baggers from across the country race to corral identical grocery orders of 35 commonly purchased items into three reusable grocery bags. Contestants are scored on a combination of speed, style, weight distribution and proper item arrangement (i.e., no bread or eggs on the bottom.) “Bagging has been an important step for many supermarket employees who have pursued long and rewarding careers in the grocery industry,” explains the National Grocers Association website.

One such employee — 35-year-old Trevor DeForest of Maquoketa, Iowa — culminated his 20-year checkout career on February 12th by becoming the seventh champion from the State of Iowa — that renowned bagging juggernaut — out-sacking 23 other state champions from across the country. The son of a grocer and father of five took home a glass trophy, $10,000 and the enviable title of “Best Bagger in America.”

You gotta win the state competition to get the chance to compete in the nationals in Las Vegas. Ours was at the Iowa State Fair in August. I was sacking against seven people from my own company, Fareway Economical Food Stores, and finished first. Kevin, my really good friend from work, finished second. When I got the bid to go to Las Vegas he said, “I’ll help you train.”

They give you a mock list to practice with. Every day for three weeks, I sacked while Kevin clocked my time. (I didn’t want to get burnt out, so I eventually switched to every other day.) While I was practicing, I dropped a two-liter bottle off the counter, and the top popped off and sprayed all over the place. As I arrived in Vegas I kept thinking, Whatever you do, don’t drop the two-liter!

I haven’t stopped bagging groceries since I was 14. It’s always been a part of my job, even while climbing up the ranks — I’m still bagging groceries as an assistant manager. I consider it a duty, day-in, day-out: Sacking groceries and carrying them out to your car. We’re one of the only stores in the country that still does that. (You have to bag your own at Walmart.) We make sure the customer gets home with their groceries in tact — no broken eggs, no crushed bread, no ripped bags — every time.

There are three keys to creating a solid foundation when bagging—I’ve been doing this for 20 years and instinctively put cans on the bottom, but I still need to think about the rest:

  1. Put boxes on the sides of the sack — e.g., granola bars, cereal boxes, etc. — to provide support for the walls of the bag.
  2. Add canned goods and glass to the middle of the floor — e.g., cans of soup, glass pickle jars, glass olives, etc.
  3. Lay crushable stuff on top — e.g., chips, bread, eggs, etc.

There were five mock checkstands on stage, and they called five of us up at a time. Each checkstand had the exact same items, representing a normal order at a grocery store: Canned goods, packets of gravy, juice bottles, a pint of milk, six-pack mini-cans of pop, eggs, bread, chips and an array of crushables. When I approached the table, my strategy was to identify the three heaviest items: Pancake mix, a two-liter bottle of pop and a 29-ounce can of orange juice. I made sure those three items were in different sacks.

We were are judged on four elements:

Speed. You have to sack everything is less than 53 seconds to get 10 points. If you go over, you begin losing points: over 60 seconds would be eight points, over 65 seconds would be seven points, and so on.

Personal appearance. This is worth five points, which you receive if you look professional. Pretty much everybody gets five for that. I wore a tie.

Style. The way you put your stuff in the sacks really matters. If someone puts the boxes in the middle and the cans on the outside, or a pickle jar on the edge of the sack, that would get counted off.

Weight distribution. All three sacks you fill should weigh exactly the same. If they don’t, the difference is subtracted from your score. I had to think, I put a 32-ounce can in this sack, so I have to put two or three 10-ounce cans in this sack to equal that. The judge told me afterward that my exceptional weight distribution won me the competition.

There were probably 600 to 800 spectators at the Mirage when we ran in from the back. The crowd went crazy when we took the stage! The sound was deafening — it was pretty cool.

They didn’t exactly throw a parade for me when I returned from Las Vegas, but I’ve had a ton of people come in and congratulate me. They say, “It’s such a cool honor for our little town!” We only have about 4,000 people, so to have somebody win the national competition is pretty cool for Maquoketa — and the state of Iowa.

I’m happy I put myself in a place where I actually won. I can’t compete next year, though — once you win Nationals, it’s one and done.

—As told to C. Brian Smith