DALLAS - Nick Beat really wished more Toledo shoppers chose paper over plastic.
For 2 years, he has bagged groceries, predominantly in plastic bags at an east-side Food Town. His experience helped him win Ohio's title of best and fastest bagger and a chance to compete in yesterday's national preliminaries here.
He bagged his heart out and aced the plastic heat. But in paper, he struggled and was shut out of today's finals, where the top five competitors from yesterday will compete. Today's winner gets $2,000 and could be a guest on The Late Show to compete against David Letterman.
“I don't get much experience with paper,” Nick, 18, said. “Every single person who comes into the store wants plastic. Nobody wants paper anymore.”
Yesterday's contest was grocery bagging's championship game, the precursor to today's finale, the Super Bowl of supermarkets. By all accounts, it lived up to its billing as a sporting event, from the overplayed pop music (“Born to Be Wild” was blasted through the speakers in every heat) to the foam fingers and the corny commentator doing midgame interviews. The competition, sponsored by the National Grocers Association and held in the middle of the group's convention, was so serious, people were staking out seats by 10 a.m. for the 1:45 p.m. showdown.
Nearby, nine people from Nebraska City were competing with the Arizona bunch for screaming time. They had signs that said things like “Sack 'em Suzie'' for their competitor, Suzie Lichtner. She was one of only two female baggers who made it to the national contest. Neither made it to the finals.
Nick and his crew were the more quiet rooters. As Nebraska and Arizona raged on, with the occasional outburst of “Seize the day, and your mom loves you'' from a mom from Washington state, Nick stretched his back and loosened his neck and shoulders. His mom, Tina, prayed.
“He's got a real good chance if everything goes the right way,” said Ross England of Food Town, Inc., in Maumee.
Five at a time, the baggers approached the makeshift registers stacked with groceries ranging from potato chips to spices to cereal.
This was the paper bag heat.
As baggers furiously grabbed for groceries, Nick sat in the last seat in the last row of competitors and furiously tapped his foot. The first heat was slow. Nick's mom was encouraged.
The second was much faster, and in the third was a kid who seemed to blow everyone away. Things were getting tense.
The fourth heat was Nick's. Paper was never his strong suit. Nick leaned toward the register, his hand hovering over the paper bag. When the whistle blew, he feverishly reached for cans and boxes, but the other competitors seemed a little faster.
He dropped a small box on the floor and had to reach around the register to get it. In the end, he forgot to pack one item. And one bag was two pounds too heavy, costing him more precious points. Nick was nervous. He hunched in his chair and rubbed his face with his hands. His mom gave him a halftime pep talk.
In the plastic round, Nick was at the top of his game. He beat everyone in his heat by several seconds. No items were left on the register, and everything fit neatly in three plastic bags. He even remembered to pull the bags off the rack; most baggers didn't.
He felt a surge of confidence. Surrounded by his supporters from Ohio, Nick recounted his mistakes in the paper round, his success in plastic.
“I did a lot better this time,'' he said. “If I can make it into the top five, I know it will be because of the plastic.''
The announcer called the first finalist, a teen from Utah. Then he said he would read the rest of the names alphabetically and read the next name: Harper.
Nick Beat knew he hadn't made it. His mom consoled him and the Food Town officials assured him he had done Ohio proud. Nick said he had a good time, even if he didn't get the trophy with the paper bag on top proclaiming him America's best bagger.
He got his 15 minutes of fame, his first flight, and a trip to Dallas.
“If we can make this fun for these kids, that's what it's all about,” Ohio Grocers Association head Thomas Jackson said. “Hopefully, we can keep some of them interested in the grocery business."
Maybe Nick would stay in the grocery business another year to give it another shot. Maybe they'd promote him to manager of a store. Maybe next year he'd urge more people to use paper.