To know Hickory Farms is to know Beef Stick, nut-coated cheese balls and pastel-colored Melt Away Mints.
To know Hickory Farms is to know the quintessential suburban L.A. mall store, where free samples of pasteurized process cheese spread are happily doled out by smiling salespeople in white shirts and burgundy aprons, where babies are cooed to, where the elderly are waited on with patience and where the message "Have a nice day" appears on the price-per-pound labels on slabs of cheese.
The company is a stubborn holdout against a world saturated with epicurean organic connoisseur private reserve specialty foods that are expensive and pretentious, whose slick, glossy layouts in catalogues border on food porn.
Sure, Hickory Farms has its share of gourmet-ized items--imported chocolates, flavored pastas, Cajun spice mixes. But there's something comforting in the fact that for 50 cents you can get a Beef Stick Pop, a lollipop-shaped piece of its own beef sausage on a wooden stick. "A wholesome snack," the sign reads.
"Would you like to try some of our double cheese log today?" an aproned employee asks an older man who seems befuddled by a vast array of cheese logs.
Down the aisle, a mustached man about 40 pauses to gaze at a package of smoked sockeye salmon. "This is great stuff," he says to a woman standing next to him. "Best I've ever eaten. Better than canned."
In the final countdown days before Christmas, Hickory Farms will be the place hundreds of people go for gifts of food baskets, fruitcakes, tins of cookies, nuts.
Here in the Westminster Mall they're doing just that. All day long the store is filled with a steady stream of middle-aged couples, retirees, young mothers with a toddler or two in tow, suited businessmen and teen-age mall rats--as generic Christmas music plays softly in the background.
Some come with extensive lists, efficiently gathering and stacking each item. Others wander aimlessly up one aisle and down the next. The Country Harvest Basket? The specialty mustard array? A box of petit fours?
"How about some Fontinella cheese for your parents?" a woman in jeans and a turtleneck asks her husband, who wears a shirt advertising a truck rally.
"No . . . I don't even know what that is," he says, wandering off.
A woman with bright copper-colored hair surveys a wrapped food display.
"Look at this Chinese basket," she says to her husband.
"I'd rather get it in a box," he grumbles.
Part of Hickory Farms' homey charm lies in its product names. Prepackaged food baskets include the Meaty Treaty, the Tip-Top Twosome, the Socialite, the Backpacker and the Big Roundup. Their contents seem to have little to do with their monikers, just different combinations of meats, cheeses, crackers, mustards and jams.
There is also a propensity for folksy contractions: Big Barn Chedd'r, L'il Snacker, Smooth N' Sharp cheese, Natural Rounds O' Rye.
Store manager Ludomir Cieszkowski walks through the store in a semi-frazzled state. He's been busy in the back sending out Christmas orders, trying to meet the Dec. 25 delivery deadline. He pauses long enough to say he started with Hickory Farms about a year ago, operating a kiosk in the mall until he got his own store.
Cieszkowski, a Polish immigrant, says he's learned a lot about business so far. But he confesses he doesn't much care for the Beef Stick: "You know, in Poland, we don't really eat meat like that."
A man in his 50s gets help filling out an order form from a Hickory Farms employee. "What message would you like on the card?" she asks.
"Ahhhhh," he pauses. "How about . . . 'Merry Christmas'?"
A stylish woman with blond-streaked hair points to the objects of her desire: Hot Brot bratwursts spinning in a case as they cook. "Wow, those look good," she exclaims. She leaves with coffee, a cheese ball and crackers. But no Brot.
A female security guard strides in and nods to a salesman: "How're you guys doin'? Keepin' busy?"
She walks to the back of the store, helps herself to a cup of Christmas Blend coffee and leaves.
A young mother toting a little girl in her arms strolls around the store, picking up a few items and glancing at them, then putting them back.
Suddenly the child spies the spinning Brots and yells, "Mommy! Mommy! \o7 Mommy\f7 ! I want one of those!"
She doesn't get one, either.
Another mother, dressed in shorts and a bright blue T-shirt, wanders the store pointing things out to her son, who sits in her arms.
"Say \o7 bear\f7 !" she says, pointing to a teddy bear on a cookie tin.
He smiles and says "bear" softly.
"Say shop-\o7 ping\f7 ! Shop-\o7 ping\f7 !"
He just laughs.