A LOVE Story for Valentine’s Day……
Posted by cmh gourmand on February 14, 2007
(I am slightly embarrassed to admit this is a true story. It started in 1997.)
Something was wrong. Had I ignored the writing on the wall because everything had been going so well? Sure, I had experimented and occasionally been unfaithful, but I always came back. Honestly, sometimes the relationship seemed too good to be true. It offered everything I wanted: low fat, cheap, incredibly flavorful and no dehydrated onions. Del Monte’s D’Italia Spicy Red Pepper Pasta Sauce was gone! Not a single can on the shelf. Was this the end?
I panicked. A woman at the Kroger customer service counter informed me the manager for pasta section had just left for the day. I should call tomorrow. Maybe they had just run out. If not, perhaps a special order could be placed. Still, I had an uneasy feeling. Maybe I was just being negative but I felt something was very wrong.
When I arrived home, I pulled one of my three cans from the cupboard to get contact information. A definitive answer was needed. I found Del Monte’s 800 number and dialed it. Eventually, a consumer services specialist confirmed my fears. The Spicy Red Pepper Sauce was discontinued. Apparently, the profit margin on the product was too low, because the cost of the ingredients was so high. Del Monte could not raise the price to a level which would make it profitable, because there is an unwritten rule in the consumer world – canned pasta sauce will not sell for more than $1.69. However, two of the other three Del Monte Sauces were being revamped (with dehydrated onions) and were already appearing at local supermarkets. The Del Monte representative sincerely hoped I “would enjoy one of the new, improved sauces“. This meant nothing to me. My concerns would be noted for the record. To keep track of customer response (outrage), I was asked to leave my zip code.
After a moment to collect myself, I took action. I called a different Kroger grocery store. I had to find some cans before it was too late. Eventually, I was transferred to a teenage stock person who was a wealth of information. The notice of product discontinuation had arrived Saturday and the few remaining cans were shipped out on Sunday, to an unknown location.
I called Del Monte again. I wanted to find out where the cans would end up. I needed to buy some and cost was no object. Once again bad news. Del Monte had purged their stockpile and would not receive any back. It was up to the various stores to dispose of the remaining supply. To keep track of customer response (mourning) I was asked to leave my zip code. I gave them a different zip code. It could not hurt to manipulate the demographics.
Telephone still in hand, I called Kroger Consumer Affairs. The woman I spoke to was very sympathetic. She informed me the remaining stock was sent to the central warehouse and I could call tomorrow when it opened.
I tried to distract myself, I worked out, accessed my email, checked my inventory – three cans. I could not wait until tomorrow. An inspiration occurred. I would check every independent Mom and Pop grocery store. I would have had better success looking for the Holy Grail. At one store, where I had purchased the product on sale just a few weeks before, a very distracted, non-customer service oriented, floor manager mumbled “We never had that.” My fiery red eyes burned a hole into his soul when I retorted “you had it last week… and there is still an empty place on the shelf (and my heart) where it used to be“. I was out the door before his jaw dropped.
After several unrewarding searches, I pulled into the parking lot of the last store on my list. With a short three minutes until closing, I raced to the pasta aisle. On the bottom shelf, in a sea of white labeled, “new, improved”, (HA – improved – hardly..) Del Monte pasta sauces, I saw one green labeled can! Del Monte…Marinara Pasta Sauce – always my second choice (when I was unfaithful) of the four discontinued varieties. I bought it anyway, I was desperate. The overly customer service oriented cashier noticed my single purchase for the night and let me know it was her favorite pasta sauce because “it is low fat, cheap, and tastes great”. She kept raving about it and wanted to share recipes. I think she wanted to help me in other ways too – but I could not be distracted by a fling. I was on a mission. First, I let her ring up my purchase, then I dropped the bomb. I had the last can in the store, possibly Columbus. I shared my experiences so far. Walking out the door, I sensed she had not yet grasped the gravity of the situation. At home, I rechecked my cache – three cans. I tried to go to bed, but visions of Spicy Red Pepper Pasta Sauce danced through my head.
In the morning, I woke up with a purpose. There was still hope! I would buy several cases from the Kroger warehouse immediately after work. I shared my plight with my co-workers. Ron, the conspiracy theorist, asked if one of the ingredients was crack or cocaine. Another fellow drone was convinced this would become my white whale (a.k.a Moby Dick) and would certainly lead to my destruction. The consensus was I had too much free time on my hands. I ignored them and called the Kroger warehouse during my break. Over the sound of forklifts and other industrial noise, the warehouse manager informed me the remaining stock had been sent to a reclamation center somewhere, several states away. It was gone. Even if there was some, they were not allowed to sell it or accidentally leave several cases by the back door. I was told the remaining cans would end up in a food bank, a third world country, or a close out store. As I hung up the phone, a co-worker told me she thought she saw some at Meijer the night before.
I went to a Meijer after work. I always avoid Meijer but this was a crisis, I would just overcome my dislike of the place. I wandered around for quite some time, then I discovered a horde of green Del Monte cans, several shelves! I checked my wallet and sprinted down the aisle. I had thirty dollars. And two credit cards, if I needed them. I could easily get 200 cans into my sport utility vehicle. I stared at hundreds of cans of Tomato Basil and Four Cheese – the bastard stepchildren of the Del Monte family. My quest was over.
I was shattered. There was a void, a great black hole of loss. I rationed my remaining cans. I put one in my safe, the other two were set aside for special occasions. It was winter and I would soon be leaving the country for a month, this would take my mind off of my loss. I made arrangements to have my bills paid, mail held, etc.. More importantly, I asked friends to keep an eye out for my beloved if they happened to be in any discount stores, flea markets or third world countries.
When I returned, nothing had changed. The Operation Feed Food Drive had begun at work. I tortured myself by searching the donation boxes for Spicy Red Pepper Pasta Sauce and offered special incentives for any cans turned in. There were none. It was time to accept reality.
Life moved on. I tried other sauces. Some of the sauces in the $2.50 to $3.00 range were all right, but my lost sauce was 99 cents. Money could not buy me happiness. I tried to conjure up my own sauce. After several failed attempts, I invented a recipe which was marginally acceptable. Even though my concoction came close, I would never have the instant gratification I was accustomed to.
In July, I received a present in Christmas wrapping paper. Inside the box was a slightly battered, but intact can of Del Monte Spicy Red Pepper Pasta Sauce, with a 79 cent Odd Lots price tag. Odd Lots! There was one only 4 miles away. I quickly amassed twenty five cans.
I needed to phone Del Monte one last time. I explained what I had been through. I needed to know the shelf life. I was told it could last forever! However, the sauce is considered to be best two years from production. Since my loyalties were well proven, I was given the secret of Del Monte manufacture date codes, so I could tell which cans I should savor first. It is possible the woman I spoke with wanted to help me in other ways, (“sir, have you ever considered speaking to a professional about…“) but I had what I needed and thanked her for her time. To keep track of customer response I was asked to leave my zip code. I gave them a third zip code. (I did live in 43210 during 1990, so it was not a lie). It still could not hurt to manipulate the demographics.
I acquired 78 cans of pasta sauce and one Restaurant sized can which lasted me into the next century (2002). I was faithful until the end of my supply. I spent those final months going through the stages of loss – Anger, Denial, Bargaining, DEPRESSION but never acceptance. I did a small letter writing campaign and left a different zip code every time I called the evil Del Monte Corporation – but my pasta sauce never came back. I used the last can for a solo birthday dinner in June of 2002 – that sauce was just something I could not share with anyone else. I saved the last label and said goodbye.