Originally created 03/10/99

That taste of home



It's the taste of home -- specifically Big Red soda -- that Melinda Griffith misses.

"It tastes like a cross between bubble gum and cream soda," Ms. Griffith said. "I grew up on this stuff. When we go to Louisville (Ky.) or Nashville (Tenn.), we bring back cases of it. This stuff is so good. When you grow up on something, you just have a taste for it."

The four cans of Big Red soda in her pantry are among her most prized possessions. She can't find Big Red or some of her other favorite foods on local grocery aisles, but that hasn't diminished her taste for them in the decade her family has called Augusta home.

"Hostess orange-cream-filled cupcakes is another thing I grew up on," Ms. Griffith said. "I had an orange cupcake in my lunchbox every day. My daughter loves them, too."

Ms. Griffith has asked for Big Red at the Kroger where she shops, but because the drink is not stocked by its distributor, the store is unable to get it.

Grocery stores receive most items through regional warehouses, and special requests can usually be met if the warehouses stock the items, said Jerry Sapp, manager of the Publix at National Plaza. But regional specialty items that aren't marketed nationally are almost impossible to find.

"A lot of things customers ask for are no longer being made, like Spic and Span," Mr. Sapp said. "And many times companies will test market a product," distributing it only "within a 100-mile radius."

His store has one person assigned to fulfill special requests. She acts as a food detective, tracking down items made by national manufacturers. With special requests, the UPC code can help the store track the item, Mr. Sapp said. But many times, it's just not practical to carry special requests, particularly if it is a perishable item and there's not a great demand for it.

Take arugula, for instance.

The leafy green herb is the one thing Beverly Smith has missed since she moved to Evans from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"Once in a blue moon I can find it at Publix or at the Fresh Market, but not regularly," said Ms. Smith, who uses the herb in salads and on turkey sandwiches. "And when I talk to them, they say there's just no demand here for it. And I say I think there would be if you would stock it. It's just a green, leafy herb with a real nice flavor. Because it's on restaurant menus across the nation, I think the demand will follow."

Becky Grigsby said she hasn't satisfied her sweet tooth since she moved to Augusta from Ocean Springs, Miss., in 1977. She misses the Blue Bell Ice Cream that was readily available in grocery stores and ice cream parlors there.

"Their old-fashioned ice cream is the nearest thing to old-fashioned homemade ice cream that ever existed," Ms. Grigsby said. "Their old fashioned peach tastes like fresh peach ice cream. When I've asked for it in grocery stores, they look at me like I'm crazy. I thought somebody here would have it, but they don't even have it at the (Fort Gordon) commissary."

Rita Petty, who moved to Columbia County 22 years ago, misses a brand of frozen pie crust that was stocked in grocery stores in Wisconsin.

"You buy three in a package, put it in the freezer, and then when you want to make your own pie crust -- which I am lousy at -- you take one out and roll it out," Ms. Petty said. "I've asked at the grocery store, and they've never heard of it."

Ann Harris Wood of Augusta wishes a local store would carry Caffe D'Vita, a decaffeinated gourmet instant coffee that comes in chocolate, caramel and other flavors.

"My daughter in Washington D.C., introduced me to it and she has to special-order it there," Mrs. Wood said. "I think it's carried out West."

For those with more exotic tastes, shopping at area grocery stores can be particularly frustrating.

"Where do you want me to start?" asked Lynn Hammers, referring to the vast number of items she has been unable to find since she moved from the Seattle area last year. Her husband is retired military, and they have lived all around the world. Frozen won tons, Golden Mountain Soy Sauce and Hoi Sin sauce are among the items she has been unable to find locally. But her list also includes Cookies Barbecue Sauce, which is manufactured in the Midwest.

"When my family comes to visit, I have them bring a case of it," she said. "I've even had them ship it to me when I lived in Korea."

Randy Irwin, assistant manager of the Fresh Market, says that his store carries many international food items but that special requests are hard to satisfy unless the items are stocked by his distributors or are in the Fresh Market warehouses that supply his store. He has had many unusual requests, such as one for alligator tail, that he was able to fulfill through his vendors.

"We're usually limited to the supplies they keep on hand, and if it's not something we carry companywide, then we're not able to get it," said Mr. Irwin. "We had one request for goat's milk, and we were able to get it, but the customer had to buy the whole case in order to get it. It's not something that we normally stock."

The Fresh Market has stores in five Southeastern states, and most of the suppliers are in the Southeast as well, Mr. Irwin explained.

"We do carry things from France and Germany, but those are identified items that we stock on a normal basis. So we have an ongoing request from vendors overseas for those items. There's still a lot of items we don't carry or we can't get because they're just not distributed here."

Eudora Bovier experiences the disappointment of not being able to get frozen winter squash when she comes to Augusta every winter. She lives here six months and in Troy, Pa., six months, but when she comes down, she's well stocked with Birdseye frozen winter squash.

"But we have to use it right away because it's usually defrosted. We eat a lot of squash that first week. You just take it out of the box and cook it on top of the stove with a little salt."

Emily Lownes, a self-described health food nut, said she misses the Big Sky bread she was able to buy in Baltimore and Whole Foods Canola Mayonnaise, which is made in Texas.

The closest thing to Big Sky bread, she said, is a bread that they occasionally make at the Publix bakery called old world bread.

"All the other breads I find here are squishy," said Ms. Lownes, who has lived in the area since January 1998. "It's not for me. I hope that maybe there's some way of getting some bread in the stores that's worth eating. ... I'm beside myself with the bread. ... I'd be perfectly happy if I could just get the bread and the mayonnaise."

If your local store can't get the product, try searching the Internet. You might be able to order direct from the manufacturer.

A search for Big Red Soda brought up www.bevnet.com, a beverage news and review Web site that had a phone number for a distributor. The distributor referred us to the parent company: Big Red Inc. in Waco, Texas.

Marc Fowler, chief operating officer for Big Red, said the company's purpose is to get the soda into more markets and it is making progress in Georgia.

"My sister lives in Atlanta, and she called me last week to say she was able to buy it at Publix there," Mr. Fowler said.

Big Red has distributors in the southern third of Georgia, including Thomasville, and is close to an agreement with a company in Savannah.

Although it lacks the staff and resources to fill orders full-time, Mr. Fowler said the company will send one shipment to customers who call (254) 772-7791.

It's just an appreciation gesture to people who've taken the time to call, he said.

As long as she lives in Augusta, Ms. Griffith said she'll continue her quest for Big Red and Hostess orange cupcakes.

"It's just frustrating living here; you have to eat grits, instead of Cream of Wheat," Ms. Griffith said, laughing. "But we love Augusta. If I could just get orange cupcakes and Big Red, I'd never leave the area."

Melissa Hall can be reached at (706) 868-1222 Ext. 113, or melhall@augustachronicle.com.

Getting it stocked

When making special requests, bring in the product's package. The Universal Price Code can help the store track the item down.

Special requests are hard to satisfy unless the item is stocked by the store's distributors. Grocery stores obtain most items through regional warehouses.

If the store can't get the product, try searching the Internet. You might be able to order direct from the manufacturer or its parent company.