Last and final chapter of the memoirs of a deli girl
In 1983, I was asked by Mr Taylor to come up with an extra special layout for the inside of their deli case, at the new Super Kmart hypermarket. It was a brand-new concept that joined Coles Supermarkets with a Kmart variety store.
As I put thought into the new design, I was introduced to Mr Restaurant owner who had been given $25,000 by the Kmart side to give the deli a fresh look for them alone. Really!
Confused, I asked, “what am I doing here?”
Mr Taylor explained, ‘He is running the show on this one.’ Said I was to zip it and work with the guy, and assist.
He obviously had some great ideas or wouldn’t have been chosen and given that sort of cash unless worthy. (25 grand bought you a house back then.) Plus, they paid for his accommodation and for someone to run his restaurant while he was gone for the six weeks he was hired. Not too shabby a package. I was happy to sit back and learn a thing or two. Felt good to have the responsibility taken off my shoulders for once.
So, it was getting closer to the day and still no bright ideas from the restaurant guy. I started to worry when I heard he was only going back and telling them what I had suggested and was making it his own ideas. Nothing had been organised and it was time to sort things out behind the scenes just in case he had no clue what he was doing. Which is the feeling I got.
Finally, Mr Taylor intervened when restaurant guy was going nowhere with any firm plans. “You’d better take over the deli set up or they will find themselves with an empty case. Just give him a section, maybe the cheese and leave him to that.” He scratched his head. “Have it at the end of the case.”
“I had big plans for the cheese section.” I chewed my lip and shrugged. “You’re lucky I don’t listen to you.” I smiled. “I have been sorting it out behind your back in case he didn’t pull it off.”
He shook his head and grinned. “Knew you would have it in hand. Just go for it.”
I had already organised the best Deli Managers and their two ICs from many of my top stores in Melbourne. To prevent blowing out my wage budget, I had to get them in and out quickly. And with their speed and experience, that wouldn’t be an issue. This was to be my best layout yet, and to get the intricate perfection I had dreamed up in each section, I needed the best food displaying professionals to pull it off. The display was next level and the new untrained staff I normally used, that would still come to help me in other areas, would not have been enough.
The big day came around quickly, and every suit in Coles and Kmart showed an interest in the deli department. I was watched intently as it came together, and without issues. Once done, the top brass stood chatting.
Later, Mr Taylor told me they all thought it was the restaurant guy’s handy work and patted themselves on the back for a choice well made. Until he burst there bubble and said it was all me (Aww). And took them down to what restaurant guy did. Many of the cheeses from France were over a couple of hundred dollars a kilo to buy and for a supermarket they would never sell. The unusual cheeses he ordered were sparsely displayed on the stainless-steel bottom with a few walnuts and fruit. I begged Mr Taylor to let me help him when I saw how bad it looked, but he wouldn’t let me. Said they had to see, or they would continue to use others like him and not the trained staff our supermarkets already used.
So, I didn’t see restaurant guy again. We are good at what we are good at and going outside the box is not as easy as one thinks. I would be hopeless if they sent me to his restaurant. He was a nice guy and, of what I had been told, a skilled chef. I bet he was happy to be back in his own kitchen, where he was the best of the best.
An unexpected offer.
After that opening, it was a sad day when my boss, Mr. Taylor, was transferred. It was the way it was with the company. The good ones moved up. That was inevitable. He had got the most out of his team and had achieved significant results. He deserved a promotion. We all felt a sense of loss the day we said goodbye.
The next day I was called in to see the General Manager again. This time I was asked If I would like to run the state for Deli. Take over Mr. Taylor’s job. You can imagine my shock. I was a nobody from nowheresville. Had no prior training in the administration area of the business and was crapping myself. My mind raced like a freight train, stopping at all my faults that he could not see. Then there was the whole sitting in the office, doing what Mr. Taylor did, watching but no longer doing. That was my biggest issue.
So instead of sharing my thoughts, I chose to look uneducated. I told him I had never done a budget before and felt the position should go to someone better trained in this area.
He pulled his eyebrows in tight, and after a few seconds of thought, smiled. “I’ll give you 12 months to book yourself on a course, at our expense of course, and once completed we will talk again. In the meantime, I want you to continue doing what you do and run the department out in the field as Mr. Taylor tells me you have been doing, and I’ll bring someone in to run the back office.”
And it worked well. We had a fresh foods manager join our team, and it continued to run smoothly on our end. However, I never did that course and I made it clear I was happier on the road, so they hired a new Mr. Taylor who we all grew to admire and worked well with. I don’t think I laughed so much as I did with the new him. He had such a dry sense of humor it cracked me up every time.
I was so happy at work I could only hope my private life would someday fall in line too.
Too vicious to go there.
I had been in supervision with Coles in Victoria for almost four years when my life took a turn down a path I will forever regret. An action that was long coming and could not be avoided, but to this day I question. Why was I dealt this hand? I lost everything! He lost nothing.
I believe now that once something scary happens to you, it has to stay in the past as reliving it over the past few days as I write this, my mind is tortured by screams of him yelling at me, “I am going to kill you!” This, and a knife incident and constant verbal and then the final act of physical abuse, where having him shout those words, even now affects me.
So, it is with regret I have deleted those times of threatening abuse so I don’t put my life in danger even now. Until he is not with us any longer, I can only say, good riddance. And finding him, the cheater, in the act after 12 years of his indiscretions gave me the ultimate reason to walk away once and for all. He could no longer lie, and no excuse could justify his treatment of me. The look that still haunts me is him waking as I enter, wrapped up in her arms and with a smirk, said, “are you happy now.”
“You bet, buddy!” I muttered as I walked out the door, my entire body trembling with shock. The only way I could ever have left was to leave him in the arms of another woman.
Shock has me shaken to the core.
The year was 1985, when I went home for the last time, and packed mine and my daughter’s clothes in a garbage bag. (No suitcases in those days.) My heart broke. Where too, I had no plan. I explained to my daughter I was leaving her dad, but I guess she had known it was coming. Somehow, I ended up at Maybell’s and she and Garth were there to support us with open arms when we arrived back in Wodonga.
They talked me into flying to Perth for a couple of week’s holiday.
In my cloud of sadness, I let the family take over my life for a while. Did what they said and, like a robot, got on with it. And even now it was over I was still unable to talk about what happened. Not that anyone would have listened. They were so happy he was finally out of the picture and if he was mentioned; it was a quick retort of… you’re better off without him. No further discussion. It was hard not being able to mourn my old life with anyone. So, locked it up and in that cloud of nothingness, lived.
My daughter ended up wanting to stay with her dad, still not keen on coming to WA. I understood how she felt. I missed my work and my workmates too. It was harder getting over them than him. And although I longed to have her, I was too frightened of what he might do to me to force her to do anything. I was living back at Mum’s and had nothing to offer her just yet anyway.
My dreams plagued me too and kept me miles from her and my friends. Dreams of him finding me, and with a machete in hand, he kills all of us. I was terrified and couldn’t face anything other than what I knew best. Go back to work. Hopefully, start a new.
A couple of weeks later I organised a transfer with Coles and started in the same position as Coles WA head office. The worst mistake ever. I was immediately disliked by those above me not only because of the pay grade, which was higher than their guys but because I came from Victoria.
At my first BBQ, I was invited to while meeting the opening team, my boss took me aside. “You’ll be no one’s favourite, so watch your words. You could have said you were from any other state, but Victoria. We hate Victorians over here. They always act better than us.”
So that was my intro and after poor treatment, deliberately trying to blame me for things I had nothing to do with and sneering at my every idea. After 3 months, I felt forced into resigning and did.
This is when I gave up. Life was too hard.
I scored a job with Action Supermarkets in Girrawheen and to get there, bought a hotted-up Cortina which had a CB. I spend a lot of nights at the Casino and drank a bit more than I should have but had it in my head that no matter what I did it would never be good enough. “Shit happens” became my motto. I only worked my designated shift and didn’t try to be good at anything.
The National Deli guru for Coles drove out to Action to visit me when he visited Perth State Office one time. I was embarrassed at the state of the Deli but they didn’t let me start until the store was open so I couldn’t get the case ready before the customers hit. He stood for quite some time waiting for me to get a break between customers.
Finally, when we spoke, he told me when I was ready to come back to Coles to ring him (or state office) and I would have a job with them in any store of my choosing. Bet the state guys just loved that when he told them to re-employ me.
Most likely could see I had lost my way, yet it didn’t faze him. He knew me well and knew this was far from my standard. Just smiled and chatted like always. As if I still worked for him.
After a few months, I took up his offer and went back to Coles. Started as the Deli Manager at Dog Swamp. I figured they never listened to me as a supervisor, maybe this time around I could show them how worthwhile a Deli could be by being a Deli girl again.
Deli girl makes a comeback.
When I took over the department, it was doing 10 grand a week in sales. It was one of the top trading stores in WA.
Within weeks, using printed statistics on what sold daily and by changing the layout, the sales almost doubled. I was doing 18 to 20 grand a week.
It was after a new case was put in with the new-look layout, and no cockroaches running everywhere. The sales increased to another 10 grand a week. I was now doing 28 to 30 grand a week in sales. The spend-per-customer was around $6.00. That was a lot of new customers we had attracted.
It was Easter and the 8ft case for fish wasn’t enough so intended to double the area using some of the Deli case. We wouldn’t sell many franks etc. so planned to close them up and have the best sellers only for that week. Bacon, chicken fillets, and fish. I had discussed my plan with my friend who had the same deli case. She was on the other side of the river and said she was going to do the same.
Only I had a bigger issue. The Deli supervisor was up the road working at a store opening. That is why I didn’t get help when my case went in a few weeks back because he was busy with the new store and their deli. However, it wasn’t doing as well as mine and he was having people come to him, telling him he should come and have a look at mine as it looked fantastic. Oops. The worst thing you can do is show someone up that is higher than you. Only I didn’t know that was going on. Did not know they were comparing me to him.
He came down and the next thing I know I’m getting told I can’t have 16 ft of fish I could only use the 8ft case. Before I set up Easter week, I rang my friend and she could put in the 16 feet of fish so thought, why can’t I.
So, I did and thought they would be okay when they saw the sales it pulled. I had worked out Easter week sales to be around 50 to 60 grand.
That day alone we had sold 30 cartons of fish. That day I found out that sales didn’t matter to the WA branch. They told me I had to pull out the seafood and change the layout.
I had started at 3 am that morning. It was now 4 pm in the afternoon. (I know, I only get paid for 8 hrs.) So, in a tired ticked off state, I said sorry but it’s well over my knock-off time and I’m going home. I figured I would come in the next morning and deal with it when I wasn’t so tired.
The next morning, I arrived at 6 am and the entire case had been pulled out and changed by the Deli supervisor and staff. They had cut my hams down to 2 ft. Instead of the 8ft that I normally gave them. I usually sold between 8 and 10 grand a week of assorted hams. And weirdly, they gave that 6-foot left over to the salads section. (We only sold $200.00 a week, which made no sense to me at all.) Then they ran blue contact along the bottom of the glass, which took up a quarter of the window. You couldn’t even see the display. What?
So, I did what any person would do in this circumstance, I cried like a baby in the lady’s toilets and after, stayed away and kept busy doing bookwork. I was unsure how to face this ludicrous layout and each time I tried and went downstairs, I would turn straight back around and head upstairs again. Couldn’t get my head around what just happened.
Once the supervisors arrive, I got called to the office. There is my boss and four other male supervisors which included this male deli supervisor who had just destroyed my case and sales with the most ridiculous layout I’d ever seen. They told me I did as they said from now on or else. I asked how come my girlfriend had the exact layout and she didn’t get crucified. Their answer was, she is on the other side of the river and has different supervisors. On this side I had them and was told in no uncertain terms it didn’t matter to them how they ran their half of the state.
I stuck up for myself and said how foolish this was and they didn’t have any idea how to get sales if that is what they were doing to the deli cases. There was more to the argument but I never was any good with “he said she said,” or sticking up for myself. So, after, I was told to write out my resignation, now, or they were sacking me.
I had worked so hard to show them how sales can be lifted. Until that day showed respect and never put a foot wrong. Had even gone the extra mile and made all the management lunches every day without fail. Even these five who now sent me packing. I had done all I could to be a kind and respectful employee. But they still had to shame my efforts and make me feel like an unworthy piece of trash.
I went downstairs to talk it over with someone and rang all my family members but unfortunately that day, no one picked up. I had no one to ask what I should do, resign, or allow them to sack me. Just knew it wouldn’t look good on my resume if I had been sacked, so I resigned.
A Time to Heal
I had hurt my back at Christmas just gone by lifting a 35kg tub of cheese and slipped over another day. It was a big week and I was way overtired with all the hours I put in. It was such a bad slip too. I slid out the prep room doors into the storeroom and imagine I looked a real git when I had that buster. So, embarrassing. And yet had never complained about it, as they had kindly paid for a few chiropractic appointments to keep me on my feet. I said if they did, I wouldn’t need time off as it was coming on Easter.
I was to learn later that was why they wanted me to resign, and not sack me on the spot. By resigning I gave up all rights to making a compo claim. And worse, they didn’t pay me for that month’s work because the salary is always paid in advance when you start. Nor would they pay me the three and a half thousand-dollar bonus I had coming in three days. (Again, because I resigned, I wasn’t entitled to either.) Unable to pay for chiropractic visits, my body didn’t fare so well, and had to get welfare. I was put on sickness benefits, and they insisted I contact Coles.
With them now behind me, I was immediately sent to one of Coles company doctors they used. I couldn’t even bend and was ruthlessly handling while doing their evaluation. They had my varicose veins stripped and said that would fix the nerve pain down my leg. And I was sent to another specialist who said a needle in the middle of my shoulder blades would help my back pain. Not sure how that helps the lower back but anyway. Did as they wished and got the needle.
After he gave me the needle their doctor told me there was nothing wrong with me now and to get back to work. That was the end of help from Coles.
Unfortunately, I had the worst reaction to the needle in my back. It locked my shoulders up, and it took months for the simple stripping of the veins to heal. The cuts hadn’t been stitched and wouldn’t close and heal. Their doctor had signed off on me, so I had no one to go back to and there was no way I would go back to that butcher, anyway. Once the legs healed, I got up religiously at 6 am every morning and went to the pool to work my body. It had become stiff and I was unable to do the most menial of tasks.
Both my arms were weak and I found I couldn’t even do freestyle anymore. I could not lift my arms above my head. My opinion of the medical profession was not high, let me tell you.
But I never gave up trying to get well or to find alternative work. I applied for job after job, but all I was trained for was deli. And in no way did I feel like taking on that again. Not in my current state. Just to mop my own floors was enough. My body was exhausted and although impatient to get on with life, my health that finally fell apart on me made me stop and rest.
I have since learned if you don’t stop, give yourself time to grieve loss or the sadness you face, fate will step in and make you stop and regenerate. It gets you ready for your next quest in life.
A miracle 1991
18 months later, after leaving Coles WA, I was feeling much better, and my fitness level had improved considerably. It was then I heard Mr. Unpredictable had become a father again, twice over. I felt I could now safely return to Victoria. My fear of him had finally eased.
It was then I re-started my career with Coles Victoria and after successfully opening two stores in a year. It was the Frankston opening and the running of the department that helped me get back to my deli spirit again. Finally getting Coles to okay my idea to shave meat and have it available sliced or shaved shot my sales up and while being the only pilot store for this concept, I spent many weeks enjoying the top sales status for Delis in Australia. It was a concept I picked up from a France brochure. I saw a photo with shaved meats in one of their sandwich bars almost 10 years before. And although I had tried to implement it in those early years, without being in a store to experiment, it didn’t work. But it did this time.
Christmas (1993), I did a whopping 63 grand in sales coming second highest in Australia. 15 thousand of that was in the ham promotion for that week, sliced and shaved. After many years of trying, at last shaved had become a hit and was implemented in all stores. I was, however, pipped at the post by a new concept deli in Queensland. They had one of those new salad bars that gave them the edge. But it didn’t take away my joy. I was finally back.
In (1994), I left the Frankston store with fully trained staff and went back to head office. This time to write the Coles Deli manual. It took three months of writing and edits before the job was done and I felt I had finally given all there was left of me to give. I had been driven to keep trying to help Coles and felt a great deal of weight drop from my shoulders the day I resigned. It was like the universe had let go of me and said, it’s time. You have done your job; you can move on now. I turned away and never looked back. No more heartbreak or hurt, just relief from doing the best job I could. I had gained back my self-worth.
My big goodbye to my friends from work was at my wedding. Yes, I remarried, and this time to a wonderfully kind man who I still live happily within my newfound world.
I was leaving Coles and this time with a smile wide and a spring in my step. I left them to take on a new adventure with another company that was to leave me in high standing with many independent owners in Western Australia. Yes, I went back, but this time securing the position of the Deli/Bakery Co-Ordinator for FAL. Managing and coordinating new departments in the independent retailers’ stores including doing all the buying and handling all the weekly promotions. Before leaving them I achieved my goal of motivating owners and helped, from the planning to the implementation of putting in over a hundred new deli’s into stores not interested in them previously.
2000 to 2007
In the year 2000, we moved to Queensland (My husband’s home state). Here I join Metcash and worked in the IGA supermarkets division where I continued to guide and help independent owners in Queensland and part of NSW as a Deli specialist.
So, the Deli girl survived those first 15 years, and when I turned that corner, spent the next 16 years doing what I loved best. Teaching those who really wanted to learn about that wonderful little department at the back of the store, I like to call the icing on the cake. The one place a customer can go to have a chat, find that something special to put on the table and enjoy being served by the ever caring, and your friend always, the Deli girl.