Clean-up in Aisle 6

–Lessons from a first job

My first real job – punching in and punching out with a timecard – was as a stock boy, grocery bagger, cart-retriever, and eventually cashier.

The National Tea Company grocery store at the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, Illinois, where I worked throughout high school and on college breaks, is long gone. But not so the memories.

I learned four enduring life lessons there, three that actually matter.

  1. I don’t like beets.
    Maybe it was their pungent, old-earth smell, the blood-red color of their juice on the floor, or the shards of menacing glass, but I hated having to clean up the oft-dropped glass jar of beets.

Why not drop a can of Dole peaches?

Or a box of Life cereal?

Or a plastic jar of Marshmallow Fluff?

No, for some reason, customers had a proclivity to drop glass jars of beets.

When the assistant manager came over the intercom with “Clean-up in Aisle 6,” all of us baggers would look at one another and silently mouth “Beets…”

To this day, they will not go down. The threat of having to eat one of them might work as a truth serum of sorts if I should ever be captured as an enemy spy.

2. Give people clear expectations, ownership, and resources, and they will get the job done.

When we arrived for our shift, we headed to the back of the store to unload the semi-trailer truck sitting at the dock. We then stacked all the boxes in the stockroom according to the aisles in the store. We were then each assigned an aisle in the store to stock paper goods, canned goods, dry goods, frozen foods, etc. Veterans got the easier aisles. New guys got the harder aisles.

The remainder of the shift was spent stocking the shelves and occasionally going up front to bag orders. As we stocked, we “faced” each item, meaning we loaded it on the shelf so that the label was facing directly out. If there weren’t a sufficient number of a given product to fill the space, we pulled forward the items we had and faced them.

The expectation was that by the end of a shift, the assistant manager could walk down the entire length of your aisle and be met by a







Military recruits with their tight bed corners, sharp pants creases, and perfectly arranged footlockers had nothing on us.

I loved owning my aisle.

I loved knowing the location of every one of my products.

I loved the beauty and harmony that came from order, consistency, and predictability. It is a practice that I’ve carried with me in every job since.

I know what you’re thinking: “He probably organizes his pantry this way.”

Yes, I do.

And the dishwasher, too.

3. Names matter.

Working my way up to cashier meant no more beets to clean up. No endless number of cuticle cuts from breaking down boxes or opening up grocery bags. No more dirty white shirts, soiled aprons, and stained ties.

It was just me, the cash register, and the customers.

This was pre-credit card days for most shoppers. Cash and checks were still the exchanges du jour. And checks had the customer’s name printed on them, so we were trained to address the customers by name. Being the obedient-dog compliant type that I am, I always handed the register receipt back to the customer with a smile and

“Thank you, Mrs. Green.”

Doing so elicited a smile of recognition and a “Why, you’re welcome” ninety-nine percent of the time. It became meaningful because it evolved from a rote activity to one of human engagement:

“No ribs this week, Mrs. Green?”

“Oh, no. It’s time my Charlie ate a few more greens.”

It is such a simple gesture. Whether in a grocery store, department store, or restaurant, I am forever conditioned to look for a name tag.

“I can’t decide, Steve. Which of the two specials would you recommend?”

4. The pride of independence.

Working through high school and college allowed me to save enough money to cover my room and board, books, and tuition at the University of Illinois. Undergrad and grad school.

OK, ok, this was way before it cost $40-$60 thousand or more a year to go to college, but still, there was never any question that I would be paying for it. The message from my parents was, “If it’s something you want, save for it.” It’s a message that has served me well.

When I look at the two diplomas above my desk, I can take enormous pride knowing that they are indeed mine.

I know what you’re thinking: “He probably had no fun at all in college.”

That, my fellow BizCat360° writers and readers, is another tale.

 Come on, honestly. How do you feel about beets?

 What real lessons did you take away from your first job?


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. I’m with you, Jeff, in that I’m not a fan of beets. Have not ever been. I know they’re suppose to be good for you. I’ll eat other veggies! What a great essay about those early experiences, the lessons, and how these endured over time. Sometimes our first jobs leave lasting impressions on us. We become very clear about what the values we hold dear, the kind of people we want to be, and how we would like to interact with customers, bosses, and colleagues.

    I babysat for a number of years beginning at eleven years old. I also worked the snack bar at a swimming pool and taught swim lessons in the morning at the pool in a housing complex on the other end of town when I was fourteen. I worked 12 hour days-9 am till 9 pm (closing down, cleaning up the snack bar) at least two days/week. This could turn into an essay about all that I learned from that experience. Let’s just say, my memories are vivid to this day about that summer.

    Thank you so much for all you’ve shared here! What a wonderful window into the high quality person you were and still are to this day.

    • Laura — Thanks for your read and reflection. Writing the piece was fun, but it’s been so interesting and energizing to read what memories it brought up for others. (And thanks for being a “No” vote on beets.) And that’s really what I appreciate about reading other people’s work – the beauty of their writing and the memories it unlocks for me – memories that have been sitting in some dusty cranial filing cabinet.

      Always good to connect, Laura.

  2. The search for independence is the motivation that drives us to look for a job. Achieving economic independence means ensuring a future, having freedom of choice, improving the quality of one’s time, finding one’s place in the world ……. maybe happiness!

  3. Jeff – here’s to beet haters of the world! I say yes, makes me gag just thinking about them. I’m going on to my next point so I can stave off the shivers that even the mention of beets will cause. I will also give my friend Mark O’Brien some oorah’s for his cooked carrot stance, cooking a wonderful vegetable like a carrot is a crime that I can scarcely fathom. Enough veggie talk.

    I can definitely see the ownership that would come from having stocked and stacked everything in an entire aisle. How satisfying that had to be. I can also relate to how important it is to be able to remember people’s names and to call them by such is a personal touch that everyone values. And independence does matter as well, I didn’t go into college debt until halfway through my junior year (two years at a community college and a decent paying mill job did me well, but then the University of Wisconsin – the mothership, in Madison, took its toll on me… ) and I remember how good it felt to pay my own way, and how good it didn’t feel to take a loan to get the rest of the way…

    The jobs that we had and the people that we met and the skills that we learn… we sometimes think, “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” or “I’m never going to have to use some of these skills” are just the potions and notions that we need to provide those guideposts and rumble strips that take us from place to another on our paths. Thanks for the memory triggers Jeff, it’s always worth a smile or two to stop by and listen to your tales. Well done.

    • That’s one “no” vote for beets. I wanted to go to the U of W for my masters in history. Had a reputation as a great school for the study of the past. But, alas, I couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition. Drat! Thanks for your read and comment, Tom.

  4. Wonderful story, Jeff! Attention to detail, pride in independence, owning accomplishments (and mistakes) … yep, I can relate to all that. I do, however, enjoy roasted beets and carrots. I’ve discovered golden beets which are a lot less messy than red beets. Golden beets are orangish on the outside and yellowish on the inside. A little olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme all roasted up until tender. Delicious!

    My first job was as Dad’s truck driver on the harvest run from Oklahoma to South Dakota. Hard work and long hours, but met some of America’s finest people and learned the importance of teamwork, flexibility and a job well done.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  5. You say, “Beets”, I say “PARTY!”

    I LOVE BEETS! No, no, I’m not full of Borsht-shit, I really love them. I peel and roast those little hand-staining babies every week.

    I love your article and I know it! I know it! The Golf Mill Shopping Center. I’m suprised we never met. Perhaps, Zweig’s was part of your roots (Ha! Ha! Root Vegeatable joke).

    My first job was as an underage coffee shop waitress at a Dunkin Donuts in Skokie however; it was only after I left the world of waitressing during an era where there was no evidence of any sexual harrasment policies that I truly understand discovered all of the wonderful sense of pride you undofld in your wonderful story.

    Thank you for who you are and this beautiful vacation of a story!

    • Zweig’s was definitely part of our “root,” as was Temple Judae in Skokie. How did we not meet? Thanks for your read and humor, as always, Shelley.

  6. Hi, Jeff.
    We’ve got to start meeting like this!
    I love roasted (fresh) beets, btw.
    My first job (at 14) was being the conductor on a kiddie train. It ran on the beach parallel to the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, NJ. I was on the very back of the train and teenogres on the boardwalk would throw things at me, mostly balled-up hot dog wrappers and such, but occasionally a full bottle of soda.
    I learned alertness and agility.
    I went back to see it, but Sandy took it away.

  7. Jeff, reading your story made me feel as if I had a fireworks display going off in my head. I hope I can recall all of the flares here.

    First, with your reverence of the orderly precision of your aisles, my father would have loved you:

    Second, the appliance distributorship in which I worked just before going to college was actually three huge, adjoining warehouses. I was positive I’d never be able to find anything. Before long, I was able to direct everyone to everything.

    Third, raw carrots are my beets. As soon a start to chew a raw carrot, my salivary glands shut down, rendering the masticated mess just so much sawdust. The only way that mess goes is out, never down.

    Fourth, “Give people clear expectations, ownership, and resources, and they will get the job done.” As I said during my podcast appearance with you and Kirsten, if our clients give their people the opportunity to connect with their brands in their own ways, they never fail to do it. Nor do they fail to represent the brand proudly and enthusiastically, every day, regardless of the nature of their jobs.

    Finally, thank you for sharing the gift of your writing with us. You’re a born storyteller, which makes me believe you must have been an incredibly effective teacher. My hat is off to you, my friend.

    • Yes to beets = 5; No to carrots = 2. Thanks for sharing your article. Loved the part about the shoe shiner. I was Air Force ROTC in college – during the height of anti-Vietnam war protests – and never achieved that mirror shine. I think that was foreshadowing. That’s another story for another day. Thanks for your read and share, Mark.

  8. My First job was at Macks Five and Dime. Same kind of obsession with neat rows . My take away was always listen something times the person that you think has the lest knowledge may just be the one that knows the most about what you are doing.

  9. Oh my gosh… I love this one for so many reasons, Jeff! I share some of your lessons learned:
    1. I, too, hate beets. Not because I had to clean them up, but I hate them nonetheless.
    2. Give people clear expectations, ownership and resources and they’ll get the job done. I submit that if people have clear exceptions, a little direction and the necessary resources, they will feel a sense of ownership and that ownership will push them to exceed expectations. We all love owning our aisles. The challenge (for some) is identifying which aisle to own.
    3. Names do matter, indeed! When I was a teacher, my mentor taught me a valuable lesson on day 1. Get to know and respect the secretary and the janitor. Call them by name when you see them and thank them every chance you get. Best advice ever and I took it with me when I left the classroom.
    4. I own my diplomas, too. I love that when I look at those certificates on my wall, they are ALL MINE.

    This is such a great piece, my friend! Keep ’em coming!

    • Yea, two no votes for beets!

      Love your #3! So true! And you practice naming not just for the impact it has on them, but for how it impacts you. It’s a great, humbling leveler. It knocks you down a peg from your lofty perch. We’re all in this together.

      I remember how one of my “fellow” teachers criticized the typing teacher as somehow not being the equal of us content teachers. What a fool…. I type well on my computer keyboard because of my junior-high typing teacher.

      Thanks for your read and share, Melissa.