Monday, June 1, 2009

Ham for the Holidays

I don't know if it's because I was an English major (we are, after all, a people beset by overthinking, inaction and a dearth of business sense) but I've held an eclectic array of jobs as an adult.

Most college students use their summers to strengthen their resumes by doing internships, perhaps some meaningful volunteering. I worked at a Jersey shore ice cream parlor scooping ice cream. Many college grads have jobs lined up before graduation. The year after I graduated, I waitressed at restaurants in three different states, taught English as a second language (for two months...for free) and took a pottery class (which my parents paid for). Then, like any good English major, I went to graduate school.

But the position that I think defined this ratty patchwork quilt of part-time jobs was my stint at Honey Baked Ham. For the uninitiated, there's a chain of stores in the Midwest dedicated to the peddling of pig. It's quite the brisk business during the holidays. So it's little wonder that my predisposition for challenging part-time employment drew me to the wood-paneled, oddly cavernous shop. Here I would fulfill my ham-hawking destiny.

Now, the holiday business being what it was, customers knew to call ahead and order their hams. Thus, part of the job entailed manning the Ham Hotline. We followed an elaborate script to carefully match customers' dinner needs with appropriate ham sizes. It went something like this:

1) Ask customers how many servings they need.
2) Look at Ham chart.
3) Tell customer ham size.

Then--this was the key part of the entire exchange--we were to give the callers a letter. "A" for a small ham. "B" for a medium-sized ham. And "C" get the picture. It was at this point in the conversation that much confusion ensued. Customers would question why they weren't required to give their name. Didn't they have to give their name? How would they be sure they'd get a ham if they didn't give their name? Could they give their credit card number to secure a ham? Customers' fear of not having a more formal contract in place guaranteeing their right to ham produced no shortage of angst. We assured them they didn't need to provide a name, or anything else. And here was the beauty of why: People got to come in and personally select the exact ham of their dreams.

Which brings me to the second part of the job: working the Ham Counter. I never understood why the store was so bizarrely large. It was about the size of a small roller rink, yet there were only a couple displays of mustard in the entire place. The rest of the store, covered in this rust-colored carpeting that concealed all manner of spills, was empty. After the first day of ham pickups, I understood why, as frenzied throngs descended upon the store, filling it up entirely, anxious to select their hams.

If you were working the counter, you had to haul out hams from the refrigerator cases behind said counter and "show" them. Like some pork pageant. Say a "B" ham customer came in. You'd pick out a ham from the case, set it on the counter, carefully unwrap the heavy gold foil and show the ham. You'd look at the ham with pride, as if to say, I wish I could have this ham...or, yes, this is a good ham. If the customer didn't like that particular ham--say it had too much fat, or was too small--you'd rewrap the ham with a smile, put it back in the refrigerator and retrieve another to show. You'd repeat your same fawning over the next ham. Customers could ask to see as many hams as they wanted. There was no limit. No matter how much ham juice dripped on you, no matter how much of that hard, honey-baked coating stuck to your shirt, no matter how many times you cut your cold fingers on that industrial foil, you kept showing hams. You'd get customers who would ask to see 10, 12, sometimes 14 hams before they settled on one.

For 12 hours at a time I would do this on the days I worked the counter. I didn't even eat meat. I didn't care, though. I realized I had reached the pinnacle of my part-time employment career: I was the Vanna White of ham.


  1. Did I not know this? I don't remember you working there. I love this inside look on the world of Honey Baked Ham!

  2. Did you know how they put the glaze on those fancy hams? blow torch.

  3. Although I do not live in the midwest, I have known and bought Honey Baked Hams for years. Thank you for the inside look at the Honey Baked Ham 411, especially the part about customers asking to view 10+ hams before choosing the Rolls Royce of hams. Jimmy D. watch out during our next visit to HBH.