Bay bags his way to the top

  • Brian Bay on the job at Macey’s, right

    AL HARTMANN, SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
 

NAME: Brian Bay

AGE: 23

VOCATION: Front-end grocery store manager and full-time student

WORLD CHAMPION: of grocery bagging

HOBBIES: Coin collecting. Goes to work with a pocketful of change and trades it out for interesting coins.

FAVORITE MOVIES TO QUOTE FROM: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Princess Bride, Three Amigos and Dumb and Dumber


One pack of Life Savers made all the difference. The three-and-a-half-inch cylinder, rolling away at the slightest incline, wedged itself between Brian Bay and fame.

It was Las Vegas, 2006. The lights were bright and Bay was fluid. He moved quickly, got the cans in the bottom of the bags and the bread on top — he seemed to be on his way to the final round of the National Grocers Association Best Bagger Competition. But then the Life Savers derailed it all: They rolled against the lip of the counter, and Bay didn’t see them until after he’d thrown up his arms to signify he was done. They never made it into the bag, and the championship slipped away.

But from that failure sprouted new determination.

Bay, at a clean-cut 6-foot-2, has always worked hard. A Cub Scout at 8, he racked up the badges, becoming an Eagle Scout just six years later. “He set some kind of record in our area,” says Katie, his older sister, “being way young to receive it.”

Later, he saved enough money to buy a car before he left on his mission in Washington, D.C., with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He bought another car when he returned.

Though earnest about competition and serious in his work, he’s playful in his personal life. Sometimes he waits in the closet with a foam dart gun to attack his wife, Christine, when she comes home from work. The couple recently returned from a trip to Disneyland, Bay’s sixth visit there.

“He’s the Boy Scout every girl wants to marry,” Christine says.

Bay began bagging at 16, working at Macey’s in Sandy, Utah. He moved up the store ranks to checker and is now the front-end manager, although he still does some bagging.

He participated in his first in-store bagging competition in 2002, but it wasn’t until last year that he qualified for the state and then national competition. That’s where the Life Savers evaded him. That roll of candy has loomed over him ever since, at this year’s in-store competition and while he out-bagged tough competitors in the Utah state trials.

And the Life Savers were on his mind during the hours of grueling practice. Two times a week in the months leading up to the national competition, Bay and his personal coach, Macey’s bagging trainer, Shairlene May, headed for the break room. They practiced — mostly with paper; he had plastic down from working up front — until he was consistently packing the bags under 35 seconds, until the weight between various bags was almost always even. Sometimes co-workers cheered, simulating the championship fervor.

“He’s very focused,” says May.

That focus was put to the test Jan. 30, back in Vegas. On a stage behind a mock checkout stand, Bay moved quickly, efficiently and professionally, not letting the tension get to him: Contestants are judged on technique, attitude and appearance as well as speed and weight. When he finished — this time he didn’t miss the Sweet Tarts — he immediately looked into the audience and found Shairlene, who indicated he had beat the 35 second limit. The 23-year-old had become one of five finalists. From then on, it was relatively easy going, and two rounds later, Bay was named national champion.

The next day, he bested Canada’s bagging champ to become the first-ever world champion. (Bay enjoyed the cross-cultural exchange, intrigued by the bagging style of the Canadian, who hung the plastic loops on her arm.)

The ensuing media attention is only now settling down. Bay still gets recognized from his appearance on the Daily Show, and that can lead to challenges. “Everyone,” he says, “wants to bag against the national best bagger.”

The attention could carry into 2008, when an indie documentary on the competition is unveiled at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

But for now, back to business — bagging groceries. On the decades-long debate — paper or plastic? — Bay is equally adept with either. And if you bring your own bag, well, “that’s welcome, too,” he says.

The author is an HCN intern.

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