ST. PETERSBURG — The dance is not complicated.
You go to your neighborhood Publix. You say, "One pound of Boar's Head tavern ham, sliced thin." The person in the hairnet unwraps the mighty pink hemisphere, hefts it bouncily onto the stainless steel slicer and cleaves 1 millimeter, the swath falling neatly onto a plastic deli sheet.
"Is this about right?" she asks. You take it into your palm, scrutinize. Maybe it's thin enough to read through, maybe it's just right. But if you're hungry, you say, "A little thinner."
You have just scored your second free piece of tavern ham.
Except, you may have noticed something changed recently at your neighborhood grocery. Some of Publix's stores are quietly putting a stop to the practice of the free slice, creating an awkward silence while you wait for your free meat. If you want it, now you have to ask.
"We are piloting a change in a few dozen delis in Central and southwest Florida to create a more natural exchange between our deli clerks and our customers," says Brian West, media relations manager at Publix, which has more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast.
Translation: "Natural exchange" means no free deli samples.
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1:45 p.m. Monday, 250 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, Publix deli counter
Free samples at the Publix deli counter is the enticement many of us use to get our spouses to do the shopping. It is how we mollify the toddler no longer content to chill in the grocery cart, chubby legs slowing as lacy swiss rises mouthward. It is counted-upon fortification, part of the American dream, our inalienable right.
I wait for mine.
"I'd like a half pound of mesquite turkey, sliced thin."
A deli clerk and her trainee procure the meat from the case, shave off one slice and wave it in front of me. Not offer, wave.
"That looks good," I say wanly, hopefully.
I lean over to fellow customer Phillip Snipes, who coincidentally has also ordered mesquite turkey, as well as tavern ham and roast pork, all sliced a little thicker than I think is strictly appropriate for a sandwich.
"Did they offer you a free slice?"
"Did you know they were doing away with the free slice?"
"Come to think of it, they haven't offered me one in a couple weeks."
I confirm with the clerk. Yes, there has been a policy change. As of two weeks ago, deli technicians are no longer offering the free slice, she says, and they don't, strictly speaking, even need to show that first slice to you.
"But no one has been mad yet," the clerk, who has been with Publix for four years, says as I move toward the exit with my bag of lunch meat, minus my ritual snack.
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Some say they forgo the free Publix ham slices if it's, say, before 10 a.m. But honestly, just look down the deli line. We are all happily standing with big hanks of lunch meat and cheese waggling from our mouths. If your deli order is robust enough, all those samples add up to a meal (and look, Ma, no carbs!).
Publix may be where the free slice has reached its glorious effulgence, but it is not alone: The Fresh Market offers the first slice to customers to assure they like the taste and thickness before purchasing, a spokeswoman from the Fresh Market says. And even independents like Bay Way Country Store in Tierre Verde offer a free slice to make sure customers are satisfied.
So what will this change mean for Publix's bottom line?
Publix says this is not a cost-cutting measure, and it doesn't give out sales figures. But my mesquite turkey was $5.40 for a half-pound, 14 slices in the bag, plus meat crumbs. That means each slice is about 38 cents. Now, times that slice by all the free slices we have chomped at Publix deli counters and that's $38 trillion zillion. Thereabouts.
"The free slice is no longer offered," West confirmed. "But if the customer would like the free sample, they just need to ask the associate. In fact, customers can always ask for a sample of any item we have. That's one of the best ways to introduce our customers to new things, and it's a big part of the shopping experience at Publix."
I get it. It's expensive. And all of us standing around rhapsodically chewing free meat probably slows down the flow of commerce. But in these tricky times, with so much uncertainty and discord, it's hard to lose that little slice of heaven.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.