Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Two finalists — Blake Westling and Stephanie Teteak — stood on a stage Monday at the Mirage, each holding hands, eyeing the $10,000 oversized cardboard check and hoping secretly the other’s name wouldn’t be called — this wasn’t Miss America, but rather a competition to be named America’s best grocery bagger.
Westling traveled from Minnesota to compete in the National Grocers Association’s 26th Best Bagger Championship.
“I just bagged as fast as I could,” said the 20-year-old, who works at Byerly’s Eagan, a grocery store in Minnesota.
Speed was just one of the categories Westling and his 23 competitors were judged on as they took their marks at mock grocery store check stands.
“It’s about speed, it’s about accuracy, distribution of weight,” said event emcee Phil Lempert, of SupermarketGuru. “It’s about style.”
Judges also took into consideration attitude, appearance and bag-building technique as contestants rushed to pack three canvas bags with more than 30 products.
Bags were filled with an assortment of items such as a box of Mini-Wheats, a container of Folgers coffee, a box of Cheez-It, a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, and perhaps on top a package of Keebler chocolate chip cookies.
The championship was designed to promote the grocery industry’s customer service through superior bagging.
“We get to recognize the baggers, because they’re the first and last person the costumer sees,” said Genevieve Walk, a competition judge.
During the rounds, hundreds of ecstatic friends, families, co-workers and fans of the contestants clapped, cheered, rang cow bells and brandished signs — some made out of paper bags — scribbled with phrases like “Eggs Last” and “Just Bag It.”
After each preliminary round, contestants told the crowd how they would spend the $10,000.
“I’m going to bet all black,” said contestant Jon Runeson, with a laugh.
Westling, a financially conservative contestant, said he’d spend some of the money on college tuition and put the rest in a Roth IRA. He also shared his practicing habits with the crowd.
“I practiced blindfolded,” Westling said. “I practiced in 105 degree heat.”
The “Karate Kid” techniques seemed to pay off as Westling made it to the final five.
Top baggers from five preliminary rounds went on to compete in a final round.
“I got those doggone Mentos this time,” said Alexis Jeup, who finished in fourth place.
Jeup of Publix Super Markets in Tennessee, won $1,000 as did fifth-place Rob Mow of Martin’s Food Markets in Indiana and third-place winner Bryan Nowell, of Publix in Alabama.
Despite the unorthodox practicing methods, Westling finished in second place and won $5,000.
“Not bad for 90 seconds of work,” said Westling, who hopes to compete next year.
Stephanie Teteak took home the $10,000, and her store — Larry’s Piggly Wiggly in Kaukauna, Wis. — received a golden colored check stand with her name on it.
Winners of the NGA competition are often invited to make a guest appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” who was once a grocery bagger.
“Bagging is the most important job in the store,” Teteak said. “No bag of mine goes out there, that isn’t perfect.”
Teteak, a 30-year-old bookkeeper who has been in the grocery businesses for more than 13 years, plans to spend the money on bills.
“I worked really, really hard,” she said. “I did the state bag-off 10 times.”
Teteak also competed in the NGA contest last year but didn’t place.
“I just can’t believe it,” said a tearful Sherri Wichman, a friend and co-worker of Teteak. “I knew she could do it.”