Danny Johnson has toiled for more than eight years to refine his craft. He has built a reputation for being fast, precise, and reliable — qualities that have brought him industrywide attention in Massachusetts. But this weekend, Johnson, 24, will take his talents to an even bigger stage. He will compete in Las Vegas for the honor of being named the best in the nation at what he does so well: bag groceries.
For most people, filling up paper or plastic bags at the end of a conveyor belt is an entry-level job, the kind of gig in which workers count down the minutes to break time. Johnson, however, finds it intriguing, like figuring out puzzles with lots of perishable pieces.
“I like to get the [cardboard] boxes first because it keeps the bag standing up,” the elite bagger explained on a recent day at the Roche Bros. supermarket in Bridgewater. “With deli meats, those are kind of easy to keep together. You put the eggs and bread off to the side —
In November, Johnson, who lives in Bridgewater, beat out four other contestants to win the Massachusetts Food Association’s bagging competition. It earned him a spot in the National Grocers Association’s Best Bagger Championship, scheduled for Sunday at the Mirage Hotel and Casino.
If Johnson wins — he’s up against contestants from 22 other states who are seeking the $10,000 prize and a year’s worth of bragging rights — it would be the first victory for a Massachusetts bagger in the contest’s 26 years.
Johnson was not always so enthusiastic about learning to deftly fill bags with everything from Cocoa Puffs to Snuggle fabric softener to boneless pork picnic roast (a recent Roche Bros. special). His introduction to the field involved a fair amount of parental pressure, said his mother, Karen.
“I remember the day I dragged him up here to get him a job,” she said. “I saw a lot of potential, but never thought he would reach this level of bagging.”
Not that there still aren’t obstacles to overcome, such as the increasing popularity of self-checkout lanes. A lesser bagger might be threatened by the trend, but Johnson believes his presence makes grocery-buying more of a social experience.
“In general, people do like that one-on-one-talking-to-people thing,” he said.
Besides, proper bagging can be tricky, he said. For instance, some people insist on plastic bags, which are flimsy and harder to pack. And glass containers have to be kept separate from each other so they don’t smash together. Try doing that when you’re faced with a shopper who has taken full advantage of a bulk-purchase special.
“When they buy [Snapple], they buy five, six, or seven,” Johnson said.
On Sunday, Johnson and the other contestants will each fill three bags. Judging is based on speed (try to keep it under 45 seconds), proper bag-building technique, whether the total weight is evenly distributed among three bags, and “style, attitude, and appearance.”
Past national champions have gone on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” to participate in a “bag-off” against the talk show host, NGA spokeswoman Lauren Hefner said. Last year’s winner, Stephanie Teteakof Wisconsin, was victorious in a bag-off with her congressional representative, Reid Ribble.
“Bagging has been an important step for many supermarket employees who have pursued long and rewarding careers in the grocery industry,” Hefner said.
But she added that baggers — often high school and college students — usually don’t serve long tenures, creating scheduling challenges for managers. “The bagging championship highlights the rewards of this position, and seeks to limit that turnover while demonstrating the value of baggers to customer service,” Hefner said.
All three of Johnson’s younger siblings have also held jobs at the Bridgewater Roche Bros. store over the years, and two of them, brother Kevin and sister Tricia, are still on the payroll.
Besides the two summers he spent working at a Boy Scout camp, Roche Bros. is the only place Johnson has ever held a job. Although he received a business degree from Bridgewater State College last month, he’s not in a hurry to leave his current position as front-end supervisor.
“I have no reason to rush out — they’re a really good company to work for,” he said.
Roche Bros. takes a certain amount of home-team pride in Johnson’s ascendancy.
“It is always nice for our associates to be recognized nationally,” said Rick Roche, one of the Wellesley-based company’s owners. “Our management team works hard to train and motivate our associates, so it is a reflection on them as well as the individual’s great attitude.”
To prepare for Sunday, Johnson has been practicing at the store after hours. So far, he said, his fastest time has been 42 seconds. And while he’s not quite claiming the Las Vegas outcome is in the bag, he sounds confident.
“I think I’m going to win it,” Johnson said. “I have a good feeling about it.”