WALLA WALLA -- More than 16 years at the end of the grocery checkout line have taught Neil Dillon the hard-and-fast basics of packing everyday staples into bags.
But it was near the entry to the store Tuesday where Dillon dedicated three hours on what would normally be his day off, packing and repacking random groceries as practice for the upcoming Best Bagger Championship Finals sponsored by the Washington Food Industry Association.
"Your form is going to be the hardest part," Dillon said between bagging exercises.
There's an art to building a perfectly composed bag of groceries, he explained. As one might imagine, canned goods must stay on the bottom, and boxed items provide the foundation for a strong support system. That's true whether in paper sacks or reusable bags -- both of which will be used in the Oct. 26 competition in Spokane that could catapult him to nationals.
The challenge, Dillon said, is all of the little items that need to be contained within the bag. Packages of gum, rolls of Lifesavers and the like. The judges at the regional level and the upcoming national competition in Las Vegas next February, will be looking for things that fall out as they slice open the paper bags. Items that are properly bagged should hold their position even when a side of the bag is opened, according to the rules.
Though proper building technique is worth fewer points than speed, Dillon is determined for it to be one of his strong suits as the 47-year-old readies himself for competition against what he believes will be younger, faster competitors.
Other judging points will be based on weight distribution and style.
This is the first time longtime employees can recall anyone from the store competing in the Bagger Championship. The prize at the regional level is $1,500 for the winner; $1,000 for the runner-up; and $500 for third place. All of the contestants receive $100 for participating.
The winner and runner-up then go head-to-head to compete at the 26th annual competition in Las Vegas, where the grand prize is $10,000. The second-place finisher gets $5,000; and third, fourth and fifth places receive $1,000 each.
Walla Walla's Harvest Foods officials say the contest is up their alley because it's a chance to showcase the attention paid at the Southgate store to customer service.
Dillon couldn't be a better person to do this, said Kathleen Lockwood, who owns the store with her husband, Nolan.
In approaching 20 years at the store, Dillon has become so familiar with the customers and their needs that he knows what vehicles some of them drive, she said. When they're feeling chatty and their groceries are packed, he's been known to take their keys and begin loading their vehicles while they wrap up their conversations.
Along the way he's also figured out a thing or two about how to organize their shopping bags. "Most people don't want to carry more than 10 pounds in one bag," he said. As for those hard-to-pack items -- which he fully expects to be on the table during the competitions in Spokane and Nevada -- he's got strategies for those, too. Dillon plans to keep a stash of rubber bands on him to wrap around egg cartons, which he then can pack vertically if needed.
If he can finish at nationals in fifth place, he'd be satisfied, he said.
For the Lockwoods, it's exciting to showcase their star player in the big game. "It's like the Super Bowl" for baggers, Kathleen Lockwood said. "And Spokane is like the playoffs."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.