When Supermarket Sweep premiered in 1965, it was a pricing game with a sprinting twist broadcast from various Food Fair supermarkets in the Tri-State area. The teams took all the items they grabbed during the sweep home, and the winning teams were invited back to compete again. When the show was revived by the Lifetime Network in 1990—the version most readers will be familiar with—it was hosted by David Ruprecht and featured the dulcet tones of Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert on the store’s loudspeaker. Sweatshirt-clad contestants whizzed through the aisles grabbing oversized inflatable bonuses, and trying to see if they could snag as many groceries as humanly possible in under three minutes in order to make the Bonus Sweep, where they could ultimately win a whopping $5,000.
For ABC’s new Leslie Jones-hosted Supermarket Sweep revival, the stakes have changed a little. This time, teams are playing for $100,000, a slate of bonus prizes provided by sponsors, and the chance to claim a little glory for themselves. They’ll also get to customize their sweatshirts, because, hey, why not?
But how does Supermarket Sweep actually stock its supermarket, and how did the show deal with shooting mid-pandemic, when actual grocery stores have erected Plexiglas shields and one-way aisles, and a lot of stores are still out of big-ticket items like massive cases of toilet paper? The A.V. Club talked to Sweep Executive Producer Alycia Rossiter about the challenges of building a grocery store from scratch and how the show gave all its food to charity once shooting wrapped.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start at the beginning. Is all the food we see on the show real?
Alycia Rossiter: All the food is real and all the food was ordered prior to there being a pandemic. Right as things were about to start shipping to our warehouse for rehearsals and run through so we could figure out how we were going to lay out our gondolas—I learned words like that, by the way. Gondolas are the shelves in a grocery store. But right as we were about to do that, we were sequestered at home in L.A. Not only that, we learned that there was a scarcity of some ingredients and some products, so we changed our list and we took everything that was scarce in regular supermarkets off our list. Because of that, we had to reconfigure what our grocery store would look like, because we had no paper towels, no toilet paper, no Lysol, nothing like that. But everything in the store was all real and we used it for the run of the show.
When we had to shut our show down, we had our rehearsal warehouse ready. Not 100 percent ready, but, nine-tenths ready. And then we all stayed home for quite a few months. When we came back to life, we moved all of those groceries to where we eventually ended up shooting the show, which was at the Santa Monica airport’s Barker hangar. So, an airplane hangar. Instead of parking airplanes, we parked our store and we rebuilt our gondolas and we put all of our products on them.
We shot for really quite a short amount of time. Just 10 days. At the end of those 10 days, we gave everything away. We gave a lot of food to the L.A. Mission and the L.A. Food Bank. When there were some items—like some of our meat items—that we didn’t feel were safe for human consumption, we checked with a lot of pet shelters and farms and they said that they were extraordinarily safe for animal stomachs to digest. And so that stuff went to farms and animal shelters.
Everything that could be eaten by humans was given to mostly the L.A. Mission and L.A. Food Bank. But it was all edible.
AVC: Are all the shelves fully filled, or did you just go a couple of boxes deep?
AR: The thing about Supermarket Sweep is that you can’t control that fast motion. A human being that’s grabbing as fast as they can might upset the apple cart. We don’t want there to be emptiness behind those three boxes of cereal that have toppled over. Nor did we want to create fake boxes because that’s almost more waste. A prop doesn’t end up going to a hungry family. So we filled the shelves.
The shelves are not super deep, though. And we might not have had the box go all the way to the edge on the front of the shelf. There might be a three inch gap where a real supermarket might have put an extra box, but there’s nothing fake and there’s no empty space behind them or anything.
AVC: You used bodega shelves, not WalMart shelves.
AVC: You mentioned that you shot for 10 days. What did you do about the produce? Bananas aren’t looking their best after 2 days, let alone 10 days.
AR: We had a couple of dark days. During COVID, you don’t want to exhaust people. You do it for your union crews. You do it for Leslie Jones, our host, who has to speak so much. You want to preserve her voice. Because of that, some of the giveaways happened halfway through. When we stopped after the first three days of shooting and went dark for two days, perishables went out of the store and new things came in so that people could eat those perishables before they went bad.
You also don’t want a store that smells. You don’t want the contestants coming in and smelling yucky meat and really ripe bananas. There’s a lot of people working there, so we kept stuff fresh.
AVC: With lights and stuff, too, you just don’t want to mess around with keeping food too long.
AR: We were very air conditioned, like almost to the point that it was August and I was wearing a jacket. But you want your food to stay cold and you want Leslie and the contestants to stay comfortable.
AVC: We did an Expert Witness with contestants who had been on the show in the 1990s, and they noted that the meat wasn’t actually what you’d think. You’d see someone grabbing a frozen turkey, but it wasn’t really a frozen turkey. It was a prop. It might have had the weight of a turkey, but that’s not what was in the package. Was your meat real?
AR: We talked with the prop department about “Do you do a sand bag in packaging or do you have a real freezer section?” Ultimately, we opted for real food.
You know, in the past they shot 40 episodes. We’re primetime, so we had to shoot 10 episodes. My hat goes off to the old producers that were able to keep their supermarket up and running for that amount of time. But we were in the short game and I think that helped us.
AVC: Speaking of the old show, how does your store differ from what we might have seen in 1990? Or how do real stores differ now? Are there more appliances, more organic foods, and so on?
AR: I think that there is a wider variety in our store. I can’t speak to the actual grocery stores in the ’90s. I was alive, but I didn’t go to them very much. But in our on-screen store, we had teddy bears that were eight feet tall and super wide, and they are sold in grocery stores. They’re sold in that sort of Hallmark area where you buy flowers and gift cards and maybe a get well soon balloon.
We also had a housewares aisle, which I don’t think was uncommon in the ’90s, but certainly with the size of supermarkets and these big superstores, there is more room for the cast iron frying pans and the ironing boards.
We had Yeti coolers that were really large. It’s funny because I kept thinking “take the lid off and then fill your Yeti cooler with a thousand things and then put the lid back on.” Some teams figured out how to do that. Other ones just ran their cart to the finish line and got a new cart.
I don’t know if you know this, but we walked the teams through the store beforehand. When they’re scouting the store, they’re seeing the price tag on a Yeti cooler or they’re seeing that if they get three Yeti thermoses, those are each forty dollars, even though they just look like a regular drink water bottle.
It’s also a foodie culture now, so there are different kinds of shelf items. In the honey section, there’s everything from three dollar honey that you find in my house to the 30 dollar Manuka honey.
There were price tags on absolutely everything. When the teams were walking through the store, the price tags were color-coded. We wanted everybody to win. We wanted everybody to have huge amounts of things in their cart, and we made it easy. If you see a ticket that’s blue, it’s worth more money. Grab it. If you see one that’s yellow or you could read the actual price then maybe you’d seen it was two dollars versus 20 dollars. But we wanted them to fill their carts with expensive stuff.
AVC: It’s funny, because so much of grocery-shopping culture and of shows like Extreme Couponing has been about how much can you save. This is the exact opposite. I would die if I got to the register and it said $300, let alone $3,000.
AR: It’s the largesse of somebody who said, “It’s on me, honey! Go to the grocery store!” I would love to not even think about it and just fill that cart up.
AVC: You mentioned Yeti coolers, and we know from watching the ’90s version of the show that, for instance, they’d be grabbing inflatable batteries and Jolly Green Giants. How did the show work with brands this time around?
AR: I think that if we’re lucky and the audience loves this show as much as we love making it, maybe in the future we’ll have more integrations. But as we started prepping this show, the virus hit. We shut down. Still, we have some partners. We had a produce partner, Melissa’s, and they gave us a ton of beautiful fruit and vegetables. And we had Green Giant and Energizer. Both of those brands let us use their products and they actually gave a little cash prize to people in the store. So if you’re watching, you’ll hear that they supported us in that way, but mostly no.
AVC: From a brand standpoint, it really is the perfect show for integration. You don’t want generic chocolate sandwich cookies. You want Oreos.
AR: And we use brand names. A lot of the games are riddles, and a lot of them rhyme. You’re rhyming a brand with a descriptor ahead of it.
A characteristic property of this show is branding, and we didn’t want to stray too much from the earlier version.
AVC: Do you still do the jumbles of mixed up words, like in the ’90s version?
AR: We call them “scrambled eggs.” We also have a lot more visual games than they did in the past. I think it felt very 2020 to us to do that, and it made the show a little more modern. A favorite of mine is called “Logo Motion,” and it’s where a supermarket product’s logo resolves onto the screen color by color. You don’t see the exact shape of it at first, but then it’s layered in layer by layer and the contestants buzz in when they think they recognize enough elements from that logo to name the product.
We have some silly stuff. We have a game where it’s almost like Tinder for supermarket mascots. We list their datable qualities and you have to guess which mascot it is.
We tried to keep the show very much within the world of groceries and just have some fun word games and and rhyming games. We don’t have pricing games.
AVC: You mentioned that you shot at from the Barker hangar. I have to imagine you needed a large space because you didn’t only need to drop in a supermarket, but also a set.
AR: We also needed to store things, because we didn’t want to have the same items in every episode and we wanted the audience to have fresh strategies each episode. We didn’t have the Yeti coolers in every episode. In some episodes, we had huge barbecue grills that people could grab and roll through the store past the finish line. So we had deliveries coming in that needed to land in our warehouse space behind our store.
On top of that, we had social distancing among our entire crew so we couldn’t huddle altogether in a tight space, looking at a monitor, waiting for the next thing to happen on the stage. Every department had a kind of zone. That zone was big enough for them to sit six feet apart within their department and many feet from the next department because we wanted to make sure that there’d be no spread if we had a positive case, which we luckily didn’t.
AVC: The challenges are really staggering. You have to figure out how to run power to freezer cases, and you have to figure out how to socially distance. It’s a lot.
AR: And Santa Monica had a noise restriction policy for air conditioning, so we could keep our refrigerators on in order to keep our meat cool, but we couldn’t keep the air conditioning in the hangar on all night. We had to turn it on early enough in the morning that when Leslie and everybody came to work—you know, listen, we can all feel a little warm, but when you’re on camera, you don’t want somebody to be overheating. So we’d have to turn the air conditioning on in time to get it all pumped up and ready to go again.
Really, there are so many things that go into it. This was a new show and we had to add this layer of safety. I’m so proud of our crew. They were really amazing.
AVC: So speaking of that layer of safety: Grocery workers are considered to be essential workers right now. They’re on the front lines of the pandemic, and they’re dealing with a lot of people every single day. Does this show draw attention to that at all?
AR: It was a huge conversation, actually. In every episode we award an essential worker from around the country $2,000, a Supermarket Sweep sweatshirt and a big thank you. And I’ll tell you, it made every shooting day better. Leslie would name the person and the contestants, who we hadn’t prepped at all for this, would do a big, natural cheer for that person, because I think we all just feel like supermarkets have kept us alive.
For those of us that were on the set, the supermarket was this moment of joy in a time that was really difficult. We were back at work. A lot of us hadn’t had a paycheck in months because entertainment shut down. But we were finally together, if six feet apart.
I think we wanted to thank the people that had been taking care of us all of those months. I hope that the audience feels good about it. We tried to pick workers from all over the country so viewers at home can see a local hero.
AVC: Grocery stores now have Plexiglas and one-way aisles and markers for every six feet in line. Do we see any of that on the show, or is this a sort of fantasy grocery store from the hopeful future?
AR: No, there’s none of any of that stuff on the show. There’s no six feet apart markers. If you’re really looking, you’ll see that the contestants are two by two and they’re quite far apart compared to an ordinary game show. You might notice that Leslie’s host mark isn’t really close to the contestants.
In general, we were a very tested group of people. Everyone had masks and a shield if they were around the contestants. Along with Leslie, they were the only people that were unmasked.
I hope that for those contestants it was an hour of not thinking about having to wear a mask and of not being worried about the person one foot away from you being sick.
AVC: When we talked to the people who had been on Supermarket Sweep in the ’90s, they told us that only the teams that won got to keep their sweatshirts. Do the teams get to keep their sweatshirts now?
AR: Not only do they get to keep them, they’re customized. When the contestants came to set, they chose with their partner the color that they were going to compete in. Then they could tell Seth, who was the costume designer, that they wanted a low neck or a V-neck or a mock turtleneck or a puff sleeve or a cut out or a crop top. There was a seamstress who cut it to their sizes and sewed it for them. It was pretty fun for Leslie because at the end of the first act, everybody went away and got their sweatshirts on, and when they came back, she could see their personalities. That was something that she hadn’t had her hand in. It was a surprise for her.
AVC: When I grew up watching Supermarket Sweep, it was always paired with Shop ’Til You Drop, which was about the mall, and in many ways was a natural partner. If Sweep does well, are there any plans to expand into that realm as well?
AR: You know, it’s only come up recently. We’re only now over the hump and about to premiere Supermarket Sweep, so I guess now we can think about future offerings. It’s exciting to think about, though. I do love that show.