Henry Johnson was considered an underdog heading into this year’s Best Bagger Battle, the state championship for grocery baggers.
Every year, 11 major grocery chains select their best grocery bagger to compete. The competition evaluates speed, weight distribution of items in the bag, proper bag-building technique, style and attitude.
Johnson, a Yoke’s employee who lost in last year’s competition, made a roaring comeback after slipping and finishing late in the first of three rounds. He won the championship, held Thursday at CenterPlace in Spokane Valley in front of a crowd of more than 100.
Johnson will check out San Diego in February when he competes in the national tournament against 49 other baggers.
A Mt. Spokane High School student, Johnson was one of the local competitors. Having grown up in Mead, he works at the Yoke’s on Market Street there.
He beat out hundreds of Yoke’s Fresh Market baggers in the store’s internal competitions to find the best contestant to send to the state contest, hosted by the Washington Food Industry Association.
Johnson was matched in his first round against reigning champion Tate Stoner, from Metropolitan Market in Seattle. Stoner blew out the competition in the first round.
Three contestants at a time grabbed items from a table and stuffed them into paper bags while a deejay played fast-paced music and the crew cheered.
Johnson had the biggest contingent of supporters, who brought giant cutout signs of his face to wave.
But the first round saw him fumble a few objects and finish behind Stoner.
“I was a little shaky,” he said after the first round. “I had to make some adjustments.”
The second round saw contestants bag groceries into reusable synthetic bags.
Johnson, who considers his strength to be weight distribution, took to using both hands to grab two items at the same time, and finished far ahead of his two competitors in the second round while the crowd cheered loudly.
After all 11 baggers had each competed in two rounds, their scores were tallied and the three best combined scores were chosen.
Johnson squeaked into the last round with his strong two-handed bagging, and faced off against Stoner again.
The round began, and Johnson used pace and steadfast motions to tuck the items away.
He finished before the other two finalists, drawing a cheer from his followers, but the scores were still to be tallied by the judges.
Meanwhile, the emcee asked questions and made jokes to pass the time while contestants nervously answered and awaited results.
But Johnson, having finished first, seemed to have the competition in the bag.
He was announced the winner, bringing the title back to the Spokane area, which was most recently represented by Luke Netjes of Rosauers in 2017.
Johnson attributed his winning to a little bit of luck, modest for the man who had two stellar rounds.
“I feel really lucky,” he said. “I have to take it in over the next couple of days.”
He said he will practice for the national championship in San Diego, but is relying on luck, too.
Yoke’s CEO John Bole said Johnson’s win is the third state championship for his grocery.
“He’s wonderful,” Bole said.
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