If there was such a thing as a rock star in the world of grocery bagging, Blake Westling would be it.
Westling, a 20-year-old college student and grocery bagger at , just took second place at the National Best Bagger Competition in Las Vegas on Feb. 13—finishing just 1.3 points behind the champion, a grocery bagger from Wisconsin. It was Westling's first time attending the event.
The National Best Bagger Competition is the Olympics for grocery store clerks. This year, 24 states sent an equal amount of competitors to the event. Each person participating in the competition has already passed through at least three qualifying events, including a statewide competition.
At the national competition, all the baggers are evaluated on their speed, placement of food items within an individual bag, proper weight distribution among grocery bags, and the clerk's appearance, attitude and style.
Baggers are given 31 items to put away, Westling said, but the nature and mix of the items is kept secret until the competition begins. The highest score a bagger can earn is 30 points. Westling earned a 27.09 in the preliminary round and a 26.26 in the final round of the competition.
“It’s nerve-wracking, because I was in the fourth heat, and I had seen 15 other competitiors go, and some of them were pretty good," Westling said. "You’re sitting up there, you’re nervous, you just try to take a deep breath before you go, and then you just start bagging."
Westling honed his skills over five months of practice. He bagged groceries blindfolded, he bagged groceries in 105-degree heat and he was even coached by corporate trainer Dennis Calhoun. Because Westling was attending class in La Crosse, Wisc., he and Calhoun would meet online over Skype.
"A number of contestants had been there at least two or three or four times," said Blake's father, Mike Westling. "For Blake, to get as far as he got on his first attempt is quite phenomenal. It's a testament to how hard he has worked."
Westling and his family were flown out to Las Vegas, put up in a fancy hotel and given royal treatment by Byerly's, which Westling represented in the competition.
Westling, who has worked for five years at the store, is studying biology and plans to enroll as a medical student at the University of Minnesota. For earning second place, he will receive $5,000 in prize money—which he plans to put toward college tuition.