For the last few years, visitors to the Icelandic grocery chain Hagkaup have been met by a trio of unusually high profile greeters. Surrounded by enough American flags to trick out a NASCAR rally on the 4th of July, Elvis, John Wayne, and Barack Obama—the latter of whom often sports an “employee-in-training” button—invite visitors to help themselves to shimmering pyramids of Twizzlers, cheese puffs, and peanut butter M&Ms. Not to be outdone, Lady Liberty lights the way to overflowing buckets of pretzel sticks, Jello mix, and marshmallow fluff. Welcome to America Days: help yourself to some high fructose corn syrup.
In the United States, autumn brings with it a progression of increasingly gluttonous holidays. We start digging in at Halloween, loosen our belts for Thanksgiving, and end, of course, with Christmas. But while there’s no doubt that Icelanders excel at Christmasing, the dearth of fall-filler is problematic, at least from a retail standpoint. Enter America Days, a particularly successful example of what Managing Director Gunnar Ingi Sigurðsson calls “fun shopping.”
As American as…Icelandic beef and doughnut burgers
When I met with Gunnar Ingi for a walking tour of America Days in the Smáralind mall Hagkaup, the very first things he wanted to show off were the doughnuts, starting with the be-flagged self-serve ‘doughnut bar,’ which is plonked right between the produce and meat sections. This bar—more of a tower, really—was such a huge success after America Days last year that it is now a permanent instalment. And the close proximity of doughnuts and meat counter was, I suppose, bound to inspire one inevitable creation: the doughnut burger. That is, a hamburger patty sandwiched between two doughnuts instead of buns.
(Let me pause to say that a number of Americans I spoke to were quick to mock the dubious “American-ness” of a doughnut burger. I certainly understand the shame of having such a product associated with our bloated country, and share it, but we must own that we are the nation who brought the world the Double Down: bacon and cheese sandwiched in between two pieces of fried chicken. And the doughnut burger is not just a figment of the Icelandic imagination. ‘Luther Burgers,’ possibly named in honour of R&B singer Luther Vandross, often utilise Krispy Kremes for buns and are sold everywhere from Illinois baseball parks to halal burger joints in Astoria, Queens. If that isn’t bad enough, “Bacon Cronut Burgers,” or cheeseburgers sandwiched between two bacon-infused croissant-doughnuts, also began sweeping the US this fall. Our bad, world. Our bad.)
At Hagkaup, the standard pre-packaged doughnut burger kit includes four glazed doughnuts and two 120 gram hamburger patties for 999 ISK (8.00 USD). This kit has proven to be a very popular item, and features prominently in store ads with the message “Add Cheddar cheese slices, bacon, and egg, and you can’t get any more American.” Most products sold during America Days are specially imported from the US, but Hagkaup puts these bad boys together themselves. They’re just regular Icelandic beef hamburgers, Gunnar Ingi admits, just as the pre-marinated Buffalo chicken, and the aged “Western” beef are also Icelandic products. But Hagkaup is able to “make it all American” by putting a Stars and Stripes sticker that says ‘US!’ on the front.
The import process is a difficult one on both sides of customs. On the American side, the problems often come down to high prices and low quantities. “We used to import a brand of organics from Clint Eastwood’s town [Earthbound, from Carmel-by-the-Sea, California],” says Gunnar Ingi, but rising quotas and export fees forced Hagkaup to stop purchasing these products. “They didn’t want to enlarge the cake,” he said. “They just wanted to protect the domestic salad.” Similarly, Hagkaup has often found it difficult to test new American products in their stores because American companies can’t be bothered with small export orders. “We call to order a new item, and they ask us how much we want to buy,” Gunnar Ingi says. “We say, ‘maybe a pallet?’ and then it’s like they stop speaking English.”
While pointing out various American delicacies on offer—such as his personal favourite, Jack Daniels mustard, which retails at 499 ISK (4 USD) and whole, frozen lobsters from Maine (1,999 ISK, 17 USD)—Gunnar Ingi also explains that many American products cannot be imported because they do not meet the health and nutrition standards imposed by the European Economic Area, whose guidelines Iceland follows. Each foreign product must be stickered with nutritional information in Icelandic, and a health inspector is sent to ensure that nothing being sold contains any forbidden ingredients. Gunnar Ingi sighs when recalling the “special” Cocoa Puffs Hagkaup had to start selling in 2012. These were made with a new recipe for the European market: less sugar, less salt, less fat. He shakes his head at the memory—“they really weren’t as good.” (He’s not alone in this opinion: although the “old” Cocoa Puffs can be sold in Iceland again, you can still find Facebook pages dedicated to “Legalizing Cocoa Puffs” from those dark, marginally less sweetened days.)
We continue on our goodie circuit, passing baskets of Hooter’s brand hot sauce, Cracker Jacks, Kool-Aid mix, canned cranberry sauce, and Tostito’s spinach dip (another employee favourite) before arriving at the holy grail: a Cheesecake Factory cheesecake sampler which retails at 4,498 ISK, or 37 USD. “It’s…not cheap,” Gunnar Ingi says. “But it isn’t for every day.”
“There’s an awful lot of junk food,” I say sheepishly as we continue, passing Betty Crocker cake mixes, Pop Tarts, and Red Velvet cakes, which have been specially created by local bakeries for the occasion. I mean it as a self-deprecation about my home country, but Gunnar Ingi bristles a little—he’s obviously heard similar comments before. People complain about kids coming in any buying lots of candy, he says, but better that than going downtown and buying lots of beer. He also points out that Hagkaup has a large, and growing, selection of organic and health food products, and points to boxes of gluten-free quinoa spaghetti (779 ISK, 6 USD) as examples of less junky offerings. And, he says, brightening a little, there are also the Zevia sodas—Stevia-sweetened and calorie-free, straight from the West Coast. “Typical California.”
Indeed there is an astounding variety of American sodas in the case in front of us—at least a dozen varieties of Zevia, “Throwback” Pepsi (made with real sugar), Mello Yello, A&W Root Beer, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Minute Maid Lemonade and even Tab. (The store ad exhibits the selection with the message, “Finally, Tab!”) The sodas are probably the most popular America Days items, Gunnar Ingi says. At 159 ISK, or just over 1 USD a can, people can try many different kinds without spending a lot of money. Unsurprisingly, these were the America Days items which sold the best during the crash years.
Taking in all the flags, and “American-ness” around me, I ask if the promotion is meant to be a tribute, or maybe a parody. Such is the nature of American nationalism and branding, I guess, that ironic patriotism and sincere patriotism appear basically identical. Gunnar Ingi smiles at the question before brushing it off entirely, as though I’m thinking a bit too hard. “No, no,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just fun shopping.”