The handwritten sign over James Bennion’s office at Harmons Bangerter Crossing reads “La Artista.” As he steps out, he’s immediately greeted by a coworker with a request: Can he make a sign for the cooking school? One with a life-size drawing of Julia Child?
Bennion is one of 10 chalk artists employed by Harmons Grocery, a Utah-based chain with nearly 20 locations. His job is simple, but vital to Harmons’ emphasis on local products: Add unique signs to accompany unique groceries. Each Harmons displays upwards of 800 signs.
Taylor Hellewell is Harmons Grocery Emigration Sign Artist
“We ‘re really able to make products stand out. The creativity is up to us, and the sky’s the limit,” says Bennion of Harmons’ artists. From the store’s second-floor cafe, Bennion points out the seafood section’s five-foot-long chalk image of a polar bear stalking fish. Like many of the hundreds of signs in any given Harmons, the polar bear creates a sense of unique place and demonstrates that signs go beyond pricing and description.
“Food in itself has a world of depth and variety that a printed vinyl sign has a hard time expressing,” says Bob Harmon, Vice President for the Customer and Harmons co-owner. A sign with a photorealistic image of a product and machine-made lettering sometimes falls short, Harmon says. But a hand-drawn fisherman’s boat or a polar bear on seafood signs or something humorous for no apparent reason—a scene from Star Wars on a Caffe Ibis coffee display, add personality and attract eyes.
Chalk as a medium creates a sense of the temporary, connoting freshness. The signs, made with chalk markers on blackboard, average between two to four hours to complete. (The polar bear took two days.) “When you look at our signs, you can tell someone is delivering art personally, from themselves, to you. It means a lot,” Harmon says. The company’s first chalk artist was hired in 2008, and all artists are salaried employees with full benefits—a rarity in the art world.
“This type of expression feels more tangible and real, and offers more breadth and clarity,” Harmon says. “It also helps us differentiate ourselves from our competitors.”