“It’s hot, it’s fresh, it’s delicious,” said Grocery Store Fanatics President Donald Ericson as he tasted Kowalski’s fried chicken in Shoreview on a tour of northeast metro grocery stores Oct. 10.

Ericson, of Mora, tours grocery stores across the state in search of great tastes. One of his signature reviews is the “Fried Chicken Challenge,” in which he tastes a store’s deli fried chicken for heat, freshness and flavor. No store has yet failed his challenge.

Ericson, an employee at Cub in Cambridge, takes a day off every couple of months to tour all brands of grocery stores across the state. “He’s like the connector of the whole grocery industry,” said his administrative assistant, Liz Nerud, cheese manager at the Woodbury Kowalski’s. Nerud takes the day off with Ericson to tour stores.

They started the tours two years ago on his birthday, Oct. 10. Last week was the third birthday tour of Cub Foods in White Bear Township, on his 28th birthday. “He likes to get to know people,” said Store Director Steve Szondy. Employees surprised him with a birthday cookie and balloons. He was also given a tour of the meat department and learned how to make a burger patty.

He then went to Kowalski’s in Shoreview, where he toured Kowalski’s central facility, including the bakery where Kowalski’s Markets’ baked goods are made for all 12 of its stores. He was surprised with a birthday cake (with a grocery cart decoration) and top picks from cheese manager Amy Ellis. Ericson and Nerud had five more grocery store stops planned that day.

Ericson began Grocery Store Fanatics on social media about three years ago. His group recently surpassed 1,000 members, a big goal of his, he said. He’s becoming well known in the grocery store industry throughout the Twin Cities and was even given the honor of cutting the ribbon at a store in Minneapolis.

What fascinates Ericson about grocery stores is the design, layout and, of course, the food. “I’ve always loved grocery stores,” he said. As a hobby, he designs grocery stores, focusing on the strategy of flow. After a tour, Nerud said she receives a Ph.D.-level grocery store analysis on the drive home. Ericson has Asperger syndrome, a condition that enables a person to have an all-absorbing interest and knowledge in one topic.

Kris Kowalski Christiansen, CEO of Kowalski’s Markets, said she plans to consult Ericson the next time the company is in the design phase of a store. She attended his birthday tour at Cub Foods in White Bear Township. The store is owned by Kowalski’s.

Bill Conlin, hiring manager at Kowalski’s in Shoreview, said Ericson’s tours have been good for the store, which opened in 2016. “He gets into what stores have to offer,” Conlin noted. The attention he creates has increased the following for the newer store, he added.

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