On one side of the room, next to an indefatigably cheerful Sam Gadell, hang half a dozen beef carcasses. On the other are three little kids, fingers pinching their noses, refusing to budge. The room is cold and full of the odor of dead cow.
"You don't want to come over here?" he asks, puzzled. Three little heads shake. "Well, then," he says, undaunted, "this is where we hang our beef, so it can age and get good and moldy and taste real good," he says, following a patter that started when we walked into Tyson's Locker Plant near the shopping center in Tysons Corner.
"And that's where we put the fat and bones we cut from the meat. Some people come to pick those up each week, and they use them to make fertilizer, perfume . . ."
"Perfume!" exclaims Megan, nine. "Out of that?"
She's noticed the odor, a smell that Gadell and his relatives in this family-owned business apparently are immune to. The meat- locker business isn't pretty. But, as our cheerful guide points out: "Anything you do that's really fun -- when you make brownies, or do finger painting -- you get really messy. But it makes something really good, right?"
Well, yes, but . . . "and this makes our meat taste really good -- not like at the grocery store, where everything comes in boxes," he says.
We checked this out the next week at Giant Food, where groups of 10 or more young children may tour the store with the manager.
John Smith at the Yorktowne Giant in Fairfax told us that they get most of their meat in boxes, "but we hang it for an hour or so to get rid of that boxed taste."
The room where meat is cut was off-limits to our tour "because the floor tends to be slippery," he explained, but most Giants have a see-through window separating the customer from the meat-cutters, and children can watch through there.
Instead of taking the kids behind the scenes, the tour concentrated on pointing out those things any customer can see if he looks. Like the nozzles that stick up inconspicuously in the produce section, where employees attach hoses for spraying the vegetables "to keep them crisp," he explains.
Or the unit-pricing codes, which the manager used to show how incredibly expensive a six-pack of juice was compared to a large can. Our group -- for whom large numbers are still somewhat of a mystery -- scurried around the juice aisle trying to find the cheapest drink, and finally settled on a large can of grapefruit juice. "But I don't like grapefruit juice," said Giorgos, six.
They did like the peanut butter from the peanut-butter machine (which the attendant kindly took apart for the children to see) and the doughnuts that Smith gave them from the bakery, and they were intrigued by the laser-powered scanner at the cash register.
"Some of our tours spend a long time at the register -- kids today in fourth and fifth grades know all about computers, and ask lots of questions," Smith says.
Kids seventh-grade and older are intrigued by the mega-computer out at Safeway's robot-operated warehouse in Landover, says its superintendent, Dave Frye. "They want to know how it operates, how it's programmed, how much those people get paid," he said, pointing to two women in their 20s who manage the robot- operated end of the warehouse.
The computer -- which Frye points to with pride as a "leader in the country" -- does everything from scheduling appointments for the truck drivers who bring the million and a half non-perishable items ("That way, we can get them in and out in a half-hour," says Frye) and assigning numbers to each box (to tell the forklift operators where they go), to dispatching the "robos" to pick up boxes slated for longer- term storage on 90-foot-high, two-box shelves.
The robos, which look like tiny flat cars, are guided along the floor by electrical impulses and pick up loads carefully evened and stacked for them -- by machine.
They carry their loads to the high shelves, where they're lifted by a kind of elevator with arms and deposited in slots that the computer knows are empty. Sometimes, to retrieve just the right package, the armed elevator has to move boxes around -- Frye calls it a "shuffle."
The computer that sorts all this out is housed in an air-conditioned room in the middle of the 400,000-square-foot warehouse, right next to the computer running the rest of the area. "Sometimes they talk to each other," Frye confides.
Watching the robos is the highlight of the tour. But the kids who come to visit, though intrigued with the squat machines, are more interested in the "variety of jobs available in the grocery business," says Frye.
"Most people think of grocers as the people who run the cash register or the produce man," he explains. "Here, they see forklift operators, truck drivers, computer programmers, accountants, all making enough money to support a family."
Watching these people in action makes for a different outing in this museum-saturated town, and seems to appeal to kids. Perhaps because it deals with something close to every child's heart -- food.
As Megan conceded after the meat-locker tour: "It was gross, but interesting. I always wondered about that stuff." FOOD TO GO To arrange for tours: GIANT FOOD STORES -- Groups of 10 or more elementary-school-aged children are welcome to call Sur Portney at 341-4710 to arrange a tour at the closest Giant. SAFEWAY DISTRIBUTION CENTER -- Call 341-6571 for a tour of two or more (up to 40) seventh-grade and older kids. The center is at 1501 Cabin Branch Road in Landover. TYSON'S LOCKER PLANT -- Tours for kids and adults, singly or in groups, can be arranged by calling Sam Gadell at 893-8000. Bring a sweater -- much of the tour is in walk-in freezers.