Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

I like to think that I’m not easily scared. But in a way, I am.

A year ago a friend and I visited my favorite Philly cheesesteak shop. It’s right across the street from the grocer where I once worked as a produce manager. It was a place I used to treat myself to, usually only on payday.

However, on this recent trip the meat had an off-flavor, gamey taste. It was months before I gave them another chance.

Fresh produce can be like this experience too, and produce managers have to be on the lookout.

Take, for example, an item I like to talk about: avocados. This item, like many in the produce aisle, is subjective, meaning that different people like different ripeness levels. If you like firmer avocados sliced in a sandwich, a good “breaker” (just starting to ripen and yet firm) is perfect. A little more “give” is best for guacamole.

Sometimes the avocados get juuuuust past the ripe stage, as ex-sportscaster Bob Uecker might have quipped. When this happens, the fruit crosses the fine line between perfect to, um, sludge.

Customers, later preparing this for themselves or their guests, will know instantly — the off flavor, the winces on their faces, the disappointment.

They’ll blame you, Mr. Produce Manager, for selling “bad” product.

They’ll be unhappy with your store, especially if anything else was wrong. Not only will they hesitate before buying your avocados again, but they may not soon give your store another chance.

As produce professionals, we know the strong and weak points, don’t we?

We know that we have to watch the late peach deal extra closely. These may look all right on the outside, but you know that a lightweight piece of fruit can be so dry and pithy it can be easily torn apart in your hands.

So why try to sell it?

Like President George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once, shame on … you … you fool me, can’t get fooled again.”

Well, you get the drift.

But, seriously, produce managers should be on the lookout for anything substandard that might end up in a shopper’s cart: Decaying bits of lettuce in the packaged salads, cat-faces (growth cracks in tomato stem ends), bruised bananas, wrinkly or dehydrated apples, aged berries that you know need to be reworked (or tossed).

Produce managers and experienced clerks apply all the senses to what’s good and what isn’t. After all, we can tell the slightest changes because we have our hands in the produce with each delivery, each rotation.

We can’t prevent every mishap, but it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the produce that goes home with every customer is the absolute, positive freshest.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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