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

Something occurred to me the first time I tried to fix a torn bag of grapefruit.

“Don’t bother.” My produce manager said. “Just add what’s left in the bag to the bulk display.”

I noticed the grapefruit in the bulk display was larger. It also had a clean appearance with hardly any imperfections. The grapefruit from the bag, in contrast, was smaller. The skin bulged out on one end (sheep nose is the lingo that citrus people use), and the skin was scuffed.

That was my introduction as a young clerk to the world of different grades.

I learned soon afterward that produce was available in varying sizes, packs and grades. As the years went on I found it interesting that there is a market for every level.

The extra-premium grades tend to go to the gourmet-scale chains, as do many items designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as U.S. No. 1 or better. The same is mostly true for high-profile or mainstream chains’ supply. Discount chains, on the other hand, tend to pick up deals on whatever is available in surplus, be it No. 1 or otherwise.

What all this means is that produce is not necessarily better or worse because of size or grade — just different.

My produce manager took time to explain.

“See the scuff marks on the grapefruit? That’s likely from sand blowing through the groves,” he said.

Then with his trim knife he cut open one grapefruit from both the premium lot and another that came from the lesser-grade, bagged fruit.

“Look inside, there’s not much difference is there?” He said. “People buy with their eyes, but both are equally tasty and nutritious.”

What’s important in regard to what produce lines a chain carries, has more to do with principles such as keeping displays neat, full, clean, culled and rotated, and less to do with how they rank in the premium-banner pecking order. Many so-called discount or ethnic stores (many of which carry less-than-premium grades) can be every bit as busy — and profitable — as their premium-bannered competitors.

It boils down to asking just who is your customer and how can you best meet their needs?

Even more important, I suspect, is the ongoing challenge of consumer education. Just as my produce manager demonstrated beauty was only skin-deep in the grapefruit example, it only seems reasonable to encourage a similar a message when dealing with shoppers one on one.

When you see a customer hesitating while looking at a produce item that is less than flawless, it’s time to speak up and say, “How about a sample? The flavor is incredible.”

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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