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

What is your relationship with food?

This question is presented to incoming culinary hopefuls by some unidentified executive chef, according to a produce director I had dinner with recently. He said the chef gauges the commitment of the potential employee by how they answer this somewhat offbeat question.

However, the chef’s interview question provokes some retail-oriented thoughts as well.

People in the food business, be it foodservice or retail, ideally ought to enjoy what they’re doing. Or do a favor to everyone a favor who has a passion for food, and find another line of work.

Perhaps that sounds harsh, but isn’t it better when you’re around people who are excited about their work? Doesn’t a positive environment also generate better productivity?

To contrast, I recall “Steve,” one of my part-timers, who dragged in one summer afternoon. When pressed why the long face, he grumbled for the umpteenth time.

“I just didn’t want to be here.”

I looked at him unsympathetically.

“Why don’t you leave?”

He looked surprised.

“No really,” I said. “If working produce isn’t your thing, no one is forcing you to be here. Just go,” I reasoned, in as a matter-of-fact voice as I could muster.

“We’ll manage. I’ll have your last paycheck ready for you by week’s end.”

He said nothing, but he got my drift and his attitude improved, at least for the time being.

For those of us more committed in the business, produce “gets in our blood,” as the saying goes. Someone that is jazzed about produce loves to talk to customers about the differences between tomatoes-on-vine and heirloom tomatoes. The excited produce person hangs out after the end of their shift and scours training materials, too often left unread at the manager’s desk.

To have the interest, the passion about produce, is indeed having “a relationship with food,” as the good chef suggests. That is to say, at least in our expanding part of the food world. More people are adding fruits and vegetables to their shopping lists and menus. So it helps to share the interest, to be able to assist these shoppers.

I alluded to this in last week’s column, that good produce managers and clerks are indeed unique in the food business. Like wine connoisseurs, produce people know details. They have an awareness of what commodities and varieties are at the peak of flavor and the changes or availability at any point of the year.

Everyone has their up and down days, but for the most part, good produce people are self-starters that never stop learning. Their connection, their relationship to food, goes much further than simply stocking.

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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