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

The Monday meeting message is bleak: “You need to cut 20 hours out of next week’s produce labor schedule.”

I remember all too well this kind of direction, handed down from the store manager. Especially in the middle of October, the slowest time of year. Produce offerings are a bit in limbo: Stone fruit and the bulk of the most popular grapes are finished, new crop apples help but this isn’t enough to make up for summer volume enjoyed until a few weeks ago, and winter’s heavy citrus volume is still weeks away.

Lower available variety means less produce rings and ultimately a lower labor schedule.

The hard part? There are still many fixed, set duties that still have to be performed. When managing a produce department, you still need someone to unload trucks, set up, stock and rotate product. You still need people to build ad displays, keep up with signs, customer service and a hundred other tasks.

You’re not alone if you walk away from the labor meeting saying to yourself, “I’m already running as lean as I can. Where can I cut?”

With a little creativity you may be able to weather the storm. Here are a few tips that have helped over the years:

  • Adjust shift start times. If your setup person usually comes in at 4 a.m. try bumping it to 6 a.m., working them later for better coverage. Meanwhile, have your closer (typically a part-timer) start a little later and change the shift from say 2 p.m.-10 p.m. to something like 4 p.m.-9 p.m., depending on the day. This could save a few hours per day, which may satisfy your budget needs.
  • Consider the swing or middle shift, typically an 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule, trimmed to a noon to 4 p.m. shift. This adjustment has two advantages. One is that it saves a few hours, but it also gives you some flexibility. I always told the clerk working this shift to stick around if we had a strong late-afternoon rush. This put hours (and added cash) into his pocket, and I was always able to justify the extra, nonovertime hours by citing the added sales.
  • Put off big projects. At least for now. If you usually make massive table changes (you should have done this in late September), table those labor hours for a few more weeks. Try keeping the merchandising moves to a minimum, which will save hours.

Nobody likes trimming hours but it’s a reality we’ve all had to deal with. Don’t despair. Remember that winter commodities and winter holiday sales volume are right around the corner, when the labor muscle can be flexed once again.

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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