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

The only thing worse than dealing with change is suppressing it.

I realize that’s about as odd an opening line for this column as it gets (which is saying something, considering some of the unusual topics that gets tossed around in this space).

When it comes to handling labor issues, most produce managers are like anyone else leading a group of people. They find it is often the most challenging part of the job.

Consider for a moment, just how difficult it is to develop a crew. If a clerk is new, it takes several weeks or even months for them just to complete a cycle, working alongside some of the more experienced people to the point that they can be entrusted to perform at an adequate level of work on their own.

The experienced clerk is not exempt from development, either. In fact, many produce managers attest that they would rather train a new clerk than re-train someone who has poor work habits. The term “experienced” doesn’t necessarily equate with “accomplished” by any stretch of the imagination.

It may not seem like it to the casual observer, but a produce crew can take years to develop from a list of names on a work schedule to what can be referred to as a great team.

So it came as no surprise as I made my supervisory rounds as a retail specialist when I had a frank conversation with a produce manager about one of his exemplary employees. It went something like this:

“Say, we’ve talked about this before. Every time I’m in your store and your setup man Tom is working, the department looks outstanding.”

“Yeah, it’s no secret. Tom is my best guy,” the produce manager said. “He also writes all the orders for his section, builds creative displays, is great with customers and he’s trained the last few part-timers.”

I pulled some paperwork out of my briefcase.

“Tom’s been on the management promotion list a bit longer than most. We can sure use him. With the new stores coming up this quarter, the opportunities will be there for Tom as soon as you sign off on his recommendation.”

I could tell from the produce manager’s hesitancy that he didn’t want Tom to leave. I had seen it before with others in the same situation. I could almost read his mind: “If I lose Tom, it will take forever to regroup, to regain my comfort level.”

I said, “I’m sure you’re not deliberately holding him back, right? How’d you like it if that was done with you at this point?” The manager bit his lip, tapped the metal desk hard with his pen and signed the form.

Tom was promoted the following week.

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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