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

The late journalist Hodding Carter said “There are two gifts we should give our children: one is roots and the other is wings.”

Read a little deeper into the quote and you may find similarities between a produce director and those he or she supervises. I recently had a discussion with Unified produce manager Dave Swartz at a trade event in Portland, Ore. We reflected on the control level a produce manager used to have compared to the limited role seen in many chains today.

As clerks, we both wanted to be a produce manager. In the mid-1970s there were clear advantages.

As a produce manager you decided how to merchandise the department. Oh, sure, the produce supervisor offered merchandising suggestions. But for the most part, the department was yours to manage.

This was especially valuable as the seasoned produce manager (usually someone with 10-plus years of experience on average) knew personally the neighborhood and the customers and merchandised the department accordingly.

In short, control over merchandising is what produce managers say made the job fun.

These managers also knew how to generate profits. If a manager recalled that a high gross profit margin item sold better on one particular end cap, he was free to merchandise accordingly.

Those old-school produce managers had an especially enticing reason to push for extra sales and profits.

Every quarter the produce manager was eligible for a bonus. This drove most produce managers to meet or exceeded their goals, and they found this incentive was as rewarding for their wallets as well as providing job satisfaction.

This was as good a reason as any for a clerk to aspire to become a produce manager too.

As for the existing produce manager group back then, this environment generated healthy, internal competition. The busier the store, the more incentive for merchandising control and the higher the bonuses for outstanding performance.

Produce directors I’ve spoken with over the years agree that for the most part this is their story, one they took particular pride in, especially having the freedom to merchandise.

Most produce departments today are merchandised following strict schematics, no matter how experienced or creative the produce manager.

Control over merchandising is as extinct as the bonuses. The result is that chains often struggle to fill management ranks. Many are finding that fewer clerks see any advantage to become a produce manager, or once promoted few are willing to take on the risks of managing the busier store.

In the quest for standardizing merchandising and homogenizing the produce manager position, it makes me question as an industry, why have we taken the fun out of the job?

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. E-mail