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

Fresh produce, for many outside our world, is misunderstood.

The trouble is that many of the same people who misunderstand the nature of produce are often put in charge of overseeing produce operations — people like store, transportation or warehouse managers.

Take simple inventory management, for example. A store director may want a produce manager to get the department stocked in the morning and expect it to last for the entire day. After all, they reason, the endcap of soda endures an entire day of shopper traffic. Why doesn’t this work for produce?

A store manager also might be compelled to pull labor from one department (such as with produce) to jump into the checkstands to help out as cashiers during a busy period. Sometimes this is just an occasional part of doing business. When it’s done regularly to the point that produce department stock conditions suffer, it’s time to speak up.

As one produce manager said, appealing to the front end-minded store director, “You’re busy? That means we’re busy too!”

These misunderstandings are held in check when a store manager has some experience working in a produce (or any perishable) department. A good store manager realizes fresh produce is much more labor-intensive than dry goods — that produce inventory turns frequently and needs constant attention to maintain freshness.

Abandon these principles and it won’t matter how many cashiers are on duty.

Warehouse managers aren’t immune to misunderstanding produce either. It may make sense to fill reserve slots with full pallets of paper goods or chemicals.

However, if a supplier only sells five cases of tomatoes a day, it is foolish to direct the buyer to purchase full-pallet quantities. It won’t be long before customers will get old product with short shelf-life and most of the excess inventory will wind up as shrink.

So many times the warehouse manager will confront the buyer with the argument “But buying in full-pallet quantity works so well with canned goods!”

Ultimately, these questions must be asked: What is the best action we can take so our customers are able to purchase what they need, when they want it? And how can we best supply our customers (be it in retail or foodservice) so product is at peak freshness so the customer can enjoy optimal shelf life?

I like to explain to nonproduce people in charge of produce operations that they will benefit from spending time in the department. A manager sincere about learning produce will spend a few days with the buyer at his desk or alongside a produce manager as they go through the 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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