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

A popular legend that circulated during the Nazi overthrow of Europe involved the Danish King, Christian X.

According to the story, the king was riding his horse one day (as usual, unaccompanied by guards) by the Hotel d’Angelterre in Copenhagen, which was being used as a temporary headquarters by German officers. Seeing the Nazi flag flying above the hotel, the king ordered it removed immediately as this was a violation of the armistice agreement. He said if the Germans wouldn’t do it, he would send a Danish soldier to remove the flag. The sentry remarked that if a Danish soldier made this attempt, he would be shot.

The king replied, “I think not, for I shall be that soldier.”

What has history to do with produce, you might ask. To me, it has one powerful association: Being a strong leader, even in tense times.

A produce manager has a lot to defend: Merchandising space in and around a store, how much labor is allowed, the allocation of those labor hours and even the merchandising scheme and allowable facings of products.

Speaking with a prominent California retail director last week, we discussed merchandising control. He said that he doesn’t give his produce managers written-in-stone schematics but called it a “merchandising guide.”

The director went on to say that specific direction was pushed only on weaker managers, while they gave considerable merchandising freedom to the strong produce managers. However, he added, “I’d rather rein in someone who’s on the ball and trying to do too much than push hard-and-fast merchandising rules on the weaker guys.”

The director in this case is an exception. Most chains manage with strict merchandising schematics, but a strong manager can still stand up to the rules. He or she can make the argument that each store is unique and merchandising nuances can make a difference in sales and profit.

The produce manager also can gather resolve and press for more labor. By doing a little homework and presenting his or her case to the store director, a produce manager can demonstrate with hard data the correlation of applying added hours to department improvement, maintenance, or specific projects — and how it helps the store’s bottom line. All of which has to be executed and followed up to ensure ongoing support.

It doesn’t take a monarch’s courage to manage a produce department. However, a strong demeanor that protects certain interests is a must. The produce manager has to look out for his or her crew, merchandising, product quality, customer service, sales, and stand up to anything that obstructs or threatens a successful operation.

The job requires (if not outright courage), then a good dose of gumption.

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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