"I can taste-test anything I want in my produce department.”
So said one of the produce managers — one of the best we had — in our chain. Trouble was, he proclaimed it to the security employee, while scarfing down two bananas in open defiance to the zero-tolerance theft policy.
What saved the produce manager from being fired on the spot was a very loosely defined sampling policy. After all, he argued, how could he or his produce department colleagues tell customers what something tasted like without the opportunity to freely sample the goods?
Similar such defiance has pushed many retailers and most chains to a strict no-grazing policy.
This remains a bit of a gray area.
Most chains have installed cameras everywhere, so the antics of yesteryear (which I remember well) are much more limited.
Back in the day, it was common for produce crews to open up expensive dips for employee sampling on the prep table or make huge batches of guacamole, using numerous (and sometimes expensive) avocados.
When caught, we hid behind the old “We need to taste test these, don’t we?” defense, as well.
A bit of compromise, it seems, may be the answer to the dilemma.
First of all, all chains by now have installed strict policies that no food or drink is to be consumed on the sales floor or in prep areas. That takes care of most of the impromptu, chip-and-guacamole employee feasts.
But what about new or unusual produce that is a natural part of the produce sales cycle?
Shouldn’t there be a way to sample these items without violating company policies?
Secondly, my approach would propose that when a new or questionable item arrives a produce manager would be allowed to gather the crew around, whip out a trim knife and share a sample with everyone. Saying something like, “This is a Honeycrisp apple variety. It shows a brix level of 11%, which doesn’t mean anything to most customers, but that compares well against the also crunchy and sweet gala.”
Third, I’d encourage produce managers to explore items that need cooking or further preparation.
Have a new hard squash variety on hand? Try talking the deli manager into fixing a batch of a recommended recipe. Then offer samples next to the display along with copies of the recipe, and encourage employees to sample as well.
Finally — and this requires getting store manager approval — I’d also encourage employees to interact with customers as much as possible. In doing so, part of this would be to offer a sample of something, especially when the customer seems hesitant to buy.
Saying “You have to try these, they’re great!” works wonders.
As one produce manager once said, “Sometimes you have to abandon principle, and just do what’s right.”
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 email@example.com.
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