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

Early summer merchandising is in full stride now. Some of it, unfortunately, is moving in the wrong direction.

Take the simple concept of refrigeration. From day one, the cold-chain message is pounded into our skull: “Keep it cold. Produce is cooled at the packing level, trucked to cold warehouses, where the produce is rushed to the stores and into our walk-in coolers, and finally displayed cold for the benefit of the consumer.”

Very nice. However, I’d like to borrow comedienne Joan Rivers’ trademark tag-line, “Can we talk?”

Nobody believes in maintaining the cold chain more than this humble produce scribe, but there are inconsistencies with the topic that warrant a second look.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen strawberries or other high-respiration items being stocked on nonrefrigerated tables. The argument from retailers is that if they can turn the product quickly then this is OK. I grudgingly agree to a point, but most displays I see have warm or nonrotated product that actually repels sales.

On the other hand I frequently see fresh potatoes on refrigerated cases. Every produce person knows that potatoes should be stored dark, dry and no colder than 45 degrees. More often than not, the spuds are displayed ice-cold, under bright lights and getting a regular spray of water.

Sometimes I also see packaged tomatoes used as a color break and displayed in the refrigerated case with either leafy greens, or in the multideck case with prepackaged salads.

Shame, shame, shame.

The worst temperature faux pas that I have seen this spring however, is with fresh stone fruit. I see retailers stocking early, unripe fruit in refrigerated cases. Everyone in the business knows about the killing zone temperature of 36-50 degrees that stone fruit growers warn against.

Produce retailers argue that they use refrigeration to slow shrink, but they are actually creating more shrink by mismanaging the refrigeration space they already have, while items such as grapes, cherries, corn or berries sit melting away on unrefrigerated displays.

One last note: By selling stone fruit out of those cold cases, shoppers may be disappointed with the lack of flavor and may not buy any more for a while. You don’t want that. With a long summer ahead, you’re going to need all the friends you can muster.

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 armandlobato@comcast.net.

Do you have any tips for merchandising summer produce? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.