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

A produce manager, as we all know, has to be a special kind of leader.

Other department heads in a grocery store have it easy in some ways. If someone is in charge of a deli staffed with 20, or cashier staffs of 50, that manager is likely found behind the scenes. That kind of manager is often in the back office of the store, poring over schematics and order guides or writing labor schedules — detached.

The produce manager on the other hand, normally oversees fewer clerks. Granted, there are some produce crews that number in the 20-plus range, but six or less is closer to average. The produce manager is normally found on the move: on the loading dock, the prep area or on the sales floor. Many times the produce manager is compelled to haul out heaping carts of merchandise, as most need to stock fresh produce alongside their clerks in order to keep up with business.

In short, few department heads cover as much ground as a produce manager.

Within this is an important part of managing a produce department. No other department enjoys the closeness and camaraderie found in most produce crews. It doesn’t just happen. The manager is the catalyst.

For example, a produce manager encourages a healthy, competitive spirit.

“You set up a nice wet rack Tom,” a manager may say, inspecting the morning effort. “But Jody does the same and is a half-hour faster.” They may both chuckle over the good-natured ribbing, but you can bet that Tom will do all he can next time to keep pace. The same thing happens in many other tasks. Everyone likes to be empowered or have their share of quality-of-work bragging rights.

A good produce manager keeps things on the fun side. I admit throwing freight isn’t a day at Disneyland. However, I’ve had produce managers that reward clerks, springing for breakfast after an overnight reset. Good morale can be fostered with simple things such as posting a football pool, spotting someone an occasional Saturday off or even playing along with the occasional (and harmless) practical joke.

All these things, not nearly as likely to occur in the larger grocery or cashier ranks.

Above all, a good produce manager encourages everyone on the crew to look out for one another. The one-good-turn-deserves-another philosophy goes a long way to building a cohesive team. A thoughtful manager challenges clerks at every opportunity, in the spirit of “How can we help the next shift?” Clerks learn from experience and direction that a little extra effort in stocking or organizing helps everyone.

“The art of leadership is to mobilize people to care about the tasks ahead.” — Doris Goodwin

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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