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

A common question asked in produce circles is “How did you start” and “Why produce?”

My first real job at 13 was peddling the news. You might say I still am, in a way. The bicycle paper route kept me busy seven days a week. This is a great way for a kid to learn about business firsthand. Customer service, inventory, billing, accounting, keeping the equipment in shape — these elements transferred well years later when managing a produce department.

Besides, I like to work. After spending time with family, work is what puts meaning into my life as much as it puts food on the table.

The best thing about trading up at 15 for the job at the nearby grocer was how many different jobs awaited there.

Most everyone I speak to in our business spent time doing nearly everything in the store, from bagging groceries to stocking, from pushing carts to crunching numbers and eventually managing scores or even hundreds of employees.

But the area that captured my attention was the produce department, for several reasons.

Produce is the one department that constantly changes, unlike most of the rest of the store where at best the same old fare is sometimes re-arranged. What is seasonal for one month in produce quickly evolves with varying quality and availability.

In other words, we have a different job to embrace many times during the course of a year.

Take the grape flow for example: Chilean product gives way to a shorter Mexican grape window and the year finishes with the California deal, and the cycle starts anew. Beyond product flow, each year differs for everyone in produce no matter what the role, if only in subtle ways.

“I learn something new every day,” is a shared observation.

Relatives at Saturday barbecues don’t always appreciate what we do. They see only a slice of honeydew on a platter. We peel the sticker off the rind. Is it domestic or imported? We contemplate size, grade and variety. Is it ripe? What’s the sugar level? Each of the hundreds of items we handle has a history. Each has its nuances in regard to availability, pack and peak-season.

We also have variety within the department schedule. The setup person has different responsibilities than the closer. Workloads are divided up and vary according to expected customer traffic.

Mostly it is the people in the industry that offer the best reason for choosing produce as a career. Every grower, sales or buying staff person, director, produce manager and crew I’ve ever known were like any cast of random characters with endearing personality qualities: Knowledgeable, caring, funny and hard-working.

I knew from day one that this crazy produce business was for me.

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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