Customers come up with the darndest questions.

You probably get these types of questions more often than others:

Educate yourself to educate consumers

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

What do these apples taste like? How can I tell if this honeydew is ripe? These oranges have a green cast — are they ripe?

I refrigerate my tomatoes — why do they taste bland?

There are questions of all types in regard to flavor, and questions about varieties, selection and even storage.

There are no one-size-fits-all answers.

After all, you learn everything you can about the produce you sell, but even the most learned agriculture scientist might have trouble explaining to a customer exactly why one avocado variety tastes different from another, or why the first fruit of a particular deal (length of time for a specific growing area) tastes different than the same variety when it hits mid- (or peak) season.

It takes years to recognize the beginning, middle and end of the many deals or seasons.

Take grapes for example.

Right now, we’re in the end of the California deal. We know that a month ago, green grapes looked better, but the amber coloring seen now is an indication of high-sugar and sweetness.

Moving on, we may see a slight gap between California grapes and the onset of Chilean fare, which is due in December.

Those early varieties may start out tart, but we know that as the deal moves along sweeter fruit follows.

The best explanation to customers, in regard to variety, taste, application and selection is that certain commodities grow especially well in certain areas.

My friend Wes markets melons and explains that fruit grows best in 100-plus degree weather. That helps explain why the Central American imports (where temperatures may only reach in the mid-80 degree range) don’t always have the high sugar levels we see from desert sources. Other factors affects flavor too: acids, water, solids.

Some items work better for specific applications than others. Jonathan apples, for example, are a personal favorite. They are tart and great for eating fresh and in pies.

The downside for jonathans? The deal is short-lived.

Identifying peak flavor in produce has more to do with:

  • variety (tart apple or sweet?);
  • maturity (That cantaloupe ideally grown in that hot climate will have a full slip and straw-colored netting);
  • strength of point of origin (How about those Texas or Florida grapefruit?) and;
  • which point the deal is in. Is something just starting, midpoint, or finishing up?

Additionally, each deal’s flavors may vary slightly from year to year. Weather factors can change everything. Like the popular Heinz ketchup commercial says, “It’s grown, not made.”

We can never be perfect when it comes to advising customers.

But experience teaches us anew each year. While we taste and offer samples, we can get about as close as anyone can hope for.

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.

Have any tips on how to manage a retail produce department? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.