Remember your first real job?

For many of us in this crazy business, that first job was frequently just a few steps away from our produce stand, in the front, check-out area of the store.

I don’t want to dwell too long driving down memory lane. But there’s a method to the madness. I’ll get to that as we go on.

Look among clerks on their first job for potential keepers
Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

In my case, this first job at 15 followed a few years of delivering newspapers after school. Drawn by the prospect of becoming insanely rich and meeting checkout girls, I applied at my local grocery store.

I got a small pamphlet from the personnel department (no human resources departments existed), as well as a name tag and a crisp apron with the company logo. Most of us “courtesy clerks” were still in high school, looking to work evenings and (reluctantly) on weekends.

Most new hires were instantly bored with bagging groceries, as it took but a few shifts to master. We comprised a small army.

The store was always busy, and the front-end very noisy (long before NCR’s and, later, scanners, registers clattered and rang like slot machines). Like other kids, I looked for anything to get out of sacking groceries.

Tasks like cart-gathering, sorting empty soda-bottles and even trash removal or cleanups were attractive alternatives.

In a way, this behavior has a tie-in to produce jobs of today. All those extra, alternative jobs required someone who could work with little supervision, who was looking for more of a challenge and to do something beyond the mundane.

During all those hours sacking mountains of groceries, it also was interesting to see what people purchased from the produce aisle. While walking to the breakroom or sweeping the floor, produce was a curiosity. I’d stop and study the “fuzzy limes” (kiwifruit) and wonder what it meant when a clerk said something was “out of season.”

Oh, being at that awkward and impressionable age, we all had our moments of goofing off, too. Remember rolling carts down the parking lot hill, or playing Frisbee with pals in the same lot after hours on summer nights? Or worse.
The basis for this reminiscing is that the courtesy clerk position remains the source for tomorrow’s produce clerks and managers. As time went on and I became a produce manager, I smiled at the antics of the newest kids, most of which were in their first job, too. I saw in them reflections of those early years.

I also kept an eye out for the antsy ones — the kids who, though sometimes awkward, liked to work unsupervised, hustled and took on tasks without being told or showed some interest in the big, fruit-and-vegetable department. Those are the ones I tried to recruit into produce.

“You don’t have to be crazy to work in this department.” I’d say, smiling. “But it helps.”

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.