Across the nation, produce departments are growing. Organics sales are up, and more variety is available to the consumer than ever before. Departments are clean, well lit and meeting margin goals. Yet something is still missing.
Hidden beneath the cover of the organic banner, below the shiny, well-ordered surface, is a language so old, so deep, so alive, that it is eager to be spoken and shared. I?m talking about the language of flavor.
While it isn?t completely lost, this language definitely is missing in action in most produce departments. And that can have unexpected consequences.
You see, most peopleâeven the most ardent organics shoppersâstill fall short in their quest to eat the recommended five fruits and vegetables a day. One reason is that they aren?t connected to their food and its flavors. How are we going to get them to eat more, or to care about sustainability issues, if they don?t know what fresh food tastes like? As I?ve always said, we have to get it in their mouths to open their ears. But also we need to help them learn the language of flavor.
Why is this language so important? Because it is the very essence of the produce we sell. It is as complex as our myriad choices and yet as simple as the pleasurable sound of hmmmmm.
It is not uncommon these days, if you walk into a produce department and ask a question like, ?How are the cameo apples?? to hear nothing more than ?Good.? Or, worse yet, ?I haven?t tried them.? Consider the alternative: ?They just came in. They have a deep, juicy, kind of syrupy flavor and a crisp crunch. Would you like to try one and see for yourself??
Which response makes you want to try a cameo, perhaps for the first time? Which is going to help customers realize that maybe they?ve never really had a good apple or one that was in season when they tried it?
How often have you heard, ?I don?t like dates?? Or thought to yourself, ?Dates don?t sell well here.? Well, if you?ve only tried to eatâor sellâa Medjool in June, then maybe both statements are true. But anyone who?s ever eaten a fresh Medjool in October or, even better, a Barhi with its caramely taste that melts on the tongue, would be apt to circle the month and eat one every day.
So how do you teach or reconnect with this language in your department? Start by practicing it yourself.
Take the dialogue beyond words like sweet, good, firm, nasty. Engage your senses in all aspects of the food. Prompt your staff members to use a new word every day, every shift, to describe something they?ve tried. If they can?t tell you directly, ask them to share it in the logbook.
Use more than your eyes and pencil to receive your orders; check in your orders with your nose and mouth as well. Taste, taste, taste. Know what you are selling. Is it really as good as it was last week?
Honor thy name! Too often we use a generic name on produce signs, so customers never know what they are really eating. Do all russets taste the same? All black plums? All carrots? Tomatoes? Anyone who revels in flavor knows better. If we want to teach this language we have to know and honor the names so customers will come to know what they like and when to buy it.
Know your seasons. Satsumas in January are better than in November. A cucumber in July is going to be better than one in January.
Organics taste better? If you believe this, make sure it is true. I often find produce in a department that doesn?t hold up to this statement.
Recognize the importance of being a great produce manager or clerk and teaching this language. We need to start developing a new generation of greengrocers who love what they do.
Dedicate this year to the language of flavor. Not only can it change your life, but I believe it is also the highest way to honor our growers, our community and the food itself.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 40