Natural Foods Merchandiser

Make your passion for produce contagious

The other day I read a startling bit of news: "Fewer than a third of American adults eat the amount of fruits and vegetables the government recommends, a trend that's remained steady for more than a decade," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. "That's well below the government's goal of getting 75 percent of Americans to eat two servings of fruits and having half of the population consume three servings of vegetables each day by 2010," said Larry Cohen, M.D., of the CDC.

This comes as a surprise to me, seeing as the average produce department carries more than 200 items at any given time, and organic produce makes up around 41 percent or 42 percent of overall organic sales. So why aren't consumers eating enough fruit and veggies?

I could cite the perceived lack of time to prepare food, or the notion that there is a whole generation of folks who grew up eating more processed than fresh food. But I think part of it is due to the lack of passionate produce managers—folks who know and love their craft and who bring that love and passion to their department every day.

We need more produce managers like Bruce Grimm, of Mustard Seed Market in Akron, Ohio, who took the time to research the peanuts his distributor sent to him without an organic certifier seal on the bag and refused to sell them until he traced them back to their source in North Carolina. Why? Because maintaining the integrity of the organic rule is important to him and to his customers.

Another shining example of a passionate produce manager is Andru Moshe, of Regionale Produce Market in Granite Bay, Calif. She can tell you, to the date, when the best peaches will be in, what farm they are coming from, why she loves them and why her customers will too.

We need to start requiring and expecting greatness from the people who run our produce departments.

Dennis McGovern of New Pioneer Co-op in Coralville, Iowa, rode his motorcycle to Austin, Texas, to attend the All Things Organic show on his vacation and made sure he visited the Dole banana plant in California during another conference—all due to his curiosity and desire to learn more about his craft.

Hilary Clark of Roots Market in Clarksville, Md., knew little about produce at first. But through hard work, good management and her love for what she does, she took a good-enough produce department and transformed it into an excellent one in less than a year.

Or take Dave Diaz of Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa, Calif., who beams as he tells you how he sold 210 cases of first-of-the-season strawberries with a "wow" entry display, a great price, a good story and fantastic cross-merchandising with the bakery, cheese and wine departments.

Unfortunately, these produce kings and queens are the exception to the rule. We are not growing passionate produce managers anymore. Just ask produce distributors around the country. They say many of the new generation of buyers and managers meet their margins and have clean departments, but have little curiosity or passion. I'll call them the "good enoughs." As long as it's good enough for the boss, it's good enough for them. And frankly, we can't afford good enoughs any longer. We need to start requiring and expecting greatness from the people who run our produce departments.

Face it: No matter how many farmers' markets develop around the country, most folks are going to get their produce from a store—which means we need department leaders who:

  • Know their products and the best time to buy them
  • Can talk about seasonal nuances, which can make a huge difference in customers having a positive fruit or vegetable experience
  • Know how to cook and use the produce they're selling
  • Are well-versed in what organic means and why it's important
  • Have a strong knowledge of department financials
  • Have a good floor presence and are comfortable interacting with customers—or if they aren't great communicators, can recognize that and have someone on their staff take that role
  • Know the value of a good distributor relationship and honor it
  • Have a strong connection to their local producers and support the local food system whenever possible
  • Make sure the displays create a "wow effect" when customers walk into the department
  • Create an environment where people want to linger and connect with their food
  • Understand the changes in the marketplace and react accordingly
  • Create consumer excitement though good marketing and buying
  • Inspire their crew with their passion for produce every day

It's a long list and big task, but it's an effort with a big reward at the end. If we take the time and make the investment now to build a team of passionate produce kings and queens, we can look forward to a healthier population that eats more produce because they look forward to filling their carts with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

And if you need proof of the benefits of passionate produce managers and the difference they can make, just visit a few of the stores I mentioned. The work those produce kings and queens do—and the passion they bring to their jobs—will be evident the moment you walk in the door.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.28-29

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