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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Produce Possibilities: Helping Consumers Cook Up Culinary Excellence

When the weather turns cool and crisp, our produce departments are filled with a cornucopia of harvest bounty. Yes, fall is upon us, and that brings a whole new crop of customer produce questions. But the curious consumers who cruise produce aisles aren't simply shopping for fruits and vegetables anymore. They're searching for answers to some age-old questions and some new ones as well: "What's for dinner?" "Should I sauté, simmer or braise that?" "Can you suggest a substitute for kohlrabi?"

Questions such as these present produce people with a golden opportunity to develop stronger relationships with customers and to become their culinary counselors. As consumers lead busier lives, they have less time to shop, cook or make that all-important connection with their food. The obvious people for them to turn to for answers are produce retailers. Are you ready?

Is your staff prepared to answer questions about all of your autumn items? Do they know the flavor difference between a red kuri squash and a delicata? They'd better. Or do they know that winter squash is a perfect cool-weather energy food? These colorful squash are rich in complex carbohydrates, which our bodies digest slowly, so they provide energy over a long period of time.

Or do they know the difference between a barhi and a black sphinx date? Flavor? Texture? The answer is a reward in the waiting. The rich, sweet flavors are delectably varied and a great way to break the ice with customers. Very few of them will turn down the opportunity to share a special date with you.

This is also an incredible time for greens, such as dandelion, spinach and the many varieties of kale. Do you know the difference between red Russian and lacinato? How about the best ways to cook them? What are their nutritional strengths? Did you know that Swiss chard is actually a member of the beet family and that it contains less oxalic acid than the more-popular spinach? Oxalic acid blocks the absorption of iron and other nutrients. So chard may be a better nutritional value for your customers.

If you are buying apples that are grown in the United States, then this is the best time to do your taste testing. Departments are usually filled with a wide selection of apple colors, shapes, sizes and especially flavors. Does your crew know that there are more than 7,000 varieties of apples? Which one really makes the best pie? What varieties, if any, are grown in your area? Do they know that, despite the similar names, red and golden delicious apples are not related?

These bits of information, along with an active sampling program, are what keep customers coming back for more. But how do you give your crew all of this information and training?

Well, I have a solution to your dilemma. This year at Natural Products Expo East in Washington, D.C., Thomas May, food editor for Natural Foods Merchandiser; Tracy Davis, a chef from Melissa's, a world-variety produce supplier and I are doing a workshop on Thursday morning, from 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in room 27 in the convention center. We'll give you all the information you need to educate your staff and customers during the fall season and beyond. We'll explore issues of availability, quality and why, perhaps, you should be buying organic. Also, we'll look at the trends in specialty produce, find out about hot new varieties and some reasons to carry them, and talk about best preparation techniques.

This workshop is designed so produce people can learn the flavor nuances of the fall harvest. Melissa's will provide the produce for us to taste and Davis will share tips and recipes to take back to your departments.

If you need new display concepts to draw customers into the harvest, we've got you covered with a slide show guaranteed to plant some new ideas. We will finish by answering your questions on how to bring all of the information together.

So if you want to provide the taste, recipes, information and merchandizing that will let you and your customers break out of the potato-tomato-carrot rut and see all the vegetables in your produce section as the cornerstone of culinary excellence, then come by and see what's happening at the workshop this month. You won't regret it!

Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355, or by e-mail at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 64

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