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Our people on the front lines are the last connection, the last shot we have to influence consumers’ produce purchase decisions. Produce Retailer magazine is featuring exceptional personnel, winners of the 2017 United Fresh Retail Produce Manager Awards.
The program, sponsored by Dole, recognizes 25 produce managers, the “best of the best” in produce departments across North America. While the big celebration dinner is held in June at United Fresh in Chicago, Produce Retailer plans to celebrate these winners all year.
Stay tuned for more in the coming months as we recognize these exceptional produce professionals.
> How long have you been in retail and produce?
I’ve been in produce since 1973. We had a family farm and market, so I’ve always been around fresh produce.
> What do you love most about your job?
I love the interaction with the customer. I love being part of the community, and just the community of food and being involved as the grocer, as the neighborhood merchant. I also love hiring new people and training them to take on this occupation as a career, and training them to do the job well.
> What’s your biggest challenge as a produce manager?
Right now, it’s finding enough people interested in this business as a career. There are so many facets to learn, from educating customers on what’s going on with seasonality, country-of-origin compliance and bringing everyone up to speed on where we are with fresh produce consumption in 2017.
> What has changed most in the produce department in the past five or 10 years?
The customers have changed. Post World War II, everyone came back and wanted canned goods, and then the wave of baby boomers became interested in the consumption of fresh produce and now in the past five or 10 years everyone’s in a rush. They’re looking for quick, for fast, but as healthy as they can. Everyone’s in a hurry.
> What are some fruits and vegetables with sales growing faster than others?
My customers are very concerned with food that’s not GMO, and they have a lot of questions about hydroponics, organics and the source of their food — where it’s coming from. They’re very interested in local, things that travel a very short distance. Any kind of local farm they can recognize is very valuable to them.
> What do you think the produce industry can and/or should do to increase consumption?
Right now, it’s all about educating customers. I’ve been doing something about it. I bring customers to the back room — 25 or 50 at a time — and do grass roots, boots-on-the-ground classes. We talk with customers about simple things like how to pick a cantaloupe or what to do with a jicama. The response has been overwhelming. You’d think I was a small town rock star, and I’m noticing they’re making healthier choices — the people going through a 3-hour seminar with me — their consumption has absolutely increased. It’s really bringing them into a whole new league.
> What are some things you wish customers understood better about the produce department?
We’ve done such a good job on getting things to people year-round that they don’t understand there still are seasons. We work on emphasizing what’s in season so customers can take advantage of it.
>What would you tell someone who was thinking about getting into the retail industry?
This is a commitment, to be a grocer, and you have to be customer-oriented. If you don’t like working with the public, smiling and making people’s day while selling produce, it’s not the business for you. We work holidays, we sacrifice our Fourth of July to make sure everyone else has a great picnic.
It’s a commitment to master the sale of produce, and it takes a long time to get that down — years of learning the product and the customer and what to say. To be good at it, you have to have passion.