I was sitting at my desk when Russ T. Blade poked his head out from behind my computer, wearing zinc oxide on his nose and sporting a nice, mid-summer tan. “Rusty,” as readers of this column know, is the miniature, imaginary produce manager who lives in my desk. He pops up occasionally to talk shop.

Me: Rusty, it looks like you’re getting some sun. Enjoying some time off?

Rusty: Just a few days. It’s nearly impossible for a produce manager to take time off during the summer. Most of my crew has at least a week off during this peak period though. They work hard. I can’t deny them some good old R&R.

Me: I remember those mid-summer weeks all too well: Just coming off a late June inventory, looking in the face of the biggest produce volume week during the July Fourth holiday. The sales and volume are incredible. And then there’s the help situation ...

Rusty: Yeah, we may have touched upon this once or twice: Summer in produce is the maximum volume, greatest shrink period and you’re trying to handle it all with some of the least-experienced clerks.

Me: You’re talking about plugging holes in the front lines, so to speak. As each senior and more-experienced clerk takes time off, you are compelled to fill the gap with whoever is available.

Rusty: And, that available person is oftentimes the part-time cashier who helps in the produce department for the summer. Or the college kid who fills in until fall semester begins. Many temporary people asked to fill larger roles than they’re used to.

Me: Something borrowed, something blue ...

Rusty: That’s for something else, you realize. But that’s why I’m here, trying to direct traffic with the uneven equation before me. Of course, upper management still wants all the programs done, the paperwork in on time and the produce department looking good.

Me: No pressure, right? Didn’t you arrange for summer help months ago? Get a little training in beforehand?

Rusty: As much as I could, sure. But even the best plans have a way of falling apart, last minute. The part-time cashier with produce experience is reclaimed to the front end or the college kid graduates and is off to greener pastures. Finding help isn’t the issue; it’s finding help with produce experience.

Me: I relied on my regular clerks to lend a hand in that scenario.

Rusty: Way ahead of you. I schedule my more-experienced clerks to work with the new people. I challenge my regulars to teach them the basics: Sanitation, rotation, customer service, product handling and hustle.

Me: Is it working?

Rusty: I’ll settle for half of the expectations, but I’ll never admit it to them. Gonna be a long summer.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail lobatoarmand@gmail.com.

Leave your comment