Tough love.

I have a nephew who is an apprentice electrician. He works for another uncle, the owner, and he tends to be a little tough on the kid. 

How tough? Even if my nephew is one minute late to work, he is sent home. No work that day, no pay that day. My nephew is so uptight he arrives for work a half-hour early every day. A hard lesson in time management.

Does a produce manager have to be this tough?

Yes and no. Certainly having high expectations is a great standard for produce managers. I always heard my managers say things like, “If your shift starts at 2 p.m., I expect you to be stocking produce at 2 p.m.”

I’ve seen the opposite. Too frequently.

I’ve watched produce clerks arrive at the prescribed 2 p.m. They clock in, then wander to the break room to see if any pals are around and catch up on store gossip. After tracking down a cup of coffee and finding a clean apron, they stand at the prep table, sharpening their trim knife. Then study the next week’s schedule. They wander the back room until they find a stocking cart, wipe it down, test to make sure it isn’t the one with the wobbly wheel. At about 2:30, they finally get to work. 

No wonder there’s no shortage of produce managers with graying hair.

How should a produce manager react? Something along the lines of this. 

“Listen, Skippy. Every minute counts around here. You ask for special shifts or days off? I’m happy to work with you. In return, I want you to arrive fifteen or twenty minutes before your shift starts. That gives you time to do all the little personal things I see you do. Which I don’t mind, so long as those social activities are done on your time. I’ll spot you a few minutes to clock in and get started — but get started you must!”

Productivity is subjective in the produce aisle. Some clerks are slower, some faster. Some are organized and make every stocking trip count, and others tend to forget things, make multiple trips to the cooler, or get sidetracked. In fact, everyone sputters at one time or another.

That’s why a timely shift start is so important. This sets the pace.

When I had to set up the wet rack by myself each morning at 4 a.m., I arrived at least a half-hour early. Mostly to drink plenty of coffee, but also to assess what I needed to get things done. It wasn’t easy, but by the time my shift started, I had my plan and, more important, some momentum.

Mom was right: Don’t. Be. Late.

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 him at [email protected].

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