There are a lot of factors in the produce aisle that steal away precious on-sales-floor productive time: meetings, unloading trucks, training, customer service calls — anything that pulls an employee away from stocking shelves and making the produce department look wonderful is a sore spot with produce managers.

Some such interruptions cannot be helped, and a manager has to prod his or her charges along, saying things like, “You’re right to help that customer find the pickled peppers, just don’t dawdle. You have a cart of fresh peppers waiting to be stocked!” 

One thing that irked me as a produce manager was when a clerk would say, “I’m going to take a break,” and their allotted 15 minutes dragged on and on. Forty minutes later they’d return, apologize and explain that walking across the (very large) store to the deli to get a cup of coffee, wait in line to pay, take their break and return to work ate up much more time.

Since everyone on the crew seemed to have the same issue (and we all enjoyed our caffeine jolt), I wondered if I couldn’t do something — anything — to ease the productivity lapse.

So, I ran this idea past our similarly productivity-minded store manager: I offered to buy an inexpensive large coffee maker like you see at hotel conferences, place it in the produce back room, complete with a stack of disposable cups, napkins and all the fixings. 

“It might keep the crews’ breaks at a reasonable limit,” I said, making my best pitch. “Most of us also prefer to pull up a milk wire crate and take our breaks in the back room.” I braced myself, waiting for the usual litany of rules that typically run counter to doing this type of thing.

But the light went on in the store manager’s eyes. “Let’s do it!” he said. “I’ll even supply the coffee and everything at the store’s expense.”

Since we shared back room space with other departments, the store manager reasoned that these other employees would follow suit, help themselves to a cup of coffee and not waste their time (and the company’s) taking extended breaks that stole clerks away from doing what they were there to do in the first place — keep the store stocked.

Did it work? Of course. Sure, there was the occasional break time extension. But employees stayed put. We were able to monitor their time much more closely, and productivity picked up. Part of it, I imagine, was due to keeping their breaks at an honest 15 minutes. And part of it was because the employees were jazzed up with plenty of stout, keep-em-goin’ caffeine.  

It was good to the last drop.

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 lobatoarmand@gmail.com.

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