Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

I was thumbing through my 2013 copy of The Packer’s Produce Market Guide, when Russ T. Blade peeked out from behind the cover. ‘Rusty’ is my miniature, imaginary produce manager that lives in my desk. He squinted at me suspiciously in his green apron and plopped down to rest.

Me: Welcome back, old friend. Having a productive summer?

Rusty: Busy doesn’t describe it, aisle-boy. You remember what it was like this time of year.

Me: I do. Everything seems to be in season all at once.

Rusty: Right. Every day it’s a heavy routine of loading bins of watermelon. That category is going crazy, what with cantaloupe, ’dews and variety melons coming on, it’s just getting started.

Me: Seems every day was packed with several turns of strawberries, blacks and raspberries, and don’t forget the blues — (singing), I got da blues…

Rusty: Don’t sing. You have few enough friends. Yes, summer categories are going nuts. As we go through the July Fourth period, the sales peak and remain high until about month’s end.

Me: Suffice to say, you’re busy. Any category in particular that you’re drawn to?

Rusty: In a word: Cherries. Yeah I know summer means over-the-top volume on things like grapes, stone fruit, corn and such. But cherries are the seasonal, big-daddy of ’em all. Many managers don’t give cherries enough attention.

Me: I’m reading in The Produce Guide that 40% of consumers buy cherries, and the figure is higher with households with kids. Cherry purchases are strongly correlated with household income, and …

Rusty: And, and … If you stock cherries, they will buy. But it’s more than that, and all your fancy percentages. Cherries must be cared for like a newborn, all day long. That means increased space allocation, using refrigerated space as much as available, building displays in prominent areas, stocking no more than two zipper-type bags high, frequent attention, constant culling —

Me: A high-maintenance item, it sounds like. How long does the cherry deal last?

Rusty: The bulk of the best stuff — the Northwest cherries — will last a strong eight weeks, give or take a week or so. Peak summer sales have everything to do with cherries being on board. Cherries provide the best, per-square-foot sales of anything in a supermarket.

Me: So it’s worth the effort to handle these gems correctly, correct?

Rusty: Darn straight. Add in rainiers for color and extra variety. I take special care of the cherries, as I see the results: Increased sales, profits, customer draw — all good for the produce department.

Me: Was it Neil Diamond who sang, “She got the way to move me, Cherry?”

Rusty: Last warning on the singing, bub. Later. Now, I have cherries to stock.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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