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

"The stars — they’re beautiful, aren’t they?” — “Men in Black”

I think of this movie line when I see a nice display of new red potatoes on a wet rack. They shine like jewels, and contrast nicely next to something green like corn or cabbage. Then it hits me — Hey, don’t refrigerate potatoes!

Oh sure, if it generates sales I’m usually all for extracting items from their so-called destination set. I love merchandising lemons next to tomatoes, perhaps flanked with basil. But back to the refrigeration moment. Produce managers should consider product care when merchandising.

What’s the big deal, you might ask. The problem in the potato example, when the humble spud is stored or displayed below 40 degrees, the starches convert to sugar. When this happens, it changes the cooking chemistry. When your consumer buys chilled potatoes and cooks them, they could turn a grayish or other off-color, and the taste is affected.

This also may affect future sales, no matter how nice you have the tubers displayed.

Consider other items that are prone to chill damage, too.

When refrigerated, basil turns black. Chilled pineapple? Try cutting it and you’ll see a darkened interior.

Tomatoes need TLC no matter what, but especially concerning temperature. I used to emphasize this little saying when training clerks or talking with consumers: “Tomato taste is great, if you don’t refrigerate.”

OK, so the poetry needs work. What I cared about was conveying something that would stick in their minds.

Stone fruit is especially prone to chill damage, yet I see peaches, nectarines and more displayed in refrigerated cases all the time. I suspect that this merchandising direction is to minimize shrink. However, when stone fruit is held between 36 to 50 degrees, it’s called the “killing zone.”

Emphasize product care not only with handling but also to avoid chill damage.

Upon arrival, if you take care to separate these items and store them outside the cooler, such as potatoes or bananas, the natural appearance and flavor will be preserved.

You make sure the cold chain is intact, right? The not-so-cold chain needs just as much attention.

Carry the message forward too. Let your customers know, when you interact with them on the sales floor or via good signage that the beautiful TOV (tomato-on-vine) cluster is best stored on the counter. The bag of potatoes? Keep them cool but not cold — under the counter and away from the light. Suggest keeping cut basil in a little jar on the windowsill in some fresh water, like a little bouquet of flowers. You’ll be a hero. Your customers will trust you and come back for more.

They’ll know where to find you, chillin’ in the produce aisle.

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.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.