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

One of the best workers I ever had would never fit the stereotypical image of a produce clerk.

Lee Sparks, or just plain “Sparky,” as he liked to be called, wasn’t physically strong. In fact he was about 5 feet even and might have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet. When I worked with Sparky he was a part-timer, by far my best clerk.

And he was 62 years old.

One of the things that set Sparky apart from so many others was his work ethic, so common in older workers but also something that many employers don’t consider when hiring. Older workers are far more reliable and consistent. Experience is so valuable, especially in the produce business.

But what I liked best about Sparky was how he arrived for work early. Sometimes two hours early. He wasn’t trying to start his shift early (although this often worked out for us both, when I needed another set of hands early), but in fact came to the store early as a matter of routine.

He did this so much, that other members of the crew dubbed him “Too-Soon Lee.”

Sparky’s routine was impressive. While most clerks rush into work at the last possible minute, Sparky filled a coffee mug and strolled around the department, examining everything closely. I imagine this stemmed from his days when he was a produce manager and inspected his department in the same way. Afterwards Sparky would offer his opinion on the merchandising plan for the week or have suggestions to increase sales.

How many clerks today would do that? Not many did then either, except for Sparky.

Then he did the same in the back room area, rooting around in the cooler. He wasn’t on the clock so there was no pressure for him to be doing anything else. He popped the lids off of cartons, taking note of product information.

He would look at the sizing, the variety, the julienne or pack dates. He took out his trim knife and cut into things that he wanted to check quality or sugar level on, and on more than one occasion I found a tray of something cut up on my desk.

“Have you tried the ’dews that we got in last night yet?” Sparky would ask. “They’re diamonds, eat like candy. Ought to bring in three pallets for the weekend. Make a display up front with samples.

“That’ll put another two-grand in the till, and it has a high profit-margin to boot.”

Sparky rarely steered me wrong. All this, because he loved produce so much and came to work an hour or so early. An amazing example of passion for the business.

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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