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

My brother spent his college summers working on a construction framing crew.

He spoke a lot about how, while building a house, one crew would often cut corners or live with shoddy work. They said things like, “Oh, it’s good enough, let the drywall guys (or electricians, plumbers or painters) deal with it!”

A retail produce crew can be like this too.

In the early going (coming up on 40 years — yikes!), I remember going to work after school to close up the produce department, usually to find the store very busy, the stock levels desperately low and the morning crew walking out saying, “You’re in great shape, Buck, see you tomorrow!”

It wasn’t, and my name isn’t “Buck.”

Still, that’s just how it is sometimes. The morning clerks complain how the night people left them in poor shape, and the night clerks complain likewise. Not a healthy work environment.

As British businessman and author Charles Handy described it, “A good team is a great place to be, exciting, stimulating, supportive, successful. A bad team is horrible, a sort of human prison.”

The trick to building a good produce team is to encourage the helping-the-next-guy mentality. The produce manager has to stress to those working the early shifts, “Hey, do a good job, leave the stock conditions (sanitation, prep work, etc.) in good shape for the next guy.”

The “next guy” or shift in turn has to return the favor. The produce manager must work with the next group and stress the same message, until a cycle of teamwork takes root.

In combat, this matches up with what some call the “foxhole philosophy” in which a soldier feels he isn’t necessarily fighting for apple pie and country. The mission is far more focused: To cover their buddy’s back, while the buddy is doing the same.

Ultimately, when a produce crew focuses on helping each other as a team, especially on a personal level, the overall performance of the crew comes together like nowhere else in the grocery store.

Typically, no other team is as tight-knit as a good produce crew. Produce departments generally have the fewest sick-calls, the fewest accidents or days lost to on-the-job injuries. Produce crews also tend to have the lowest turnover rate, which generally speaking says that produce crews enjoy what they do.

However, this kind of camaraderie has to begin with the positive direction from the produce manager. It may take months or longer to ingrain in a crew. Once established however, this “team” will be hard to beat.

And you’ll never hear a clerk say, “Save it for the next guy.”

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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