The Produce Aisle with Armand Lobato ( Photo by The Packer staff )

Closing time.

For those of us who have worked those long hours, those long days in retail or foodservice, this is not just a popular song title by the band Semisonic, but music to our ears. 

In food-related business, as closing time nears, many late tasks are anticipated and often tackled ahead of time. It’s done so closing clerks don’t have to stay so late and can actually clock out at or near the end of their scheduled shift. Produce managers encourage this as well, as paying overtime is universally frowned upon.

One warning about getting too ahead of the game? Don’t neglect your customer.

For example, I wandered into an interesting breakfast/lunch concept restaurant recently, killing time while my wife was running an errand nearby one early afternoon. 

“You need to try that place,” she said. “They specialize in oatmeal!”

I’ve had enough oatmeal over the years to prefer good ol’ bacon and eggs. However, the shop was unique, set up in Chipotle style (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery), with rows of enticing toppings behind a Plexiglas counter. I had to give it a try, so I ordered a bowl of steel-cut oats.

“Uh, we’re out of oatmeal, all types,” the young clerk said. I wasn’t upset but had to ask. 

“All out? In Oatmeal City?” (or whatever the place was called). “Isn’t that your, um, calling card?”

She apologized and explained that they were set to close in 30 minutes, and because hardly anyone saunters in after noon, my 1:30 arrival caught them off guard. They had already cleaned the equipment and were ready to close shop. I settled for an oatmeal cookie. 

It isn’t easy, but it’s never acceptable to disappoint shoppers.

Does this happen in retail? You bet. 

Try wandering into your local grocer at a quarter-til closing. Can you get a special cut of meat? Can you get your favorite roast beef sliced at the deli counter? No. And in the produce aisle, can you find midday stock conditions, the same selection, or even find a clerk to assist? Again, not likely.

That’s reality; I suspect most people know this. But it should always be emphasized to closing clerks not to similarly jump the gun. A good district manager used to remind night-shift clerks as we walked stores on late-inspections together near closing time, “Easy does it. I don’t want a single customer inconvenienced,” he said as they dropped towering pallets of groceries in the aisles.

There are many tasks in an average day in a produce department, including a long list of closing duties that includes stocking, cleaning, culling and much more.

It isn’t easy, but it’s never acceptable to disappoint shoppers. Even the night oats, err, owls.

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 [email protected].

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