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

Who sets the pace in your department?

When it comes to how produce operations perform, the productivity, important aspects such as stock conditions, labor management, even crew morale can all be traced to what kind of pace is set.

Consider how in an automobile race, a pace car leads the pack before the contest or when the cautionary yellow flag comes out. No car goes faster than the pace car. It’s a control mechanism.

Similarly, a certain pace occurs every day in the produce aisle. Go into any produce department on a sleepy Tuesday morning, and you’ll likely see clerks stocking at an equally somnolent pace. 

It’s not that the clerks are going slow, it’s just that oftentimes they’re matching their effort to the business at hand. I’ve experienced this a lot through the years. On quiet days my crew stocked accordingly — and to their credit, when we were slammed with a busy period they picked up the pace.

This also drove me crazy. Where was the energy, the sense of urgency leading up to the rush?

It was there all the time. I’m the biggest advocate for produce departments allowed as many labor dollars, as many hours as possible. But a busy stocking pace really ought to be the norm, regardless of whether there is one customer shopping or a hundred. The “urgency” standard is the best case to argue for more labor hours: “Hey, my crew doesn’t waste time. They hustle no matter what.”

However, we all have the tendency to let our guard down at times. It’s human nature.

That’s why a produce department needs a pace setter. The individual who arrives early, knows exactly what produce display or area needs attention, grabs a stocking cart and, perhaps with a challenging shout, gets the rest of the crew fired up to follow their lead.

That’s the kind of person the rest of the crew likes to see, likes to work with and is likely to imitate.

Who should this pace setter be? Certainly, the produce manager, the assistant produce manager, or a veteran clerk who likes to show a little leadership. 

Any clerk can be the pace setter. I’ve worked with closing clerks that arrive with this kind of go-getter attitude, or produce managers who enjoy a similar, colorful kind of good-natured notoriety. They’re not only productive, but they affect morale in a positive way in a physical job that is too-often on mundane side.

The pace setter is genuinely satisfied to work in produce. It’s difficult to put on this kind of face on a regular basis, but the effort can certainly give a produce department the inside track.   

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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