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

Accentuate the positive.

Last week I searched my nearby friendly produce department for lemons. Usually easy enough to find, right? On the citrus table — nothing but green mat. Aha, I thought. They moved the lemons for a nice flavor/color break with the tomatoes. Nothing there either.

“Lemons? I wish, we’ve been out the past 10 days,” the produce clerk said when asked, as he mopped up a spill. “Sorry, man.”

It happens. I dutifully googled and found that indeed, The Packer had posted a story about the California heat and resulting lemon gap. My thoughts immediately drifted to the question, well, what else can I use?

Of course. That’s what every customer is probably thinking.

In foodservice, a lemon gap is more than an inconvenience. Every restaurant, commissary, seafood place and bar depends upon a steady stream of lemons to squeeze over shrimp, accentuate ice tea and immerse into so many libations. It’s a must-have.

Unless it simply isn’t available, as it was last week and for weeks to come, it appears. In retail however, being out of lemons doesn’t have quite the same impact. The average retail customer simply mimics my own thought process, scratches lemons off the list and considers an alternative — if they even take it to that extreme.

Empty shelf space is a blemish in the produce department.

But that’s when a good produce operation should try a little harder.

The obvious reaction in such an instance is to push (what else?) fresh limes. Post a “Sorry, we’re temporarily out” sign over the lemon sign and fill the vacant space with a generous lime allocation instead.

This happens on occasion. Short on yellow corn? Push the bicolor. Run out of conventional fennel? Make sure you direct your customers to the organic supply. Same thing for any commodity: Acknowledge the short product, adjust orders with a substitute, communicate the issue to your produce crew and to your customers, and let everyone know when you expect to be back in stock.

What you don’t want to do of course, is to just let the allocated space remain bare. Empty shelf space is a blemish in the produce department. Cover the wood, as some managers like to say, and follow the outlined steps.

Most of the time during a product gap (short or long-term) shoppers are a bit disappointed at first, especially if they came in for that item specifically or need it as part of a recipe. But they’re also most likely willing to consider a suggested substitute: Green leaf for red leaf lettuce, medium mushrooms for large, and bulk product substituted for bagged.

As for me, I happily purchased a few extra limes. It was a hot summer day and my guests didn’t know the difference anyway.   

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].