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

We turn to the reader’s forum this week, where this question was recently presented: How long should a produce assistant serve in that position before they’re ready to get promoted to produce manager?

As I preface many of my e-mail responses, “That depends.”

So many factors play into this question, such as overall time working produce, age (better yet, maturity level), if the produce manager candidate has worked in one store or several, if they’ve worked at another chain prior to the current one, or if they have worked under more than one produce manager.

There are more factors, to be sure, and no single one defines what best prepares an assistant for the next step.

In fact, I’ve seen assistants with few of the desirable background traits get promoted and do just fine, while other candidates have deep exposure in many areas and end up not being successful.

Ideally, I liked promoting someone who worked their way up.

This means starting out usually in a part-time role. They will have had to start with not only stocking produce and working evenings and weekends on a regular basis, but doing all the dirty jobs: sorting less-than-desirable produce, cleaning tables, tearing down wet racks and other fixtures and equipment to clean and re-assemble.

I favored produce manager candidates who, as produce clerks, had spent several years on the job. This presumably gave them the experience of handling produce through several seasons. Enough to have a good grasp of best practices, sanitation, procedures, customer service and product knowledge — if they were paying attention, that is.

But time on a job isn’t enough. A good clerk would have had to apply themselves so that they stood out enough to be promoted to assistant produce manager. They would have had to have a willingness to learn, ask a lot of questions, be selfless, have a positive attitude and willing to do more than they were asked.

Then I favored assistants who, in turn, also had a few years under their belt.

If for no other reason, there’s nothing like experience in this crazy produce business. A few years under one (preferably two) produce and store managers helps temper the assistant. This gives the assistant a range of situations, merchandising and different management styles to build upon.

I also liked a produce manager candidate who made efforts to connect. Meaning they handled employees well, were a good trainer, interacted well with store and district managers, and most of all had a helpful and genuine rapport with customers. I liked someone who was accomplished, yet still humble and willing to learn. 

So yeah, it all depends.

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].