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

Through the years I’ve heard a lot of produce people at all levels take varying shots at store and executive management for all sorts of reasons. “They don’t understand produce,” or “They just don’t see the opportunities like we do,” among many more laments.

And truth be told? “They” are oftentimes precisely as described.

So many times, that’s the end of the conversation when a produce person talks about not having enough labor hours. Or not having enough say in a new store design when the produce footprint is too small, the receiving area is too compact, fixtures not quite right. Sometimes the complaint toward management at store level is a lack of produce training resources, not enough display floor space, or being turned down for an upgraded sign kit.

The list (and the related grumbling) goes on. And on.

Once again, should that be the end of these conversations? A shrug of the shoulders, the hands in the air that signal a surrender of sorts? “Ah, what to do, ‘they’ never give in to what we need.”

I’ve pitched this idea once or twice. We need produce-minded people in the “they” management positions.

That’s right. You love produce so much you don’t want to leave? I was the same. And it’s a mistake. If you look at the backgrounds of most store managers, most vice presidents and the executive ranks of retail organizations, there aren’t many with a produce pedigree.

That’s what makes the communication barrier all the harder to break down.

The few store managers I’ve worked with who appreciated what it takes to manage a produce department tended to allow me the time, space, labor, or other things I needed to be more successful — providing I could justify my requests. It only makes sense, too. After all, if I look good, so do they.

But there aren’t enough like-minded store managers. Or (especially) upper-level management.

It’s going to take produce-grounded individuals to leave the confines of their departments to become store managers. To perhaps get more formal education, volunteer for internal company training programs to learn the business as a whole. 

Amid others with mostly grocery backgrounds, the produce-accomplished person might take the helm.

The idea isn’t necessarily new or even unique. Many chains express they wish they had more store or district managers with perishable backgrounds, especially in meat or produce.

As chains grow and evolve, decisions regarding produce come down to management, just as they’ve always done. The ones who stand out will be those who best understand fresh produce — and all it takes to succeed.

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].