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Produce managers laud convenience

A panel of award-winning retail produce managers on Wednesday shared stories from the front line, emphasizing the importance of new products, convenient packages, and creative ways of interacting with shoppers as keys to their respective success.

Henry Porter (left) and Keith Zielonka

The seven panelists were among 25 winners of United Fresh’s annual Retail Produce Manager Awards for 2016, announced at the association’s show in Chicago.

Consumers are excited about new foods in the produce department, but launching them successfully requires enthusiastic sampling, and employees knowledgeable about how to prepare them and how they taste, panelists said.

Mike Giberson, who manages the produce department at a Niemann Foods location on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champlain, Ill., said catering to a young shopper base means staying current with trends toward convenience and health favored by the Millennial generation.

“You’d think campus kids would just buy beer and pizza but the first thing they’re asking for when they walk in is organics,” Giberson said. “They like ready-to-eat cut fruits and vegetables. They want it ready-to-go, ready-to-eat because they don’t have big refrigerators and they need their orders to fit in a backpack. They’re shopping a meal at a time.”

Denise Kelly (left) and Jenn Ratkiewicz

The department also sells a lot of single-serve juices from Bolthouse and Naked Juice, Giberson said.

Jenn Ratkiewicz, a produce manager at Big Y Foods in Springfield, Mass., capitalized on the snack trend and highlighted variety in the company’s produce departments by creating a snacking badge program with local Girl Scouts.

“It was really great for the girls,” Ratkiewicz said. “A lot of them never had the chance to try things like mangos and avocados. A lot of them at first looked at the avocado and said, ‘You’re not going to put that green stuff in my smoothie,’ but they actually really enjoyed it.”

Customers tend to be especially receptive to produce when department managers, staff, or  farmers themselves can speak knowledgeably about them, the panelists said.

Henry Porter, produce manager of Thriftway in Vashon Island, Wash. said he relies on his experience as a former chef, and relationships with area farmers, in an effort to pass that along to shoppers. “When we bring in fresh, local stuff that I can talk about — where this came from, who’s growing it, how they’re growing it — people love that,” he said. "People love to hear you sound like you know what you're talking about."


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“Our customers want to know where everything is from,” added Denise Kelly, produce manager at Sobeys in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Her store makes a strong effort to merchandise local items in season — potatoes, turnips, and carrots. “We do a lot of sampling, signage and get some excitement around it.”

Keith Zielonka, of Food Lion in Morrisville, N.C. put it succinctly: “We’re still salesmen. That’s how you push a lot of this stuff.”

The event was held in the rear of an exhibit hall where dozens of conveniently packaged fresh food items were being introduced, highlighting suppliers and marketers also playing to the convenience trend. The panel was divided on industry packaging innovations. Porter said organic shoppers preferred less packaging or none at all. Ratkiewicz said grape and cherry bags that can stand up on their own are selling better.

“To me, less packaging is more,” said Dan Hanson, a Hy-Vee produce manager in Mankato, Minn.

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