The Independent View – Elevation of the produce manager

The Independent View – Elevation of the produce manager

Editor's note: Steve Patt is a part of the leadership team for Tourtellot and Co. He has worked for or with independent grocers for nearly 50 years.


The retail produce industry has, for the past 25 years or so, spent countless millions of dollars upgrading produce departments.

Innovations have helped migrate the department from the back of the store to the front; from straight cattle chutes to a dazzling maze of tables; from common display units to specialty fixtures, multi-deck salad cases, wet walls and state-of-the-art hydration systems. Video monitors and theatrical sales floor lighting are vivid reminders of the new produce age, as is the modern food production equipment that sits atop many backroom prep tables.

As a veteran of small, dark produce departments in forgotten corners, I view this transfiguration with awe. However, one aspect of the produce revolution still remains to be waged. The retail produce industry must spend the same amount of time, energy and resources that it spends on infrastructure to promote practices that enhance the hiring, training and care of its department heads.

Produce managers are the people in charge of these departments that have received so much investment. These individuals are the ones responsible for setting the tone for the entire store and driving significant profit dollars to the bottom line.

Nearly every recent study reveals that consumers make their store choices based on the quality of the produce department. All modern supermarket operators know this trend to be true. And yet, for all of the emphasis that is placed on today’s produce departments, many produce managers are still treated as though their positions are barely north of clerk.

The retail produce industry must elevate the role of the produce manager to reflect the level of importance the store places on the department itself.

Hiring and development

For years, many independent retailers have chosen their produce managers from within the store, often from other departments. In a vacuum, promoting from within is a terrific strategy for both the store and the employee. However, too often that is where leadership involvement ends. A department manager who matures into a valuable, long-term member of store leadership will only happen under the constant tutelage of a committed, invested owner.

Although I cannot claim to have been the industry’s finest produce manager, I can claim that my passion for the business, and any success that I have achieved, have been the result of such mentor-minded ownership.

This is not to say that all independents have a significant, or intentional, void when it comes to the best hiring, training and coaching practices. I have witnessed department training programs in independents that would rival those of any major chain. Unfortunately, however, these bright lights are the exception, not the rule.

Myriad resources are available for independents to consult when it comes to the nuts and bolts of managing a produce department. PMA, FMI, United, NGA and other organizations have easily accessed tools that can help to fill that void. Courses in inventory control, personnel management, sanitation and basic merchandising skills have been neatly packaged for quick consumption.

And while these curricula form a strong foundation for success as a retail produce manager, they tell only a portion of the training story.

These training tools can hone the hard skills; they cannot address the soft skills that often determine the difference between a successful produce department manager and one who remains mired in the same place year after year.

I would suggest that the independent retail world is full of produce managers who, through no fault of their own, are technically proficient but continue to operate lackluster departments that fall short of their potential.

Some of the old-school produce guard will argue that good produce managers are born with an innate set of soft skills that cannot be taught. These natural-born produce managers are blessed with the ability to merchandise creatively, to think seasonally, to anticipate consumer demands and to turn out superior margins with ease.

While this nature-versus-nurture debate might be good fodder for a spirited discussion, evidence demonstrates that under the right set of circumstances, independent supermarkets can hire, train, coach and develop solid, creative, successful produce managers.

 Whether produce manager positions are filled from within the store, hired from the street or poached from a competitor, those individuals can be coached to embrace attributes that enable them to become worthy of the departments they are charged to manage. Those desired attributes can be best demonstrated through an ownership style that reflects the following three components:

Invest in their success

Strong data reveals that the produce department has become the cornerstone of every successful independent supermarket. Therefore, it follows that ownership must embrace the success pathway of a new produce manager by meeting daily for in-depth conversation.

These regular discussions should cover technical operation topics, examine wholesaler relationship matters and explore creative means to drive volume and margin.

An owner who embraces this crucial up-front investment will foster confidence and enthusiasm in the new produce manager, qualities which in turn will become the foundation for success.

Let them experiment

 Dialogue is a two-way street. Independent owners must give produce managers the freedom to think creatively and to undertake new approaches, even if those approaches sometimes prove unsuccessful. Produce managers cannot grow if confined to a predetermined box.

Without growth, there is status quo. Over time, maintaining the status quo results in stagnant performance and an underachieving department manager.

Ownership must foster an excitement in creative thought, challenging a produce manager to “think outside the crate” each and every day.

To quote Henry Ford: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Produce managers need the bandwidth to experiment, to initiate and to create.

Recognize their value

When produce managers are responsible for driving profitable volume and delivering a high percentage of margin dollars, they should be compensated accordingly.

Compensation is not limited to salary but also involves incentives and upward mobility.

Supermarkets have long celebrated meat managers because of their specialized skill set –and rightly so. Given the paradigm shift in recent years for both meat and produce departments, it makes sense to review any disparities and address compensation for produce managers in an equitable manner.

Few would argue that today’s produce departments bear little resemblance to the departments of decades past. Today’s modern departments reflect the vital role produce departments play in the overall success of the independent supermarket.

From supplying the “wow” factor of a customer’s shopping experience to the significant margin contribution at the end of every week, produce managers shoulder the responsibility for this success. They deserve the very best the industry can give them.