Interview: Produce Backroom Handllng

Cooperative Grocer: Jack, last time we talked about establishing quality in the produce department. Let's go into some of the specific operational areas.

Jack Alexander: I think proper backroom procedures are critical to maintaining quality. Produce has to be systematized -- mainly because everything dies by the hour on you, and if you don't have a system to stay ahead of it, pretty soon it's a catch-up ball game. What we've tried to do, both in seminars and in the stores, is to set up systems to look at each item's perishibility or the life of it, and to work one step ahead. The other thing that makes it work in produce is letting everyone who has a certain skill level maximize the amount of time that they can utilize that skill level.

That's where backroom handling comes in; the whole backroom can be set up by the produce manager, who is usually at the top end of the pay scale, and yet all the manual elements of receiving, prepping, rotating, are done by people who have a lesser skill level. Or the backroom setup could be by an assistant store manager, somebody who has the authority to put the pieces together according to both pay level and skill level. Just in the last year, a couple of my clients who happened to be co-ops had department heads spending all day doing a $4 to $5 task, and they were receiving a total package of $15 to $16/hour. The job of getting out and making sure that the image, the quality control, and the customer relations were taken care of, just went unattended, it was nonexistent. If you can, shift things around so the store manager or department head is able to attend to this issue of quality.

CG: What are some specific areas where the manager should take responsiblity for this?

JA: I think the best way to start is in receiving and prep, because it's a step to building product knowledge in employees. Normally, a low-paid employee is a new employee. One of the best ways to learn what weights and identification are all about is to give a worker the job of receiving product, with the definition that he follow through and make sure that everything that's on an invoice is the size that's on the box and is the right weight. A two-level traypack plum would run about 18-20 lbs., while a loose-filled pack would run about 28 lbs. - almost a third difference in the weight. So if you ordered the big one and only got the little one, you're right away at a loss. The job of a receiving clerk, or the function as part of an employee's job, is to make sure that you get what you pay for. And if there is a variation, that variation is passed on to the produce manager in such a way that he can immediately adjust the pricing for it.

So those are key aspects of the receiving task -- it tends toward accuracy and it builds the knowledge of people who are going to eventually move on up in responsibility.

There are varying stages or degrees of ripeness the product can arrive in. Here again, procedures must be properly laid out and defined: Banana boxes should always have the bottoms pulled out of them to ventilate them. Left even for one day when they've had too much heat or where they're too cold and you've lost not only your profit but your investment too.

Once a product has been received, when you've got what you paid for and it's sitting on the floor, management can take this information and do the pricing accurately. The receiving clerk or the backroom people can proceed with making the product more saleable, separating those items that have to be prepped, like washed and crisped, and putting those that need to be ripened in the proper environment in the store, so they can come up to the proper ripeness for sale.

CG: What's the priority, once the load's delivered?

JA: You just have to follow the "law of expiration." If you have something like spinach or mushrooms sitting on the back dock and the sun hits them, they're gone -- whereas a box of cabbage could sit out on the dock for several hours and it wouldn't really hurt it. Plus you have the cost factor. Right now spinach is only $6/box, whereas a box of cherries is $20 to $25. So the urgency has to be on where you have the most to lose, and the urgency should go with those items that tend to expire the quickest. I try to get those items that need to be prepped over to the sink directly. We usually work one day ahead. So the spinach has to be washed, and the red leaf and green leaf lettuce, the celery needs to be soaked, on a daily basis. On the other hand, you make sure the tomatoes and avocadoes are out of the heat and taken to a place where they can ripen naturally, so you don't have them all come on to a fully ripe stage at one time. You may get 4-5 days of avocadoes in at one time. Then you ripen them and put out the ripe ones accordingly.

Sometimes, items come from an organic farmer and are not precooled. With broccoli, you'd want to get some ice on it, pull the field heat out of it immediatly, otherwise it will go bad within a matter of one day. So if you are receiving organic produce, it definitely needs immediate attention and greater care than would, say, product from commercial packers who have all their goods hydrocooling or even vacuumcooling, which takes the field heat out things immediately. So get it cold.

I've brought in corn -- corn is a great image maker and a great profit maker, it tastes good before it goes to starch -- that continues to build heat, even when bought by the pallet, even when you put it in the cooler; inside it's hot, warmer than body temperature. If you know that, you need to get people right on it, dunking it in a bucket of ice water. So knowing the product means knowing the amount of care it needs and how quickly it needs it.

Another part of the backroom element that's important is to have people on a productivity schedule, so they know what's expected of them. The only way I know to do that is one-on-one personal training. It's the old show and tell approach, where you take an employee and say, now here's a way to trim corn that's safe and yet efficient, here's why we do it, and then demonstrate it and give him a parameter. For example in order to trim tassle and the butt end of corn, you should allow 5 minutes for a normal case. Two whacks of the knife and it cleans up the corn real nice for display -- if this isn't done, by the time 10 or 15 customer consumers have gone through the display, you have tassles all over the department. So that's one area where you want to show him how to do it, because improperly used, a knife can be very dangerous; the last thing you need is for somebody to not handle it right and hurt themselves. Then, once they know how to do it, give them a goal on how fast to do it.

Another example is to work the strawberries. In our store, it's policy to never put strawberries out without running your fingers over them and putting them in new baskets, because there's always a chance there's going to be some bad ones in there. Here again there is a cost factor, Every employee should be given a guideline, saying here are 20 flats, and we'll allow 5 minutes per flat, I've found that most of the problems of inefficiency are simply because people have not been instructed and have not been given a goal. It's a waste of both the manager's time and the employee's time.

In the job description, tasks should be spelled out. It's easy to say, here are the things that take a lot of time, like trimming corn, working berries; those are the things you really need to set goals on. You might go through 15 strawberries a day -- say our profit margin is $2/box. If you pay someone 15 minutes to work a box, and he's making $8/hour, you've just blown your profit in labor.

When you have productive people in the backroom, everything else is so easy. It really makes setting up a rack a pleasure when everything is clean and it's crisp, the spinach has been worked and rebanded and is crisp. That gives the manager time to come up with creative displays that really enhance the total image of the store. Without that, you find a lot of high paid produce people in the backroom trimming all day. And the stands reflect it.

You have to create an environment where a person can be productive -- get the right tools, get nice big garbage cans on wheels, two of them. I have a wrapping machine and a juice machine for fresh orange juice, a pineapple coring machine -- none of these is a really big investment, they're not going to make or break you, but it gives you that edge over the competition in many cases.

You should have a professional sign kit. I still find a lot of stores working with outdated signs or making cardboard signs. It's a waste of good talent when for a few hundred dollars you can get some of the new informational price cards, from the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association or some other company, that tell people how to use it, how to select it, something about the nutritional contents.

I like to have plenty of sink area, enough for two people to work if you have to, because sometimes you really have to crank the product out. Plenty of plastic bags, good knives, a large selection of twist-ems, which you use from a 20-inch for Romaine and leaf lettuce down to a 9-inch for celery and spinach.

We also find that having a good selection of labels helps. When you have a product that's distressed or backing up on you, rather that having to package it up and put more cost into it, you can stick a half price sticker on it. The goal is to move it as guickly as you can without putting a lot more into it. We do a lot of half pricing at our store, and it really is effective.

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