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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Farm Bill Passes House…
Good For Produce,
A Problem For America

It is “high five” time among those the produce industry retains to represent its interests in Washington D.C. Whereas traditionally the Farm Bill was succor for program crops and had little or nothing for the fruit and vegetable industry, skilled lobbying and persistent effort brought about $3 billion over the next five years for produce interests. United sings the praises of the bill this way:

For almost three years, the produce industry has supported a common goal to engage in developing U.S. farm policy that recognizes the significance of the fruit and vegetable industry in agriculture and advances key policy initiatives that enhance the competitiveness of our industry in the global marketplace. Today, this vision becomes more of a reality as Congress finalizes its work on the Conference Report. For us, this represents a sea-change on how farm policy in this country will be developed in future farm bills.

In particular, this bill will significantly expand the USDA Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program, expand state block grants to increase industry competitiveness, purchase more fruits and vegetables for school lunch, continue the DOD Fresh Program for schools, provide technical assistance to address international market access issues, invest in specialty crop research including produce food safety, enhance programs to prevent invasive plant pests and disease, and target funding to address conservation priorities.

Most importantly, this Farm Bill will help all sectors of the produce industry deliver the highest quality, safest and most affordable fresh produce to consumers in the United States and around the world. Bottom line, every dollar spent to increase the competitiveness of U.S. fruit and vegetable producers serves all Americans who desperately need our products for their health and which will come back many times over in better health for our children and reduced long-term health care costs for the next generation.

United Fresh also wants to thank the tireless efforts of Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) and Congressman Adam Putnam (R-FL) for being our “champions” in the House of Representatives. Their vision and dedication to ensuring that fruits and vegetables would be part of the Farm Bill was monumental.

United, WGA, PMA and the whole Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance merit industry praise for tireless effort and intelligent assessment of the situation, prudent strategy development and efficient utilization of industry assets.

From an industry point of view, they played the trade’s cards perfectly. Instead of sitting out the battle or opposing the Farm Bill, both likely to win the industry nothing, our lobbying pros made a deal and brought us into the coalition to pass the Farm Bill in exchange for endorsement of several industry priorities.

So if we played the game so smart and accomplished so much, why does this Pundit feel a little sick? Because when we take off our industry hats and put on our American hats, the whole process reveals deep flaws in our governance structure, flaws that are inflating the budget and weakening our country.

It has all been predictable. In fact a foreign publication, the London-based Financial Times looked in on America almost six months ago and saw what was happening:

Pile-it-high policies likely to win the day

If ever there was a good time to reform America’s widely derided system of farm subsidies, this was the year. The chance came with the renewal of the five-year “farm bill”.

Soaring global commodity prices, partly because of government ethanol subsidies, have lifted many farmers above official support price levels, giving them less to lose.

A new Democratic majority, more dependent on urban and suburban than rural votes, took power in Congress in November. The administration of President George W. Bush wants farm subsidy reform as a legacy. Governments around the world have urged the US to cut subsidies to keep the struggling “Doha round” of global trade talks alive.

A coalition of reformers with a variety of grievances assembled. So-called “specialty crop” farmers (fruit, vegetable and nut growers), who now get almost no federal money, feel excluded. Development campaigns such as Oxfam and Bread for the World complain that US overproduction hurts farmers in poor countries. Food companies such as the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) argue that US farmers’ subsidies lose them export markets through gumming up trade negotiations.

Environmentalists say that subsidising large-scale agriculture encourages petrol-guzzling farmers to soak America’s soil with chemical pesticides and fertiliser. Nutritionists worry that the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup and other corn products are bad for the nation’s health. Fiscal conservatives think the whole thing is a waste of public money.

The coalition argued, with varying degrees of emphasis, that payments should be limited, spread around more farmers and “decoupled” from output and prices, and that more money should go to protect the environment and promote healthy eating.

Yet the mood across the coalition is close to dismay. The House of Representatives’ version of the farm bill, passed in July, found money from elsewhere in the federal budget — including rescinding some tax cuts — actually to increase the overall size of potential payments. Support prices remain elevated, and the bill set a high income cap of $1m ($2m for a married couple) for eligibility for subsidies, a limit critics say is riddled with loopholes….

So what happened? Disappointed members of the coalition say that some allies were systematically bought off and the rest ignored. Cal Dooley, a former California congressman and chief executive of the GMA, says: “The coalition was predicated on the idea that to increase spending on nutrition, the environment and other priorities, we needed to reduce the commodity [budget] . . . Once they found more money from elsewhere, the impetus for reform lessened.”

When it came to it, for example, the fruit and vegetable and other “specialty crop” growers preferred to be inside the farm community tent, even if they were only given a few carrot sticks of subsidy on which to gnaw, than risk being left outside with only the warm glow of moral superiority for sustenance. Nor were they asking for much.

In fact, although the $3 billion for the produce industry often makes industry releases, the total cost of the bill — in excess of $300 billion — is rarely mentioned.

Don’t be upset that the trade only succeeded in getting 1% of the bill — that was truly a great accomplishment. Trading a particular industry’s support for 1% of the cost of a bill is par for the course. The thing to remember is that exactly what has gone on with this bill goes on with bills all the time.

In this case, we got a little for the home team — most of the time, the money is going to coal mine owners or used car lot dealers or some other industry that traded its support for cash. It usually isn’t even on the radar screen of most in the produce industry.

Maybe there is enough “time we got ours” sentiment to make this all seem great. But it is worth noting who pays for all these payoffs to buy industry support for every law. We call those payers taxpayers, like all of us. And this whole process impoverishes us all.

What happens is that some small group — say sugar cane growers — gets a subsidy, and because the subsidy is large and the number of sugar cane growers are few, they are intently focused on the subsidy. So they work for candidates who support the subsidy, donate money to the politicians who support the subsidy, etc.

In contrast, the subsidy is paid for by hundreds of millions of people paying a little more for the sugar in their coffee. Most voters won’t even know they are paying more, and if they did, the amount would be so small it wouldn’t be determinative in their vote, much less motivate them to campaign and donate to candidates who oppose sugar subsidies.

So, in the end, politics becomes all about politicians looking for special interest groups whose support they can buy off at the expense of the general welfare.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on the bill:

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

We can’t wait to hear how Members of Congress explain their vote this week for the new $300 billion farm bill. At a time when Americans are squeezed at the grocery store, they will now see more of their taxes flow to the very farmers profiting from these high food prices.

This year farm income is expected to reach an all-time high of $92.3 billion, an increase of 56% in two years, making growers perhaps the most undeserving welfare recipients in American history. But that won’t stop this bill from passing the House and Senate by wide margins. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was once a farm subsidy skeptic, but she now has some 30 freshman Democrats from battleground rural districts to protect. So more than $10 billion a year in giveaways to agribusiness is a necessary taxpayer sacrifice to keep her majority.

Ms. Pelosi calls the bill “real reform,” which is like calling Lindsay Lohan born again. For example: The bill perpetuates the so-called Hurricane Katrina gambit that allows farmers to lock in price-support payments at the lowest possible market price, and then sell their crops later at the highest possible price, and then pocket the high price and a payment from the government for the difference between the two. They in effect get paid twice for the same bushel of wheat.

A bigger scam is the new income limit to qualify for subsidies. Mr. Bush sought a $200,000 annual income cap, but Congress can’t bring itself to go below $750,000. Even that is a farce, because it doesn’t include loan programs and disaster payments, and it allows spouses to qualify for payments too. The White House and liberal reformers calculate that farm owners with clever accountants can have incomes of up to $2.5 million and still get a taxpayer handout.

Several weeks ago, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin was asked by the Des Moines Register how many farmers in Iowa would be excluded under the new income cap. His answer: “two or three.” On tax policy Mr. Harkin and his fellow Democrats talk endlessly about soaking the rich, but on farm policy they favor soaking the middle class to pay the rich.

Nearly every crop — corn, wheat, sugar — has won increases in subsidy payments even as farm commodity prices explode. Of the 17 most subsidized commodities, only rice and cotton will get a slight reduction in payments, while the bill extends the farm welfare net to lentils, chick peas, fruits and vegetables, and even organic foods. There are new programs for Kentucky horse breeders and Pacific Coast salmon fishermen, and your tax dollars will help finance the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” campaign. Oh, and you still don’t even have to farm to cash in. Hundreds of millions of dollars will go to landowners based on their “historical planting average” even if they haven’t planted a seed in years.

And once again, the big sugar plantation owners in Florida walk away with the sweetest deal: Big Sugar bagged an increase in price supports and a guarantee of 85% of the domestic sugar market at these guaranteed prices. So taxpayers are on the hook for buying surplus domestically produced sugar at 23 cents a pound and selling it for ethanol for closer to three cents a pound.

If you wonder why urban Democrats would vote for this rural giveaway, the answer is they have been bought off with roughly $10 billion in extra funding for food stamps and nutrition welfare programs. Someone should tell them that their constituents might not need this cash if the farm bill didn’t help keep food prices high. And let’s not forget the Blue Dog Democrats who are supposed to be spending hawks. The farm bill busts the budget caps by at least $10 billion, but the Blue Dogs get $5.9 billion in handouts for their districts. So they will put their fiscal sermonizing on hold and vote “aye.”

Mr. Bush is promising a veto, to his credit, but the White House expects even many Republicans to vote to override. The House GOP swears it has learned its spending lesson after 2006. Yet House Minority Leader John Boehner, who opposes the bill himself, isn’t rallying GOP opposition. Perhaps there are too many Republicans who crave the handouts too.

Meanwhile, John McCain says “I would veto that bill” and will vote against it in the Senate. Strangely silent is Barack Obama. A major theme of his campaign is to battle corporate special interests in Washington on behalf of the “middle class.” Here is one of his first tests, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he sides with the well-funded commodity lobby over consumers and taxpayers.

In this election year, both parties are fighting to win the farm vote. But even in Chicago and New Jersey, it doesn’t cost $300 billion to buy an election.

With President Bush poised to veto the bill, the bill can only become law with Republican votes to override the veto. That looks very possible.

Losses in elections are not necessarily bad for parties. They cause introspection, and politics is so often a case where intellectual outgo is non-stop, whereas a chance to read, think and recharge the intellectual batteries is very rare.

A very high percentage of the lobbyists and trade association CEOs who worked on this bill, as well as a very high percentage of the Republicans who will vote to override the President’s veto, are self-professed conservative Republicans.

If this is the type of law that can be expected to come out of such a coalition, it is not surprising that many conservative Republican voters seem unmotivated this election cycle.

Food Shortages?
Blame Governments

Whenever you read about shortages of food or energy, you will find many “experts” rushing to the table to point out that capitalism has failed and that we need a big dose of government to solve the problem.

It is the nature of markets, though, that shortages are almost always caused by government policies, and so pleas for more government control are typically pleas to give more power and control to the forces that brought about the problem.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece entitled, In Ukraine, Mavericks Gamble On Scarce Land that focuses on the Ukraine, the breadbasket of the old Soviet Union that once produced 40% of the U.S.S.R.’s agricultural output — and the U.S.S.R. had relatively unproductive farms as its policy of operating state-owned farms blunted incentives and limited the application of capital and technology.

So when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the Ukrainian government instituted a land reform policy:

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, governments chopped up the old state farms and distributed plots to their citizens. Lacking capital to invest in the land, the new owners mostly planted small vegetable plots or let their animals graze. Many title deeds were not claimed because their owners were deceased or had emigrated. In all, some 55 million acres of arable land in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine went uncultivated. The region, although still a major grain producer, has continued to suffer from a lack of capital investment ever since.

Foreign investors could provide the capital, but the political system is not reassuring to investors:

Despite the election of a pro-Western government in Ukraine in 2004, an influential business and political elite that takes its cues from Moscow remains skeptical of Western investment. In turn, foreign investors find themselves coping with a venal political system and courts that are deeply corrupt. According to a “corruption perception index” compiled by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, international business people consider Ukraine among the most corrupt countries in the world, below Uganda, Moldova and Cuba.

The big issue, though, is laws both too permissive and too restrictive. On the one hand, land reform divided productive agricultural acreage into tiny pieces — the article mentions one woman receiving just 2.5 acres in the privatization scheme — which renders the land practically useless for the mechanized growing of grain. Then a law was enacted prohibiting the sale of land. This law has blocked and still blocks the natural consolidation into viable farming land that the free market would normally bring about. It is in this sense that the law is too restrictive.

On the other hand, blocked by law from acquiring land, entrepreneurs have tried to build reasonably scaled farms by leasing land. Yet the laws are too loose, these lessors seem to be able to cancel a lease at their whim — which makes it difficult for anyone to justify capital investment:

Critics of the land-leasing model say that when a local farmer breaks a contract, there is little legal recourse. Sphere Asset Management, a Kiev-based hedge fund, recently started selling off the leases it holds to 74,000 acres here. "We’re regularly in litigation" with land owners, says Yevgeniy Khata, Sphere’s managing director.

In fact, the loose laws seem to encourage a culture of extortion, in which continuing payments over and above lease obligations are required to stay in business:

Landkom routinely lobbies local officials in an effort to get all landowners in a village to sign leases. The company recently gave its lessors in the town of Zolochiv $22,000 to refurbish an orphanage. It then aired a TV commercial advertising its good will. “I didn’t know where the money came from until I saw a Landkom commercial with our orphanage on TV,” says Natalya Medvid, one of the six Catholic nuns looking after the kids.

Doing business “would be harder for [Mr. Spinks] if he didn’t do these things for us,” says Ivan Stefanishin, deputy governor of Lvivksa, the oblast — or province — that includes Bilyi Kamin and Zolochiv. “An investor has to be part of his environment, that’s normal.”

Right now in the Ukraine, some of the richest soil in the world leases for $14 an acre. The low cost is justified by the low productivity of the land when starved of capital and technology and the legal uncertainty of the leasing process.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, consideration is being given to a law allowing for private land sales. If it passes, many predict a land rush and a big boost in prices. That would mean substantial capital gains for the mostly poor and hard-working people who received land during the privatization.

It would also mean landholdings would consolidate and farms, certain of land ownership, could invest more confidently. Land that now sits fallow would be brought back into cultivation.

More land would be worked with the application of better technology and more use of capital. The Wall Street Journal estimates that merely the untilled arable land of the former U.S.S.R. could grow 115 million metric tons of wheat per year.

This is just one story in just one faraway part of the world. It is, though, a perfect illustration of how political decisions — in this case to ban land sales — can have unintended consequence.

It also points to the political cause of most shortages and the danger of recognizing the flaws of capitalism but assuming the perfection of government.

Tesco Uses Smoke And Mirrors
To Hide Search For Fresh & Easy CEO

Our piece, Tesco Searches For American CEO Of Fresh & Easy, broke some important news:

Now, however, we have learned that Tesco is actively recruiting for a new American CEO for its Fresh & Easy division. It is expected that Tim Mason and several other key executives will be returning to Britain.

We went on to speculate what was motivating this and pointed out that candidates were being told that Tim Mason, the esteemed British executive Tesco sent over to serve as CEO of Fresh & Easy, was needed back in Britain to address the core business.

We also speculated on some possible alternative explanations.

In any case, Tesco never objected to the story. However, when others inquired about the issue, Tesco denied it.

The Fresh Produce Journal in the United Kingdom, for example, was told, “Tim Mason and his team are not coming back from the US,” a spokeswoman said. “There is absolutely no truth in the rumours at all.”

We were also contacted by most of the London papers and several British investment banks who also told us that Tesco had, often vehemently, denied the veracity of our story.

Yet this was perplexing to us. Before we ran the story, we had spoken to three separate individuals who all had actually interviewed for the job. All had the same basic story.

Traditionally, a public company can decline comment, but it can’t mislead its investors by making false statements to the media.

So we were uncertain what to make of all these denials.

Especially because after we published the story, we kept hearing from more and more people who had either been interviewed or contacted by a head hunter regarding the Fresh & Easy CEO job.

What can it mean?

Well, one possibility is that Tesco is backtracking. Perhaps they couldn’t find an acceptable candidate and so are not going to go ahead with the plan. It is also possible that nobody had told Tim Mason prior to our publication of the story and Tesco backtracked fast in light of his opposition.

Tim Mason may have really wanted to keep his job. We understand he bought a bungalow in Santa Monica and enjoys boating. Besides the pay is decent. They just published Tesco pay figures and between base, bonuses, share awards, his kids’ school fees, etc., he was paid almost $14 million US plus got help paying some taxes:

The second highest Tesco earner was Tim Mason, the former marketing director who moved to California to build the group’s new Fresh & Easy chain of convenience stores.

Mason, who now lives in Los Angeles, received £4.5m in basic pay and annual bonus payments and benefited from £2.3m of share awards granted in previous years. His basic pay is £938,000 and he received £260,000 “in respect of certain localisation costs, including accommodation and school fees”. He has also been given a payment to cover “additional tax due on equity awards made prior to Mr Mason’s move to the US”.

It may be that the whole search is a ruse. Jeff Adams, an American who had been CEO of Tesco’s Lotus division and was given the Number Two job at Fresh & Easy, would be the logical candidate to step in as CEO of Fresh & Easy. Perhaps the interviews were to prove they were considering women, minorities, veterans, etc.

None of these explanations would really explain the denials. The only thing we can speculate is that they are answering a different question than what they had been asked. Note the quote Tesco gave to the Fresh Produce Journal in London:

“Tim Mason and his team are not coming back from the US,” a spokeswoman said. “There is absolutely no truth in the rumours at all.”

Note that they did not say, “Tesco and its retained recruiters are not now interviewing and have never interviewed any person other than Tim Mason to be the CEO of Fresh & Easy.”

We always said that the cover story — that Tim Mason was needed back in the UK — would have to be changed. The stock would crash if word got out that Tesco’s management team was so thin that it “needed” Tim Mason to address core issues in the UK.

Perhaps Tesco is trying to play the semantics. There is simply no question that people have been interviewed for the job of CEO of Fresh & Easy.

Perhaps, despite cover stories, the plan is for Tim Mason to stay in the US. Perhaps he will stay with a corporate title, say President for the Americas, and he will move on to do acquisitions. Perhaps he will buy Meijer as we suggested or, perhaps, since Tesco has had some real success in developing countries, what if he made an acquisition in Latin America?

Some of the spokespeople for Tesco — who doubtless are telling the truth as it has been told to them — have been a bit too quick to discredit what we wrote.

We know exactly what we wrote and the fact is that food industry executives have been interviewed to be CEO of Fresh & Easy. That is the fact. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors.

Retail Produce Managers
Honored By United And Ready Pac

Many times the things that get done get done because they are easy to do rather than because they are the most important things. So many times the industry reaches out to VPs and Directors of Produce because their names are on a list, because it is a reasonable number and because we are welcome at headquarters.

Reaching out to store level is fraught with complexities. There are no good lists of produce managers and even if there were, it is too expensive and time-consuming to reach them all. Besides, we are not allowed! Hand delivering your POP to produce managers or appearing at the store doorstep ready to train or conduct demos will only get a vendor in trouble if it isn’t cleared with headquarters first.

Yet having conducted the industry’s annual Mystery Shopper series for 20 consecutive years — you can see this year’s report here and the year before’s right here — we can most decidedly say that a great produce manager can have more impact on the success or failure of a department and of any product in the department than any other factor.

So a tip of the hat to both United Fresh and Ready Pac for annually conducting a Retail Produce Managers Award program. The annual program featuring the managers is always popular at the convention and the work these people do is often unrecognized. What a moment for these important industry participants to be recognized and flown to Las Vegas.

United sent us an announcement, and it included a paragraph on each award winner, which you can read those below. They are all interesting, but we especially liked the one related to Jim Molloy of Hannaford Bros. Company. He is based in Nashua, New Hampshire. Like the others Jim is a great department manager and does a lot with kids, but Will Wise, Hannaford’s Produce Director, utilizes him in other ways as well:

“Over the years, in addition to training new produce managers and retail management trainees, Jim has traveled throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire to coach produce managers and to help them re-merchandise their produce departments to be more efficient.”

We think that is a great idea and one the industry should get behind. After all, we not only want to identify great produce managers, we want to see their expertise spread throughout their chain.

How about this idea: Why don’t we add to the prize a seminar at the United convention on coaching techniques, so that all these great managers will be able to teach others what has made them great? Not every chain will take advantage of it, but some will… and we should encourage it.

Congratulations to the winners, including the five who won the “grand prize.” We have photos and descriptions of them all so that you can read, look and see who is out on the front line doing yeoman’s work with your products, your reputation, your store.

We are missing a photo of Todd Fenton with Safeway Stores Inc., who was sent to the hospital on May 3 and had heart surgery on May 5. We understand he is doing well and extend the trade’s wishes for a speedy recovery.

To all the winners, thank you for making the whole trade a winner every day.

Here is how United positions the event:

Five Are Awarded Grand Prize

The United Fresh Produce Association honored the winners of its 2008 Retail Produce Manager Award at its annual Awards Banquet last week in Las Vegas:

Robert Cardwell Raley’s, Fairfield, CA
Gary Clay Raley’s, Santa Rosa, CA
Kevin Colligan Brookshire Grocery Co., Lafayette, LA
Terry Cox Foodtown Supermarket, Lambertville, MI
Eddie Duncan Food Lion, LLC, Gate City, VA
Todd Fenton Safeway Stores, Inc., Seaside, OR
Brian Gab Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., Chalmette, LA
Jake Harding Hy-Vee, Inc., Omaha, NE
Neil Hartley Harris Teeter Supermarkets, Kill Devil Hills, NC
Angela Hopson Food City, Big Stone Gap, VA
Amy Kirk afeway Stores, Inc., University Place, WA
Mark Leung Smith’s Food & Drug Center, Midvale, UT
Harry Lewis Luke AFB Commissary, Glendale, AZ
Paul Lopez Vons, Paso Robles, CA
David Meier Safeway Stores, Inc., Auburn, CA
James Molloy Hannaford Bros. Company, Nashua, NH
John Monahan Price Chopper Supermarkets/Golub Corporation, Marlborough, MA
Ken Peche BKT Sentry Foods, Wakesha, WI
Greg Reinhart Hy-Vee, Inc., Marshall, MN
Nancy Riekena The Kroger Co., Peoria, IL
Julie Rodriguez Smith’s Food & Drug Center, Bozeman, MT
Bernard Rogers Jewel Osco, DeKalb, IL
John Schwenk Bristol Farms, Newport Beach, CA
Richard Thompson Meijer, Okemos, MI
Ismael Vela Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Edinburg, TX

The winners were recognized for their outstanding efforts to increase produce consumption through everyday excellence in merchandising, special displays and promotions, community service, and commitment to total customer satisfaction. All winners, and their corporate produce directors, received complimentary registration, travel and hotel accommodations to the United Fresh show in Las Vegas, May 4-7.

During the banquet, five “Grand Prize” recipients were announced and received an additional $1,000 cash prize. The grand prize winners were: Gary Clay, Raley’s in Santa Rose, CA; David Meier, Safeway Stores, Inc. in Auburn, CA; John Monahan, Price Chopper Supermarkets in Marlborough, MA; Greg Reinhart, Hy-Vee, Inc. in Marshall, MN; and Julie Rodriguez, Smith’s Food & Drug Center in Bozeman, MT.

Several winners also shared their advice on consumer preferences and produce merchandising at the store level during the Produce Marketing Educational Track Tuesday, May 5.

Winners were selected from competitive nominations submitted by retail chains, independent supermarkets, and produce companies across the country. “All of the nominees are to be commended for their outstanding work,” said Amy Philpott, vice president marketing and industry relations, United Fresh Produce Association. “There were so many excellent nominations among the hundreds of nominations that we received; the review committee had a tough job of selecting only a few winners. The level of commitment and creativity that managers across the country are using to promote produce is truly incredible,” she said.

The 2008 United Fresh Retail Produce Manager Awards Program is sponsored by Ready Pac Foods, Inc. “The entire produce industry relies on these managers to help us reach the consumer everyday,” said Dennis Gertmenian CEO of Ready Pac Foods. “We here at Ready Pac are pleased to sponsor this program as a great way to recognize these produce managers for their outstanding performance in promoting fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Applications for the 2009 Retail Produce Manager Award program will be available this fall online at www.unitedfresh.org, with winners again to be honored at the United Fresh Marketplace show the following April at the United Fresh show in Las Vegas.

The 2008 Retail Produce Manager Award Winners:

ROBERT CARDWELL, Raley’s, Fairfield, CA
With 32 years experience in the produce industry and 15 years as a Raley’s produce manager, Robert Cardwell knows market and sell produce. “Merchandising is one of Robert’s strongest attributes,” says District Produce Supervisor Cindy Estes. Robert proactively works with his store director to strategically locate produce displays throughout the store. He has been so successful that he now implements his new merchandising concepts in several Raley’s stores. His tomato, garlic, avocado and tropical merchandising sets pop with texture and color. Robert also uses the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” signage throughout his department.

Twice a week the bus from the Paradise Valley Senior Center complex stops at Robert’s store so residents can shop. Robert and his produce team assist each and every customer individually with their needs. Robert says that “consumers these days demand more variety and we make sure they can find what they want.” Robert is also a Raley’s “engagement coach,” which entails meeting with store personnel bi-monthly to review company priorities and goals. During the past year he has also trained thirteen new produce colleagues.

GARY CLAY, Raley’s, Santa Rosa, CA
Raley’s Produce Manager Gary Clay has over 40 years experience in the produce industry. According to Gary, “Customer satisfaction is the best way to sell more fruits and vegetables.” So Gary and his produce team start by providing high quality produce and creating a fun environment with eye-catching, authentic produce displays. During the Raley’s “Passion about Produce” Farmer’s Market summer event, Robert even incorporated a John Deere tractor into one of his summer displays. Gary has trained everyone on his team to create interesting signs by using various writing styles and slogans. Of course, he also uses the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” point of sale materials.

As part of the Redwood Gospel Mission Outreach Program in his community, Gary talks to low income recipients about the nutritional benefits of produce. When a young man who finished his recovery at the Mission stopped by the store and thanked Gary for his work at the Mission, he said, “It felt so good to know that my job in produce had a positive effect on society.” Gary was voted by his district produce manager peers as one of the best produce managers in their district. He has earned three Raley’s “World Class” service awards and a Supervisor’s award from the Store Director, and, during the past year, he has trained numerous new produce colleagues.

KEVIN COLLIGAN, Brookshire Grocery Co., Lafayette, LA
Brookshire Grocery Company Produce Manager Kevin Colligan sets the standard when it comes to service, presentation, quality and department cleanliness. Kevin will go to any length to make sure the customers shopping at his store get the variety and quality of produce they deserve. During the local growing season, Kevin designs a farmer’s market style produce department under a tent on the store’s front sidewalk; a local supplier farmer is there every Saturday to talk about his particular produce. Kevin’s produce department also carries one of the largest selections of organic produce in the company. Thru the adopt-a-school program, Kevin goes to schools and talks to the children about fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet. He also provides store tours for many schools in the area.

Kevin is the recipient of several Brookshire Grocery Company “Legendary Customer Service Awards,” the District Produce Manager Award, and the overall Produce Manager of the Year Award. Kevin is a star in and out of the produce department. When the public television in his area filmed a one hour special on local grown produce, it was Kevin who went on the aire to talk about fresh fruits and vegetables.

TERRY COX, Foodtown Supermarket, Lambertville, MI
Terry Cox, produce manager at the Lambertville Foodtown Supermarket, is a big believer in fresh and attractive produce displays, so he re-merchandises the displays in his department on a weekly basis. During Halloween, he generated excitement and attracted customers to the produce department by cross-merchandised pumpkins with mums, cornstalks, and hay bales; sales skyrocketed. Terry also participates in the Idaho Potato Lovers contest each year. Each year Terry’s department participates in the Whitmer Public Schools vocational jobs skills program. In the spring, Terry will take one student, who is mentally or physically challenged, and work with him/her for up to three months, teaching them responsibility and new job skills.

Also each year around the holidays, Terry makes fruit baskets and donates them to the Bedford Senior Citizens. Terry is the go to man in the company. His work ethic is second to none, and it shows in his employees and trainees. So it isn’t surprising that Terry won the store Employee of the Month Award two times in 2007 alone. His district manger says, “Terry has one of the best departments around. It doesn’t matter what time of day I come to his store, it always looks fantastic.”

EDDIE DUNCAN, Food Lion, LLC, Gate City, VA
Produce Manager Eddie Duncan is one of Food Lion’s best. Using the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” materials, his produce displays often appeal to kids and parents. In fact, Eddie is instrumental in testing Food Lion’s new Kids Only Section; he provides valuable insight regarding this initiative and how to offer healthy alternatives to kids. Eddie also assists with school tours throughout the year and is recognized by parents throughout the community.

It is not unusual for a parent to comment that because of Eddie’s encouragement, their child tasted a particular fruit or vegetable for the first time. Eddie is recognized as a leader in his district, and goes out of his way to assist the newer, less experienced produce managers in other stores. Eddie’s passion for produce is evident in everything he does, and he is committed to delivering a great shopping experience to all of his customers.

TODD FENTON, Safeway Stores, Inc., Seaside, OR
Seaside may be a small coastal community in Oregon, but Safeway Produce Manager Todd Fenton runs one of the best produce departments around. He provides excellent customer service and captivates his customers with creative merchandising. For example, last year, Todd created a huge mini-watermelon display using more than 200 cases of watermelon. Todd designed a beach scene with beach chairs, picnics and kites soaring above.

As a member of this small community, Todd works closely with the community in many aspects. He provides healthy fruit snacks to runners and race volunteers in the locally-held Hood-to-Coast Relay, and he always finds time to conduct tours for grade school children. While guiding these tours, he shows the students new, exotic and tropical fruits, and he “reminds them that something grown on a tree can taste sweeter than junk food.” In the winter of 2007, this small coastal community was hit with hurricane force winds and the town’s power was cut off for five days. Feeling the pulse of the community, Todd adapted to the situation and filled his department shelves with fresh fruits and vegetables that didn’t require refrigeration.

BRIAN GAB, Winn-Dixie, New Orleans, LA
Winn-Dixie Produce Manager Brian Gab works at one of the few, full size supermarkets in New Orleans to reopen after Hurricane Katrina. He uses themed displays to mark the seasons or the arrival of new product. In a recent “Louisiana Satsuma and Navel Orange Extravaganza,” Brian included potted Satsuma and navel orange trees and gave out samples of both citrus varieties. Brian is known as “Mr. Produce” in the St. Bernard Parish because of the many school tours he conducts for the elementary students in his area. He teaches children the importance of including fresh produce in their diet and allows the students to sample items they may have never seen at home.

Brian is a member of the Winn Dixie team that assists with all new store openings and remodels in the region, and he is the Training Produce Manager in his district. Brian is committed to offering only the freshest quality produce to his customers at all times. He instills this same commitment to all associates working in his department by constantly coaching, teaching and training. He handles a complete variety of items that are available, allowing his customers to know they can always find it at Brian’s store, even in his absence.

JAKE HARDING, Hy-Vee, Inc., Omaha, NE
Hy Vee Produce Manager Jake Harding understands that promoting produce means stepping beyond the department aisles and introducing customers to fresh new possibilities throughout the entire store. By working closely with other department managers, he develops cross-promotion displays that offer complete meal ideas, all of which include various produce. Jake wants to make sure the meals he suggests to customers are not only easy but healthy.

In 2007, he partnered up with the Hy-Vee dietitian to take part in the Hy-Vee corporate meal solutions program called “Dinner. Done.” Together they developed quick, healthy recipes that Jake placed at the front of the produce department, and every week a different recipe was featured in a demo. Jake also promotes produce to local students by talking to them about the benefits of eating produce and the differences between various fruits and vegetables. Offering fresh produce and communicating with customers are Jakes keys to success. When Jake trains future store directors and produce managers, he emphasizes the importance of customer service, merchandising, cleanliness and rotation.

NEIL HARTLEY, Harris Teeter Supermarkets, Outer Banks, NC
Neil Hartley and the Harris Teeter produce team in Outer Banks, North Carolina have learned to manage staffing and product control in a town whose customer base fluctuates from 35,000 to 250,000 residents, depending on the time of year. Since this small town doesn’t have a newspaper, advertising isn’t an option, and so Neil relies on creative displays and outstanding customer service to promote the produce department. Neil and his team are experts at cross-marketing products throughout the store. In the summer, the time for barbeques, he wraps baked potatoes in foil, combines sweet potatoes with packages of marshmallows, and places smoothie mixes behind the strawberry, banana and orange displays.

Neil gives tours of the produce department to the children at Nags Head Elementary School, provides bananas to local charity 5K runs, and gives the local senior center free fruit baskets. Neil and his team often go the extra mile to ensure that customers’ have the fresh produce they need and want. For example, a local customer’s boss was hospitalized in a facility 200 miles away. Neil called the Harris Teeter Produce Manager at the remote location and had a Harris Teeter employee deliver a fresh basket to the hospital, saving the customer shipping expenses and preserving product freshness.

ANGELA HOPSON, Food City, Big Stone Gap, VA
Produce Manager Angela Hopson uses innovative merchandising, special displays, sampling programs, commodity promotions and the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” campaign to draw customers to her produce department. In 2007, Angela’s produce department was one of only ten winners from across the USA and Canada to win the 2007 Vidalia Onion Display Contest. Angela gives department tours to local schoolchildren during which she promotes the benefits of eating fresh fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet. Her department also includes a Kids School Bus Display bin where children receive a free piece of fruit each month through the company’s Kids Club.

Angela is committed to providing customers of all ages with the freshest produce available. But she doesn’t stop there, Angela also works with the local chapter of Lonesome Pine District Sequoyah Council to incorporate the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” messages into day camp programs. For her exceptional dedication to making a difference in her community, K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc. recently named Angela a Divisional Winner of its coveted ClaudeP. Varney Volunteer Recognication Program Award.

AMY KIRK, Safeway Stores, Inc., University Place, WA
Safeway Produce Manager Amy Kirk builds award winning product displays that incorporate the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” messages, generate excitement and draw attention to the produce department. She especially enjoys introducing customers to specialty produce and teaching them how to cook these items. Every year for Halloween Amy builds a huge creative pumpkin display that draws attention to the produce department. And because October is also breast cancer month, she also carves pumpkins and sells them to raise money to fight breast cancer. Following tours of her produce department, Amy gives school kids tote bags with fruit.

When it comes to produce, Amy is known as the go-to persona in her district. She works along side the produce managers throughout the district to organize the backroom and sales floor to make the produce department more efficient. Amy encourages her team to provide uncompromising customer service, gladly placing special orders for hard-to-get items and customer requests. She takes a hand-on approach to all aspects of the produce department and coaches her team on how to provide customers with an excellent shopping experience.

MARK LEUNG, Smith’s Food & Drug Center, Salt Lake City, UT
Although he attributes his success to those who work for him, Produce Manager Mark Leung is a star at Smith’s Food & Drug. As an expert produce merchandiser, Mark’s peers welcome his input and often ask for his help in developing creative produce displays that inspire customers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Mark enjoys promoting fruits and vegetables as healthy snack alternatives, and he has won various contests for raisin, apple, pear and other commodities because of his innovative merchandising and creative promotional signage.

His customers know him by name and they enjoy chatting with him on a personal level, which is no wonder because his good nature makes the produce department feel like home to customers and employees alike. Mark is the first to volunteer for the most challenging projects. For is hard work, Mark has been named District Produce Manager of the Year for the past two years.

HARRY LEWIS, Luke AFB Commissary, Glendale, AZ
Harry “Spike” Lewis takes pride in providing the men and women serving at Luke Air Force Base and their families with the best produce has to offer. He reminds customers to eat fresh fruits and vegetables by hanging huge “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” banners that can be seen from throughout the store. He also features fresh Asian and Hispanic ethnic items and merchandises his department in new ways. “Celebrity” demos are used to create excitement in the department by featuring the produce team’s favorite items and recipes, and product tastings for children are educational based, encouraging them to become “Color Champions.”

Spike gives the children on Luke AFB tours of his produce department, including educational lectures, games and fresh produce samplings. He has worked with the local county office of nutritional services to bring a new produce game called “Spin the Wheel” of (vegetable and fruit) colors to the Base. At their monthly meetings, Spike provides samplings of new produce items for the Retiree Association, the Command Spouses, and the Deployed Spouses group. Store Director, Chris Thomas says, “Taking care of customers and promoting fresh produce has been a career commitment for Spike.”

PAUL LOPEZ, Vons, Paso Robles, CA
Paul Lopez, produce manager at the Vons in Paso Robles, California is one of the best in his field. He is known for his “out of the box” displays and cross-merchandising ideas that communicate value, quality and nutrition. Paul uses themes like Disney and “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” point of sale materials to draw kids and their parents to the produce department where he explains recipe ideas, offers samples of the different items, and answers questions about storage, handling and nutrition. Kids from the neighboring three elementary schools are invited to help stock produce, and they always leave the store with a nutritional snack after a game of “Is it a Fruit or Vegetable?”

Paul has received a personal President’s Award for excellence in customer service and trained many employees over the years. In 2007, Paul and his wife Amy started a non-profit called Backyard Harvest, a project that feeds low income and homeless people in his community. Through Backyard Harvest, they collect fresh produce donations from all over the north county area and distribute them to local food banks and senior centers.

DAVID MEIER, Safeway Stores, Inc., Auburn, CA
Safeway Produce Manager David Meier uses innovative merchandising, special displays, sampling programs and commodity promotions to generate excitement in his produce department. For example, during the Super Bowl, David built an eye-catching display with avocados, pistachios, peanuts, beer, chips, tomatoes, onions, fresh cilantro, chili peppers and mangoes. He used wood crates, wheel barrels, wine barrels and bushel baskets, and he included colorful signage and balloons. David conducts many school tours during which he explains why eating fresh fruits and vegetables are a healthier choice to eating candy and junk food. David also donates fresh produce to local events such as the Adopt a School Rock Creek school book fair, the Bowman School breakfast fund raiser, the Boys and Girls club fund raiser and Meals on Wheels.

“He is a take-charge manager who uses positive coaching and gives clear directions when working with his team,” says his district supervisor. David has won many Safeway Superior Customer awards. Promoting fresh produce and providing the highest customer service are David’s passions and it shows. When customers shop David’s produce department, they are always greeted with a friendly smile.

JIM MOLLOY, Hannaford Bros. Company, Nashua, NH
With more than 35 years in produce, Hannaford Brothers Produce Manager Jim Molloy knows that developing personal relationships with his customers and tailoring his fresh produce department to their preferences are keys to success. For example, Jim orders large quantities of seasonally appropriate, non-sale items in order to build mass displays that appeal to his customer base. Jim actively participates in all Hannaford Brothers merchandising programs. In the past year Jim has lead over a dozen school tours. The children especially like sampling exotic fruit items such as cactus pears, dragon fruit, kumquats, and more!

Will Wedge, Director, Hannaford Produce says, “Jim’s attention to detail, work ethic, and team work are all great assets to Hannaford produce.” Over the years, in addition to training new produce managers and retail management trainees, Jim has traveled throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire to coach produce managers and to help them re-merchandise their produce departments to be more efficient. Jim’s willingness to grow sales through taking risks is another strong point. For example, Jim was one of the first Hannaford produce managers to embrace items such as Buddha’s Hand, Dragon Fruit, and Purple Cauliflower. Jim’s influence is widely felt throughout the company.

JOHN MONAHAN, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Marlborough, MA
Produce Manager John Monahan of Price Chopper maintains and merchandises one of the largest volume produce departments in the company. John and his produce team create large displays that cater to the store’s diverse customer base. It has been said that the store goes the way of the produce department, and in John’s case, this store has been extremely successful. His produce department staff is extremely knowledgeable about the products they sell, and they are ready to help educate an inquisitive consumer. John and his staff encourage customers to sample products because they say, “tasting is believing and believing is the key to repeat purchases.”

John is also happy to give schoolchildren a backroom tour of the produce department. And to ensure top customer service all the time, he schedules his team so that are always bi-lingual associates available to answer questions from non-English speaking customers. John even encourages his produce team to take English as a second language classes offered by Price Chopper, and he continuously follows up on their progress. John is the zone trainer and many of his trainees go on to become successful produce managers.

KEN PECHE, BKT Sentry Foods, Wakesha, WI
BKT Sentry Foods Produce Manager Ken Peche takes customer service seriously. Ken makes it a point to interact with each customer, helping create a friendly and welcoming environment in the produce department. He enjoys running themed ads with corresponding displays such as Washington Apple Fest, Citrus Explosion Ad, stone fruit promotions, Berry Fest and Salad Bowl Sales. As part of his commitment to customer service and community, Ken welcomes grade schoolchildren into his produce deparment throughout the year. After each tour, he gives the children a sample of produce. Ken maintains a large packaged section that includes cut dipping vegetables, cut fruit bowls and trays and other items that encourage impulse sales.
Ken also has a well disciplined culling/straigtening program, which ensures that his department is always fresh looking and fully stocked. Ken’s backroom and cooler conditions are exceptionally neat and clean, demonstrating excellent inventory control. Because of his excellent performance in the produce deparment, Ken also serves on the Sentry/W.Newell/Supervalu produce advisory board, which involves developing strategies to improve operations and increase produce sales within the entire Sentry group.

GREG RIENHART, Hy-Vee, Inc., Marshall, MN
Simple rows of apples and oranges won’t cut it in Greg Reinhart’s Hy Vee produce department. Out of the box, original produce concepts are more his style. For example, last year, Greg built a “Build a Better Burger” display, complete with the essential burger-making ingredients, including lettuce, tomatoes and onions. His red pepper and portabella mushroom display and demo was also a big hit. With catchy phrases like “yam good taste” and “orange you glad you shopped with us,” his signs can’t help but draw customers to the produce department.

“Customer satisfaction is the foundation of a good produce department,” he says. Greg enjoys teaching people of all ages about produce. He speaks to the students at Marshall High School about the importance of including fresh produce in meals. He also serves as an agricultural advisor to the Future Farmers of American (FFA), educating his local area FFA chapters about produce. For all his hard work and dedication, Greg is well respected by his supervisors and fellow produce managers.

NANCY RIEKENA, The Kroger Co., Peoria, IL
Kroger Produce Manager Nancy Riekena knows produce, especially organic produce. In 2007, Nancy has sold over 150 varieties of Fresh Organic Produce, and she is constantly looking for new Organic varieties. She also goes out of her way to promote fresh cut produce that her teams cleans and cuts in the store. Often times, she will create additional displays of cut fruit throughout the store. Nancy understands that children are the foundation of our future. She frequently conducts store tours emphasizing the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” campaign. Kids sample unique produce items; their favorites are Rambutan, Star Fruit, and Kiwanos. Themed merchandising is Nancy’s forte.

In 2007, her “Taste of the Tropics,” “Fall Harvest” and “Wedding Day” displays were popular among customers. The “Wedding” display helped generated special produce orders for wedding receptions. Nancy is recognized as a leader in her Zone and in the Division. Kroger Central Division Produce Merchandiser Shawn Spencer says, “Not only does Nancy have a passion for the produce business, but she also has a passion for people. She is a star performer.”

JULIE RODRIGUEZ, Smith’s Food and Drug Center, Bozeman, MT
Produce Manager Julie Rodriguez uses creative and dynamic displays to generate excitement and energy in the produce department. This veteran produce manager has won many display contents with her unusual promotional ideas. Her latest winning contest entry, hosted by Litehouse Caramel Apple Dip, included a twelve foot lighthouse that was built of the caramel dip product, complete with a strobe light in the top and surrounded by several apple varieties. Julie sounded a fog horn throughout the day and passed out samples of apples and caramel dip to the customers in the store. Her team took first place in last year’s Super Bowl Guacamole Fixings Contest in which they promoted recipes and then bundled all the fresh produce needed to complete the recipe.

Julie promotes a great work environment, job satisfaction and sense of teamwork by involving everyone in her department in the display design and concept. Julie is also involved in promoting produce outside the store. As a Health Awareness coordinator for an elementary school in the community, she teaches the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and staying healthy. Julie, through her customer service skills, is always looking for new and better ways to promote produce. She is always bringing in new products that her customers have asked for, such as French green beans, purple and white asparagus, purple and yellow wax beans, lychee nuts, and more.

BEN ROGERS, Jewel/Osco, DeKalb, IL
Ben Rogers, produce manager at Jewel/Osco in DeKalb, Illinois, makes sure his produce department is always at its best. The produce is fresh and appealing to customers as they enter the store, and his clever, original displays sell produce items in his department and in other areas of the store too. Ben is very customer orientated, establishing long lasting customer relationships.

Over the years, he has spoken about the dietary importance of produce to the Lions Club, a local junior college, women’s clubs and the local junior high school. Ben is always happy to give tours of the produce department to young children as well. Ben is respected and admired by his fellow managers and associates. His produce team is proud to nominate him for this year’s United Fresh Retail Produce Manager Award.

JOHN SCHWENK, Bristol Farms, Newport Beach, CA
Bristol Farms Produce Manager John Schwenk is a forward-thinker with an eye for detail when it comes to merchandising fresh produce. John goes beyond using the standard everyday merchandising signage in his displays; he uses authentic props such as real farm style wagons, crates and decorative racks to draw attention to the produce department. He uses commodity promotions and chooses a fruit or vegetable to sample every week. John is a strong supporter of cross merchandising and has several displays through out the store where fresh produce is center stage. John is an active member of the Fresh Produce and Floral Council and attends expos and other offered functions.

John’s “Red Carpet” produce tour is known by many elementary school kids, who walk away from his produce department with a greater understanding of what eating fresh fruits and vegetables daily means to their overall health and well being. Because of John’s vast knowledge and experience, many of our company produce managers call him regularly. John has won numerous company sales and display contests over the years because he sees to it that every customer has a great shopping experience. Promoting fresh produce is always a top priority for John.

Produce Manager Rich Thompson started with Meijer in 1972. After working in Grocery for several years, he found his true passion in the Produce Department. Richard has been a Meijer Produce Team Leader for 23 years. He has built produce departments from the ground up and also taken over ailing departments to make them profitable. Richard is highly respected by his fellow produce team leaders, and his positive outlook and winning attitude has a contagious effect on his team and his store as a whole. He supports the Meijer Produce for Kids Program, arranges for school tours of his produce department and supports the “Fruits and Veggies MORE Matters” program with special displays and signage. Richard has received numerous company awards for his hard work.

ISHMAEL VELA, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Edinburg, TX
Known to his customers as “Smiley,” Wal-Mart produce expert Ismael Vela has been in the produce business 28 years and says he has loved every minute of it. He stands at the entrance everyday greeting people with a smile when they enter the produce department — hence his nick name. One customer says, that “Smiley is great with colors and he always creates displays that have a way of turning your attention to the season and your grocery list away from cookies to fresh vegetables and fruit.” Ismael has gone so far as to bring a full size tractor into the produce department to draw attention to the produce department.

Over the years, he has proven himself to his supervisors, and recently he was chosen as a Produce Training Manager to train all new store managers in his district on the logistics of day to day produce department management. Customer service is at the heart of his daily business — just as much as seeing that the bins are full, the product is fresh and that the signage is properly displayed.

We are looking forward to a great new group of winners for 2009. Congratulations to all concerned.

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