Produce is a game of passion, but anyone can play – if they know the rules

Produce tricks of the trade - Robbie Smith tells you how to step up a gear on fresh

For too long, wholesaling great produce has been the preserve of the specialists, says Robbie Smith. The foodservice and wholesale trade has often received the lower end of the crops – the out-of-size products and the misfits that retailers do not want.

It has been a largely self-inflicted wound, as selling produce strikes the fear of God – or waste – into many, so demands for better margins have resulted in compromises in quality, and varieties and products that the end-customer does not really want.

If you look at the really great lovers and sellers of produce, they never start with price, which often never comes into it. Take Gregg Wallace, barrow boy turned MasterChef supremo. He has never mentioned the word price in his overtures to all things green. For him, it is about savouring the season’s best and relishing a change in temperature as nature provides its finest offering.

Look at Wholefoods, Trader Joe’s and Waitrose – these retailers stole a march on the fruit and veg specialist stores of their day by embracing qualities that matter more than price.

Become passionate purveyors of produce

The day has come for wholesalers to steal a march on specialists by becoming passionate purveyors of produce, rather than just selling the basics.

Produce is so simple to understand and manage, as long as you remember the three most important rules: get excited by the produce seasons; tell the provenance story; and put yourself in the shoes of the end-customer.

No two produce seasons are the same, but as sure as night follows day, consumers will be eating sprouts at Christmas, strawberries in summer, and apples when autumn comes around. Knowing this is entry-level; celebrating it is mastery.

Every month has ‘hero products’ that should take pride of place in your display – a beacon in your offering telling your customers, ‘We have been waiting all year for our blood oranges from Spain, and they are bigger, juicier and better than ever.’

Take your seasonal calendar, max out on the provenance and quality of what you offer, and tell your customers all about it. Buy better varieties of strawberries, with higher sugar counts; make sure your apple pressures are better than your competitors; get new season potatoes as early as possible; and source local vegetables, which will improve their freshness and their story.

This season is yours

More importantly, send back anything that does not meet your standards – take a stand that this season is yours, and you are going to give your customers nothing but the best. Your c-store customers may want small packs for their top-up shoppers, rather than better-value but waste-inducing packs, so be mindful of that. Your restaurant and chef customers will want ready-prepared produce that they can shout about on their menus, carefully sourced by region and variety.

But the real passion for produce comes in the eating. And as the product will end up on a plate somewhere, it simply has to be on your plate first. Taste-testing every week against competitors on key lines is critical to understanding seasonal fluctuations and staying ahead of the market.

So, this year, think about how you can be different and better than your competitors with your seasonal produce, and map out a simple annual plan. Most produce sales come from the basics, but these are trusted so much more when it can be seen that thoughtful product experts have sourced them.

Push the boundaries of quality on your seasonal lines, ‘heroise’ them in front of customers and watch the sales of your whole category rise. There is profit to be made on produce for those wholesalers willing to put in the effort for their time-pressed customers, who increasingly want a one-stop solution for their product needs.


Robbie Smith is the former head of fresh commodity trading at Musgrave Retail Partners


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