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The Pulse of Fresh: A Q&A With Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores

The Pulse of Fresh: A Q&A With Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores

Do you know that booming, contagious laughter you might hear on a trade show floor or across the room at an industry event? More often than not, you would be safe to assume the owner of that voice is Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores. While virtual events and communications will bridge the gap for the moment—the irreplaceable handshake, rounds of laughter, and warm camaraderie that comes by sharing the same physical space just can’t be replaced.

Yes, the broken record goes around one more time.

Despite it all, many are looking to the silver linings not only available to us, but made by us. Mike is one of those fresh produce voices rallying friends, industry members, and new faces—even now, as we approach the new year and all its uncertainty.

Mike has always had a way of turning the tide with his attitude, advocacy, and unfaltering loyalty to all-things fruits and vegetables. Managing a retail footprint of approximately 113 stores across Arkansas, as well as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, Mike has his fingers on the pulse of the consumer’s needs and demands.

As his tenure reveals 30 years of service across the industry, this exceptional human is breaching a whole new normal along with the rest of us. With a smile and a laugh, he says, “Chin up, we are all in this together.” And, a few more things...

Jordan Okumura: Mike, it has been a beast of a year. I imagine that you, as a retailer, have witnessed how much the business has changed on the front lines. If you don’t mind me asking, how has consumer traffic and demand in the fresh produce department changed since 2020 became the year of the new normal?

Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores: What a crazy time, right? I think we all knew that fresh produce was essential in everyone’s baskets, but I don’t think we ever really anticipated a challenge like COVID-19 driving change in consumers’ buying behaviors and how we conduct business in the fresh produce department.

As of this fall, traffic was up about 20 percent. Same-store sales were up a little more, around 25 percent. And, as you can imagine, demand is up! There has been a fluctuation in the amount of variety that consumers want from fresh produce, but we know that the staples are doing really well.

JO: I know my fresh produce purchases have gone up now that I am prepping more home meals and cooking for others. How have your own personal buying behaviors changed? Has produce become more important in your household?

MR: We have always eaten a lot of produce in our household. Since shelter-in-place went into effect, my wife is baking more and cooking more as well, so our grocery purchases by volume and dollar amount have gone up. I would imagine that our produce purchases are up more also, as logic tells me.

But, produce is never anything we skimp on. Who would I be, if that were the case?!

JO: Across the industry, the attitudes that people are adopting have really blown my mind. There has been panic, for sure, but more cohesion and resilience than anything else. I think these ideals are always what we hope and strive for, but the difference between the ideal and the reality is always a question mark—at least until necessity calls on your integrity or calls your bluff. What positives and silver linings have emerged for you during this time?

MR: Challenges reveal what is most important to us. They also test our character and our adaptability. I think this is a good opportunity for us all to recalibrate and reprioritize. As a household, we have spent a lot more time outdoors and with friends and family. That has been amazing.

"Never forget about the partners and relationships that got you here..."

Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores

There are also some funny things that I have learned during this time, too. I need bigger ears—who knew? My mask always falls off. My hands, I think, have a permanent layer of hand sanitizer on them, and two showers a day is kind of cool!

JO: For you personally, why is our industry more essential than ever, and do you see that changing anytime soon?

MR: Produce may not always be the center of the plate, but we are a big portion—and a growing portion—of it. We are also gaining ground as a snacking option versus chips and sweets! That shift alone is changing the dynamic of how we build our stores’ displays. Produce is healthy and, in the face of a very scary virus, being healthy is safer, smarter, and better!

You want me to scream it, right? Eat more produce!

JO: I wish we could be having this conversation face to face! But, all of this has made me more appreciative than ever. What do you miss most of all about industry events and trade shows?

MR: I miss seeing people in person, too. Having been in the industry for 32 years, those people are great friends and, in some cases, they are like family. I miss getting to see them, and I miss getting to meet new people. Zoom meetings are okay, but they are not the same. And I always feel like I am on an episode of Hollywood Squares!

JO: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone new in the industry who is experiencing challenges like the ones we face today?

MR: Always be prepared for the unexpected—have backup plans in every category and every aspect of your operations. Never forget about the partners and relationships that got you here, because that helps us all thrive every day.

Above and beyond is how I would describe our industry—in value and in attitude. It is people like Mike Roberts that make showing up so easy for so many. Hopefully, someday soon, we will shake hands with even more intent and gratitude than ever before. Just know that we are here, hands extended, ready and waiting for you.