Where did you get your start in grocery?
My family owned and operated 22 stores in southwestern Michigan from 1932 to 2007, so my earliest memory in grocery is turning off frozen and dairy lights with my dad on Christmas eve when I was 12. I started officially working when I was 16 as a bagger and except for one year, I have been working in the grocery business ever since. I started with ‘natural foods’ when I worked at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor in 2007 after we sold our family business.
What brought you to Traverse City?
My family moved to TC about 7 years ago. My wife and I lived in the arid southwestern desert for 10 years when we started yearning to be closer to water and family.
What seasonal products are you excited about?
Currently I am very excited about the Sumo and Heirloom Navel Oranges. The Sumo orange is a very big deal out west and I’m hoping to create some of that same excitement here in northern Michigan. I also can’t wait until our local season starts when we’ll be getting spring veggies like asparagus and fiddle heads, all the way through fall when hatch chilies will be available here. Coming from Santa Fe, New Mexico and still having a license plate that reads ‘Chile Capital of the World,’ I hope to bring some of that chili excitement and passion here as well.
What’s your approach to running a large produce department?
My approach is to build a program based on the high Oryana standards where we focus on local, national organic, and then Non-GMO produce. I do add some conventional products that fulfill our customers’ needs. I’m looking for unique culinary products and items that are a great value to our customers. Quality needs to be the first priority all day, every day.
What are some fun facts about the produce department?
Bananas are the #1 item in our produce department and they are also the #1 item in every produce department in the U.S. Oryana West consistently sells 1200 pounds of bananas every week with avocados coming in second, where we sell nearly 800 organic and 250 conventional avocados weekly.
Tell us about your team members?
We have a small but great team at West that continues to grow into Oryana and our mission. We have focused mainly on department conditions, quality, systems, and customer service. We typically have two samples going in the department from 10-6pm daily on sale items, seasonal products, and just great tasting produce. Our department is passionate and each team member has a say in what we are sampling. We also carry a selection of flowers and have a passionate team member who has her own flower garden and really owns the floral program at West.
Talk about conventional vs organic produce and how you’ve seen prices fluctuate this past year?
We want to carry local organic as much as possible, followed by national organic when local organic is not available. We do carry some conventional products when it makes sense with the product mix. Sometimes there isn’t much of a difference in cost between conventional and organic and in this instance we will exclusively carry organic, but there are a couple items where the quality is better with conventional. Nevertheless, customers still sometimes prefer organic, for instance leeks and fennel. There is a significant cost difference but customers are ok with it.
We also try to carry bagged conventional items like apples and bulk apples that are organic. We can get costs down to under $2 per pound on conventional while still carrying a great product. (By the way, most conventional bags of apples are grown in Michigan.) Most organic apples come from Washington state. It’s a complicated business at times but ultimately our owners, customers, and Oryana’s mission and principles drive those decisions. We do our best to live up to our own standards and strive to get better every day.
What’s your favorite part of your role as produce manager at Oryana?
I love our team members and watching them grow and develop and eventually become future leaders of Oryana. I love working side by side with all our team members in the store to create an environment where customers and staff alike thrive. Food is the fabric of life and every great moment that I have shared with family and friends has been centered around food. So sharing, talking, and helping create that positive experience for our community is why I show up every day.
What are some local products you currently have in stock that we should check out?
Even in winter we have lots of local items. We have local shiitake, oyster and lions mane mushrooms, salads, micro greens and shoots. We still have butternut squash, red, gold, fingerling and creamer potatoes, yellow and red onions, cabbage (green and red), turnips, rutabagas, watermelon radish, purple daikon, and sweet potatoes all grown in our area.
Can you share any tips on how to get kids (or adults) to eat more veggies or try something new?
Don’t stress out about it and don’t start with broccoli with your kids! That can be a challenging food to force someone to eat, and it will probably cause trauma!
But all joking aside, I have found kids and adults who help in a garden typically eat more fruits and vegetables. In a previous company where I worked, we donated money to schools for school gardens. I haven’t been in TC long enough to know what programs are here but that would be a great use of our time and efforts to get gardens into schools. In the meantime, find or support a community garden you can volunteer at. Once you taste a vegetable or fruit that has just come off a vine, you will be hard pressed to eat anything that wasn’t grown from a local vendor or your own back yard.
Ask a friendly produce team member for recommendations on new items.
Also, always remember that kids can pick out a free piece of fruit or vegetable when shopping at Oryana!