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Earl’s Employee Gains Retail Experience

Chandley Logsdon, one of Earl’s employees, is a recent product of UCLA, with a degree in Spanish and a flair for healthful food. Upon employment, she was offered an opportunity to learn the underpinnings of the retail world before joining Earl’s team. Chandley’s blog documents her experience thus far:

Chandley at El Cerrito Natural Grocery

Chandley at El Cerrito Natural Grocery

Last spring, I asked my professor to sponsor me for an independent research project on the labor standards of contemporary, undocumented farm workers in Santa Barbara County. As I interviewed migrant avocado pickers and enrolled in a California Agriculture course at Cal a permanent seed of food-interest was planted within me that has since sprouted into a fascination I can’t control. Food blogs and documentaries, seminars, and farm research began to consume my free time. Words and places and authors like Novela Carpenter, Cesar Chavez, Alice Waters, fair trade, seasonality of foods, and Berkeley filled my vocabulary and molded my opinions. That is how I landed an internship working with imported citrus in the summer of 2012, which in turn, lead me to Earl’s Organic where I am finally in the position to see the food chain operate firsthand. My blog is not so much a timeline as it is a journal of lessons learned and anecdotes of precious moments.

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost… But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature.”- Michael Pollan

Thirty-five miles South of San Francisco is the town of Half Moon Bay(HMB). It rests quietly in the fog from the Pacific where coastal farms harvest some of the best organic foods. We at Earl’s have a tight partnership with New Leaf Community Market where I spent two weeks working in the produce department. After a brief tour and introduction from the Produce Director, I was sent to work the floor. It was a drink-from-the-fire hose learning curve – I had responsibilities to fulfill just like the rest of the employees. Usually, the day began by browsing the fruit display looking for scarcity. A few cases of avocados would be removed from the coolers and put on the shelf to create a full and abundant looking display. I learned about product rotation and educated customers on foods. Long time employees schooled me on their store policies, customer tendencies, seasonality, and local farms. Through these daily tasks, I was better able to understand our importance at Earl’s and how handling the product with integrity is a crucial aspect in maintaining an efficient and effective supply chain.

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New Leaf Grocery Half Moon Bay

In addition to encouraging organics, the store commits to having a relationship with small local growers by selling their fruits and vegetables and advertises the name of the farm. To me this is huge. The store takes an extra step to make a difference in supporting the community’s small farms. With my notepad and pen in hand, I jotted down all the facts, including my own personal thoughts and observations. The people at this store caught my attention, and taught me lessons too.

One of my first lessons came from Helen, a middle seventies snowbird and long- standing store customer. She was eying the persimmons one day as I stacked them. I laid the orange fruit, newest to oldest, on a strong nest of their brothers and sisters. Using one of the retail strategies I learned about juxtaposition of products, I built their sturdy mound next to the ruddy Bartlett Pears. This contrast has a funny effect on a shopper; they see the color break and their eyes tell them they must have this fruit. Helen’s reaction lived up to that of a typical customer. Purchasers of produce are impulse buyers; whatever stands out ends up in their reusable shopping bags. I noticed Helen puzzled by the persimmons; she had never seen them before. Many natural food stores have a standing modus operandi; all customers have the right to request a sample of any product displayed. Eager to facilitate the introduction, I sliced her some of the orange colored fruit and watched her walk out with a half dozen. Later that week, she returned to thank me and bought a dozen more for her daughters. Conversing with long-time and recent foodies, sharing and introducing new foods were the moments I enjoyed most. These Half Moon Bay citizens first pick is not a shiny, uniformly ripened, conventional product; they are making a conscious food selection by choosing local and organic and that is something to be admired.

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HMB New Leaf set a tough example to follow as I returned to the city to work retail in El Cerrito and Berkeley. Over the following weeks I had a new realization. I began to see that the produce department is a direct reflection of our farmland, season, and the weather. It is ever-changing and evolving; cold snaps, heat waves, deep frosts, and other environmental factors influence the produce we see every day. During the month of November, El Cerrito Natural Grocery had over 50 apple varietals on display. I was amazed that every apple was different from its neighbor, not just in size and color, but also in density, acidity, sweetness, and aroma. Days were spent sampling Cherrie-Apples, Winesaps, and Pink Ladies. With winter upon us, I am certain the store has the most beautiful spread of citrus covering the floor. I respected such seasonal variety because buying seasonally usually means lower prices, more flavorful products, and a smaller carbon footprint due to less travel. This retail store, although small, also prided itself on having nearly-impossible-to-find fruits like Cherimoyas, Guava berries and Mango Oranges. Specialization in seasonal and rare product implants a piece of local knowledge that makes customers proud to say, “Green garlic? I know just the place!”

While New  Leaf customers boasted the highest food IQ, and El Cerrito Natural Grocery the best niche products, by far the largest store I had to opportunity to learn from was in Berkeley Bowl West. This store moves product at high volume and strives to offer competitive prices for their consumers; it felt like a Wal-Mart for natural foods. One can buy Frosted Flakes and Heritage Flakes in the same aisle. One element I was quite fond of was their conscious effort to minimize waste. One of my primary duties here was identifying and sorting “culls” while rotating the product. When fruits and vegetables are rotated, the flawed produce is sifted out and put into the culls pile. For example, after bananas are picked off the tree, we as a distributor or retailers can accelerate the ripening process, by monitoring its environments temperature. Therefore, bananas are rated on a number system of “yellowness,” level one being dead green and level seven being full color with slight freckling. If the temperature is poorly adjusted, the bananas skin will turn a muted yellow color that would quickly find itself culled from the shelf. The culls are then given away to employees, food banks or composted. Consumers are not tolerant of flawed produce. Usually, culls are flavorsome, and have but the slightest of blemishes. Let’s face it; we can be fussy at times wanting a perfect diamond ring, a scratch-free car, and of course a perfectly yellowed level six banana. If we did not turn our nose up at flecked fruits and vegetables we could save a lot more time, money, and most of all, food. An employee told me “we don’t like to waste. Sometimes the food will have little bruising or scarring, but the taste is not forfeited,” so the imperfect produce gets bagged and sold at a discounted rate. This shelf is loved by those who want produce to make juices, smoothies, salsa, or baked goods.

As I look back at the arc of my agriculture experience the past year, from that fateful research project, to the citrus internship, to the conclusion of my retail experience, and now my introduction into Earl’s team I have been enlightened. Since adopting a mostly plant-based diet, I’ve become mindful of ingredients, where they came from, and how they got to my plate. I am not only more knowledgeable of our country’s food chain, but I’m now a facilitating member of the process with Earl’s. Working with an organic company who promotes sustainable agriculture and food trade and working with growers and customers who strive for the same goals is gratifying. The amount of energy, money and hard work needed to fill our grocery stores is something to be appreciated.  Awareness of the process makes for a wiser consumer. The names I read in books have become my role models and I feel that I have the ability to carry out their philosophy, not just by living my life that way, but making it possible for others to live that way too through Earl’s Organic. Thank you Earl, participating retailers and wonderful staff for your patience and making this experience possible.

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