31st Annual Mystery Shopper Report

Mystery Shoppers

Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Produce Business.

It might be one of the most difficult food mysteries to solve: how to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. Nationwide grocery store clerks do their best to answer our tough questions.

The staff at PRODUCE BUSINESS looks forward each year to our annual Mystery Shopper report. We take investigating these stores very seriously, and quite frankly, it’s a cover story we never tire of reporting.

Mystery shopping is pretty simple: We send our team of undercover journalists to scout out various produce departments at grocery stores in their area or stores they discover in their travels. Their 2018 task: observe the department from signage to inventory and engage produce employees in conversation about what ideas and tips they recommend for inspiring children to eat more produce, with a special emphasis on vegetables.

Our aim with this annual report is to recreate for readers the one-on-one interaction between our writers and produce personnel inside each retailer. There is a lot to learn from these reports, such as business intelligence that can be applied to training and evaluating employees, as well as improving operations.

While we do not identify the stores, we delve into what retailers want to know, and also what they need to know.

By Janel Leitner
Upscale Specialty Chain Store: Digging Deep For Ideas

Mystery Shopper Report Shutterstock ImageI visited an upscale, popular chain known mainly for its organic-and specialty-food-seeking clientele. As I walked through the small floral department into the 50-foot by 30-foot produce area, an aroma of citrus and flowers welcomed me. Everything was beautifully displayed as if trying to mimic a local farmers market. The lighting was fairly dim, but my first impression was that of cleanliness and organization. However, on a Friday morning, to my surprise, there were no customers shopping in the produce area.

I shopped around a bit, and eventually approached a man stocking carrots. He seemed friendly and welcomed my explanation of how my family and I wanted to add more vegetables and fruits to our meals in order to shape up for spring. I proceeded to ask if he had any suggestions for meals that are heavy on vegetables. He said, “How about a pizza crust made from cauliflower?”

He explained how the kids would not even notice the difference in the crust and we could use whatever fresh, chopped vegetables as a topping. He said he has three younger children and he started with them at a young age eating vegetables with recipes such as this. He then gave me a website that he refers to most of the time to download recipes heavy in vegetables.

I asked if there were any pre-packaged solutions to eating more fruits or vegetables. He pointed to a section of pre-packaged vegetables. He mentioned how the squash, zucchini and sweet potato noodles were quite popular. I looked at him a little perplexed. He added how the store had a tasting a few weeks back and they served sweet potato noodles with a pumpkin sauce. He said, “Believe it or not, the pumpkin sauce tasted really good with the noodles. I can give you a website that explains how you can make a really good fresh sauce that would go well with those noodles.”

I thanked him for all of his help and joked how I wish I could get my kids to eat more fruits other than apples. He very happily added, “What about smoothies? With a good smoothie maker, you could throw in Kale which is a superfood along with any berries, bananas, even pears, and make some great smoothies.”

I obviously interrupted this gentleman while he was trying to get some work done, but he was very open to listening to my questions. He tried his best to help and had truly creative and useful suggestions that addressed my concerns.

National Chain Store: Drinking Your Fruits And Veggies

On a late weekday morning, I visited a very busy, national chain. There were many young mothers as well as older shoppers buzzing around this 70-foot by 35-foot department, which was bright and very spacious. The produce looked clean, yet it appeared like it had been picked through, and was decidedly “old looking.”

After browsing for five to ten minutes, I approached a young man stocking produce. I asked, “Is there any way you can refer me to some cool, new fruits to introduce to my kids?” Surprisingly his response was very welcoming and he immediately responded, “I know of the perfect thing.”

I followed him as he swiftly walked over to the grapes. He said, “We usually have Cotton Candy Grapes and they taste just like cotton candy, but I guess we’re out.” He then grabbed a bag of red seedless grapes and promised me they were delicious and sweet and my kids would love them. I thanked him and asked if there were any other fruits.

After thinking a bit, it was as if a light bulb went on and he said, “Wait, let me show you this.” He rushed me to the Bolthouse Farms smoothie drinks. He explained how there are a few fruit and vegetable servings in one drink. He also explained how he drinks them all the time and he thought kids would drink them too. I no sooner thanked him and in the blink of an eye, he was gone.

A woman busily stocking lettuce caught my eye and I struck up a conversation asking her if she could suggest any non-produce items to get my kids to eat more produce. After thinking a bit, she walked me to their 4-foot-long refrigerated “Dips and Dressings” display located next to the prepackaged salads in the rear of the department, and handed me a bottle of Vegy Vida, a children’s vegetable dip from Cincinnati-based Vegy Vida. She explained, “From what I’m hearing, this dip is supposedly made by moms. It comes in different flavors and helps kids gain tastes for raw vegetables, from snap peas, to carrots to even raw broccoli.”

I asked if she had any other suggestions. She directed me to her “ready-to-go” produce snack products incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables with dip, almonds and/or cheese. She explained, “Our store has these products so people can walk right in and grab them for easy, healthy snacking.” She also pointed out the pre-cut apples packed with caramel dip and prepacked carrots with ranch dip.

Although he tried to be helpful, the first younger gentleman seemed rushed, but the second woman took more time and tried her best to satisfy me as a consumer with questions.

Popular Chain Store: Sharing Recipes And Advice

From the moment I walked through the doorway, it was apparent this popular chain store is centered around the produce department, which was well lit and appeared clean and well organized. It was a weekday morning and numerous shoppers of all ages glided through this 100-foot by 50-foot area.

However, for such a produce-centric focus, not many people were working in the department. I finally approached a woman taking inventory on some produce, asking for help as to what fresh vegetables would make a healthy soup for my family. She said due to her culture she didn’t think she could help me but she said she would find someone who could. She introduced me to a gentleman who claimed, “I know fresh stews and soups.”

He began to rattle off a delicious recipe for a stew, which included parsnips, broccoli and carrots. He also gave me two other recipes for soups (off the top of his head) as well as his secret “healthy” chicken salad. This gentleman wanted to be so helpful that he walked me to the aisle where broths were shelved, just so I could find the right broth. When I asked if it was all right for him to spend so much time with me, he stated, “It’s OK, I am ahead on my work and I’m happy to show you what you need.”

On our walk back to the produce department from the grocery aisle, I asked the gentleman about new fruits that might be exciting to my children. He offered, “The bags of organic apples are all good right now and the Mandarin oranges and Sumo oranges are delicious, but a case of the Sumo’s are a little pricey.” He then thought a moment and told me to follow him to the pre-cut fruits counter. He showed me all of the pre-cut fruit in containers for grab-and-go, and he picked up a container of the Sumo oranges. He explained how this could be a better way for my kids to try the Sumo oranges.

It was a pleasant surprise to experience just how helpful this gentleman was. He went above and beyond to make sure I was provided answers to all of my questions, from walking me throughout the store, to sharing some of his healthy recipes.

By Jodean Robbins
Large Chain Store: Vegetables — A Tougher Sell

I visited a large chain on a busy Friday morning. The 2,000-square-foot department was clean, bright and open, with five employees restocking. I wheeled my cart a few feet from a man working citrus and stared at the fruit displays in deep thought. He quickly asked, “Can I help you with something?”

I replied, “I’m trying to get my kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. We have pledged to become healthier as a family this year.”

He stepped toward me saying, “Kids can be tough. Grapes and blueberries are usually an easy solution. I also like the Mandarins. Kids they think they’re cute.”

Glancing at the Clementine and Mandarin display I said, “I bought those Clementines last time, and they were sour. My kids didn’t like them at all.”

He nodded and responded, “I’d recommend you try the bagged Mandarins. These (he indicated) are sweet right now and should go over well with the kids.”

“Ok,” I replied grabbing a bag. “But what can I do about vegetables?”

Shaking his head he stated, “Vegetables are more difficult. Baby carrots and celery sticks are always a good option. Most kids like those, especially if you serve with something to dip them in.”

He proceeded to explain and show me the dressings and dips in produce. “You can also introduce them to salad this way,” he offered. “Just put a little lettuce on a plate and have them dip into the dressing of their choice.”

He further explained that his friend uses bacon to entice his children to eat other vegetables. “He uses bacon pieces with Brussels sprouts; the kids try it because they love bacon,” he said. “For asparagus, you could try serving it with a cheese sauce.”

One last question I asked was: “Would trying uncommon fruits with the kids expand their interest?”

“You could try star fruit because it looks fun when it’s sliced,” he said. “But it can be a little tart. Kiwi is another great fruit. I recommend slicing it and serving with strawberries. That way you have something known and something new.”

I thanked him and loaded up my basket with his suggestions. What a refreshing encounter to find someone so overly eager to help. His friendly demeanor, enthusiasm and relevant answers made me want to ask more questions, and it also gave me confidence in what he said. I think my kids just might go for some of his ideas.

Superstore: Grab-And-Go To The Rescue

I hit the 800 square-foot produce section of this busy superstore as soon as I walked through the doors and saw three employees tidying up displays. I approached one, asking, “Excuse me. I’m trying to get my kids to eat more produce. Are any of these apples sweet enough to interest them?”

Smiling, he turned and replied, “The signs above each describe what they taste like. Most of the apple varieties are good, but I think the best are Gala, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp. We also have a really sweet new apple variety called Opal. You should definitely try it with the kids.”

Girl with peachesPicking up an apple, he continued, “Apple slices with peanut butter are great — I like them. You can also use caramel dip, which we sell right here, but you’re probably trying to get away from that type of stuff?”

Nodding affirmatively, I turned my attention to lunch. “Can you suggest any pre-prepared fruit or vegetable items for the kids’ lunches?” I asked.

He pointed to a grab-and-go section. “We have a lot over there,” he said. “There are fruit and cheese chunks and even nuts, carrots and dip, and veggies and dip. They’re easy and ready to go.”

We talked about my desire to incorporate salads, and he mentioned his sisters love salads. “I think it’s because my mom put a lot of different items in them,” he said. “Try combining corn or foods they really like with lettuce. It is great to just put everything out separately and let them combine what they want.”

At that point another employee interrupted us with a question about the price of bananas. She seemed to need his full attention, so I thanked him and left. While I hadn’t expected much from this visit given my past experiences at this store, I left pleasantly surprised by the approachable nature of this employee, as well as his helpful suggestions.

Independent Grocer: Sometimes It’s About Texture

On a slow weekday morning, I visited an independent co-op grocer. In the dated, but clean 850-square-foot produce area, two employees were busy restocking. I approached one asking, “Can you help me? How can I get my kids to eat more vegetables? They only eat broccoli and corn, and I want more variety.”

Turning to me he replied, “Have you tried asparagus or carrots? Those usually work well with kids.”

He suggested instead of serving raw carrots with dip, to cook them until they’re just a little soft. “But not mushy,” he said. “Sometimes with kids, it’s all about the texture, not necessarily the taste.”

I then mentioned I wished my kids would eat salad, a topic he picked up on quickly. “Salads are great, but you have to be careful with the dressings — they’re not really healthy,” he said. “Try adding fruit they like to the salad. That might get them to eat it.”

He then proceeded to show me various fruits, including dried cranberries and Forelle pears. “These are all good to add in,” he said. “Also, mangos are great for kids. Just be sure they’re ripe when you use them.”

I asked about non-produce items that would help my kids eat more produce. He said, “Most of the extra stuff we sell is really unhealthy. All these dips and sauces are just full of sugar. I wouldn’t recommend them.”

He led me to a section with smoothie packet mixes, picked one up and indicated the nutrition label. “See, most of these are high in sugar and sodium,” he said.

I thanked him for his help and he replied, “Come back and let me know how it goes.” He demonstrated a high level of enthusiasm and desire to help, although he was focused on the salt and fat issues. I was impressed with his engagement and encouragement to come back. However, I’m less convinced that his suggestions will work with my kids.

By Joyce Reingold
Specialty Market: ‘Organic Is Like A Religion’

In our quest for healthier eating, my granddaughter and I headed to a nearby specialty market, one of five in a regional chain. My favorite thing about this store is its compact and pristine produce department. The fruits and vegetables appear to have been hand-selected and hand-placed in their displays. Besides looking beautiful, the produce is reliably fresh. It was the perfect place to find ideas for consuming more fruits and vegetables for our spring shape-up effort.

We walked through the front doors and right into the produce department, where we were greeted by one of the week’s specials: packets of colorful chunks of kabob vegetables, including an advertised “tropical” variety with pineapple that I thought might appeal to my granddaughter.

The department was busy with shoppers who appeared to know exactly what they wanted and when they found it, swiftly moved on. We waited several minutes, looking for a store employee to answer our questions. I was about to go to the office to ask for help when we saw that a man wearing a store-branded apron had just entered the department.

We said hello to the produce manager, a 40-year veteran of the industry. “I’d like to introduce my granddaughter to a wider selection of fruits and vegetables. What would you recommend?” Steve looked at my granddaughter and asked, “How about mangos? Have you ever tried them?” She said she had not. He thought the sweetness might appeal to her, and the nutritional aspects might appeal to her parents and me: a cup has a full day’s recommended allotment of Vitamin C. He also suggested she give the fuzzy-faced kiwifruit another try. She’d found it too tart the only time she’d tasted it.

On the vegetable side, he recommended a salad blend — crunchy peapods, two different kinds of lettuce, shredded carrots, red cabbage and radishes — as a good way to introduce new vegetables in tiny bites.

Although he couldn’t have been nicer, he didn’t have too many other suggestions. However, he was generous in sharing knowledge gleaned from his decades of experience and we didn’t feel rushed. As we talked, my granddaughter asked about the difference between organic and conventional produce. A discussion at another store had left her worried about pesticides. Steve allayed her fears with a bit of humor. “Organic is like a religion,” he said. “You either believe it, or you don’t. I’ve been eating conventional produce my whole life, and I’m still alive.”

Large Chain Supermarket: It All Comes Down To Taste

It was a sleepy weekday morning in the produce section of our go-to supermarket, part of a large chain known for its helpful staff. Shoppers were few, but two employees were busily stocking the shelves and cases, which already were looking bountiful.

My granddaughter joined me to help gather ideas on adding more fruits and vegetables to our diets in 2018. We stopped first to talk to an associate, who was filling a refrigerated case with yogurt parfaits. She was enthusiastic about fruit and asked my granddaughter what fruits she liked. Watermelon, cantaloupe and grapes topped the list, and she pointed out that cantaloupes were on sale. Then she helpfully offered to find the produce manager, whom she thought could answer more of our questions.

While we waited, another associate, emerged from the back. I asked if he had any suggestions for incorporating vegetables into meals for children. He joked that since he doesn’t have children, his wife “is as close to a child as I get” because she doesn’t like vegetables. One of his secrets is cooking and pureeing vegetables and then blending them into spaghetti sauce. “That’s good thinking,” my granddaughter said.

The produce manager rounded out our friendly encounters. He mentioned he had three children, and I asked about his kids’ favorites. “Berries and apples … the little Cuties. They love those small sweet peppers and carrots.” Given the different hues in that array, I asked if he thought color could entice children to eat more produce. “Color looks nice but it all comes down to what it tastes like,” he noted.

His suggestions included stirring diced vegetables into rice at the end of the cooking cycle. “That way the vegetables will be solid, not broken down and mushy.” He said his family also puts vegetables — peas, carrots, corn — into spaghetti sauce, but unlike at his house where veggies might pureed, these vegetables are not incognito.

My granddaughter loves avocados and when the produce manager learned she had never tried guacamole, he retrieved a packet of seasoning. “You just need two avocados, and this.”

I’d set a budget of $40, and with the guacamole seasoning we were close. The friendly cashier asked if we’d found everything we needed, and indeed we had: bags of fruits and vegetables and ideas for new ways to serve them. “There are lots of healthy things in the store,” my granddaughter said, “even though there’s junk food, too.”

Midsize Supermarket Chain: Spiral-Cut Veggies Might Win Out

Family shopping produceA produce associate was restocking the Navel oranges as my granddaughter and I approached with questions about leading a healthier, more produce-centric lifestyle, with spring as the kickoff date for our campaign. Unsurprisingly, the friendly associate suggested citrus as the place to start for its great taste, Vitamin C and potassium. “Kids like it because it tastes like candy,” he said. The department was full of choices including gangly Sumo oranges, which we hadn’t seen before and have since discovered we love.

A three-year associate of the produce department, he was knowledgeable and connected with my granddaughter as he suggested vegetables she might try, or try to eat more of. After running through a string of ideas — “Broccoli? Iffy,” he said, watching her reaction — he hit on several, including sweet corn, a favorite for both of them. He showed me the bagged broccoli slaw mix and said it would be an easy way to incorporate the cruciferous vegetable into her diet, tossed in a favorite dressing.

The produce section at this local outpost of a midsize natural foods supermarket chain resembled a small city at rush hour. Shoppers squeezed their carts past each other with surgical precision. Associates answered the occasional questions, and a blueberry spill at the front of the department was cleaned up quickly.

We also had the chance to meet the produce team leader. His first suggestion was beets — for their sweetness, Vitamin C, potassium and fiber — roasted or boiled. He also pointed to the spiral-cut beets from the Austin, TX-based Cece’s Veggie Noodle Co. He thought the shape and noodle-like appearance would appeal to children as well as adults. We bought some and also a container of the organic Zucchini Veggeccini. It seemed like a good option for experimentation given zucchini’s milder taste and versatility. We found lots of recipes on the website to try. On the fruit side, the team leader is a fan of papaya and thought my granddaughter would like it too.

Our fact-finding mission had taken us to three local supermarkets, and we came away with some useful ideas. This was our last stop, and it was clear the visits had made an impression. My granddaughter walked up to me holding a dragon fruit as if it were a golden egg. “I want to try this,” she said. And that is one of the best results I could have hoped for: an enthusiastic willingness to try new things. We’re on our way to a healthier 2018.

By Sara Novak
Global Discounter: Cooking Suggestions Help

The store felt like a warehouse inside. All of the fruits and vegetables were displayed in cardboard boxes with very little concern about appealing to consumers. It seemed the customers were here for the deals. Many of the individual fruits and vegetables were also shrink-wrapped in plastic.

The produce section was small, located in the back of the store. I wandered down a few aisles to find it. The store was busy with customers helping themselves to deep crates full of fruits and vegetables.

I explored, weaving between customers for a few minutes planning my line of questions. Finally, I reached down into one of the cardboard boxes and pulled out a large head of green cabbage. It too was shrink-wrapped in plastic, but from behind the plastic, it looked fresh. I approached an employee busily stocking apples.

“Do you have any ideas how to cook this cabbage so that my kids might eat it, we’re trying to cook different kinds of vegetables?” I asked. “You could boil it,” she hesitated and then responded. “Just one moment, let me ask,” she said as she signaled to another employee across the small section. “Do you know how to cook cabbage?” she called to her.

“Yes, I do,” she answered. “What are you looking to do?”

“I just don’t know how to cook it,” I said.

“I like to boil it down for a bit and then add butter,” she said. “You could also sauté it. That’s how I would do it.”

“I was looking through recipes online and one of them called for a Savoy cabbage. Is this a Savoy cabbage?” I asked.

“No, it’s not. Those are taller and more leafy and I don’t think we have them,” she added.

“Could I use them interchangeably in a recipe?” I asked.

“What were you thinking of making?” she asked.

“Cabbage and sausage,” I responded.

“Then this green cabbage will be perfect,” she said.

“Do you have any organic cabbage?” I asked.

“No, not in the cabbage, but it is produced in North Carolina, which is pretty close by,” she said. (We live in South Carolina.)

I weaved around the small produce section for a few more minutes before picking up a carton of bright red grape tomatoes. “I know it’s not tomato season, but are these good year round? My kids love them.”

“Yes, they’re really good, really sweet,” answered another employee in the produce section.

They looked fresh and tasty, so I grabbed the carton and headed on my way.

Regional Supermarket Chain: ‘Might Want To Have A Backup’

As I entered the store, the spacious produce section was immediately apparent. It was clean and easy to maneuver. It had high ceilings that made the space seem even bigger than it was. It felt rustic as if it was meant to resemble a farmers market. The onions were in wooden baskets as was the garlic. The entire side of the produce section was lined with fresh lettuces where an employee stocked the bagged salads. I prepared my line of questions.

“I’m trying to get my kids to eat more vegetables this year, are any of these salad mixes good? What would you recommend?” I asked.

He looked up from his work to answer. “The Asian soy mix is pretty good. Your kids might like that especially if they like soy dressing. They’re on sale if you want to try them.”

The bagged salads didn’t look particularly fresh so I changed my line of questioning. “What about these fresh salad dressings? I’m trying to get them to eat more salads, which one would you recommend?”

He stopped what he was working on to assist me. “Kids like the ranch, that’s always a good one to start with” he pointed to the Marzetti Ranch Dressing.

“What about the blue cheese, is that any good?” I asked.

“I like it, but you might want to have a back up for the kids. It has a strong flavor,” he added. “I mean, just in case.”

I moved on to the fresh lettuce section. “What if I was going to make my own chopped salad for the kids, is this a good choice?” I asked, pointing to an oversized head of Romaine.

“That’s what I would use,” he said. “Here, let me bag this lettuce for you.” Again, dropping what he was doing to help me bag the Romaine lettuce. He handed me the bag and asked if I needed anything else.

I meandered around the produce section for a few minutes longer, eyeing the fresh packaged nuts and the wide variety of fresh juices, then poked around in the apple section. Because of the time of day the store was relatively empty and this was the only produce employee to be found. My only complaint about my interaction was he smelled like cigarette smoke, which was rather unappealing when you’re brainstorming with an employee about how to be healthy in the New Year.

National Upscale Chain: Excited To Discover New Veggies

The market was bustling with shoppers. The produce section was huge with an extensive variety of items in bright, varied displays. At lunchtime, it was somewhat difficult to weave in between all the shoppers, though it was still easy to find someone to help amongst at least five different employees constantly stocking the gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables. One employee was even manning a “Meatless Monday” display where she cooked up fresh “vegan po boys” with a house-made broccoli slaw.

Most of the vegetables were in bulk rather than packaged, so vibrantly colored they looked as if they were just harvested from the farm. The produce section made up a fifth of the large store.

I wandered up to one of the employees who was stocking hot peppers in a section that contained at list 15 different varieties. With so many kinds of hot peppers, it was easy to come up with questions. “I’m looking for peppers to cook for my kids but I don’t want them to be too spicy. I want to introduce new, healthy flavors but I don’t want my little son to burn his mouth,” I added.

“Try these shishitos. They’re delicious and mild,” he answered. “Or if you want to introduce them to spice, you can add a little bit of jalapeño. Just cut out the seeds. I would start small. Some kids like spice, some don’t.”

I thanked him for his help and moved on. After a few minutes of perusing amongst the winter squash section, which was sizable and included a number of varieties that I didn’t recognize, I again prepared to ask my questions.

“I really want my kids to try winter squash, do you know which kinds they’re likely to enjoy?” I asked the same employee.
The employee reached for a variety of squash that I’ve never purchased before. “This is a delicata,” he said. “It’s delicious, almost tastes velvety. My wife just roasts it in the oven sliced long ways and that’s it.”

I picked up a delicata squash and examined it and then placed it in my cart, excited to learn about vegetables that I’ve hardly heard of before.

“What about these spaghetti squashes? How do I prepare these?” I asked next.

“These are great to make a vegetable pasta with a tomato sauce or just with garlic and Parmesan,” he recommended. “Just roast in the oven and then take a fork and it comes out like spaghetti.”

I thanked him for all of his help and knowledge and kept on shopping.

By Sophia McDonald
Employee-Owned Discounter: Masking The Flavor Of Vegetables

shutterstock_221757208Would a store that boasts low prices and few frills have good advice for a mom trying to get her kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?

“I’ll have an answer soon enough,” I thought as I walked through the doors of my favorite employee-owned discount store.

The first thing I encountered in produce was a large refrigerator case that held pre-cut fruit and a huge variety of drinks, including gallon jugs of orange juice and high-end smoothies. Beyond that was the long refrigerated case that held the bulk vegetables and convenience items such as packaged salads, salad dressing and sliced mushrooms.

The non-refrigerated goods were displayed in boxes set on slanted metal tables. Bags of bulk items sat in cut-open cardboard bins. The name and price of most foods were written on preprinted signs that hung over the displays. I noticed some mangos in the conventional section that looked wrinkled, but otherwise the produce looked fresh and the department seemed well stocked.

When I asked the lone produce staff person for tips on how to get my children to eat more vegetables, he thought for a minute. “A lot of people will grate up carrots and put them in meatloaf,” he said finally. “That way they don’t get the flavor but they get the nutrition. You can find a lot of recipes that mask the flavor of vegetables online.

“Some people like these salad bowls because the kids can toss everything in themselves and mix it up,” he continued. (The salad bowls were single-serving pre-packaged salads with toppers such as cooked chicken, beans, corn and cheese.) “There’s some cut-up fruit over there, or you can try some snap peas. They have a good crunch to them and they’re easy to dip in ranch dressing.”

“Which ones are the sugar snap peas?” I asked, acting confused.

He took me to the section with packaged vegetables and handed me a bag. “My kid will sit and munch on these. The green beans too. Once he gets started with them, it’s hard to get him to stop.”

“He must be a much better eater than mine,” I joked.

“He’s actually a really picky eater,” the man said. “If he’ll eat them there’s a good chance other kids will too.”

I added a bag of green beans to my cart, then thanked him and went to finish my shopping.

Large National Chain Store: Green Can Often Be A Turn Off

Just around the corner from my kids’ school is a grocery store operated by a large national chain. Though it’s convenient, I rarely shop there because the quality of produce is quite low. One rainy day I set out to see if things had improved.

The department was definitely doing several things right. A table stacked with bell peppers sat between the door and produce to attract consumers. A large display built from Halos boxes also created interest. The area was well-lit thanks to fluorescent lights hanging over the tables. Set among the wooden display tables were end caps and secondary displays with nuts, dried fruits, and interesting tie-in products. Large professionally printed signs showed pictures of local farms the store works with.

The store has a small organic produce section that’s very well marked. However, customers at this store are apparently much more focused on convenience items. The majority of the 35-foot refrigerated case was devoted to pre-cut fruit, yogurt parfaits, packaged salad mixes, bottled salad dressing, pre-cut convenience products and meal kits.

The produce quality wasn’t great. There were spears of withered white asparagus in otherwise healthy bunches, and the spinach looked like it had been sitting out for a while. It also took me four trips through the department to track down a staff person.

Once I found someone, though, he was quite pleasant. “My husband and I agreed we would try to eat better this spring, but we’re struggling to get our kids to eat more fruits and vegetables,” I explained. “Do you have suggestions for things I should try?”

He walked me to the meal kit section and grabbed a bag of stir-fry vegetables. “You can mix these up real easily. They come with a sauce packet. There are instructions on the back for how to make it.”

“The problem is my kids won’t eat anything green,” I said. “I don’t think they’ll eat kale.”

He nodded. “I have a kid too. It’s so hard to get them to eat anything green. I finally just started hiding vegetables in his food. I chop up mushrooms real small and sauté them down.”

He pointed to another type of meal kit. “People really like these too. There’s not as much of an explanation with this one, but I think there is a sauce packet and everything else in there. They’re also microwaveable.”

“That sounds nice,” I said. “Very convenient.” He went back to stocking as I poked through the kits and selected the one with the lowest quantity of green vegetables.

Natural Food Chain Store: Would Seasonings Hook Kids?

My mystery shopping investigation was the perfect excuse to finally check out the “natural” food store chain that opened its first location in my city. The produce department was about 30 feet by 10 feet and occupied an estimated one-eighth of the total floor space. There was a metal rectangular display case that held a variety of dry goods. Two other small tables were piled with winter squash, apples and other seasonal items, some of which were displayed in baskets.

The produce signage shared information that seemed appropriate for the customer base. There was a checkbox to indicate whether items were sourced locally, and a line to jot down the place of origin if the food wasn’t local. Many of the signs had a picture of the item, so it was easy to identify what fruit or vegetable it corresponded with.

The one thing I needed that day was celeriac. I pulled up a picture of it on my phone and took it to the young man who was busy restocking. “I’m looking for this,” I said. “I don’t even know how to pronounce it.”

“That’s celery root,” he said. “It’s right over here.”

After he’d walked me to the celeriac, I launched into my prepared speech. My husband and I had recently agreed to eat a more Mediterranean diet because he was diagnosed with high cholesterol. We were doing well, but we were struggling to get our 5-year-old twins to eat healthier. Did he have any suggestions for how we could get them to eat more produce?

“I tend to do a lot of sautés with different vegetables,” he said. “Try using some different seasonings. It will help mask the earthiness of the vegetables.”

“What kind of seasonings do you use?” I asked.

“Umm … salt and pepper and … I don’t really know,” he said, looking flustered. “You could probably look up kid-friendly recipes online. I’m sorry, I know that’s not helpful.”

I thanked him for entertaining my question and helping me find the celery root. As I paid for my purchases, the clerk and I commiserated over how hard it is to get kids to eat vegetables. Although she was very friendly, she didn’t offer any great ideas either.