32nd ANNUAL MYSTERY SHOPPER REPORT

Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of Produce Business.

FROM SOUP TO FRUIT SALAD, WE ASK PERSONNEL: ‘CAN YOU SUGGEST PRODUCE ITEMS THAT WILL ADD FLAIR TO THESE DISHES?’

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. This year’s task: observe the department from signage to inventory and engage produce employees in conversation about what ideas and tips they recommend to creatively add fresh produce for fruit salads and soups.

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.

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

By Chris Auman

Alone In The Produce Department

It was a Friday night in February, the temperature was well below freezing and this location of a national chain store was quite empty. The entrance opens to the produce department, but the first item on display were bottles of red wine located about 15 feet before the floral counter. This made sense, as it was less than a week before Valentine’s Day. The produce department was very well lit and spacious with high ceilings. The music on the PA seemed to be 80s Top 40 songs playing at a high enough volume to be noticeable but not overwhelming. It gave the store a cozy feeling.

After milling about the produce section with an empty cart for about five minutes, I began to feel self-conscious. There was an employee at the floral counter helping a customer, but no other employees were visible. Finally, I spotted a young man in his early- to mid-20s pushing a loaded cart toward the back doors of the produce department. I approached him and asked if he had a minute to help me. I told him I was asked to make a fruit salad and vegetable soup for a friend’s birthday. I told the employee my friend was not excited at the prospect of eating healthy, but it was doctor’s orders. I wanted to prove to him that healthy foods could also taste good.

Standing in front of a display of pummelos, he recommended I use one in the salad. He said they were healthier than grapefruits. He advised cutting them as the rind was very difficult to remove. He also pointed to the prepared fruit salad section that was across the department from where we were talking. He told me I could purchase a premade fruit salad or check them out for ideas.

I inquired about his ideas on healthy soup, and we walked to the fresh greens section. He recommended bok choy, collard greens and dinosaur kale. He recommended jicama and endive as well, but apologized that they were currently out of endive. He informed me that the greens shrink down when cooked but still retain their healthful properties. He also recommended asparagus and Brussels sprouts, saying that Mom was right when she told you “they were good for you.” I asked if he could recommend anything in the produce department to add to the soup or salad. He could not think of anything without knowing a specific recipe.

At checkout, the cashier eyed the giant pummelo and asked if they were good, and if they were sweet or sour like a grapefruit.

The employee seemed happy to offer his advice and seemed to enjoy being of service. I didn’t get the feeling that he was speaking from the experience of having made many soups or fruit salads but was speaking more broadly about items he knew about specifically. I also appreciated the interest of the cashier, which made for a more enjoyable checkout experience.

Felt Like They Wanted Me Gone
I visited this regional chain location early on a cold Saturday evening. Despite the weather, the store was moderately busy. The produce department — located at the front entrance with a juice bar immediately to the right and the floral area to the left — is spacious with lots of room between the bins. The lighting is bright and the ceilings high. The signage is not highly visible from a distance of about 20 feet. The displays were well stocked, and browsing was easy enough.

Almost immediately after entering, I spotted a young woman straightening precut offerings on the shelves. I approached her and explained that I had been invited to a party and was asked to bring a fresh fruit salad as well as a soup that featured a lot of healthy vegetables. I told her I was trying to use the most healthful ingredients possible but didn’t know much about healthy eating. I asked her if she had any recommendations. She immediately deferred to a colleague who was walking by. “She’s the person you need to talk to,” the woman told me. I repeated my request for recommendations to the second young associate while the first one stayed with us. This second employee did not offer advice for specific fruits but instead suggested purchasing one of the pre-cut fruit salad mixes. The first woman, however, said that it would be much cheaper to buy the fruit in those mixes separately. I asked for more recommendations of specialty fruits or particularly healthy fruits, but it began to feel as though I was trying their patience a bit.

For the soup, I asked if they sold any pre-packaged vegetables for a soup starter. The second employee, presumably the more knowledgeable of the two, didn’t seem to know what I meant by that. She led me to the pre-packed vegetable mixes and pointed to a mix of cauliflower and carrots. These would be more suitable for dipping than making stock. I thanked them for their help. They seemed happy to be done with me.

At checkout, a package of salad tomatoes opened up while the bagger was putting them into the bag. The tomatoes spilled all over the checkout area. The bagger asked if I would mind grabbing another one on my way out. It made me a bit uncomfortable to take an item and leave without returning to the checkout, but I did so.

I did not feel as though either employee had a strong knowledge about the items in the produce section, let alone specialty fruit or the health benefits of their offerings. They did not give information willingly and, while I tried to keep the interaction brief and my questions to the point, they seemed as though they wanted to end the interaction. I would attribute this to a lack of confidence in knowledge about the items in produce rather than a general indifference, although that is being charitable.

By Kristi Johnson

HE HAS ALL THE ANSWERS

I visited one of my local groceries, an upscale chain known not only for its well-heeled and slightly crunchy clientele, but also for its fresh produce, meat, seafood and prepared food departments. Before I could grab a cart from the large foyer, I was bombarded with bright, fresh produce displays … tomatoes on the vine, loose and bagged avocados, tomatillos, a variety of packaged berries and honeydew melons.

It was a crazy day, the day before a national holiday, so I needed to be alert and crafty in order to stay out of traffic jams. As I moved from the entryway into the store, the produce department loomed in front of me; tables mounded with bright and appealing produce specials created a maze that had to be navigated before I reached the dry rack items I came in for.

“Are you pureeing the squash or just adding it to a vegetable soup? … I’ve added this to soups, and it holds up pretty well if you don’t leave it on the stove all day.”

This regional chain boasted a huge range of items within the produce categories. My goal was to choose products for a comfy, cozy winter soup. I was in luck, because there were no less than three produce associates in the department.

I made my way over to the hard squash rack, which was a landscape of colors and varieties. A produce associate was stocking Butternut and Delicata when I approached. When I asked him if any of the varieties were good for a winter soup, he stopped and paid full attention to me. “Are you pureeing the squash or just adding it to a vegetable soup”? Great question … “I’m just adding it to a soup full of other vegetables.” He picked up a butternut squash and handed it to me. “I’ve added this to soups, and it holds up pretty well if you don’t leave it on the stove all day.” Brilliant.

The Butternut went in my cart, and I continued to ask him about the veggies he includes in his soups. It turned out his girlfriend is vegan, so they are all about a plant-based diet. “We have a great recipe for a Butternut and Kale soup, with scallions, carrots and Navy beans.” And with that, he escorted me to the wet rack. One of the reasons this is my favorite store to buy vegetables is because there are so many options. I selected a lovely, crisp bunch of Lucinato kale (they also have curly kale) and a hefty bunch of scallions. Before I let him go, I mentioned that I’m not a fan of beans, and did he have any suggestions? He suggested adding Yukon Gold potatoes instead. While on the wet rack side, I picked up a small bag of Grimmway precut carrots.

Upon exiting, it was hard to get past the amazing rutabagas and kohlrabi. Staying strong, I made my way to check out. Plenty of lanes open, traffic moving, friendly associates to check you out. My shopping experience here was everything I expected it to be, which made the premium-priced produce worth it.

BEHIND THOSE SWINGING DOORS
During my next trip, I needed to put together a fruit salad for a brunch, and I was in a bit of a rush, so I headed to another regional chain retailer close to home — my go-to store, where I feel confident I can buy reasonably priced toilet paper and dog food, while at the same time getting pretty decent quality meats and produce.

This particular store fed into the produce department to the left. That always feels awkward to me. It was an unprepossessing entry into the department, a narrow opening between ready-to-go floral bouquets and bakery tables full of cupcakes. It was early evening, only about 6 p.m., and there were no produce associates in sight.

I checked out the berries in the refrigerated end case before I headed back where the melons were. They had Golden berries (aka Cape Gooseberries) from Sunbelle … not inexpensive, but such a nice treat. They also had a special on strawberries and raspberries. I picked up containers of each. Still no associates as I moved to the back of the department. I had no problem poking my head in the double doors to the back room and giving a shout for someone. Out they came.

Reporter: Do you have any more cantaloupes in the back?
Clerk: No, they’re all out.
Reporter: Do you have any other different or unique fruits you can suggest for a fruit salad?
Clerk: Red grapes.

Melons were a sad display this time of year, at the end of the subtropical and tomato rack. Half the display was icebox watermelons, and the other scant half was cantaloupes with a few honeydews as an afterthought. (This particular store had been hit-or-miss with melons lately — I typically buy them every weekend. I have lucked out with excellent Golden Honeydews, and then turned around the next week and taken home firm, attractive cantaloupes, which are beginning to break down and ferment inside.) These particular cantaloupes looked a bit like shrunken heads, with plenty of noticeable soft spots.

“Do you have any more cantaloupes in the back?” I ask. “No, they’re all out.” “Well, these are not saleable and need to be culled off your rack.” “Oh, OK,” he responded. I took my chances on a moderately nice honeydew and asked him if they had any papayas. “They’re not in season right now,” he replied. “Do you have any other different or unique fruits you can suggest for a fruit salad?” I asked. “Red grapes,” he replied. I sighed and made my way to the checkout.

I’m sure he was a nice kid. However, he didn’t make eye contact or greet me in any way throughout my checkout. The store’s last opportunity to give me a good shopping experience was gone. “Thanks. Have a great day.” He jerked his head up in surprise and looked at me as I walked away.

HUNTING FOR AN ARRAY OF GREENS
When my partner came home with a salad recipe he wanted to make, I knew that finding all the fresh ingredients was going to be tricky. I suggested we go to a natural foods market near us where we would have the best shot at getting everything we needed. The store is part of a small chain, with a well-stocked produce department for this time of the year. Specifically, the recipe called for kale, dandelion greens, escarole, chicory and shallots.

Parked in a strip mall, the store was deep but not very wide. Although the shopping carts were small and the produce department a quarter of the store itself, I still felt extremely cramped and hampered. However, the two produce associates out on the floor stocking and straightening were a bonus.

The wet rack was a sea of green, with not a lot of breaks for the eye. Since it was jam-packed on the rack and in the department, I had to ask for help finding all the products I needed. As I ran down the list with the associate, she helped me locate each item and was helpful and extremely patient. “We don’t have chicory,” she said. “Do you have anything that would make a good substitute?” I asked. She called over to another associate and asked her. “We have Belgian endive.” she called back. “Ah,” I said. “That will work.”

All of the bunched produce I picked up was local from Pennsylvania, except for the Foxy kale. The remainder was from Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, a longstanding and small organic farm. Even the shallots were local. All of the bunched greens were overly wet from the misting system, however, the quality was still good, and there was surprisingly no breakdown or decay.

After stocking my very small cart with mounds of greens, we checked out with a purchase of brown paper bags. It was nice to support the local food producer community. It made me feel moderately virtuous, if not a bit lighter in my bank account.

By Ellen Koteff

‘We’re Not In South Florida Anymore.’

As I first entered a large supermarket that was out of town — about 1,360 miles out of town to be exact — I sensed this wasn’t the kind of retailer I was accustomed to in South Florida.
This particular unit of a growing regional industry player has nearly 75,000 square feet and features an atmosphere more akin to a restaurant with an exhibition kitchen than a traditional retailer. Great care and attention has been paid in this outlet to every detail that might catch a consumer’s eye.

Despite outdoor temperatures below freezing, this store in a western suburb of Chicago was hot. The inviting surroundings spurred customers to linger, including this one. I decided to share a nosh with a childhood friend following the main event — the hunt for healthy, brightly colored produce items that would make the perfect fruit salad.

This store stood out for a number of reasons — its upscale touches including gelato and smoothie bars, a 100-seat café, a cheese selection bigger than most fromage shops, including 25 imported varieties, a wine bar featuring a vast selection of foreign and domestic choices and cooking classes.

With all the bells and whistles and delicious samples to boot — I was convinced my interactions with the produce clerk were sure to disappoint and end the mini excursion on a sour note. As it turned out — I was sorely mistaken.

As I entered the produce department, which was as colorful as any I’ve ever seen, a few things stood out. First, the clientele was older than I would have expected. Most of the shoppers were likely more than 50 years old and shopping alone. Second, all the organic items were marketed at the front of the department. Third, there were samples of cheeses and fruit items spread throughout. Clearly, the produce manager got the cross-merchandising memo.

For a store as large as this, I was surprised maneuvering was difficult in many of the produce aisles. This was due in large measure to a plethora of shoppers hoping to score perfectly ripe produce items but also the size of the shopping baskets versus aisle size.

I approached a female produce employee who was stocking shelves in the rear of the department, and as soon as I engaged her it was like the director yelled, “action.”

She quickly emerged from behind a large cart and became very animated as she responded to all my questions about fruit items for a healthy salad. “All of our produce is coming in pretty good this month,” she said beaming. “We’ve got excellent fruits coming in from Florida, Arizona and California. There haven’t been any freezes.”

She pointed to the starfruit as the perfect topper for my fruit salad, which I planned as the healthy dessert choice for tonight’s dinner. She suggested the most colorful and flavorful offerings at the moment were strawberries, raspberries, pears, pineapples, red grapes and bananas.

“The cantaloupes are pretty spectacular as well,” she said as she ushered me toward the large display at the front of the department. “My family can’t eat enough of them.”

When I finished placing all my choices in the basket, it did make a colorful display, and she came over to take a final peek. “I think your fruit salad will be delicious, and you can always top it off with some of our honey-glazed walnuts. They pair beautifully with our fruit.”

All The Right Stuff
There’s often a decidedly different experience when visiting a store outside of your home turf for the first time. On a recent business trip to Chicago, I chose an upscale retailer in a western suburb of the Windy City looking to ‘mystery shop,’ in a different neck of the woods.

Upon entering the market, which previously housed a Dominick’s, I was greeted by fresh produce, a juice bar and a seafood counter that features take-home sushi and sustainably sourced fish.

To my utter amazement — with temperatures hovering at about 20 degrees or maybe because of it on this particular Sunday in January — the 55,000 square foot supermarket was hopping.

The store and its customers were energized, engaged and seemingly all in a good mood. For a minute, I had the same kind of visceral reaction that comes with the curtain going up on a Broadway play.

“We know we have the highest quality veggies around, so you can’t go wrong here. … That’s what we’re here for, and the pleasure was all mine.”

Throughout the department, different cheese varieties were sampled in an effort to cross-merchandise with various produce items. I noticed the vast majority of customers were young — probably under 40 — and many had their children in tow.

With music in the background playing the theme from the film Out of Africa, I approached a produce clerk for suggestions on healthy, brightly colored and flavorful veggies for a winter soup.

Only too happy to help, the employee suggested celery, carrots, leeks, Brussels sprouts, red potatoes, spaghetti squash, Swiss chard, mushrooms, kale, bok choy, collard greens and peppers. “We know we have the highest quality veggies around, so you can’t go wrong here,” said the young clerk. He then proceeded to highlight the health properties of the individual vegetables, with a special emphasis on the benefits of eating kale. “Kale offers more iron per ounce than beef,” he asserted. “Wow,” I shot back, “You should do a kale commercial.”

With so many fellow customers swarming the department, it wasn’t always easy finding passage from one vegetable to the next, especially if I wanted my cart to accompany me.

Prices seemed high but not outrageously so. Organic lemons sold for 99 cents while conventional lemons sold for 79 cents apiece. I was able to fill my basket with some great-looking fresh veggies that would make two large pots of soup for just under $25.

As I walked away from the produce department to check out the rest of the beautifully designed and pristine store, I thanked the employee for being so helpful and knowledgeable.
“That’s what we’re here for, and the pleasure was all mine.”

By Jodean Robbins

Enthusiastic But Unprepared

On a tranquil weekday morning, I entered the 2,000-square-foot produce department of a large chain. The open, attractive area had a few shoppers milling about and two sets of employees talking and joking with each other while they restocked.

After browsing the wet veg rack, I moved to the tomato display, where the four young male employees had congregated. Catching their attention, I said, “I’m having a dinner party Friday and want to impress my guests, but I need some help because many of them are vegetarians.”

Comically, the word “vegetarian” was met with an audible groan from all four employees. I pursued, “Do you have any suggestions for a great vegetarian dish I could make, maybe a fancy soup that’s health-conscious?”

After a bit of muddled discussion, one employee came up with cabbage soup. “And you can add beans to it,” he added. “And probably some carrots, too. That would be different. You could even put mushrooms in it. And cabbage is very healthy.”

“Great idea,” I feigned. “But what about side dishes? I’d like to do an interesting salad, not just iceberg lettuce.”

He pointed to the avocados, suggesting, “Avocados and cucumbers make a great salad together.”

And, without any prompting from me, he proceeded to recommend a great ranch-avocado dressing from the refrigerated section. Walking me over to it, he pointed, saying, “I love this dressing. It’s one of my favorites.”

I thanked him, asked for help in putting together a unique fruit platter for dessert. He motioned to one of the other employees, now at the citrus display, saying, “He’s the one to help with that.”

I re-explained my quest to the second employee, and he walked me to a small end-cap display of about four boxes of exotic products including passion fruit, dragon fruit, kiwi, mango, guava and starfruit. “These are all exotic and would make an interesting platter,” he said.

I cautiously picked up the passion fruit, which was under the dragon fruit sign, asking, “What are these, dragon fruit? They look weird. How would I use them?”

“No,” he replied. “Those are passion fruit. This pinkish one is the dragon fruit (he indicated correctly.) I don’t really know how you’d use them. The dragon fruit is nice though. You just slice it.”

He proceeded to recommend the starfruit as well, showing me how to slice it and how to select a good one. “What is the nutrition of these fruits?” I asked. “I know blueberries are very high in nutrition, but what about these?”

“I’m not really sure about all these,” he replied. “But generally all fruit is pretty healthy.”

Upon leaving, I passed by the first guy who had helped me, and he stopped me to ask what I had decided on and if I needed anything else. It was a pleasure to experience the enthusiasm to help and friendly demeanor of these employees. However, it was a bit disappointing that, despite their willingness, they were not very well-trained to help a shopper in menu planning. I don’t think I will be serving cabbage and bean soup at any dinner party.

Stuck On Spring Mix
The beautifully merchandised but 900- square-foot produce section of this regional chain was deserted on a weekday morning. The colorful displays caught my eye as soon as I entered the front of the store and was welcomed into the department where I noticed a Millennial restocking salads. I browsed the vegetable section, which boasted an impressive display of endive, radicchio, beets and cauliflower rice among many other items. I then approached the young man with my query: A request for help and suggestions for creating an impressive, produce-laden salad for my dinner guests.

After an uncomfortably long pause, he replied, “I really don’t know. Ummmm. How about some spring mix? That is always popular.”

He turned and picked up a package of spring mix. “That would make a good base,” I replied. “But, what else can I put with it to make it more exciting and unique?”

He shifted nervously and replied, “I really don’t know.”

After some more uncomfortable silence, I finally asked if there was anyone else who might have some suggestions, and he went to the backroom in search of rescue. A few minutes later, he reappeared with another gentleman, wheeling a cart of lettuce mix, who asked what I needed. I repeated my request.

The second gentleman also paused to think for a bit, then also recommended spring mix. “What can I do to jazz it up?” I asked.

He was at a loss for further suggestions but proved very knowledgeable about the spring mix, showing me the different varieties of lettuce in the different mixes. He also recommended trying the mix of a local greenhouse grower who he mentioned was becoming very popular. “Try this,” he said, digging into one of his boxes on the cart. “It’s baby kale. This is really different.”

I then asked what other products like dressing, nuts or condiments might work well. “We have some good refrigerated dressings here,” he said and walked me to the case. “This white balsamic with shallots is one of my favorites.”

I then mentioned that I wanted to also put together a fruit platter of something colorful but unique. “Do you have any exotic or very colorful fruits I can use,” I asked, recalling the mango and berry displays I had passed walking into the department.

“No,” he replied. “I can’t think of anything. Our pineapples are on sale, and they’re sweet. Try those.”

I thanked him and continued my shopping. I had expected a tremendously helpful experience given the bountiful displays of hundreds of produce items in this well-appointed department. It was disappointing to note the lost opportunity for this supermarket, and I surmised other customers must go away with similar thoughts.

Using What They’ve Got
On a busy Friday afternoon I visited an independent co-op grocer with a cramped-but-full, 850-square-foot produce area sandwiched between the bakery and deli. Three employees were on the floor working. I approached a man by the wet vegetables, asking for help in planning a healthy, produce-heavy dinner for friends. “Maybe some kind of salad,” I said. “But I want something impressive. Something we don’t eat every day.”

Smiling and nodding his head, the man replied, “Do you like peppers? We have these bags of mini-sweets here. Or you can buy the larger ones in multiple colors.”

“Sounds colorful,” I replied. “But what would I do with them?”

He pointed to the wet lettuce rack saying, “Combine red and green leaf lettuce with them, and add a red onion. And, a radish if you want.”

Hesitantly, I replied, “It would look nice, but I don’t know what dressing or toppings to use.”

“We don’t really have anything like that. Mainly just your ordinary stuff. This over here is our organic fruit [motioning to an end cap]. A lot of people like the organic stuff.”

He motioned for me to follow him to the dressings case and he selected roasted, garlic Greek yogurt-based dressing. “This would be great,” he advised. “You also could go with this avocado chipotle, but it’s a little spicy.”

I then asked about ideas for a soup incorporating a lot of produce, but he had nothing to suggest. “What about helping me put together a colorful, fruit display?” I requested. By this time, it was clear he was anxious to return to restocking his display. He pointed to another gentleman near the apples and suggested I talk with him.

I approached the second man, asking for help to find unique, colorful fruit for a platter. “Do you have anything exotic or out of the ordinary?” I asked.

“We don’t really have anything like that,” he replied. “Mainly just your ordinary stuff. This over here is our organic fruit [he motioned to an end cap]. A lot of people like the organic stuff.”

I nodded, saying, “But I was hoping for something a little more interesting than apples or grapes.”

Unwilling to give up, he suggested different varieties. “Have you tried a Honeycrisp apple?” he asked. “They have great taste. Or how about these Forelle pears? They’re something different. And, these blood oranges look fun when they’re sliced.”

He then went on to recommend the black grapes and even cherries. “The black grapes taste amazing,” he said. “Your guests will love them. Cherries are a treat right now, even though they’re pricy. Go ahead and sample one of each to see what you think.”

I turned to pick out a grape and eat it. When I turned back around, he was gone. I selected a few items, and as I was leaving the department I noticed him working the display where I had first found him.

Though there may have been more creative options, the employees did their best to meet my requests given the limitations of the department and their produce knowledge. This department did have other options the employees failed to suggest including pomegranates, mangos and papayas, as well as shelf-stable soup mix bases.

By Anthony Stoeckert

Ask The Floral Manager. Really?

I was greeted by fruit as soon as I stepped into this national chain with a reputation for selling quality produce, as displays for apples and oranges were located in the foyer. But that was just the smallest sample of what this supermarket has to offer.

Inside, the produce section was packed with the largest variety of fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen. A stand filled with berries included blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and some other interesting choices, along with non-produce items such as cakes and cream.

A citrus display was home to perfect-looking limes, lemons, grapefruits and oranges. Another area was devoted to foods that seemed perfect for savory wintertime dishes — peppers, garlic, Brussels sprouts and a beautiful setup of cabbage and leeks.

In one corner was a stand devoted to tropical fruits — pineapples, papaya, mangos and three kinds of melon. A few feet away huge jackfruit, golden kiwi, coconuts and passion fruit were the colorful showstoppers on display.

But for all these options and this store’s high profile, the employees here weren’t that helpful. In fact, after approaching an employee, she told me she was a manager. Then, when I asked her if she had suggestions for great veggies that could be included in a delicious and interesting soup for a dinner party I was planning, or fruits for an exciting fruit salad, she said she wasn’t really an expert. Her remedy? She suggested I speak with the market’s floral manager, who was a good cook.

The produce manager was nice enough to get the floral manager, who was happy enough to assist me but didn’t offer any noteworthy insight. When I told her I wanted something that would be different for a soup, she suggested carrots.

“I don’t know,” I said, “carrots seem pretty common for soups.” She responded that not a lot of people she knows make carrot soups.

I told her I was looking for something really different, a soup that would be filled with new and exciting ingredients. She apologized but said she uses pretty common ingredients in soups — carrots, potatoes, peas, beans, etc. I even tried to help her by noting how the store had lots of mushrooms for sale, including some that seemed interesting — oyster, hen of the woods, wild hedgehog, but the employee said she didn’t know a lot about mushrooms.

“How about a fruit salad? Anything exciting there,” I asked.

She suggested berries, again not terribly exciting, but we headed to the berry display. Then she again called over the produce manager, who suggested a mix of different berries, because they added color. She noted the blackberries and raspberries were a particularly good batch.

“What about golden berries?” I asked, adding that they might be something new to try.

Now, in this instance the employee dropped some knowledge, informing me that they are indeed different from other berries because they were smooth in texture and would add a different color and a citrus flavor to a fruit salad.

She said she had never used golden berries in a fruit salad, but that it sounded interesting. So, I put a package in my basket and headed toward the checkout.

Dragon Fruit, Pepinos, Kumquats And Starfruit
It was a busy Saturday afternoon when I walked into the store, but that didn’t stop a produce staffer from generously spending time with me and listening to all my questions.

And he was knowledgeable. When I asked for some suggestions that would make for a different and interesting fruit salad, he was quick to offer ideas.

The first was dragon fruit. “It has a mild flavor, but it’s very healthy and it looks cool,” he said. He showed me a few samples, then told me how to incorporate it in my fruit salad. He said to cut it up and eat only the white part with seeds. “It almost looks like chocolate chip ice cream,” he said, going so far as to take out his phone and show me a picture of a cut dragon fruit.

Then he continued the ice cream comparison by instructing me to cut the fruit in half and use a small scoop to make dragon fruit balls for the fruit salad.

Near the dragon fruit was his next suggestion — star fruit. He told me this fruit was apple-like, crunchy and a little juicer than most apples. He said its flavor would complement berries and dragon fruit. He also suggested to cut it into star shapes to add a little “pizazz” to the visual appeal.

And he wasn’t finished sharing the joys of fruit varieties with me. “It wouldn’t be great with a fruit salad, but have you ever tried a kumquat?” he asked. I told him I hadn’t, and he told me they are like little oranges, but more tart.

As I put a package in my basket, he told me that even though the kumquat’s skin was tough like a lot of citrus fruit, to just pop the whole thing into my mouth. I did just that and tasted the mix of sweet and tart.

I asked why he wouldn’t suggest it for a fruit salad, and he said lots of people do, but he didn’t like that idea because of its skin and too many textures didn’t make for a great combination in fruit salads.

Another fruit caught my eye, and the friendly employee told me it was a pepino. These were on display loose. He picked one up and showed me how hard its exterior was. Simultaneously, he also noticed some pepinos were turning bad, which he separated out then tossed away.

He did admit, however, he had never tried a pepino. “You haven’t tried everything here?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But I’ve had a lot of it.”

When it came to veggies for a soup, he had less expertise, or perhaps less interest, but he did recommend green onions and scallions for homemade ramen soup. When I said I was looking for something colorful, he suggested purple potatoes for soup, adding they’re tasty, healthy and have lots of visual appeal.

His last suggestion for soup was turnip and leeks, which he said make a nice combination. He added while it isn’t particularly unique, it’s less common than potato soups.

A Rocky Start, A Stronger Finish
Walking into this store, I was greeted with well-organized and perfect-looking examples of some of the most popular fruits around. A display of berries featured blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries showcased in a rainbow of colors. Nearby were displays of perfect-looking oranges and enticing lettuces, potatoes, onions and more.

But I was on the lookout for something different, vegetables that would bring new and exciting flavors to soup and fruits that would revolutionize a fruit salad. Although my quest got off to a rocky start, I was warmly welcomed by staffers who patiently listened to my questions and eventually gave me helpful information.

To the left was an employee who was stocking shelves along the walls with fresh lettuce. I approached her and told her I was looking to host a dinner party and wanted to wow my guests with a different and colorful kind of soup.

Her first suggestion was, well, uninspiring. She directed me to a pre-packaged mix, featuring a carrot, onion, turnip, dill and parsley.

Actually, I told her, I was looking for something a little different. She told me that escarole makes for a nice soup and also made the suggestion of including white beans. She further suggested adding mushrooms, and after going over a few varieties, I settled on a mix of shiitake and cremini.

Next, I asked about a fruit salad, and she wasn’t ready with answers. Luckily, a manager was nearby and he instructed her to, “Cut open a Sumo for him.”

Although the employee I approached didn’t seem to possess a lot of expertise about produce, she was more than happy to help me, even though she had a large cart of produce that needed to get on shelves.

She headed to a back room and came back with a small knife. Then she directed me to the citrus section, where she took a Sumo orange from the display. It certainly looked like an orange, but it was shaped a bit differently and featured a pronounced end where the navel was.

Most important of all, it was delicious — full of strong, sweet flavor and not the least bit bitter. “Wow,” I said. The manager had followed me and said the Sumo was a good option for fruit salad because its pieces are fairly small (but more significant than a Clementine) and also dry on the outside, but juicy on the inside. I asked him what fruits would go with these, and he suggested pineapples, kiwi, bananas, blueberries and strawberries.

This manager also noticed the mushrooms I was holding and said he had another suggestion for me. He showed me a display of dried mushrooms in clamshell cases and said these were excellent options for soups because of their bold flavors. However, he didn’t seem sure as to which mushrooms were in each package but by reading the packages closely, I could see what was inside. A package labeled “forest blend” for example, featured Porcinis and Morels.

Overall, it was a fruitful visit.


Editor’s note: Calling all industry volunteers! If you have a penchant for writing and wish to contribute to next year’s Mystery Shopper Report, please contact us at [email protected] or call us at 561-994-1118.

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