Misted produce adds to your product mix and to your worries.
The development of automated misting systems just a few decades ago made it possible for retailers to offer entire lines of produce that stay and look fresher longer.
But with this opportunity comes the extraordinary challenge of keeping the wet rack well stocked and looking fresh, clean and appealing. “You have to rotate product and have good displays,” says Mike Corrigan, chief executive of Corrigan Corporation of America, Gurnee, IL. “Your display gets kind of messed up as people go through looking for the best head of Romaine lettuce, or bunch of spinach. People want a large selection.”
The Corrigan family Carrot Top produce market was able to maintain and merchandise far more varieties of produce after Mike’s father, Jack, used his engineering background to devise the first automated misting system in the late 1970s. “After my father developed a misting system, we were able to carry a wider variety of fresh produce,” says Corrigan. “People would come to our store because they knew we would have the fresh items.”
To this day, a well-stocked and maintained wet rack remains a major produce department attraction, but it takes care and work. The challenge of maintaining a wet rack well begins with making sure the water is on the produce, and nowhere else. “Wet or over-watered product makes it hard for consumers to shop,” says Gary James, director of sales for WP Rawl, Pelion, SC. “Floors get wet as well. Products are often mixed in the ‘misting’ section that do not need water. At times, the consumer fears the ‘contamination’ in the water; dirty cases or lots of loose pieces of product distract from the case appearance and might cause consumers to believe the produce is not safe. Make the racks clean and fresh with less misting.”
A frequent but relatively short misting cycle can make it easier for consumers to shop the wet rack.
“If the misters are on, customers may wait until the misting cycle stops so they don’t get wet,” says Laura Himes, merchandising manager in produce for Wal-Mart, Bentonville, AR. “Rotation and proper crisping and culling are challenges, as well as overspray making the floor wet and slippery.”
Wal-Mart considers the care of wet rack produce to be important and demanding enough to have developed written protocols used in stores throughout its extensive operation.
“We supply stores with a standard operating procedure on how to rotate, cull, trim and crisp misted vegetables,” says Himes. “Misted items require water to prevent dehydration and maintain a crisp, fresh appearance. Because these items require crisping, these items require more constant attention.”
The greater handling of these relatively perishable items can bring with it greater exposure to food safety dangers. “These are usually the more delicate, higher shrink items that need more care and attention,” says Jamie Strachan, chief executive of Green Giant Fresh, Salinas, CA. “Crisping practices relating to food safety are important. For example, washing or crisping multiple items in a common sink has potential for cross-contamination or introduction of bacteria, which can accelerate quality issues and introduce food safety concerns.”
The display of naked moist produce also invites consumer questions about who has touched the product, and where those hands have been. “Consumers have concerns over other people touching the produce, or handling produce that is not protected by a container,” says Strachan. “There can also be food safety concerns due to shelves not being cleaned properly, multiple consumer touches prior to sale and product not being turned before it breaks down.”
Issues of the appearance of the wet rack, and safety of the produce, are important and complex enough to warrant the development of chain-wide protocols. “The instructions for store-level employees would depend on the retailer,” says Strachan. “The wet rack should be refreshed, turned and sanitized every one or two days to ensure freshness and limit food safety risks.”
The wet rack is one of the areas of the store that requires workers with a high level of specialized knowledge and skill. “I think with minimally processed produce, it requires some skill by store employees to rotate it and keep the display looking fresh and clean,” says Corrigan’s Corrigan. “With bagged produce you have to rotate, but it is almost like a can of soup.”
The section deserves assignment of special personnel who know what must be done, and are responsible for carrying it through. “With a misting system you are assigning people to take care of the wet rack,” says Corrigan. “At least that’s the way it was at our family’s Carrot Top market in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.”
To maintain the wet rack well requires a commitment at the management level to giving the assigned employees enough time to do their job conscientiously. “Instructions to employees are probably well communicated, but labor constraints might keep them from being properly executed,” says WP Rawl’s James.
From Bulk to Packaged
The complexity and difficulty of maintaining a wet rack well, and the nerve-racking consequences of some mistakes, are one reason for the continuing increase in the amount of produce that is pre-washed and sold in secured, modified atmosphere packaging.
“At Green Giant Fresh, we have moved many of our traditionally bulk, misted items into pouches and other packages,” says Strachan. “This not only extends shelf life and reduces overall shrink, but also helps ensure consumers know what item they are purchasing, provides product and usage information, makes it easy for stores to scan and helps protect the product from potential contamination, eliminating many of the food safety and handling concerns.”
The value-added packaged produce items also usually help to reduce waste and shrink.
“High shrink from reduced product shelf life from faster decay and quality degradation is a challenge,” says Green Giant’s Strachan. “Leafy greens, herbs and other sensitive products can last longer in packaging with modified atmosphere.”
Packaged produce is also easier to label, and to scan accurately at the check stand. “There can be consumer confusion due to limited labeling at the wet rack, and scanning issues at the register between conventional and organic, or one product that looks like another,” says Strachan.
As the packaged produce section continues to expand, however, it is worth making sure these items are kept separate from the wet rack. “Bagged items should not be misted,” says James. “Items like bell peppers, peppers and squash do not require misting. Hearty and fresh greens, like collard and kale, are good to mist, but do not require constant misting.”
Some Items Must Be Misted
There are still, however, important produce items that must be misted regularly, and merchandised on the wet rack. “We have misting systems in our stores and use them for leafy salad greens and leafy cooking vegetables such as chards, beets and Romaine lettuce,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix, Lakeland, FL. “As expected, refrigeration removes the moisture from the produce, so to counteract those effects, we hydrate the produce with misting systems. It’s good for the product and protects the quality. In addition, we are consistently rotating product for quality and freshness, regardless of where the product is displayed.”
“Unwrapped leafy greens like Romaine, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, must be sold under misting systems,” says Wal-Mart’s Himes. “Also, broccoli crowns, cabbage, kale, collard, mustard and turnip greens, bulk radishes, bulk celery, beets with tops, carrots with tops and loose carrots.”
There are also, however, produce items that are frequently mistakenly put on the wet rack.
“Enclosed product in bags or rigid containers is often mistakenly placed under misting systems,” says Strachan. “Naked or bulk product with twist ties, open bags of western vegetables like celery, salad vegetables like lettuce and leafy greens, herbs, root vegetables like carrots, beets, onions, leeks, radishes must be sold under misting systems.”
“Misting bagged or wrapped items causes condensation and fogging, which detracts from the freshness and can accelerate decay and molding.”
— Laura Himes, Wal-Mart
In some cases, the moisture in the wet rack can be a source of disease, decay and degradation. “Items mistakenly misted are asparagus and wrapped items, like lettuce, carrots, broccoli bunch and bagged greens,” says Himes. “Misting asparagus causes the tips to get mushy and speeds up decay. Misting bagged or wrapped items causes condensation and fogging, which detracts from the freshness and can accelerate decay and molding. Other items that should not be misted are soft squash, green beans and eggplant, due to their delicate skin.”
The wet rack is challenging, but it is also an opportunity take the time to create a visually striking and refreshing display. “Anything that can help create actual, or visual breaks and lighting to improve the visual appearance make the rack more attractive because most of the items that are misted are green and tend to blend together,” says Strachan.
“Many of the items displayed in the refrigerated cases are very colorful, and the freshness and abundance of product is appealing to many customers,” says Brous.
The layout and fixtures go a long way toward making the wet rack an inviting destination. “Lighting and shelving fixtures that present full, fresh appearance to the customer make the wet rack attractive,” says Wal-Mart’s Himes. “Keep the floor free from debris and water.”
To design a striking display, use the colors that are available in wet rack produce strategically. “Variety, color and the fresher the product, the better,” says Corrigon Corp.’s Corrigan, when asked what makes for a good display. And because not all leafy greens are created equal, some of them are pretty tough and need moisture, but not coddling.
“Items under misting do not necessarily require the most attention,” says WP Rawl’s James. “Hearty and fresh greens do not require as much attention.”