Sep 11, 2008

Produce Produced

For this week's post, I was granted a casual interview with Ralph Newmeister. He's been with the store over eight years with an extensive history in food retail before that.

We talked out on the sunny patio, and he had a few interesting personal stories to share as well,
but this post is about getting inside what he does, what really goes on behind planning these colorful arrays and unusual selections.

The staff have to be trained extensively its at times very hands-on. However, trained and knowledgeable staff are part of what makes that machine work so well.

Every week, he explained, they display something new. Shoppers are not going to walk in and see all the same things week after week. This week for example, they've brought in quince, pomegranate, and fresh dates.

There's a very limited supply of certain items, he explains-- but he will always be sure to get these items because of the long-standing relationship with suppliers. "It's all about rapport" he tells me, "rapport from the wholesaler to the store, from the store to the customer".

He walks the produce section of the store to take inventory, then goes to the wholesale market to source his requirements. First he looks for best size and quality, and considering the price is looked at last. He doesn't look at the sample they might try to show, he looks in the box to really see if it is worth getting. How does he know? He explains it like this: "It must laugh at me, or I won't buy it... if I can't smell it (for instance strawberries), what is the point?"

It also takes an awareness of the seasonal cycles throughout the two hemispheres... at certain times of year from certain places in the world, you will get the best product.

There are ever-bearing Ontario strawberries that will produce up until Thanksgiving. He brings those in, but they have a sort shelf-life, only three days.

Knowledge of farming practices also plays a part in how the product is selected-- lettuce is alive, he explains, keep it alive. Don't pick the crop and pack it up while it still contains field-heat-- it will cook. He informed me of the process used called "hydro-cooling" where the food is-- you guessed it-- cooled with water before it is packed off to the wholesaler. You can tell when they don't let it cool first, he said, the food is wilted like it has been sitting for a week.

Naturally, there is an element of fashion to this-- the latest "it" item, and there are also traditional "old world" products-- things some people didn't know they would ever find in Canada. He tells me a story about an old Russian woman who found the bin of Fingerling potatoes (which Cheese B had twenty years ago, before everyone else) and she scooped them up in her hands and wept. Food has nostalgia, emotion.

There are fads, and there are old-time items, but if there is something of interest and someone else has it, Ralph simply must make sure Cheese B gets it too. Recently it was these particular Heirloom tomatoes-- although there were enough in stock already, he found another kind, beautifully packaged, and had to get some of those too. You know, like when you just have to get another pair of shoes. I guess you could say tomatoes are like shoes, for Ralph.

He gave me a brief tour, right into the storage areas for employees only, where food waits in boxes and crates for its turn out on display. There await the new tomatoes... called "Red Zoo" brand Heritage-- he hands me one to take home.

I asked him what else was in the store that he particularly likes. It depends, he says. He brought me over to some cartons of purple figs-- all beautifully arranged, what he likes to see. Fresh, plump, nice color, fragrant, packaged just right: the best quality. This is what he looks for.

A couple of tricks I learned: the "cleat" the green thing on top of a tomato, should be soft and not too stiff or dried out. And on-vine tomatoes should be five to the cluster to know it is the first pick.

Grapes should be hard, with green, not brown stalks to know they are fresh. Fresh Dates, pictured below in foreground, should be "glassy" in appearance.

List of a few items of interest, found at Cheese B, mentioned by Mr. Newmeister.

Particularly nice abate pears and forelle pears
Several kinds of wild mushrooms
Ontario Artichoke
Ontario ever-bearing strawberries
Fresh dates
Specialty melons
Sweet pimento peppers

Also, he tells me they have gotten a hold of some nice Kiwis-- and this weekend at Cheese B there will be a Kiwi presentation. Of course, this will mean tasting them, and probably cheese too, knowing how things go around that place.

To close off, I would like to thank Mr. Newmeister once again for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me-- very informative, and I bet readers of this blog will think so too!

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