Top Banana: Greengrocer Al Garnett Earns National Honor

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: East Harwich

Al Garnett (center) said he owes his success to his team in the produce department. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

EAST HARWICH How do you choose a ripe melon? When is the best time to buy green beans? What's the easiest way to cut a pineapple? When it comes to questions about produce, Al has the answers.

That's one reason Al Garnett, the produce manager at the East Harwich Stop & Shop supermarket, will be traveling to Chicago in June to receive the 2017 Retail Produce Manager Award from the United Fresh Produce Association.

Garnett is one of the last produce managers he knows who grew up in the field, literally. As a kid, he started working at his family farm business in Brockton, Webby's Market. His father's family came from Kansas, where they farmed wheat in the wide open spaces. Garnett is no botanist, but he can look at a vegetable or a piece of fruit and tell how moist the soil was where it grew, and how much sun the plant received each day.

“It enables me to answer questions,” he said. “There's a trick to pick out every produce item.” For instance, while many fruits continue to ripen after they're picked, grapes, pineapples and strawberries will start to ferment if left too long.

Garnett has been with Stop & Shop for more than 20 years; before that, he worked at a First National store and then at the Purity supermarket in Dennis. It was there that he met fellow produce worker Maryellen, the woman who would later become his wife. Over the years, produce offerings have become much more numerous, just as supermarkets have grown in size. But Garnett says he still strives to offer the quality and service common in small neighborhood grocery stores.

“We engage the customers,” he said. “If a customer wants one parsnip, I'll get it,” he said. Today's customers are increasingly looking for healthy food options for simple, from-scratch meals, he said. Organic produce is very popular and is more affordable than in the past, and customers favor produce that's grown regionally. Stop & Shop sells hydroponic tomatoes from Vermont and potatoes, corn and other staples from a farm in Little Compton, R.I., he noted. “Customers can taste the difference in a real, native product,” he added.

For Garnett, engaging with customers also means holding private VIP classes in the back of the store to teach participants how to choose, cut and prepare produce, with an eye toward quality, freshness and food safety. The supermarket also works with the organizers of events like the annual After-prom party and charitable road races, providing help for worthy causes. The East Harwich store is also a big supporter of the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, Garnett said.

“Stop & Shop is a very good company to work for,” he said. The company also has a number of environmental initiatives and is committed to reducing food waste; it even has a compost-to-energy system at its warehouse, generating electricity from decomposing waste food, Garnett said. The company also supported Garnett as a manager, giving him the latitude to build a produce team that works well together.

“I wanted to be the boss, in my own way,” he said. Garnett described himself as a hands-on manager, and said he tries to keep a positive attitude at all times for customers and co-workers.

“I always have a smile,” he said. That's in part because he likes the people he works with, and his produce team members treat each other with respect. “All of my success is due to them,” he said.

A Chatham resident, Garnett likes outdoor activities like boating, skiing and bike riding, and he's taking on a new challenge: getting his private pilot's license. His son, 27-year-old Brent, is a developmental engineer for IBM.

“I have a nice life,” he said.

As for the future of produce? Garnett said it's simple. In the old days, people decided what groceries to buy each week by having a conversation with their local grocer to find out what's in season. That kind of interaction is making a comeback, and as people strive to have a closer relationship with their food, Garnett will strive to have a closer relationship with them.

“Even in a big place, they know Al,” he said with a laugh. “Even the off-Cape people know me.”