Food & Drink

7 Secrets Of A Whole Foods Produce Manager

FYI, you don't have to buy that entire bag of crazy-expensive cherries.
08/08/2018 05:45am ET
Whole Foods
A pristinely organized produce wall at Whole Foods in Burbank, California.

The people who work in the Whole Foods produce department are keeping secrets from you.

OK, so they’re not deep, dark, embarrassing secrets that they always think about right before they fall asleep, but they do possess a wealth of knowledge that they just might share with you if you ask them. Here’s one: Did you know you’re supposed to eat your apples within two to three days of buying them? (We’ll elaborate more on that below.)

That’s why we spoke with produce team member Heith Banowetz, a nearly 10-year veteran of Whole Foods. He told us secrets of the produce section that you can benefit from on your next trip to the supermarket chain.

If you don’t need to buy an entire cabbage, you don’t have to

“If a customer wants a quarter of a cabbage, half a watermelon or even half an apple … you know, I’ve never been asked for that. But I wouldn’t be opposed, I guess!” Banowetz said.

So while you should eat a whole apple because you’re an adult, don’t be shy about asking for a produce team member to sell you only part of other fruits or vegetables. If it’s something that’s sold by the pound, they’ll sell you a portion of items like pineapples and daikon radishes.

And here’s another reason to have an employee help you: They have the ability to send you home with a sample on the house.

One thing to keep in mind: Don’t use the barely sharpened Swiss army knife in your pocket to chop up half a pineapple for purchase. Ask a produce manager for help with that.

But there is produce you can separate all by yourself, and it’s not just bananas — it’s also grapes and cherries.

“Oh good, I don’t have to buy the whole bag,” is something Banowetz has heard from customers relieved to learn they don’t have to single-handedly eat hundreds of grapes in a couple of days. And if you want to put just five cherries in a container, that’s fine too.

If you want the apples you buy to last longer, look at the sticker first

Do you ever go to eat an apple but then find it’s already overripe? One secret to selecting an apple that’ll stay fresh longer is knowing where it came from.

“Apples last longer when they’re more in season,” Banowetz tells HuffPost. “Apples from New Zealand or Chile in the offseason have a [longer] transportation time [and therefore don’t stay ripe as long]. Apples last longer when we get them in season from California.” If you’re reading this in August, that’s right now (until the end of September).

Equally as important is knowing the variety of apple you’re buying. While Banowetz recommends eating any variety of apple within two to three days, he says that “when customers ask for a crisp or harder apple, I suggest Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Fuji and Granny Smiths. Those will last longer.” And if you don’t mind biting into a cold apple, throw it in the fridge. It’ll extend the shelf life even more.

Whole Foods
Did you know apples are best eaten within two to three days of buying them?

Sometimes it’s better to skip the fresh stuff and buy frozen

It might be enticing to buy a huge container of berries in the summer, especially because they’re in season and on sale. But if you often find yourself throwing away half-containers of berries because they’re overripe, you might want to skip the fresh stuff.

“We bring fresh berries in every day in the morning,” Banowetz explains. “I’d suggest eating berries within two to three days. But if you’re using berries for smoothies, for example, and you always want to make a smoothie the next morning, I wouldn’t want to have the surprise of my fresh berries going bad.”

That’s when it might be better to head to the frozen aisle to buy that fruit in a bag.

One more thing: Don’t worry about the taste of the frozen berry being less than optimal.

“Berries are picked at their prime tasting and frozen [immediately], so you’ll get the taste of the berry you’re looking for in the frozen item,” he says. And most importantly, you won’t have to throw any berries out if you can’t finish the container in a couple of days.

Buy avocados like bananas (in bunches)

I typically buy at least three to four avocados a week, and when I do, I often hear something like this from the checkout clerk: “Someone’s making guacamole!” Nope. Just following best practices for avocado buying.

“[In order for customers to] get the pleasure of a ripe avocado, I recommend always buying a couple green colored ones in advance so they always have the avocado they’re looking for to add to a salad, or any sort of application they wish,” Banowetz explains.

Who knew that the key to perfect avocado toast would be planning? And when you’re searching for the perfect avocado, he says, the ripe ones look brown on the outside and “give a little bit when you glide your thumb over it.” Those are fine for eating right away, but when you buy in bunches, look for the less-ripe, greener ones.

The most in-season produce is at the front of the store

Summer always means fresh stone fruits and berries. Fall is pumpkin season. But do you know which fruits and veggies are in season the rest of the time?

To find out, you don’t even have to bother Siri with any questions; the produce workers do the legwork for you.

“We put the emphasis in the front [of the produce section],” Banowetz says. “We’re looking to show what’s in season. We get fresh produce in every day and feature our sale and in-season items in the front.”

If you want to know which fruits and veggies are offering up peak flavor, don’t make a beeline for the year-round items you always buy; instead, see what’s up front. Fun fact: Transportation time is the reason fruit doesn’t taste quite as delicious when it’s out of season. Farmers have to pick fruit from the tree a tad too early to account for the longer time it has to be in transit, Banowetz says. When fruit ripens on the tree, that’s where “it gets its flavor, color and prime taste,” he adds. The shorter the distance it has to travel, the better chance you can buy it when it’s perfectly ripe.

If you’re not getting cooking advice from the produce section employees, you’re missing out

Pop quiz: Do you know how the five types of radishes Whole Foods stocks taste different from each other? Yeah, me neither. But the people who work in the produce department not only know, they can recommend the perfect radish for your next recipe.

Banowetz says that when his team huddles every day, he brings in a recipe to recommend to customers based on the produce available. Oh, and if you want to taste the difference between those radishes before purchasing anything, you’re welcome to ask a produce team member to help you try some. Speaking of sampling…

Don’t pick food off the shelf and eat it, but you CAN get samples

If you’re reading this and you haven’t already eaten your weight in stone fruits this summer, it’s time to change the priorities in your life. But it’s perfectly fine if you haven’t tried every type of stone fruit, mostly because Whole Foods stores typically have about 10 varieties. So what does a black pluot taste like, anyway? Ask a produce worker.

“We encourage team members to take the next step with a customer’s curiosity, walk them to a table, and start slicing some samples up,” he says.

It’s not just about taste, either. “There’s so many different color themes you can have with a stone fruit,” Banowetz adds.

Sample away, folks! Now you have no excuse to go home without the perfect tasting and looking fruit or vegetable.

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