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Saying Goodbye to a Legend: Ron Foreman

We are very proud of our Produce departments here at the Willy Street Co-op, but one of the people who has made our produce so wonderful over the years has never been on our payroll. Ron Foreman has been our sales representative from Albert’s Organics (formerly Roots and Fruits Cooperative) for decades. I worked with Ron as a buyer and as the Assistant Manager of the Willy East Produce department years ago, and can personally attest to the incredible contributions he has made to our success. He is universally admired by all of the buying and management staff here, and will be sorely missed when he retires this summer. When we reflected on everything he’s done for us and our Owners over the years, we realized how few of the Owners knew about his work on their behalf, and decided to tell you about him. I asked him some questions, and I think his personality and experience shine through in his responses.

SB: How and when did you get started in the business?
RF: I interviewed and was hired by Roots and Fruits Cooperative Produce in November, 1992. I was hired as an outside sales representative to help bring organics to “conventional grocery stores.”

SB: How long have you been the sales rep for Willy Street Co-op?
RF: I started working with Willy Street Co-op the summer of 1993.

SB: What was your background with food and growing it before you started working in this business?
RF: Started by picking raspberries at a truck farm in my home town of Hopkins, Minnesota, at age 10 or 11. Worked on the local farms until I was 16. The local grower grew raspberries, strawberries, peppers, melons, cauliflower, etc. He sold to local grocery warehouses and the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market. My duties included picking, packing, hoeing, tilling—all the general farm duties. The 1970s I sold office equipment for A.B. Dick Company out of Chicago. In 1986 I purchased a 40-acre farm to try my hand at farming. Grew strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, melons and peppers. I even planted a small apple orchard. By 1991 Ihad to give up my venture and eventually was hired by Roots and Fruits.

SB: How has the organic produce marketplace changed since you started?
RF: Growth has been averaging 10 to 20 percent per year in organics. Organics has joined the “mainstream” conventional stores. The cooperatives have grown larger, brighter stores. Quality of product has increased dramatically. Many new growers have joined the industry. Local concerns have grown to be national leaders in the industry—Organic Valley for instance.

SB: Did you have a mentor (or more than one) that taught you a lot?
RF: The mentor who helped the most goes back to the 1970s—George Suddendorf, my original Sales Manager. Otherwise since my Albert’s and Roots days it would be my customers, the many buyers and produce managers I have worked with over the years.

SB: What memories stand out from your time working with Willy Street Co-op?
RF: My original meeting in the spring of 1993 when Loretta (Wilson) Norris called me and asked if Roots and Fruits could look at delivering to Madison and Willy Street Co-op. We met on a spring day in May on a picnic table next to the old store.

SB: How have things changed as our Co-op has grown?
RF: We started with two deliveries per week using a dairy delivery truck that had been delivering from St. Paul to Chicago for Organic Valley. We started with five customers including Mifflin Street Cooperative in Madison and Outpost in Milwaukee. We have grown to deliveries seven days per week for Willy Street Co-op.

SB: How many Produce Managers have you worked with at Willy Street Co-op?
RF: Produce Managers I have worked with are Loretta (Wilson) Norris, Jenny Ohlsen, Crystel Wienandt* Andy Johnston and Megan Blodgett Minnick.
*Crystel (Wienandt) Curley was interim manager of the produce department while Jenny Ohlsen was on maternity leave.

SB: What are your favorite products to have in the warehouse? What do you still get excited about?
RF: My favorite products are stone fruit and the grape season. April through September are the best—varieties changing and keeping my customers in the best and freshest varieties. The season runs with product from Mexico, California, Colorado and Washington. The fall season with the apple and pear season is a close second.

SB: What do you think sets you apart from other sales reps in the business?
RF: I never really gave it much thought. I always tried to be honest. Tried to treat my customers like I would like to be treated. Paid attention to detail. I guess I am blessed with a good work ethic; I always thought I might not be the smartest, but I knew I could out-work the competition.

SB: What do you wish people knew about the food supply in the U.S.?
RF: Most people don’t realize the tremendous amount of effort it takes to get food to their cooperative. I don’t know if anybody works harder than the farmer, especially the small grower who does so much themselves. Mother Nature can be tough, and growing organically is even harder—no pesticides for pests and no herbicides for the weed problems. Rain or lack of rain, late freezes in the spring, early freezes in the fall. Lot of things to go wrong before the fruits and vegetables get to the cooperative. Not to mention the shipping from the farm, whether it is local or national, to us, the wholesaler, to the store.

SB: What will you miss when you retire?
RF: I am going to miss my customers. Some of the individuals I have worked with for over 20 years. Andy Johnston at East I have worked with since 1993, where he was a buyer for Loretta (Wilson) Norris. All the buyers at Willy Street Co-op over the years have treated me with great respect and I’ve enjoyed working with all the individuals. I will miss the action everyday. Many of the products we sell are fragile and age rapidly. Making sure the product is the freshest and best that I have is an everyday challenge and keeps my job changing and exciting.

SB: When are you planning to retire?
RF: I am planning for my last day to be Friday, August 1st.

I could talk and write so much more about Ron, as could many others here, but the truth is that none of us could really do the man justice. If you haven’t worked with him, joked with him, or solved a difficult problem with him it would be difficult to understand all he brings to our relationship. He’s leaving some very big shoes to fill.

I asked the four Produce department managers that Ron worked with here at Willy Street Co-op a few questions about him. I think that the responses below illustrate just how important Ron has been to our work over the years. I wanted to know. Here are their replies.

Loretta Norris (nee Wilson):
Manager of Willy East produce 1989–1997

Q: What sets Ron apart from other sales reps you’ve worked with?
A: I was very fortunate to work with Ron Foreman in the beginning of my career as Produce Manager. I had plenty to learn and he trusted and respected me; Ron’s prior experiences in the field, retail, co-ops, sales and on a board of directors provided a powerful source of education and support. Ron had seen co-ops like ours expand before and he wanted to be a part of our growth and success. His long-term compassion for the farmer, interest in the food he sold, and passion for co-ops’ success all contributed greatly to our success.

When we adopted new technology Ron was flexible and personalized our service. When we remodeled, Ron was there to ease the challenge. Prior to our move, Ron helped me in forecasting all the changes. When we moved, Ron was there to stack apples and help with the new setup. Over the years as we grew and the buyers had direct contact with Ron, they, too, were well supported throughout their projects. Ron helped to make their work enjoyable.

Q: What are your favorite memories from working with Ron?
A: I always looked forward to talking with Ron. Before we’d attend any business, we’d share stories. Ron’s humor was ever-present. He could make light of any situation and set the tone. I enjoyed his stories of farming, his children, hockey games, and falling in love.

Q: What did you learn about the business from Ron?
A: I learned that respect, trust and insight are very instrumental in creating a sustainable business. Ron understood that consistent excellence in quality, selection and service could grow our businesses and make our work successful and fun!!! Ron was an excellent listener and he was willing to go to great lengths for our satisfaction. His passion for local and organic was matched with our intentions, and we were having fun while doing something very important and life-changing for many of us.

Jenny Ohlsen: Manager of Willy East produce 1997–2005

Q: What sets Ron apart from other sales reps you’ve worked with?
A: Ron has a kindness about him that made every phone call and interaction with him very enjoyable. He is such hardworking person and I always knew that he was giving us his very best.

Q: What are your favorite memories from working with Ron?
A: Plain and simple—Ron is just a great guy and really good at his job!

Q: What did you learn about the business from Ron?
A: When I started working in the Produce department I knew next to nothing about produce. While my knowledge grew a lot over time working with fruits and vegetables, I would have to say I learned the most when I became a buyer. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Ron during my years at the Co-op. He always had time for my endless questions about orders, produce quality, specials, and growers. Ron would often run out to the warehouse to check the product personally if he was even slightly unsure about quality. I’m confident the man racked up some serious miles during his career to make sure we sold the very best produce.

Andy Johnston: Manager of Willy East produce 2005–present

Q: What sets Ron apart from other sales reps you’ve worked with?
A: What sets Ron apart is his no-nonsense style of doing business, and his ability to get results for his customers. Ron is the only sales representative who has ever said, “You don’t want to buy that from me,” and he’s said it often. This level of integrity sets him apart from others and has contributed to a great relationship.

Q: What are your favorite memories from working with Ron?
A: My favorite memories from working with Ron are finding a way to get a laugh in when things aren’t going great. It seems we’re asking each other, “Why am I still in this business?” and laughing about it.

Q: What did you learn about the business from Ron?
A: What I learned from Ron? Don’t get too worked up about things you can’t control; it’s bad for your heart!
Megan Blodgett-Minnick: Manager of Willy West Produce 2010–2013

Q: What sets Ron apart from other sales reps you’ve worked with?
A: Ron is like one of the family in the Produce department. He not only has an exceptional knowledge of the industry, but he’s perfected the art of customer service. He gets to know each buyer he works with and builds a relationship based on trust with each of them, and perfectly walks the line between professionalism and friendship. He’s far and away the best produce sales rep I’ve worked with in my 12 years in the industry.

Q: What are your favorite memories from working with Ron?
A: Right before we opened the West Side store, Brandy (Assistant Produce Manager at West) and I went to the Twin Cities and visited Ron. We got a great tour of the warehouse, and then Ron drove us around town, pointing out all the landmarks and giving us an insider’s view of Minneapolis history. It was like we were part of his family!

Q: What did you learn about the business from Ron?
A: Ron has a great historical perspective that has taught me a ton about the industry: where organics were and how far we’ve come. His knowledge of the industry is an incredible reference for all of us, and he’ll be greatly missed!

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