"It feels so good to see all these colors and all this variety!” Hearing comments like this is one of the many small perks of my job in West Produce. But what’s the story behind those beautiful displays? I recently talked with Max Wilke, who’s approaching the one-year mark as Produce Manager, about the vision and values that guide the work we do.
Max has engaged with every aspect of the department (he’s the guy behind our guacamole, roasting mix, and slaw recipes, among other things). He pairs a passion for good food with a desire to promote good living for everyone whose lives intersect with the grocery business. “The question of how to have a desirable food system becomes more and more pertinent as the organic industry keeps growing,” he says. “What can we do at the retail level to help improve working conditions on nationally known farms? We want to sell really good products—not just in terms of quality, but in relation to a whole backstory people might not know exists. I also want to make sure that people are happy working here. It’s a complex beast for me to wrap my mind around.”
To address that beast, we “want people to be very engaged, whether they’re customers or employees—to come into a department that’s open, inviting, and interesting enough that you want to be self-directed and exploratory. When you force stuff on people, it doesn’t go as well as when you give them the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.”
Excitement about food might be the best gateway to curiosity about the “backstories” we’d been discussing. Providing flavorful variety also dovetails with our long-standing commitment to working with local growers. Max says, “On many smaller-scale farms, there’s an important effort to promote food diversity. Local farmers provide us with papalo and baby ginger—things you won’t see coming from national distributors. They’re growing varieties of tomatoes first propagated in our region, and we know that because we can ask them directly! Though it’s not necessarily the most efficient way to do business, we continue to feature a much wider product lineup than you’ll find at other stores. That’s part of offering the highest-quality experience we can.”
“It’s easy for eating to become monotonous, especially in our current commercial food system, where you find the same things in stores year-round. I want to encourage people to expand their possibilities of enjoyment. People make stories out of that. Maybe some kid’ll come in, taste a sample of some odd thing, and later become a wonderful chef—or just find joy in eating for the rest of their life.”
‘Joy’ comes up repeatedly during our conversation. It seems like a marvelous core value to me. What good work, to try to link great flavors and complex pleasures with the well-being of everyone who eats—from soil bacteria to field workers to stockers to customers. And what an alluring idea: that our enjoyment can help create a more joyful life for everyone!