Fifteen Minutes with Robbie Sigona, Produce Buyer

While we’re fast asleep, the workday is just beginning for cab drivers, bakers, stockers, and the people who source the produce at your favorite restaurants and independent grocery stores. Robbie Sigona is one of them. He buys award winning produce for both Sigona’s Farmers Market locations, as well as Sigona's Office Deliveries.

Q: Most of the feedback we get at Sigona’s is about how excellent the produce is. The stores recently won The Almanac’s Readers’ Choice award for Best Produce, can you what you're looking for when you're buying produce?

A: The first thing I’m looking for is quality. I cut fruit right there at the market and try it. Taste is so important. I want to buy with the knowledge that the quality and flavor are there. The second is price. The third is weight and appearance. Weight is important because a heavier fruit makes more money. It’s often better too. For example, the most flavorful watermelons are heavy for their size.

Q: What about this process sets Sigona’s apart from other grocery stores and produce delivery services?

A: Big grocery stores can’t do this. They’re buying big truckloads via phone. Even smaller stores don’t go through the hassle of trying all the produce they sell. It takes a lot of effort. That’s what sets us apart.

Q: When I had the chance to visit the Golden Gate Produce Terminal with you, there were many surprising elements. For example, most of the buying at the market happens between 12:00AM and 4:00AM! What would surprise customers about produce buying?

A: People are often surprised at the level of detail I go through. I cut and taste almost every lot that we sell. I’ll slice a navel orange and taste it right there, checking for sweetness, acidity, and flavor. They're surprised about the hours we work too. The time we wake up and spend at the market. The whole world that goes on in the middle of the night. That can be a little shocking, like, “wow, you do all that? I didn’t realize!”

Q: What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your job?

A: When I show up to the store and the displays look perfect. It takes the whole crew to make that happen. I want to make sure I say that. However, the produce started with me. We don’t even have to make a ton of money. If it’s successful and customers are saying, “We’ve got to come in and get those mulberries!” I provided that. It's really rewarding.

Q: You can’t get away with cutting corners. Employees and customers are checking the weight, appearance, color, and taste of what you buy. You’re dealing with a perishable item too, I’m sure that’s quite hard! What would you say are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?

A: The hours for sure. Balancing life and still being able to wake up at midnight most nights. Events or spending time with friends and family, all of that typically happens during the day or early evening. People are showing up for dinner reservations when I’m getting into bed or they’re getting home from a late movie as I’m getting up for work.

Another challenge is dealing with failure. You’re dealing with a perishable item; you’re fighting against time. I’ll think I’m being critical, but customers and employees can be even more critical. I’ll look at ten different oranges, and all of them have a green tint to their skin. This is common in the summer because oranges are winter fruit. They need cold nights to develop that vibrant orange color, so when it heats back up again in the summer, oranges usually re-green to protect themselves from sunburn. I’ll take the time to pick the best tasting, least green-tinged one (the green on the skin doesn’t affect the flavor). But people still might say, “Hey that’s not good enough.” Dealing with the failure is hard. Striking out, to use a baseball analogy (laughs). You need a thick skin. You have to understand it’s part of the game.

Q: That’s an interesting point, fighting against time. Can you give an example?

A: You have to know how fast produce has to move, so it takes forecasting. My dad was an excellent forecaster. I learned what I know about forecasting from him. You have to know where the fruit is in the ripening process, what temperature it needs to continue, slow, or speed up ripening. And ultimately when it’ll be ready to eat. Bananas are the perfect example. We use a numeric, color, and temperature system to gauge a banana's ripeness. I buy bananas with a certain amount of green, and at a certain temperature, so that with the right amount of temperature control and time, customers can enjoy perfectly ripe, ready to eat bananas.

Q: Is there anything you want to add?

A: I am only one piece of this puzzle; I want to stress that. We recently won an award, Best Produce in the Peninsula. We get it quite often which is nice. But I can’t do any of that on my own. I can buy good produce, but I need the crew. Marketing who gets the word out there. Cashiers who ring it up. It’s a team effort. Maybe that sounds cliché but it’s true.

To read more about Produce Buyer Robbie Sigona, check out From Forklift to Fork: A Day in the Life of Robbie Sigona.

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