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Giant Foods executive finds produce is the perfect game

by Terry Sokol | March 15, 2009
Whether it's baseball or produce, Rob Palmeri has his head in the game.

Mr. Palmeri, 41, a self-described baseball fanatic, is the produce and floral market manager for Giant Foods LLC, the Carlisle, PA-based supermarket chain. He has been working full time in retail produce since he was 20 years old.

He had been studying business management at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ, and working part-time in the produce department at a ShopRite in nearby Ramsey, NJ, when the produce manager there left for health reasons. "The store manager approached me two weeks before Thanksgiving -- it was a baptism by fire," Mr. Palmeri said. "I was the youngest manager at ShopRite."

It was a meteoric rise for the New Jersey native, who grew up in Waldwick and later moved to Wyckoff. He began his ShopRite career pushing carts at the Ramsey store when he was 16, but was quickly promoted to produce clerk. Mr. Palmeri worked at a series of ShopRite stores throughout northern New Jersey over the following years before joining Giant Foods and moving to Pennsylvania eight years ago. He met his wife of 10 years, Jackie, at the Passaic, NJ, ShopRite, where she was the store accountant.

He described the produce trade as a unique business. "I get bored fairly easily. One thing with produce is that it is constantly changing -- no two days are ever the same," he said. "That got me to stay in the business."

He also cited the relationship building that is essential to the industry. "It seems like the people who are in this industry really need each other."

It was one such relationship that landed Mr. Palmeri his current job. "Jim DeFilippis was my director at ShopRite - he was my mentor," he said. "I learned an extreme amount from him. He had moved to Giant and brought me on board. He was my produce director here for about a year. He has since moved on to open his own business. He is such a unique individual. I still remember to this day when he made the phone call to me to say that he wanted me to move to Pennsylvania."

Mr. Palmeri came to Giant Foods as the company's produce and floral specialist, overseeing some 50 stores. He followed up with a special project for the retailer as a produce field operations manager, developing a new produce excellence program. The goal was to hold the chain's produce managers to "a higher level of expectations," he said.

Since 2006, he has served in his current position, with responsibility for 148 stores in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. "I represent operations. I make sure that whatever programs merchandising wants are implemented in addition to [providing] training," he said.

To that end, he works closely with Dan McCullough, Giant Foods' produce director. "It's like we're joined at the hip," Mr. Palmeri said.

Things have changed over the years he has been in the business. "I was hard to work for when I was young - I was a bit of a bear," he acknowledged. "I've calmed down over time, especially since coming to central Pennsylvania."

Taking on so much responsibility at such an early age rendered some interesting moments. "I remember my mother coming to shop where I had my first [manager's] job," he recalled. His mom noticed a gentleman in the department who was about 60 years old and asked what his position was. "I said, 'He reports to me,' and she said, 'Wow, he should be your boss.' "

Not much later, Mr. Palmeri was gratified when a veteran produce man covered for him during a vacation and afterwards congratulated him on the level of organization and professionalism within the department.

Mr. Palmeri noted that the business is changing rapidly. "The work force isn't the same as it was when I was a produce manager," he said. "There just may not be as much time to spend that one-on-one time as when I was a produce manager. Just the amount of SKUs that are in the produce department now - - the ordering is probably the most crucial job task. To manage all that ... is a lot different now than when I was a produce manager."

He appreciates his situation with Giant Foods. "I'm fortunate with Giant," he said. "They really let me operate like it's my own business. That's the way I like to tell the produce managers to operate -- to treat it like it was their assets, not the company's assets.

"The company lets me be very creative," he continued. "They really don't hold me back when it comes to thinking outside the box."

As for baseball, it is a leading leisure passion, a close second to spending time with his family. Sometimes he is able to combine the two, coaching his son's team. "My wife says I like coaching more than my son likes playing," he laughed. When his daughter starts T ball, he plans to coach her team as well.

Mr. Palmeri is a devoted fan of the New York Mets and took his son to his first Major League Baseball game to see the team play at Shea Stadium in New York in September.

He is also an avid golfer, although he doesn't have as much time for that sport as he once did.

The family enjoys spending quality time together and recently returned from a winter vacation to Disney World in Orlando, FL.