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Peace Corps veteran makes transition to Gourmet Trading

When Matt Romsa began working April 1 for Gourmet Trading Co., a fresh produce importer and distributor in Los Angeles, it was a big change from the life he had been leading just a year earlier.

Mr. Romsa, 27, served for two years as a volunteer health educator for the Peace Corps in the landlocked African nation of Malawi, which ranks among the world's least developed countries, according to the U.S. government.

"I had planned on the Peace Corps right out of college," said Mr. Romsa, a 2000 graduate of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in business.

Instead, he "fell into a job with Kroger Co. as a produce inspector, working in the field checking on the quality of product for the buyers back in the office. "That was my first job in the industry, right out of college, Mr. Romsa said.

His territory included Salinas, Oxnard and the Imperial Valley in California as well as Yuma and Phoenix in Arizona. "I learned a lot and met a lot of good people in the produce industry, he said, adding that he was "exposed to a lot of different commodities.

Still, the desire to give something back on a more global level persisted, and he began seriously pursuing a Peace Corps assignment. "All my bosses at Kroger were pretty accepting and helpful through the process, which was pretty intense and lasted nine-and-a-half months, he said. Everything from his health background to "what I could offer the Peace Corps, what were my intentions was investigated and evaluated.

He was assigned to Ntaja, an area with a population of about 3,900, as an HIV educator and health advocate, but noted, "So much can fall under that.

In addition to becoming well versed on a myriad of diseases and disorders, Mr. Romsa worked with local educators to develop after-school programs offering constructive activities as an alternative to destructive and potentially dangerous behaviors. He also helped a women's group start a small-business venture.

Mr. Romsa lived with a host family for his first two-and-a-half months in Ntaja before moving to a small government-owned house on the grounds of the health center where he worked. The house -- which consisted of a main room, two smaller rooms, a cooking area, a storage area and a shower room -- was built of bricks on a cement foundation with a tin roof. "In the summer it felt like an oven in there, he said. A pit latrine was separate from the house.

"Not every volunteer has electricity, but I was fortunate enough to have electricity, he continued, adding that his monthly bill for the utility was about $3. "I did not have running water; I had to get my water almost daily. I was living in a very simplistic environment.

Because he had no refrigerator, Mr. Romsa shopped every day at a nearby farmers market and in the course of these outings came to realize he had achieved a certain level of local celebrity status. "I was the only white person in my village, he said. "I would go by and everybody would greet me.

Living without technology was another transition, especially in terms of communications. "If I wanted to get in touch with someone I would have to go myself or send a message, he said.

His return to the United States was an adjustment. "Coming back was difficult. I am American, but at the same time I did adapt to the pace of life over there -- the pace here is so much quicker.

He recalled a visit to a shopping mall with his grandmother a few days after he got home. "It was overwhelming, he said. "All the bright colors and sound. Theres a sense of urgency here as opposed to over there.

He began working for a floral wholesaler, then made the jump to Gourmet Trading. "I started on April Fools Day, he said.

Mr. Romsa sees his job at Gourmet Trading as a golden opportunity.

"There is certainly room for growth. I don't have a lot of experience on this side; I plan to work hard and learn a lot, he said. "It's very helpful to me to start in this role.

As part of his new learning curve, he travels to the Los Angeles terminal market every week and also attended this year's Produce Marketing Association foodservice show in Monterey, CA, in July. That was very interesting, I had never seen that side of the produce industry, he said. "I enjoyed meeting the people and chatting at the booths -- I learned a lot.

Mr. Romsa appears to know how to apply what he has learned, both recently and in the past. Reminiscing about his first job at age "16 or 17 minding the cash register and flipping burgers for a Carl's Jr. fast-food outlet, he observed that even then there was a produce connection.

"One of my jobs was to cut up the produce [for toppings] for the day, he said. "I didn't think at the time of all the effort that goes into it & of how many times that produce changes hands before it gets to the final customer.

He credited that early experience with contributing to his awareness of customer service. "It made me a more personable employee, just trying to build a rapport with the customer while at the same time thinking of all the things that need to be done to satisfy that customer. There was a sense of urgency as well -- the same as in the produce industry: 'how long is it going to take' "

Mr. Romsa noted that his youth is both an advantage and a disadvantage in an industry he said "is hard to learn in a classroom -- it comes a lot from experience. You have to go out there and learn as much as you can from your customers and co-workers. But being young, I have technical savvy and I can use that to my advantage to help out co-workers and customers.

"I think of myself as a quick learner, and I'm digesting a lot, he continued. "But in the produce industry, there is something new to learn every day. My co-workers have been very helpful.

Mr. Romsa is beginning to reap the rewards of his efforts at Gourmet Trading, establishing a few small accounts for himself but mostly assisting on other accounts and trying to make the most of the orders that come into the sales department.

"Technically, I'm still an assistant, he said. "I enjoy just meeting the people and working with them to grow their business so our relationship grows and our business at Gourmet grows as well.

Mr. Romsa's parents live in Fresno, CA. His father is a pastor in the Lutheran Church. A younger sister, 19, wants to study to become a teacher. Mr. Romsa was born in Canada but "moved around quite a bit because of his dad's calling and grew up mostly in the Midwest, attending high school and college in California.

In his leisure time, he is an avid beach-goer. "I'm living in Glendale now, northeast of Los Angeles, so I try to take advantage of that good Southern California weather, he said. He also keeps in shape bicycling, playing softball, lifting weights and working out at a gym.

He is content with his current situation at Gourmet Trading. "I enjoy it, he said. "Just the fact that there are never two days in a row that are the same, and coming up with solutions to problems quickly. There are a lot of very intelligent people in produce, but I have found them to all be very down-to-earth and approachable. I want to talk to those people and glean as much information as I can from them.

Even as he settles into his role at Gourmet Trading, Mr. Romsa's experiences in Malawi remain a focal point. "I still think about it a lot -- sometimes every day. My commute home is about an hour, and I think about it while I'm stuck in traffic, he said. "I got back July 10 of last year. I've been back a little over a year. It feels like it's been a week.