Jake Warden hustled fresh bunches of ripened bananas onto empty shelves, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow. He tossed the empty cardboard box onto a stack near his cart, which was piled high with boxes. Customers chatted with each other and questioned clerks about produce while mingling with ambient music playing over the store’s speakers.
The employees in the Ralphs produce department have their hands full – in both senses of the word. They all hold down 48-hour-per-week jobs with one day off, and they also maintain lives outside the produce section with second jobs, school or social events.
Warden has been working at Ralphs for 12 years and at the Westwood Ralphs for the last three. After joining the meat department, promotion opportunities stagnated and he decided to move to produce. For him, produce is the best department to work in.
“You’re left alone kind of, and your success hinges on yourself; you don’t necessarily have someone watching over you all the time,” Warden said. “You have to have that intrinsic motivation to get things done.”
Amid the cacophony of the store, the employees focus primarily on filling gaps among the fruit and vegetables, which includes replacing produce that has been out too long with fresh produce. They also help customers who are looking for specific products, such as organic oranges or locally grown produce.
“There’s no particular structure to the day, in a sense, because it’s whatever is needed at the time,” Warden said.
Although Warden received a certificate in music theory, he said he is now so invested in working at Ralphs that he sees his future in retail management. He wants to eventually become head of the produce department.
Warden works 48 hours each week with only one day off, which he said is common for employees at Ralphs, particularly in the produce department. He said it’s difficult to maintain a reasonable social life.
“It’s unfortunate, they talk about making a strong effort of making that work-life balance here, but that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Rudy Carrillo, a produce clerk and the assistant to the produce manager, also works 48 hours per week transferring spoiled produce to the compost bin and transporting new fruits and vegetables from the back. Yet he maintains a second job as a baggage handler for American Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport.
On a typical day, Carrillo gets home from his shift at LAX at 2:15 a.m. His alarm for his shift at Ralphs rings at 4:30 a.m. Still, he sustains his energy with healthy snacks like bananas, power bars and Naked juices and by taking a nap between his Ralphs and LAX shifts.
“I don’t think about it,” Carrillo said. “I just do it, I don’t stress about it, it’s like a routine.”
Carrillo has been working for American Airlines for almost as long as he has at Ralphs – 16 years compared to 20. He’s spent the majority of his time at Ralphs in the produce section, starting as a courtesy clerk. He continued to turn down job openings that weren’t in the produce department since he had become a vegetarian at the time of his hire, which fostered a desire to work with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I was like, ‘No, I’ll wait for produce,’ and they didn’t understand why,” Carrillo said.
Carrillo said he enjoys helping customers find what they need and getting to know the regulars. He can quote some customers’ shopping lists from memory and said they joke that he should just have all their items set aside when they get there, since he knows the time they’ll arrive as well.
Jeff Albia, also a produce clerk, finds pleasure in the produce department as well. He said he often sees the same people come in, day after day.
As a health administration student at Cal State Northridge, Albia started replenishing Roma tomatoes at Ralphs to help pay for rent. He keeps busy with an internship at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center in addition to his job at Ralphs.
Though his classes are now online, he previously had to juggle in-person classes at Northridge with his shifts at Ralphs in Westwood.
“Before, my (work) schedule was a little different,” Albia said. “It was difficult but not that bad. The times of the classes and stuff worked out a little better.”
Despite juggling a job, an internship, online classes and a social life, Albia still believes the produce department at Ralphs is a rewarding place to work in. Carrillo agrees.
“I just enjoy what I do,” Carrillo said. “Kind of surprising, ’cause some people don’t. But I do.”