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Recognition: Roger Schroeder retires from Stater Bros.

When Roger Schroeder began his produce industry career Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Chubby Checker had everyone twisting, a postage stamp cost 4 cents and Los Angeles County still had its fair share of agricultural fields.

On Jan. 12, 2018, Schroeder is calling it quits after a 58-year career that took him from box boy to produce industry statesman, working for three of Southern California’s finest produce retailers along the way. Each of those other 1960 benchmarks are long but a memory.schoeder-3 white background

As a teenager, he started bagging groceries for the neighborhood Shopping Bag in 1960, which was the same year Vons purchased that chain. He joined the produce side of retailing the following year and it was only a couple of years later that he decided to make it a career. “About a year into college I was working in the produce department and realized I enjoyed that more than school. I quit college and started working full time,” recalled Schroeder.

Within a few years, Schroeder had worked for a handful of Vons stores in Southern California, accumulating mentors along the way. He remembers that a Long Beach produce manager, Mario Iacovino, taught him a lot, as did Lakewood produce manager Art Hayashi. Both of those men eventually moved into the Vons produce-buying department and would impact Schroeder’s career as it progressed.

In 1966, he obtained his first produce manager position in a Vons in La Mirada with Iacovino serving as his supervisor. For the next 10 years, Schroeder served as produce manager in a handful of stores throughout Southern California. Vons had well over 100 stores and was one of the area’s top retailers. That was the heyday for the Southern California supermarket industry with at least 50 chains vying for market dominance.

In 1975, he entered a 12-week store management-training program, which was supposed to put him on the fast track to be a store manager. “After graduation, you’d typically join a store as a key carrier,” he said.

However, the future held a different path for Schroeder. He moved to the corporate headquarters with a position in the retailer’s scheduling department, specifically handling produce scheduling. In 1978, he made his first move into the corporate produce hierarchy when he was put in charge of the produce warehouse.

It was here that he began rubbing shoulders with several more mentors, who have each carved indelible marks in the Southern California produce industry. At the time, Gary Lee, Dale Liefer and Dick Spezzano were entrenched as members of Vons’ produce management team. Spezzano stayed with Vons and became the top produce guy while Lee and Liefer joined the supplier community and became well known and well respected on that side of the ball for years to come.schroeder-1 1Roger Schroeder (right) has been on the FPFC board of directors since the early 1990s.

Spezzano soon asked Schroeder to become one of his merchandisers. Over the next half dozen years, Schroeder rose through the ranks becoming a supervisor, a district manager and eventually the No. 2 man in line to take over for Spezzano — but that would require some help from the top guy.

In 1988, Buz Bolstad, who had reached icon status in the Southern California retail produce sector, was nearing the end of an illustrious career at Hughes Family Markets. Schroeder was approached to take the No. 2 slot there, grooming for the top produce position. “I went to Dick (Spezzano) and asked him if he was going to leave anytime soon. Dick said ‘It sounds like you have a job offer.’ He advised me to take it,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder joined Hughes and after about six months of upper management experience, Bolstad retired and Schroeder took the top position. Hughes was known as one of the best produce retailers in the greater Los Angeles area and Schroeder only enhanced that reputation.

For the next decade, Hughes prospered, as did Schroeder. However, late in 1996, QFC (Quality Food Centers) in Washington state bought Hughes and the chain soon fell under the umbrella of Ralphs Grocery Co. in Los Angeles. Schroeder worked with Kerry Hodges of Ralphs to align the two companies.

Then Stater Bros. came calling. In 1998, Schroeder was named vice president of produce and floral, a position he has kept for the past two decades. The retail veteran is especially proud of his stint at Stater Bros. He loved his time there and was particularly fond of the longtime president, Jack Brown. In fact, he said it was Mr. Brown’s death in November of 2016 that caused Schroeder to start thinking about retirement. Up until then, he said he hardly gave it a thought. “When I was 65 I went to Jack and asked if they had a mandatory retirement age. He said, ‘Do you want to stay?’ I said I did and he said I could stay as long as I wanted.”

During Schroeder’s tenure, Stater Bros. had very significant growth, adding 43 stores one year as a result of divestiture of two other merging Southern California operations. Today, it is often called the largest regional supermarket chain in the United States. It operates about 170 stores under the Stater Bros. banner throughout Southern California with the majority of them being in what is called the “Inland Empire.”schroeder-11Marty Craner of B&C Fresh Sales and Roger Schroeder.

While Schroeder’s career was confined to Southern California, he also had a profound impact on the produce industry at large. The 5 a Day program to encourage fresh produce consumption started in California and Schroeder was an early adopter. Hughes proudly touted the concept and logo in its ads and in-store. In 1991, the Produce for Better Health Foundation was launched to take the effort nationwide with Schroeder as its first chairman. He served a second stint as chairman in 1993 and was instrumental in both the launch and adoption of that program throughout the country.

Schroeder points to the explosion of produce SKUs at retail as the biggest change he has witnessed in his 50-plus years. “When I started we had 75 produce items; now there are 1,100 items, with most stores carrying 800 or more at one time,” he said.

He added that this huge expansion in the produce department has made the job of produce manager so much more difficult and involved than it was when he began running that department in the 1960s. Managing 800 SKUs, he said, is exponentially harder than dealing with the 75 items he had under his purview when he first started.

The retail industry has also changed tremendously since 1960, but Schroeder sees even greater changes on the horizon. The presence of the internet and predilection that millennials have for using that medium, Schroeder said, requires all retailers to have an on-line presence. He believes there will always be a need for physical locations, but suspects they will be smaller as more center store items become the domain of internet sellers.

During his career, Schroeder has been a major supporter of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council. He is the only chairman to have served more than one term and he has had three different chairman of the board stints. In retirement, he will serve as honorary past chair, and promises to continue his involvement. 

“There are not that many opportunities to work with others on projects that are for the good of the entire industry — that’s what we do at the FPFC. I think our produce shows, which include produce managers, are a great idea,” he said.

In retirement, Schroeder expects to continue to travel the United States as well as Canada. About a decade ago, he began a hobby of photographing all the covered bridges in the United States. He has currently photographed 350 and has about 650 to go. That activity has also deepened his interest in photography, so now he has other scenes he’d also like to photograph. “There are lots of lighthouses and old barns that I’d love to photograph,” he said.

Schroeder expects to split his home base between California and Maine, which gives him access to so many more covered bridges. The FPFC is honoring him with a retirement dinner on Feb. 10.