Faye Westfall Catches Up With SEPC Chairman Of The Board Mike Roberts

by | Feb 11, 2024


Headshot of Faye Westfall

Catching up with this busy guy is a challenge…

Mike Roberts is currently the Chairman of the Board with SEPC. I consider him one of my kids and I am so proud of him and his new position with SEPC — I just had to get him to stop for a few minutes for a little Q&A!

Mike Roberts headshot.

Mike Roberts, Vice President of Produce Operations for Harps Food Stores, Inc. and Chairman of the Board for the Southeast Produce Council.

First of all, congratulations on your new role as Chairman of the Board for the Southeast Produce Council. I admire your platform of “Unseen Heroes.” I know you have many passions that you considered, why this one?

Thank you, Faye. I am very honored to be the chairman of such a great organization and one that does so much for the produce industry. There is no better produce organization than the SEPC, so it means a lot to be the chairman!

I do have a lot of passions that I believe in and try to make a difference in; food waste, healthy eating and promoting the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. When I thought about choosing a platform, I thought about what my main job is every day, which is making sure that our front-line staff has the tools, products, education and support to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Having been a produce manager myself for a few years and a supervisor working directly with produce managers, I have personally seen how hard produce managers and their staffs work to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to their customers every day, as well as their commitment to not throwing away more than necessary and educating their customers.

It’s a really demanding job that you have to work at and wear many hats. The produce managers and their staff do a lot that align with all of my passions! I also thought a lot about the farmers, field workers, line workers and packers who work tirelessly to produce and ship all the great fruits and vegetables we sell every day. I thought about all they go through to get their products to the stores in the best shape possible, once again to help promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and reduce waste.

I just wanted to draw attention to and celebrate the first three feet and the last three feet! I have to give credit to my good friend Bobby Creel for that line! I thought it was great – Bobby coined that while we were talking about this platform a couple of years ago! But the point is we can’t do anything in this industry without the people on both ends of it! My hats are off to them, and they are my heroes!

Tim Grass passing the gavel on to Mike Roberts

Tim Graas passes the SEPC gavel on to Mike Roberts.

Tell me about the path to becoming Vice President of Produce Operations for Harps Food Stores. How and when did you get started in the produce industry?

Seems like yesterday but I started with Harps 29 years ago this July, so I am no overnight success!

I got my start in the industry in 1988 with a chain called Phillips Inc. which operated Food 4 Less stores in Arkansas. I needed a part time job while I was attending the University of Arkansas Little Rock – I went in, applied, and they put me in produce day one! I didn’t know a red bell pepper from a green one, in fact I think I thought the red ones were bad!

Turns out I was really good at stacking, or as they called it, I had hands. I enjoyed the fast pace, the customer interactions and I really enjoyed making the department look good! After a few years of college and working I had the chance to get promoted to assistant produce manager and then quickly the opportunity to be a produce manager. I really enjoyed it so I took it!

Somewhere in there after a few acquisitions Harps bought the last 10 stores of the Phillips chain and I stayed on with them. I got promoted from bigger store to bigger store and in 2001 as Harps grew I had the chance to be a regional produce supervisor. I absolutely loved it; lots of fun, lots of challenges and lots of work but I loved that too! I’ve worked hand in hand with some great produce managers building big displays and sometimes doing crazy stuff but always having fun and selling produce! All that fun led me down the path of procuring, category management, ad writing and planning new stores and their openings for the produce team.

All this experience gave me the opportunity to be the fourth produce director for Harps Food stores and the first Vice President of Produce Operations. I am very grateful to Kim Eskew, Harps CEO and Chairman for giving me this opportunity.

I have to say I love the produce industry and what I get to do every day. I can’t say I haven’t had some bad days in my career but I can say that I look forward to and enjoy getting up and going to work every day!

When I think of Mike Roberts, I can’t help but smile. Mike has a very infectious personality that you can’t help but love…and rarely is he at a lost for words. He is a humble servant leader that knows how to make things happen and has fun doing it. I am often amazed by his knowledge of produce, produce merchandising, and is willingness to try most anything at the store level (oh, and his knowledge of hobby horses as he claims to be the Michael Jordan of the sport-lol). He has a huge heart for giving back to the industry and to his community. Mike is a true produce guy who understands the value of partnerships and is an expert at building them. Through countless laughs, long phone calls about work/life/football/faith etc…, we have built a very strong bond that I will always cherish.

The amount of time, energy, and resources that Mike pours into the Southeast Produce Council is simply amazing. It is Mike and others like him that make this council so special.

Brandon Parker

Director of Sales, Shuman Farms

I know you have seen many changes throughout your career in the produce industry, name one that you think is more significant than others.

Well, when you put it like that you make me feel old!! I mean I guess I really have seen a lot of changes in the last 36 years in the business.

Value added or convenience items along with the availability of more variety year-round would have to be up there. I know when I started there was no salad mix and if you wanted something bagged or packaged it was done in the backroom. The emergence of Wal-Mart into the retail grocery market really changed a lot of things both in the retail market and on the supply side, some for the good and some maybe not so much for some retailers but you have to respect what they do and how fast they became such a major player in the grocery industry.

Innovation I think would be the most significant one overall – the more sustainable ways we grow crops, package products, and display products with more advanced refrigeration display cases. These things have really changed the way the industry works and looking back to when I started it seems funny to have done some of the things we used to do not having some of these advantages we have today.

On that same note, what improvements do you feel still need to be considered that might be long overdue?

Going back to my theme I think we as an industry need to pay our produce staffs more, it really is a skilled labor position, and a good produce manager can increase the sales of the entire store. I would like to see more produce experienced people in CEO or larger leadership positions in grocery industry positions. I think it would help change the way we look at the produce department.

We also need to continue to educate consumers, there is so much they do not know, like the different varieties of fruit and vegetables that are available and what it takes and costs to get fresh produce to them each day. It cracks me up when you hear consumers complain about the price of produce sometimes, if they only knew what all it took to get to their basket, I think it would change their outlook!

Mike Roberts, David Sherrod and Tim Graas at Southern Innovations 2023.

(L-R) Mike Roberts, David Sherrod and Tim Graas

I know food waste is a very important subject to you. How do you see that being better solved? What do you think is a good solution?

It’s a huge deal to me. 40% or so of all the food we produce in this country ends up in landfills. That makes me a little sick to my stomach knowing how much goes into producing, packaging and displaying produce.

There is so much that we need to do but I think it starts with education on the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables and the importance of them being a large part of our diets as a country. Fast food and junk food are too big a part of our diets, I mean hey I like a good Twinkie every now and then too but if we eat more fruits and veggies we are all going to feel better and live a little longer!

Technology I think is another area that can help, shelf extenders like Apeel, Verdant and some others work and can extend the shelf life of products into the consumers refrigerator increasing the chance of them being eaten and not wasted. These extenders are totally safe and can be a game changer in the fight against food waste.

I could go on and on but if we all do our part to help reduce not only food waste but recycle and try to reduce our carbon footprint, we can all breathe a little easier, feel a little better and live in a cleaner environment.

I have known Mike for a good many years and consider him a trusted friend. He is a very genuine and humble person with a great sense of humor. On a business side – he stands out from many in the retail business. He is not a buyer nor an analyst – he is a true retail merchant. He thinks with a “Merchants Head.” He cares about the consumers he serves and the people on his team.

When Mike tells you he is going to do something… he follows through and he does it.

We have had many conversations over the years about the produce business and one in particular stands out. That conversation was about the “Unseen People” from the first three feet to the last three feet in the produce supply chain… and the importance of their roles.

The first three feet during harvest (field crews) and the last three feet on the retail shelf (produce department managers) and all the other people that do incredible jobs in that supply chain that are simply unseen.

Mike expanded on that and made “Unseen Heros” his platform for this year as Chairman of the Board of Directors. That to me is a humble platform… from a humble leader.

The Southeast Produce Council is in great hands with Mike Roberts serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Bobby Creel

Director of Business Development, L&M Companies

Amanda Keefer reached out and got you very involved with Produce For Kids. Tell me how that has progressed with Harps.

That’s a great story, it was actually at an SEPC event when I met Amanda. I think it was an educational session or something and we just happen to sit at the same table. There were a few other people at the table if I remember right and the conversation started randomly and just ended up with Amanda and I both sharing our passion for feeding people healthy foods, especially kids and probably not shutting up about it! I think everyone else left the table!

That was 2015 and we had to drum up the support to get the program going in Harps and the AWG Springfield Division which took about a year, but I think we are on our 8th year of working with the Healthy Family Project Produce for Kids program. It’s just a part of what we do now! It’s a yearlong program and we have some one-day or three-day sales during the summer promoting the great items the sponsors have and to thank them for their support. We have Produce for Kids T-shirts with all of the sponsors’ logos on them for not only the produce manager but the whole staff at each location that they can wear during these sales. The produce staff loves it, they give out ‘Produce Bucks” to kids which is a $1 off coupon on any produce in the department! It’s really fun. Amanda and her staff are really great to work with and have helped us create a healthier generation in our market area and have had a lot of fun doing it!

Mike Roberts, Faye Westfall, Gary Baker

(L) Mike Roberts, Faye Westfall, Gary Baker

12 years ago when you were in the STEP-UPP class you were one of the first ones to want to ‘give back’ after completing the course. Now you and your partner in crime Gary Baker, Sr. Director of Fresh with Merchants Distributors, co-chair the program. What advise do you have for the younger generation coming into the produce world?

That’s Professor Baker! Or as my wife likes to call him, LEGENGARY! Co-Chairing STEP-UPP with Gary is a lot of work but we both really enjoy it. It’s good to meet the class each year and watch them bond with each other and learn things they didn’t know. Gary and I along with you and the STEP-UPP committee work really hard to make sure the class gets the most out of the program and has something they can take away from it hopefully for their whole career!

I think that is what really drove me to give back, I got so much out of the program. It really changed my career – you and Joe Watson did a great job and Gary and I stayed in touch after the program was over. I know I still talked to you and leaned on Joe many times for advice in the retail world after STEP-UPP.

My best advice for people coming into the produce world would be pretty simple; show up every day willing to give 100%. Relationships matter, partnerships matter, people matter! Phone calls are better than emails and always understand Mother Nature doesn’t care what you have on and/or in the ground!!

SEPC STEP-UPP Class of 2012

SEPC STEP-UPP Class of 2012

Throughout your career, who do you consider to be your mentors and go-to people?

Wow, there are so many I could talk about. I have been really blessed to work for and with some great people in my career that have taught me a lot. I would have to start with my Dad L.M. “Mickey” Roberts” and my grandfather C. Lee Roberts, I always say Dad taught me people skills and Grandad taught me how to get out of bed and go to work. I had the pleasure of working for my grandad until I went to college, he made every other job I have had look easy.

When you talk about mentors in the grocery business, like I said there are many but there are a few who stick out. Dennis Baker, the former Director of Produce operations for Harps, was a big influence in my career and helped me grow as a leader and prepared me for the position I hold today. Glenn Brock might have had the longest and most fundamental impact on my career. I met Glenn when I was an 18-year-old clerk, he literally showed me how to stack potatoes! Later in my career when I was a regional produce supervisor, Glenn was our Associated Wholesale Grocers Merchandiser and we worked very closely on lots of projects, programs, plans… you name it we worked on it. Both guys are retired now and I do miss their leadership and guidance, but I still talk to both of them on a regular basis.

There have been so many more that have helped me for sure, some colleagues and now friends like you. I would say you have been a mentor to me along with a lot of people I have met through the SEPC, Rick Estess, Brandon Parker, Bobby Creel and of course Ole David Sherrod, so I guess you could say the SEPC has had a big impact on my career as well.

Besides your beloved Arkansas Razorbacks and Dallas Cowboys what else do you enjoy? You know I could answer this for you but I want to see if you can possibly sum it up in a few words.

 Well, being a Cowboys fan is hard! But being a Razorback fan may be harder! We enjoy going to the games and being fans, but some days are harder than others!!! Other than that, I still love to fish, I just don’t do it as much, and I used to hunt but I’m not mad at the deer and the ducks anymore. I still like to get out in nature as much as possible, it just depends on how: hiking, on a pontoon, visiting a national park. I just like to be outside a lot!

But really over the past few years Courtney and I have really caught the travel bug. We like to visit places we have never been, check out the culture and landscape and relax a little too. It’s a lot of fun we go on a few trips each year trying not to visit the same place twice unless we really like it! I even got my partner in crime Professor Baker to come on one trip a year with us, it’s a blast!

Mike Roberts and Gary Baker on an island with a monkey.

Partners in crime Mike Roberts (L) and Gary Baker.

You never fail to give credit to your beautiful wife, Courtney. She has truly been an asset in your career. How about a couple of words on how she supports you?

You know she puts up with a lot! I know I’m not easy! I do stupid stuff! I wouldn’t be who I am today without her. She truly is the love of my life. She is my best friend, the best travel partner, the best planner. She is the glue of our family! I miss her when I have to travel for work but I love it when she gets to come with me, especially to SEPC events. She is a bigger deal than me! I love to watch her when she sees the friends she has made, most are more like family now. She is like a rock star she doesn’t even need me there. In fact, I don’t think some people know I am there when she is around. She is really amazing, all my staff know her really well, she worries about them and our Harps family which is pretty wide! She is an inspiration to me to do my best every day! I love her a hundred million!