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Passion for Produce: Rick Hogan to retire after nearly 46 years of service to Hugo's grocery stores

Grocer extraordinaire has followed food trends for nearly five decades and appreciates the people he has served along the way.

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Rick Hogan, Produce Education director at Hugo's in East Grand Forks, is retiring Thursday after working 45 1/2 years for three generation of Magnussons in the grocery business. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Rick Hogan was 16, a junior at Grand Forks Central High School, when he asked Hugo Magnuson for a job in his grocery store.

This week he’s retiring, as produce education director, after nearly 46 years with Hugo’s Family Marketplace, a chain of 10 grocery stores in North Dakota and Minnesota. Today will be his last day of work, he said.

“It’s going to be a hard day -- I get emotional just thinking about it -- but also a happy one," he said.

His first day on the job was Dec. 6, 1973. His mother, Elaine Albrecht, had encouraged him to find part-time work.

“She thought grocery would be a good business to get into,” he said.

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“I worked up the courage to go in” to talk to Magnuson, Hogan remembered. “He was a good businessman. He had his rules.”

One was that a guy’s hair should not touch his collar. In 1973, longer hair was in vogue, he said.

“I had to trim it a little bit," he said.

Magnuson taught him “a lot, about integrity and to do the right thing,” he said. “To get out there and do what you can for your community. He was a ‘community man’.”

After high school, Hogan considered attending UND to earn a business degree so he could run a carpentry business. His plans changed after his boss at the time, Bud Corbit, told him: “I can teach you everything you need to know about business."

Hogan’s love of art, color and nutrition drew him from the grocery section to produce, and he was promoted to produce associate at the East Grand Forks store in 1983.

Produce offered an outlet for his creative talents, he said.

“There’s only so much you can do with a can or a box," he said.

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Business changes

One of the biggest changes Hogan has seen during his career is the explosion in the variety of foods.

“For example, you can get watermelon in chunks, quarters, halves or whole,” said Hogan, adding that each one represents an option, or a separate SKU computer code. “In the vegetable line, the number of options is just crazy, considering all the varieties. There are 675 options just in produce.”

A few decades ago, “you couldn’t get grapes in winter, and you couldn’t get seedless grapes,” he recalled. “You could only get grapes from California, and there were only two varieties of grapes.”

“Back then, there were eight or nine varieties of apples. Now there are 45 to 50 varieties," he said.

Because of his knowledge, Hogan has been recruited to give presentations for high school, OLLI adult education and Head Start program audiences.

He’s also learned a lot from customers.

“Some of my customers have been some of my best teachers," he said.

He has a knack for noticing what types of produce people are choosing at the various Hugo’s stores. If they’re picking up an exotic fruit, for example, “I’ll ask something like, ‘How are you going to use that?’ ” That kind of friendly interaction tends to build relationships with customers.

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“It helps them feel they can talk with me and ask for things,” he said.

He enjoys training new employees, teaching them what they need to know to provide good customer service and the importance of treating customers with respect, he said.

“Rick’s dedication to Hugo’s and our customers has been outstanding,” said Kristi Magnuson Nelson, president and CEO of Hugo’s Family Marketplace. “His creativity and willingness to pitch in where needed is also very admirable.”

The granddaughter of Hugo Magnuson and leader of the Hugo’s enterprise also praised Hogan for “his sincerity, support, sense of humor and caring personality.”

Health consciousness

Over the years, people have become more health conscious, according to Hogan.

“Doctors are telling them the perimeter departments of the store provide the healthiest food options," he said.

That trend influences consumer buying decisions which, in turn, affects grocers’ buying decisions, including quantity and timing.

Hogan advises his staff to watch for products that are featured on TV, such as "The Dr. Oz Show" and the Food Network.

“When they have a different vegetable on the cooking channel or if Dr. Oz has a program on the benefits of fennel or anise, my shelves will be wiped out for three days,” he said.

Another trend, “organics (food) has really picked up,” though the price differential is still significant, he said. Consumers who choose organic foods are concerned about pesticides and fertilizers used in production.

“The biggest thing is to wash (fruits and vegetables),” he said. “Some people say, ‘I never wash them, I just cut them.’ And I say, ‘Well, now what was on the outside is on the inside.’ The effect on your health can be devastating.”

It frustrates him a bit that people continue to believe it’s more expensive to eat healthy compared to a diet heavy with cookies, crackers, chips and other salty snacks.

For teaching purposes, he created a chart comparing the per-ounce cost of fruits and vegetables with not-so-healthy options.

“You’re going to feel better and have more energy all day,” he said of choosing healthy food options. Choosing less healthy options often lead to energy levels that will spike and crash.

“You’ll want to just go home and take a nap," he said.

Competition, partnership

The popularity of farmers markets in summer and early fall also has an effect on the movement of fruit and vegetable inventories in grocery stores.

“It slows certain things down, like tomatoes," Hogan said.

Hugo’s also purchases produce from area farmers, who must meet the grocery chain’s standards for quality and packaging.

“Customers are looking for homegrown products, but people expect it to look like what they see out of California,” he said of the produce's shape, color and size.

Hugo’s is always on the lookout for more opportunities to buy from area producers.

“We like to buy local products,” he said. “We’d love to get more and more homegrown produce.”

Hugo’s has “a really good supplier” that delivers fruits and vegetables grown in distant states and abroad, according to Hogan.

“We get produce every day except Sunday. We get fresh (items) every day to make sure our customers get the best," he said.

‘Great journey’

Along the way, Hogan’s accomplishments have been recognized on several occasions, including the Master Produce Award from the Nash Finch Company in 1998 and the Produce Manager of the Year, as one of 25 in the country honored in 2013 by the United Fresh Foundation Center for Leadership Excellence.

It’s also gratifying to know that he had a hand in helping area farmers venture into new areas, such as supplying flax and asparagus to Hugo’s stores, he said.

“I’ve helped people get their start in our stores and grow their business to be a success,” he said.

Approaching retirement, he said: “I’ll miss my fellow associates and the team I work with.”

He’ll also miss his customers.

"I want to thank the people," he said.

“When you work with a company as long as I have, you grow with your customers,” said Hogan of the people he’s gotten to know who, decades ago, came in with their babies in tow.

“Then you see the babies grow up, and later they’re bringing in babies of their own," he said.

These days, it’s the longevity that surprises him.

“I never thought I’d be at the same company for 46 years,” he said. “I loved my job; I loved everything about it.

“It’s been a great journey. I just never thought it would be this long.”

HugosGuy
Rick Hogan, pictured here in his early years with the Hugo's grocery business (Photo courtesy of Hugo's Family Marketplace)

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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