Kids sing as Navy store remodels

This week, shoppers at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Commissary were treated to unusual sights: The store opening on Monday and children warbling “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.”

Store employees reworked verses in a holiday favorite and asked children from Oak Harbor’s Der Kinderhuis Montessori School to perform. Numbers remained the same but nouns had changed to make the tune place specific. So the kids sang, “On the first day of Christmas, my Commissary gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.” On through the 12 days, kids stepped forward, holding products ranging from meat to staples to produce (which gave a bag of pears, naturally) and singing their song. While some of the numbers seemed excessive — nine boxes of whole wheat croutons — the choir’s enthusiasm and coordination never wavered.

“We thought about having store employees sing, but quickly decided against that,” Grocery Manager Jim Freeman said.

The kids sang in front of a star-shaped display featuring boxes and bags of all types of Northwest-grown pears surrounding a large Christmas tree hung with flocked-plastic pears.

As part of a competition between produce departments in Commissaries on military bases in the U.S. and the Pacific, the entire Whidbey Island store got together to celebrate the holidays and show off their new spaces.

Produce Manager Norm Boehnke decided to enter the Pear Bureau-sponsored contest.

“We were never able to compete with our old store,” Boehnke said. “But look around,” he said gesturing at the new section. “We really have something to show off.”

Since last summer, construction at the Commissary on the Seaplane Base has been steady. The addition and remodel has expanded the structure and added contemporary freezer space while restructuring storage areas.

The section holds a much larger produce section along with deli and bakery. Everything is new from actual building to number of products carried.

“In the Commissary system, produce has long been considered a step-child,” Produce Manager Norm Boehnke admitted. “But we’re changing all that,” he said.

Boehnke inspects produce deliveries at the loading dock.

“If I’m not satisfied with the quality, it all goes right back on the truck,” he said.

He orders varieties of produce to introduce military shoppers to the myriad choices available.

“We go through cases of apples here. This season, I added ‘Honey Crisps’ to our order,” he said. These rather large globes stay fresh right to the core with a brisk sweetness.

“These don’t keep as well as a ‘Red Delicious’ so they will be gone soon,” he added. “People should try them while they can.”

The Defense Commissary Agency, which controls grocery stores on military bases worldwide, is improving produce departments by emphasizing product quality along with displaying produce as major grocery stores do.

Whidbey’s previous produce section was crammed with basics with little space for highlighting more exotic products or swanky displays.

“Before the remodel, we did not have room for display — nothing like major chain stores,” Boehnke said.

Now his department features expanded floor space, up-to-date display stands and plenty of room for floor-to-ceiling merchandising.

In addition to display, the store’s sales of pears will be counted into their final score.

For the past several months, construction has meant disruptions at the commissary. Once the produce section was relocated, it remained set, but the rest of the store’s stock floated around as building contractors demanded. Yet the store remained open. In such conditions, a drop in the number of shoppers and sales could be expected but that hasn’t occurred.

So far, the store seems to be faring well.

“We have a very loyal customer base,” Freeman said.

In the past week, Boehnke said produce sales have averaged $6,000 to $7,000 a day. That’s up from a regular $3,000 daily total.

“We’ve been going through cases and cases of pears,” Boehnke added.

First prize in the contest is a trip to an annual conference put on by Produce Marketing Association. Second and third prizes carry cash donations to military charities.

Boehnke and Freeman look forward to hearing the competition’s outcome but say they are more proud of their new store.

“We want our military families to come see all that’s new and find out what their commissary does for them,” Freeman said.

A grand opening of the finished commissary is set for later in February 2004.

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