FORT LEE, N.J. -- A new Food Emporium here boasts that chain's largest produce department to date, one that sports new sections and expanded variety.Among the new merchandising emphases for the chain represented in the new store here is an Asian vegetables section. The expanded variety, meanwhile, places a heavy emphasis on organics and imported products.With three buying offices -- in Montvale, N.J.;

FORT LEE, N.J. -- A new Food Emporium here boasts that chain's largest produce department to date, one that sports new sections and expanded variety.

Among the new merchandising emphases for the chain represented in the new store here is an Asian vegetables section. The expanded variety, meanwhile, places a heavy emphasis on organics and imported products.

With three buying offices -- in Montvale, N.J.; Lakeland, Fla.; and Fresno, Calif. -- the Bronx-based chain keeps its options open when it comes to produce procurement, ensuring its ability to provide its shoppers with whatever they need, said Food Emporium officials in interviews with SN. The 35-store Food Emporium chain is a division of A&P, which is headquartered in Montvale.

"We try to carry the largest variety," said Jeff Piering, director of produce merchandising for Food Emporium. "If a customer comes in and requests something, we'll go out of our way to get it for them. And then we'll try to introduce it to the rest of our shoppers."

The produce executive said he expects the department to pull in about 14% of total store sales, which is an impressive chunk when taking into account the presence of other new departments, such as an expanded liquor department and larger pharmacy.

"That would be good for me, if I was able to keep that 14%," Piering said. "I don't see a problem doing that."

This store, opened April 26, is the first Food Emporium unit in New Jersey. At 58,000 square feet, the store is Food Emporium's biggest, almost twice the size of its next largest unit, in Ryebrook, N.Y.

While he was unsure of the produce department's exact square footage, Piering said the department's selling area is proportionately on par with the rest of the store, which means it's big for Food Emporium.

"There are about 300 linear feet of produce casing," Piering said. "That's about double the size of any of our Manhattan stores, and about 100 feet more than any of our other larger stores."

Much of the space is dedicated to new programs, such as the department's mushroom section. Dubbed "Many-a-Mushrooms," it features more than 20 different varieties of mushrooms from around the world.

To the left of that section is "Garden Fresh Herbs," where roughly 20 to 30 bunched, fresh herbs are merchandised. Potted herbs are also merchandised throughout the department.

Five floor cases filled with bulk fruits and vegetables compose the majority of the department's floor space.

The chain has mounted signs carrying catch phrases above each floor case, as well as posting them on the long stretch of casing along the left side of the department. The signs are intended to let shoppers know where they can find different products.

Above the exotic fruits section, for example, is a black sign with white lettering that reads "Tropical Sensations." The section offers a host of cherimoyas, mangoes, kiwano melons, feijoas and pepino melons.

Another sign, which reads "Veggies, Veggies, Veggies," sits over the middle vegetable floor case, while the "Fresh Salad Fixin's" stretch of casing separates items such as the bulk lettuce heads, radishes, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower and other fresh vegetables. Also included there are about nine different types of peppers, such as yellow, red and orange bells, and several of the hot variety.

Piering said the produce department's "Tastes of Asia" section is where shoppers can find more than 20 Asian vegetables, including bok choy, mini bok choy, Chinese eggplant, yu choy and Chinese mustard. The store is located in an area that has a large Asian population, which was evident in a visit to the new unit on LeMoine Avenue.

This kind of micromarketing will find its way into the other produce departments in Food Emporium units, Piering said. For instance, "We recently learned that there is a large Asian population in Westchester [County, N.Y.], so we're going to continue this in other stores."

Most of the Asian fruits in the new store, such as Asian pears or Chinese mangoes, are merchandised in the department with like products, Piering added.

The chain also chose integrated merchandising for its organics; the overwhelming amount of organic produce in the new store is merchandised with the more conventionally grown items.

"We try to integrate [organic produce] throughout the department to try to introduce it to the everyday shopper," he said. "Maybe they'll see that organics are only a little bit more in price, and don't have the chemicals and pesticides on them."

Food Emporium has been heavily involved with organics for the past several years, but the size of the new department has allowed the chain to make an even greater effort here toward marketing organically grown items.

Piering said there were more than 90 different organic items in the department on the day he was interviewed by SN. Orange signage in the department connotes which products are organic. The items so marked are plentiful enough to make it almost seem as if each fruit and vegetable has an organic counterpart alongside.

The selection includes at least eight varieties of organic salads made by Earthbound Farms, based in Watsonville, Calif. Those salads are merchandised against the back wall of the department along with more non-organic salad kits by Dole and Fresh Express in a section called "Fresh Salad Mixes."

To satisfy a clientele more than likely weaned on international tastes, the new store carries a plentiful supply of imported products, which are procured, for the most part, through the Fresno office.

"We've got a full line of products from Holland," Piering said by way of example. "We have beefsteak tomatoes, Holland peppers, Holland eggplant."

The new store also carries a large line of produce grown in Israel, including Israeli tomatoes, and Israeli melons at $2.49 a pound.

But the store will also support local growers. Piering said Food Emporium is bringing in items such as New Jersey blueberries, and promotes the fact with signage and in ads.

While Food Emporium typically does not carry its own brands in the produce department, fresh-cut fruit is one area in which the chain chooses to take on processing responsibilities.

"All of our fresh-cut fruits are made daily in the back room," Piering said. Merchandised in the first floor case, the fresh-cut products include a variety of cut melons and pineapples, as well as fruit cups in 14-ounce clamshell containers over a bed of ice.

The produce department is also home to a juice bar, at which celery, kale, orange and carrot juices, freshly squeezed in the back room, are sold. The juice is merchandised in the middle of the department, on an ice bed in the section called, "The Citrus Grove."

The floral department, located slightly to the left of the entrance, is also larger than most other units', Piering said. Shoppers are forced to notice "The Floral Shoppe" as they walk through the door to the main part of the store.

"We carry flowers from around the world. We have Israeli cut flowers, South African flowers and Holland bulbs," Piering said of the department.

The shop is, for the most part, in the open; there are two reach-in coolers that feature baskets and other pre-arranged items.

An in-house designer staffs the shop, and will put together arrangements for special occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.