SURVIVING AND THRIVING

WAKEFIELD, R.I. -- Relying on local growers to supply most of its fresh produce and sticking to high-quality standards have made Belmont Market's produce department a standout in the region.Described as an upscale store without the upscale prices, the 32,000-square-foot supermarket dedicates 6,000 square feet to fresh fruits and vegetables. The store is designed so that shoppers enter through the

WAKEFIELD, R.I. -- Relying on local growers to supply most of its fresh produce and sticking to high-quality standards have made Belmont Market's produce department a standout in the region.

Described as an upscale store without the upscale prices, the 32,000-square-foot supermarket dedicates 6,000 square feet to fresh fruits and vegetables. The store is designed so that shoppers enter through the floral department. From there, the store opens up to a dramatically lit, richly colored produce department, filled with the freshest fruits and vegetables, most of which are locally grown.

Its red and mustard-colored shelves, European-style tables and slate-look floors immediately let the customer know they're in for a relaxing shopping experience.

"I wanted to go for a Zen kind of feel," said Jack Siravo, Belmont's owner. "I want customers to come in and feel welcome, and be able to leisurely shop."

Down the center of the store is the wet wall, which holds all of the department's lettuce, bagged salads, celery, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. On the sides are fruits and dry vegetables, which are displayed on easy-to-reach tables and in antique bins. The department stocks approximately 400 items in its produce department, 30 of which are organic.

"We don't go with the big, high, vertical displays. I like to keep things low and easily reachable for the customers," Siravo said. "I don't understand how people like to reach way up and take things off of a big pile. It looks great, but to me it's not accessible."

Since nothing in the department is higher than five feet, customers can see all the produce at once.

"I can't believe how well it came out myself," Siravo said. "I walk in here every day, and I pinch myself and say, 'I can't believe we did this. It's beautiful."'

The numbers show that produce is what's drawing customers, despite tough competition from larger stores in the market, including Shaw's and Super Stop & Shop. Typically, 5% to 7% of a store's sales come from produce, said Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, New York. According to Siravo, his produce department accounts for 20% of sales, second only to general grocery, which makes up 29%.

Flickinger attributed the higher produce sales percentage to customer loyalty, and the focus on locally grown goods.

"Belmont Market, with its fresh produce, is the perfect example of how privately held retailers are outperforming the publicly held retailers across America," Flickinger said. "Many of the big chains are buying produce globally and from across the country, but Belmont is buying from the local growers and the local produce markets."

Nine times out of 10, a locally grown product will be better than a product that is shipped from far away, said Flickinger. That ratio fits right into the quality aspect that Siravo stresses every day.

It doesn't matter if he can get the product at a low price, Siravo won't market anything that's out of season or not of good quality. This is the challenge he faces when putting together his weekly advertising supplement that's distributed to nearly 30,000 area residents. Since he has to decide what will be on sale weeks before the ad is distributed, he relies on experience to predict what fruits and vegetables will be peak quality at that time.

"I try to market things according to when they're really good. I won't put oranges on sale just because I can get them at a reasonable price or because that's something that fits in with my marketing scheme. I'm going to market the oranges when they're the best," he said.

In addition to traditional produce items, Belmont features items like snow peas, sugar peas and lotus root, along with a selection of organic produce. If a customer is unfamiliar with a product, or wants to know about the quality, department associates will often allow sampling, and give tips on how to prepare the item or keep it fresh. The produce department often cross merchandises items, which drives sales overall.

"I'm big on communicating with our customers," Siravo said. "We want to know when they like the way we do something, or when they don't like the way we do something. I encourage their criticism, as well as their praise."

The produce business is in Siravo's blood. His grandfather, Vincent Siravo, first began Belmont as a seasonal fruit and vegetable stand in 1947. His father, Vincent J. Siravo, founded the family's produce wholesale business in nearby Narragansett, R.I., in 1954.

"Produce is a challenge, but it's what I've done my whole life," Siravo said. "I think you almost have to have that kind of background to really understand produce. To really know produce, you have to think it and live it."

Since Belmont has its own wholesaling business, Siravo distributes produce to area restaurants, as well as the store. With access to his own distribution system, he is able to offer goods at low prices, and still aim for a 40% gross margin, which the store achieves, Siravo said.

Still, maintaining quality requires constant vigilance.

"We will never, ever, ever be complacent in here. I am never satisfied with the status quo," Siravo said. "We're always trying to do the best job that we can do, and that requires constant attention. If something is good this week, that doesn't mean that it's going to be good forever."