With its tightly packed bungalows and buzzing commercial strips, Manhattan Beach has a much more approachable feel than many similarly wealthy areas in Los Angeles. After a bit of exploration, visitors get the sense that residents here are less interested in Hollywood hijinks than with getting to the beach or the airport without driving on the L.A. freeway.
So what better place for a veteran grower and exporter to open an otherwise unassuming little store stocked with fruits and vegetables screened for unsurpassed quality?
Born into a family that has been growing citrus in California's Central Valley for more than 65 years, Barry Fisher began his own produce exporting business in the early 1990s. Working predominantly with importers in Asia, he now ships products ranging from stone fruits, cherries and grapes, to onions, asparagus, potatoes and lettuce overseas.
With long-distance shipping, superior quality is a paramount consideration, but Fisher said that somewhere between all of the time spent inspecting farms and screening product, something started to disappoint him.
“One thing that had always surprised me was the lack of quality in the L.A. market, compared to what I was seeing when I was buying produce [directly] from growers and bringing that stuff home,” he explained. “Los Angeles is so close to all of the major growing regions, but I don't think the average retail quality of produce in this market reflects that. And, basically, I would pass out fruits I had brought home to our neighbors and friends — our son even had a cherry stand out in front of our house — people were really surprised at the quality that a grower could put out.”
And so his first retail venture — Grow: The Produce Shop — was launched a little more than a year ago. Housed in a small, nondescript strip-mall, the location is tiny by supermarket standards — a mere 1,700 square feet of selling space.
It certainly doesn't lack competition, either. Just a few blocks down Sepulveda Boulevard, a large Ralphs looms, and within a short drive of the store, shoppers have options including Vons, Bristol Farms, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
But with much of the store's produce hand-selected by Fisher or the growers that work with his export business, the level of quality and consistency is truly exceptional.
“He's a great customer, because he actually looks at the fruit when it comes in from the field, and he looks at the job we do in the shed,” noted Greg Costa, a cherry grower with Lodi, Calif.-based Felix Costa & Sons who has worked with Fisher for almost a decade. “He spends a lot of time in the orchards.”
Plied with plenty of free samples, the locals in Manhattan Beach have caught on quickly. During a recent visit by SN, a steady stream of shoppers browsed the store, frequently stopping to ask questions or just talk with Kathy Fisher (Barry's wife) or Josh Harrison, general manager for Grow.
“I think what our customers like is that it's a very friendly atmosphere and we have a very knowledgeable staff,” said Harrison, who got his start in the produce industry working in his father's retail store and at the family wholesaling business at Chicago's famed terminal market. “It's the quality of the produce and products that we put in the store, and the service that we give our customers. But there's also a personality there — we've created a neighborhood store that people care about and trust, and that's a big part of it.”
Harrison noted, however, that he and the Fishers, as well as Grow's employees, have worked hard to build that rapport with the store's regulars. Notably, prior to opening the store, he and Fisher agreed that the focus would always be first and foremost on produce, but that they would allow enough flexibility to expand into other categories based on customer requests. During the past year, those requests have led to a small meat counter stocked by an upscale restaurant supplier, as well as a selection of artisan cheeses. Seafood will be added soon.
And Grow's limited but well-planned grocery selection is heavily predisposed toward local vendors: baby food from Homemade Baby in Culver City; mustards and marmalades by Mark & Stephen's, also in Culver City; cookies and snacks from Laura's Wholesome Junk Food in Marina Del Ray; specialty oils from Pacifica Culinaria in Temecula, etc.
“We wanted this to be as comprehensive of a shopping stop as possible — recognizing that we're not a big-box store — and we needed to know what our customers wanted in the store in order to make that happen,” Harrison explained. “We just listened to them, and we're a lot more nimble than larger stores. If I get a request and I think it's something that will work well, we can have it stocked within a week or have it here in the store tomorrow. We don't have to worry about finding another slot in the warehouse or how we're going to work out transportation on our trucks.”
Their effort to build a relationship with their customers has extended into the Manhattan Beach community as well. Kathy Fisher, a former teacher, has worked with area schools on nutrition education programs, giving talks to classrooms and offering educational tours of the store for elementary school field trips. Getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables helps get their parents excited as well, she noted.
“Parents are really grateful for new ideas that help encourage their kids to eat healthy,” she said. “And I could always point out what worked with my kids.”
Grow even developed a proprietary POS system that checks the weight of all produce items sold at the store against serving-size data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and prints the information out on every customer's receipt, helping parents and health nuts alike learn what it means to eat the much-advised, little-understood five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
The store has found success sooner than many small businesses, but Fisher said that he considers it a little too early to talk about expansion. For now, he's concerned about maintaining the store's high quality standards and building its current customer base. All things considered, his efforts seem focused not only on building a successful retail business, but also on building enthusiasm about the joys of eating top-quality fresh foods in the community his family calls home.
“Before we opened, Josh brought up an article that he had read about Starbucks, and how many people treat it as a ‘third place,’” Fisher said. “They have their home, they have their work, and they have a third place. It can be a coffee shop or a bookstore, for example. But for quite a few of our customers, I feel like Grow has become that third place. They engage all of the staff. They've befriended us and we've befriended them. They also see their friends in the store, and they've made friends in the store because they shop at the same time each week.
“That has really helped the shop, because it has created a lot of loyal customers — not just loyal in the sense that they shop at the store, but loyal from the standpoint of really helping us grow by telling us how to become better.”