NEW YORK — Offering a large selection of locally grown produce is worth the extra effort it requires, and major produce growers should focus more on emphasizing flavor in their products. These were two of the topics discussed by a group of retailers here last week at the first annual New York Produce Show and Conference, during a panel moderated by Perishables Pundit and Produce Business founder Jim Prevor.
In alphabetical order, the panelists were Jim Bisogno, who recently retired from his position as director of produce, floral and bakery for Pathmark Supermarkets; Rich Conger, director of produce for King Kullen Supermarkets; Steve Coomes, manager, division operations, produce for Safeway's Eastern division; Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral for Wegmans Food Markets; Dean Holmquist, director of produce and floral for Foodtown Supermarkets; Derrick Jenkins, vice president of produce and floral for Wakefern Food Corp.; Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce and floral for Kings Super Markets; Dominick Pelosi, senior merchant, produce and floral for Food Emporium; Johan Van Deventer, managing director of Shoprite Holdings, South Africa, Freshmark Division; and John Vasapoli, director of produce merchandising for D'Agostino Supermarkets.
The conversation started with comments from Kneeland on a new community supported agriculture [CSA] program that recently launched at Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings.
New Jersey has a large and growing number of farm stands and farmers' markets that have become popular with shoppers in the region, Kneeland noted. So, Kings launched a CSA pilot program at one of its stores this year as part of its efforts to meet demands for locally grown produce.
“It was a tremendous success from my standpoint — something that will be expanded,” he said. “It really got people interested in exactly where the product is coming from.”
The panelists all agreed that the popularity of locally grown fruits and vegetables has been a positive trend for produce departments, but they also agreed that supermarkets interested in building a significant locally grown offering must deal with several challenges related to distribution and food safety.
Vasapoli said that demand is growing for local produce at D'Agostino's in New York, but one of the biggest difficulties is getting the product into his stores.
“There's a lot of obstacles to overcome … especially in Manhattan,” he said. “The farmer would love to drive down and drop off everything in one stop. Unfortunately, we have 18 stores and 18 different stops, and it's not going to give them the quantities [that they would prefer to sell].”
Both Jenkins and Holmquist praised the “Jersey Fresh” program by New Jersey's State Department of Agriculture, which has helped the state's retailers promote locally grown items for more than two decades. Similar state department of agriculture programs throughout the country can help retailers and wholesalers mitigate some of the logistical challenges that Vasapoli describes, if a store's shoppers accept “grown in state” as a way that “locally grown” can be defined.
The conversation shifted to flavor, when Prevor noted that during the past 50 years, commercial growers have mostly focused on breeding products that travel well and look good. Could this be why many shoppers view local foods as more flavorful? And, what can retailers do to convince their suppliers that investments toward more flavorful produce will pay off?
The panelists agreed that optimal flavor was crucial for repeat sales, and that it was important to help shoppers understand that produce that doesn't look uniform may taste great. Regular sampling is one of the best ways to get the point across.
“The real indication is not whether they buy it the first time, it's whether they buy it a second time,” Kneeland said.
Holmquist agreed, and added that the recession has made many consumers much more conscious of waste. Sampling programs also give those shoppers more confidence to make a purchase.