WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. — Tops Friendly Markets here is preparing to launch a new “Homegrown” campaign highlighting local farmers, and the company got things started recently by organizing farm visits for produce managers from all 131 of its stores in New York and Pennsylvania.
Produce from local farms is already on shelves at Tops, and the retailer is adding to it daily. Peak availability for local items will be in the beginning of July, when the campaign is officially launched, according to Sam Qureshi, produce director for Tops.
“Tops has always been at the forefront of making homegrown fruits and vegetables available to our customers,” Qureshi told SN.
“Over the past two years, however, we have increased the levels of partnership with local growers and as a result have been able to offer fresher and better local produce to our customers.”
With the recent acquisition of the former Penn Traffic stores, Tops' farmer/grower base now covers a much larger area, which allows the retailer to increase the number of growers it partners with, Qureshi said.
“This year, we will source locally grown produce from over 200 farmers and growers, which is double the number of growers from last year,” he added.
Earlier this month, the company's produce managers toured Eden Valley Growers, one of the Buffalo, N.Y., area's largest growers' consortiums, along with Amos Zittel & Sons, both of whom supply local produce sold in Tops stores.
The retailer strives to have farm visits for its produce managers every year, Qureshi said.
“When our produce managers are able to see, smell and touch the products first-hand while that produce is still on the vine, tree or plant, they are better educated about the product and better equipped to explain the benefits of homegrown produce to their customers and associates,” he said, adding that the visit was even more important this year as consumer awareness about the benefits of homegrown is more prevalent, and demand has increased.
“We also wanted to welcome the produce managers from our newly acquired stores and relay the importance of our homegrown campaign to all of our managers. We took the opportunity to speak on the importance of food safety with special guests from our local farms, Cornell University and the [New York State] deputy agriculture commissioner.”
The campaign begins with fresh leafy greens. Variety is then built upon with summer squashes, peas, cauliflower and broccoli. As the season progresses, green beans, tomatoes and corn become available. Items with a fairly short availability span include strawberries, blueberries, grapes and cherries.
Later in the summer, peaches and plums are plentiful. The autumn crop of hard squashes, pumpkins and apples allows the campaign to continue into the fall.
To promote the campaign, the retailer has a very vibrant and colorful signage package planned for stores, Qureshi said.
“Also, our circulars will feature pictures of farmers on location at their farms,” he said.
“We have plans to dedicate whole sections of the circular to homegrown produce and continue to build the message that Tops is the best source for locally grown produce in all of our extensive market area.”
Tops will also be introducing homegrown campaign materials on its website, topsmarkets.com , which is meant to be an interactive source of information for its customers, Tops spokeswoman Katie McKenna told SN.
“They will be able to find out what fruits and vegetables are in season during the summer and fall months, and where that produce comes from,” McKenna said.
“This information will be live on the Tops website in the beginning of July.”
Also new this summer, Tops stores will have outside market sales during select times, which its stores are excited about, Qureshi said.
“These events create a platform where growers are able to get credit for the great product they deliver fresh to stores daily,” he said. Similar events to create awareness and excitement around locally grown produce stretch into the fall season as well.
When asked why Tops decided to implement this campaign at its stores, Qureshi said very simply, “Our customers demand it. We have long winters here, so there is that much more pent-up demand for fresh and delicious locally grown products.”