Rueben’s County Market’s produce department keeps fruits and vegetables front and center in the city of Hartford, Wis. Headed by Produce Manager Brian Collegnon, one of the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2012 Produce Manager of the Year award winners, the department engages its neighbors through store tours, school visits and community events.
Community even plays a role in the one-store independent’s produce offerings, which feature fruits and vegetables from nearby growers.
“We try to buy as much as we can from our local vendors,” said Collegnon, who works to create a farmers’ market feeling in the store using crates, bushel baskets and eurotables.
Rueben’s, which is open 24 hours, offers a wide array of local produce in the spring and summer — including beets, kohlrabi, onions, peppers and cucumbers.
And, despite being located in the Midwest, the store brings in as much local produce in the winter months as possible, including Wisconsin potatoes and squash. Customers especially enjoy the winter produce, as well as apples from a nearby apple farmer.
“Wisconsin potatoes do very well for us. We have a local squash grower that really has some beautiful squash at a nice competitive price. People always look forward to that,” said Collegnon (right). “I’ve been dealing with a local apple grower for probably over 20 years and people love his apples.”
Several of Collegnon’s relationships with local farmers go back many years. He said one farmer has grown dill for Rueben’s since he started working in the produce department 28 years ago.
The focus on local products extends through the entire store.
“We have signs up in our store of what’s produced in Wisconsin so that customers can try to shop local and help the local people, local farmers, local companies that produce the different products that we sell in our store,” said Pat Paulson, Rueben’s store manager and co-owner.
With the drought this year, Collegnon said it’s been a challenging time for local produce. Still, the store has been able to source corn from Wisconsin growers, sometimes reaching out to farmers in parts of the state with better irrigation and rain.
Maxwell Street Days
Rueben’s 9,000-square foot produce department extends onto the sidewalk for the annual citywide celebration of Maxwell Street Days, when the city shuts down the main street and vendors place their wares on the sidewalk on the first Wednesday after the Fourth of July.
Rueben’s sets up two tents on the sidewalk in front of the store, and Collegnon fills pallets and crates with almost the entire produce department, he said.
Collegnon goes to vendors and gets special pricing on the 35 to 40 produce items on sale during Maxwell Street Days, he said.
During this event, customers take advantage of the sale prices, stocking up and buying cases of berries for canning. Collegnon noted that he often sees new customers coming in from the surrounding cities for the event.
“People know it; they look for it each year. It’s a tradition. We’ve been doing it probably for 15 years now, and we take some cash registers outside so they can check out outside, inside. You have demos. We’ll have a local group from town out doing a brat hut, so they’ll be selling their brats and hot dogs and hamburgers,” Collegnon said.
This year’s event had to be held inside due to construction on the building, but in the past, the store has gone as far as having a live band set up next to a separate food sampling tent.
Also, on Maxwell Street Days, Hartford radio station WTKM talks to the meat, dairy, frozen, deli and produce departments about products and news.
David Stout, owner of WTKM, complimented Collegnon’s radio presence and said listeners love to listen to him.
“He takes the produce department and divides it up into sections, and he talks about each of the sections and what they do,” Stout said. “He really does a great job keeping the produce department showcased because that’s the first thing you see when you come into Rueben’s.”
Stout said many listeners call in with produce questions, such as how Wisconsin weather has affected harvests.
Collegnon Goes to School
When Collegnon holds store tours and visits schools, he answers produce questions from younger consumers, too. A lot of times questions from children during tours and school events involve where things comes from, where fruits or vegetables grow or how do you eat the product, Collegnon said.
At a recent school visit this spring, Collegnon brought over 30 different fresh fruits and vegetables to St. Kilian Catholic School in Hartford.
“It’s just really nice. They get a taste of a few different fruits and vegetables that maybe sometimes they normally wouldn’t,” said Mary Kirley, a first-grade teacher at St. Kilian.
Kirley said that at last year’s presentation Collegnon even brought in smoothies to help introduce new produce items to 60-plus first, second and third graders at St. Kilian.
“Some of them are surprised [by the tastes of different fruits and vegetables]. We have some that just won’t eat. And some, ‘Can we have more?’ So it’s a little bit everything,” said Kirley.
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Older kids, too, are involved with the produce department. Collegnon helps coordinate a citrus sale with the Hartford Orchestra Parents group for a scholarship fundraiser.
It was due, in part, to Collegnon’s community involvement that he was recognized as one of United Fresh’s 2012 Produce Managers of the Year.
The produce manager award winners have all been evaluated on produce-related community service and outreach; commitment to customer satisfaction; innovative merchandising; and recognition among peers, according to United Fresh.
United Fresh offers these awards because the organization realized that produce managers “are the face of produce” to customers, said Victoria Backer, senior vice president of member services and the United Fresh Foundation.
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“And if you’ve got a great produce manager who has good interacting, whose doing sampling, who can give recipe ideas and feedback and who is out in the community, that can totally change a customer’s experience in your produce department.”
Store Manager Paulson said Rueben’s is very proud of Collegnon’s recognition and noted that Collegnon’s product knowledge and dedication to the store is what sets the produce department apart from other stores.
“I hear compliments all the time that we have the best produce in town and that everybody comes in just for the produce or they come in for the produce and then buy other things.”
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